The Teacher-Student Relationship
I would like to ask you a question that has been with me for a long time. Could you please let me know what you think?
I have been involved in a Buddhist practice for a half of my life, and I intuitively believe that this path is very important to me. However, having experienced abuse of authority figures early in my life, I have tremendous problem with trust. After several attempts to become a student of a particular teacher, I have a need to reject them and I do.
Usually, I find myself in a contradiction, where on one hand I am aware and in admiration for the knowledge and understanding that some teachers have, on the other hand I find them at times arrogant or greedy. I also understand that seeing their negative traits could be a projection. This situation goes on for a long time, and I feel caught up in a loop. In sum, I respond to the teachings, but I do not find in myself trust or devotion to the teacher. I also do not want to find it. How can I practice in this way?
In the past, I have been under a guidance of a Zen teacher for over 10 years. However, when I began to experience challenges in the process of meditation, I was misguided or misunderstood. In the end I felt more confused and discouraged. Please respond to this letter if you can, because your advice could help to shed a light on some aspects I cannot see. Thank you very much.
This is a wonderful, deep and complex question you are asking. And I urge you to keep it a question and opportunity to grow, and take care you don’t drift into seeing it as a problem. The nature of the teacher/student relationship is challenging and hard to understand. I feel it is probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of spiritual life and practice in modern culture—and not just in the Buddhist tradition, but all spiritual traditions.
What does it mean to trust anyone, especially a spiritual teacher? What do we do when a teacher doesn’t present him/herself in a way that is comfortable for us? Does assuming the receptive role as a student mean we have to hand over our discerning intelligence? I don’t see how it is possible to skip over these questions.
“Teacher” is a general term. We have teachers at school while we are growing up. Teachers pass on information to us so we can function well in the world. Sometimes a teacher will have a huge impact on our lives…and even determine the direction our life will take. The relationship with a teacher can be quite intimate. And I am not just referring to spiritual teachers. Often a teacher will pass on to us an important skill, livelihood, or lineage of creativity. We may feel a deep sense of appreciation and devotion to this teacher. In the broadest sense, we have learned what we know from the world around us. We cannot survive in this world without teachers.
In the context of the Buddhist path there seems to be two types of teachers: a “spiritual friend” and then what we might call “the guru.” I think it is important to discern the difference between them.
The spiritual friend is someone who helps us on our way. They may simply help us clarify a question or give us a practice or teaching. It may be that a spiritual friend remains our primary spiritual guide throughout our life. There is a sense that the spiritual friend is sharing something precious with us and we are following just a step behind him/her. But the spiritual friend does not require the same kind of commitment we need with the guru. With a spiritual friend we can remain more autonomous.
In the tradition of the Varjayana, the practice of taking a teacher is called “guru yoga” and is considered an advanced practice. In fact, Dzongzar Khyentse Rinpoche (an important teacher in our tradition) once said that “The guru/disciple relationship is the most challenging of all the skillful means or methods on the path.” I think this says something about the importance of developing some understanding before approaching such a practice.
In the tradition of the Vajrayana (and perhaps sometimes the Zen tradition and the Hindu tradition too) there is great importance placed on the relationship with the guru. When we take on a guru in this tradition we are really inviting them to "butt into" our business, to mess with our ego-confusion, and to catalyze our awakening. Such an invitation makes this kind of relationship much more intimate and intense. It seems to me that teachers who assume the position of guru have the aim of passing down the entire lineage—all the practices and teachings in their entirety. So there is a need to establish a support for this. By support I mean starting centers, raising money to build them, giving lots of teachings and spending more time with the students. There is a lot of responsibility in establishing a lineage. It demands much, much more of the student and much, much, much more of the teacher. I am constantly touched by my teacher’s devotion to this work.
Not all gurus are the same. Some are quite spacious and simply impart the teachings and practices to the students without getting too involved. Others seem to get more involved and challenge the students in various ways. My teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, is both kind and generous. He has tremendous foresight and is concerned not only with the individual but also the continuation of the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist lineages in the West.
I also have to say that along with his unrelenting generosity, kindness and care, my teacher has challenged, pushed, and infuriated me at times too. Sometimes things he has done haven’t seemed fair or even reasonable. At times he has completely gone against what I thought he should be or what I thought he should do as my teacher. I have had my periods of confusion and even doubt. And yet, I can say with the utmost conviction, that these challenges have been some of the greatest blessings of my life. The guru often provides the fierceness necessary for us to go beyond our ordinary habitual ways of seeing our world. These “fierce empowerments” have transformed my life. Because of this, there is no one in this world to me like my beloved teacher.
It is impossible to talk about the role of the guru without looking at the role of the student. When we enter into this relationship we should not enter into it in a passive or unconscious way. When we decide to take a teacher we are making an agreement. It is an agreement to step out of our puny way of being, with all its wants, not-wants, aggression and neurotic attachment. We must step out of our “rightness” in order to utilize this relationship to grow. It requires we put ourselves in a “learning” position. The mind must be open and engaged.
We often interpret “open” as being subservient or stupid. But in fact, we are putting ourselves in a situation to grow. This is not stupid, but intelligent. The mind of a true student is an empowered, intelligent and engaged mind. We don’t give up our discernment and yet we also stay open. To question openly releases tremendous intelligence and softness and an ability to respond to life with clarity.
We enter the spiritual path because we want to find a different way of being in life. In your question I hear you asking: “how can I do it differently?” And I see that you value the path because, as you say, you intuitively see it as something important—as something that leads to a bigger way of being. In a way, we are all looking for a way to find ease and meaning in life. But this doesn’t happen on its own: we have to start questioning. Aryadeva, the main disciple of Nagarjuna, said: “The moment you begin to question that things may not be as they seem, the structure of delusion begins to fall away.” Questions are very powerful. We often don’t allow ourselves to ask questions. We often find them disrespectful…but here we are putting ourselves in the “student position”—we want to learn and find another way. So being a student means to value the mind of an open question.
We often think, in looking for this bigger way of being, we are pledging allegiance to the teacher. But from the start, we are actually seeking or pledging our allegiance to our own insight and freedom, even if we may not exactly be able to identify what this is or how to get there. The teacher is a support for doing this. The teacher is our example and the way to connect with a lineage of wisdom. So we must rely upon the teacher in this way.
At the same time we never know what will happen. That’s life. When we enter into a marriage we don’t know what will happen. When we wake up in the morning we don’t know what will happen that day. When we take a teacher we don’t know what will happen either. But it doesn’t mean we are disempowered. Rather, it can be an empowerment if we have clarity about what we are doing with our life. We must never lose sight of where we are placing our allegiance.
There is another important component to being a student. We need to examine where we are coming from when we enter into this relationship. We may have a lot of expectations of how a teacher “should” or “shouldn’t” be. There are as many versions of “perfect teachers” as there are students. Please understand that your notion of “perfect” is simply yours and that the world around you is not limited to the ideas and preferences you have about it. Life, people and the teacher will continually burst from the seams of your preferences and ideas because things keep changing; everything/everyone is always a work in progress and open to interpretation. You have to be able to meet that. This means you have to be big enough to include the fullness of life.
If you think about it, we have difficulties just accepting the fullness of who we are. It is hard to accept ourselves in all our humanness. So when it comes to others it is hard to accept them in their fullness too. We only seem to see things through the lens of what we want, don’t want, etc…which is pretty naïve. Think of how unreasonable it actually is. But we do this with everyone…including the teacher.
When we can let ourselves be a natural human being, we can allow others—including our teacher—to be a natural human being too. To see the fullness of others is very touching and deeply respectful. It is aggressive to try to put others in a "box" and decide how they should be. Infinite causes and conditions arise to make us who we are in each moment. It is not that we shouldn’t use our discernment to relate well to our relationships…but the minute we start to judge others we cut ourselves off from our own and others’ humanness.
The ability to include life in this way is the beginning of developing a sophisticated mind that values the world of experience. To value life and use it to wake up is the job of the practitioner. It is the practice of not affirming or rejecting life but rather the ability to rest in the mind of the open question—an amazing way of being!
Seeing everything as the teacher
Once my teacher asked me about the value of the teacher/student relationship. I told him that it seemed to me that "through the relationship with the teacher we learn to see everything as the teacher." He seemed happy with that response. In other words, the relationship can teach us to value our life as it presents itself to us rather than relating to it with all the hopes and fears of our preferences. It is a very different way to respond to life that opens up a world of appreciation and unconditional positivity.
Please understand! To take everything as a teaching in this context does not at all mean “Just do what the teacher says like a robot.” Actually, there is no rote or prescribed way we can expect to be with our teacher (or in our life!). He/she might tell us to do something and we might say “no.” Then we will see how that is. Or we might decide to try what he/she says because we are interested in finding out how it might be…but we don’t just do it because he or she says so. We take responsibility for our life and our awakening. We don’t forget our allegiance is to waking up. We don’t hold our teacher responsible for what we do and we also don’t put ourselves in the position of being a “victim.”
When I talk about not being a victim I am not denying that human beings find themselves in some deeply painful, challenging or traumatic situations in life…and sometimes with teachers. People suffer from all kinds of abuse—it is hard to imagine how they get through sometimes. And we all have our stories. And yet, the path of healing requires that at some point, we depart from blaming our world and find a different way of learning from it. When we are ready for this, then we may be ready to take a teacher.
There are many teachings on choosing a teacher. In the text The Words of My Perfect Teacher, written by the famous Tibetan practitioner Patrul Rinpoche, he says that a teacher should be learned in the studies and practices of the Buddha. But first and foremost he should be compassionate and kind. These qualities seem imperative. Also, I would also suggest looking for 2 additional qualities: humbleness and respect for the discernment of the student. My teachers all have had the qualities of humbleness (the Dalai Lama is a good example of this). In fact, as learned or accomplished a teacher may be, a teacher is always also a student.
Secondly, a teacher should respect the discernment of the student. In other words, if a teacher implied that the student must do what he/she says or else they will go to hell or be unable to attain enlightenment if they didn’t obey his/her orders…I would simply walk in the other direction as fast as I could. After all, it is our intelligence that seeks out the teacher in the first place…so you must value your own discernment and so must the teacher. The teacher cannot, in fact, enlighten you. That is your job and requires your growing ability to discriminate and make your own choices.
So what I am trying to say here is that you must examine the teacher…and you must also examine yourself as a disciple.
Different ways of viewing the teacher
There are many different ways of seeing the teacher. For instance, we can see the teacher as fallible with human flaws and challenges. And when the teacher does something we don’t understand we can just write it off and say: “That’s his/her neurosis.” But this view doesn’t challenge us in certain ways. It doesn’t challenge our habitual way of being in relationship with all its wants and not wants. It doesn’t challenge our ego habits. It allows us to simply pick and choose what we think or want to be a teaching and dismiss the rest. The ego is tricky in this way.
On the other hand, we often view the teacher as "superhuman". We might put a teacher on a pedestal and deify him/her in such a way that we don’t really have to do the work of waking up. It is easy to view the teacher as our version of “perfect”…until the teacher does something we don’t understand. Then our notion of “perfect” is challenged…and this can be quite confusing and painful. Instead of deifying the teacher we may begin to demonize him/her. So this approach has limitations too.
The most powerful and unconditional way to understand the teacher is not necessarily to see the teacher as “merely human” or as “superhuman” but rather to understand the nature of the relationship. This means that we can’t necessarily trust that the teacher will always be how we want him or her to be. But we can always have clarity about the function of the relationship and our choice to use it to awaken.
As Dzongzar Khyentse Rinpoche suggested, the guru/disciple relationship is one of the most difficult skillful means there is on the path. We so often enter into relationships without a clear understanding of how it can work for us. What does it actually mean when we ask someone to be our teacher? What does it mean to be a student in this context? We are often not so clear. Honestly, sometimes I have felt that some teachers are not so clear either. But we can’t “fix” that. All we can do is to educate ourselves so that we can engage our teachers with awareness and clarity.
Being a student means taking responsibility. And if we are unclear about what this means we will just walk right into some strange and unhealthy dynamics. We will probably react to the situation in our usual unconscious manner, seeking security in our familiar and neurotic way: looking for a mommy, daddy or sweetheart dynamic. This path takes a lot of work on the part of the student. It takes time too and a lot of self-exploration. I think it is a gradual process.
I really appreciate you asking this question. We really need to educate ourselves about this all. I fear a world that does not value the role of the teacher. How painful and sad that would be not to recognize and appreciate the importance and kindness of our teachers. And how deeply sad it would be to not recognize the importance, beauty and power of being a genuine student.
I welcome discussion on this point in particular. Please feel free to comment or ask further questions!