Bringing Buddhism Down to Earth
Munich, Germany, June 1996
[lightly edited transcript]
Session Five: Establishing Healthy Relationships with Spiritual Teachers
We were speaking about this whole issue of what I should do and what I shouldn’t do and the fear that comes from that, and so on. We saw that the entire issue revolves around a misconception about ourselves. We need to make a clear differentiation between the conventional, usual existence of ourselves and of everything around us, and solid existence, which actually doesn’t exist at all. Remember, when we talk about voidness, we’re talking about an absence of impossible ways of existing, which don’t exist at all.
But, how do things actually exist? In Buddhism, we say that everything exists in terms of their arising dependently on many, many factors – causes, parts, the mental labels and concepts for them, and so on. Let’s just stay on the level of things arising and existing by depending on causes and conditions. From this point of view, we can say that things are not solid – solid in the sense of solidly arising from just a single cause -- but rather, everything is complex and thus arises from very complex interactions.
For example, when we face situations, things are not black and white: “You should do this and you should not do that,” and, because of that, there’s only one way of acting that’s correct and the other way is wrong. Actually, any problematic situation that we might be in is very complex and the solution that we come up with will depend on many, many factors. So, deciding what to do requires a great deal of sensitivity and awareness. When we start to overcome this syndrome of “should” and “should not” and of following laws indiscriminately, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter what we decide or what we do, because it’s all in our imaginations. What it means is that rather than being rigid in our ability to solve problematic situations: “Here’s the rule book and so let me just look up the rule and follow that” -- which would be the rigid, solid way of reacting in terms of “should” and “should not” -- we use our discrimination, our wisdom and all our experience to find the solution appropriate to the situation. This requires a great deal of flexibility. The more factors we take into consideration in trying to solve a problem, the more chances we have of solving it wisely. When we don’t consider a lot of factors, we come up with a solution that doesn’t really solve the problem.
So, when we say that things are not black or white, that doesn’t negate the fact that we can have either an effective or an ineffective solution to a problem. This is important to keep in mind. Also, we have to remember, we’re not God. We can’t just go and solve every problem by a snap of our fingers.
Are there any questions about these points, before we go on?
Participant: Is it possible to realize emptiness or voidness on our own during a meditation session and how do I reach this? Or is it only possible if we’re introduced to voidness by a teacher?
Alex: Tsongkhapa was not a stupid man. He worked very hard and had certainly a much more accurate understanding of voidness than most of us have. However, he saw that in order to gain a nonconceptual correct understanding of voidness, what he needed to do was build up more positive potential, which is usually translated as “merit.” At a very late stage on the path, he decided that it was necessary to do three and a half million prostrations and, I forget the exact number, but also millions of mandala offerings. After doing all that, he was able to understand voidness correctly and nonconceptually. That, I think, is a very important teaching. Whether we’re sitting by ourselves trying to understand voidness or a teacher comes along and says, “Alex this is voidness, voidness this is Alex, let me introduce you,” if we don’t have that positive potential or so-called “merit,” nothing is going to happen.
We always hear about the necessity of building up the two collections of merit and insight, or I prefer to call them “stores” or “networks” of “positive potential” or “positive force” and “deep awareness.” I think that, regardless of what we call them, building up the two is extremely important and something that I know is very true, from my own experience. When we’re trying to understand something or accomplish something or whatever, whether it’s in meditation or writing a book or whatever it might be -- figuring out a problem -- sometimes we reach a point at which we have some sort of mental block. We can’t go further. We reach a plateau or we become sort of stale. The problem is that now our energy is too weak to go any further. We need some positive energy, some positive force or potential to go any further. That’s what merit’s talking about. It’s not that we need to get more points as if we needed more points in order to win a game. In such situations in which we’re blocked, what helps is to put aside what we’re doing and go do something positive – for example, go help others.
This can be done in various ways. The simplest way, which I use all the time when I can’t understand something and I want to be able to understand it and get my mind clear very quickly -- let’s say when I am writing and I can’t think of the proper word or how to express something clearly -- is that I stop and repeat the Manjushri mantra with appropriate visualizations. I find that that’s very helpful. If we push ourselves -- “I have to understand; I have to understand!” -- without doing something like repeating a mantra, then pardon the image, but it’s a little bit like being constipated and straining ourselves to defecate when sitting on the toilet. Nothing’s going to come. It just becomes very uncomfortable.
What’s really important, then, is to relax so that we can become much clearer, and this type of mantra practice is very effective for that. Especially when I want to have my mind be very sharp and clear and so I set a very strong intention and wish to be like that, then the mantra becomes even more effective. And it becomes even more effective than that when I accompany my recitation with visualizations that help to focus my mind in a sharp way. In that situation, what we’re doing is adding something to the formula, as it were. We’re adding the positive force and potential from this mantra recitation to help us overcome a mental block. I find it works. It’s quite effective in most cases. Then, if we’re very open, the solution just sort of comes, without forcing it.
That’s one situation where we need some sort of immediate solution, like when I can’t find the right word in a translation. There are some other situations in which our energy is just sort of getting a bit dull. What I find from my own experience is that when I go around and travel and teach, I look at this as a type of bodhichitta retreat, and that helps. I could look at it as, “This is a terrible distraction from my writing” and in a sense begrudge the time that I’m spending away from my desk and my computer. Or I can look at it as a very positive thing that’s going to help me to write more clearly.
I’m just using these examples from my own life, but the approach could be applied to anybody’s life – whether we’re working with some sort of situation in the home, in the family, or in some sort of relationship and we have some sort of block. If we go out and do some positive volunteer work in a hospital or something like that, whatever it might be that’s appropriate to our situation, that’s going to make a big difference in building up some positive force and potential.
This approach of building up a store of positive potential is not only limited to when we have a mental block. For instance, my writing was going very well before I left for this lecture tour. There was no block at all. But, I want it to go even better, in a sense; I want to have even more energy. I don’t think Tsongkhapa had come to a block and that he couldn’t understand anything. Rather, I think that he saw that in order to really experience something brilliant, to really get a correct nonconceptual cognition of voidness, he would need even more positive energy.
Our building up of positive potential doesn’t necessarily require a bodhichitta retreat where we go off like I do and leave my writing behind when I travel and teach. We can mix the two together – meditating and helping others. It doesn’t mean we stop meditating on voidness because we have a block, but we have to add some sort of more positive energy. We can do that inbetween our meditating. This, I think is really very important. It’s not sufficient to just sit and meditate, it really isn’t. We have to also really be active, really build up more and more positive force and actually do things to help others.
That brings us to the whole topic of the spiritual teacher. What’s the role of the teacher in this process? Of course, we do have the example of pratyekabuddhas. We mustn’t forget about pratyekabuddhas. Their’s is a type of path that the Buddha taught. They are up there on the refuge tree. Pratyekabuddhas are those practitioners who live during the dark ages when there are no Buddhas around and there are no teachers available. In order to meditate and make progress, they have to rely purely on their instincts concerning the Dharma, which they had built up in previous lives when they had encountered the teachings of the Buddhas.
Pratyekabuddhas are very courageous, if we think about it. They’re quite worthy of respect. We mustn’t think, “Oh, they’re these horribly selfish people who go off in caves by themselves.” But now, when there are Buddhas and teachers around, the question is, “Do we need to rely on them or not, and what does it mean to actually rely on them?” I think that this topic of the spiritual teacher is something very difficult to understand.
There are many things that can be said about the teacher-disciple relationship from many different points of view and it’s not necessary on this occasion to go through all of them. I think on a very practical level, one of the things that are so important about a spiritual teacher, within the context of the teacher being properly qualified and not just some joker going around and saying that they’re a teacher, is that the teacher makes the teachings human -- “real” is a little bit too loaded a word. The teacher makes the Dharma human. If we don’t have a teacher and if we only learn from books, then the picture or idea that we have of what it means to understand these teachings and translate them into life is something that’s based totally on our imaginations. In other words, we don’t have a living example of what it means not only to actually understand the teachings, but to put them into life. Seeing a living example is what will give us the most inspiration to try to understand and internalize the teachings ourselves.
There are two factors that are involved in learning the teachings. One is getting an accurate technical understanding of a specific teaching, like voidness. That’s one thing, and a teacher can answer questions, which a book can’t do. But, in addition to having technical accuracy in the understanding, the teacher gives us a living example of the translation of that understanding into life. That I think is really, really important.
We look at someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama and we can certainly say that he has a very highly developed understanding of voidness and realization of bodhichitta. From any point of view, we would have to agree on that. To go with a score card to try to test, “Is he on this bodhisattva stage or on that one?” is childish. Who cares? But we can see from the way that he acts that the understanding of the Dharma doesn’t translate into being some sort of spaced-out person with his head in the clouds who can’t function in life. It’s very clear, from the example of His Holiness, what it really means to have that combination of wisdom and compassion. This is certainly a very important aspect when we talk about being introduced to the Dharma or, specifically, to voidness.
There are many levels of being introduced to the Dharma. One level is that a teacher sets up some sort of situation in which we’re emotionally moved so that we’re shocked out of our plateau to gain a realization. That’s sort of the Zen style that some Tibetan teachers have, but not so many. Geshe Wangyal, who was a Kalmyk Mongol teacher in the United States, used this method very skillfully. He died many years ago, but he used to have his students build things like a house and a temple for him and for themselves. Once, one of his students was working very hard building a house for Geshe-la and working on the roof. One day, Geshe-la climbed up on the roof and went over to him and said “What are you doing?! You’re doing it completely wrong! You’re ruining everything! Get out of here!!” And the student said, “What do you mean I’m doing it wrong?! I’m doing it exactly the way that you told me to do it and I’ve been doing it like this for months and months!” Geshe Wangyal immediately replied, “A-ha! That’s the ‘I’ to be refuted.”
The teacher can set up a situation like that to introduce us to voidness in the sense of setting up a situation in which we can emotionally see and get an insight. It requires great skill, however, to be able to do that well. So there’s that level of being introduced to some point in the Dharma. A book can’t do that.
The second way of being introduced is by being given a very clear explanation. A book could do that. A teacher’s very clear explanation can be written down in a book. But, no matter how clear something is, if we have some sort of mental block, we’re not going to be able to understand it. And so there’s another method: a teacher letting us figure out the Dharma puzzle ourselves, by giving us one piece at a time, rather than just spoonfeeding us the Dharma like a baby.
Yet another method of being introduced is through the example of seeing a teacher who understands it. In any case, even if we read about the clear explanation in a book, somebody had to have written the book. So, there needs to have been a teacher there, whether we met that teacher or not. In a sense, we do meet the teacher, even if the person is long dead, because we meet the words of the teacher by reading the book. Unless we’re a pratyekabuddha, we don’t have to invent the wheel again; we don’t have to come up with this understanding just on our own. It comes from somebody, some teacher.
A teacher is very important in that respect. We need a combination of all of those, actually, in the teacher. We need a teacher who can give us correct and clear information, and who actually is a living example of what we’re trying to learn and who can inspire us. Also we need a teacher who can create certain circumstances that will be conducive for us getting insights and who gives us one piece of the Dharma puzzle at a time, in just the right way.
There are many things that we can talk about concerning the spiritual teacher-student relationship, but one issue that always comes up with Western people is that we want personal attention. We have a very strong sense of individuality. Everybody thinks, “I’m special and I should have special attention.” The model, of course, is that we go to a psychologist or somebody like that, we pay our money, and we get individual treatment. Well, that’s not always available in a Buddhist context. It’s funny. We’re looking for “MY teacher who’s going to be special for ME,” and yet we somehow have a Hollywood image of what that relationship is going to be like. We don’t want it to be like Milarepa with Marpa: we don’t want a teacher that’s going to make us work too hard.
I’ll give an example with Serkong Rinpoche and myself. I had an incredibly great privilege to be close to him and to serve him for about nine years as his interpreter, English secretary, manager of his foreign tours, etc., and as a personal disciple. I had that type of relationship with him until he passed away in 1983. However, I would have to say that the whole relationship was an “impersonal personal relationship.” He never asked me, ever, a question about my personal life -- ever. He never asked me about my family or about anything like that. And I never felt the need to tell him anything about my personal life. But, nevertheless, we had a very intimate relationship in terms of dealing with the present moment at all times.
So we worked together, but in a very special type of way. It was what I would call “impersonally personal,” in the sense that it wasn’t with two big egos that say, “Let’s work together – ME and YOU.” And it wasn’t the sort of personal let’s-share-our-toothbrush type of relationship, where I tell you everything about me and you tell me everything about you. That’s sort of like showing our dirty underwear to someone. In that sense, the relationship was impersonal. But it also was personal in the sense that he understood my character and my personality, and we worked together on the basis of respecting that. I understood his age and his needs and requirements as well, and so in that sense it was personal, but impersonal.
I think one of the large foundations of the success of that relationship was that it was one of great respect on both sides and with both sides working together as mature adults. As an adult, I didn’t approach him in a childish way of wanting approval or wanting him to be responsible for everything in my life -- giving him control. But that didn’t mean that I went to the other extreme, which would have been: “I want to be in control and you can’t tell me what to do.” I consulted him about difficult choices in my life, but I made my own decisions even though I consulted him. It’s sort of like, instead of being the child and asking, “What should I do?” – which goes back to this issue of “should” – I would ask if it were more beneficial to do this or to do that.
For example, at the end of our second world tour together, I asked him, “Would it be better for me to stay in the U.S. and spend some further time with my family, or would it be better to go back to India with you and attend the first Monlam Prayer Festival that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was holding in South India? Which would be more beneficial?” I would ask him that type of question if I couldn’t make the decision myself. Rinpoche recommended that I go to the Prayer Festival, since it would be a very significant historical event, and I followed his advice. But he didn’t give me orders, to which I saluted and said, “Yes, sir!” I wasn’t asking him for orders. He would present the situation with a little bit more clarity and a broader perspective, so that I could make up my own mind through my own wisdom. In other situations, when I had my own idea of what would be best to do, I would still ask him if he foresaw any problems in my doing that.
That, I think, is very important in a relationship with a teacher. If we’ve had this expectation that the relationship is going to be so individual and so personal, then, in a sense, we’ve been giving ourselves a little bit more importance than we may merit. We’re giving ourselves great self-importance if we’re making that demand for personal attention. Also, if we’re making that demand, it’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at ourselves as the child and the teacher as our parent, or ourselves as the teenager and the teacher as the pop-star. Some sort of fantasy of romance could be there as well.
How to go about approaching our relationship with a spiritual teacher in a personal impersonal way is actually not so easy. And the importance of doing so is not just limited to our relationship with our spiritual teacher. It would be helpful if this approach were characteristic of our relations with everyone. Shantideva wrote that what’s most helpful is, in our relationships with others, to be like a honeybee that goes from flower to flower and just deals with the essence of the flower, but doesn’t get stuck with any one flower.
Again, I look at the example of Serkong Rinpoche. He didn’t have any best friend. Rather, whomever he was with at the moment was his best friend. Being like that is all a function of this openness that we were talking about in the first session: being with everybody as if they were your best friend. When we’re with somebody in that way, our hearts are totally open to that person. We’re totally personal with the person in the sense that we’re really communicating heart to heart. But, it’s not necessary for me to show you my dirty underwear and for you to show me your dirty underwear. It’s not necessary to go into all of these personal sorts of details that, in a sense, we want somebody to pat us on the head for.
If we go into all those details, it’s like we’re pushing our own mess on the other person so that they become entangled in it too. We all have our own personal little mess that we have to deal with in our lives, but that shouldn’t become a burden on other people and our relationships with them. We can relate to this person, being totally open; and they are like our best friend. We can really come into contact with the heart of the person, but without getting entangled so that we can likewise be open like this to everybody, like the bee going from one flower to another -- intimately involved with our hearts, but not stuck.
That’s the type of relationship that we also would have with the teacher. When we’re with the teacher, there’s a very direct openness in communication, but then we’re out of there and the next person is in. If we have an “I WANT MY GURU!” type of attitude, we become very jealous and possessive, and it’s an absolute torture: “There’s this in-group around the teacher and I’m not part of this in-group” and...oh, such suffering! But we all have to wash our own dirty underwear. We have to deal with our mess. There’s no need to expect that the teacher is going to deal with that.
When we’re dealing or relating to somebody in this type of way, in this impersonal personal way, whether with a teacher or a friend, there are two levels: the deepest level and the conventional, relative level. On the deepest level, everyone is equal and no one is special, so this leads to the impersonal aspect of any relationship. On the conventional level, however, people are individuals, and so this leads to the personal aspect.
It’s very important not to go to the extreme of just relating to someone from the deepest level. We must try never to neglect still seeing the person as an individual. In other words, if I relate to you in too much an impersonal way, then in a certain sense I’m not relating at all -- even if the relation is heart-to-heart. We need to avoid feeling, “You are mind-stream number 14762 and this other person is mind-stream 14763, and I can be equally open and emotionally intimate with any mind-stream of any serial number.” That would be a mistake. That would be taking this point in the Dharma about “all sentient beings” to the extreme in depersonalizing everyone. We need always to remember that the other person, from their side, is looking at themselves in a very personal way. We have to work with that.
Let me give the example of when my mother died last year. At first when she died, I was saying prayers and doing various practices for her, but in an impersonal way, looking at her as mind-stream number so-and-so. To avoid the pain of attachment, I looked at her not just as my mother, but as someone going on from many past lives into many future lives, the same as everyone else. After all, Buddhism teaches that everyone at some time has been our mother. So, my way of relating to her in the in-between bardo state was rather abstract.
Then, after discussing my experience with a close friend, I understood that it would be much more helpful to look at the situation from my mother’s point of view in the bardo, rather than from my own point of view as a Dharma practitioner who happens to have some understanding of past and present lives, non-solid identity, and so on. From my mother’s point of view in the bardo, she still had clinging to her old identity as Rose Berzin and was still looking at me as her son.
I immediately changed the practice that I was doing to try to help her in that bardo period and I spoke directly to her. I was teaching in Chile and on to Tahiti at the time, and so I invited her to come to each of the sessions and be with me. I also said the type of prayers and things that she liked, that she felt comfortable with. In other words, I was attempting to sense the fear that she might be having and was trying to calm her down with something that was appropriate for her.
For example, my mother liked the chanting of Buddhist mantras. It made her feel very calm. And so even though that was not exactly the type of thing that I would have found to be helpful for myself if I were in bardo, I started to chant in a way that I knew she found to be very soothing. And I felt that I was connecting with her by doing that. I customized what I was doing for her. I took her experience of the relative level of her own reality seriously. That’s the point. If my mother had found the chanting of some Christian or Jewish prayer to be calming or something else, I would have done that. But my mother liked hearing mantras sung very slowly. As I said, I felt a very great change when I started doing that.
Prior to that, when I was just being abstract and just sort of “May you be happy and may we be connected in all lifetimes and may you always have a precious human life and may I lead you to enlightenment in all lifetimes” and all these sort of abstract formulas and nice thoughts, I was not really connecting with her as an individual. But this other way, I found to be much more effective. I felt that it really was working to benefit her, although of course I kept up my more general prayers. In short, when we’re relating to someone in an impersonal personal type of way, as I was describing, that doesn’t mean that we negate the fact of relating to that person as an individual and respecting their own individual experience of who they are.
To put it in more specific terms: “I’m totally open to you and to being very personal, but without any clinging – without going into my personal mess and your personal mess. But within that general context, I’m sensitive and so on to your individuality and to your view of yourself, so that I can relate to you in a way that communicates.” That, then, gets into the whole topic of using the five types of deep awareness to relate to the person, but let’s leave that for another time.
I point all of this out for many reasons, but particularly for one big difficulty we face in Mahayana Buddhist practice when we do bodhichitta, compassion, and all these sort of meditations on the level of “May all sentient beings be happy,” while trying to think abstractly about all sentient beings. It’s very difficult to skillfully translate “all sentient beings” into an individual context of the person directly in front of us – you or you. If we’re just practicing on the level of “all sentient beings,” then sometimes we could use that as an excuse for not really getting personally involved with anyone.
Now, in a sense, if personal involvement means clinging and all the garbage that goes with that, then we do need some method that helps us to avoid that. But, once we’ve taken care of at least the gross level of attachment and anger and all these other things -- which is not such an easy accomplishment -- we do need to have personal involvement, but the type of involvement that’s impersonal personal, in other words, individual without clinging.
Everything that we’ve been discussing in terms of the relationship with the spiritual teacher so far is not dependent on this whole issue of whether or not we’re seeing the teacher as a Buddha. Even if we’re not seeing the teacher as a Buddha, what I’ve described is necessary in order to have any type of meaningful, successful relationship with that teacher. Certainly within the context of seeing the teacher as a Buddha, we still need to approach that relationship as an adult and see the teacher as an adult, not as my father and not as a pop-star and not as all these weird things that we tend to project onto them as someone who should have this special relationship with me because I’m so special.
What questions might you have?
Participant: I try to see myself as an anonymous person in a big group of pupils having lots of teachers. I’d rather say I have many teachers, rather than being in a one-to-one relationship with any one teacher.
Alex: There can be some problems here. One of the problems can be fear of commitment and fear of intimacy, with which we might think: “I don’t really want to open up to one teacher, because then I’d be out of control.” Obviously, to be able to overcome this fear successfully requires some understanding of voidness. We have nothing to be frightened of in opening up to a teacher. Because when we open up, it’s not that there’s this poor defenseless “me” who is going to be hurt. Or, “I’m going to be abandoned and let down.” Also, it’s not that I open up and there’s nothing there whatsoever and so then I’m lost and it’s total chaos. Opening up to a teacher requires some delicacy in our understanding of how we exist. For the relationship with a teacher to be successful, it has to be a mature one, with a well-established sense of the conventional “me” who can discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful, and between what’s proper and what’s improper. Otherwise, an immature relationship can be quite disastrous.
Participant: [transl.] Before you take refuge with a certain teacher, you need to check him or her properly, but she thinks that now with an impure mind, how can she check a teacher properly? And how can she possibly check whether the teacher is a Buddha or not?
Alex: When we say that for the relationship with a spiritual teacher to really work well we need to be mature, that doesn’t mean that while we’re still immature, we don’t turn to a teacher. It doesn’t mean that we have to wait until we’re really mature before we can relate to a teacher. If that were the case, we might have to wait a very long time. A skillful teacher can help us to become more mature. An unskillful teacher, on the other hand, might take advantage and abuse us in our immaturity. So, in approaching a potential teacher, we need to acknowledge that we don’t know if this person is really qualified or not. We need to proceed very slowly and carefully.
The relationship with a spiritual teacher is something that usually needs to develop slowly, over time, and go through several stages. Even seeing the teacher as a Buddha, which never comes at the beginning stages, goes through several stages in its development. I don’t want to get into that topic in so much detail now, because it will take quite a bit of time to present it. But that type of relationship in which we see our teacher as a Buddha is really only relevant when we’re on very advanced stages of the highest class of tantra practice, anuttarayoga.
In his Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path, Lam-rim chen-mo, Tsongkhapa wrote that a proper relationship with a spiritual teacher is the root of the path, and he outlined that relationship in terms of seeing the guru as a Buddha. But, we need to understand the context within which he wrote that and why he said it. Clearly, Tsongkhapa was writing and presenting this point to monks who were involved in tantra practice. We can infer that because taking refuge comes later in his presentation of the path. How can we possibly have a relationship with a teacher, seeing the teacher as a Buddha, if we haven’t taken refuge and we don’t even know what a Buddha is? It’s clear that this instruction of seeing the guru as a Buddha is for somebody who already has taken refuge and already is involved in tantra. This is because all the quotations that Tsongkhapa uses to support the view of the guru as a Buddha come from the tantras. So it’s clear that this is mainly a tantra topic. That then gives us an indication that for those of us who are not coming from this background of being a monk or nun already involved in highest tantra practice, we can’t take these sorts of things, like refuge, for granted. We have to start on an earlier stage.
When we initially study with a teacher, especially as a Westerner, the issue of “Is this teacher a Buddha or not?” is not really relevant at all. We need to look first to see if this is a good teacher. Can they explain clearly? What do they explain? Does what they explain fit in with the classical texts? Does it fit in with my life? It’s like how we would test out any kind of teacher -- let’s say, for example, if we were going to learn a language: can they teach us effectively?
We also see what type of general feeling we get when we’re with this person. We can have sensitivity to what type of relationship we can have with someone by the feeling that we get when we’re with them. Is this someone who inspires us or is it someone that just leaves us flat? Is this somebody who really communicates with us or is it somebody whom we just can’t relate to? That’s possible to sense. It doesn’t require clairvoyance or even a great level of maturity.
Then we start to examine a little bit more carefully things like this person’s ethics: are they an ethical person? Are they someone who easily and often gets angry or is very possessive of their students and tries to control their lives? Then we can ask others, to find out the way in which this teacher acts with other students. These are some of the ways with which we check out a teacher, even just to decide whether or not we want to study with them.
Then, whether we’re willing to get into a relationship with this person in which we see them as a Buddha is something very different and very advanced and not really so relevant at a beginning level. If we’re somebody who’s already taken refuge and someone who’s already gone through the basic stages of the path and is already involved in the highest class of tantra, if we’re somebody like that, and we have this strong relationship with the teacher, then we can see the teacher as a Buddha within the whole context of what that means. Then, if we go back through all the stages to the very beginning of the path again, as in the case of a monk reviewing the entire graded path, when listening to Tsongkhapa’s Lam-rim chen-mo, in preparation for receiving a tantric initiation, then that relationship with the teacher as a Buddha will be the root of success in following the whole path. Then it makes a big difference.
We need to understand things within their proper context. It’s not easy. But, especially in the beginning, I think that it’s essential not to lose a critical attitude toward a teacher. Later, when we’re relating to a teacher as a Buddha, then this is a special contract that we have with this teacher and it requires a tremendous emotional maturity. What we’re saying with this type of contract is basically, “You’re a Buddha, which means that no matter what you do, I’m going to see you as a Buddha who’s trying to teach me something.” Remember, the existence of things is not established from their own side, independently of everything else. So the existence of this type of relationship with the teacher is established in relation to the situation of “You’re helping me to grow.”
Basically, then, we’re saying to our teacher, in our minds, “I don’t care what your motivation is and I don’t care whether you’re actually objectively enlightened or not. Rather, I’m going to use the opportunity within this relationship with you to constantly grow and learn. If you tell me to do something that’s stupid, I’m not going to say back to you, ‘You’re stupid’ and get angry with you. Rather, I’m going to see it as ‘You told me to do something stupid so that I would learn the lesson to use my own discrimination and my own mind not to do that.’” In other words, anything that they do, we’re going to regard it as a teaching and try to learn something from it. It doesn’t matter what’s going on from their side.
Surely this is what it means when it’s said that we need to see everybody as a Buddha. We see everything as a lesson. So, we can learn from a child. When a child acts in a certain naughty or silly way, we can learn not to act like that. The child is our teacher. A dog can teach us. Anyone can teach us. That, however, requires a great level of emotional maturity, doesn’t it - to not get angry and not be judgmental? It’s a very advanced practice. It’s not something that we can do as beginners.
Obviously, we have to do a great deal of examination of whether or not we can enter into this type of contract with this teacher to be able to relate on that level. Is the teacher qualified and are we qualified? We could even have that kind of relationship with a teacher that we don’t have very much personal contact with. When we just go to general teachings that a great teacher gives to large crowds, we can do the same thing: “Whatever you say and do, I’m going to learn from.” But remember, this is not a relationship of a private to a general in the army: “Yes sir! What should I do? Tell me. Give me an order. Yes, sir! I’ll do that” – it’s not like that at all.
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