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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Spiritual Teachers > Avoiding Confusion in the Spiritual Student-Teacher Relationship

Avoiding Confusion in the Spiritual Student-Teacher Relationship

Alexander Berzin
May 2001, revised May 2002,
with excerpts from
Berzin, Alexander. Relating to a Spiritual Teacher:
Building a Healthy Relationship
.
Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2000.

[As background, see: Scheme for Analyzing the Dynamics in a Relation with a Spiritual Teacher.]

Empirical Facts about the Spiritual Student-Teacher Relationship

To avoid confusion in the spiritual student-teacher relationship, we need to acknowledge certain empirical facts:

  1. Almost all spiritual seekers progress through stages along the spiritual path.
  2. Most practitioners study with several teachers during their lifetimes and build up different relationships with each.
  3. Not every spiritual teacher has reached the same level of accomplishment.
  4. The type of relationship appropriate between a specific seeker and a specific teacher depends upon the spiritual level of each.
  5. People usually relate to their teachers in progressively deeper manners as they advance along the spiritual path.
  6. Because the same teacher may play different roles in the spiritual life of each seeker, the most appropriate relationship each seeker has with that teacher may be different.

Levels of Spiritual Teachers and of Spiritual Seekers

Thus, there are many levels of spiritual teachers and of spiritual seekers. There are:

  • Buddhism professors to give information like at a university,

  • Dharma instructors to show how to apply Dharma to life,
  • meditation trainers to teach methods similar to teaching tai-ch’i or yoga,
  • spiritual mentors differentiated as to the level of vows they give the student: lay or monk vows, bodhisattva vows, or tantric vows.

Correspondingly, there are:

  • students of Buddhism wishing to gain information,

  • pupils of Dharma wishing to learn how to apply Dharma to life,

  • meditation trainees wishing to learn methods for relaxing or training the mind,

  • disciples wishing to improve future lives, gain liberation, or gain enlightenment, and are ready to take some level of vows to help reach these goals. Even if disciples wish to improve this lifetime, they see this as a stepping stone on the way to liberation and enlightenment.

[See: "Dharma-Lite" Versus "The Real Thing - Dharma."]

Each level has its qualifications and, as a spiritual seeker, we need to take into consideration our own and the teacher’s background – Asian or Western, monk, nun or lay, level of education, emotional and ethical level of maturity, level of commitment, and so on. Therefore, it is important to proceed slowly and carefully.

Qualifications of a Potential Disciple and of a Potential Spiritual Teacher

As a potential disciple, we need to check our own level of development, so that we do not commit ourselves to a relationship for which we are not ready. The main qualities a disciple needs are:

  1. open-mindedness without being attached to his or her own preconceptions and opinions,

  2. common-sense to differentiate between what is proper and what is not,

  3. strong interest in the Dharma and in finding a properly qualified teacher,

  4. appreciation and respect for the Dharma and for well-qualified teachers,

  5. an attentive mind,

  6. a basic level of emotional maturity and stability,

  7. a basic sense of ethical responsibility.

Depending on the level of teacher, he or she needs increasingly more qualifications. In general, the main ones are:

  1. a healthy relationship with his or her own spiritual teachers,

  2. more knowledge of the Dharma than the student,

  3. experience and some level of success in applying its methods in meditation and in everyday life,

  4. the ability to set an inspiring example of the beneficial results of applying the Dharma to life. This means having:

  5. ethical self-discipline,

  6. emotional maturity and stability, based on freedom from gross emotional problems,

  7. sincere concern to benefit students as the primary motivation for teaching,

  8. patience in teaching,

  9. lack of pretense (not pretending to have qualities that he or she lacks) and lack of hypocrisy (not hiding faults that he or she has, such as lack of knowledge and experience).

We need to suit things to the reality of the situation – what level of qualification do the teachers available in our city have, how much time and commitment do we have, what are our spiritual aims (realistically, not just ideally "to benefit all sentient beings"), and so on. If we check the qualifications of a potential teacher before committing ourselves to a spiritual relationship, we may avoid the extremes of making the teacher into a god or a devil. When we make the spiritual teacher into a god, our naivety opens us to possible abuse. If we make him or her into a devil, our paranoia prevents us from benefiting.

The Differences between Becoming a Disciple of a Spiritual Mentor and Becoming a Client of a Therapist

One of the major sources of confusion in the spiritual student-teacher relationship is the wish for the spiritual mentor to be like a therapist. Consider, for example, someone wishing to gain emotional happiness and good relationships for the rest of his or her life. Becoming a disciple of a spiritual mentor to achieve this goal in many ways resembles becoming a client of a therapist for the same purpose.

Both Buddhism and therapy:

  1. Arise from recognizing and acknowledging suffering in our lives and wishing to alleviate it.

  2. Entail working with someone to recognize and understand our problems and their causes. Many forms of therapy, in fact, agree with Buddhism that understanding serves as the key for self-transformation.

  3. Embrace schools of thought that emphasize deeply understanding the causes of our problems, traditions that stress working on pragmatic methods to overcome these factors, and systems that recommend a balanced combination of the two approaches.

  4. Advocate establishing a healthy emotional relationship with the mentor or therapist as an important part of the process of self-development.

  5. Although most classical forms of therapy shy away from using ethical guidelines for modifying clients’ behavior and ways of thinking, a few postclassical schools advocate ethical principles similar to those in Buddhism. Such principles include being equally fair to all members of a dysfunctional family and refraining from acting out destructive impulses, such as those of anger.

Despite similarities, at least five significant differences exist between becoming a disciple of a Buddhist mentor and becoming a client of a therapist:

(1) The emotional stage at which one establishes the relationship. Potential clients generally approach a therapist while being emotionally disturbed. They may even be psychotic and require medication as part of the treatment. Potential disciples, in contrast, do not establish a relationship with a mentor as the first step on their spiritual paths. Before this, they have studied Buddha’s teachings and begun to work on themselves. Consequently, they have reached a sufficient level of emotional maturity and stability so that the disciple-mentor relationship they establish is constructive in the Buddhist sense of the term. In other words, Buddhist disciples need already to be relatively free of neurotic attitudes and behavior.

(2) The interaction one expects in the relationship. Potential clients are mostly interested in having someone listen to them. Therefore, they expect the therapist to devote concentrated attention to them and to their personal problems, even if within the context of group therapy. Disciples, on the other hand, normally do not share personal problems with their mentors and do not expect or demand individual attention. Even if they consult the mentor for personal advice, they do not go regularly. The focus in the relationship is on listening to teachings. Buddhist disciples primarily learn methods from their mentors for overcoming general problems that everyone faces. They then assume personal responsibility to apply the methods to their specific situations.

(3) The results expected from the working relationship. Therapy aims for learning to accept and to live with the problems in our lives, or to minimize them so that they become bearable. If we were to approach a Buddhist spiritual mentor with the aim of emotional well-being for this lifetime, we might also expect to minimize our problems. Despite life’s being difficult – the first fact of life (noble truth) that Buddha taught – we could make it less difficult.

Making our lives emotionally less difficult, however, is only a preliminary step for approaching the classical Buddhist path. Disciples of spiritual mentors would at least be orientated toward the greater aims of favorable rebirths, liberation, and enlightenment. Moreover, Buddhist disciples would have an intellectual understanding of rebirth as explained in Buddhism and at least tentative acceptance of its existence. Therapy clients have no need for thinking about rebirth or about aims beyond improving their immediate situations.

(4) The level of commitment to self-transformation. Clients of therapists pay an hourly fee, but do not commit themselves to a lifelong change of attitude and behavior. Buddhist disciples, on the other hand, may or may not pay for teachings; nevertheless, they formally change their direction in life. In taking safe direction (refuge), disciples commit themselves to the course of self-development that the Buddhas have fully traversed and then taught, and that the highly realized spiritual community strives to follow.

Moreover, Buddhist disciples commit themselves to an ethical, constructive course of acting, speaking, and thinking in life. They try, as much as is possible, to avoid destructive patterns and to engage in constructive ones instead. When disciples sincerely wish liberation from the recurring problems of uncontrollable rebirth, they make an even stronger commitment by formally taking lay or monastic vows. Disciples at this stage of self-development vow for life to restrain at all times from specific modes of conduct that are either naturally destructive or which Buddha recommended that certain people avoid for specific purposes. An example of the latter is monastics abandoning lay dress and wearing robes instead, to reduce attachment. Even before developing the wish for full liberation, disciples often take lay or monastic vows.

Clients of therapists, on the other hand, agree to follow certain rules of procedure as part of the therapeutic contract, such as keeping to a schedule of fifty-minute appointments. These rules, however, pertain only during treatment. They do not apply outside the therapeutic setting, do not entail refraining from naturally destructive behavior, and are not for life.

(5) The attitude toward the teacher or therapist. Disciples look to their spiritual mentors as living examples of what they strive to attain. They regard them in this way based on correct recognition of the mentors’ good qualities and they maintain and strengthen this view throughout their graded path to enlightenment. Clients, in contrast, may conceive of their therapists as models for emotional health, but they do not require correct awareness of the therapists’ good qualities. Becoming like the therapist is not the aim of the relationship. During the course of treatment, therapists lead their clients beyond projections of ideals.

Inappropriate Usage of the Term Disciple

Sometimes, people call themselves disciples of spiritual mentors despite the fact that they, the teacher, or both fall short of fulfilling the proper meaning of the terms. Their naivety often leads them to unrealistic expectations, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and even abuse. Becoming an object of abuse, in this context, means being exploited sexually, emotionally, or financially, or being manipulated by someone in a show of power. Let us examine three common types of pseudo-disciples found in the West, who are especially susceptible to problems with spiritual teachers.

(1) Some people come to Dharma centers looking for fulfillment of their fantasies. They have read or heard something about the "mysterious East" or about superstar gurus, and wish to transcend their seemingly unexciting lives by having an exotic or mystical experience. They meet spiritual teachers and instantly declare themselves to be disciples, especially if the teachers are Asian, wear robes, or both. They are prone to similar behavior with Western teachers who have Asian titles or names, whether or not the persons wear robes.

The quest for the occult often destabilizes the relationships such seekers establish with spiritual teachers. Even if they declare themselves disciples of properly qualified mentors, they often leave these teachers when they realize that nothing supernatural is happening, except perhaps in their imaginations. Moreover, the unrealistic attitudes and high expectations of "instant disciples" often cloud their critical faculties. Such persons are particularly open to deception by spiritual charlatans clever in putting on a good act.

(2) Others may come to centers desperate for help to overcome emotional or physical pain. They may have tried various forms of therapy, but to no avail. Now, they seek a miracle cure from a magician/healer. They declare themselves disciples of anyone who might give them a blessing pill, tell them the special prayer or mantra to repeat, or give them the potent practice to do – like making a hundred thousand prostrations – that will automatically fix their problems. They especially turn to the same types of teachers that fascinate people who are in quest of the occult. The "fix-it" mentality of miracle-seekers often leads to disappointment and despair, when following the advice of even qualified mentors does not result in miraculous cures. A "fix-it" mentality also attracts abuse from spiritual quacks.

(3) Still others, especially disenchanted, unemployed youths, come to Dharma centers of cultish sects in the hope of gaining existential empowerment. Charismatic megalomaniacs draw them in by using "spiritual fascist" means. They promise their so-called disciples strength in numbers if they give total allegiance to their sects. They further allure disciples with dramatic descriptions of fierce protectors who will smash their enemies, especially the followers of inferior, impure Buddhist traditions. With grandiose stories of the superhuman powers of the founding fathers of their movements, they try to fulfill the disciples’ dreams of a mighty leader who will lift them to positions of spiritual entitlement. Responding to these promises, such people quickly declare themselves disciples and blindly follow whatever instructions or orders authoritarian teachers give them. The results are usually disastrous.

Conclusion

In short, just as not everyone who teaches at a Buddhist center is an authentic spiritual mentor, similarly not everyone who studies at a center is an authentic spiritual disciple. We need precise usage of both the terms mentor and disciple. This requires spiritual honesty and lack of pretense.