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Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship

Originally published as
Berzin, Alexander. Relating to a Spiritual Teacher:
Building a Healthy Relationship
.
Ithaca, Snow Lion, 2000

Reprint: Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010

Order this book directly from Snow Lion Publications

Part I: Spiritual Seekers and Spiritual Teachers

5 The Need for Various Levels of Spiritual Teachers on the Sutra Path

In A Precious Ornament for Liberation, Gampopa cited three analogies from the sutras to elucidate the need for a spiritual mentor. Just as a traveler needs a navigator for traversing an unknown route, an escort for making a dangerous journey, and an oarsman for crossing a mighty river, a spiritual seeker needs a mentor for treading the path to enlightenment. As a navigator, a spiritual mentor supplies correct information so that a disciple knows the way. As an escort, he or she remains close throughout the journey so that a disciple does not wander astray. As an oarsman, the person provides the energy that drives a disciple on to reach his or her goal. Although the topic of building a relationship with a spiritual teacher pertains to building one specifically with a Mahayana master and, especially, with a tantric master as a root guru, the three analogies may help us to understand the need for all levels of spiritual teachers. This understanding is particularly important for modern seekers with "do-it-yourself" mentalities.

The Need for a Buddhism Professor

When journeying through unfamiliar lands, naivety of local conditions and customs may make particular styles of travel unrealistic. Guidebooks may be useful, but far more helpful are natives of the regions. With lifetimes of experience, they can correct wayfarers' mistakes. Similarly, when attempting to travel the Buddhist path seekers may pass through the unknown territory of traditional Asian spiritual disciplines. They need experienced Buddhism professors with lifetimes of study to recognize their immature ways of thinking. Like navigators and escorts, such teachers keep them on course throughout their studies by correcting them, for instance when they think illogically or when they mistake their culturally specific assumptions for universal truths.

Both books and lectures may be either dry or interesting. However, because the living energy of a person far surpasses the static energy of a written page, a professor's excitement about a subject can more easily spark a passion in students for their studies. Similarly, for our progress in Buddhism to gain momentum, we need initial boosts of energy. Therefore, we need to rely on enthusiastic lively professors, like on oarsmen, to help us to power our spiritual journeys.

The Need for a Dharma Instructor

If spiritual seekers try to apply the Dharma methods to themselves without living models against which to gauge their progress, they may easily deceive themselves and wander astray. With distorted fantasies about Dharma practice and its results, their preconceptions may be bizarre. Therefore, in addition to studying with Buddhism professors, we need to rely on Dharma instructors to dispel these fantasies and to keep our spiritual practices grounded in reality.

Moreover, to work on ourselves requires confidence that change is possible. When Dharma instructors share with us their experience from personally pursuing this course and we can see for ourselves the beneficial results, we gain confidence and inspiration. Thus, we need Dharma instructors to keep us moving on the path.

The Need for a Meditation or Ritual Trainer

Trying to learn meditation or ritual from manuals or from people lacking experience courts almost certain failure. As when wishing to learn gymnastics, we need expert trainers to show us how to follow the procedures properly. They need to work with us on regular bases to adjust our performances and to correct our mistakes. In addition, we need systematic "workouts" with meditation or ritual trainers to overcome the laziness that may keep us from practicing on our own or from going through complete regimes.

The Need for a Spiritual Mentor

Gampopa explained that the main need for building a relationship with a spiritual mentor is to enable seekers to strengthen and expand their networks of positive force and deep awareness (collections of merit and wisdom). Doing so allows them to gain emotional well-being in this lifetime and favorable rebirths, and eventually to rid themselves of the obstacles preventing liberation and enlightenment. Liberation from the recurring problems of uncontrollable rebirth comes from ridding themselves of disturbing emotions and attitudes (Skt. klesha, afflictive emotions), especially naivety about reality. Enlightenment comes from additionally eliminating unconscious projection of impossible fantasies.

Gaining emotional well-being in this lifetime, favorable rebirths, liberation, and enlightenment requires radical transformations of our personalities and our ways of viewing the world. The insights and realizations necessary for making these improvements do not come easily. We need to open ourselves, both intellectually and emotionally, to new ways of thinking, acting, and communicating. We also need a great deal of inspiration and support to give us the courage and strength to change. For the deepest inspiration, the Nyingma codifier Longchenpa stated in A Treasure-House of Precious Guideline Instructions, one definitely needs a proper relationship with a spiritual mentor. Let us examine whether Longchenpa's statement is culturally specific or relevant also for modern skeptical seekers.

As Western spiritual seekers, many of us read Dharma books. We attend classes at Buddhist centers and even participate in guided group meditations. These may open our minds and may even inspire us. Yet, granted that self-development is always difficult and slow, most of us find that we do not make significant progress. This is because, by themselves, these activities can only open and inspire us to a limited extent. We may develop an intellectual understanding and tentative acceptance of rebirth, a spiritual orientation of safe direction and bodhichitta, and knowledge of what to practice and avoid for achieving our spiritual goals, but something more is needed. We need something that will move our hearts in positive ways and thus give us the courage and strength to drop our limited views and negative habits.

In this regard, modern Western spiritual seekers are no different from traditional Asian ones. For this reason, we need to build inspiring relationships with spiritual mentors nowadays as well. Nevertheless, we also need a sober, responsible approach in order to find qualified mentors who suit our dispositions and in order to ensure that the relationships we build with such mentors are healthy ones.

In what ways can inspiration from mentors help us on our spiritual paths? To answer this question, we need to understand what Buddhism means by inspiration. The Sanskrit term for inspiration, adhishtana, often translated as blessings, means an elevation or an uplifting. The Tibetan rendering, chinlab (byin-rlabs), implies waves that bring magnificence. Implicit is that the uplifting leads to emotional well-being, to favorable rebirths, and to the magnificent states of liberation and enlightenment.

Further, according to The Great [Sanskrit-Tibetan] Etymological Dictionary, a source of inspiration uplifts people through its truth, its calmness, its wisdom, and the positive things that it offers. Thus, more than Dharma instructors, we need spiritual mentors in order to gain inspiration in the complete sense of the word. Fully qualified mentors inspire disciples with the authenticity of their realizations, with their calmness and its soothing effect, with their wisdom, and with both the positive qualities that they have to share and the wonderful opportunities they offer. Inspiration, then, in its spiritual sense, has nothing to do with becoming excited or moved to action by someone's fame, power, wealth, or sex appeal.

In Graded Visualizations as a Thrust for Conviction and Appreciation of a Guru, the Drugpa Kagyu master Pema-karpo gave a clear example of the inspiring effect of a spiritual mentor. When disturbing emotions and thoughts upset our minds, if we imagine our mentors in our hearts, warmly smiling at us, we become relaxed, our minds calm down, and we may begin to smile ourselves.

Studying and meditating under the guidance of spiritual mentors with whom we have built deep relationships have a noticeably stronger effect than doing so on our own or with teachers toward whom we feel little or nothing. The inspiration we feel makes the practices more effective. It activates our potential and stimulates our deep awareness so that we slowly gain insight and realization. Gradually, our mental and emotional blocks disappear and we become free of our problems and our inability to help others. Thus, the ritual practices of guru-yoga in all Tibetan traditions include requesting inspiration from one's visualized mentor to realize each step of the path to enlightenment and imagining the inspiration entering one's heart in the graphic form of brilliant light.

The enlightening process takes place, however, only in the case of healthy relationships between emotionally mature disciples and properly qualified mentors. It does not occur in exploitative relationships in which naive seekers are overdependent on demagogues or frauds. The mechanism for its success hinges on the issue of trust. Because properly qualified mentors are free of emotional problems, are only concerned to benefit others, and are fully competent to guide disciples properly, we eventually come to trust such persons. Our trust derives from having built up, over time, long-term relationships with them so that we are totally convinced of their integrity.

In the process of gaining trust in our mentors, we also come to trust in ourselves that we can improve by bonding with them. The security gained from this realization allows us to be receptive to their positive influence and to be open to change. The protection-wheel practice of the Drugpa Kagyu ladrub (bla-sgrub; Skt. guru-sadhana; actualizing through the guru) tradition clearly illustrates this point. Before meditation on voidness and tantric transformation of their self-images, practitioners imagine their tantric masters sitting and smiling radiantly before them in the form of Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion. The security of the warm and trusting relations with their mentors provides the protected emotional space within which to begin dropping neurotic compulsive ways.

In short, the primary need for spiritual mentors is for people to move our hearts so that we gain the necessary uplifting energy for reaching our spiritual goals. In moving our hearts in the proper direction throughout our spiritual journeys, spiritual mentors act like oarsmen, navigators, and escorts.

The Need for a Combination of Sources of Inspiration

Generating and sustaining a positive motivation to work on ourselves, like doing the work itself, require courage, commitment, and enormous energy. Recalling our previous efforts at self-improvement may depress us rather than move us to action. If, on the other hand, we think of others who have gained liberation and enlightenment, of those who are well advanced toward these goals, and of the attainments that each has attained, we may become inspired. In other words, taking a safe direction in life from the Triple Gem of the Buddhas, the Sangha, and the Dharma, we gain inspiration. Their inspiration energizes our motivation and moves us to work on ourselves.

Further, if our thoughts for self-improvement dwell only on benefiting ourselves, we may still lack sufficient energy despite receiving inspiration from the Triple Gem. However, when we focus on others, especially on those who are suffering, we receive further inspiration. Together with inspiration from the Triple Gem, the added boost strengthens our motivation. It enables us to make even the most radical changes in ourselves to be able to help others. Thus, Shantideva explained that positive force for gaining Buddha-qualities comes from focusing equally on the Buddhas and on suffering beings.

Inspiration from the Triple Gem and sincere motivation inspired by others, however, are still not enough to enable us to overcome neurotic habits. We need to supplement the two with an additional, more powerful source of inspiration. Practical experience has confirmed that the most potent source is a strong and healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor. The inspiration gained has special strength because it derives from the dynamics of a living human relationship and because that relationship is with someone having exemplary qualities.

Everyday experience corroborates these points. Looking at photos or even at videos of either heroes or anonymous disaster victims never moves us as much as actually meeting the people. Further, just meeting the people is never as uplifting as is having personal relationships with them. Since the Buddhas and lineage masters are no longer physically present, they cannot move us as deeply as can fully qualified mentors. Moreover, since qualified mentors are free of irrational behavior and swings in mood, healthy relationships with them are easier to maintain than with most people we feel moved to help. Consequently, the inspiration received from mentors tends to be more even and lasting.

In short, to develop and sustain a strong motivation to work on ourselves requires inspiration from the Triple Gem, from those in need of help, and from our spiritual mentors. Like an alloy of metals that is stronger than any of its individual components, an alloy of sources of inspiration provides our motivation and us with the greatest strength. Each element in the mixture reinforces the others so that, in the end, the energy of the whole is greater than that of the sum of its parts.

How Sources of Inspiration Work Together

Gampopa, and later Sakya Pandita, the fourth of the five Sakya founders, used the analogy of the sun, a magnifying glass, and kindling to explain how sources of inspiration work together to provide disciples with spiritual strength. Sakya Pandita explained that without a magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun, the heat of the sun by itself cannot bring kindling to the flame. Similarly, without a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor to focus the waves of the Buddhas' enlightening influence (tinley, 'phrin-las), these waves by themselves cannot spark disciples to enlightenment. Effects arise dependently from a combination of causes and conditions.

On their own, the Three Gems may be too distant and impersonal to move disciples to action. In fact, most practitioners on the early stages of the path find conceiving of, let alone relating to their qualities nearly impossible. Therefore, we need something to help us gain access to their enlightening influence. Qualified mentors provide that access by indicating, through teachings and their way of being, the goals we wish to attain, those who have reached them, and those who are striving toward them. Since inspiration from these indications comes from living persons with whom we can relate, it acts like a magnifying glass to focus within us the enlightening influence of the Triple Gem.

The tantras explain that this enlightening influence works primarily in four ways. It calms disturbances, stimulates growth, gives control over difficult matters, and forcefully ends dangerous situations. Because of our trust, being with our mentors calms us down. Because of our openness, it stimulates our good qualities to blossom. Because of our respect, we gain control of ourselves in their presence. Because of our awe, we forcefully resist any destructive impulses when with them, no matter how compelling the impulses might be. Thus, the positive emotional dynamics of healthy relationships with spiritual mentors allow the enlightening influence of the Triple Gem to affect us.

Healthy relationships with mentors also help us to gain easier access to inspiration from loved ones in need of help. Because fully qualified mentors are emotionally stable, wise, and benevolent people, mature relationships with them uplift us greatly. The security and strength we gain enables us to open our hearts more easily to emotionally challenging people. Without inspiration from our mentors, even loved ones may sometimes upset us too much to move us to help them. Thus, the Sakya master Gorampa's Discourse Notes on "Parting from the Four [Stages of] Clinging" recommended guru-yoga as a preliminary for bodhichitta meditation.

The Relation between a Spiritual Mentor and Buddha-Nature

Gampopa indicated the mechanism of how spiritual mentors, as oarsmen, may move disciples along the spiritual path. He explained that Buddha-nature is the cause and a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor is the condition, for reaching enlightenment. Buddha-nature refers to the network of innate qualities and aspects of each individual that allows him or her to become a Buddha. Inspiration from a spiritual mentor acts as the condition for activating this network.

According to Maitreya's The Furthest Everlasting Continuum, Buddha-nature is a network of three kinds of factors. Abiding factors, such as the nature of the mind, constitute the first category. They never change. Evolving factors, the second kind, grow like seeds with proper conditions. They include the mind's innate systems of good qualities, positive potentials, and deep awareness. The aspect of everyone's heart and mind that allows him or her to be inspired is the third type of factor. Inspiration stimulates the realization of abiding factors and the activation of evolving ones.

In the magnifying glass analogy, then, Buddha-nature would refer to the kindling and to the fact that it can catch on fire. A mentor's inspiration would be like the condition needed for the kindling to burst into flames. The result, however, would not be the disciples' immolation, but their transformation to more enhanced states. Perhaps a closer example would be the firing of clay into magnificent porcelain.

Many things, such as nature, music, and patriotism, may uplift our spirits. They lack the ability, however, to inspire us to enlightenment. The Ninth Karmapa, a great luminary of the Karma Kagyu tradition, clarified this point in Mahamudra Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance. He explained that a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor is the dominating condition (dagkyen, bdag-rkyen) for becoming a Buddha, like the sensory cells of the eyes are the dominating condition for visual perception. In other words, visual cognition not only arises through the medium and power of the cells of the retina, but also, because of them, occurs as an instance of seeing, rather than of hearing. Thus, the medium's being rods and cones determines that the form of cognition arising through it is vision. Similarly, enlightenment not only arises through the medium and power of a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor, but also occurs as an instance of someone becoming an ideal teacher. Buddhahood does not entail a person's becoming a perfect sunset or a musical masterpiece.

How Inspiration Activates Buddha-Nature

In A Precious Garland for the Four Themes, Longchenpa used Gampopa's four themes to clarify how inspiration from a spiritual mentor helps to bring enlightenment. Together with safe direction and bodhichitta, this inspiration moves disciples to take the Dharma as a path – the second of Gampopa's four themes. In other words, the amalgam of the three moves disciples to practice the Buddhist methods as a pathway leading to enlightenment. Taking the Dharma as a path, then, describes the process whereby the firing of clay brings it to porcelain.

Terdag Lingpa, Nyingma teacher and disciple of the Fifth Dalai Lama, further clarified the process. In A Precious Ladder, he explained Buddha-nature as the cause and a mentor's inspiration as the condition for generating true pathways of mind – the fourth noble truth. True pathways of mind are activated states of evolving factors of Buddha-nature, such as compassion and deep awareness. Through inspiration and other supporting conditions, these factors reach full maturity and bring the total transformation of enlightenment.

Inspiration from Oral Transmission

As stated earlier, spiritual mentors act as navigators, escorts, and oarsmen to help propel disciples along the pathways of mind to enlightenment that the disciples generate within themselves. They do this through both obvious and subtle ways. One of the more subtle methods is by giving oral transmission of Buddha's texts. The transmission occurs through mentors' reading texts aloud or reciting them from memory, usually at top speed, to disciples who listen attentively. As the need for transmission may be difficult for Westerners to understand at first, let us look more closely at this facet of the disciple-mentor relationship. To appreciate its significance, we need to outline some of the major features of the Buddhist approach to spiritual education.

In A Brief Indication of the Graded Stages of the Path, Tsongkhapa explained that the sutras are difficult to understand by themselves. They purposely contain much repetition, do not present their topics in a logical sequence, and seemingly contradict one another. This is because Buddha intended them for disciples of differing abilities and needs. Many people learn more easily from abstract pictures of topics painted in dabs and pieces rather than from linear explications. Moreover, the sutras did not appear in writing until several centuries after Buddha orally delivered them. Repetition within them ensured that important points would not be lost when preservation of the words depended solely on memory.

Further, the "root texts" that later Indian and Tibetan masters composed have a vague style with many thiss and thats that do not have clear referents. They were purposely written this way to allow the texts to serve as roots for several interpretations according to different sets of theories. When disciples recite these texts from memory, they must fill in the levels of significance themselves and keep several levels simultaneously in mind.

To clarify the meaning of the sutras and these later texts, Indian and Tibetan masters compiled commentaries, subcommentaries, and treatises. In addition, the Tibetans organized outlines, logic manuals, and systematic comparative presentations of the Indian schools of philosophical tenets. Although these materials make learning easier, they are nothing more than study tools. To use the tools properly for gaining realization, disciples require guideline instructions from spiritual mentors. One cannot learn everything by simply reading a textbook.

When studying mathematics, students cannot learn, if the teacher solves all the problems for them. Teachers can impart the principles and show how to apply them with a few examples, but the students learn by working out problems for themselves. The same holds true with the Buddhist material. As my root guru, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, explained, "If Buddha or the ancient masters wished to write more clearly, they would certainly have done so. They were not stupid or incompetent. They purposely wrote as they did to make us think. Their style forces us to put together the meaning with the help of a mentor's guideline instructions."

Even in imparting guideline instructions, spiritual mentors do not reveal everything at once. Instead, they give mere hints or present only fragments at a time. This teaching method ensures that disciples fit together the pieces of the puzzle themselves. It also encourages them to develop perseverance and patience. This, in turn, helps disciples to fortify their motivations. It weeds out those who are not serious and who are unwilling to put in the effort required to overcome their disturbing emotions and attitudes.

The term guideline instructions and its honorific equivalent personal instructions (zhel-lung, zhal-lung) are often translated as "oral instructions." This translation may be confusing. Although guideline instructions derive from the personal experience of spiritual mentors and mostly originate from oral discourses, some appear first in written form. Moreover, most of the instructions that were first delivered orally have also been put into writing. Living mentors may give their own guideline instructions, either orally or in writing; however, most mentors rely primarily on the guidelines given by previous masters from their lineage.

When spiritual mentors give their own guideline instructions in person, disciples find them extremely inspiring. Disciples may also be inspired to a certain extent by reading the commentaries and recorded guideline instructions of lineage mentors. Merely reading them, however, is insufficient for gaining deep understanding of their meaning and integration of it into their lives. Disciples need the stronger inspiration that comes from living mentors, to activate their Buddha-natures so that they can make the Dharma into true pathways of mind leading to liberation and enlightenment. The formal mechanism for gaining inspiration to understand and integrate the meaning of the texts and traditional guideline instructions is through receiving their oral transmission, in other words their energization, from a spiritual mentor.

The custom of oral transmission arose in ancient times before people applied the written language to spiritual matters. Periodic group recitation of Buddha's words from memory ensured that additions, deletions, and errors did not corrupt them. Listening to the words chanted in perfect unison, disciples gained confidence that successive generations from the time of Buddha had transmitted them correctly. This confidence led disciples to trust that studying and digesting these words would put them on the authentic Buddhist path. Teachers later extended the custom of oral transmission to the commentaries and guideline instructions of the great Indian and Tibetan masters. Although texts existed in written form, copies were extremely rare.

The lines of oral transmission of most of Buddha's discourses, their commentaries, and the guideline instructions have continued without break up to the present. They play a central role in Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, the four Tibetan traditions and their subdivisions define themselves by the specific lineages that they transmit. Nevertheless, the lines of transmission are not mutually exclusive. Many schools share several lineages up to certain points in their histories.

Group chanting of Buddha's words still occurs in the monasteries and nunneries. Nowadays, however, oral transmission is primarily from spiritual mentors to large groups or to individuals. Its purpose is to inspire disciples not merely by confidence in the accuracy of the words, but by confidence also in the authenticity of the mentors' realization of their meaning. When His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, for example, transmits a text by reciting it at top speed, pausing at only one or two places to question the masters around him about how to interpret the most difficult passages, he inspires everybody. As he lacks any pretense, his occasional pauses convince us that everything else in the text is completely clear. This inspires us that the text is perfectly understandable. The deep impression this makes fortifies the potentials of our Buddha-natures so that, with sufficient study and effort, we too may gain similar realization.