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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 II: The Dynamics of a Healthy
Student-Teacher Relationship

7 Establishing a Relationship with a Spiritual Teacher

The Sanskrit and Tibetan classical Buddhist literature provides the source material for how to relate to a spiritual mentor. Most of the texts, however, explicitly refer only to the relationship with a tantric master. The main examples include Ashvaghosha's Fifty Stanzas on the Guru, its commentaries, and all texts regarding the procedures of mahamudra, dzogchen, the path and its results (lamdray, lam-'bras), and actualizing through the guru.

Although many points in these texts have a general level of meaning shared with sutra, we need carefully to distinguish which have commonality with sutra and which are exclusive to highest tantra. Sherab-senggey explained the criteria. Teachings of shared meaning need to accord with the main assertions found in the sutras and with the common experience of sutra practitioners. If they are out of harmony and would easily be misunderstood, they are inappropriate materials for teaching to practitioners exclusively of sutra.

In the traditional explanation, sutra practitioners refer to Mahayana disciples, as we have defined them. Let us extend the scope of discussion beyond sutra practitioners to include earlier levels of spiritual seekers, starting with beginners who come to Dharma centers as students of Buddhism. Any teaching from a tantric text with a shared meaning that applies to all levels of relationship between a spiritual seeker and a spiritual teacher needs to accord with the beliefs and common experience of newcomers from the general public who are interested in Buddhism. If a specific instruction fails to meet this criterion, it does not apply to such newcomers and is inappropriate material to teach them.

For example, the Guhyasamaja and Kalachakra literatures emphasize the need for thoroughly evaluating a tantric master before receiving an empowerment from the person. The literature also holds an injunction to stop looking for faults in a teacher; this, however, is to be followed only after becoming the teacher's tantric disciple, not before taking this step. Moreover, a tantric master also needs to scrutinize a potential disciple before agreeing to confer empowerment. Ashvaghosha explained the reason. The tantric vows that a disciple takes at an empowerment seal a close bond with the tantric master. Each side needs to be sure that he or she can trust the other and him or herself to uphold the bond and all it entails. A loss of trust and belief easily brings spiritual despair.

Mutual examination before two people voluntarily enter a committed relationship accords with commonplace customs and practice. A potential employer and employee interview each other before signing a contract. A couple gets to know each other well before deciding to marry. For a spiritual seeker and teacher to examine each other before committing themselves to a serious course of instruction only makes sense. On the other hand, seeing one's spiritual teacher as a Buddha would seem rather cultish and fanatical to the average person. Clearly, it cannot be a general instruction that applies to people totally new to Buddhism.

The Intended Audience for Graded-Path Texts

All Tibetan Buddhism lineages agree that enlightenment requires a combination of sutra and tantra practice. Thus, before receiving an empowerment – especially into the highest class of tantra – potential tantric disciples need to review the graded stages of the sutra path. They need to understand the graded-path literature within this context. The authors of this literature never intended their texts for newcomers at Western Dharma centers who know nothing about Buddhism. The intended audience for most of the major graded-path texts consisted of the people gathered to receive a highest tantra empowerment. To help prepare the audience, the tantric master taught the sutra portion of one of these texts during the days immediately preceding the ritual. The assumption was that the initiates were already familiar with the material and merely needed a refresher course.

Today as well, Tibetan lamas normally follow their public teachings on the sutra portion of the graded-path texts with tantric empowerments. The lamas may not explicitly state that the teachings form part of the preparation, and the audience may consider the empowerment merely a bonus added at the end of the discourse. Still, the graded-path teachings serve as the preliminary for the empowerment.

Further, the majority of the audience for the graded-path teachings traditionally consisted of monks and nuns. Not only had they already studied the sutra path to a certain extent, they were committed by vows to Buddhist practice as the primary activity for the rest of their lives. Even when the intended audience for a graded-path text was mostly laypeople, as in the case of Peltrul's Nyingma version, the purpose was clear. The outline divided the material of the text into outer and inner preliminaries – preliminaries for highest tantra empowerment and practice.

Evaluating Material from the Graded-Path Texts

The graded-path texts taught before an empowerment fall into one of two categories. Either they cover the stages of the sutra and tantra path together in one volume or they treat only the sutra portion, hint at the tantra stages that follow, and leave the presentation of tantra for a separate text. Explanations of the disciple-mentor relationship that appear in the tantra section of graded-path texts require the same evaluation as explanations from specifically tantric sources. One needs to investigate which of their points have a shared meaning applicable to all levels of relationship.

Aside from some notable exceptions in the Sakya and Drugpa Kagyu literature, the sutra portions of most graded-path texts also explain the disciple-mentor relationship. Although the material is not explicitly tantric, the instructions aim at preparing disciples for the upcoming relationship with a tantric master. This material also requires evaluation to determine its general applicability.

Different Levels of Guru-Meditation Taught in Graded-Path Texts

Starting as early as Longchenpa's Rest and Restoration in the Nature of the Mind, the graded-path presentations of the disciple-mentor relationship nearly always include explicit instructions on appropriate thoughts and actions for disciples in relationship to their mentors. The procedures form a common basis of practice shared by all committed disciples of spiritual mentors, whether on the sutra or the tantra level. Some procedures, such as being polite and respectful, comfortably suit any spiritual seeker-teacher relationship. Other instructions, such as to regard one's mentor as a Buddha, require graded explanations depending on the level of disciple-mentor relationship. They fail to qualify, however, as shared teachings that also pertain to relationships with Buddhism professors, Dharma instructors, or meditation or ritual trainers before one is ready to become a disciple committed with vows.

Many of the graded-path texts that cover the sutra and tantra stages in one volume include instructions for meditating on the spiritual mentor. The guru-yoga most frequently taught in them asks disciples to imagine that their bodies, speech, and minds merge with the corresponding three faculties of their spiritual mentors, seen as Buddhas. The meditation normally includes imagining their mentors in the physical forms of Buddha-figures, such as Vajradhara, or imagining Vajradhara in the mentors' hearts. Vajradhara is the embodiment of the fully enlightened clear-light mind of a Buddha. Some guru-yogas ask disciples to imagine their mentors in the forms of lineage masters particularly associated with highest tantra, such as Padmasambhava, taken as a Buddha-figure.

Buddhist seekers frequently focus on visualized images of Buddha Shakyamuni for gaining concentration, even before entering a disciple-mentor relationship. Focus on a figure specifically associated with highest tantra, however, does not accord with the customs or common experiences of spiritual seekers unconcerned about highest tantra. Therefore, guru-yoga entailing the visualization of such figures is not a general meditation shared with spiritual seekers at stages of the path that precede their conscious preparation for highest tantra practice. Such guru-yoga belongs strictly to highest tantra.

From among the graded-path texts that focus only on the sutra teachings, Atisha's Stages of Practice with a Guru began the tradition of outlining a sutra level of guru-yoga. It comprised offering a seven-part invocation and requesting inspiration. A seven-part invocation, as Shantideva outlined, starts with invoking the Three Jewels of Refuge or an appropriate representation of them. The seven parts directed toward them comprise prostrating, making offerings, admitting mistakes, rejoicing in the virtues of others, requesting teaching, beseeching the gurus not to pass away, and dedicating the positive potential built up by the practice.

Later Kadam masters, such as Sangwayjin, extended the meditation to include disciples' gaining inspiration from their spiritual mentors by remembering their good qualities and kindness. Tsongkhapa and subsequent Gelug masters up to the Fifth Dalai Lama elaborated upon Sangwayjin's model in their graded-path texts. Since every level of spiritual teacher, starting with Buddhism professors, possesses some good qualities and at least the kindness to give instruction, any level of spiritual seeker may gain inspiration by focusing on these aspects. Such practice accords with general experience. Listening to speeches during commemorative ceremonies for national heroes, for example, inspires many.

In A Blissful Path, the First Panchen Lama shifted the emphasis in the guru-yoga that Tsongkhapa outlined. As part of his presentation of the sutra portion of the graded path, he stressed that disciples need to see their spiritual mentors as Buddhas. By including the visualization of Vajradhara in the mentor's heart, he clearly indicated the highest tantra intent of this step. Subsequent Gelug graded-path texts, up to Pabongka's Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, have followed this highest tantra orientation and expanded on the First Panchen Lama's model. As with the strictly highest tantra forms of guru-yoga, the meditation on seeing the mentor as a Buddha found in later Gelug graded-path texts is not a general practice for spiritual seekers unconcerned with highest tantra.

Many Westerners are confused about this point. Some meet Tibetan Buddhism initially at a highest tantra empowerment, for example Kalachakra, or attend an initiation early in their spiritual path. They may not understand anything that is happening during the ritual, or they may sit through the procedures merely as observers. Without consciously taking and intending to keep the vows, however, they do not establish a disciple-mentor relationship with the tantric master. Moreover, Wonpo Sherab-jungnay added that members of the audience do not actually receive an empowerment unless they also have some level of conscious experience and insight during the ceremony that purifies mental blocks and plants seeds for realizations. At best, observers at an empowerment receive inspiration, from witnessing the ritual, which builds up potentials for more serious involvement with highest tantra in the future.

The Qualities of a Spiritual Teacher

Since the sutra-level guru-meditation formulated by the Kadam tradition focuses on the good qualities and kindness of a spiritual teacher, it requires knowledge of these qualities and examination of the teacher to determine whether the person has them. The classical texts list the qualifications only for spiritual mentors. The analysis of the words guru, lama, and spiritual friend has revealed some of the more important points. Refuge and vow preceptors, Mahayana masters, and tantric masters each require progressively more talents, capabilities, and positive personality traits. Moreover, higher level teachers share the qualities of lower level ones.

For example, vow preceptors need to have kept their liberation vows purely, whether as laypeople or as monastics. Mahayana masters need, in addition, advanced concentration, stable realization of bodhichitta and voidness, and an advanced level of freedom from disturbing emotions such as greed, attachment, anger, and naivety. Tantric masters, in addition, require mastery of an enormous scope of tantric rituals. This does not mean merely having technical expertise in their procedures. Tantric masters need the ability to bring actual enlightening forces into the rituals.

Newcomers to Buddhism, however, often begin their studies with teachers of less competence than that possessed by spiritual mentors. Nevertheless, earlier level spiritual teachers need to share certain features of mentors. Buddhism professors need substantial learning; Dharma instructors need learning plus insight from personal experience; and meditation or ritual trainers need learning, experience, and expertise in the training methods. Moreover, all levels of spiritual teacher need to be ethical, kindhearted, concerned about others, patient, unpretentious, and emotionally mature. Most of all, in addition to all the above qualities, spiritual teachers need to be inspiring, specifically for us. A teacher may be fully qualified as a spiritual mentor and may even inspire many other disciples. Yet, if he or she fails to move our hearts with inspiration, we will be unable to benefit fully from the relationship.

Fully qualified teachers, however, are extremely rare, not only today but in the past as well. In Approximating the Deepest Level, Pundarika, the royal Shambala commentator on Kalachakra, declared, "In this age of conflicts, spiritual mentors have mixed faults and qualities. No one is without shortcomings. Therefore, scrutinize well and rely on those with mostly good qualities."

Thorough Examination

Evaluating a potential spiritual teacher is never a simple process. The Guhyasamaja literature has explained that potential disciples and mentors may need to examine each other's qualities for up to twelve years. The advice refers specifically to scrutinizing one another before receiving or conferring a highest tantra empowerment. It does not imply that the examination be conducted from a distance. As potential tantric disciples, we might check possible tantric masters during the course of studying with them for several years first as our Mahayana masters. Similarly, before deciding to take refuge vows with possible mentors or to become their Mahayana disciples, we might examine their qualities while studying with them first as one of our Buddhism professors, Dharma instructors, or meditation or ritual trainers.

Tsarchen explained extrasensory perception as the most reliable tool for spiritual seekers and teachers to use for examining each other. A person's true qualities may lie hidden, inaccessible to ordinary observation. If seekers or teachers lack special powers, Tsarchen continued, they may try to surmise each other's character and talents through careful scrutiny. For confirmation, they also need to ask questions about each other from people who are valid sources of information. One must never rely merely on someone's fame, charm, or personal charisma. Sakya Pandita put it nicely in A Precious Treasury of Elegant Sayings: "The wise know by discerning themselves, while the foolish follow popular trends. When an old dog barks with a clamor, the others come running for no reason at all."

Since few people possess extrasensory perception, most spiritual seekers need to rely on careful scrutiny. Although the classical texts stress that appearances may be deceptive, we need to evaluate them as best as we can. Buddha gave an analogy regarding the dilemma in one of his sutras: "You may be unable to see a fish swimming in the depths of the sea, but you can sense its presence from ripples on the water's surface." Similarly, we may be unable to see the hidden qualities that a teacher has, but we can surmise their presence through indications from the person's behavior.

To acquaint ourselves with a potential teacher's behavior when we are total newcomers to Buddhism, we first ask others whose opinion we respect what they think of the person. If they report that he or she is a charlatan or a scoundrel, there is no need to waste further time. Similarly, we need to check the reliability of a Buddhist author before reading one of his or her books. For newcomers still unable to discriminate between what is and is not authentically Buddhist, attending the lecture of a disreputable teacher or reading a book by a questionable author may easily lead to following an unreliable spiritual path. It is better for newcomers to avoid such danger, if possible. Firsthand acquaintance with questionable teachers or authors is only helpful once we are securely on the Buddhist path, so that we will not be misled, and when newcomers seeking advice about spiritual teachers look to us as trustworthy sources of information.

If, as newcomers, we receive a favorable report about a teacher or an author, we may attend a class that the person gives, or read a book that he or she has written, without the danger of becoming confused or misled. Merely going to someone's lecture, however, or reading his or her book, does not make the person one of our spiritual teachers. Establishing a relationship, even with a Buddhism professor, requires a conscious intention to study with the person.

Many standard texts on relating to spiritual teachers, such as Kongtrul's Lamp for the Definitive Meaning, state that seekers need to regard anyone who has taught them even one verse of Dharma as one of their spiritual teachers. This does not refer to casually listening to a discourse on Dharma when merely attending a public talk or when merely sitting in on a university lecture. The point of the statement is that once we have confirmed and accepted a teacher or author as an authentic source, then hearing or reading even one verse of Dharma from the person is utterly precious.

We may further scrutinize a potential teacher by checking our intuitive feelings and other subtle indications. For example, Tibetans normally look at the following signs to determine if they have a karmic relation with a spiritual teacher. When you first meet the person or hear his or her name, do you feel anything special? When you first go to see or try to contact the teacher, do you find the person at home? Are there any favorable omens when you first meet, such as the sun coming out from behind the clouds? What type of dreams do you have after your meeting?

Not all these signs, however, appear in each case. Moreover, their presence or absence may be inconclusive. For example, the presence of a strong intuitive feeling may come from anticipation and an overactive imagination. The absence of an intuitive feeling may be due to a lack of sensitivity. To rely on intuitive feelings and subtle signs requires self-knowledge and a sober mind.

An additional point that we need to investigate is the potential teacher's relationship with the spiritual mentors we already have. Since most teachers lack expertise in everything that we may need to learn, study with a wide diversity of spiritual teachers may benefit us greatly. However, if we accept as an additional teacher someone antagonistic to one of our mentors, we inevitably experience a loyalty conflict, which endangers our progress. Even reading a book written by someone hostile to one of our mentors may cause us confusion. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has summed up the situation with an image. One's spiritual teachers need to fit harmoniously together to form an integrated working unit, as the multiple faces of a Buddha-figure do.

The Qualities of a Spiritual Seeker

To recognize a teacher's positive qualities, spiritual seekers need certain features. Kongtrul stated that without the qualities described by the Indian master Aryadeva in Four Hundred Stanzas, disciples would see only shortcomings even in the most talented master. Although Aryadeva's text belongs to the sutra literature, the qualities listed there pertain to all levels of spiritual seekers, from newcomers to tantric disciples. Common sense and experience confirm that anyone who wishes to learn something for someone needs these qualities.

First, seekers need to be open, which means being without attachment to personal opinions and without hostility toward other points of view. Otherwise, preconception and prejudice will blind them from recognizing a teacher's qualities. Second, spiritual seekers need common sense. They need to be able to distinguish between correct explanations and faulty ones. Third, seekers need strong interest in the Dharma. Unless finding a qualified teacher is vitally important to them, they will skip the effort to examine a candidate properly. Chandrakirti added in his commentary to Aryadeva's text that spiritual seekers also need appreciation and respect for the Dharma and for qualified teachers, and an attentive mind.

Thus, before searching for any level of spiritual teacher, we need to examine ourselves honestly. Most important is to scrutinize our motivation, aim, and openness to studying Buddhism with a teacher. Do we simply wish information from the person, or do we want to learn how to apply the Dharma to our lives or how to meditate? Are we seeking emotional well-being in this lifetime, or a fortunate rebirth, or liberation, or enlightenment? Pretending to be at more advanced levels than we actually are will benefit no one.

Further, we need to evaluate honestly our level of emotional maturity. For example, one of the tantric vows is not to disparage one's tantric master. Thus, as potential tantric disciples, we need the strength of character and emotional stability to remain sober-headed despite anything our tantric masters may say or do. If we find something disagreeable, we need the ability to remain calm and, without anger or recrimination, to see what we can learn from the situation. Thus, the Kadam Geshe Potowa stressed that, more than intelligence, a potential disciple needs good character and a kind heart. His advice is pertinent to forming a healthy relationship with any level of spiritual teacher.

Formalizing a Disciple-Mentor Relationship

Once we have thoroughly examined a potential spiritual teacher and ourselves and have decided that he or she is the proper person for us and that we are receptive and emotionally prepared, we are ready to establish a seeker-teacher relationship. In the case of studying with a spiritual teacher as a Buddhism professor, Dharma instructor, or meditation or ritual trainer, we formalize the relationship simply by enrolling in the class. The procedure is more complex when establishing a disciple-mentor relationship.

A spiritual teacher formally becomes one of our spiritual mentors through our taking refuge, liberation, bodhisattva, or tantric vows in his or her presence. Nothing further explicitly needs to be said or done. Taking vows with someone, however, requires seeking and requesting permission. When a great lama conducts a bodhisattva vow ceremony or confers a tantric empowerment to a large crowd, most people who attend do not have the opportunity beforehand to request permission in a private interview. The request and acceptance occur en masse as part of the ritual. If, however, a spiritual mentor confers vows in a more private setting, either separately from or as part of a tantric empowerment, we need to request and gain permission beforehand to attend.

Once we have committed ourselves with vows to the Buddhist path, we may study various sutra and tantra topics with other teachers whom we have also appropriately checked. Although we might not immediately take vows in their presence, these teachers also become our mentors by virtue simply of our study with them. If, however, we wish to formalize the relationship, we would ask to take bodhisattva and/or tantric vows in their presence at the earliest opportunity – either publicly as part of a mass ceremony or privately if this is possible.

Expectations in a Disciple-Mentor Relationship

Establishing a disciple-mentor relationship with a teacher, with or without taking vows in his or her presence, does not necessarily mean that we go to the person privately for personal advice. Except for occasionally visiting to offer a ceremonial scarf of respect (kata, kha-btags) or to make some other small offering, many Tibetan disciples have never spoken privately with any of their mentors other than those in whose houses they might live. From a Tibetan point of view, asking about personal meditation practice, even from a lama with whom we live, implies a pretentious, self-important attitude. It gives the impression that we consider ourselves great practitioners. Tibetans highly value humility, especially concerning spiritual matters.

Of course, if a Tibetan actually were a serious practitioner, he or she would seek meditation advice from a mentor. Tibetans, however, have a much higher standard of who qualifies as a serious practitioner than do most Westerners. The mentor consulted would normally be one of the meditator's root gurus. There is no need for all one's mentors to play the same role in one's spiritual life. Primarily, a Tibetan meditator would ask which intensive practice to do next after having completed a retreat. Similarly, he or she might ask which texts to read or which other lamas to consult to supplement his or her meditation. Unless specifically asked by their mentors, most Tibetans would be too humble to disclose their meditation experiences before a great master.

Tibetans are also far shyer to discuss their personal affairs, especially concerning relationships or emotional problems, than are most Westerners. Generally, they avoid discussing such matters with their spiritual mentors. The only situation in which Tibetans would normally consult a mentor about a private matter would be to request a divination with dice (mo, mo). Typically, they would ask for a prognostication to determine which rituals to commission and sponsor for eliminating obstacles for a journey or for a business or medical problem.

When a Western spiritual seeker establishes a disciple-mentor relationship with a teacher, he or she often expects a more personal relationship than would a Tibetan. This is in keeping with the emphasis on individuality that is a defining characteristic of Western culture. Asian civilizations, by contrast, place more accent on family, group, or cultural identity. On a more enlightened level, Asians stress the importance of the "here and now." For example, I spent nine years with my root guru, Serkong Rinpoche, as his disciple, interpreter, and English secretary. Although our relationship was extremely close, Rinpoche never once asked me a personal question about my background, family, or private life. I often describe the relationship as "personal impersonal." We dealt only with what was relevant to the moment.

In establishing a disciple relationship with a traditional Tibetan mentor, then, a Westerner needs to be sensitive to the culture. Especially inappropriate is to ask a monk or a nun about marital or sexual problems. In establishing a disciple relationship with a Western spiritual mentor, on the other hand, a Westerner might appropriately ask for personal advice about private emotional problems or initial meditation practice. A mentor, however, is not the equivalent of a confessor or a cheap psychiatrist to whom we reveal each week every detail of our lives. Nor is a mentor a fortuneteller to whom we turn for divination concerning all personal decisions. The Buddhist custom is to seek guidance primarily from the teachings themselves.

A spiritual mentor helps to lead a disciple in the right direction. If a mentor were to solve all our problems for us, we would never grow. The point of entering a disciple-mentor relationship, after all, is to gain spiritual and emotional maturity through developing our discriminating abilities and the warmth of our hearts.