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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 III: Unhealthy Relationships
with Spiritual Teachers

13 Overdependence and Rebellion

Avoiding Overdependence on Others for Spiritual Energy

Even after committing oneself to a spiritual path and establishing a disciple-mentor relationship, maintaining energy and motivation in one's spiritual practice may often present a challenge. Thus, seekers need a variety of ways to help lift themselves from the inevitable moments of feeling uninspired and unmotivated. The classical texts recommend staying in close contact with other practitioners and with spiritual teachers when one finds oneself in need of support. Also helpful for raising spiritual energy may be thinking of loved ones or the needy, or perhaps recalling a spiritual journey to Asia.

Although such methods may temporarily lift our spirits to a certain extent, our energy may remain mostly low, especially when we are primarily on our own. The problem may be overdependence on external factors, particularly an unhealthy overdependence on others. Although being in a supportive environment and keeping good company may help to provide circumstances conducive for sustaining a spiritual practice, they are not enough. Ultimately, the motivating emotion and uplifting energy for self-transformation must come from within.

The Connections Sutra clearly indicated this fact: "Buddhas cannot wash away others' negative potentials, nor remove their suffering like one would pull out a thorn from a foot. They cannot transfer their realizations to anyone. They can only indicate the way by teaching about reality." Psychotherapy makes the same point. No matter what a therapist might do, insight and understanding must come from the side of the client.

We may also infer this truth from an explanation that Sakya Pandita gave in The Profound Path of Guru-Yoga concerning the previously cited analogy of the sun, a magnifying glass, and kindling. Without a magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun, the heat of the sun by itself cannot bring kindling to the flame. Nevertheless, the energy of fire ultimately comes from the potential of the kindling to burn. Similarly, without a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor to focus the waves of the Buddhas' inspiration, the energy of the waves by itself cannot spark a disciple to enlightenment. Nevertheless, the energy of enlightenment ultimately comes from the networks of good qualities, positive potentials, and deep awareness within a disciple. On the deepest level, the energy comes from a disciple's inner guru - his or her clear light mind.

Moreover, Sakya Pandita continued, if kindling is damp or stacked in disorder, it will not catch fire. Similarly, if a disciple's mind is unruly or soggy with irrelevant thoughts, preconceptions, or doubts, it will not come to blaze with inspiration. Effects arise dependently from a combination of causes and factors.

Cultural Factors in Western and Tibetan Overdependence

Many people in the West find life overwhelmingly complex and confusing. Because anxiety, tension, and worry fill their minds, they cannot find inner sources of strength. The kindling is wet and in disarray. Their emotional states are unstable and nothing inspires them. With typical Western low self-esteem, they are unsure of themselves. Afraid of making mistakes, some may want to give the responsibility for decisions to others. They desperately long for someone to know what is happening and to take care of everything, like an ideal father or God.

Some may join the army so that they simply need to follow orders and not think for themselves. Those who are more spiritually inclined may turn to a Dharma center. Although their spiritual longing may be genuine, the emotional and cultural baggage that they bring along may cause them to seek relationships with spiritual teachers as father or authority figures. They may wish to establish such relationships to enable them to give up responsibility for making decisions in their lives. Many hope that this will make life easier and solve their problems.

Westerners who enter this type of overdependency relationship, however, do so only on a voluntary basis. No one likes to be forced to obey someone else. If people have chosen to submit themselves to another person, and they have chosen the individual to whom they submit, they usually feel comfortable with the situation.

"Biblical thinking" may unconsciously contribute to this typically Western pattern of behavior. For example, the concept of original sin may foster a feeling of inherent guilt and low self-opinion. Consequently, someone might feel that taking a wrong decision in life would prove his or her unworthiness and might lead to being further rejected as a bad person, as if being further cast out from paradise. It feels safer to let someone else make one's decisions.

Moreover, modern Western customs of child rearing may reinforce a doctrinally supported feeling of rejection or abandonment because of something being inherently wrong with oneself, or they may foster such feelings by themselves. Many Western mothers no longer breastfeed their babies, carry them on their backs all day, or sleep with them at night as mothers in traditional societies do. Instead, they feed their babies with bottles, keep them in playpens, strollers, or day care while awake, and leave them alone in cribs at night. From the babies' viewpoints, they have been cast out from paradise. Consequently, insufficient body contact as a baby may lead not only to the culturally specific modern Western syndrome of alienation from one's body and feelings, but also to an unconscious longing for acceptance, affection, and even redemption. Westerner spiritual seekers caught in these syndromes sometimes turn to spiritual teachers in the unconscious hope of satisfying these needs. The urgency of their unconscious drives may lead to overdependence.

Occasionally, overdependent Western seekers encounter Tibetans who are also overly dependent on spiritual masters and they may justify their own behavior on this basis. The cultural influences and psychology behind the traditional Tibetan form of overdependence on a spiritual teacher, however, differ significantly from those behind the typical Western pattern. Many Tibetans, like other Asians, shy away from accepting responsibility for taking decisions because they fear losing face in their communities or disgracing their families if they fail. Thus, social and familial considerations, rather than individual ones, drive them to give responsibility to lamas for their decisions.

Moreover, Tibetans would typically choose not just any lama with whom to have this type of overdependence relationship, but would turn to the lamas or Rinpoches who head the monasteries in their local regions. This happens even among Tibetans in exile, where geographic limitations on the choice of lama do not pertain. Again, social and communal factors affect a Tibetan's decision, and not individual preferences as in the case of Westerners. Moreover, Tibetans do not feel forced to choose the lamas of their local regions: they feel the choice is naturally fitting according to social norms. Group or individual pressure is hardly needed.

Whether an overdependence relationship with a spiritual teacher arises within a Western or a Tibetan sociopsychological context, such a relationship is fundamentally unhealthy. It does not foster the maturity that a spiritual path to liberation and enlightenment seeks to develop. Certainly, a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor entails consulting a teacher for advice concerning spiritual matters. It also entails deriving inspiration from the person. A spiritual mentor, however, is not God, an all-powerful father or mother, or a feudal lord. He or she cannot solve all our problems for us. Obedient submission or subservient deference to a mentor's will, even when made on a voluntary basis, can neither redeem us nor make up for having been seemingly abandoned by our parents as children because we were bad or had something wrong with us. Nor can it exempt us from responsibility for failure or from losing face. Spiritual seekers, whether Western or Tibetan, who suffer from an overdependence syndrome need to focus on their Buddha-natures and work on clearing their relationships with their spiritual teachers from this unhealthy aspect.

Overdependence Based on a Western Orientation toward Ethics

In Establishing Method and Discriminating Awareness, the greatly accomplished Indian yogi Anangavajra explained how to gain inspiration in a healthy manner from a spiritual mentor. One of the most important factors is the strength of character that comes from keeping one's vows and close bonds with ethical practice. The self-rule that comes from maintaining ethical self-discipline provides the maturity and stability needed to gain inspiration from a mentor without becoming overdependent. This is because the basis for Buddhist ethics is discriminating awareness. By discriminating between the benefits and disadvantages of various actions, practitioners restrain from destructive conduct that will cause only harm. Being ethical, then, depends entirely on oneself.

Western cultures, in contrast, derive their ethics from a mixture of Biblical and ancient Greek thought. Consequently, they base their ethics on obedience to authority. In obeying laws either commanded by God or promulgated by legislature, one becomes an ethical person. A Western sense of ethics, then, often promotes psychological dependence on gaining approval and reward from authority and avoiding its censure and punishment. Thus, many Western spiritual seekers experience that their discipline to meditate, for example, comes from the unconscious wish to be good disciples and to gain the approval of their mentors. When the energy for spiritual practice derives from a mentor's inspiring guilt and fear of rejection, rather than inspiring self-confident resolve, the disciple-mentor relationship has become unhealthy.

Overdependence on Guided Meditation

Part of the discipline in Tibetan monastic institutions is maintaining a strict schedule of daily, monthly, and annual assemblies. At set times throughout the day and night, the monks and nuns convene, sometimes all together, sometimes in smaller groups, to recite prayers and to chant and perform tantric rituals. Each monastery and nunnery, and each of its subdivisions, are responsible for the regular periodic performance of a specific set of prayers and rituals from the lineage. The tantric ritual texts describe series of visualizations, as well as desired mental states, such as bodhichitta and the understanding of voidness. While chanting together, the participants try to visualize and enter the states that they are reciting. The abbot or abbess and various lamas may attend, but only as participants sitting in the front row on slightly raised seats; a chant master leads the choral recitation. No one sits facing the group and leading the ritual, either by describing the procedures at the start of the session or by guiding it step by step.

Although participation in group recitation of monastic rituals involves meditation, most Tibetan monks and nuns have additional daily personal practices, which they do on their own. Their private practices usually include chanting and performing further tantric rituals and, for some, sitting in silent meditation. Similarly, Tibetan lay practitioners also meditate on their own. Traditional Tibetan Buddhism does not employ the custom of silent group meditation, either with or without a leader. Consequently, when traditional Tibetan masters first come to the West and are asked to lead group meditations, many have no idea what the Western students are talking about.

Tibetans learn to meditate by having a teacher explain the instructions and then by practicing alone in their rooms. The teacher hardly ever meditates with the students, even at the beginning stages of the training. In contrast, most Westerners need someone to meditate with them at first, to help them overcome the confusion and barriers that may arise from engaging in a practice from a foreign culture. Thus, most Westerners inevitably begin to meditate in a group that is led by a teacher.

Many Westerners, however, lack the discipline to meditate on their own after learning the basics. Therefore, they find that continued group meditation, especially when led by a teacher, helps them to build beneficial habits. Whether the meditation is silent or involves group chanting of a ritual, they find it helpful for a teacher to sit in front each time, to describe the procedure at the beginning, and then to meditate with them throughout the session. Moreover, those bewildered by some of the more complex silent practices find guided meditation particularly useful. Using his or her own words, a teacher describes in stages the visualizations, understandings, and feelings that students are trying to generate. As they listen, the meditators try to imagine and feel these things while suspending any extraneous, independent thoughts. Habitual reliance, however, on any form of group meditation may sometimes lead to overdependence on these styles of practice and on the teachers who lead them.

In most cases, teachers lead meditation for benevolent purposes. However, since led meditation works by the power of suggestion, particularly when silent meditation is guided step by step, a teacher with a tendency toward abusing power may contribute to the overdependence. The abuse may take a gross, devious form if motivated by the self-serving wish for control, such as when a teacher tries to manipulate disciples to worship the guru by including images of him or herself in the visualization. In extreme cases, the leader of a cult may even use led meditation to brainwash followers to commit mass suicide at the impending end of the world. In more subtle and benign cases of exploitation of power, a teacher may sincerely wish to benefit disciples. Yet, an unconscious drive to gain energy and fulfillment from helping others in an active demonstrable way may underlie the person's overuse of led meditation.

There is no doubt that the directive energy of a charismatic teacher and a group dynamic may contribute to our gaining initial meditative experiences as novice practitioners. Most newcomers, in fact, find difficulty in learning meditation without such direction. Spiritual development through meditation, however, needs to be self-sustaining. Once we gain a certain level of discipline and experience through group meditation led by a teacher, however, we need to strengthen that discipline and experience through solitary practice. Otherwise, we risk the danger of becoming addicted to led meditation, as if it were a recreational drug. By being mindful of these points from the start, we may avoid the pitfalls of becoming overdependent on a teacher, or even on tape cassettes, for meditation practice.

Moreover, we need to examine both our own motivations and those of teachers for participating in led meditation. Even if the teacher is trying to gain power from directing others, we may derive the benefit of led meditation by having sufficient clarity of purpose. If a teacher is trying to brainwash spiritual seekers into negative ways of thinking, we need to recognize the syndrome and withdraw. If, however, the teacher has an overprotective or manipulative approach to helping seekers gain positive ways of thinking, we may include this shortcoming in the section of sutra-level guru-meditation that concerns focusing on the mentor's faults.

Overdependence on Having All Questions Answered for Oneself

Buddha used many methods for leading disciples along the spiritual path. Sometimes when disciples asked questions, Buddha employed the Socratic approach of querying back. The purpose was to help them to gain insight and to answer the question through their own powers of reasoning. Alternatively, Buddha gave only partial answers and hinted at the rest. This style also encouraged disciples to figure out the answers through reason or personal experience. Occasionally, Buddha used enigmatic means and answered with paradoxes or with seemingly irrelevant statements, which might shock disciples into deeper levels of understanding. In response to other questions, Buddha remained silent. Any answer that he might have given would have confused disciples whose preconceptions were still too thick to understand fully. Certain questions, however, Buddha answered clearly, precisely, and authoritatively, to dispel confusion. Thus, Buddha was a master of "skillful means."

Qualified spiritual mentors employ the same range of methods as Buddha used for leading disciples and for answering questions. Sometimes, however, teachers may give authoritarian rather than authoritative answers. This may discourage free enquiry and thought. Rather than helping disciples to develop the powers of discrimination and reason, such teachers may encourage overdependence by giving categorical answers to all questions. The situation depends on the conscious and unconscious motivations of the teachers and on their levels of proficiency in using skillful means.

Certain spiritual seekers may be prone to dependency on dogmatic teachers. They find life so confusing, that they want everything to be clear-cut and certain. They do not wish to think for themselves. Such an attitude, however, is not conducive for spiritual growth. Therefore, if spiritual teachers give only partial or enigmatic answers to questions, we need to understand that this is a teaching method. Appreciating the method helps to avoid frustration and impatience with unsatisfying answers. If, on the other hand, teachers try to stifle our minds, we need to remember Buddha's advice in A Sutra on [Pure Realms] Spread Out in a Dense Array: "Do not accept my Dharma merely out of respect for me, but analyze and check it the way a goldsmith analyzes gold, by rubbing, cutting and melting it."

The Issue of Submission

Some Westerners enter relationships with spiritual teachers along the model of Catholic nuns who marry Jesus and vow total unquestioning obedience to higher authority. They feel that if they surrender, open their hearts, and let their mentors act through them, they will be able to serve the world. On a psychological level, this syndrome sometimes derives from low self-esteem and from feelings that self-worth comes from "belonging" to a spiritually superior being. Although the syndrome is more typical of women spiritual seekers in relation to male teachers, it often arises also in men.

Voluntary submission to an idealized person and the wish to belong to someone greater than themselves may easily open spiritual seekers to various forms of abuse. If abused, either sexually or in less severe ways, the experience may reinforce low self-opinions: they may feel that they deserved the bad treatment. Alternatively, the abuse may cause them subsequently to close their hearts to anyone else. On the surface, submission may seem like a loss of ego and therefore a Buddhist virtue. However, if the submission is for unconsciously gaining a sense of self-worth and for self-affirmation through belonging to someone greater, it undermines rather than strengthens a healthy sense of self. A feeling of self-worth comes primarily from acknowledging one's own potentials and from using them to benefit others as much as one can.

Moreover, Western disciples who presume that Buddhism shares the Biblical approach to ethics may mistakenly imagine that Tibetan lamas morally judge them. This may lead to inappropriately introducing the concept of guilt into the dynamics of the relationship. If students fail to do everything their mentors ask, they feel guilty and unworthy. Therefore, fearing rejection because of being "bad disciples," they feel they must submit without question and always obey.

From a Buddhist standpoint, behavioral cause and effect function without a higher authority passing judgment. A person avoids destructive behavior not because of fear of punishment, but because of wishing to avoid the suffering that unhealthy behavior brings. As explained above, obedience to laws created by God or promulgated by an elected legislature is a culturally specific virtue, not a universal one.

A healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor, then, does not entail submission or belonging to the mentor. Nor does it entail guilt-based obedience. One must differentiate clearly between being a mentor's disciple and belonging to a mentor.

Gender Prejudice

The position of women in most traditional Asian societies is inferior to that of men. Prejudice was so rampant in ancient Indian society during Buddha's time, for example, that to avoid disdain by a patriarchal society, Buddha and his followers even codified gender bias in the monastic rules of discipline. Thus, numerous traditional Tibetan mentors, particularly monks, share the legacy of this prejudice, either consciously or unconsciously, despite Buddha's teaching that the mind has no inherent gender. Their overt or subtle denigration of women often humiliates and discourages Western female students. The situation frequently leads to major blocks in the spiritual progress of these women.

Complaining about the prejudice and campaigning for traditional Tibetans to change their values often bring only more frustration, bitterness, and anger. As when dwelling on any conventional fault of a mentor, fixating on a teacher's gender bias is counterproductive. Although making traditional Tibetan teachers aware of the suffering that their attitudes cause women disciples is extremely important, expecting sudden revolutionary change may be unrealistic. On the other hand, denying the prejudice or repressing feelings of humiliation and pain undermines the spiritual and emotional health of the disciple.

Sutra-level guru-meditation suggests an approach that may help during the interim before sexual equality comes to the spiritual sphere. If our mentors suffer from gender prejudice, we need first to admit to ourselves that they have this shortcoming. Even if our mentors cannot or will not acknowledge their biases as faults, our open acknowledgement of them helps to assuage the pain. Next, we need to focus on the fact that this fault in the mentors is devoid of existing as an inherent flaw, but has arisen dependently on various cultural and personal factors. This understanding may allow us then to focus on our mentors' good qualities and kindness and, consequently, to derive the benefits obtainable from the relationship.

The Influence of Ancient Greek Thought on Being an Individual

Another unconscious influence on Western thought is the image of the hero challenging the supremacy of the gods, which comes from ancient Greece. In accord with this image, many Westerners, both male and female, feel inwardly driven to rebel against authority and tradition. This may manifest in several ways.

Westerners may seek to establish their equality by proving their creativity and strength as independent individuals. Thus, some may rebel against the traditions of their parents or society and join Dharma centers as an unconscious way to assert their individualities. One need not be on one's own to assert one's individuality: people feel they assert it by following alternative fashions or by joining alternative movements. Unconscious rebellious motives, however, may jeopardize the chances of a healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher.

For example, some disciples may avoid or reject their mentors' continuing guidance once they feel they have spiritually "grown up." Spiritual mentors teach disciples to stand on their own two feet and to make enlightened decisions based on compassion and wisdom. Nevertheless, making spiritually mature decisions does not necessitate inevitably rejecting one's mentor and his or her advice as a threat to one's independence or individuality. Thus, if hubris drives disciples to rebel against restrictions, they inevitably come into conflict with their mentors.

The culturally supported drive to challenge and surpass accepted standards of competence may also manifest as an unconscious drive to achieve enlightenment and become the perfect mentor in order to excel and outdo everyone – as if training to win the Olympics. This may lead to competition with one's mentor, and cultural chauvinism may reinforce the syndrome. For example, some disciples and even some insufficiently qualified spiritual teachers may arrogantly feel that a modern Western approach to Buddhism is obviously superior to outdated, superstitious traditional ways. They believe that, by using this approach, they may, in fact, become greater masters than their mentors are. A healthy disciple-mentor relationship, however, requires humble appreciation of the mentor's kindness and profound respect for his or her qualities, even after becoming a Buddha oneself.

Tension over the Freedom to Be Creative

The Tibetan concept of creativity differs greatly from the Western idea. For traditional Tibetans, as with most Asian cultures, creativity comes in harmoniously applying a traditional motif to an individual circumstance. In temple architecture, for example, one seeks to fit classic designs to new landscape settings. The Western concept of creativity, on the other hand, is to invent something new – and not only new, but also frequently something better in some sense than anything previously done. In a Western cultural context, then, being creative is a means to establish one's uniqueness as an individual and may hint at a competitive motive behind it. Alternatively, or in combination with this motive, the Western creative drive may be fueled by an obsessive, individual pursuit of ideal beauty, unconsciously equated with truth and goodness. The concepts are distinctly legacies of ancient Greek thought.

Moreover, Indo-Tibetan cosmology sees present history as a gradual degeneration of the times rather than as an evolutionary process of inevitable progress. Therefore, traditional Tibetans view unique new ideas with suspicion rather than with excitement at the prospect of improvement.

Western disciples who lack appreciation of these cultural differences concerning creativity sometimes wish to rebel against traditional Tibetan mentors who discourage inventiveness with the Dharma. Tibetan Buddhism, however, does allow for innovative approaches, in the form of skillful means. After all, Buddha emphasized the need to teach Dharma in manners that effectively suit different personalities and cultures. Teaching or doing something in a new manner, however, is for benefiting others, not for asserting one's unique and superior creativity, or for expressing one's individuality, or for finding the most elegant solution. If we keep this distinction in mind and sort out our motivations for change, we may avoid feeling our individualities threatened when working with traditional Tibetan teachers.