March 19, 2014

Enlightening Conversations: The Student-Teacher Dynamic

A discussion with clinical and Buddhist practitioners Polly Young-Eisendrath and Pilar Jennings

In this exclusive conversation, a psychoanalyst and a relational psychoanalyst—both practicing Buddhists—discuss the emotional dynamics of religious practice, the psychological complexities of student-teacher relationships, and the issues surrounding the idealization of teachers within Buddhist communities.

Polly Young-Eisendrath, a Jungian analyst and mindfulness teacher, and Pilar Jennings, a lecturer at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University, will both speak at our upcoming conference, Enlightening Conversations, a new series exploring the intersection of Buddhism and psychoanalysis. Join us this May for the first in the series, "Opportunities and Obstacles in Human Awakening."

For more on Buddhism, psychoanalysis, and student-teacher dynamics, read Jennings' “Looking into the Eyes of a Master” in the latest issue of Tricycle.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

The psyche is identified in Buddhism as the Buddha nature.

d.dagostino's picture

Actually, the psyche as understood in Jungian psychology is the totality of mental experience, conscious and unconscious. Buddha nature, as I understand it, is not really analogous -- only a part of the psyche, but a deeper part, if there were a part of the psyche that was actually real, clear, and knowing. But even that is a pretty unsatisfactory comparison.

I've always found it interesting that Jung used say that the psyche was so fluid that you could never really pin down it's nature -- that the second you started to put together a theory of mind, you were beginning to move away from the truth. It's almost as if he intuited the idea of psyche as true on the conventional level but as ultimately empty of inherent existence.


Dominic Gomez's picture

Psyche would be transient ripples on the surface of the ocean. Buddha nature would be the ocean itself. Jung was on the scent with his "collective unconscious" as the common ground of all human beings. Buddhism expands this interconnected oneness with our universe.

d.dagostino's picture

I think the focus on the teacher-student relationship in Western (not just American) Buddhism is misplaced here. Isn't a more fundamental problem the tendency of practitioners to let the Dharma to inflate their egos, rather than seeing that the ego itself don't exist inherently? In Asia, monastic rules and traditions (and yes, even guru disciple relationships) evolved towards keeping egos in check. We don't have this in the West. Teachers can suffer from inflated egos and be abusive towards students -- in the same way students with inflated egos and expectations can be abusive towards teachers (something you don't hear much about but I think is in fact just as big an issue).

Perhaps what we really need in the West is to evolve practices that keep this issue in the forefront of everyone's practice. For example, I know that many Jungian analysts will see other analysts to help them deal with counter-transference issues, and I know that some Tibetan lamas will seek advice from other lamas. For their part, students need to be aware that, regardless of the tradition they are practicing, the only really worthwhile goal is realizing the emptiness of self, and that letting the practice inflate your ego is only pushing further from this. In other words, Dharma practitioners in the West can, in the spirit of lojong, embrace the issue of ego inflation as the path itself.

D.'s picture

Students, as well as teachers, have a responsibility to see the others humanity as well as their wisdom and aspirations.

cckelsey's picture

The guru-disciple relationship seems to inherently involve the principle of obedience, except in unconventional cases. Traditionally obedience is seen as a virtue, and I can see how it could be seen as a blessing if you are placed in a spiritually elite part of the world. However, with contemporary globalization, I doubt there are few Eastern enclaves isolated enough where it can still be considered safe to don a attitude of gullibility when it comes to following a guru. Without sharp discrimination and the willingness to potentially disobey, you'd have little ability to resist a wolf donning the cloak of a shepherd, and before you know it the Simon Says has gone from healthy yoga to "Hail Hitler."