Filed in Devotion

Practical Advice Regarding Spiritual Teachers

Alexander Berzin

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When the spiritual seeker and the teacher come from different cultures, accommodations on both sides are required. But can guru devotion--essential to Tibetan Buddhism and one of the most problematic issues for Westerners--find its place in the West? This question becomes particularly thorny in the United States, where mistrust of authority is historically indigenous and confusion about "the guru" runs rampant. In his new book, Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship (Snow Lion, 2000), Alexander Berzin, Buddhist scholar, translator, and practitioner, maps out this problematic territory with encyclopedic precision and offers practical advice. This excerpt has been adapted from several different chapters for Tricycle.


courtesy Michael BuckleyThe Initial Interaction

The phenomenon of Western Dharma centers—and the arrival of many Tibetan teachers—began in the mid-1970s. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was raging in Tibet, and destruction of the monasteries that had begun in 1959 was nearly complete. Many Tibetan refugees had witnessed India's border war with China in 1962 and its wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. Indian authorities, unable to support the millions of Bangladeshi refugees they had initially accepted, had sent them back and might easily do the same with Tibetans. Due to tensions in Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan, Tibetan refugees felt insecure there and looked for safer havens in case of emergency.

Several older Tibetan teachers had moved to the West at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s. They had kept a low teaching profile, primarily associated with universities. A few younger Tibetan lamas, however, had also come to the West in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mostly to receive a modern education. Responding to the growing thirst for spiritual guidance, they began to teach Buddhism by the mid-1970s, with some using nontraditional, adaptive methods. They soon invited their own teachers from India and Nepal to tour the West and to inspire their students.

Initially, these great Tibetan masters mostly conducted rituals and tantric initiations. Their primary motivation was to plant seeds of positive potential in the minds of those attending, so that they would reap beneficial results in future lives. But most Westerners had little if any thought of improving future lives. Most came out of curiosity, to fulfill their fantasies of the mystical East, or to find a miracle cure for their problems. The exotic splendor of the rituals enchanted many, and Tibetan Buddhism soon became a fad.

In response to both Western interest and mounting insecurity felt in India and surrounding countries, many Tibetan teachers from both older and younger generations thought to establish a base in the West. Most who came founded their own Dharma centers. No such phenomenon had existed before in the history of Buddhism. Previously, teachers who traveled to lands that were new to Buddhism established only monasteries, not meditation and study facilities for laypeople.

Some of the more dynamic teachers attracted groups in several cities and countries. To meet the growing demand, a few invited geshes and lamas from the Tibetan communities in the Himalayas to live and teach at their centers. Most of these junior teachers would have remained unnoticed in Tibet; circumstances, however, thrust them into positions of spiritual authority normally reserved for those of much higher attainment.

The head lamas and abbots in Tibetan Buddhism do not serve as supervisors for those under their care. Their primary role is to preside over ceremonies and, if a monastic, to ordain monks and nuns. Thus, isolated from their peers and teachers and lacking any checks or balances, many junior teachers in the West adopted a mode of behavior familiar from pre-communist Tibet—they assumed the role of benevolent lord of a spiritual fiefdom to be supported and served with loyal devotion.

On the other side, Western students who returned from India and Nepal mimicked the behavior they had seen Tibetan disciples show toward the highest masters there. When traditional teachings on so-called “guru devotion” and the extremely advanced practice of seeing the mentor as a Buddha were only superficially explained, further confusion was created.

With a new millennium at hand, many Westerners called for a purely Western Buddhism, free of irrelevant religious and cultural trappings of the East. Differentiating the essence from the trappings, however, is never simple. People sometimes discard important factors in haste, without deeply examining the possible effects. Consequently, furious debate flared up between “traditionalists” and “modernists” within the Western Buddhist community. Debates included the language to use for performing ritual practices and the place of belief in rebirth in following the Buddhist path.

Today, the student-teacher relationship as understood and developed in the West needs reexamination. However, any approach at restructuring needs to avoid two extremes. The first is justifying the deification of the teacher to the point that it encourages a cult mentality and whitewashes abuse. The second is justifying the demonization of the teacher to the point that paranoia and distrust prevent the benefits to be gained from a healthy disciple-mentor relationship. In trying to prevent the first extreme, we need great care not to fall to the second.

Courtesy Wisdom PublicationsThe Rectification of Names

Classical Chinese philosophy teaches that difficulties often come from confusion about names. Confucius therefore called for a “rectification of names.” We may extend this principle to spiritual teachers and seekers. If we are sloppy with our use of terms and let anyone call him or herself a guru or a disciple, we open ourselves to unfortunate relationships.

In Personal Instructions from My Totally Excellent Teacher, the outspoken nineteenth-century Nyingma master Patrul indicated that spiritual seekers need to take responsibility themselves. Charlatans and scoundrels may present themselves as great teachers. They may even have professionals launch effective advertising campaigns for their books and lecture tours. Nevertheless, it is up to the public to become their followers. If we set the standards, we will not let imitations fool us.

The most well-known Sanskrit term for a spiritual teacher is guru. Although in several Western countries, the word guru negatively connotes the head of a cult, the term literally means someone weighty with qualifications. Gu is short for guna, good qualities, and ru stands for ruchi, a collection. Moreover, gurus are sublime beings, since u stands for uttara, meaning supreme.

The Tibetans translated guru as lama. La means unsurpassable or sublime, while ma means mother. Lamas resemble mothers in that they have given birth internally to what is sublime. Moreover, lamas help others to give birth to a similar state.

As that which is unsurpassed, la refers to bodhichitta—a heart fully focused on enlightenment and totally dedicated to achieving it to benefit others. It derives from love and compassion. Enlightenment is the highest level of spiritual self-development possible, reached with the elimination of every negative trait and with the realization of every positive quality. With its actualization comes Buddhahood and the ability to help others as fully as is possible. Ma connotes wisdom, the mother of all spiritual attainments. Lamas, then, combine a totally dedicated heart with wisdom and are able to lead others to a similar achievement.

The original meaning of a lama, then, is a highly advanced spiritual teacher. Such persons are fully capable of guiding disciples along the entire Buddhist path, all the way to enlightenment. To rectify problems in student-teacher relationships, a spiritual teacher needs to live up to this meaning of the names guru and lama.

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Patricia.I's picture

This is a very subtle article and I am very grateful for its having been posted.

This passage is a meditation unto itself:

“Thus, the practice of seeing one’s tantric mentor as a Buddha in no way negates the conventional validity of appearances. An appearance of an abusive spiritual mentor as having inherent flaws is ultimately invalid because inherent existence, independent of anything, is impossible. No one is inherently bad. Nevertheless, the appearance may be conventionally valid concerning the fact that the behavior of the abusive teacher has caused suffering. All Tibetan traditions accept a valid distinction between accurate and distorted conventional truths.”
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A black-and-white attitude is easy to adopt in the face of distorted conventional boundaries especially when they have been transgressed by the teacher. However, given that nothing is absolute, and that seeing into this is such an important part of practice, such an attitude does not in the end help either teacher or student cultivate an open heart. On the contrary, it tends to moralism and legalism.

Sometimes silence is the only way to contain all of the ambiguities beyond good and evil and, in this silence, to find the spaciousness to embrace with love the one who has “turned the seeker’s heart and mind” to the Dharma.