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.

Other Uses of the Word Lama

Tibetan Buddhism developed four major traditions - Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug - and spread beyond Tibet to the other Himalayan regions, Mongolia, parts of Siberia, and several other Central Asian cultures. Because of this diversity, the word lama gradually acquired other meanings. One source of confusion about so-called “guru-devotion” comes from thinking that the practice applies to lamas unilaterally.

Many serious practitioners of the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions enter a three-year meditation retreat. During this period, they train in the major Buddha-figure (yidam, deity) systems of their lineage, spend several weeks or months on each tantra system, master its rituals, and familiarize themselves with its meditation practice. The heads of some subdivisions of these lineages have recently started the custom of granting lama as a title to the most proficient graduates of a retreat. In the Gelug tradition, monks who successfully complete rigorous training at one of the tantric monastic colleges near Lhasa receive the name lama, specifically tantric lama, although they do not use the name as a title.

In both cases, lama signifies a ritual master. Although the person has trained in meditation, he or she has not necessarily achieved any spiritual attainment. Nor is the person necessarily qualified to lead others through the Buddhist path. Nevertheless, the person can perform rituals correctly and can instruct others to do so. Among the Tibetans, such lamas serve somewhat like village priests. They travel from village to village and perform rituals for people in their homes.

Persons who are lamas by virtue simply of being ritual masters command respect, but they are not the persons to whom the classical disciple-mentor relationship refers.

Buddha's First SermonThe Different Types of Spiritual Teachers and Seekers

People at Western Dharma centers often have difficulty relating to spiritual teachers, even properly qualified ones, and are confused by the teaching that they must regard spiritual teachers as Buddhas. They may think that they need to regard all teachers in this way and that they must do so from the start.

To help dispel this confusion, we need to differentiate levels among spiritual teachers. Let us call someone who conveys information about Buddha’s teachings from a withdrawn perspective a “Buddhism professor.” Someone, on the other hand, who imparts the teachings from the point of view of his or her personal experience, shall be named a “Dharma instructor.” A person who trains others in the pragmatic aspects of meditation or ritual practice, we shall call a “meditation or ritual trainer.”

“Spiritual mentor” shall be used for someone who leads others to liberation or enlightenment. Spiritual mentors include “refuge or vow preceptors,” who confer refuge or liberation vows, and “Mahayana masters,” who teach the methods for developing bodhichitta and confer bodhisattva vows. “Tantric master” shall apply to a spiritual mentor who confers initiations and tantric vows. The teacher who turns a seeker’s heart and mind most strongly to the Dharma, we shall refer to as a “root guru.” Most frequently, our root guru is one of our tantric masters.

In conjunction with each type of spiritual teacher, we may formulate a corresponding spiritual seeker. The term “disciple” refers exclusively to those who train for liberation or enlightenment with a spiritual mentor, and certainly not to a newcomer at a Dharma center. Although the purpose of the relationship between any level of spiritual seeker and teacher is to gain inspiration for following the spiritual path, the classical textual presentations of the relationship speak only about disciples and mentors. They do not pertain to prior levels of either of the two.

Seeing All One’s Teachers as Buddhas

Both the sutras and tantras say that we need to regard equally as a Buddha anyone who taught us even one verse of Dharma and someone who taught us the entire spiritual path. In Liberation in the Palm of Our Hand, the early twentieth-century Gelug fundamentalist Pabongka cited the meditation master Drubkang Geleg-gyatso as having been unable to receive any realization until he could see the pure appearance of the disrobed nun who taught him to read. Westerners frequently have difficulty with this example because they interpret it to mean that unless they see their kindergarten teacher as a Buddha, they will not make progress on the spiritual path. Although seeing everyone as a Buddha is helpful for realizing Buddha-nature, the instructions on building a disciple-mentor relationship pertain only to one’s spiritual mentors.

In general, once we have built a disciple-mentor relationship with one teacher, we need to regard and treat all our spiritual teachers, even our previous Buddhism professors, with the same respect as we show our mentor. Before that, when we are still relating to a teacher as our Buddhism professor or Dharma instructor, we show the person respect, but regarding him or her as we would a spiritual mentor and seeking instruction on tantric practice is inappropriate.

The instruction to see one’s spiritual mentor as a Buddha was never intended to be taken literally. The point is to see Buddha-nature - the factors allowing for enlightenment - in one’s mentor, and to gain inspiration to realize Buddha-nature within oneself.


In A Lamp for the Definitive Meaning (Torch of Certainty), the nineteenth-century nonsectarian master Kongtrul correlated an essential element of bodhichitta meditation with guru-meditation. To develop the wish to benefit all beings entails recognizing everyone as having been our mother in some previous life and focusing on our mother’s kindness. Similarly, guru-meditation for gaining inspiration requires focusing on our mentor’s kindness.

Many Westerners, however, have difficulty focusing on the kindness of their mother. One of the reasons may be that she fails to live up to our model of an ideal parent. Similarly, when our spiritual mentor has shortcomings and does not live up to our model of an ideal teacher, we may also have difficulty recognizing his or her kindness.

Our emotional block in appreciating the kindness of our less-than-perfect mentor may derive from a fault in mental labeling. Madhyamaka philosophy explains that words and concepts of knowable general phenomena, such as kindness, are mental labels that refer to a broad set of specific examples. If, however, we have a fixed idea of what kindness is, then we grasp at “kindness” to refer to only one specific form of kindness.

For instance, we may have a mental picture of an ideal spiritual mentor - one who spends all his or her time exclusively on us with loving warmth and affection like our ideal mother or father would. Our spiritual mentor, however, may have many other disciples besides us and may not be particularly demonstrative of physical warmth. Moreover, in a society that is particularly hypersensitive to possible sexual harassment, our mentor may choose to be reserved in showing affection. He or she shows kindness in taking meticulous care of our spiritual needs and in teaching us with consistent dedication and enthusiasm despite our being less than a perfect student. To appreciate our mentor’s kindness and gain inspiration from it in guru-meditation, we need to expand any restricted concept of kindness we may have.

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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.”
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.