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.

Transforming Negative Circumstances into Positive Ones

Another aspect of seeing mentors as Buddhas is to take all their actions as teachings, even if some actions are, in fact, faulty or destructive. Thus, in establishing a close bond with a spiritual mentor, specifically with a tantric master, we agree to refrain from becoming angry or disrespectful of our teacher, regardless of what he or she may say or do. Even if our mentor acts unethically or causes harm, we try to learn a lesson from it. The lesson may simply be to restrain from acting destructively like this ourselves.

Learning a lesson from the faulty behavior of one’s mentor does not mean denying that the behavior was faulty. If we find the fault unbearable, we may follow the advice of The Kalachakra Tantra and decide to keep a distance from the teacher. Nevertheless, a healthy attitude is to maintain respect for the person’s good qualities.

Beyond Good and Bad

Many Kagyu and Nyingma texts discuss a tantric or Dzogchen master’s behavior as beyond good or bad. They are not speaking, however, about what an action, such as abuse, conventionally is, or what effects such an action produces. Buddhism does not relativize everything to the point that all phenomena lose their conventional identity. Abusive behavior damages both the perpetrator and the victim. Beyond good or bad means that, from a Buddha’s point of view, all actions are beyond the dualistic categories of independently good or bad. It is not a denial of cause and effect. Otherwise, a Buddha’s enlightening actions could not benefit anyone.

Properly qualified tantric or Dzogchen masters, then, would always refrain from abusive behavior. Especially if they are in the public eye, they would also refrain from acting in conventionally destructive ways so that no one would lose faith in Buddhism. In fact, such teachers promise to uphold this guideline as one of their secondary bodhichitta vows.

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.

Self-Destructive Actions Regarding a Spiritual Mentor

Sometimes there are disastrous self-destructive actions regarding a spiritual teacher, and they fall into three categories. The first is building a relationship with a misleading teacher. Second is disbelieving the good qualities that a mentor actually has and thinking with a distorted, antagonistic attitude about them. The third is relating distortedly with a properly qualified mentor, a violation of the first root tantric vow to avoid scorning or deriding one’s tantric master.

A misleading teacher is someone ruled by disturbing emotions, such as attachment, anger, or naïvete; who pretends to have qualities that he or she lacks; and who hides actual shortcomings. Moreover, such a person has a weak sense of ethics, teaches only for personal gain, and gives incorrect information and instruction. Naïve spiritual seekers may incorrectly consider some of the person's faults as assets and ascribe good qualities that he or she lacks. Consequently, they build a distorted relationship that is based on deception.

Thinking with a distorted, antagonistic attitude is one of the ten fundamentally destructive actions described in Buddhism. It means to deny or repudiate what is true about someone or something and entails planning to spread one’s prejudiced opinion to others. Here, it refers to denying or repudiating the good qualities that a spiritual mentor actually has and planning to spread false information about the person. This destructive way of thinking, then, goes far beyond merely disbelieving a mentor’s good qualities.


Although devotion is an improper translation of tenpa - the Tibetan word for building a healthy, trustful relationship with a spiritual mentor - nevertheless, the Western phenomenon of devotion often occurs in the relationship. Devotion is a complex emotion, but one of its aspects is the uplifting feeling derived from a loss of self in awe of something greater.

In its classical form, devotion occurs with a leap of faith. This form of devotion sometimes brings problems, because devotees may project the entire unconscious side of their personality.

If Western disciples project as a shadow an unknowable unconscious onto a mentor and lose themselves in adoration and awe, the result may be a serious block to a healthy relationship. One may lose all sense of a conventional “me” and become dependent on an idolized mentor whom one can only worship and adore. Moreover, viewing the mentor’s qualities and actions as an unknowable mystery - beyond all thought, conception, words, and sense of good or bad - may open one to possible abuse.

Showing Respect to a Western Spiritual Teacher

The procedures of guru-meditation apply equally to Tibetan and Western spiritual teachers. However, the manner of showing respect to the teacher may need to differ. General customs of politeness, such as being quiet and attentive when a teacher enters the classroom, suit any society. However, certain ritual Asian forms of showing respect, such as making prostrations, may be uncomfortable.

A sincere expression of respect needs to arise naturally. A mentor needs to let Western disciples express their respect in their own way and to learn to read the language that the disciples use. Most Westerners value freedom of choice. To express their respect in an emotionally comfortable manner, they need a choice of acknowledged ways that do not make them feel like a fool or like a shallow imitator of foreign ways.

In Summary

The tantras unanimously agree that the inspiration gained from a healthy disciple-mentor relationship is a source of true joy and spiritual attainment. However, when misunderstood and mixed with confusion, the relationship becomes unhealthy and may give rise to spiritual devastation and emotional pain. Misunderstanding may occur on the side of the disciple, the mentor, or both; and cultural factors may often add to the confusion.

Many people, disillusioned or outraged at failures in the disciple-mentor relationship in the West, have called for a serious revision. Revision, however, does not require overturning tradition and inventing something entirely new. Revision may come from clearing away confusion about Buddha’s teachings and about the cultural factors unconsciously affecting the thought and behavior of each party in the relationship. When Westerners are involved, imprecise or misleading translation terms frequently worsen the confusion. To build healthy disciple-mentor relationships and to heal the wounds that may have occurred from unhealthy ones, a rectification of names, together with cultural sensitivity, may help to bring emotional clarity.

Alexander Berzin received a doctorate in Buddhist Studies at Harvard University in 1972 and has studied with masters from all four Tibetan lineages. For twenty-nine years, he lived with the Tibetan refugee community in India, working under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, principally as a Dharma translator. He has been a Dharma teacher since 1982. His most recent books includeTaking the Kalachakra Initiation and Developing Balanced Sensitivity (both published by Snow Lion). He currently lives and teaches in Berlin, Germany.

Image 1:  A public teaching in a temple courtyard. Courtesy Michael Buckley
Image 2: A legendary disciple and teacher: Milarepa, seated at right, relates his first meditation experience to his teacher, Marpa. Illustration by Amy Soderberg. Courtesy Wisdom Publications, Boston, Mass. From Drinking ht eMountain Stream: Songs of Tibet's Beloved Saint, Milarepa, 1995
Image 3: Scene of the Buddha's First Sermon, wall painting, Kinnari Cave, Kumtura, China, 8th-9th century CE. Courtesy Staatliche Museen zu Berlin- Preubischer Kulturbesitz, Museum fur Indische Kunst

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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.