August 03, 2010

The Teacher-Student Relationship

I recently picked up Alexander Berzin's book Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship. The topic is a crucial one for Buddhism and one that has been much on my mind lately.

I was familiar with Berzin's writing, and I knew this was one of his themes (he wrote a Tricycle article called "Practical Advice Regarding Spiritual Teachers" some time ago) but the new book seemed very familiar. It turns out to be a reissue (or perhaps a modest reworking) of his 2000 book Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship. Although it's a little discouraging that we haven't come very far in the intervening decade, Berzin's prose still makes for very compelling reading. It moves from the academic, analytic, and remote to the personal in a very engaging way. From the introduction:

With no precedent available from our Western backgrounds, most of us modeled our relationships with these teachers after those between Tibetan disciples and their spiritual mentors. Some even adopted Tibetan dress. The promise of an alternative, Shangri-La culture spurred on our interest.

Most young westerners of the sixties generation had little or no respect for their elders at home. Unable to understand the hardships our parents had faced with the Depression and the Second World War, we found the older generation materialistic and emotionally stiff. We sought openness and unconditional love. Our clumsy attempts at free love with each other had failed to remove our underlying tension and alienation. On the other hand, the natural warmth and acceptance we felt from the Tibetan masters was undeniable, even if the spiritual practices behind their attainments remained incomprehensible. The authenticity of these teachers' realizations spoke loudly to us. Here, at last, were persons worthy of respect—something we had desperately sought, though perhaps only unconsciously. With joy and enthusiasm, we freely prostrated at these masters' feet.

When the attraction to Buddhism is a reaction to the traditions of our own culture, it is easy to see how misunderstandings can be exploited. Berzin's book describes the misunderstanding that can happen on both sides (the stereotype of Western women in India, for instance, was that they were always eager for and open to having sex). Berzin's book examines all of this in step-by-step detail and is essential reading for those who feel this issue is a relevant one.

Berzin's Tricycle article describes this same interaction between East and West and how the hippies in Nepal and India were not representative of the US and Europe that the lamas and gurus found when they crossed the oceans in search of students and often, safety and stability. Wise Teacher, Wise Student is available from Snow Lion.

A brief Zen take on the student-teacher relationship by the late John Daido Loori is here.

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jjwalker7730's picture

Teach tomorrow what you learn today.

Nate's picture

Reading this book right now and am finally understanding things that I had no clue about. It's a very concise book, packed full of information that not only explains it to someone familiar with Tibetan Buddhism, but followers of other schools as well. Really enjoying this book!

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Mark's picture

Berzin perceptively writes:

Most (Westerners) 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.

He does not explain, in this article anyway, why or how Tibetan Buddhism in the West has ever been anything else. The most successful Tibetan-style teachers (I think of Pema Chodron) have all but abandoned the elaborate mythology of Tantra (at least in public), and what they retain has been transformed to look more like Theravada and Zen. But there is still a big market for worshiping bald Asian guys in robes, arguing over who they're all incarnations of, magic rituals of all kinds, and so on. How is this any less a projection of Western fantasies? How could a successful relationship of any kind (to say nothing of one with a spiritual mentor) be based on delusional wish fulfillment? And, for that matter, was the guru's "mode of behavior familiar from pre-communist Tibet—[assuming] the role of benevolent lord of a spiritual fiefdom to be supported and served with loyal devotion" OK when it happened in Tibet? There is no need for us to rehabilitate Asian religious texts, practices or doctrine so Westerners can believe them. The Four Truths and the Eightfold Path are plenty for me to chew on, and they say nothing about worshipping gurus.