September 28, 2010

Wake-up call: You don't have to do whatever your guru says

Buddhism's development in the West has sometimes been rocky, particularly with regard to teacher-student relationships. With decades of experience under his belt, Ken McLeod offers some sound advice in a 2002 interview:

In the Vajrayana tradition it appears that you have to do whatever your guru says. But that’s absurd in this country. It just isn’t going to happen. America and most Western cultures are post-modern societies. They did away with the external structures that used to define role and position. Not so long ago, if your father was a shoemaker you would become one, and that sort of thing still prevails in a lot of places in the world. With modern education you have to figure out what you want to do — you have to develop the internal ability to define your own path. The same thing is true of marriage, economic position, education, political persuasion, and moral attitudes. By the latter part of the twentieth century, Western society had completely trashed any all-embracing moral structure, so now moral codes and ethics have to be developed internally. So, we don’t depend on external structures the way people do in other societies.

What, then, is a teacher for? What does it mean when you leave a teacher? What's it like when the teacher-student relationship works—and when it doesn't?

Ken has some good answers and a few things to say about. Read the rest here.

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Paul Garrigan's picture

I live in Thailand but I've struggled along without any real Buddhist teacher as such. I have put my faith in my practice and use the internet extensively. I have been on meditation retreats but I find it difficult to commit to one teacher. I believe in the idea that when the student is ready the teacher appears; maybe I should be a bit more proactive in this instance. There are many Thai monks that I have a great deal of respect for. I think if I did commit to one teacher though I would maintain a healthy skepticism.

James Shaheen's picture

I wonder what tasks Tilopa or Marpa would put before their students if they lived among us today. What means might make contemporary sense?

phil ji's picture

I wonder what would have happened if Naropa didnt jump off the rock as his guru Tilopa asked or if Milarepa didnt build the towers as Marpa asked???

James Shaheen's picture

I just spoke with Ken. His sense is that in a case such as you mention, Carlos, a student tends to take on the role of a child in a parent/child relationship, abdicating his or her own responsibilities as an adult. In, say, the United States, this is not something he would expect to end well, and in Ken's experience, it rarely if ever does. In a Western context--perhaps most saliently in Protestant culture--it's a relationship that that is not a cultural fit and one that is to be avoided although, of course, it's the student's choice to make.

As for your comment, Mark: Ken says you've hit the nail on the head.

Ken refers us to this link.

Mark's picture

. . .in fact it may happen pretty frequently, as the recent Eido Shimano sex scandal suggests. Perhaps the moral indeterminacy McLeod writes about drives some people to seek the imagined certainty of a master's oversight. Being in total submission to another is also a way of avoiding responsibility for our own decision making. As for the question of "what is a teacher for?" I think there is plenty of room for a teacher to share experience, example and guidance without the need to have a submissive relationship with them. We should value and respect teachers for how effectively they teach the dharma -- not because of their title, lineage or charisma. And if there appears to be a personality cult around a teacher, that should be a real warning sign. Abandoning one's own moral agency and capacity for critical thinking is always a dangerous thing to do.

Carlos's picture

James, thanks for posting this. In relation to the quote above, it says: "It just isn't going to happen." I'd ask: what if it happens? Not only because of a teacher-student relationship, but also because of misunderstandings in this relationship or maybe because this serves some social and/or psychological tendencies of the individuals. In a sense, the possibility that this happens, and happens quite literally, having as result the denial of critical thought and dialogue, seems quite real.