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Student/Teacher Relationship

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 04, 2000
Location: Mountain Rain Zendo
In topic: General Topics in Buddhism
Zoketsu describes his path as a Dharma student and discusses a variety of ways to work with Buddhist teachers.
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Student / Teacher Relationship
On working with Buddhist teachers

Talk given: Karuna Retreat, November 4, 2000, Vancouver,
(Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum) What is a spiritual teacher?  Do you need to “have” a spiritual teacher if you are going to practice the dharma?  And if you do have a spiritual teacher, what does it mean to have a spiritual teacher, and how are you supposed to relate to that teacher? So these are the things that I want to consider together this afternoon.   In my little bit of study of Western spiritual traditions, I am getting the impression that in the Western traditions there has been, as in the East, an intimate tradition of spiritual mentorship.  I know that in Catholicism and Judaism there have been such traditions, but it seems that whatever those traditions may have been, they don’t really exist anymore, and the thread has been broken.  Of course, in Asia there are still lively traditions of spiritual mentorship.   I was in Ireland for a Buddhist - Christian dialogue, and one person said, “How come the Catholic Church is in such trouble, and Buddhism is doing so well?  I told this to a friend of mine, a Westerner who is monk in Thailand, and he burst out laughing, because Buddhism is not doing so well in Asia.  Not that its doing so great here, but it’s on the upward swing in the West.   Nevertheless, these traditions of spiritual mentorship do live in Asia and have been transmitted to the West.  The problem is that the translation may not be as easy as it would seem.  The West and the East are vastly different psychologically and culturally, and the modern period and the post modern period are vastly different from the feudal periods in Asia when these traditions were established.  So as we rush blindly, literally to transpose these things to our own context, we find many problems, and we probably need to think more deeply about it.   Now to speak quite personally, I have to admit that I am a stubborn and independent type person.  This was something that my father pointed out to me many times.  Now I don’t necessarily recommend this, and I am personally not necessarily proud of it., and the consequences in my life have not always been positive, but still, like you, I am more or less stuck with my karmic tendencies, and I have to make use of them.  So I was never in my lifetime ever interested in being the disciple of a spiritual teacher, and I never sought one out.  I wanted to do practice, but I was never interested in seeking out a teacher at all.   it is very odd that given all that, I still enjoy a number of warm and respectful student - teacher relationships in the dharma, and despite my karmic tendencies, I never had difficult relationships with my teachers.  I never struggled with them, had battles, conflicts, or hassles.  I did the best that I could do to be honest with my teachers, to be forthcoming with what was going in my life and practice, and I tried my best within my limitations to put into practice the suggestions they gave me directly or indirectly through dharma talks. I always felt, though, that the connections that I had with my teachers were fundamentally without content.  It wasn’t about the content.  Content was just an excuse.  Also I felt, and still feel, that the relationships were fundamentally not personal relationships, that we were meeting one another on another ground.  Anyway, that’s how I understood it at the time, and that’s how I still understand it.  In the end I would say that I have a tremendous love for my teachers.  That’s the word that I would use.  I don’t know if they necessarily love me, but I love them!  And I think of my teachers fairly often, and almost always with strong feelings of gratitude.   I can tell you that my own teachers have had serious problems in many ways.  They, as people, had various flaws, some of which I was painfully and clearly aware of.  But again, oddly enough, for some reason, this has never been a problem to me.  In fact, sometimes the discovery of the spectacular human flaws of my teachers has only served to cheer me up!  Because I felt that if they are like that, there is hope for me.  Also I always had the goal in my spiritual practice of being a human being rather than some kind of superhuman.  I could see how someone might have the goal of being a superhuman.  I think that’s great, but that’s not my goal.  So when I saw that my teachers were quite human, which means flawed, I thought, “That’s great.  That gives me hope.”  So I didn’t have a problem with it.  I was able at the same time to appreciate them as Buddha, really to see them as Buddha and to recognize all the gifts that they gave me.  And again, I never saw any of this as something personal, because to see it as personal would limit it, to make it much smaller than I think it really is, and therefore to make myself much smaller than I think I really am.   The reason that I was thinking about this topic of teachers is because I am reading a book by Alexander Berzin called, Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship.  Alex is scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and has spent the last twenty-nine years living mostly in India and traveling all over the world teaching and orienting people to Buddhism  The title implies that there’s a way to relate to a spiritual teacher, but of course there isn’t a way.  Like all human relationships, relationship with spiritual teachers is something that flows along with its own sort of logic and its own life.  Relating to a spiritual teacher, I think, has some of life’s deepest joys.  Also, I have not seen greater tragedies than those that I have witnessed in the case of people relating to their spiritual teachers in the midst of great suffering.   I suppose that it would be naïve and foolish to think that one could relate to spiritual teachers and avoid the suffering that appears to be all too common, but I feel sure that it doesn’t have to be that bad.  A lot of that can be avoided fairly easily if we could only lighten up a little bit and keep foremost in our minds that spiritual practice really is about freedom from suffering and the establishment in our lives of a kind of quiet and lasting happiness.   So first, there is no template.  There are various levels of spiritual teachings and spiritual teachers.  They are not all teaching on the same level.  And likewise, there are various levels of spiritual students, various motivations, and various capacities.  And there are some teachers who are students themselves, and some students who are teachers.  And even the most profound of all teachers is only just as profound as the student in front of him or her.  With another student that great teacher might be someone quite ordinary and superficial, and still with another person that person might not even be a Buddhist teacher at all.  So it is a rich, complex, and ever changing situation.    In his book, Alex mentions a number of kinds of different Buddhist teachers.  One kind is what he calls a Buddhism professor.  I think he means that literally: somebody who is a professor of Buddhism, who knows many things about Buddhism, and who is capable of having a class in Buddhist teaching.  Such a person doesn’t necessarily practice, or if they do practice, they are not bringing their practice to bear in their teachings.   The next kind of teacher is called a dharma instructor.  That’s someone who does practice and is able to teach you about how these teachings work in our actual lives. He or she teaches Buddhism not in the abstract, but Buddhism as practically applied.   Then, there are meditation or ritual instructors.  These are people who are empowered and to some extent have mastery in meditation practices and various ritual practices.  They can instruct you in these practices and guide you through them.  The next one he mentions is a spiritual mentor, or what we would usually call a spiritual teacher.  That is someone we would relate to over a period of time in a personal, face to face, ongoing relationship.  He or she would help us to grow in our practice and to stabilize in it, so that our practice is no longer a matter of learning some skills or ideas that are external to ourselves.  Our practice would be nurtured through our relationship with this spiritual teacher into something that becomes our lives, transforms our lives, and stabilizes our lives in the teachings. So, in order to be able to do that, spiritual teachers, in addition to knowing the teachings and the meditation practices, have to be people who follow moral conduct.  They have a moral code, but more importantly, it is very clear and explicit that they live it.  There is nothing else in their lives but living the teachings on a moment to moment basis, and you can see that.  You need to see that if you are going to have confidence in them.  But in addition to that, they also have to be people who are emotionally available to us, because there can be people who have all of these great qualities, but they’re really not available to us.  So a spiritual mentor for us has to be someone who is willing to meet us anytime, where we are, without pushing us away, or getting too close.   There are also levels and types of students, and that is important to recognize as well.  Now when I say levels and types, I don’t mean better or worse, higher grade students, you know like teas.  This tea costs $50 a pound, and this one costs $30 a pound.  It is not about being more or less advanced than it is simply standing in another place according to one’s karma.  The basic Mahayana Buddhist vision is that all sentient beings are on the path, and everyone is walking the path exactly in the place where he or she needs to be, and it will take all of us together, continuing where we are, and doing our best, to enable each one of us to become awakened.  So students differ in their establishment in the dharma, knowledge of the dharma, appreciation of the dharma, and commitment to the dharma. In order to take on this transformative relationship with a spiritual mentor, the student needs to have the capacity to do this and really understand what’s involved.  He or she needs to have done enough practice that they’ve developed a certain amount of discipline, and a certain amount of stability in the dharma, so that their practice doesn’t disappear all of a sudden when something difficult comes up.  And that student needs to have come to a point when they see that in order to go on in their path, they need is to make a serious commitment.  When a person comes to that, not as some wild idea in their mind, but as a step by step approach, then that person is ready to approach a spiritual mentor and try to make such a commitment.