Benefits of a Healthy Relation with a Spiritual Teacher

The classic texts on the graded path (lam-rim) speak about the benefits or the advantages of having a healthy relation with a spiritual teacher and the disadvantages of turning away from that. What they're talking about of course is once we have examined the teacher. And remember the example of Atisha going to Sumatra and examining the teacher, Serlingpa, for a very, very long time before actually starting to study with the teacher. Some of the texts even say that the teacher and the disciple need to examine each other for twelve years before they really get serious. But certainly examine them, and examine ourselves. And if we commit ourselves or entrust ourselves to a teacher in the proper way, then the texts list many benefits.

This is a general method that we find in the Dharma, that in order to help us to develop an aspiration to achieve something, it describes what are the benefits of having it, and then it warns about what are the dangers when, once you commit yourself to that, you then turn your back on that and show contempt and anger about it: “Oh, it was stupid, what I did.” Pointing out the dangers is not to scare you. The point is to make you realize that it’s very serious and that you shouldn’t get into this type of relationship lightly – we’re talking about your attitude toward the teacher – because if you get into it prematurely and then decide that this was completely stupid, this leaves you in a very terrible state of mind. So be careful beforehand.

Also, don’t look at these lists of the benefits and disadvantages like somebody trying to sell you a car, a used car, and they say, “Buy this. This is really the greatest,” and so on. It’s not advertisement. “Oh, this is so fantastic! I want to buy it. I want to get it because the benefits sound so great.” That is not at all the proper attitude. Everything in the Dharma is based on cause and effect. So if we’re going to get into this relationship, then what is the effect of it? What is the influence? What can happen? So we go into the situation with our eyes open. Nothing magical about it.

So let’s go through the list and try to speak about it from the point of view of how we actually apply it and what does it mean, at least from my own experience.

The Benefits of a Healthy Relation with Your Spiritual Teacher

You’ll Come Closer to Buddhahood

The first one says you’ll come closer to Buddhahood. Well, that’s quite obvious. If the teacher is teaching us how to become a Buddha and we follow the teacher’s instructions, then naturally we will come closer to the goal. So that means of course being willing to practice what the teacher says in terms of evaluating what realistically we can do now. And if it’s a skillful teacher, the teacher will instruct you in terms of what actually suits you. But of course all of that depends on having a personal relationship with the teacher, and that’s not so easy. You have to establish a one-to-one relationship in the various ways that I said – are you translating for the teacher, or whatever. And we can always do a little bit more. This is what Serkong Rinpoche always did with me. He said, “No matter how tired you are, you can always do five minutes more of the translating or whatever it is that you’re doing.” A good trainer in a fitness club does the same thing: “Come on, you can do one more.” But obviously if it’s too much for us, then you speak to the teacher. You say, “I’m not able to do that now. Give me something that will help me reach that stage.”

You’ll Build Up Positive Force

Then it says we’ll come closer to Buddhahood through making offerings to the guru, by helping the guru. Right? The guru, like a Buddha – a Buddha doesn’t really need the offerings. The attitude should be, to quote the text, “like a tiger with grass.” The tiger is not interested in eating the grass. But if we look at teachings on Buddha-nature, the factors that will enable us to become a Buddha, one is this network of positive force I call it, the so-called “collection of merit.” So helping the teacher in whatever way you can help the teacher, without being a pest in terms of being too pushy in terms of your help, builds up a lot of positive force. What does that mean?

We’re not talking about merit, that you get a certain number of points and then you win the game. But I think from my own experience… I was quite selfish and self-centered, like most people are, as a young man. But as I said, it was very rare. I had the opportunity to be with Serkong Rinpoche for nine years, and of course I wanted to help – he was an older man, quite overweight – to help him get up out of the car, to help him get into the car, to help in various ways, so it got me out of thinking just in terms of me and actually helping somebody, being more concerned about his comfort than my own. And what’s the result of that? It’s that I learned through that process to take care of others as well, not just my teacher but to help anybody. It builds up this force, this habit of being concerned about someone more than yourself.

So it works like that – at least from my own experience – gives you more reinforcement of how important it is to care for others, and you see that you can care for others. And obviously we could learn that also with taking care of our children. If we take care of a baby, obviously there’s also this whole aspect of caring more for the baby’s comfort than our own. But there’s a big difference. The difference is that the baby is “mine, my baby,” whereas you can’t be possessive with the teacher; that doesn’t work at all. So it’s a bit different. When the baby cuddles with you, “Oh, it’s so nice and so sweet.” The teacher isn’t going to do that.

You’ll Please the Buddhas

Then the next one. It says you please the Buddhas. What in the world does that mean? Buddhas have equanimity. They’re not going to get angry with you if you don’t practice properly, and they’r e not going to say, “Oh, how wonderful you are!” and so on. And as I said, just to do something in order to please the guru and get a pat on the head and wag your tail – this is silly. But what is a Buddha all about? They’re all about helping others to overcome suffering, attain liberation, get enlightenment, and so on. So if you practice, you come closer to them, closer in terms of what their hope is for you.

Although for some people it might work on the level of wanting to please your parents, and you want to please your teacher, and you don’t want to be scolded, and so on, try not to approach this from a child’s point of view. I mean, look at it from the point of view of a parent toward a child. If you try to teach your child a sense of values – to be a decent person, an honest person – and you see that they are, you feel very satisfied, in a sense. We’re not talking about an immature thing of then going and boasting to all your friends: “Look how wonderful my child is.” But this is what gives the parent a feeling of having been a good parent, that the child has learned these values and grown into a decent person. So this type of idea is behind this.

So as it says, what will please the teacher is to actually follow what the teacher says and to try to emulate the good qualities that the teacher has, not just silly things of what they like to eat and stuff like that.

You Won’t Be Disturbed by Demons or Bad Company

Next one. You’ll not be disturbed by… they use the word demons or bad company. Well, let’s not think of little creatures with horns and fangs and so on for demons. We’re talking about demonic forces. If we’re with our teacher or if you practice so-called guru-yoga properly, then you’re imagining that your teacher is with you all the time. That’s the whole point of imagining the teacher on your head or in your heart or whatever. The values of the teacher are there. Even if the teacher has passed away already, the values of the teacher are still there. The point is that you’re really serious about trying to improve yourself, and you’ve really committed yourself to a teacher in terms of your attitude, the way that you’re interacting, and so on, and you really don’t want to be a hypocrite. So even if everybody around us is acting in a very unruly way, we’re not going to be disturbed – that’s what it says, the term it uses – disturbed by all these other negative things that might be around us, because we’re quite clear as to the course that we’re putting in our lives. So in a sense it protects us from these negative influences that might be around. The negative influences actually are our weak minds, our weak resolve. That’s what’s negative. So that’s why we need to be really very firm in terms of what we’re doing. And that is based on a real strong examination and analysis before that: Am I ready to do that? Am I willing to do that?

You Will Automatically Put a Stop to All Disturbing Emotions and Misdeeds

You will automatically put a stop to all disturbing emotions and all misdeeds, it says – negative behavior, destructive behavior. “How can I act like this? I have such respect for my teacher and such respect for myself in terms of what I’m doing, how can I act in some stupid way?” When you’re with your teacher, you have enough respect that you’re not going to pick your nose and just use stupid examples. You want to act properly because of your sense of respect for the teacher, respect for the situation. So how can you get angry? How can you get greedy with the teacher, that you gobble up all the food and cake and so on when you’re eating with your teacher? Right? It’s all based on respect.

I remember very well once I was with the old Ling Rinpoche, the senior tutor of His Holiness. I was visiting with him. And he was sitting on like a low platform with a rug on it. He was sitting on one; I was sitting on the other, in the corner. He was on one side; I was on the other side. And all of a sudden, there was a large scorpion on the floor in front of us...

Ling Rinpoche was the master of Vajrabhairava (Yamantaka), this really forceful deity. He was an unbelievably strong, forceful figure (although actually he was very gentle when you got to know him). Most people were actually quite frightened of him because he was such a strong presence. Even before I could understand Tibetan well, I would go and be with him and visit him, and just by the force of his Manjushri – Manjushri is in the heart of Vajrabhairava – my mind would become clearer, and I could understand what he was saying. It was such a strong force.

So here’s this big scorpion on the floor. And Ling Rinpoche turns to me and in a very obviously affected dramatic gesture says, “Oh dear, a scorpion. Aren’t you afraid?” and turns to me. And I said to him, “How could I possibly be afraid in your presence?” And then he laughed and laughed. And then his attendant came and put a piece of paper under the scorpion and a cup over it and took it outside, as if it was all sort of staged as a lesson. But how could I or anybody in the presence of such a great master like that freak out at the scorpion and jump up and stand up on this platform and say, “Aah! A scorpion”? I couldn’t possibly do that. So that’s a very clear example. As it says here, you automatically stop acting in some ridiculous, childish way.

Your Insights and Realizations into the Levels and the Path Will Increase

Your insights and realization into the levels and the path will increase. Well, obviously if you are with your teacher and seeing the teacher all the time and the example of how the teacher deals with difficult situations, of course your understanding, your realizations, will increase the more that you practice to try to be like the teacher. So if we are actually close to the teacher – I mean, I had that experience – if you become some teacher’s translator or you drive the car for them, or whatever it is that you can do, then you see how they handle everyday situations, real-life things, and that really gives you understanding and insight into how to develop. And if you have more experience, then you see – I mean, with Serkong Rinpoche, I saw him with Pope John Paul, I saw him with a drunk on the street – you see how they handle all these situations, and that really gives you insight.

You Will Not Be Deprived of Spiritual Guides in Your Future Rebirths

Then you will not be deprived of – well, I don’t like the way that this is translated, but anyway – the very constructive, positive spiritual guides in all your future rebirths. Well, of course that depends on believing in rebirth, doesn’t it, which for a lot of us is not such a simple matter. But if we think of this example of being instinctively drawn to a spiritual teacher and to wanting to find a spiritual teacher and so on, that type of instinct will continue to be there and be even stronger in future lives. Where does this instinct come from? It comes from previous lives. So if we build that up in this lifetime, it should continue in future lifetimes – if we have a precious human rebirth and are not reborn as a cockroach.

You Will Not Fall into Lower Realms

You’ll not fall into lower realms. Well, what is the cause for worst rebirth states? It is destructive behaviour. And the cause for a precious human rebirth? Ethical discipline. Well, with the teacher, of course you act in an ethical way. And having the various far-reaching attitudes, the paramitas, so:

  • Generous: You’re helping the teacher. You’re being generous.
  • Ethical Self-discipline: When you're with the teacher, because you have such great respect for him or her, you would never act in a negative way.
  • Perseverance and patience: It’s really hard to follow the teacher and to learn from the teacher, so you have to put in a lot of effort and patience, which means that you’re not going to get angry with the teacher; you’re not going to get angry with how difficult it might be. See, this is one of the things you really have to examine before you get into this relation with the teacher, one of the most important aspects of the contract, as it were. It doesn’t matter what the teacher does, I’m going to look at it as a teaching; I’m not going to get angry.

Serkong Rinpoche without mercy called me an idiot all the time – in front of ten thousand people, he would call me an idiot, and I was an idiot – and I never got angry with him. Never. My reaction was usually a nervous laugh, and actually the Tibetans all thought that was wonderful, the way that I responded. It wasn’t like I was laughing at him, but that was sort of my response automatically. Right? If you’re going to get angry with the teacher, forget it. That really is not going to work at all. So that means you have to be really, really convinced that this teacher is only interested in your welfare. So patience.

  • Concentration: If you’re with a teacher, you can’t go, “What did you say? I wasn’t paying attention.” That doesn’t work. Serkong Rinpoche trained me to be his translator. And so at any time of day or night when I was with him, he would just stop and say, “Repeat what I just said” or “Repeat what you just said.” Wonderful training. I never got angry. And you need that ability if you’re going to be a translator.
  • Discriminating awareness: Serkong Rinpoche was great with that. There’s a wonderful example I always think of. Rinpoche was teaching at Nalanda, this Western monastery in France. They asked him to teach about the ninth chapter, the wisdom chapter, the discriminating awareness chapter, of Shantideva’s text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Bodhisattvacharyavatara). There were only maybe two or three sessions that they gave for this, and Rinpoche thought it was absolutely ridiculous that they wanted him to cover this whole thing in two or three sessions; it was very pretentious to think that it is so easy that you could just cover it in a few lessons. So he started, and he explained something, but he explained it totally incorrectly, and all the Western monks very dutifully wrote it down. And then after the tea break, he came back and he said, “You’re idiots. I just taught something completely incorrectly last time. Don’t you think? Don’t you examine anything that people say? Did this accord with the text? Does this accord with what you’ve studied before? Right? So learn discriminating awareness.” And then I think for the rest of the sessions, he explained maybe one line in the thing, in a very elaborate way, to show them that “Come on, be serious about wanting to study this. Don’t think it’s going to be easy.”

You Will Effortlessly Achieve All Short- and Long-Term Aims

Then it says you will effortlessly achieve all short- and long-term aims. That doesn’t mean just be passive and sit back and then everything will just fall in your lap. But karma does work. Buddha didn’t lie about it. Karma does actually work. You build up a lot of positive force by serving your teacher, helping your teacher, and so on, and things do go more easily; you’re able to accomplish a lot more.

I look at it in terms of my own life. Look what I’ve accomplished with this web site. It’s unbelievable. Last year we had more than a million visitors from it. And I think a great deal of the success of it is this strong relation I have had with my spiritual teachers, and that I still have, and the great amount of effort and work that I put in to helping them to make them available to others. My motivation for becoming a translator, an interpreter, was “Wow. The teachings by His Holiness and His Holiness’s teachers are so unbelievably incredible. But either they were not translated at all in the beginning or translated so badly, so I’ve got to do it.” And then you have this armor-like perseverance: “I’m going to do it. I’m going to train to be able to translate so that people can have access to this. This is too wonderful for people not to have access to.” And from my own experience with this web site, everything has – I describe it as “fallen from the sky.” Somebody came along and said, “Oh, I’ll make it for you.” When the first version went up, volunteers came from all over the world, volunteering to help with it. I didn’t go looking for them. The major people who gave the big financing – because I have to pay a lot of people – I didn’t ask for it; they approached me.

So it’s effortless. The karma is there. If you build up the karma, it works. And if you look in terms of the teachings on what are the types of karmic behavior that will give results in this lifetime – most of them will give results in future lifetimes, but what will give results in this lifetime is doing some really positive help for those who have helped us the most (spiritual teachers and parents in particular). So from my own experience, these benefits are there. It’s not just a nice fairytale.

The Disadvantages of Turning Our Back on Our Spiritual Teacher

There’s a list of the dangers that will follow if we go back on our commitment by showing contempt toward the teacher, cursing the teacher, leaving the teacher in anger, harboring great hatred inside for the teacher afterwards, and regretting ever getting involved with that teacher or with Buddhism in general. This is what we’re talking about when we talk about the dangers that are involved.

I don’t think it’s necessary to go through the entire list, but I think that we can understand it in general. If we open ourselves up to trusting in somebody, in a sense we are very vulnerable in that situation. It’s like for instance if you are a child and you open yourself up to a parent or a teacher and they abuse you either sexually or by beating you, then for most people they are pretty damaged emotionally for the rest of their lives. It’s very difficult for them to overcome that. It’s possible to overcome it but very, very difficult. They don’t trust anybody anymore, they lose that capacity to trust, and always have this caution that “I don’t really want to get involved, because I’m going to be hurt again.” And that cuts them off from opening up to someone else in the future. It’s a real big obstacle.

So we don’t have to go to the extreme example of a teacher abusing us, although there are examples of that, quite a few examples of people who pretend to be great teachers and actually they just abuse the students, and that’s damaging enough, very damaging actually. But here when they speak about these disadvantages, they’re not talking about that type of situation in which the teacher sexually abuses us or abuses us in terms of power and money, that sort of thing. And even in those situations, one just leaves. You respect whatever they did that might have benefited us and just leave.

But here we’re talking about a qualified teacher and we leave with a very, very negative state of mind. Mind you, if you leave with a very negative state of mind from a teacher who abuses you, you’re also shut off from opening up in the future. But with a qualified teacher, if we leave with this very negative state of mind – really angry, “How terrible the teacher is,” and “Everything that I did was stupid” – what does it do? What’s the result of that? And the result of that is that we’re not open to the Buddhist path, or usually any spiritual path, and we never will trust any spiritual guidance. And even if we start to become involved with somebody, we’ll be very paranoid, always expecting that something bad is going to happen. And as it says, whatever good qualities we might have developed, we’ll find that we go downhill very quickly because we have such a negative attitude about everything that we did. So it’s like everything gets thrown away.

Now, we have here in the list that you fall to worse rebirths, you get hellish rebirths, and all of that. This really needs to be understood. First of all we certainly aren’t saying that, like in a cult, you have to obey and do everything that your teacher does because if you don’t obey you’re going to go to hell, and then we’re afraid of doing anything wrong because then we’ll go to hell. This is certainly not what is intended here. What does hell mean? There are many hells in Buddhism, but what does it mean? And following Serkong Rinpoche’s advice, one looks at the flavor, the connotation, of the Sanskrit term and the Tibetan term.

  • The Sanskrit term [naraka] connotes “joyless.” There’s no joy, only unhappiness and sorrow and pain. If we have this very negative attitude toward the teacher and toward anything that we did to try to improve ourselves, of course we’re left in a very, very unhappy state of mind. If you have left the teacher with such a negative mind and so angry and filled with hatred and regret and resentment and things like that, that’s not a happy state of mind. That’s a totally joyless state of mind, isn’t it? We are not at all rejoicing in all the positive things that we did and learned; we think it was stupid, a waste of time.
  • And the connotation of the Tibetan term [nyelwa (dmyal-ba)] is that it’s very difficult to get out of this state, sort of what I like to translate as trapped. It’s a feeling of being trapped in this state of mind.

And so this is the description of the hellish state of mind – completely without any joy, very negative, and you feel just trapped in that, and you can’t get out. So if you think about it, whether we believe in future lives and in an actual hellish environment, wherever it might be, and so on, we can appreciatehow horrible that state of mind would be and how logically it does follow from having this very negative attitude toward relying on somebody and trusting somebody to help us to improve. So please don’t get hung up and worried about “Well, how does Vajra Hell compare to Avichi Hell? And how far under Bodhgaya is it? And how hot is it compared to this one and that one?” and so on. That’s missing the point. As His Holiness said, Buddha didn’t come to teach us geography; he came to teach us how to avoid and overcome suffering.

So if we have a very negative attitude toward trying to improve ourselves, how are we ever going to improve? Obviously. So this is the big danger. And if we haven’t examined very well before we’ve gotten involved in a relationship with a spiritual teacher and into serious practice of Buddhism – if we haven’t done that, we really need to examine very, very well so that we don’t have this danger of turning our back on that and having a really, really negative attitude and cutting ourselves off from really being able to benefit from the Buddhist teachings in the future. Just imagine being so disillusioned with anything positive and the people who are trying to be positive, and so on, that you have nobody to look up to. There’s no hope. So that really describes a hellish situation, doesn’t it? You feel trapped. Everything is so horrible and so miserable, and there’s no hope.

Now, please bear in mind that we’re not talking about eternal damnation. Even the hellish rebirth is impermanent; it will come to an end. But there are many dangers of getting involved in this type of relationship, in this type of spiritual practice, because it’s serious. And I can’t emphasize enough that it is not just: “Well, I have to follow the rules. And if I don’t follow the rules, I’m going to be punished.” It’s certainly not that.

We often hear the discussion of the term fear. The main context within which that topic arises is in terms of refuge. Refuge means putting a positive direction in our life. It’s not just “Oh Buddha, Buddha, save me, protect me.” It’s not like that. But it’s going in the direction of the deepest meaning of Dharma, which is to achieve true stopping of suffering and the causes of suffering and to achieve the true states of mind – the true path – that will lead to that and result from that, the way the Buddhas have done in full, the way the Arya Sangha have done in part. So that’s the direction that we want to put in our life, to work toward that, and obviously the spiritual teacher helps us on that way. But what are the causes for putting this direction in our life? And you see very clearly – it says in the text – fear of worse rebirths in the future and confidence that we can avoid that by going in this direction.

So there are two types of fear. There’s a very destructive type of fear – destructive is perhaps not the best word, but a very devastating type of fear. This is the fear in which you feel that there’s no hope and you feel absolutely helpless. That’s a very disturbing, devastating state of fear. “There’s nothing I can do.” You’re just paralyzed by fear. And here in the context of this putting a safe direction in our life, it’s very different because we realize that there is a way to avoid these worst rebirths, and there is great hope. So it’s a healthy sense of fear.

I’ll give an example. You want to cross a busy street. “I’m afraid of being hit by a car, but I know if I look both ways and I’m very careful, I can cross safely.” If there’s no hope of getting across the street safely – you’re just afraid of being hit – you’re never going to try to cross the street. But you know that there’s a way to avoid being hit, and that healthy sense of fear makes us careful. Sometimes I use the word dread rather than fear. It’s something that we really want to avoid; it’s not a paralyzing type of fear.

So the same thing in terms of reading these disadvantages of having this negative attitude toward the teacher, leaving in a state of contempt and hatred and anger. We’re not talking about what sometimes is called a “breach of guru devotion,” using all these loaded terms, which implies that “Well, I didn’t do exactly what the teacher said, and so I’m going to go to hell.” We’re talking about developing a really negative state of mind toward the teacher, not just making a mistake or being too lazy to do what they asked us to do or whatever. And like wanting to avoid being hit by a car, we also want to avoid the horrible state of mind that we would be in if we have such a negative attitude toward teachers and Buddhism in general and spiritual practice in general. It would leave us with nothing.

And we know that we can avoid this danger. How do we avoid the danger? It’s not in terms of like being in the army, being totally obedient, like an obedient soldier, and “Yes, sir!” doing whatever the teacher says. We can avoid this by really, really seriously examining the teacher beforehand and ourselves – our readiness, our abilities, and so on. Be very, very careful about that type of relationship. Right?

What’s the main function of the teacher? They can give us information, but we get correct information from the internet or from books. They can answer our questions, they can correct us when we make mistakes, but you don’t have to be so super advanced to be able to do that. The main activity of real spiritual mentors, besides giving vows and stuff like that, is to inspire us. So I’m looking up to this person. This is what I am trying to become like, this is my model, and I’m inspired by their example to try to become like that. And then we get totally disillusioned about that, and the whole model that we had, the whole ideal that we had in mind, is just completely destroyed, and not only is it destroyed but we have such a negative attitude: “I’m so stupid for doing that.” So the way to avoid that is to really examine very, very well beforehand and then follow the various procedures that are indicated. If the teacher does something a little bit strange or asks you to do something, then you ask, “Well, why do you say that? Please explain it to me.”

Again I’m thinking of Serkong Rinpoche. Lama Zopa said once, “If you want to find an example of what the real thing is, real spiritual mentor, it’s Serkong Rinpoche. That’s the real thing.”

Once there was some legal problem and some messy type of things involved with a piece of land in Nepal – I think it was for a nunnery or something like that – that Rinpoche had or somebody had given him (I don’t actually remember the details). There were various stories and things going on. Serkong Rinpoche was so unbelievably kind because he took me aside in his room one day and explained to me the whole situation so that I wouldn’t ever develop some doubts or some strange thoughts because of all the complicated things that were going on. So this is the real thing, the real teacher – he was very concerned that I don’t get disillusioned.