Healthy Behavior toward a Spiritual Teacher

Healthy behavior toward our spiritual teacher includes both how we speak and how we act in the presence of our spiritual teacher. But actually the instructions that we find in the texts don’t deal with the protocol of how you receive teachings; that’s usually found elsewhere – in terms of not wearing a hat, not carrying a weapon, not having your feet pointing toward the teacher or the Buddha thangkas, and so on. But I think all of that can fall within the category of showing respect.

Making Offerings and Supporting the Work of the Teacher

The traditional presentation lists three points. The first one is making offerings. Now, this can be a little bit delicate here because first of all the teacher doesn’t need our offerings if we’re talking in terms of a Buddha. A Buddha doesn’t need anything, Certainly a Buddha doesn’t need some sticks of incense or a kata.

If we’re talking about actually making an offering of some object, then also we have to be careful that this doesn’t go into the extreme of abuse – teachers that say, “Give me all your money,” this type of thing – which has happened in the past with certain teachers (not necessarily Buddhist ones, but teachers). So this has to not be misunderstood in terms of giving teacher all your money.

When I was first studying with Serkong Rinpoche, I always used to bring a little something to the teaching, whether incense or a kata or whatever. And soon after that he scolded me, saying that “I don’t need this junk. Why are you giving me all this junk? How many sticks of incense do you think I need? How many katas, hundreds of katas, do you think I need? If you’re going to bring something, bring something that you know I like.” He liked bananas, this sort of thing. So if you’re going to bring something, don’t bring something that would be fairly useless; find out what the teacher might actually need or actually like. And if the teacher is on a diet or overweight, it doesn’t help at all to bring a lot of cakes and candies and things like that (if they have any level of self-control, they’ll usually give it away to the next person who comes), which is okay – the idea behind it is to give something that is nice to the teacher – but when given a choice, be a little bit sensitive in terms of what would be an appropriate nice thing to give.

But also this doesn’t necessarily mean offering actual material things; it has a much larger application in terms of supporting the teacher. So supporting the teacher can be in terms of… for instance, we find in the classic texts that you should be willing to give your family and your wife, your children, etc., to the teacher. That certainly doesn’t mean to give them as slaves. But in a more modern setting, I know that many of the Tibetan teachers who come to the West are not used at all to living by themselves. The Tibetans are very social; at the monasteries there’s always a lot of people, and so on. What is very nice is offering, for instance, an invitation to come to your home to be with the family to have a nice meal, or something like that. This is an offering of one’s family.

This is a bit of a myth, a romantic myth, that we have, that all these Tibetans like to just sit by themselves and meditate all the time. That’s not the way that they actually live in India. Maybe a few are like that, but hardly any. I mean, sure, they have a lot of debate and rituals and meditation and so on, but they also, as I said, are very social. They like to drink tea with friends and chat and joke. They’re humans. It’s equally valid to see them as Buddhas and to see them as human beings who you know need proper human warmth, human contact, etc.

I’m always giving examples from Serkong Rinpoche since I spent so much time with him and so I’m the most familiar with the way that he interacted with people. And of course different teachers will have different customs. I’m talking about the previous generation of teachers, who all grew up and were trained and taught in Tibet before they came to India. So that older generation.

When I traveled with him in the West in Milan, in Italy, we stayed in the home of one family that had a very large house. And all the teachers who came to Milan at that time always stayed at this house; they had a lot of room. It was one of these wonderful Italian families in which four generations lived together. And the grandmother was a fantastic cook, a big, round lady. Many of the high lamas who stayed there followed a more traditional style of just eating in their room and not really interacting with the family, but Serkong Rinpoche wasn’t like that. And what she particularly noted was that in the mornings while she was preparing breakfast, Rinpoche would come just in his underrobe, not his regular robes, and sit at the kitchen table while she was preparing breakfast and do his recitations there. And she said that of all the lamas who stayed with them, he was the greatest because he was so relaxed and natural with the family. And he really appreciated having that type of real human contact with the grandmother in the kitchen. And Rinpoche himself was rather round. And it was really funny because when we left and the grandmother gave Rinpoche a big, big hug and a kiss on the cheek, which everybody was a little bit shocked at, Rinpoche was perfectly relaxed with that. (But I wouldn’t recommend that you do that for the teachers. That would be misunderstood.) My point being that what Rinpoche really appreciated was being offered the opportunity to be in a nice, loving four-generation family. It was a treat for him.

The Fifth Dalai Lama, in his lam-rim, points out in terms of making offerings that one has to consider the appropriate time, place, and measure (measure meaning the amount of what you give). And so what might have been appropriate in ancient India might not at all be appropriate in our present modern times. And so one needs to really use one’s sensitivity, discriminating awareness, and so on, to see what is appropriate.

And supporting – I like that as a much better way of describing this – supporting the work of the teacher. The teacher is working to try to benefit everyone as much as possible, so how can we support that? You can support that financially. You could support that by helping them to do that in terms of translating or cooking for them or getting visas or driving them, whatever. Offering them time and space. Sometimes teachers come and people in the West are very greedy and exploit them, trying to get as much as possible from the teacher and not giving them, for instance, the time to do their daily practice, time to maybe take a little bit of rest (very often they’re elderly). All of these are offerings.

And one mistake that occasionally one comes across is that the teacher is sick, for example, and the students say, “Oh, he’s a Buddha. He’s only manifesting this to teach us a lesson,” and they just “Oh lama, lama, lama,” like that. This is completely naive and inconsiderate. You offer to take the teacher to the doctor, to get medicine, and so on. Don’t just say, “Well, they’re just manifesting this to teach us something,” and let them suffer.

And when making offerings, don’t make a big show out of it – expecting a thank you and all of that, and everybody has to see that you’re making the offering, this type of thing. Once when I was with Rinpoche, again in Italy, in a different city, somebody came to see him and had an interchange with him. And when the person left, they just left an envelope on the table at the side; they didn’t make a big show of presenting it to Rinpoche. And Rinpoche said this is a very good way of making offerings if the circumstances allow for that. If the circumstances don’t allow for that – okay, you hand it to them, but don’t make a big “I’m so wonderful. I’m making this offering” type of thing, making sure that everybody sees it.

Same thing with making prostration. I remember I was once with Rinpoche up in Spiti, this valley in India on the border of Tibet. This was an area where Buddhism had really degenerated very much, and Rinpoche went there and revived the traditions, the lineages, and got Buddhism pretty much started again there. So he’s regarded almost like the saint of this valley. He also died there and was reborn there. And whenever he went there, of course as many people as possible would come to see him; and before they would go up to him to give a kata or whatever, they would do prostration. And I had the type of really close relation with Rinpoche that he would actually tell me what he thought, and what he thought was really ridiculous was that there would be a long line outside the room and each of these people would wait until they got inside in front of him and then do prostration. So it took forever to get through this line, making this big show of prostrating to him, and he said this was ridiculous: “They should prostrate outside, before they come in, and not waste so much of my time.”

So be sensitive to the teacher and don’t turn making offerings, or whatever you’re doing, into a big ego trip of a show: “How holy and wonderful I am!” The main thing is your attitude.

Helping the Teacher and Showing Respect

The second aspect that is mentioned here is again a term with two words in it: nyenkur (bsnyen-bkur). And the first term, nyen (bsnyen), is often translated as serving, but I don’t find that a very helpful way of translating it. It actually means “helping.” And so it has two connotations, this word. Helping in the sense of not like a servant, although maybe sometimes because of the hierarchal nature of India and Tibet you get these sort of images, but being a servant is not really appropriate in our times if you’re looking at it in a very servile type of “Oh, this dirty servant.” But I think more the connotation is like being what we usually call an attendant. What does an attendant do? Like, for instance, Rinpoche was elderly; he was overweight. Sort of giving him my arm or giving him my hand to help him get up out of the car or to sit down in the car, help him to get up, this sort of thing. Right? Or going and getting something for him so he didn’t have to go and get it. This type of thing.

The other connotation of this word is “to come close to someone.” So you can come close by attending on them and helping them, but the more usual connotation of this word is “to come close by emulating the good behavior and qualities of the person.” This is the same word that we find in the term genyen (dge-bsnyen, Skt. upasaka). Nyen (bsnyen) means “to come close to.” Ge (dge) is “constructive or virtuous behavior.” So you come close to, you are approximating, what the monks are like and the nuns are like by keeping five vows.

And the term also is used for these long retreats where you’re doing let’s say three years or more just of the practice of one deity. And there the term means “to come close.” It’s sometimes called an approximating retreat. In other words, you’re coming close by emulating the deity in terms of your visualization and so on in order to come closer to becoming that deity. This is the connotation of the word.

So we’re getting closer to the teacher. This is the feeling here. You get closer by helping them to get up, by attending to them in that sense and helping them, and also getting closer in terms of being more in harmony and emulating the way that they behave, the way that they act, their good qualities. All of that’s included in this term. And when they say you want to please your guru, this is what pleases the guru, is following their practice, trying to learn from them, emulating their good qualities.

The second word in this compound, kur (bkur), means “to show respect.” Now, again going back to what the Fifth Dalai Lama said, everything has to be appropriate to the time and the place and the extent in which you show respect. So obviously to follow some of the more traditional Tibetan customs of crouching down and sticking your tongue out to show that you’re not a demon (you don’t have black on your tongue) and sucking in your air like this in front of the lama so that you don’t contaminate them with your breath, this looks very ridiculous, very artificial.

So there’s the question: Do we prostrate to the teacher? Well, if it’s a Tibetan teacher and this is part of their customs, okay. Is it appropriate when you have Western teachers and Western disciples to follow the traditional Tibetan ways of showing respect? This becomes a very interesting question. Here’s the problem. The problem is that doing these imitations of Tibetan – or Indian or Chinese or Japanese or whatever – ways of showing respect for most of us is very artificial. It doesn’t really have the state of mind with it. You’re just like a monkey imitating another culture. But to adopt certain Western customs, like what you do in front of the Queen (you bow and the ladies curtsy), that also would seem rather ridiculous as well, wouldn’t it? Or click your heels or salute, like in the army. Obviously not. So I think that this is something that needs to evolve in terms of what would be appropriate, comfortable ways for us as Westerners to show respect to Western teachers, because obviously that will happen in the future – it’s already happening.

And we already have certain customs that people follow, and coming from the texts as well. The teacher comes in, you stand up; you wait until the teacher sits down before you sit down. You’re quiet – you stop chatting with each other; you turn your mobile phone off. That’s showing respect. And unlike at university or the lower schools where some of the students are always doing text messages and stuff like that during the class – I mean, obviously that’s very disrespectful, so we don’t do that.

So there are ways in which we can show respect. Dressing appropriately, not coming with very sexy clothing and makeup and lots of jewelry and stuff like that, or like the muscle man type of thing – there’s no need for that; that’s not very respectful. Showing up on time, not leaving in the middle. These sorts of things are appropriate ways of showing respect. And this might vary from generation to generation. For the older generation, the way that you dress is far more important than for the younger generation, for example.

I think that the important point is to see what is appropriate to the person, the age – what the Fifth Dalai Lama says – what’s appropriate to the time, the place, the amount, the form, these sort of things. You see people who travel around in the entourage of His Holiness the Dalai Lama – when I do that as well – and the men are always wearing a suit and tie as a way of showing respect. And it’s not so much them showing respect to His Holiness – that’s part of it – but also the audience will have more respect for the whole entourage if they’re not dressed in sloppy, informal, dirty clothes. And of course ultimately it doesn’t make any difference, but that is not an argument against the conventional level of what are the accepted conventions of showing respect.

So coming close by attending, helping, getting closer in many ways to the teacher, and showing respect in how you deal with the teacher, and so on, is the second way of how we act with the teacher, what’s appropriate behavior.

And of course there are different levels of teachers, and all the teachers are different, and they have their own personalities. Some teachers are very affectionate; some teachers aren’t. Be sensitive to that. I can think of many examples. His Holiness the Dalai Lama sometimes hugs people, but you wouldn’t go up to His Holiness and hug him. The old Lama Yeshe was very affectionate and hugged. Serkong Rinpoche never hugged anybody, and nobody ever hugged him – except this one old babushka, this old grandmother – that wasn’t what he did. So be sensitive to what’s appropriate to the teacher, not just what you feel like doing: “I feel like giving you a big hug.”

I’m just thinking you can get into so much trouble with customs in different countries. They’re so different. This custom of when you greet somebody, you sort of do this mwah mwah! kissing type of thing. In some countries you do it once. In some countries you do it twice. In some, three times. Some, four times. In some, your lips don’t actually touch the cheek of the other person. Some countries, they do touch the cheek. Some, only men and women do it with each other. Among the Turkish and the Arabs, the men do it with each other. So you can get into big trouble by doing it the incorrect way in a certain country (I’ve gotten into trouble like that). The person gets really the wrong idea by the way that you greet them. So it’s best to watch how other people do it. We’re not talking if you’re coming as the teacher, but just in general paying attention to the customs is important.

Taking the Teacher’s Advice

Now, the third way – which is considered the best way – of how we behave with the teacher is to practice in accordance with his or her advice.

If you ask a teacher about a certain decision – and please don’t ask for a divination about the most stupid, trivial things – but if you ask for important things, whether a divination or just advice, the implication of that is that you are going to do what the teacher suggests. Otherwise why are you asking? These people who don’t like the answer that that teacher gave, so they go to some other teacher until they get the answer that they really wanted to hear. You know how when you toss a coin to see what to do and you don’t like the answer, it means “Okay, two out of three.” And then you didn’t like that, so “Okay, three out of five.” Don’t do it like that. So that’s not the way to ask a teacher. You’re asking, and then you do what the teacher suggests, and afterwards you report back: “I have done as you suggested.”

Now, of course one can evaluate. If the teacher asks you to do something which is beyond your ability or you can’t really do it, then of course you could say, “Please explain your thinking. This is going to be really difficult.”

The most appropriate thing to ask of course, in terms of advice, is about what practices to do. And to be willing to do it, as I said, is very important. And don’t complain. My good friend Alan Turner, who died a few years ago, was also a very close disciple of Serkong Rinpoche. He was a very, very serious practitioner. Rinpoche used to call him “my Western yogi.” And when it came time for him to do his ngondro (sngon-’gro), his preliminary practices, he asked Rinpoche for instructions – what the visualization was, what he should recite, and so on – to do, and then he did it. And then next time that he and Rinpoche met, Rinpoche said, “How are you doing?” And he said, “I’ve done eighty thousand of them.” And Rinpoche said, “What are you visualizing? What are you reciting?” And he told him. And Rinpoche said, “No, no. That’s no good. You should do it like this. Start all over again,” and he gave him something else to visualize and recite. And Alan did it without complaining, without “Well, you told me to do it like this!” He was very good.

When I did the Long-Life White Tara retreat… at the end of that, when you do the fire puja, it’s one of the most difficult fire pujas to do because there’s this special long grass (it’s like a reed that grows in India), and you are supposed to offer into the fire ten thousand pairs of this, each one with a mantra. So you’d better be able to do it quickly, because it would take you forever if you’re doing it slowly. So I did the retreat. I did the fire puja. And a monk had helped me to gather this grass, and it wasn’t quite ten thousand of them; it wasn’t enough. Rinpoche made me do the whole thing all over again, not the whole retreat but the whole fire puja. I had to get another ten thousand of these.

So, like that, you follow the advice of the teacher. And remember you already had this contract, as it were, this unspoken contract that you’re not going to get angry.

Now, when we ask for advice, not just “What shall I practice?” and so on, but asking advice from the teacher, that’s not the traditional type of relationship of disciple and Buddhist teacher, in which you ask for personal advice about your personal life. In the nine years that I was with him, Rinpoche never once asked me a question about my personal life or my past or my family or anything. He never asked any question. The whole relation was in the present moment of what we were doing and him teaching me, training me to be a teacher, training me to be a translator.

So what is really inappropriate, especially if the teacher is a monk or a nun, is to come and ask the teacher about advice concerning marriage problems and sexual problems and things like that. That is so totally inappropriate. The Buddhist teacher is not your cheap psychiatrist or cheap psychotherapist. The tradition is that you don’t talk about yourself. The teacher talks and gives teachings, and then it is up to us as disciples to actually put it into practice. And then if you have questions about the practice or questions about the teachings, you ask that. And the way that you ask is in terms of “Do you have any objection if…” That’s the classic phrase with which you ask.

I’m remembering the example of making two international trips with Serkong Rinpoche as his interpreter and secretary and travel agent, etc. And at the end of the second trip, Rinpoche was going back to India, and I said, “Do you have any objection if I stay in America for a couple extra weeks and visit with my mother?” And in most instances Rinpoche would say, “No, I don’t have any objection.” But at this time he said, “Don’t do that. Come back to India with me. Go to South India. There’s this very special meeting” – a ritual and initiations and so on at which His Holiness, Ling Rinpoche, and Serkong Rinpoche would be together. And it was in fact the last time that the three of them were together. He felt it was very important for me to be there.

You see, this is a much more mature way of asking. You don’t go to a guru and say, “What should I do?” and then you leave yourself open to doing anything that they tell you. They may tell you to move and go to another part of the world or whatever, and this might be quite upsetting, as it has been for many people. You don’t approach the guru with “I’m a nothing. I know nothing. Tell me what to do.” That’s not a mature relationship. The point is not to become dependent on the teacher. The point is that the teacher trains you to stand on your own feet. And so you have your own idea of what to do next in your life, and then you ask, “Do you have any objections to this?” And if they find that there’s something that would not be useful for you, they will tell you what the objections are; otherwise they give you permission.

With the relationship between a Western teacher and Western students, however, this seems to be going in a slightly different direction from the traditional one, and again things need to be adapted. The type of relationship between a Tibetan and a Tibetan, or a Westerner and Tibetan, or a Tibetan and a Westerner, or Westerner and a Westerner I think is quite different because of the cultural background. I don’t know about the custom here in the Orthodox Christian Church, but Western people coming from other forms of Christianity think of a spiritual teacher more in the model of a pastor, somebody that you go to for family advice and these sorts of things. And so between two Westerners, a little bit in that direction seems to work a little bit better – at least this is what I’ve found in my experience of being a teacher – what I call “personal impersonal.” It was impersonal – he didn’t ask, “What’s your family like? What was it like growing up?” – but very personal because you really interacted with the person.

I think the whole form of the relationship between a Western student and a Western teacher is still evolving and probably will take a slightly different form in different countries. So with my students in Berlin, they’re also my close friends, and we go out together – go to a movie or go to a restaurant or things like that – but nevertheless they show me great respect. They have great respect for me, but they don’t prostrate. So also this will depend on the individual. But for a teacher to go on the what I call the “great white guru” trip and for the students to project onto the teacher the “great white guru” trip – where they’re just imitating being like a great Tibetan lama – I find is very unhealthy. This is absurd.

Now, when it comes to Western teachers getting to the level in which they can give empowerments, tantric initiations, this is also a new area. Just because they are Western doesn’t disqualify them from becoming a great tantric master. Obviously the Tibetans are not Indians, but Tibetans became great tantric masters. But because Westerners tend to be more suspicious of Western teachers, and Tibetans are completely suspicious of Western teachers, then if a teacher is going to be a tantric master – which doesn’t mean going around offering an advertisement (“I’m giving an initiation”), but it has to come from the students who requested it from them – then they really, really have to be qualified, and they really have to have the permission of the teacher, and not make a big deal out of it.

I love the style of old Serkong Rinpoche. He was great. When we traveled around he didn’t bring any of these ritual instruments or fancy things, nothing like that. So when he gave initiations in the West, for a vase he would use a milk bottle or a soda bottle or something like that. And for certain rituals you have to have these little drawings of deities – he didn’t bring these fancy paintings around; he just drew it by hand himself. And once at a Zen center in New York, they asked for a Manjushri empowerment, this permission type of ceremony, and Rinpoche gave it just sitting on the floor with absolutely no ritual instruments whatsoever.

So being humble is very important. And I think, especially for Western teachers, this aspect of humility is one of the most important – humility and honesty – of your qualifications. So Western teachers that go around with a big title, and you have to call them by a title, and you have to treat them like Tibetans, and so on – be a little bit suspicious of what their motivation is behind all of that. Right? In some situations it might be appropriate; in other situations it might not be.