Healthy Behavior toward a Spiritual Teacher

Healthy behavior toward a spiritual teacher, as described in the traditional texts on the topic, refers to how we speak and act, in general, in our teacher’s presence. These presentations do not often deal with the protocol and proper etiquette when we receive teachings. That’s usually found elsewhere and includes such things as not wearing a hat, not carrying a weapon, not having our feet pointing toward the teacher or the Buddha thangkas, and so on. But I think all of that falls within the category of showing respect.

Making Offerings

The traditional presentations list three points concerning our behavior toward a spiritual teacher. The first involves making offerings. This can be a bit delicate because, in terms of seeing the teacher as a Buddha, the teacher doesn’t need our offerings. A Buddha doesn’t need anything, and certainly a Buddha doesn’t need some sticks of incense or a kata (a ceremonial scarf).

Making offerings is not to be misunderstood as meaning giving the teacher all our money. We have to be cautious that this doesn’t become an abusive extreme with a teacher making financial demands for all the student’s money. This has happened in the past with certain teachers, not necessarily Buddhist. 

When I first began studying with Serkong Rinpoche, I always used to bring a stick of incense or a kata. Soon after that he scolded me, saying, “I don’t need this junk. Why are you giving me this? 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 and after that I brought him that.

The point is, if we’re offering something to our teacher, we shouldn’t bring something useless; instead, find out what the teacher might actually need or like. If the teacher is on a diet or overweight, it doesn’t help at all to bring cakes and candies. If they have any level of self-control, they will usually give them away to the next person who comes, which is okay. When choosing an offering, be sensitive as to what would be an appropriate, nice thing to give.

Offering the Company of Our Family

Making offerings doesn’t necessarily mean offering actual material things. It has a much wider application in terms of supporting the teacher. For instance, we find in the classic texts that we should be willing to give our family – spouse, children, etc. – to the teacher. That certainly doesn’t mean to give them as servants or slaves. But in a more modern setting, many of the Tibetan teachers who come to the West are not used at all to living by themselves. At the monasteries there are always a lot of people; and in addition, Tibetans are very social. What is very nice is offering, for instance, an invitation to come to our homes to have a nice meal with our families. This is an offering of our family.

It is a bit of a romantic myth, which many of us have, that all Tibetan teachers like to sit by themselves and meditate all the time. That’s not how most Tibetans actually behave in India. Certainly, they have a lot of debate, rituals, meditation and so on, but, as I said, they are very social. They like to drink tea with friends, chat and joke. They’re humans. It’s equally valid to see them as Buddhas and to also see them as human beings who need and enjoy human warmth and human contact.

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

When I traveled with him in the West to Milan, Italy, we stayed in the large home of the family of one of the students. All the teachers who came to Milan at that time always stayed at this house. It had lots of room. It was one of these wonderful Italian families in which four generations lived together. The grandmother was a fantastic cook, a big, round lady, and Rinpoche himself was rather round. 

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. In the mornings while the grandmother was preparing breakfast, Rinpoche would come just in his under-robe, not his regular robes, and sit at the kitchen table while she was preparing breakfast. He would do his recitations there. The grandmother said that of all the lamas who stayed with them, he was the greatest because he was so relaxed and natural with the family. He really appreciated having that type of real human contact with the grandmother in the kitchen. 

It was really funny because when we left, the grandmother gave Rinpoche a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, which was a little bit shocking to everyone. Rinpoche was perfectly relaxed with that. I wouldn’t recommend doing that with any of your teachers; it could be easily misunderstood. The point is that Rinpoche really appreciated 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 text, in the section concerning making offerings, points out that we need to consider the appropriate time, place and measure. “Measure” means the amount that we give. What might have been appropriate in ancient India might not be appropriate in our present modern times. We need to use our sensibility and discriminating awareness to see what is appropriate.

Supporting the Work of the Teacher

Another helpful way of describing making offerings is that we are supporting the work of the teacher. Our teacher is working to try to benefit everyone as much as possible. How can we support that? We can support that financially, or we can support that by helping in terms of translating, cooking, getting visas, driving them, or whatever. We are offering them time and space. Sometimes, teachers come to the West and people there are greedy and exploitive, trying to get as much as possible from the teacher. For instance, they don’t allow them the time to do their daily practice, or maybe the time for a little rest if they’re elderly. Supporting the teacher’s well-being in all of these ways can be considered as making offerings.

One mistake that might occur is when the teacher becomes ill, some students might say, “Oh, he’s a Buddha. He’s only manifesting this to teach us a lesson,” and they just pray, “Oh lama, lama, lama.” This is completely naive and inconsiderate. Instead, we offer to take the teacher to the doctor and get medicine. Don’t just let them suffer.

Not Making a Big Show of Making an Offering

Also, when making offerings, don’t make a big show out of it where everybody has to see that we’re making the offering or expect a personal thank you. When traveling with Serkong Rinpoche, for example, again in Italy, somebody came to see him and when he left after the interchange, he discreetly left an envelope with some money in it on the table at the side. There was no ostentatious show of presenting it to Rinpoche. Rinpoche said this is a very good way of making offerings if the circumstances allow for that. If not, the point is to make an offering quietly without drawing attention in any way or making sure that everybody sees it.

This applies to prostrations as well. Once I was with Rinpoche in Spiti, a valley in India on the border of Tibet. This was an area where Buddhism had really degenerated. Rinpoche had revived the traditions, the lineages, and had gotten Buddhism well started again in that region. He’s regarded almost like the saint of this valley. He also died there and was reborn there. Whenever he went there, of course as many people as possible would come to see him. Before each would go up to him to give a kata or whatever, they would do prostration. 

In the type of close relation that I had with Rinpoche, he would often tell me what he thought. In this case, he thought it was really ridiculous that there was a long line outside the room and each of these people would wait until they got inside in front of him to do prostration. It took forever to get through this line, 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’s time and don’t turn making offerings, or whatever we’re doing, into an egotistical show: “How holy and wonderful I am!” The main thing is our attitude.

Helping the Teacher and Showing Respect

The second of the three types of healthy, proper behavior with our teacher listed in the texts is a compound term with two words in it: “nyenkur” (bsnyen-bkur). The first word in the compound, “nyen” (bsnyen), is often translated as “serving,” but that may not be a very helpful way of translating it. It actually means “helping.” The word has two connotations. First, we are helping, but not in the sense of a servant. Sometimes, because of the hierarchal nature of India and Tibet, we get these implications and images; however, being a servant is not really appropriate in our times if we’re considering it as a very lowly, servile type of position. The connotation is more like what we usually call being an “attendant.” What does an attendant do? For instance, Rinpoche was elderly and overweight. I would give him my arm or my hand to help him get in or out of the car, this sort of thing. I would get things for him, so he didn’t have to go and get them himself.

The other connotation of this word is “to come close to someone.” We can come close by attending to 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), someone with lay vows. “Nyen” (bsnyen) meaning “to come close to.” “Ge” (dge) is “constructive or virtuous behavior.” We are approximating the monks and nuns by keeping the five lay vows.

The term also is used for these long tantric retreats, three years or more, focused on the practice of one deity. In this circumstance, the term means “to come close.” It’s sometimes called an “approximating retreat,” in that we’re emulating the deity in our visualization and so on in order to come closer to becoming that deity. This is the connotation of the word.

Simply put, we’re getting closer to the teacher. This is the feeling here. We get closer by helping and attending to them and also in terms of being more in harmony and emulating the way that they behave and their good qualities. All of that’s included in this term. This is what pleases the spiritual teacher: to follow their practice, try to learn from them, and emulate their good qualities.

The second word in this compound, “kur” (bkur), means “to show respect.” According to the Fifth Dalai Lama, everything has to be appropriate to the time and the place regarding how we show respect. Obviously, to follow the more traditional Tibetan customs of crouching over and sticking our tongue out to show that it isn’t black and we’re not a demon or sucking in air in front of the lama so that we don’t contaminate them with our breath, by today’s standards, would appear very artificial.

Do we prostrate to the teacher? If it’s a Tibetan teacher and this is part of their customs, okay. Is it appropriate when we 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 can seem very artificial. Therefore, if we’re imitating another culture just like a monkey, we tend not to have the correct state of mind accompanying what we’re doing. 

However, to adopt certain Western customs, like bowing or curtsying in front of the Queen, or clicking our heels and saluting, would seem rather ridiculous as well, wouldn’t it? 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. That will happen in the future and it’s already happening. We already have certain customs found in the traditional texts that people follow. The teacher comes in, we stand up; we wait until the teacher sits down before we sit down. We’re quiet; we stop chatting with each other and turn off our mobile phones. That’s showing respect. We don’t text messages; obviously, texting during the talk is very disrespectful.

There are other ways in which we can show respect. We dress appropriately, not overly casual or sexy clothing, without lots of makeup or lots of jewelry. There’s no need for that; that’s not very respectful. We show up on time and don’t leave in the middle. These sorts of things are appropriate ways of showing respect. This might vary from generation to generation. For the older generation, the way that we dress is far more important than for the younger generation, for example.

The important point is to see what is appropriate to the person, their age and what the Fifth Dalai Lama says: what’s appropriate to the time, the place, the measure, the form, these sort of things. Look at the people who travel in the entourage of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The men always wearing a suit and tie as a way of showing respect. I do that as well. 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 entire party if they’re not dressed in sloppy, informal, dirty clothes. Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t make any difference, but that is not an argument against following the accepted conventions for showing respect.

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

Hugging the Teacher

Of course, there are different levels of teachers, and all the teachers are different; 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 old Italian grandmother. 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 how you can get into so much trouble with customs in different countries. They’re so different. This custom of when you greet somebody, you kiss them on the cheek with the loud sound od smacking your lips, “mwah mwah.” 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. In some countries, only men and women do it with each other. Among the Turkish and the Arabs, the men do it with each other. 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 about if you’re coming as the teacher, in which case it would be inappropriate to greet the students with a kiss on the cheek. But just in general paying attention to local customs is important.

Taking the Teacher’s Advice

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 we ask a teacher about a certain decision – and please don’t ask for a divination about the most stupid, trivial things – but if we ask for important things, whether a divination or just advice, the implication is that we are going to do what the teacher suggests. Otherwise why are we asking? Some people who don’t like the answer that that teacher gives go to some other teacher until they get the answer that they really wanted to hear – that’s completely improper. You know how when you toss a coin to see what to do and you don’t like the answer, then you say, “Okay, two out of three.” And then when you don’t like that result, “Okay, three out of five.” Don’t be like that. That’s not the way to ask a teacher for advice. Once we ask, we need to do what the teacher suggests, and afterwards report back: “I’ve done as you suggested.”

Now, of course we should evaluate the teacher’s advice. If the teacher asks us to do something beyond our ability or we can’t really do it, then of course we should 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 being willing to do it, as I said, is most 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.” When it came time for him to do his ngondro (sngon-’gro), his preliminary practices, he asked Rinpoche for instructions for the 100,000 prostrations – what the visualization was, what he should recite, and so on – and then he did it. The next time that he and Rinpoche met, Rinpoche said, “How are you doing?” He said, “I’ve done 80,000 of them.” Rinpoche then asked, “What are you visualizing? What are you reciting?” When he told him. 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. Alan did it without complaining, without “You told me to do it this other way!” He was really a good practitioner.

Once I did the Long-Life White Tara retreat. The fire puja that you need to do at the end of that is one of the most difficult fire pujas to do. That’s because there’s this special long grass (it’s like a reed that grows in India), which you need to offer 10,000 pairs of into the fire, each pair 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. In any case, I did the retreat and afterwards I did the fire puja. A monk had helped me gather this grass, but when offering them into the fire I discovered that there wasn’t quite 10,000 of them; it wasn’t enough. When I told Rinpoche, he made me do the whole thing all over again – not the whole retreat, but the whole fire puja. I had to get another 10,000 pair of them.

Like that, we need to follow the advice of our teacher. And remember, we already have made this unspoken contract, as it were, that we’re never going to get angry with him or her.

Now, when asking our teacher for advice about something other than our practice, we need to be aware that in the traditional disciple-teacher relationship, it was not the custom to ask for personal advice about our private lives. In the nine years that I was with him, Serkong Rinpoche never once asked me a question about my personal life or my past, my family or anything. He never asked any question, and I never spoke about it. The whole relation was centered around the present moment of him teaching me and training me to be a translator and a teacher, and my helping make his teachings available to others.

How to Ask Advice

What is really inappropriate, especially if the teacher is a monk or a nun, is to ask him or her for advice concerning couple problems and especially sexual problems, things like that. That is totally inappropriate. A Buddhist teacher is not a cheap psychiatrist or cheap psychotherapist. The tradition is that we don’t talk about ourselves with a Buddhist teacher. The teacher talks and gives teachings, and then it is up to us as disciples to actually put them into practice. Then, if we have questions about the practice or the teachings, we ask about that. And if we have a question concerning doing a certain practice or attending a certain teaching, the way to ask is “Do you have any objection if…” That’s the classic phrase with which to ask.

Let me give an example. I made two international trips with Serkong Rinpoche as his interpreter, secretary, travel agent, etc. 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?” In most instances, Rinpoche would say, “No, I don’t have any objection.” But this time he said, “Don’t do that. Come back to India with me and go with me to South India. It will be a very special occasion, with a ritual, initiations and so on at that His Holiness and Ling Rinpoche will be at.” I did that and, in fact, it was very special, because that was the last time that the three of them – His Holiness, Ling Rinpoche and Serkong Rinpoche – were together for a ritual. Rinpoche felt it was very important for me to be there.

Suggesting a course of action and asking if our teacher has any objection is a much more mature way of asking than going to our guru and asking, “What should I do?” When we ask like that, we leave ourselves open to doing anything that they tell us to do. If we’re working at a Buddhist center, they may tell us to move to another part of the world to work at another center, and this might be quite disruptive and upsetting, as it has been for many people. So, please, don’t approach the teacher with the attitude, “I’m a nothing. I know nothing. Tell me what to do.” That’s not a mature or healthy relationship. 

The point is not to become dependent on the teacher. A proper teacher trains us to stand on our own feet. So, have your own idea of what to do next in your life and then ask, “Do you have any objections to this?” If the teacher finds that it would not be useful for you, he or she will tell you what the objections are; otherwise they give you their approval.

Western Students with Western Spiritual Teachers

The relationships between Western students and Western spiritual teachers, however, seem to be going in a slightly different direction from traditional ones and, again, things need to be adapted to different situations. The types 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 are quite different from each other because of the cultural backgrounds. I don’t know about the custom here in Russia with 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 they go to for family advice and these sorts of things. And so, between two Westerners, having the relationship go a little bit in that direction seems to work better – at least this is what I’ve found in my experience of being a teacher. With Serkong Rinpoche, my relation was different. It was what I call “personal impersonal.” It was impersonal in the sense that he didn’t ask, “What’s your family like? What was it like growing up?” but also very personal because we interacted with each other in a personal manner.

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. For instance, my students in Berlin are also my close friends. We go out together – go to a movie or go to a restaurant or things like that. Nevertheless, they have great respect for me, but they certainly don’t prostrate or bring me katas. The type of relationship also depends on the individuals. But for a Western teacher to go on what I call the “great white guru” trip and for the students to project onto the teacher the “great white guru” trip – where the Western teacher is just imitating being like a great Tibetan lama – I find very unhealthy. This is absurd.

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

I love the style of old Serkong Rinpoche. He was great. When we traveled around in Europe and North America, he didn’t bring any ritual instruments or fancy things, nothing like that. When he gave initiations in the West, for a ritual vase he would use a milk bottle, a soda bottle or something like that. Certain rituals require holding up little drawings of deities and symbols. He didn’t bring fancy paintings of these around; he just drew them by hand himself when needed. Once at a Zen center in New York, the students asked for a Manjushri empowerment, the permission type of ceremony. Rinpoche gave it just sitting on the floor with absolutely no ritual instruments whatsoever!

Being humble, then, is very important. Especially for Western teachers, I think this aspect of humility and honesty are the most important qualifications. When Western teachers go around with a big title and you have to call them by a title and you have to treat them like Tibetans, be a little bit suspicious of what their motivation is behind all of that. In some situations, it might be appropriate; but in other situations, it might not be. Thank you.

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