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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Spiritual Teachers > Guidelines Concerning the Relationship with a Spiritual Teacher > Session One: The Different Types of Spiritual Teacher

Guidelines Concerning the Relationship with a Spiritual Teacher

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, February 2012

Session One: The Different Types of Spiritual Teacher

Unedited Transcript
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Today and tomorrow I have been asked to give an overview of the healthy relation with a spiritual teacher, which is of course a very vast topic but also a very important topic.

As is mentioned in all the texts, the proper healthy relation with a spiritual teacher – we’re not talking about an unhealthy relationship, but a healthy proper relationship – is the root of the path. So in this statement, we have to understand the meaning of two words: one is “root,” and one is “path.”

“Path” is referring not to something that you walk on, but it’s referring to the states of mind and understanding and realization that will act as a pathway in the sense that it leads to higher goals – to higher rebirth, liberation, and enlightenment, as in lam-rim.

When we say “root,” root doesn’t mean a seed. When you talk about a plant, a plant grows from the seed. The seed comes first in time. But we’re not talking about what comes first in time when we talk about a root. It isn’t that first there’s a root and then from the root the plant grows, is it? But if we look at a plant, first you see the root, and then you see the rest of the plant. So it’s the first thing for the whole plant. So what is the purpose of a root? A root gives stability to the plant, and it’s through the root that the plant gets nourishment. And so from the healthy relation with a spiritual teacher, we gain what’s called “inspiration” (byin-rlabs, Skt. adhisthana). Sometimes it’s translated as blessing, but that’s bringing in a concept from a completely different way of thinking and system which is not really relevant. But the nourishment, the strength, and stability for our developing these progressive states of mind and realization are from the inspiration from the spiritual teacher.

So in the classic presentations of lam-rim, the relation with the spiritual teacher is usually placed first (it’s not in all versions, but it’s usually placed first). Why? You have to see the context. The context is that these lam-rim discourses by the great masters were given to an audience of monastics – monks and nuns. These were people who are already quite well involved with the Dharma. They’re there probably for a tantric empowerment; and as a preliminary for an empowerment, the teacher goes through a basic outline of the lam-rim, the graded stages. And these are people who already have a spiritual teacher. They’re not beginners. And so the teacher, Tsongkhapa, will reaffirm first the basis of what they already have, which is the relation with the teacher.

But that doesn’t mean that newcomers coming into the Dharma first have to establish the type of relation with a spiritual teacher the way that it is outlined in the lam-rim texts. It certainly doesn’t mean that. That’s why His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes that the relation with the spiritual teacher should not be taught at the beginning of the lam-rim; it should be taught at the end for Westerners, for beginners. Because a great deal of misunderstanding, confusion, and so on, can come from too much emphasis on the relation with the teacher too early. Every teaching has its proper place and its proper time in the sequence for different types of students.

Okay. Now, when we discuss the relation with a spiritual teacher, we can speak about – as we do in voidness meditation – the three spheres that are involved:

  • There’s the teacher.

  • There’s the disciple.

  • And there’s the interaction between them.

And of course we don’t think of this in terms of the simplification of the Nyaya position. Nyaya is a school of Indian philosophy, non-Buddhist philosophy, in which we have – like blocks – here’s the truly existent teacher, here’s the truly existent disciple, and here’s the truly existent stick that connects them that’s the relationship. And then you can talk about “How do you relate to our relationship?” and so on. This happens in couples as well.

So we’re not talking about three separate self-established self-existent entities – guru, disciple, relationship – but the whole situation is dependently arising, which means that it arises and functions and works dependently on all the qualifications and behavior of the teacher, the qualifications and behavior of the disciple, and the way in which they interact. So it’s a very dynamic type of situation, not three solid blocks being connected with sticks. And although that might sound like a silly oversimplification, it’s actually quite profound in terms of how we conceive of ourselves as the disciple, how we conceive of the teacher, how we conceive of our relationship.

So we need to understand that there are many different levels of spiritual teacher, many different levels of student or disciple, and many different ways of relating between the two, which means different qualifications for different levels. The way in which we interact is going to arise dependently on the circumstances – the time in which we live, the place, the culture in which we are living. Obviously there’s a big difference between being a disciple in a monastery living in the house of your teacher and someone in the West who only sees the teacher maybe a few times in their lifetime, when they’re sitting in a crowd of a hundred thousand people. And there’s a difference between entering into the relation with the teacher when we are eight years old and entering when we are an educated adult with a family.

So it’s important not to think all the parameters that are involved here are static and fixed and have a fundamentalist approach: “Well, it’s written here exactly how it should be, and I must force myself to be like that.” What it describes in the text of course are the guidelines of what are the factors that are involved, the type of behavior and so on, but then it’s up to us and the teacher to adapt that within the situation, within the circumstances. Then it will work. Okay. Flexibility within a certain structure – this is the whole Asian approach to creativity – how we creatively adapt a certain structure into an environment. If you think in terms of Buddhist art or architecture, there are certain structures, but the creativity comes from fitting that into the environment around it, not in making up something completely new.

The Different Types of Spiritual Teacher

So as I explained in the book that I wrote – Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship – we can differentiate different levels of teacher and different levels of the student or disciple. There’s no need for me to go into tremendous details about this. You can read it in the book, which is also on my website in Russian.

Buddhist Professors

But in brief we have a Buddhist professor, somebody that gives us information. That’s very important when starting on the spiritual path. We have to have correct information about it, the discriminating awareness that comes from listening or reading. And obviously the teacher has to know what they are talking about and be a valid source of information to be a proper Buddhist professor.

And as a student of such a teacher, we need to be open-minded, be interested, and use our commonsense discriminating awareness to see “Does this make sense? Does this not make sense?” – not just write something down, but try to think about it. Those are the three qualities of a disciple that Aryadeva, a great Indian master, mentioned. So that’s valid for any level of spiritual follower, or seeker, or student.

Dharma Instructors

Then we have what I call a Dharma instructor. This is somebody who actually teaches us and explains to us, based on their own experience, how you apply these teachings in life, daily life. Obviously this is a different level of interest on the part of the student, isn’t it? We’re not like a teacher in the school passing on information to others as if we were some sort of anthropologist or sociologist – we’re just studying the culture, getting the information, and we pass that on – but we are interested to know how it would be like to actually think like this, to actually have these types of attitudes and states of mind that are described in Buddhism. And the teacher has to have some experience in doing that, not just the correct information. It certainly is much more effective if the teacher speaks from their own personal experience rather than just in theory.

And of course one qualification that is very important with the teacher is that they are honest, that they are not pretending to have qualities and experiences that they don’t have or hiding their shortcomings. That’s very important for developing a sense of trust. This is essential in the relationship with the spiritual teacher, that we trust them – that what they say is correct, that they’re being honest with us.

You know this term which is often translated in English as devotion. I don’t know what the connotation is of the Russian translation, but the English term has really a very misleading connotation. Devotion has almost the feeling of blindly worshiping somebody. That’s certainly not what is intended. What’s the connotation of the Russian word?

Participant: Like devotion, the same Christian sense of devoting yourself to God.

Alex: So the same type of connotation as the English, sort of a worshiping. But bear in mind that the same word [tenpa (bsten-pa)] is used in Tibetan for the relationship with a doctor. And we find in the text that this is the optimal attitude that we need to have with a spiritual teacher, is to regard the spiritual teacher as the doctor, I’m a sick person, the Dharma is the medicine, and the Arya Sangha are the nurses. I mean, this is classic.

So we certainly don’t worship our doctor, do we? But rather, having examined the qualifications of the doctor, and we know that this is a good doctor, a qualified doctor, then we trust the doctor’s judgment as to what would be the proper treatment, and we entrust ourselves to the doctor’s care.

I don’t know if in Russian you have the same two words that are put together here, to trust and then entrust yourself to the person. Are the two words related here? They’re from the same root?

Wonderful. So this is the meaning of this term, to rely on the spiritual teacher. It doesn’t mean to worship the teacher. It means to have evaluated the teacher in many, many different ways, evaluated our own ability to enter into the relation with the teacher and entrust ourselves. Then we trust them and we entrust ourselves in a healthy way. So this is a valid point whether we’re referring to a Buddhist professor – do I entrust myself to learning the information from this person? – or an instructor, Dharma instructor.

Meditation or Ritual Trainers

Then we have another level, which what I call a meditation or ritual trainer, like you have a trainer in a fitness club. Here you have somebody who shows you how to meditate, how you sit, how you set up the altar, how you do various rituals; and maybe if your posture isn’t correct and so on, he’ll correct it. So very helpful. This is one level of teacher that we all need.

Spiritual Mentors

And then we have what can be translated as a spiritual mentor [geshe (dge-bshes, dge-ba’i bshes-gnyen]. The connotation of that word is “someone who really guides you in a deep way for your spiritual development.” Terrible word. Spiritual is almost impossible to define. In a very simple way of explaining what we mean by spiritual development in the Buddhist context, we’re not talking about becoming “holy, holy” and all of that, but developing more and more positive good qualities and getting rid of shortcomings and negativities.

There are many qualifications for the spiritual mentor, but what is underlying all the qualities is that they have some sort of level of stable actual realization. Which of course then we have to define what that means. And what that means is that they actually have, through the teachings, transformed themselves so that they have actualized, to at least some sort of stable degree, the good qualities that are described in the Dharma, and they have established to some sort of stable degree getting rid of the shortcomings that need to be gotten rid of.

For instance, if we talk about voidness, it’s not just that they have an accurate, correct understanding, because again that’s a difficult word – what does it mean to understand something? But it isn’t that they can just accurately and decisively tell you what it is. It is not that, not only that. (Of course they have to have that, but it’s not only that. That is necessary, just to be able to give correct information about voidness or bodhichitta.) And not just be able to give you the technical details of how you meditate on it. But they actually have to have actualized within themselves the transformations that would come as a result of deeply – again, what word can you use? – deeply absorbing and integrating these teachings. It has to have produced its effect. Dharmakirti always speaks about that, that something has to have the ability to produce its effect in order to say that it’s established.

Think in terms of inspiration. Inspiration is the main need for the spiritual teacher. I mean, obviously you need a teacher to get correct information from, whether it’s a live person or a book or the internet, and you need somebody to show you how to do things, like to show you how to walk. And so inspiration is something that we can get at different levels from these various levels of spiritual teacher. It’s not just that we get inspiration from the spiritual mentor. Remember when we talk about the parameters of the relationship, it dependently arises in terms of what level the teacher is, what level the disciple is, the circumstances, and so on.

Getting a really clear lecture from a live person, in terms of information, you feel “Wow!” You’re really inspired. “This is really cool!” But it’s a different level of inspiration, isn’t it, from reading a book or reading it on the internet. And if you have a personal trainer, a personal meditation trainer… Like in a fitness club. You have much more energy than just working on the machines by yourself in a fitness club. It’s more inspiring. “Come on!” “Let’s go!” “You can do more!” etc., this type of thing. And also if someone tells you about their experience in dealing with Dharma issues, that also is inspiring, isn’t it? Rather than just hearing about theory, you hear personal experience. But when you actually meet and interact with somebody who actually has transformed themselves and embodies these qualities, like for instance His Holiness the Dalai Lama, then that is a whole different level of inspiration. You see “Wow. It really is possible.”

Qualities of the Spiritual Seeker

So with all these levels of teacher, from our side as a disciple we need to be open-minded. And then there’s the whole description in terms of the vase: not being the vase that’s upside down or with a hole in it (it doesn’t retain anything) or dirty inside (filled with preconceptions).

And we need to have commonsense discrimination. What does that mean? Well, look at the definition. Buddhism is rich with definitions of things. So we have a mental factor called distinguishing (‘du-shes, Skt. samjna) – sometimes translated as recognition, but it means “to distinguish” – so distinguish positive qualities from negative qualities, distinguish accurate from inaccurate. And then discriminating awareness (shes-rab, Skt. prajna) adds certainty to that. So that means that in the relationship, do they really have these realizations or not? If they do, then it should affect the way that they behave. They give a certain amount of information, so you discriminate, distinguish: “Well, does that accord with the classic texts of Buddhism or not?” And not just one little book that we’ve read but the whole literature. Another term which is used in association with this commonsense discriminating awareness – “common sense” is more the connotation (does it really make sense or not?) – another term that is used in connection with it is the term that means “intelligence” (blo-gros). Use your intelligence.

And then interest. So what is our level of interest? Are we just interested to get information? Are we interested to just hear nice stories about people? Are we interested just to know how far apart from each other the water bowls should be on an altar? Or are we interested in actually transforming ourselves? And to be at that stage where you really are sincerely interested in transforming yourself, that’s not an easy state to reach. And even if you’ve reached that state of being interested in it, are you actually willing to do it? That requires a great deal of courage, doesn’t it? And rather than going into the unknown in terms of what would it be like to transform, and without just reading about it in some book, the stories of previous masters, it gives us far more confidence and stability to see a living example of what would it be like to actually transform ourselves.

As one of my close Dharma friends used to say about His Holiness the Dalai Lama... I mean, imagine that you have a billion people who think you’re public enemy number one, and all the responsibilities and all the things that he has, and look at the way that he is. But if one person doesn’t like us, we get completely depressed. Imagine having a billion people not like you, and it’s all in the newspapers and so on. And my friend said that “Whether His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a Buddha or not, it doesn’t matter to me. That’s irrelevant. If I could become like him, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, that would be great!” That is a very stable state of inspiration. It gives us the strength and courage that “Okay, if I give up the whole messed up, neurotic level at which I was and transform it, I can become like this.” And look at how incredible that is, to become someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama – far more inspiring than just reading stories about the Buddha or Milarepa or somebody like that, because you have a living example, so you see how this person deals with all sorts of difficult situations. It’s not just trying to figure it out from reading a book, reading a story.

So the strength of inspiration (byin-gyis rlabs, Skt. adhishthana), what’s usually translated as blessings. Let’s try to understand a little bit more this idea of inspiration. If you look at the Sanskrit word, it means “to uplift.” And if we look at the connotation of the Tibetan term, it’s sort of “waves that give us something, that brighten us.” So it’s this uplifting, this energy. It’s like the root that gives us the sustenance to be able to continue on the path of making transformations in ourselves.

Levels of Spiritual Mentor

Now, if we look at the technical divisions of the levels of spiritual mentor, then we have a differentiation according to the type of vows that we take with that spiritual mentor. That’s how it’s usually divided. So we have:

  • A refuge or pratimoksha vow preceptor, the one that gives the refuge, the one that gives lay or monastic vows.

  • Then a Mahayana master with whom we take the bodhisattva vows.

  • And then a tantric master with whom we take, if it’s the two higher classes of tantra, the tantric vows. But regardless of which class of tantra, we receive the empowerments and transmissions and what’s called the quintessential guideline teachings (man-ngag).

For each level of spiritual mentor, there are different lists of qualifications, and for each subsequent level, you need more qualifications (in addition to the ones in the earlier levels). And there are all these lists of qualifications – you can learn about them, read about them – the most important are:

  • Ethical discipline.

  • A good level of concentration.

  • They have pacified, to a great extent, their disturbing emotions.

  • They have great enthusiasm to teach and joy in doing it.

  • And obviously have more knowledge than we have, more experience than we have.

  • And then of course their motivation is sincerely to help the student, with loving-kindness, compassion, and so on

  • And not being a hypocrite, pretending to have qualities that they don’t have. Being honest.

And as it says in so many texts, to find the teacher that has all the qualifications is extremely rare, so they need to have more positive qualities than negative qualities, at least some of these. And the most important is being an ethical person, having sincere motivation to help others, and having more knowledge and experience than we have, and being honest about it. These are really very, very important. They’re not a hypocrite.

Root Gurus

Now, we also have the term root guru (rtsa-ba’i bla-ma), that word root again. So root means – as we had in the relation with the spiritual teacher being the root of the path – it means the one from whom we derive the strongest inspiration. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be our first teacher, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the teacher from whom we get the most teachings or the teacher with whom we have the most contact, but the one that we find the most inspiring, who gives us the most strength at all stages – beginning, middle, and end, as they say – of our spiritual journey, gives us that inspiration on the strongest level to go on. And it may take quite a while of studying and interacting with various teachers until we find somebody who really can serve that function for us, being the root guru.

And it may be more than one spiritual teacher. It could be that you have two root gurus. And as His Holiness explains, you can always look at your gurus like Eleven-Headed Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara). The different faces aren’t contradictory, but they all fit together harmoniously. That’s why it’s very important that if we study with many different teachers, they have a good relation with each other. Because if they have serious disagreements and animosity toward each other, then we have really terrible loyalty conflicts, and that can cause a lot of problems. They may teach different styles, different types of practice. That’s not a problem as long as they have mutual respect for each other. This is very important.

We have this term in Buddhism called samaya in Sanskrit, damtsig (dam-tshig) in Tibetan, and what this means, the way that I like to translate it, is a close bond. A bond is like a connection between two people. Right? It can also be a bond between yourself and a certain type of discipline or practice or with a yidam (a Buddha-figure, deity). But here what I’m referring to is its usage in the relation between yourself and the teacher or between two teachers. There’s this close bond based on respect for each other. That’s important in terms of the relation between the student and the teacher or between two teachers, that there’s mutual respect from both sides – they fit together harmoniously.

Since we’re talking about terms – and since I’m talking about terms – Serkong Rinpoche, my main teacher (in addition to His Holiness the Dalai Lama), always explained that the Tibetan and Sanskrit terms are very rich with meaning and connotation, and what we can do, like with a cow, is milk from them all the different meanings and connotations. So what is the connotation of the main word which is used for a disciple (gdul-bya)? It’s “somebody who is to be tamed.” They open themselves up to be tamed by the teacher, like a wild animal, to be tamed and to be trained. And we don’t talk about being trained like a circus animal to perform tricks – being trained how to sit properly and do a ritual. That’s not what it’s referring to. And when we’re very well trained, the teacher pats us on the head and says, “Well done. Good doggy,” throws us a doggy biscuit, and we wag our tail. That’s not what we are aiming for. Sometimes our attitude is very much like the dog waiting to be patted on the head and then we wag our tail.

I often tell the story of my training with Serkong Rinpoche. In the nine years that I was very closely with him most of the time, in my training he only thanked me twice. He never praised me. And I was his secretary, interpreter, arranged all these trips. I did a tremendous amount for him. The point being that I wasn’t doing that in order to get a pat on the head and wag my tail. I was doing that to facilitate his ability to help others. This is a very helpful image, the image of the dog, very helpful. Tibetans often use images of animals to give us a little bit more graphic sense of how we’re behaving.

Questions and Answers

Okay. We have ten more minutes, so perhaps you have some questions on this, rather than starting on the next topic.

Checking the Qualities of the Teacher

Participant: When talking about the spiritual qualities we are looking for in a spiritual teacher, you mentioned having a correct motivation, bodhichitta. But how can we check whether the person has bodhichitta when we haven’t yet developed it ourselves?

Alex: When we look at the qualifications, the term that appears in the lists is the term that means loving-kindness (brtse-ba). They don’t list bodhichitta as a term in the list, which is used in general for a preceptor that gives the vows, because it needs to be valid for both Hinayana and Mahayana teachers. In the qualifications for the Mahayana teacher, the one who gives bodhisattva vows, obviously they need to have bodhichitta, that’s correct.

And how do we know about these qualities if we haven’t achieved them ourselves? The analogy which is used is that you may not be able to see a fish deep in the water, but you can detect the presence of the fish by the ripples on the surface. So in terms of loving-kindness, is the teacher really interested in the various students and disciples? Are they are concerned about their welfare and so on? Or are they are just exploiting them to get money, fame, sexual favors, etc.? And what are they working on in terms of bodhichitta? Are they working to become a Buddha themselves? Are they continuing to go to teachings? Are they continuing to do meditation retreats and stuff like that? Or are they just trying to become the biggest, most famous teacher with a big empire? Are they really working to benefit others? So see for yourself in terms of your interaction, you ask others, and you evaluate – use discriminating awareness. And remember, any type of realization – we’re talking about realization as a qualification for a spiritual mentor – there are many different levels of that, and we evaluate it in terms of the effect that it would have. What kind of transformation has it made in this person?

Teachers Who Act in an Unethical Way

Participant: You mentioned at the beginning of the seminar that we’re mainly talking about healthy types of relationship with a spiritual teacher. But what should I do if a person who I considered to be one of my teachers for more than fifteen years suddenly starts behaving in strange ways that I find unacceptable? Should I use such a person as a source of information and still read, listen to, and attend their lectures? Should I continue considering that person to be one of my teachers while considering some of his actions unacceptable?

Alex: It says very clearly in many texts that if we have entered into a relation with a spiritual teacher perhaps prematurely, without really examining very well over a long period of time, and later we find that they have serious flaws, we should maintain respect for the benefits that we might have received from that teacher, but we keep a respectful distance.

And it says also very clearly in many texts that throughout the relationship with the spiritual teacher, we never lose our discriminating awareness. And so if we find that the teacher is acting in a strange way – in an unethical way, I should say (it could be eccentric, but let’s say in an unethical way) – or the teacher asks us to do something which is unethical or improper, then you say no without anger, without incrimination (“You’re bad”), and so on. Or the alternative would be to say, “You’ve asked me to do something which is unethical or unreasonable” – it doesn’t have to be unethical, it could be unreasonable – “Could you please explain to me why you said that? What is your thinking behind that?”

Participant: If the person is acting in an unethical way, we should maintain a distance?

Alex: If they ask us to act in an unethical way, either you say no, or you could politely say – in addition to not doing it (if it’s unethical) – “Why are you saying that? What is your reason?” Or if they ask us to do something which is beyond our ability and really impossible for us to do, then: “Could you please explain why you’re asking me to do that? What is your thinking?” Discriminate.

I’ll relate to you my personal experience with that. Once His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked me and two rinpoches that I was doing translations with to translate this huge encyclopedia by Kongtrul [Jamgon Kongtrul’s Ocean of Infinite Knowledge (Shes-bya kun-khyab)]. Now, mind you, this is what was undertaken by Kalu Rinpoche’s translation group, and they’ve been working on it for the last, I don’t know, twenty-five years, and they still haven’t finished it, and there’s a huge group of people (not huge but many people) working on it. So we asked His Holiness very politely that “Well, thank you very much, but this will probably take the rest of our lives to do. Could you please explain what your thinking is, why you want us to spend the rest of our lives doing this, translating this encyclopedia?” So not freaking out but asking very politely. And His Holiness said, “Well, yeah, I think it would be good to have it translated, but perhaps you’re right; it’s too big for just the three of you to undertake.” So he excused us from that.

But then there are other things that His Holiness has asked me to do which seemed as though they were impossible, what I often call “mission impossibles,” but I have enough confidence in His Holiness that His Holiness is able to see cause and effect and so on, what connections people have. I remember once he said, “I want you to find for me and bring me a black African Sufi master from West Africa.” And it was amazing – I was able to find such a master with almost no effort whatsoever. I met a German diplomat soon after that who was a diplomat in Africa, and so I asked him. And he said, “Oh, this friend of mine is the Sufi leader of Guinea” – a country in West Africa – and he just happened to be in India for some ayurvedic treatment, and it just happened to be exactly when I was going back to India, and it just happened that he would be in Delhi at the same time as I was and had a few extra days, and so I could accompany him up to Dharamsala to meet His Holiness. So although one could joke and say it was just pure coincidence, obviously His Holiness was able to know all the karmic causes and so on that would bring something like that about.

So one discriminates between not to translate this encyclopedia – “Come on, that’s a little bit beyond my ability” – and bringing a West African Sufi master to Dharamsala for him.

So let’s end here for lunch, and we’ll continue.