Attachment to One’s Spiritual Teacher

Some people, when they study with a spiritual teacher, develop attachment to him or her. But, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains, if we have attachment to the spiritual teacher or attachment to enlightenment or attachment to our practice or meditation or something like that, you can’t say that it is all negative, because it does have a certain benefit: it keeps us focused on things which are very positive. And so that’s not something that we have to attack very forcefully in the same way as we would attack, let’s say, attachment to hunting – something negative; or attachment to ice-cream, which is neutral; or attachment to our husband or wife, which is slightly different.

Attachment is a disturbing emotion that exaggerates the positive qualities and then doesn’t want to let go. So, if we don’t want to let go of following the teacher – of course the person needs to be a qualified teacher – and not let go of meditation, practice and enlightenment and we strive for all these things – that’s perfectly fine. What we need to modify here is the exaggeration. Well, you want to focus on the positive qualities of the teacher, so that’s not a problem, but to exaggerate that the teacher literally is a Buddha and can read everybody’s mind and knows the telephone number of everyone in the universe – this is an exaggeration. This we need to watch out for.

Particularly with the spiritual teacher, we need to be very careful because often what happens is that in focusing on the good qualities, especially if we exaggerate them, hand in hand with that, we exaggerate our own weak qualities. As a result, we become dependent on the teacher. That’s very different from relying on the advice and inspiration of the teacher. Dependency – “I can’t live without you and I can’t do anything without you” – is something that we have to work on. A proper spiritual teacher is one that is teaching us to stand on our own two feet and become a Buddha ourselves; it’s not one that wants us to become dependent on him or her. Marpa, after all, told Milarepa after he had taught him: “Now, go. Go off to the mountains, go off to the caves. Now you have to do it yourself.” Milarepa relied totally on Marpa, totally appreciated everything that he gave, but he wasn’t dependent on him.

If we also have a relation with a non-Buddhist teacher, then we can learn a great deal from that teacher – provided the person is a qualified teacher for what they’re teaching. We can get a great deal of inspiration; we can learn a lot. If we have great respect for that teacher, focusing on his or her good qualities, that’s very helpful. Buddhism says to regard everybody as our teacher – learn from them.

But again, what we need to watch out for, which comes with the attachment, is exaggerating the good qualities, particularly to think that this non-Buddhist teacher can lead us to the Buddhist goal of enlightenment. They’re not trying to lead us there, so we shouldn’t exaggerate and think that they’re going to bring us there. They may teach us something that’s helpful along the path – that’s quite possible. Learning from them, relying on them, not wanting to give them up because we think, “Studying with this teacher is not a waste of time” – this is okay. The point is not to exaggerate and even in the case of our Buddhist teacher, like the case of Milarepa and Marpa, eventually we need to go on and stand on our own feet. Of course, it’s okay and even necessary to go back when we need the teacher to clarify certain things, but not dependently, in the sense of needing to stay by the teacher like a puppy dog.