Benefits of a Healthy Relation with a Spiritual Teacher

After we have carefully examined the teacher, the classic texts on the graded path (lam-rim) speak about the benefits or advantages of having a healthy relation with a spiritual teacher. They also discuss the disadvantages of turning away from that relationship. It is important to remember the example of Atisha going to Sumatra and examining the teacher, Serlingpa, for a very long time before actually starting to study with him. Some of the texts even say that the teacher and disciple need to examine each other for twelve years before they seriously commit to the relationship. Certainly, this careful scrutiny is essential, and once we commit and entrust ourselves to a teacher in the proper way, then we experience the many benefits.

In order to help develop an aspiration to achieve something, a general method found in the Dharma is to describe the benefits of having it, and warn us about the dangers when, once a commitment has been made, we turn our backs and show contempt or anger instead, thinking for example, “What I did was so stupid.” Pointing out the dangers is not to scare us, but to make us realize that we shouldn’t take this type of connection lightly in terms of our attitude toward the teacher. This is quite serious and, if we enter into this relationship prematurely and then decide that this was completely stupid, this leaves us in a very terrible state of mind. We need to be careful beforehand.

Also, don’t consider these lists of benefits and disadvantages to be like somebody trying to sell us a used car. “Buy this. This is really the greatest car,” and so on. It’s not advertisement to make us want to get something because the benefits sound so great. That is not at all the proper attitude. Everything in the Dharma is based on cause and effect. If we’re going to enter into a Dharma student-teacher relationship, then what will be the effect of it? What is the influence and what can happen? We need to enter into the situation with our eyes open. There is nothing magical about it.

The following is the list of these benefits. Let’s go through them to make sure we have a correct understanding and how they actually apply in real life.

The Benefits of a Healthy Relation with Our Spiritual Teachers

We Will Come Closer to Buddhahood

The first advantage is that we come closer to Buddhahood. That’s quite obvious. If the teacher is explaining to us how to become a Buddha and we follow the teacher’s instructions, then naturally we will come closer to the goal. That means being willing to practice what the teacher says and evaluating what is realistic for us at the present time. A skillful teacher will instruct us in terms of what we are actually best suited and ready for. But, of course all of that depends on having a personal relationship with the teacher, and that’s not so easy.

We need to establish a one-to-one, personal relationship, which we can do in various ways: for example, transcribing or translating for the teacher. If we’re doing something like that, we can always do a little bit more. This is what Serkong Rinpoche taught me. He said, “No matter how tired you are, you can always do five minutes more.” A good trainer in a fitness club does the same thing, pushing us to increase the repetitions or weight. Obviously if it’s too much for us, then we speak to the teacher and explain that we aren’t able to do that now, and request something that will help us reach that stage.

We Will Build Up Positive Force

The next benefit is that we come closer to Buddhahood by building up positive force through such things as making offerings to our teacher and by helping him or her. A spiritual teacher is like a Buddha; and a Buddha doesn’t really need the offerings. The attitude the teacher should have, to quote the texts, should be “like a tiger with grass.” A tiger is not interested in eating grass. If we look at teachings on Buddha-nature – the factors that will enable us to become a Buddha – one of them is a network of positive force, a so-called “collection of merit.” Helping the teacher in whatever ways we can, without being a pest by being too pushy, builds up an enormous amount of positive force.

What does that actually mean? We’re not talking about gaining merit in terms of accumulating a certain number of points and then we win the game. Perhaps an example from my own experience will clarify this. As a young man, I was quite selfish and self-centered. 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, and I naturally wanted to help him get in and out of the car, and to help in any way I could. This moved me away from thinking just in terms of myself and actually toward helping somebody. I became more concerned about his comfort than my own. What was the result of that? I learned through that process to take care of not only him, but others as well. I learned to help anybody. Helping him built up the positive force and habit to start to be more concerned about someone else’s comfort and happiness than my own.

At least from my own experience, it works like that. The relation with the spiritual teacher reinforces how important it is to care for others, and we see that we actually can care for others. Obviously, we could learn that also by taking care of our children. As a parent, we naturally will care more for our baby’s comfort than our own. But there’s a big difference. With our baby, we identify with it as “my baby, it’s mine”; whereas, we can’t be possessive with our spiritual teacher. That doesn’t work at all. When the baby cuddles with us, it’s so nice and so sweet. The teacher isn’t going to do that.

We Will Please the Buddhas

The next benefit is that we will please the Buddhas. What in the world does that mean? Buddhas have equanimity. They’re not going to get angry if we don’t practice properly, and they’re not going to say how wonderful we are if we do. To do something in order to please our teacher and get a pat on the head and wag our tails like a dog is just silly. We need to analyze. What are the Buddhas all about? They’re all about helping others to overcome suffering and attain liberation and enlightenment. If we practice, we come closer to them in the sense of coming closer to their hopes for us.

Maybe for some people trying to please our teacher, like wanting to please our parents, might work. We don’t want to be scolded, and so on. However, try not to approach this from a child’s point of view. As a parent, we try to teach our child a sense of universal values and to be a decent honest person. When we see that they are, we have a sense of satisfaction. We’re not talking about then boasting to all our friends about our children. But seeing that our children have turned out to be kind persons is what gives us a feeling of having been a good parent. This is the idea behind this point of pleasing all the Buddhas.

As it says, what will please our teacher is to actually follow his or her instructions and try to emulate the good qualities that he or she has. This isn’t about much less significant things like what they prefer to eat and so on.

We Won’t Be Disturbed by Demons or Bad Company

The next on the list is that we will not be disturbed by demons or bad company. Let’s not think of little creatures with horns, fangs and so on for demons. We’re talking about demonic forces. When we practice so-called “guru-yoga” properly, we protect ourselves from negative influences by imagining that our teacher is with us all the time. That’s the whole point of imagining the teacher on our heads or in our hearts. The values of the teacher are there. Even if our teacher has already passed away, his or her values are still there in our hearts, protecting us from negative influences.

The point is that, having established this relationship with our spiritual teacher, we’re really serious about trying to improve ourselves. We’ve sincerely committed ourselves to our teacher in terms of our attitudes, the way we interact and so on. We really don’t want to be a hypocrite. Even if everybody around us is acting in very unruly ways, we’re not going to be disturbed. That’s the term used in the text; we’re not going to be “disturbed” or thrown off course by all these negative things around us. That’s because we’re quite clear about the course that we’re putting in our lives. Our commitment protects us from these negative, so-called “demonic” influences.

Actually, the negative, demonic influences are our weak minds, our weak resolve. That’s what’s negative and that’s why we need to be really firm in terms of what we’re doing. This kind of stability is based on strong examination and analysis beforehand: Am I ready and willing to entrust myself to this spiritual teacher?

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

The list continues, stating that we will automatically put a stop to all our disturbing emotions and misdeeds – all our negative destructive behavior. When we feel like doing or saying something negative or stupid, we think, “How can I act like this? I have such respect for my teacher and respect for the path, how can I act in some stupid way?” When we’re with our teacher, we don’t pick our nose, just to use a silly example. We want to act properly because of a sense of respect for our teacher and the situation. How can we get angry or greedy? When eating with our teacher, would we gobble up all the food and cake on the table?

For example, I remember one time when I was visiting with the old Ling Rinpoche, the senior tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Ling Rinpoche was the master of Vajrabhairava (Yamantaka), a really forceful Buddha-figure. Most people were actually quite frightened of him because he had such an unbelievably strong, forceful presence; but in fact, Ling Rinpoche was very gentle when you got to know him. Even before I could understand Tibetan well, I would go and visit him, and when I was with him, just by the force of his Manjushri – Manjushri is in the heart of Vajrabhairava – my mind would become clearer. I could understand most of what he was saying. He exerted such a strong force.

This time when I was visiting him, he was sitting on a low platform with a rug on it and I was sitting on a similar one, perpendicular to him. All of a sudden, a large scorpion appeared on the floor in front of us. Ling Rinpoche turned to me with a very obviously affected dramatic gesture and asked, “Oh dear, a scorpion. Aren’t you afraid?” I answered, “How could I possibly be afraid in the presence of Vajrabhairava?” He just laughed and laughed.

His called his attendant, who came, 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 the truth was, how could anybody in the presence of such a great master panic, overreact and jump up on the platform screaming about a scorpion? I couldn’t possibly do that. That’s a very clear example. As the texts say, we automatically stop acting in ridiculous, childish ways.

Our Insights and Realizations on the Spiritual Levels and Paths Will Increase

Our insights and realizations on the spiritual levels and paths will increase. Obviously if we’re with our teacher all the time, witnessing the example of how he or she deals with difficult situations, of course our understanding and realizations will increase the more we practice trying to be like that. If we become our teacher’s translator or drive the car for them, or whatever it is that we can contribute, we see how they handle everyday, real-life situations. With Serkong Rinpoche, I saw him interact with Pope John Paul and also with a drunk on the street. How he handled these situations really gave me insight into how to relate to others.

We Will Not Be Deprived of Spiritual Guides in Our Future Rebirths

This benefit refers to having constructive, positive spiritual guides in all our future rebirths. Appreciating this benefit depends, of course, on believing in rebirth which, for many people, is not such a simple matter. However, if we think of the example of being instinctively drawn to a spiritual teacher or even just instinctively wanting to find a spiritual teacher, such instincts will continue and become even stronger in future lives. Where do these instincts come from? They come from previous lives. If we build such instincts up further in this lifetime, they will surely manifest once more in future lifetimes. This depends, of course, on having a precious human rebirth and not one as a cockroach!

We Will Not Fall to Lower Realms

The texts state that we will not fall to lower realms. What is the cause for worst rebirth states? Destructive behavior. What is the main cause for a precious human rebirth? Ethical discipline, supplemented with the other far-reaching attitudes, the “paramitas.” In a proper relationship with a spiritual teacher, we naturally act in an ethical way and practice the other far-reaching attitudes as well:

  • Generosity – We’re helping our teacher, being generous in every way we can.
  • Ethical self-discipline – When we’re with our teacher, because we have such great respect for him or her, we would never act in a negative way.
  • Patience and perseverance – It’s really hard to follow and learn from a spiritual teacher as a close disciple. To do so, we need to put in a lot of effort and patience. This means not getting angry with our teacher or at how difficult the spiritual path might be. This is one of the things we really have to examine before entering into this student-teacher relation. It is one of the most important aspects of the contract, as it were. It doesn’t matter what our teacher does, we are committed to looking at it as a teaching. We’re not going to get angry.

    Serkong Rinpoche, without mercy, called me an idiot all the time, even in front of ten thousand people. I never got angry with him. Never! In fact, he was right. I was an idiot; and, I deeply wanted not to be. My reaction was usually a nervous laugh, and actually the Tibetans all thought the way I responded was wonderful. It wasn’t that I was laughing at him; but that was my automatic response. If we’re going to get angry with our teacher, forget it. The relationship is not going to work at all. To never become angry with our teacher means we have to be really convinced that he or she is only interested in our welfare. If we have such confidence, we can more easily develop patience and perseverance.
  • Concentration – If we’re with our teacher, we can’t have our minds wander. We can’t say, “What did you say? I wasn’t paying attention.” That doesn’t work. Serkong Rinpoche trained me to be his translator. At any time of day or night when with him, he would just stop and say, “Repeat what I just said,” or “Repeat what you just said.” It was a wonderful training. I never got angry and yelled, “Not now.” We need that level of attention and mindfulness if we’re going to be a translator.
  • Discriminating awareness – Serkong Rinpoche was great at teaching that. There’s a wonderful example I always think of. Once, Rinpoche was teaching at Nalanda, this Western monastery in France. They asked him to teach the ninth chapter, the wisdom or discriminating awareness chapter, of Shantideva’s text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra). Only a few sessions were allocated for this, and Rinpoche thought it was absolutely ridiculous and pretentious that they thought this entire, very advanced and difficult chapter could be covered in two or three sessions. He began by explaining something totally incorrectly, and all the Western monks very dutifully wrote it down. Then after the tea break, he came back and said, “You’re all idiots. I just taught something completely incorrectly. 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? Learn discriminating awareness.”

For the rest of the sessions, he explained one line from the entire chapter in a very elaborate way, to show them that they needed to be serious about wanting to study this topic. They should never think it’s going to be easy.

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

Then, the texts state we will effortlessly achieve all short- and long-term aims. That doesn’t mean to be passive, sit back and then everything will just fall in our laps. But karmic cause and effect does actually work. Buddha didn’t lie about this. We build up a lot of positive force by serving and helping our teacher. As a result, things do go much more easily for us. We’re able to accomplish a lot more.

I look at this point in terms of my own life, and what has been accomplished with my website. It’s unbelievable. Last year we had more than a million visitors. I believe that a great deal of this success is a result of the strong relation I have had and still have with my spiritual teachers, and from the great amount of effort and work I put into helping them be available to many others. My motivation for becoming a translator and interpreter was that the teachings by His Holiness and His Holiness’s teachers were so unbelievably incredible. But, in those early days when I first went to India, either they were not translated at all or they were translated poorly. I felt I just had to do something about it. With that kind of decision to help, we gain armor-like perseverance: “No matter how difficult it might be, I’m going to do it! I’m going to train to be able to translate so that people can have access to these teachings. They are too wonderful for people not to have access to them.”

As for my own experience with the website, everything has, as I describe it, “fallen from the sky.” Somebody came along and offered to set up the initial version of site for me. When the first version went up, people contacted me from all over the world, wanting to help with it. I didn’t go looking for them. Some major patrons offered financing to pay the various people required to work on it. I didn’t ask for it; they approached me.

It has been, in this sense, effortless. The karma is there. If we build up the karmic causes, the results follow – it works. Although most karmic results ripen in future lifetimes, there are some types of karmic behavior that will give results in this lifetime, such as helping those who have helped us the most. In particular, this applies to spiritual teachers and our parents. From my own experience, these benefits happen. It’s not just a nice fairytale.

The Disadvantages of Turning Our Backs on Our Spiritual Teachers

As mentioned, there are also dangers that will follow if we go back on our commitment to our spiritual teacher once we have made it. They occur if we leave in anger, showing contempt toward the teacher, cursing and harboring great hatred inside, regretting getting involved with that teacher or with Buddhism in general. These are the types of situations referred to in this list of the dangers involved. The list does not refer to making a mistake in following our teacher’s instructions or being too lazy to do what our teacher asked us to do. Don’t misunderstand the translation phrase “a breach of guru-devotion” to be referring to that.

Losing the Ability to Trust Anyone

We won’t go through the entire list, but we can understand it in general. If we open ourselves up to trusting in somebody, in a sense we become very vulnerable. For example, a child who implicitly trusts a parent or a teacher but then is sexually or physically abused by them, in most cases, can be damaged emotionally for the rest of their lives. Although possible, it’s very difficult for anyone to overcome that. They don’t trust anybody anymore; their capacity to trust is lost. There is always caution not to be open, not to get involved, and not to be hurt ever again. It’s a huge obstacle.

There is the extreme example of a teacher abusing the students – such things unfortunately happen. There are quite a few examples of people pretending to be great teachers while actually they just abuse or take advantage of the students. That’s extremely damaging. But the texts are not explaining that type of situation when explaining the disadvantages or turning our backs on our spiritual teacher. The dangers are not in reference to when a teacher sexually abuses or exploits the students in terms of power and money, those sorts of things. In those situations, the advice is to be respectful of whatever benefit we might have received from such teachers and just leave. It’s important, however, to recognize that if we leave an abusive teacher with a very disturbed, angry and negative state of mind, we’re also damaged in that we are closed off from opening up in the future.

However, in this list of the disadvantages of turning away from our teacher, we’re talking about leaving a qualified, authentic teacher. What happens when we leave such a teacher with a very negative state of mind, being really angry, thinking how terrible the teacher is, and that everything we practiced was stupid? What does it do to our minds? What’s the result of that? The result of that is that we’re not open to the Buddhist path, and usually not to any other spiritual path either. We never will trust any spiritual guidance. Even if we start to become involved with some spiritual practice, we’ll be paranoid, always expecting that something bad is going to happen. As explained in the list, whatever good qualities we might have developed go downhill very quickly because we have such a negative attitude about everything that we did. It’s like everything gets thrown away.

Falling to Worse Rebirths

The next point in the list of disadvantages is that we fall to worse hellish rebirths. This really needs to be understood properly. First of all, we certainly aren’t saying that, like in a cult, we have to obey and do everything that our teacher states because if we don’t, we’ll go to hell. In this scenario, we would be afraid of doing anything wrong because then we’ll go to hell. This is certainly not what is intended here.

What does hell mean in the Buddhist context? There are many hells in Buddhism, but what does it mean? Following Serkong Rinpoche’s advice, we need to examine the flavor, the connotation, of the Sanskrit and Tibetan terms to gain an understanding.

  • The Sanskrit term naraka connotes “joyless.” There’s no joy, only unhappiness and sorrow and pain. If we have a very negative attitude toward our teacher and toward anything that we did to try to improve ourselves, of course we’re left in a very unhappy state of mind. If we have left our teacher with such a negative mind, so angry and filled with hatred, regret, and resentment, 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 a stupid waste of time.
  • The connotation of the Tibetan term nyelwa (dmyal-ba) is that it’s very difficult to get out of this state, in a sense we’re “trapped.” We experience feeling trapped in this joyless, negative state of mind.

Clearly, this is the description of a hellish state of mind, one completely without any joy, very negative, in which we are trapped and can’t get out of. If we think about this, whether we believe in future lives and in an actual hellish environment, wherever it might be, we can appreciate how horrible that state of mind would be. We can understand logically how it can follow from having this very negative attitude toward relying on somebody and trusting them to help us to improve.

Please don’t get hung up and worried about how Vajra Hell compares to Avichi Hell, or how far under Bodh Gaya it is, or how hot it is compared to this or that one. That’s missing the point. As His Holiness has often said, Buddha didn’t come to teach us geography; he came to teach us how to avoid and overcome suffering.

If we have a very negative attitude toward trying to improve ourselves, how are we ever going to improve? Obviously, this is the big danger. If we haven’t thoroughly examined our teacher and ourselves before committing ourselves to a teacher-disciple relationship with the person and to serious Dharma practice, we really need to examine very well now. We don’t want to have this danger of turning our backs and being left with a really negative attitude, cutting ourselves off from 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, that we have nobody to look up to. There’s no hope. That really describes a hellish situation, doesn’t it? We feel trapped; everything is so horrible and miserable, and there’s no hope.

Please bear in mind that we’re not talking about eternal damnation. Even a hellish rebirth is impermanent; it will come to an end. Still, there are many dangers of getting involved and then breaching this type of committed relationship and spiritual practice. It’s serious. Once again, it can’t be emphasized enough that it is not about having to follow the rules, and if we don’t, we’re going to be punished. It’s certainly not that.

A Healthy Fear of the Disadvantages

We often hear the discussion of the term “fear,” mainly in the context of refuge. “Refuge” means putting a positive direction in our life. It’s not just praying, “Buddha, Buddha, save me, protect me.” It’s not like that. By going for refuge, we’re going in the direction of the deepest meaning of Dharma. This is to achieve a true stopping of suffering and the causes of suffering and to achieve the true paths – the true states of mind that will lead to that stopping and result from it. The Buddhas have achieved these in full and the Arya Sangha have done so in part. That’s the direction that we want to put in our lives, to work toward that. Obviously, the spiritual teacher helps us to develop in that way.

But what are the causes for putting this direction in our life? The texts state that it is fear of worse rebirths in the future and confidence that we can avoid them by going in this safe direction, this refuge.

There are two types of fear. There’s a very destructive or devastating type of fear. This is the fear with which we feel absolutely helpless and that there’s no hope. That’s a very disturbing, devastating state of mind. “There’s nothing I can do.” We’re just paralyzed by fear. The fear that motivates us to put a safe direction in our life is very different, because we realize that there is a way to avoid these worst rebirths, and there is great hope. In this case, it’s a healthy sense of fear.

Let’s use the example of crossing a busy street. We are afraid of being hit by a car, but we know that if we look both ways and are very careful, we can cross safely. If there’s no hope of getting across the street safely, we are left with just the fear of being hit. We’re never even going to try to cross that street. However, when we know there’s a way to avoid getting hit, a healthy sense of fear makes us careful. Sometimes, I use the word “dread” rather than “fear.” There’s something that we really want to avoid; it’s not a paralyzing type of fear.

The same distinction applies to the state of mind we develop when reading or hearing about the disadvantages of leaving the relationship with our spiritual teacher in a state of contempt and anger. We dread the results that would follow but are not paralyzed with fear. 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, Buddhism, or spiritual practice in general. It would leave us with nothing. But we know that we can avoid this danger.

How do we avoid the danger? It’s not by acting like being in the army, being a totally obedient soldier saluting and saying, “Yes, sir,” and then doing whatever our teacher says. We can avoid the dangers of turning away from our teacher by really seriously examining beforehand both the teacher and ourselves, our readiness, our abilities, and so on. We need to be very careful about entering into a committed relationship with a spiritual teacher.

Becoming Disillusioned

What’s the main function of spiritual teachers? They can give us information; but we can also gain correct information from the internet or from books. They can answer our questions and correct our mistakes, but they don’t have to be so spiritually advanced to be able to do that. The main activity of real spiritual mentors, besides giving vows and so on, is to inspire us. We look up to such persons as examples of what we are trying to become. They are our models and we’re inspired by their examples.

If we get totally disillusioned by them as models and then turn our backs on them with contempt and ill-will, the whole inspirational ideal that we had in mind is just completely destroyed. Instead, we are left with a negative, defeatist attitude and feel that we were so stupid for trying.

Once again, the way to avoid that is to really examine very well beforehand and then follow the various procedures that are indicated in the texts. If our teacher does something a little bit strange or asks us to do something puzzling, we need to ask, politely, “Why do you say that? Please explain it to me.”

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

I remember there was once some legal situation involving a piece of land in Nepal that Serkong Rinpoche had or somebody had given him. I don’t remember all the details; but, as I recall, it might have been for a nunnery or something like that. There were some strange stories and gossip going around about it. Serkong Rinpoche was so unbelievably kind because he took me aside in his room one day and explained the whole situation so that I wouldn’t ever develop any doubt or some strange thoughts due to all the complications going on. This is the real thing – a caring teacher very concerned that I would never become disillusioned.

Original Audio from the Seminar