Factors Affecting a Relation with a Spiritual Teacher

Introductory Remarks

All Buddhist traditions emphasize the importance of a spiritual teacher on the path. Spiritual teachers do not just:

  • Give information
  • Answer questions
  • Check the student's understanding
  • Check the student's intellectual, emotional, and meditation development.

Spiritual teachers also:

  • Give vows and empowerments
  • Serve as role models
  • Provide inspiration through their personal examples
  • Serve as links to a tradition going back to Buddha.

There are many different levels of teachers and of students, and thus different ways to relate along the path.

Cultural Context

The modern Western situation for studying with a spiritual teacher is completely different from the traditional Asian one.

In traditional Asia, most students of Dharma:

  • Are monks or nuns, with full-time commitment to the spiritual path
  • Have no major activity other than studying and practicing the Dharma
  • Begin studying Buddhism as uneducated children
  • Consequently, as adults, have only a minimal education in "lay" subjects, such as mathematics, social studies, and science
  • Accept the values of traditional Asian societies regarding the role of women and the view of authority structures – women are inferior and hierarchies are the norm.

In the modern West, most students:

  • Are laypeople, busy with professional and personal lives
  • Have little spare time for the Dharma
  • Start studying Dharma as educated adults
  • Demand equality of the genders and a democratic social structure.

On the financial side, traditional Asia affords societal support for spiritual teachers. Even those who are not their students present them with offerings. In the modern West, spiritual teachers need to support themselves. Many run Dharma centers, with financial, organizational, and administrative concerns.

All these factors affect the student-teacher relation. Many spiritual seekers have benefited, but there has also been much misunderstanding, many mistakes, and spiritual wounding.


Dangers are exacerbated, in the case of the Tibetan tradition, by texts on "guru-devotion." The audience for such texts was committed monks and nuns with vows, needing review in preparation for tantric empowerment. The instructions were never intended for beginners at a Dharma center, knowing nothing about Buddhism.

We need to avoid the two extremes:

  1. Deification of the spiritual teachers, opening the door to naivety and abuse
  2. Demonization of them, opening the door to paranoia and closing the door to gaining true inspiration and deep benefit.

A Nontraditional Analytical Scheme

I have analyzed the issue and suggested ways of making the relationship healthy in Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2000). Here, I would like to introduce an additional nontraditional scheme for analyzing the issue, suggested by and expanded from the work of the Hungarian psychiatrist Dr. Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, one of the founders of family therapy and contextual therapy.

The Six Dimensions of a Relationship

We can analyze the relationship from the sides of both the student and the teacher in terms of six factors or dimensions. If there are problems in the relation, this may help to identify where they lie so that each party can try to adjust and adapt to bring about a healthier balance.

The six factors are:

  1. The facts concerning each party and concerning the setting of the relationship
  2. The aim of the relationship for each party and the psychological factors affecting it
  3. The role each party defines him or herself and the other as playing in the relationship, and thus the expectations each has and how each one feels about him or herself
  4. Each party's level of commitment to and involvement in the relationship, and the psychological factors affecting this
  5. Other psychological factors of each party
  6. How the relationship works and the effect it has on each party.

The Facts Concerning Each Party and Concerning the Setting of the Relationship

The facts about each party that influence the relationship include:

  • Gender and age
  • Culture of origin – Asian or Western
  • Shared language or need for a translator – for personal communication and/or teachings
  • Monastic or lay
  • Amount of Dharma and worldly education
  • Qualifications for being a spiritual teacher or student in terms of emotional and ethical maturity
  • Amount of time each has available for the other
  • Number of other students
  • The teacher being resident or only occasionally visiting.

The setting might be in:

  • A Western Dharma center – a city center or a residential center
  • If a Dharma center, an independent one or one that is part of a large Dharma organization
  • A monastery – in Asia or in the West.

The Aim of the Relationship for Each Party and the Psychological Factors Affecting It

For both parties in any relationship, the aim of the relationship is nearly always mixed. The student-teacher relationship is no exception.

The student may come to a spiritual teacher to:

  • Gain information and learn facts
  • Learn to meditate
  • Work on his or her personality
  • Improve things in this life
  • Improve future lives
  • Gain liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara)
  • Gain enlightenment to help all others gain similar liberation and enlightenment
  • Learn to relax
  • Make social contacts with like-minded students
  • Gain access to exotica
  • Find a miracle cure for some physical or emotional problem
  • Get a "Dharma-fix" from an entertaining charismatic teacher, like a "Dharma-junkie."

Moreover, the student may be looking to the teacher for:

  • Guidance and inspiration along the Buddhist path
  • Therapy
  • Pastoral guidance
  • A parent substitute
  • Approval
  • Someone to tell him or her what to do in life.

The spiritual teacher, in turn, may want to:

  • Give facts
  • Impart oral transmission and preserve the Dharma
  • Work on the students' personalities
  • Plant seeds for benefiting the students' future lives
  • Help students reach a better rebirth, liberation, and enlightenment
  • Build up a Dharma center or a Dharma empire of centers
  • Gain converts to his or her lineage
  • Raise money to support a monastery in India or rebuild one in Tibet
  • Find a secure base as a refugee
  • Make a living or become rich
  • Gain power by controlling others
  • Gain sexual favors.

The negative psychological factors affecting both parties include:

  • Loneliness
  • Boredom
  • Suffering
  • Insecurity
  • The wish to be trendy
  • Group pressure.

The Role Each Defines Him or Herself and the Other as Playing in Terms of the Relationship and Thus the Expectations Each Has and How Each One Feels about Him or Herself

The spiritual teacher may regard him or herself, or the student may regard the teacher as:

  • A Buddhism professor, giving information about Buddhism
  • A Dharma instructor, indicating how to apply Dharma to life
  • A meditation or ritual trainer
  • A spiritual mentor, conferring vows
  • A tantric master, conferring tantric empowerment.

The student may regard him or herself, or the spiritual teacher may regard the student as:

  • A Buddhism student, gaining information
  • A Dharma pupil, learning how to apply Dharma to life
  • A meditation or ritual trainee
  • A disciple who has merely taken vows with the teacher
  • A disciple who is personally guided by the teacher.

Another aspect of this dimension is how each feels about him or herself because of the relationship.

The student may feel that he or she is:

  • Protected
  • Belonging to someone
  • Whole
  • Fulfilled
  • A servant
  • A member of a cult.

The spiritual teacher may feel that he or she is:

  • A master
  • A humble practitioner
  • A savior
  • A pastor
  • A psychologist
  • An administrator of Dharma centers or of a Dharma empire
  • The financial supporter of a monastery.

Each Party's Level of Commitment to and Involvement in the Relationship, and the Psychological Factors Affecting This

The student may be:

  • Paying set fees, giving dana donations, or studying without paying or offering anything to the teacher
  • Casually involved or deeply committed to either Buddhism, the teacher, and/or a lineage
  • Intending to take or has taken vows with the teacher or not
  • Taking responsibility to help the teacher
  • Feeling indebted
  • Feeling obligated
  • Feeling that he or she must be loyal – the role of group pressure in this is significant
  • Feeling that he or she will go to hell if he or she does anything wrong.

The spiritual teacher may:

  • Take responsibility to guide the students ethically
  • Wish to run the students' lives and tell them what to do
  • Doing his or her duty, because his or her own teachers sent him or her to teach
  • See him or herself as just doing a job.

Negative psychological factors affecting this dimension include:

  • Fear of commitment
  • Fear of authority, perhaps because of a background of abuse
  • The need to be useful or to be loved
  • The need for attention
  • The need to control others
  • The need to prove oneself.

Other Psychological Factors for Each Party

These include whether the parties are:

  • Extroverted or introverted
  • Intellectual, emotional or devotional
  • Warm or cold
  • Calm or bad tempered
  • Greedy for time and attention
  • Jealous of other students or of other teachers
  • Filled with low self-esteem or arrogance

How the Relationship Works and the Effect It Has on Each Party

Do the student and teacher together form:

  • A good or bad team
  • A team in which both bring out the best abilities in each other or which hinders each other's abilities
  • A team which wastes each other's time because of different expectations
  • A team in which a hierarchic structure is maintained and in which the student feels exploited, controlled and thus inferior (reinforcing low self-esteem), and the teacher feels him or herself to be the authority and superior – note that what one side feels may not correspond to what the other feels
  • A team in which one or both feel inspired or drained.


We need to evaluate a student-teacher relationship in terms of all six dimensions and each of their constituent factors. If the factors do not match each other, both sides need to try to harmonize and adjust them, or adapt. If one side is unreceptive to this approach to problem-solving, because of cultural differences or emotional factors, the other side needs either to make the adjustments him or herself or to maintain a distance from the relationship.