Different Levels of Spiritual Teachers and Students


People at Dharma centers often have difficulty relating to spiritual teachers, even properly qualified ones. Some may feel nothing toward the resident teacher, even if the person is a geshe or a lama. Others may be unimpressed with a famous teacher who visits, though everyone else treats the person with extreme devotion. They find confusing the teaching that they must regard spiritual teachers as Buddhas. They may think that they need to regard all teachers in this way and that they need to do so from the start. Consequently, they feel that they are doing something wrong.

The first step for unraveling the problem is to acknowledge certain empirical facts about student-teacher relationships. (1) Almost all spiritual seekers progress through stages along the spiritual path. (2) Most practitioners study with several teachers during their lifetimes and build up different relationships with each. (3) Not every spiritual teacher has reached the same level of accomplishment. (4) The type of relationship appropriate between a specific seeker and a specific teacher depends upon the spiritual level of each. (5) People usually relate to their teachers in progressively deeper manners as they advance along the spiritual path. (6) Because the same teacher may play different roles in the spiritual life of each seeker, the most appropriate relationship each seeker has with that teacher may be different. The presentation in this book follows from these premises.


The six points listed above are suggested by a distinction that Gampopa made in A Precious Ornament for Liberation, based on the Prajnaparamita literature. During the course of progressing to enlightenment, spiritual seekers become capable of receiving and understanding instruction from teachers who are increasingly more sophisticated in their realization of voidness. Thus, both spiritual teachers and seekers divide into levels. Here, we shall differentiate levels of spiritual teachers according to other criteria: the increasingly broader contents, perspective, and intent of the instruction that they impart. Further, in conjunction with each type of spiritual teacher, we shall formulate a corresponding spiritual seeker.

To clarify the discussion, let us adopt certain conventions. Let us call someone who conveys information about Buddha's teachings from a withdrawn perspective a "Buddhism professor." A person who not merely sits in the audience, but who actually studies with such a Buddhism professor would be a "student of Buddhism." Someone, on the other hand, who imparts the teachings from the point of view of their practical application to life, based on personal experience, we shall name a "Dharma instructor." Someone who learns practical Buddhism from a Dharma instructor would be his or her "Dharma pupil." A person who trains others in the pragmatic aspects of meditation or ritual practice, we shall call a "meditation or ritual trainer." The corresponding spiritual seeker would be a "meditation or ritual trainee."

We shall use "spiritual mentor," in the Mahayana sense, for someone who leads others along the graded path to enlightenment. Someone whom a spiritual mentor leads along the graded path would be his or her "disciple," starting with a seeker who wishes first for spiritual goals only in this lifetime, or also for future generations. Among spiritual mentors, someone who confers Mahayana safe direction or either lay or monastic vows, we shall call a "refuge or vow preceptor." Someone who receives refuge or liberation vows from such a preceptor would be a member of the person's "refuge or vow progeny."

A mentor who teaches the methods for developing bodhichitta and who leads a seeker along the bodhisattva path, we shall name a "Mahayana master." Someone whom he or she guides would be a "Mahayana disciple." Further, a Mahayana master who leads disciples to enlightenment through the methods of tantra, we shall designate a "tantric master." Corresponding to a tantric master would be a "tantric disciple." Further, the teacher who turns a seeker's heart and mind most strongly to the Dharma, we shall refer to as a "root guru." "Spiritual teacher" and "spiritual seeker" will be used as general terms.

Classical textual presentations of the relationship between a spiritual seeker and a spiritual teacher speak only about specific categories of mentors and disciples. They do not pertain to prior levels of teachers or seekers. On the one side, they concern spiritual mentors who are primarily Mahayana masters, tantric masters, or root gurus – all three of whom are gurus, lamas, and spiritual friends. On the other side, they deal mainly with either Mahayana or tantric disciples. The relationship between a refuge or vow preceptor and his or her refuge or vow progeny usually appears in a separate context: the discussion of monastic discipline. The emphasis there is almost exclusively on the relationship with a preceptor for monastic vows.

Buddhism Professors

Many people interested in Buddhism do not have spiritual teachers to guide them. They may study Buddhism merely from books, tapes, videos, or from the Internet. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has affirmed the propriety of learning in this way. Appropriate topics include impermanence, karma, compassion, and voidness. Most Westerners, in fact, initially develop interest in the Dharma and gain their introductory knowledge from books – not only from works on Buddhism, but also from New Age books and from fictional and nonfictional accounts of Tibet. Even seeing popular films on Tibetan themes can spark people's interest.

Books, tapes, and videos, however, cannot answer questions. No matter how interactive a computer program may be, it too cannot provide all the answers. Only a live teacher can do that. Therefore, for most people the next step after gaining some information about Buddhism is to attend a few lectures.

Some may take a course with a Buddhism professor at a university, to learn more facts about the subject. Knowledge of the history of Buddhism, the influence on it from political developments, and the cultural adaptations that came with its spread helps to dispel romantic illusions. It provides the background and intellectual tools for sifting through massive amounts of material to pinpoint the essence. Buddhism professors may also educate students in the contents of Buddha's teachings. They usually do this in a removed manner, as when objectively conveying the contents of any world religion.

Well-educated teachers, geshes, or khenpos at Dharma centers may also impart the contents of Buddha's teachings in the same manner as do university professors. Such teachers may also explain how to apply the Dharma to life, but students of Buddhism pay little attention. They listen merely to gain information. Thus, for students of Buddhism, even geshes or khenpos are merely Buddhism professors. If, as seekers, we wish to study Buddhism as a method for spiritual self-development, we need to work with a teacher as a Dharma instructor.

Dharma Instructors

The distinction between Buddhism professors and Dharma instructors derives from three progressive levels of discriminating awareness differentiated in Buddhism. (1) Discriminating awareness of correct information derives from listening to lectures by trustworthy teachers or from reading books by reliable authors. (2) Discriminating awareness based on correct intellectual insight derives from thinking about the correct information thus received. (3) Discriminating awareness based on correct experiential insight derives from meditating on a correct intellectual understanding. Spiritual teachers may instruct seekers based on one or more of the three levels of correct awareness.

Buddhism professors teach information gained from texts or from Western scholarly research. In addition, they may have tried to figure out the meaning of the teachings intellectually and thus may also teach from intellectual insight and understanding. Dharma instructors also have some level of scriptural knowledge and teach accordingly. In addition, however, they explain from experiential insight and understanding, gained from putting the teachings into practice and from trying to apply them to life. Buddhism professors may also have experiential insight, but they do not usually convey these insights to others.

Dharma instructors may be older spiritual seekers at Dharma centers with more knowledge and experience than the others have. More advanced than that, instructors may be resident teachers or may be visiting ones on tour. They may have university degrees in Buddhist Studies or monastic degrees, although neither is prerequisite. As Dharma pupils, we may learn how to apply Buddhist practices to life from any of these types of Dharma instructors.

Meditation or Ritual Trainers

Seekers who wish to go beyond intellectual knowledge of the Buddhist methods for self-transformation need to train in the practices. The training involves meditating and, for certain aspects of the teachings, performing ritual practices. Meditation involves either generating a beneficial state of mind or settling the mind into its natural wholesome state. Through frequent repetition, the state of mind becomes habitual and forms an integral part of one's personality. Ritual practice adds physical and verbal form to meditation and creates a bond with tradition. It may entail arranging a shrine, making offerings, doing prostrations, chanting texts, or using the traditional ritual implements of vajra, bell, and hand drum. The sense of continuity and of belonging to a group of practitioners, past and present, performing the same rites brings with it a feeling of support, security, and confidence.

Several people at a Dharma center may be able to train us in the basic aspects of meditation and ritual. These include, again, older spiritual seekers and both resident and visiting Dharma instructors. Some centers have specialists as meditation or ritual trainers for beginners. These persons may have completed three-year retreats. They may not necessarily be able to instruct us in more than the elementary Dharma teachings, but have experience and competence in training people in the initial stages of meditation, ritual, or both.

Spiritual Mentors

The Buddhist teachings differentiate between insights and realizations. An insight does not make a significant change in one's life, but may lead in that direction. A realization, on the other hand, whether it be partial or complete, actually produces a noticeable improvement that lasts. The distinction we are drawing here between Dharma instructors and spiritual mentors derives from this difference. Dharma instructors may have either insight or realization, whereas spiritual mentors need to have some level of realization.

A further distinction derives from the two ways in which Buddha conveyed to others what he had attained. He communicated his enlightenment verbally and through the effects of his realizations. Buddhism professors and Dharma instructors teach primarily through verbal instruction. For spiritual teachers to guide seekers fully, however, they need also to embody the teachings, integrated into their personalities. Only then, as spiritual mentors, can they truly inspire and teach disciples by their living examples. Because of the obvious personal development of mentors, spiritual seekers feel confident in entrusting themselves as disciples to them, to help reach similar levels of self-transformation. Spiritual mentors, then, help disciples to develop their personalities.

Thus, once we have gained sufficient practical knowledge of the teachings from studying with Dharma instructors and sufficient familiarity with pragmatic aspects through working with meditation or ritual trainers, we may be ready to take the next step. We may be ready to become disciples of spiritual teachers and to relate to them as spiritual mentors. To be spiritual mentors, teachers need the qualities of gurus, lamas, and spiritual friends, irrespective of the actual titles they bear. They may have been our Buddhism professors, Dharma instructors, or meditation or ritual trainers. Our spiritual mentors may also be other teachers, not specifically associated with our universities or Dharma centers.

Moreover, to become the disciple of a spiritual mentor requires living up to the name disciple. Specifically, seekers interested in Buddhism need to make a formal commitment to the Buddhist path. This entails taking vows to restrain from unruly behavior and to train in constructive ways. In Ocean of Infinite Knowledge, Kongtrul, the encyclopedist of the Rime (nonsectarian) movement, explained three types of spiritual mentor. The distinction derives from which of three sets of vows a disciple takes in the mentor's presence: pratimoksha, bodhisattva, or tantric vows. Buddhist vows entail a long-term commitment. In the Tibetan tradition, lay or monastic vows are for an entire lifetime, whereas refuge, bodhisattva, and tantric vows are for all one's lifetimes until enlightenment. Consequently, the disciple-mentor bond that crystallizes around these major commitments also carries a great level of seriousness.

Refuge or Vow Preceptors

Those who wish to commit themselves to the Buddhist spiritual path formally take safe direction in life from the Triple Gem: the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Full engagement also entails taking either lay or monastic vows for individual liberation. Committed lay Buddhists, for example, promise to restrain from either all or some of the following destructive actions: killing, stealing, lying, indulging in inappropriate sexual behavior, and taking intoxicants.

Taking safe direction and liberation vows marks the watersheds in a Buddhist spiritual life. Although the classical texts describe several extraordinary methods whereby certain disciples at the time of the Buddha received monks' or nuns' vows, nowadays people require the presence of spiritual elders. Although Kongtrul discussed vow preceptors specifically in the context of taking monastic vows, disciples also need to take refuge and lay vows in the presence of elders. Therefore, we shall extend the scope of Kongtrul's category of vow preceptors to include those in whose presence disciples take Mahayana refuge or lay vows. Since most Westerners following the Buddhist path remain householders, let us limit our discussion to these preceptors for "pre-monastic" vows.

In the context of Tibetan Buddhism, refuge or vow preceptors are necessarily Mahayana elders. Moreover, they need to be spiritual mentors who have kept their vows purely for a certain number of years, depending on the level of vow conferred. This qualification adds gravity and authenticity to the event, as preceptors formally link their progeny to the traditions tracing back to the immediate disciples of the historical Buddha.

Refuge and vow preceptors need not be the same persons. Although they become one of our teachers in the context of our taking vows, they do not need to serve in other ways as our spiritual mentors. Moreover, taking safe direction or liberation vows with a preceptor connects us with Buddhism in general. It does not commit us to the specific Tibetan tradition of the preceptor, since all Tibetan sects transmit the same Indian lineage of vows. We become simply Buddhist practitioners, laypeople, or monastics, and not members of the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, or Gelug order.

Some spiritual seekers formally take safe direction while still only being students of Buddhism, Dharma pupils, or meditation or ritual trainees. Some take this step even as newcomers to Buddhism, knowing hardly anything of the teachings. Often, they do so as a spur of the moment decision made under group pressure, moved by the charisma of the teachers offering the refuge ceremonies. Merely participating in a ritual, however, does not constitute taking safe direction. Nor does it make participants the disciples of the teachers conducting the ceremonies, nor members of their refuge progenies. Taking safe direction, in its full sense, requires that both the spiritual teachers and the seekers fulfill the qualifications for preceptor and progeny and for mentor and disciple. Especially essential is that the spiritual seekers have appropriate motivations – at minimum, dreading emotional ill-being later in life. Moreover, the seeker needs not only the confidence that the Triple Gem provides a safe direction to avoid these troubles, but also the full intention to put this positive direction into their lives and to keep the refuge commitments and vows.

The refuge ceremony forms a standard part of all tantric empowerments. Since Tibetan lamas often permit insufficiently prepared spiritual seekers to attend empowerments, they also permit insufficiently prepared persons to take safe direction. The traditional rationale is that, even if seekers lack the appropriate causes for taking safe direction, attending the ceremonies plants seeds of positive potential for future lives. The spiritual seekers need not understand anything that is happening. Attendance alone successfully plants seeds for the future, unless the persons have negative attitudes that would prevent them from receiving positive, or at least neutral impressions of the proceedings. Nonetheless, attending empowerment ceremonies in this way to plant seeds for the future, or to receive the "blessings," still does not make the lamas their refuge preceptors, let alone make them their tantric masters.

Mahayana Masters

Just as taking safe direction is the gateway for entering the Buddhist path in general, developing a bodhichitta motivation is the entrance to the Mahayana way. Furthermore, bodhichitta has two stages. The mere development of the motivation constitutes "aspiring bodhichitta": the aspiration to become a Buddha to benefit others as much as is possible. With "engaged bodhichitta," disciples commit themselves, with bodhisattva vows, to train intensively in the methods and wisdom that bring enlightenment and to help others now as much as they can.

When their aspiring bodhichitta intensifies to become engaged bodhichitta, disciples may take bodhisattva vows in several ways. Best is in the presence of the spiritual mentors who have taught them the Mahayana way. If they have made sincere effort to reach these mentors, but for some reason cannot arrange to take bodhisattva vows with them, there is no need to postpone. When disciples are ready to engage fully in bodhisattva conduct, the absence of their mentors to conduct a ceremony does not pose a problem. In such cases, the Indian mentor Shantideva explained in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, sincere disciples may also take bodhisattva vows in the presence of Buddha statues or paintings. If none are available, they may even take them before Buddhas and bodhisattvas visualized as present.

Kongtrul specified that Mahayana masters are spiritual mentors in whose presence disciples take bodhisattva vows. Nevertheless, since Atisha emphasized the need for mentors to explain bodhichitta and the bodhisattva way before conferring vows, we may extend the definition of a Mahayana master. In a broader sense, Mahayana masters are the spiritual mentors whose teachings on compassion and bodhichitta lead disciples to develop aspiring bodhichitta and then to take bodhisattva vows. Such mentors, when fully qualified, are able to guide disciples along the complete path to enlightenment. The English term master, here, has nothing to do with masters and slaves, but rather with the spiritual mentors' mastery of the methods leading to the highest level of evolution possible.

Tantric Masters

Mahayana disciples may travel the path to enlightenment through the methods of either sutra or tantra. The sutras contain Buddha's basic teachings on the methods for gaining positive qualities such as ethical self-discipline, concentration, compassion, bodhichitta, and understanding of voidness. In the tantras, Buddha presented advanced methods to supplement the sutra practices for reaching enlightenment more efficiently and rapidly. These methods focus on using the imagination to transform one's self-image through the model of a Buddha-figure. All Tibetan Buddhist traditions teach paths to enlightenment that combine sutra and tantra practice.

As mentioned earlier, the gateway for entering the tantra path in general is receiving an empowerment (wang, dbang; initiation) for a specific Buddha-figure from a spiritual mentor. The Buddha-figure may be part of a practice from any tantra class. The Nyingma tradition delineates six classes of tantra, while the other Tibetan traditions speak of four. The three highest classes of Nyingma tantra are equivalent to the other traditions' highest tantra class. If we to use the term tantric master in its most general sense, it refers to a spiritual mentor who confers an empowerment from any of these tantra classes. For example, in Clarifying [Ashvaghosha's] "Fifty Stanzas [on the Guru]," Dragpa Gyaltsen, the third of the five Sakya founders, occasionally used the term tantric master in this sense.

Kongtrul, however, defined tantric masters as the spiritual mentors before whom disciples take tantric vows during empowerments and before the visualizations of whom they renew or strengthen those vows during "self-empowerments" after they have completed tantric retreats. Only an empowerment into either the third (yoga tantra) or the highest class of tantra entails taking tantric vows. Tantric vows include promises concerning how disciples will regard and treat their tantric masters. Thus, in a more technical sense, the term tantric master applies only to spiritual mentors of the two higher classes of tantra. Tsarchen, for example, used the term in this way in his commentary to Ashvaghosha's text.

According to Difficult Points concerning Helping and Showing Respect to a Guru, an anonymous Indian commentary to Ashvaghosha's text introduced to Tibet by the Kagyu-Nyingma translator Go Lotsawa, the instruction to see one's tantric master as a Buddha pertains specifically to highest tantra. From all the teachings concerning the student-teacher relationship, this instruction causes the most confusion. Since highest tantra offers the clearest explanation of this teaching, we shall further restrict the term tantric master in accordance with its usage in this anonymous text and limit our discussion to highest tantra.

Restricting the meaning of the term in this way also accords with its usage in the context of the widespread tantric practice of guru-yoga (lame-naljor, bla-ma’i rnal-’byor) as Naropa, the Indian forefather of the Kagyu lineage, codified it in Actualizing through a Guru. In tantric guru-yoga, disciples imagine receiving four empowerments through colored lights emanated from their tantric masters. The four empowerments are an exclusive feature of highest tantra. Therefore, similarly, we shall use the term tantric guru-yoga to mean highest tantric guru-yoga.

Since highest tantra focuses on harnessing internal energies for spiritual use, let us borrow the imagery of rockets to elucidate the role of tantric masters. The Buddha-figures for which disciples receive empowerment are like the classes and models of spacecraft they use for undertaking the spiritual "inner-space" journey to enlightenment. The skills they gain on the Mahayana sutra path provide the systems for flying the ships. For optimal travel once they have taken off with empowerments, they need to supplement their energy with subsequent boosts (jenang, rje-gnang; permission) and refueling of mantras (ngagtu, sngags-btu; gathering of mantras). Moreover, to follow the course of the highest tantra path, they need also to receive energization (lung, lung; oral transmission) of the appropriate texts and directive thrusts (ti, khrid; discourse) explaining the subtle points of the meditation practices. Tantric masters supply disciples with all these spiritual provisions.

In discussing how to relate to tantric masters, Ashvaghosha explicitly mentioned only those mentors who confer empowerment. Tsongkhapa, however, clarified this point in his commentary to Ashvaghosha's text, The Complete Fulfillment of Disciples' Hopes. There, he asserted that the protocol followed with empowering mentors also applies to other tantric masters, for example those who explain the texts and give quintessence teachings (menngag, man-ngag). This is because receiving explanations or the quintessence teachings for a specific highest tantra practice requires previous empowerment and thus tantric vows.

Tantric masters, then, are spiritual mentors who empower, boost, refuel, energize, and give directive thrust to our highest tantra inner-space journeys. As perpetual sources of inspiration, they keep our engines running. Moreover, through continuing supervision and instruction, our tantric masters provide ground control and dependable guidance systems to reach our goals accurately and safely.

Our tantric masters may already be our Mahayana masters, or may be other spiritual teachers with whom we have only rare contact. Moreover, the same tantric master may give us empowerment, subsequent boost, refueling of mantras, energization, directive thrust, and quintessence teachings for a particular Buddha-figure, or we may receive the six from separate masters.

Before we receive tantric empowerments, mentors may give us oral transmissions of the tantric preliminary practices (ngondro, sngon-’gro) or of various mantras. They may also explain general tantra or even highest tantra theory in order to dispel our misconceptions. Receiving such an oral transmission or explanation, however, does not establish a tantric disciple-master relationship. The relationship stems from taking tantric vows at a full empowerment.

Root Gurus

Root gurus are the spiritual mentors who turn disciples' hearts and minds most ardently to the Buddhist path. They are the strongest sources of inspiration to sustain disciples throughout their spiritual journeys. The relationships with such teachers act as roots for all attainments.

The mentors who serve disciples as their root gurus may not necessarily be the first spiritual teachers that the seekers encounter or the ones who give them the most Dharma instruction or meditation or ritual training. Nor are they necessarily the mentors with whom they take refuge or liberation vows. Most, however, come from among their tantric masters. The discussion of root gurus traditionally appears primarily in the context of highest tantra practice.

The Sakya tradition, in fact, equates the terms spiritual mentor, tantric master, and root guru. Such mentors serve as the roots of our paths because of the refuge, liberation, bodhisattva, and tantric vows we take in their presence during highest tantra empowerments, and because of the experiences and flash insights we gain during the procedures through their inspiration.

Progressing through Graded Relationships with Spiritual Teachers

The Nyingma and Kagyu traditions distinguish two types of tantric practitioners: those who progress through graded stages and those for whom everything happens at once. Kedrub Norzang Gyatso, tutor of the Second Dalai Lama, explained the distinction in A Lamp for Clarifying Mahamudra to Establish the Single Intention of the Kagyu and Gelug Traditions. The former follow graded steps throughout their spiritual paths, whereas the latter travel the final steps all at once as the result of enormous networks of potential built up by graded practice in previous lives. Although the Nyingma and Kagyu texts explain the path to enlightenment mostly from the viewpoint of those for whom everything happens at once, these types of disciples are extremely rare. The overwhelming majority of practitioners progress through stages.

Often when Westerners approach Tibetan Buddhism, they read some literature and, because they have not received deep explanations, confusedly identify themselves as practitioners for whom everything happens at once. Believing that they do not need to progress through stages even during the earlier phases of the path, they think they must immediately jump into the deepest, most advanced form of relationship with a spiritual teacher. Not understanding the qualifications, intent, and profound dynamics of such relationships, their naivety and lack of awareness bring them much confusion and pain.

Relationships with spiritual teachers need to be built slowly. This allows for the natural growth of trust on both sides. Students need confidence in teachers' qualifications, to trust that they will not mislead them. Teachers need confidence that students are serious, to trust that they will not misunderstand or misuse the teachings. One of the teachers' bodhisattva vows, after all, is to avoid teaching voidness to those not ready to understand it. In addition, one of their tantric vows is to avoid revealing confidential teachings to those unable to keep them private.

Therefore, if we wish to become disciples of tantric masters, we need to start as students of Buddhism professors or as pupils of Dharma instructors. Only with growing maturity may we safely enter relationships with spiritual teachers that are progressively more advanced. Our initial level spiritual teachers may be unqualified to become our tantric masters or even to become our spiritual mentors. Similarly, our tantric masters may have initially been our Buddhism professors. We avoid problems so long as both sides keep the roles straight and follow the mode of behavior appropriate to the level of relationship.


As spiritual seekers, we need to look to spiritual teachers in terms of what we wish to learn and are ready to absorb. We may wish to gain intellectual knowledge of Buddhism, Dharma instruction about applying the teachings to life, or pragmatic training in meditation or rituals. We may also wish for spiritual growth leading to emotional well-being in this lifetime, favorable rebirths, liberation, or enlightenment, or for the total self-transformation of tantra as the most efficient means for becoming Buddhas. The appropriate relationships with our teachers depend on our aim and our level of development. Moreover, spiritual teachers need to consider honestly what they can offer to spiritual seekers.

As Wonpo Sherab Jungne, nephew of the founder of the Drikung Kagyu tradition, implied in A Grand Commentary to [Drikungpa's] "Single Intention of the Sacred Dharma," most teachers, objectively speaking, have not yet reached liberation or enlightenment. Nevertheless, so long as spiritual teachers do not pretend that they have already achieved them, and so long as they are progressing unerringly toward these goals, they may help us to reach their current levels. Thus, if teachers do not pretend to be able to teach beyond their capacities and if spiritual seekers do not project onto teachers roles that exceed the persons' qualifications or onto themselves levels of development beyond their present stages, each side avoids many problems.