Relating to a Western Spiritual Teacher

Authorization of a Western Spiritual Teacher

As Buddhism takes root in the West, more Westerners are becoming spiritual teachers in its traditions. Some Tibetan mentors have formally given permission for their accomplished Western disciples to teach. A few have even named Westerners as their spiritual successors. In most cases, the authorization has brought qualified Western disciples to the fore. Occasionally, however, letters of endorsement from Tibetan lamas have derived from insufficient experience with the Western character to allow a correct evaluation of the disciples' intentions. In addition, several Westerners have declared themselves spiritual teachers without any reference to their spiritual mentors. Some of them have been properly qualified; others have been deficient in training or character.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has explained that appointment by a mentor or self-proclamation does not make someone a spiritual teacher. Authorization comes from the person's qualifications and effectiveness in teaching, as well as from a student's acceptance of him or her as a teacher. Seeking permission from a mentor comes after a student requests a person to teach, not before.

Following a Middle Path in Intercultural Student-Teacher Relationships

Some people feel that only if spiritual teachers are from traditional Asian societies can they be authentic. However, whether teachers come from traditional Asian or modern Western backgrounds, each cultural package carries with it advantages and drawbacks. One of the qualifications of a disciple, according to Aryadeva, is being free of prejudice. Thus, although for some people, spiritual teachers from one cultural background may be more fitting than are those from others, seekers need to be open to both. Westerners who find spiritual teachers inspiring only if they are Tibetans need to check if their biases may be due to rejecting their own cultures, having only minimal knowledge of Tibetan ways, projecting fantasies about exotic, mystical Tibet, or some combination of these factors.

In relationships between Western students and Tibetan teachers, each side may avoid problems by understanding the other's culture and finding a comfortable middle path. A compromise structure might entail, for example, following traditional protocol while giving teachings, yet discarding the custom of public scolding. Tibetan mentors commonly scold Tibetan disciples not only in private, but also frequently in front of others. This helps to correct proud disciples who are preoccupied with not losing face. For most Western disciples, however, public scolding is inappropriate. It is tantamount to humiliation and may reinforce negative feelings about themselves. Even private scolding needs to be approached with sensitivity.

A middle path is also necessary when people of Asian descent with Buddhist backgrounds study with Western spiritual teachers. This group of seekers includes young Tibetans in the West who are out of touch with their culture, Tibetans in India or Nepal with modern education, and people from Tibetan cultural areas in Russia or Mongolia who have received Soviet schooling. It also includes East, South, and Southeast Asians, both in their homelands and overseas as first- or later- generation immigrants. A middle path might include, for example, allowing traditional forms of showing respect, yet honoring the Western need for explanations reconcilable with the findings of science.

A Student-Teacher Relationship between Two Westerners

When Western spiritual seekers study with Western teachers, problems frequently arise if one or both sides try to follow a traditional Tibetan model in the relationship. This is especially true when the relationship becomes one of disciple and mentor. Because traditional Tibetan protocol often feels artificial and insincere, the interaction may become stilted. Western culture, however, does not provide a suitable alternative model. A Buddhist disciple-mentor relationship is hardly the same as that between a student and teacher in a secular school or that between a church or synagogue member and his or her pastor, priest, or rabbi.

If the setting of the disciple-mentor relationship is a Dharma center that is part of the organization of a Tibetan master, the Western seekers often feel the dilemma more sharply. This is because maintaining a double standard of behavior toward their Tibetan and Western mentors may introduce a subtle element of racial prejudice that makes everyone uncomfortable. A strictly Western form of student-teacher relationship may evolve more naturally in centers that are not directly associated with specific Tibetan masters or which are totally Western.

Further, the Western cultures from which the Western students and teachers derive will also affect the forms that the relationships between the two will take. Modern cultures differ greatly and Tibetan Buddhism is taking root around the world. Some societies are more formal than others are. Even within one country such as the United States, the disciple-mentor relationship between two Southerners and between two Californians will undoubtedly be different. Moreover, when the two parties come from different Western countries or cultures, a comfortable middle path between the customs of each is also required.

One general guideline, however, may be helpful. Most Westerners prefer verbal acknowledgment in establishing a relationship, rather than merely unspoken understanding of its formation. Therefore, in establishing a Mahayana disciple-mentor relationship between two Westerners when the disciple does not take bodhisattva vows in the presence of the mentor, both sides may avoid confusion if the seeker requests to become a disciple and the mentor explicitly accepts.

Showing Respect to a Western Spiritual Teacher

The procedures of guru-meditation apply equally to Tibetan and Western spiritual teachers. However, the manner of showing respect to the teacher may need to differ with culture. General customs of politeness, such as being quiet and attentive when a teacher enters the classroom, suit any society. However, certain ritual Asian forms of showing respect, such as prostrating, may be uncomfortable when both parties are Western.

A foreign custom of showing respect is often an inadequate vehicle for generating and communicating a heartfelt emotion. Although some Westerners may feel comfortable in following a traditional Asian custom, for others it may seem like play-acting. Offering prostration may simply serve to aggravate their emotional distance. Yet, if no formal means are available for expressing respect – especially in a disciple-mentor relationship – a disciple's conviction and appreciation of the mentor may remain too amorphous to stimulate growth. A mutually recognized and comfortable form of expression may help to nurture inspiration.

A sincere expression of respect needs to arise naturally. Moreover, if Western mentors expect or demand shows of respect from Western disciples and dictate the forms, the disciples often respond as they would to demanding parents. They either obey begrudgingly, while feeling demeaned, or simply refuse. Mentors need to let Western disciples express their respect in their own ways and need to learn to read the gestures that the disciples use.

Most Westerners value freedom of choice. Restriction merely reinforces their feelings of low self-esteem or rebellion. Thus, to express their respect in emotionally comfortable manners, they need a choice of acknowledged conventions that do not make them feel like fools or like shallow imitators of foreign ways. Examples of respectful gestures before a class or meditation session would be to stand or sit silently as the mentor enters, or to bow the head. After a lecture, a round of applause may comfortably express appreciation and respect.

Generational Differences in Ways of Showing Respect

Each stage of the adult life cycle may be conducive to different forms of expressing respect. Moreover, each generation in each culture and in each period of time may do things differently in each life-cycle stage. When Baby Boomers were provisional adults, for example, they were willing to experiment. During first adulthood, many mimicked foreign customs in an attempt to compete with other students to be the most devoted disciple. In middlescence, Baby Boomers often found these forms empty. Second adulthood then afforded them the opportunity to rediscover older ways of showing respect, which they had either rejected or repressed in their youth.

Members of Generation X, on the other hand, who are presently in provisional adulthood, may be more cautious to show respect than previous generations, because of fear of betrayal. With little tolerance for anything phony, they are extremely critical of a teacher's qualities and find most formalities hypocritical and meaningless. Only someone who consistently lives up to what he or she teaches and who nonjudgmentally lets them be themselves commands their respect. Moreover, they prefer to show respect straightforwardly, without pretense, simply by coming to class regularly, paying attention, and taking the instructions seriously.

When members of Generation X feel inspired by spiritual teachers, they still reject as artificial and superfluous the emotional displays characteristic of Baby Boomers and the Me Generation. They typically express their inspiration nonverbally, with more dedication to their practice. Western teachers from the Baby Boomer generation need to check any tendencies they may have to feel insecure if others do not acknowledge them in ways to which they are accustomed.

The Disciple-Mentor Relationship in the Context of the Practical Realities of a Dharma Center

Western Dharma centers may hire teachers as resident Buddhism professors, Dharma instructors, or meditation or ritual trainers. In such cases, the centers usually follow normal business procedures, with contracts, conditions, and options to terminate the contracts if either side fails to meet the terms. Dharma centers, however, cannot hire teachers as resident mentors, since establishing a disciple-mentor relationship is an individual matter, and not an institutional decision. One cannot impose a spiritual teacher as the required mentor for everyone at a center, especially for newcomers.

Traditional Tibetans often have difficulties when becoming the resident teachers at Dharma centers since they assume that if centers invite them to teach, the students wish to establish disciple-mentor relationships with them. Moreover, they are accustomed to being given offerings for free instruction, not salaries based on a charge for courses. Western teachers, however, can more easily understand and accept these arrangements. Therefore, to avoid confusion, Western teachers need to keep the financial arrangements between Dharma centers and themselves strictly on the bases of business terms, even if the administrators of the centers are their disciples. The traditional protocols of the disciple-mentor relationship do not pertain to the financial sphere, although politeness and respect need always to be present.

Both Western and Tibetan spiritual teachers may establish and run their own Dharma centers. In such cases as well, the teachers cannot expect that everyone who comes to the centers will be their disciples. They need to accept that many will be only their Buddhism students, Dharma pupils, or meditation or ritual trainees. As with other teaching institutions, they need to run their centers along sound financial guidelines.

A Student Working Personally with or Indirectly for a Western Teacher

As explained previously, in Tibetan society certain disciples, known as getrug, live with their mentors, normally from childhood, and receive full financial support from the household. This occurs whether they live with their mentors in the teachers' own homes or in the homes of the teachers' patron/disciples, and whether the mentors are monastics or married or single laypeople. They may serve as attendants, cooks, secretaries, interpreters, ritual assistants, or some combination of roles, and may or may not receive spiritual teachings from the mentor.

Like members of an Asian extended family, household-member disciples receive neither salaries nor pocket money for their work. In the case of monastics, the only private funds that they normally have they receive at large monastic ceremonies, empowerments, or discourses, when the lay patrons of the proceedings make small financial offerings to all the monks and nuns who attend. In the case of lay teachers, the disciples included in the finances of the household are usually younger relatives and may occasionally receive pocket money from other family members. Household-member disciples may choose to leave their mentors' homes; but no matter how poorly they serve or behave, Tibetan mentors rarely ask them to leave. They merely assign their duties to other members of the household.

Westerners, on the other hand, who serve as personal secretaries, assistants, or interpreters for Western teachers do not necessarily have disciple-mentor relationships with the teachers, although they are usually at least their students. They normally live in separate housing or in separate quarters within Dharma centers. Like going to jobs, they go to work each day with the teachers and have the usual expenses of modern Western lives. The Dharma centers, private patrons, or the teachers themselves may provide their funding. Alternatively, they may have other sources of income and either serve as volunteers or work only for token remuneration. Some students may also work indirectly for Western teachers, either at the teachers' Dharma centers or in affiliated businesses, with financial arrangements similar to those for the teachers' personal staff. In all these cases, several practical guidelines may be helpful to follow.

When working for the teacher is the students' sole source of income, the salary needs to be appropriate to the work done and sufficient to cover health insurance and other normal Western expenses. To pay inadequate wages or, as in indentured labor, to provide simply room and board at a center and perhaps a tiny monthly allowance so that student staff and workers can never accumulate enough savings to move out on their own is exploitation. The exploitation is even more pronounced if the students are lured into accepting the positions because they are made to feel that they are the "chosen ones" given the honor to serve the teacher.

Some Dharma organizations follow a socialist model. The organization runs a business and the profits pay for the living expenses of the spiritual teachers, their student staff, and the student workers. The staff members and workers frequently live together in communal houses. Each person, upon approval from a financial committee, may draw a reasonable amount from a common fund for pocket money and personal matters, based on need. Participation in such arrangements, however, requires selfless dedication and honesty on everyone's part; otherwise, the situation may likewise result in authoritarian exploitation and may similarly leave the students without the financial resources to leave communal life. To avoid the latter from happening, the organization might contribute monthly to individual accounts for each student, somewhat like contributing to an employees' pension plan, and the funds made available to anyone who decides to leave.

Further, the main criterion for hiring students needs to be their professional skills and commitment to the Dharma, not their spiritual levels or devotion to the teacher. It must be made clear to everyone that efficiency and effectiveness at work does not reflect spiritual competency or the sincerity of the student-teacher relationship. Moreover, as an explicit part of the contract, both sides need the option to terminate the arrangement for any reason, without this indicating a breach of guru-devotion or disapproval of the workers or staff members as spiritual seekers.

The relationships between spiritual teachers and their private secretaries, assistants, and interpreters tend to work most effectively when the people chosen are personal disciples. Because protection of the disciple-mentor bond must take top priority, only extremely mature and emotionally stable disciples are suited to work in close personal contact with their mentors.

A Disciple/Assistant Living with a Western Mentor as an Apprentice

When Western teachers are old or infirm, they may require assistants to live with them. Normally, however, Western teachers who are in good health do not require live-in attendants, although they may find assistants helpful on extended lecture tours. The other major situation in which living with an assistant may be beneficial is when Western mentors train especially receptive disciples as apprentices.

Spiritual apprenticeship is more than the typical Western training program for spiritual teachers. It does not encompass merely learning the subject matter and pedagogic skills, participating in workshops to explore personal attitudes about authority, sex, and money, and receiving supervision. It entails living closely with a mentor, normally as part of the household, and learning from observation of the teacher's interpersonal relations and handling of daily activities, from participation in them as an assistant, when appropriate, and from intense interaction with the mentor. The relationship may be extremely demanding, as was the case in my own nine-year apprenticeship with Serkong Rinpoche to become an interpreter and spiritual teacher. For example, to train my mindfulness and memory, he would stop our conversation at any time and ask me to repeat word for word what either he or I had just said. The emotional challenge of such training requires strict adherence to the guideline of not becoming annoyed with the mentor and viewing every action as a teaching.

The spiritual apprentice-mentor relationship between two contemporary Westerners living together is still a largely unexplored area. Although certain modern Western cultural features may make it more difficult than in Tibetan or other Asian societies, the possible benefits of such a relationship between two qualified, mature people with a healthy, strong bond as disciple and mentor make it worthwhile to explore. Let us look at some tentative guidelines. Most of them would also pertain to disciples living with elderly or infirm Western mentors, even when they are not training as apprentices.

The live-in arrangement would probably work best either when both parties are single – whether monastic or lay – or, in cases of one or both parties having life-partners, when the mentor and partner form a teaching couple or when the disciple and partner are to be trained as a team. If the partner of either side is not personally involved with the teaching or training process, and, particularly, if either side has children, too many problems of jealousy, resentment, division of loyalties, possible exploitation of the apprentice or partner as a servant, and so on, may arise. If such problems occur even in cultures that have the custom of people living in extended families, how much more so will they happen in Western cultures that lack the custom? In such cases, a nonresident apprenticeship may be best. Moreover, regardless of the genders and sexual orientations of an unmarried apprentice and mentor, it must be clear from the start that the relationship of living together is not a "spiritual marriage" with Prince or Princess Charming.

In traditional Indian and Tibetan societies, spiritual apprentices maintain celibacy (Skt. brahmacarya conduct) while undergoing intensive training. In a modern Western context, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect total celibacy from lay apprentices living and training with mentors. However, it would be inappropriate for single lay apprentices to bring their partners home to sleep in the mentor's house or, if lacking established sexual relationships, to look for partners while residing with the mentor. The apprentice-mentor relationship needs to be the main intense relationship, especially within the shared home. Moreover, if single lay mentors have lovers, it probably would be too difficult for most apprentices if the mentors slept with them overnight at home.

For the resident apprentice-mentor relationship to remain healthy, however, it must not be the exclusive close, nonfamilial relationship that each side has. Both the apprentice and the mentor need to have personal friends. Further, as in any relationship between two people sharing an apartment or a house, each side needs to be able to invite friends home, without feeling awkward, but also without disturbing the other. Although they may share mutual friends, neither side needs to feel obligated to include or exclude the other when friends come to visit. In addition, the apprentices need to feel free to receive instruction from other spiritual teachers – although in consultation with the mentors they live with – and the mentors naturally will have other disciples and perhaps even apprentices.

Regardless of the age differences between live-in apprentices and their mentors, it is important to try to prevent the apprentices from feeling as if they are children. To avoid undue transference, the relationship must be between two adults who can communicate openly to each other. Particularly delicate is the issue of money. If the apprentices receive partial or full financial support from the mentors or the mentors' patrons, it might be best if they receive it each week or month like a normal salary, not like a child's allowance. Moreover, to help maintain self-respect, they need to earn their salaries, for instance by doing household or secretarial work for the mentors. Payment by the hour may help to minimize feelings of guilt or resentment when the apprentices take necessary time to relax, to visit family or friends, or to take care of personal matters. As a precaution in case the mentors or patrons can no longer afford to pay them salaries, it is helpful if the apprentices have savings or professional skills to turn to as alternative sources of income. In some cases, holding outside part-time jobs may not only alleviate financial pressures, but also help the apprentices to maintain balance and to prevent the intensity of the relationships with their mentors from overwhelming them.

It is best if the apprentices contribute their fair shares to the household expenses from their salaries or other sources of income. To receive room, board, and unlimited use of the telephone and car as part of the arrangements may easily cause them to regress to the stage of indulged teenage dependents. Further, the apprentices need to have their own rooms, except perhaps when travelling with their mentors, so that they can relax, listen to music, and entertain friends, without feeling self-conscious.

Before starting to live together, it might be best if both sides agree on a specified period of time for the apprenticeship, which can be extended or shortened depending on the usefulness of the arrangement. As in the case of disciples working for mentors, it must be clear that either side may terminate the arrangement at any time, without implying a break or weakening of the disciple-mentor bond. Both sides need to acknowledge, however, that even when the apprenticeship reaches its natural conclusion at the completion of the training, they will naturally feel sad.

In a Tibetan context, disciples who are members of a mentor's household often remain in this role for the rest of their lives. If the mentor is a tulku or starts a line of tulkus, they may even remain after the mentor's death to find and raise the next incarnation. In the case of two Westerners, a lifelong relationship of a disciple/apprentice/assistant and a mentor living together may evolve, if both sides find it beneficial, even without the issue of a possible future tulku's being involved. However, just as Tibetan mentors often have several disciples who live with them as part of the household, similarly Western mentors need to make clear to live-in apprentices, even lifelong ones, that they do not hold the exclusive rights to these types of relationship with them. Emotional space must always be available for additional apprentices to join the household.

Western-Style Friendship between a Disciple and a Mentor

In Western countries with predominantly the Protestant values of egalitarianism, most people feel uncomfortable in hierarchical relationships. They tend to view such relationships in patriarchal or matriarchal terms, which carry for them negative connotations of manipulation, control, and suffocation of individuality. Therefore, disciples and mentors from such societies often prefer relationships with each other that more resemble friendship between equals.

On one level, the disciple-mentor relationship contains an equal exchange. Both parties gain inspiration from the other. However, as in the dynamic between a single parent and an only child, if a Western mentor tries to make the relationship into a friendship between equals, the disciple suffers. Both sides need to be clear, for example, that it is not the student's job to give emotional support to the teacher. Although most Western disciples are averse to authoritarian mentors who remain emotionally aloof, nevertheless they need stable examples of attainment to look up to and respect.

Western spiritual seekers with low self-esteem often need reassurance that they are not unique in having shortcomings. Thus, they may gain inspiration from spiritual teachers who, in the manner of Dharma instructors, share their doubts and weaknesses and indicate how they are using the Dharma to overcome them. Yet, sometimes the emotional struggles the teachers are working through are struggles with the students, such as being sexually attracted to some or being frustrated and disappointed that certain students do not come regularly to teachings. In such cases, it is inappropriate for teachers to share those feelings with students, as friends might share them with each other. Spiritual teachers, and especially mentors, need always to refrain from saying or doing anything that might undermine the students' respect and trust.

Westerners tend to need and to like personal interaction with spiritual teachers more than Tibetans do. They also are more accustomed to expressing and listening to each other's emotional difficulties. Thus, sharing personal problems with Western teachers may be more appropriate and easier than sharing them with Tibetan ones. In this sense, Western mentors may resemble close friends. Yet, care is required to avoid confusing this type of intimacy with romantic intimacy. Some disciples may feel that the mentor is the only one who understands them and thus fall in love. At the other extreme, unconscious fear of homosexuality or of male or female domination may cause some disciples suddenly to distance themselves from the mentor when they start to feel love and affection. Western teachers need sensitivity and strict attention to avoid unconscious countertransference.

Occasionally, a spontaneous friendly handshake or hug between disciple and mentor may be appropriate upon meeting or departing if shaking hands or hugging is a cultural custom shared between them and both sides feel natural and relaxed about it. If shaking hands or hugging becomes a forced ritual, however, or misinterpretation of its intent begins to arise, it is best to avoid these types of physical contact.

Nevertheless, each encounter outside the classroom or meditation hall need not be deep and meaningful. Forced intensity quickly becomes artificial and stifling. Sharing relaxed informal time may sometimes be more beneficial. Yet, teachers need to avoid encouraging being so relaxed that students become sloppy with them or take undue advantage of their time.

Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey once said that a spiritual teacher is like a wild animal. It is best not to stay too close. If spiritual seekers spend all day with them, they are more apt to find or see faults than if they keep a certain distance. The implicit meaning is that seekers' moods go up and down, and a teacher's actions may not always be enlightening. If disciples lack a strong foundation in sutra-level guru-meditation, they may derive more confusion than inspiration. Even in a Tibetan context in which attendants or children disciples live with their mentors, the two persons nearly always stay in separate rooms and do not spend all their unstructured time with each other. Thus, in spiritual friendships between Western disciples and Western mentors, a middle path between closeness and distance may be beneficial. The boundaries of propriety need to be clearly defined and strictly maintained, even in the case of apprentices living with mentors.

Western-Style Life-Partnership between a Disciple and a Mentor

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has said that if unmarried lay mentors develop sexual love for students or disciples, one cannot say that partnerships between them are totally taboo. However, the mentors' intentions need to be the establishment of long-term committed partnerships and not just one-night stands. It is completely inappropriate and abusive for mentors to use the lure of long-term relationships, or to play on the fantasies of disciples, just to get them into bed. In committed relationships, the two may relate to each other as equals in bed. Afterwards, however, they may relate as mentor and disciple. There is no inherent contradiction, as is shown in the relationships between married Tibetan lamas and their Tibetan wives.

Such arrangements may be more difficult to maintain with Westerners who feel uncomfortable in hierarchical partnerships or marriages. For most people, having several roles in a relationship is difficult to juggle. When one person is in the mode of one role, the other may be in the mode of another. The dynamic may be very delicate, especially during the courtship period.

In the West, the family of a doctor's family normally relies on an outside physician for medical treatment. Similarly, Western disciples and mentors who become life-partners may perhaps avoid many problems by suspending active pursuance of their disciple-mentor relationships. The disciples may make better spiritual progress if they rely primarily on other teachers as their mentors, while still deriving inspiration and encouragement from their spouses. In the case of unmarried lay mentors and apprentices developing sexual love for each other, the long-term relationship would probably need eventually to shift to one of a teaching team.


The tantras unanimously agree that the inspiration gained from a healthy disciple-mentor relationship is a source of true joy and spiritual attainment. On the other hand, when misunderstood and mixed with confusion, the relationship becomes unhealthy and may give rise to spiritual devastation and emotional pain. Misunderstanding may occur on the side of the disciple, the mentor, or both; and cultural factors often add to the confusion.

Shantideva explained that without seeing the target, an archer cannot hit a bullseye. Thus, to build healthy relationships and to heal the wounds that may have occurred from unhealthy ones, disciples need to identify correctly the principal source of the problems – lack of awareness. Lack of awareness derives from confusion about the Dharma teachings and about the cultural factors unconsciously affecting the thought and behavior of each party in the relationship. When Westerners are involved, imprecise or misleading translation terms frequently worsen the confusion. A rectification of terms, together with cultural sensitivity, may help to bring emotional clarity.

Many people, disillusioned or outraged at failures in the disciple-mentor relationship in the West, have called for a serious revision of the relation. Revision, however, does not require overturning tradition and inventing something entirely new. Revision may come from clearing away confusion about Buddha's teachings and by following the time-proven method of transmission of Buddhism from one culture to another.

Throughout the history of Buddhism, the teachings have successfully passed to different cultures by emphasizing and expanding Dharma points that resonate with the thought and customs of the recipient society. For success in the ongoing historical process of transmitting the Tibetan Buddhist lineages to the West, Kadam sutra-level guru-meditation may provide points of resonance and serve as an appropriate framework for building healthy disciple-mentor relationships. Time-tested Dharma methods adapted and applied to new situations have provided the solutions to the culturally based problems that inevitably arise. Thus, with Asian-style creativity, harmonious fits have grown within the framework of Buddhist tradition.