Relating to a Spiritual Teacher with Actions

Translating Trust and Respect for a Mentor into Actions

The more convinced we are of our mentors' good qualities, the more confidently we trust them and their ability to guide us correctly. Similarly, the more deeply we appreciate our mentors' kindness, the more respect we develop for them. A healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor grows from the bedrock of trust and respect.

As the relationship grows, trust and respect naturally translate into actions. Maitreya enumerated the most common forms in Filigree for the Mahayana Sutras. Because disciples firmly believe in the good qualities of their mentors and sincerely appreciate their beneficial work, they are delighted to support it and to give whatever help they can. They automatically wish to show their respect in ways that feel appropriate. The most meaningful way, however, for disciples to demonstrate trust and respect is to follow the advice of their mentors, especially concerning their spiritual practices.

Supporting the Work of a Mentor

According to the classical presentation, the first way of relating to a spiritual mentor through actions is to offer material support. Many texts explicitly say that disciples need to give their mentors their wealth, their families, and even their lives. Without proper explanation, the instruction seems to imply that we need to give our mentors all our money and possessions and to subjugate our families and ourselves as slaves, as members of cults are often pressured to do. Even taking this point to mean that we need to give our mentors lavish gifts leaves a bad taste in most Westerners' mouths.

The intention here is that supporting a mentor's work financially and materially is a natural outgrowth and practical expression of appreciation, respect, confidence, and trust in the person and in his or her efforts. A show of support, then, is sincere and healthy only when made on a voluntary basis. Ngoje Repa confirmed this fact when he stressed that supporting a mentor's work needs to be free of pretense and hypocrisy. A pretentious offering to win a mentor's favor or to impress other people is not a sincere show of appreciation or respect. Neither is a hypocritical offering made out of guilt or group pressure, but lacking sincere feelings behind it.

Moreover, offering a mentor our families and loved ones does not mean to sell them into bondage. Rather, it may mean, for example, to welcome our mentors into our homes to share the warmth, humor, and hospitality of the family, provided our mentors are interested and our families are so inclined. Inviting a teacher at fitting times, such as holiday seasons, and in appropriate measure is a meaningful way to offer a mentor basic support as a human being. We open the doors to our homes and our families based on appreciation and trust of the teachers and on recognition that they may enjoy relaxing in a warm, human atmosphere.

The Fifth Dalai Lama explained these points clearly. He wrote that although standard Buddhist sources explain that supporting their mentors with their wealth and loved ones strengthens disciples' network of positive potentials, such practices require sensitive, honest thought. Because of family and other responsibilities, the disciples' most valued possessions may be difficult to give or inappropriate to share. Offering them as a way to further their spiritual paths is not something to do without hesitation. Nor is it advice that they may totally discard. If circumstances do not allow them to offer their mentors these types of support, they need to explain this to their teachers and excuse themselves. More important at such times is sincerely aspiring to be able to support their mentors and their work.

The Fifth Dalai Lama continued that if disciples are able to offer some support, they need to consider the appropriate place, time, and measure. In other words, there is no need to apply to present circumstances the examples of the inconceivable acts of selfless giving practiced by extraordinary disciples of the past to exceptional mentors. The classical texts have cited extreme examples to give inspiration, and not to give impossible tasks beyond people's present capacities.

Offering material and financial support to talented, qualified persons whose efforts we appreciate accords with common custom. Universities, for example, offer scholarships to deserving students and people donate to worthy charities. Offering our mentors support, then, has a shared meaning that applies to all levels of teachers. Especially if our spiritual teachers live by donations alone, we need to provide adequate financial and material support if we wish them to continue teaching. Voluntarily supporting their efforts is a healthy expression of appreciation and trust.

Helping a Mentor

The second way to relate to a spiritual mentor with actions in a healthy manner is to offer help and to show respect. We may help our mentors, for example, by making travel arrangements, driving them to appointments, writing letters, or transcribing and editing their teachings. We may show respect by coming on time and by completing as quickly as possible any work for them that we have said that we would do. Moreover, we may show respect by teaching our mentors about our cultures, if they are from different lands, and by explaining any problems we may be having at our Dharma centers. In this way, we help our mentors to understand and to help us further.

Nyenkur (bsnyen-bkur), the Tibetan compound translated here as helping and showing respect is often rendered into English as serving and honoring. The latter choice of terms implies a hierarchical feudal relationship. Consequently, many Western seekers feel that the relation with a spiritual mentor requires them to be servile, which some people may find appealing, perhaps due to low self-esteem. Others find the idea of servitude and subservience repugnant. Let us explore the issue.

Granted that traditional Tibetan society was hierarchical and feudal, many people lacking firsthand experience of such a societal structure judge all examples of it as repressive and exploitative. Their judgments come from preconceptions and, although in some cases their evaluations may be correct, they are often unfair. When people live in harsh and difficult environments without modern conveniences, a division of labor within an extended household is the only realistic way to cope. In an optimal situation, the head of a household provides protection, security, and a wise strategy for dealing with problems and danger, while attendants take care of everyone's physical needs. Each contributes to the overall welfare of the household and both sides treat each other with love and respect. As a social system, this can work harmoniously. I personally have witnessed this possibility in my twenty-nine years of living with traditional Tibetans in India.

Traditional Tibetan teachers, particularly tantric masters, have both attendants and apprentices. Although not all attendants are also apprentices, one person may play both roles. Rigid feudal societies may be rightly faulted when they do not allow for social mobility. Nevertheless, when the feudal relationship is between a master and an apprentice, then service and mobility are both implicit. An apprentice eventually becomes a master. In the case of the household of a monastic tulku, when one incarnation passes away, the lama's senior attendant becomes the head of the household and takes charge of finding and raising the next incarnation. Most Tibetan monastic societies, then, allow a certain amount of social mobility. They are not ideal by modern Western standards, but they are also not dens of oppression.

In Western egalitarian societies, we call an attendant an assistant, a secretary, or a housekeeper and we pay the person a salary. Instead of apprentices, we have volunteer interns and persons doing on-job training. One major difference, however, between these roles and those in traditional Tibetan societies is that Tibetan attendants and apprentices usually join a teacher's household when they are children. In most cases, the youngsters do not take these positions voluntarily; nevertheless, no one forces them into these roles against their wills. Living with a teacher, after all, is not only an honor, but also one of the best ways to receive an education. In addition, the new household provides a substitute family and material support. Moreover, Tibetan children do far more housework and chores in their own families than any modern Western child does. They do no more work in their teachers' homes than they would do in their parents' houses.

The dwindling number of elders left who grew up in traditional Tibet, as well as the influence of modern education and social norms, is leading to the rapid breakdown of the system of attendants among Tibetans in exile. Although some children who join the monasteries and nunneries still live with and serve their teachers, most live in dormitories, much like at boarding schools. No one has to fetch water from a stream or to forage for fuel. Consequently, most of the younger generation of teachers, especially when living outside their monastic institutions or lay homes, prefer to take care of themselves without attendants.

If the situation is changing among modern Tibetans with one another, it certainly needs to change between Western seekers and Tibetan or Western teachers. This does not mean that modern students need not help their teachers with menial tasks or invite them to a meal. Of course they do. Especially if the teacher is extremely busy with teaching, advising students, writing, performing ceremonies, and so on, it is totally appropriate for some of the students to cook and to help with the housework to save the teacher's valuable time. If, on the other hand, the teacher has ample free time, catering to the person when modern conveniences are readily available spoils the teacher and may lead to misuse of the students' free time. A "middle path" is needed, taking into consideration, of course, the teacher's age and health, and the students' conditions.

Helping our spiritual teachers, when done according to a middle path, is a healthy way to express belief in their qualities and appreciation of their kindness. It accords with the common customs of society. People naturally help those whom they respect and whose kindness they appreciate. Therefore, helping a spiritual teacher qualifies as a piece of advice with a shared meaning that applies to all levels of teachers, from Buddhism professors to tantric masters.

Showing Respect

The second half of the compound nyenkur means to show respect with words and behavior. In traditional Buddhist cultures, disciples showed respect for their spiritual mentors by prostrating before them and circumambulating their houses. Such ways of showing respect are either unnatural or uncomfortable for most Western spiritual seekers. Because they do not accord with common customs, prostration and circumambulating do not qualify as shared practices applicable to all societies.

The essential point here is not the form in which we show respect, but rather the fact that we show it in some form or another. For example, we may stand when our mentors enter the room to teach: we do not need to prostrate, bow, or curtsy to them. Depending upon the individuals involved and the situation and company in which we find ourselves, formal obeisance may be absurd, inappropriate, or awkward.

Certain forms of courtesy, however, are universal. Examples include dressing properly and washing before going to see someone, opening the door for a person, showing someone to his or her seat, offering something appropriate to drink, serving it in a clean glass or cup, keeping quiet and paying attention when someone speaks to us, not interrupting, answering politely, and so on. Courteous behavior and polite words are appropriate with all levels of spiritual teachers and at all stages of the path.

Showing respect, however, needs to be sincere. According to Difficult Points concerning Helping and Showing Respect to a Guru, a pretentious student with a coarse worldly mind may physically help a spiritual mentor in many ways. The person may even show outward forms of politeness. However, unless someone deeply and sincerely respects a mentor, his or her polite actions do not actually show respect.

Taking the Advice of a Mentor

All the classical texts agree that taking the advice of one's mentor is the most meaningful demonstration of one's trust and respect. It constitutes the most significant way of relating in a healthy manner to a spiritual mentor. Many disciples, however, misunderstand the intention of the teaching.

In a healthy relationship, we seek our mentors' advice only concerning important matters that would affect our spiritual development and practice. Asking our mentors to make all our decisions, especially concerning trivial matters, indicates a lack of maturity. Thus, Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche admonished against asking our mentors open questions, such as "What should I do with my life?" Except for seeking open advice about which practices to focus on next, mature disciples simply inform their mentors of personal plans and inquire if the teachers foresee any problems with them.

A healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor, then, does not include an abrogation of responsibility for one's life. It does not engender psychological dependency, nor does it entail following a mentor's advice unquestioningly like a soldier obeying a command. Buddhism never calls for submissive obedience, even of a monk to his abbot or a nun to her abbess. After all, one of the major qualifications of a disciple that Aryadeva specified is common sense. This means having both the ability to discriminate and freedom of choice.

Gampopa corroborated Aryadeva's point in A Precious Garland for the Supreme Path. There, as one of the ten necessities for disciples to be able to follow the path, the Kagyu master listed enacting the advice of their mentors ardently, with discriminating awareness and belief. Discriminating awareness includes not only using common sense concerning how to apply the advice. It also encompasses discriminating between what they are capable of doing and what is beyond their present means, and differentiating between counsel that accords with Buddha's teachings and advice that contradicts the Dharma.

Ashvaghosha made this point perfectly clear, specifically regarding tantric masters. If tantric masters ask their disciples to do something unreasonable that they are incapable of doing, the disciples need to explain politely why they cannot comply. This shared teaching applies to all levels of spiritual teachers. The Indian and Tibetan commentaries on this point provide the scriptural basis and fill out the meaning. If mentors ask their disciples to do something that accords with Buddha's teachings, but which is too much for them to bear, or which they cannot do despite trying their best, the disciples need to excuse themselves politely. If, on the other hand, their mentors press them to do something that contradicts the Dharma – specifically, anything that requires breaking one of their vows – disciples must keep their equanimity and not comply. As Gampopa put it, one needs to hold one's moral ground and not lose one's footing. However, in such cases as well, disciples need to remain polite and explain to their mentors their reasons for turning down the request. Their mentors, after all, may merely be testing their moral resolve, as was the case in one of Buddha's previous lives when his mentor asked him to steal.

Recently, several cases surfaced in which seemingly reputable spiritual teachers have coerced their students into having sexual relations with them. Many Westerners became deeply confused. They read in texts, such as Kongtrul's Lamp for the Definitive Meaning, that proper disciples must obey whatever their tantric masters tell them to do, as Naropa did when Tilopa told him to jump off a cliff. Tilopa, however, had the power to eat a live fish, snap his fingers over the bones, and bring it back to life. Moreover, Naropa was an ex-abbot of Nalanda Monastery and one of the most learned practitioners of his day. If our teachers and we are at these levels, that is one matter. When we are not, however, then Buddha was very clear that advice for higher level bodhisattvas does not pertain to practitioners of lower levels of attainment.

Honoring the Authority of a Mentor

When Buddhism speaks of a mentor as having authority, this does not mean that a mentor has the authoritarian power and right to command disciples and demand obedience. Instead, here authority implies that a mentor has recognized knowledge, expertise, and other good qualities. A mentor's authority derives from authenticity rather than from power, coercion, self-righteousness, or God's will.

Because disciples clearheadedly believe, based on reason, that their mentors' qualifications are authentic, they trust and respect their mentors as authoritative sources of advice concerning spiritual matters. Free of naivety about the limits of their mentors' competence, they do not inflate them into omniscient gods to be obeyed without question. Such naivety is not the intention of the advanced instruction to regard one's mentors as one would a Buddha.

Further, if disciples have close relationships with more than one spiritual mentor, they do not ask each mentor advice concerning the same matter. Asking more than one mentor implies a lack of confidence in the authority of any of them, as if the disciples are waiting until they receive the advice that they want to hear. With discriminating awareness, disciples need to choose the appropriate mentor for asking about a specific matter. Only a fool would ask a lawyer for medical advice.

Asking advice about our spiritual practices refers to after we have become disciples of spiritual mentors. Before we have reached that level of commitment, when we are simply students of Buddhism, Dharma pupils, or meditation or ritual trainees, we would not seek such advice. More appropriately, we might ask our Buddhism professors questions about the teachings, our Dharma instructors queries about how a teaching pertains to life, or our meditation or ritual trainers technical questions regarding posture. Such cases also require discriminating awareness. We would only accept their answers if they accord with the Dharma.

Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche warned that even the most learned masters sometimes make a slip of the tongue, translators frequently make mistakes, and students often mishear what is said. If anything one hears seems odd, one needs to check it with the standard Buddhist texts. As when receiving advice that does not accord with the teachings, one needs to explain the discrepancy politely to one's teacher and ask for clarification.

Often people wish to practice Buddhism as part of a committed spiritual path to self-transformation, but have not yet found spiritual mentors. In such cases, they have no choice but to seek advice from their Dharma instructors or meditation trainers concerning how to begin practicing on more serious levels. Any advice they receive, however, is only provisional until they find and establish a relation with a qualified spiritual mentor.

Emulating a Mentor

Patrul explained that before committing themselves to a spiritual mentor, potential disciples need to examine the person thoroughly. Once they have become convinced of the person's qualifications and authority and they have become disciples, they need scrupulously to follow the teacher's advice regarding their practices. In the end, they need to emulate the mentor's realizations and behavior.

Some people take this instruction literally to mean that they need to do everything exactly the same as their mentors do. The instruction, however, does not pertain to personal matters or to political or cultural opinions. If our mentors are Tibetan and we are Western, we do not need to adopt Tibetan customs and drink butter tea. Nor do we need to regard women in a traditional patriarchal fashion. Also, we do not need to receive every empowerment and study every text that our mentors have, nor train in every meditation that they practice. The instruction to emulate one's mentor means to gain authentic realizations and then to behave accordingly. One needs great care in this matter. As Patrul's disciple Ngawang Palzang explained in Lecture Notes on "Personal Instructions from My Totally Excellent Guru," without first acquiring the level of realization of one's mentor, to try to emulate his or her behavior is both pretentious and dangerous.

Rectifying the Term Devotion

The Tibetan term tenpa (bsten-pa) sums up a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor. The usual English translation is devotion, hence the term guru-devotion. Devotion, however, carries a misleading connotation. It conjures the picture of a devoted servant or a devotee of a god or a cult. It also implies a combination of emotional fervor and mindless obedience.

Tenpa, however, is a verb that means to come close to someone in one's thoughts and actions, and to rely on the person with confidence. It does not imply, however, coming close to a charlatan or a scoundrel, or relying neurotically on someone, even if the person is competent to help us. Thus, I have translated it here as building a healthy relationship. One builds such a relationship not only with a spiritual teacher, but also with a doctor.

According to Difficult Points concerning Helping and Showing Respect to a Guru, tenpa also connotes pleasing one's guru in the proper manner. The proper or healthy way for disciples to please their mentors is to come close in the sense of modeling themselves after their mentors and following their advice to transform their minds and help all beings. It does not mean to try to ingratiate themselves with lavish gifts or to practice the Dharma only to please their teachers. As Buddha explained in Special Verses Grouped by Topic: "One may be close to a spiritual mentor for one's entire life. Yet, if one does not learn the Dharma taught by him or her, [one's experience of the teachings] is [as meager] as the taste of stew on a ladle."