The Role of Spiritual Teachers in the Digital Age

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I’d like to speak about the role and need of a spiritual teacher particularly in our present modern day digital age. We, in the West and non-traditional Buddhist countries, don’t have the same circumstances and conditions for studying the Dharma as existed in Tibetan or even among the refugees in India. We, first of all are mostly householders. We’re not monks or nuns in a monastery being able to devote our full time to Buddhist study and practice. This is our reality. We have jobs. Many of us have families. We have many other responsibilities in life besides our Buddhist practice.

Now, when we look at the traditional presentation of Buddhism, it puts a great deal of emphasis on the spiritual teacher. But, we also know from the Buddhist teachings that nothing exists independently all by itself outside of a context. So, the traditional presentation of the role of a teacher was surely presented in the context of the way that Buddhism was studied and practiced in traditional society. This was primarily in the monasteries and nunneries.

The Traditional Model in Tibetan Society

There in Tibetan society, for example, families would bring children to a monastery to join when they were usually around seven or eight years old. They would live in the home of a teacher. The teacher becomes like a father figure, or in a nunnery, like a mother figure. They would be taken care of by our teacher. The teacher provided food and shelter for them. This is very different from what we have now-a-days, isn’t it?

There would be one teacher who would teach the children how to read. He would teach prayers and how to recite them. In the beginning this would be mostly memorization. Usually around the age of thirteen, the children would start to learn debating from another teacher. That teacher would help with learning the methods and the young monks would debate with the other young monks. Now-a-days, the nuns do this as well. Again, this is very different from what we have currently in the West, isn’t it?

Then, the Abbot of the monastery or some great lama would give teachings to larger groups within the monasteries. This might be on Lam-rim or something like that. In addition, other teachers would give initiations. Then, there would also be an Abbot who would give the novice vows and full vows. That is a different type of teacher.

We often hear the term “root guru.” We hear that the relationship with the teacher is the root of the path. We have the word root. What does that mean? Which one of all these different teachers that we would have in a traditional Buddhist society would be the root guru? This we can understand from the word root. A plant starts from a seed, not from a root. What does the root do for a plant? The role of a root of a plant is to give stability. It anchors it to the ground and it is that through which the plant gains its nourishment.

The root guru is the one who gives us inspiration. This is like the nourishment for the plant. The inspiration is not just form charisma because there can be quite negative figures who have charisma. Rock stars have charisma as well. A root guru is inspiring by being a living example of the Buddha’s teachings. These are the ideal role models even though we might not have terribly much contact with the person. Knowing that there is somebody who inspires us and gives us the strength to go toward the goal helps us and gives us nourishment. We need strength on the path. It’s not easy.

In many cases the person who is the root guru is someone with whom you hardly have any contact with at all. For many people, for example, it’s His Holiness the Dalia Lama. How many people have personal interaction with His Holiness? There are very few who are very advanced practitioners.

If we look in traditional society, we don’t have any of these teachers treating us like a baby in the sense of when we are feeling very discouraged, the guru comes and puts his arm around us and says, “It’s okay. Get on with the path. I still love you.” We are not going to find that in traditional Tibetan society. That is the case not just with the root guru but all different levels of gurus. Nobody in traditional society is going to put their arm around you and say that it’s okay. It’s very tough and in fact, they are very strict. In traditional society, they even hit the students. It doesn’t adhere to our Western standards, but that’s there.

To continue, you would have been given the teachings and then you were supposed to figure it out by debating with the other students. Basically, if you were going to apply it to your life, it would be your responsibility to figure out how to do that if you want to. Nobody is forcing you. This is the traditional model.

The Western Evolution

Now, as a Westerner, coming from our modern times, very few of us are willing to fit into that type of social context and that type of system. Even with that willingness to try it, not that many survive. It’s tough. That system is one that has evolved in the context of traditional Tibetan society and it worked and produced fantastic masters within that society. But, now, we Westerners come upon the scene and we want to study Buddhism but we don’t want to study it in the context or style in which it was done previously in traditional Tibet.

To make it more complex and challenging, our Western modern society has changed enormously now, in 2015 from, let’s say the 1960’s when I first encountered Tibetan Buddhism. Western society is completely different. When I started, there were no Dharma centers in the West. If you wanted to study there were no translations or translators available. You had to learn the language and then go to India, much like pioneers.

Those times are past and the role that the spiritual teacher had for us early Westerners was quite different. To be perfectly straight forward, it was almost like being something like a pet dog. They couldn’t quite take us seriously. Why were we there? A lot of us were wearing the Tibetan clothes and were stoned or whatever. How could they take us seriously?

Then, in the next phase, His Holiness built the library in Dharamsala, and Kopan monastery started in Nepal. They took us a little bit more seriously, offering courses and instruction and were starting to have translators. It’s interesting to look at the evolution of how we have approached Tibetan Buddhism and the interaction between the Western students and the teachers. There was no expectation that we would go terribly far in our studies or practice. Certainly not; after all, we weren’t willing to memorize a hundred or a thousand pages of Tibetan texts. As a start, this was how we differed from the Tibetan students that they taught. To the Tibetan teachers, it was like kindergarten, and they had to repeat all the time and if they asked simple questions such as to name the Three Jewels after months, people couldn’t answer. How could they take us really seriously? Still, they were incredibly patient and very kind and wonderful.

How were we supposed to relate to these teachers? The texts say to see them as a Buddha. We had no idea what that meant. Either it was taken to one extreme or the other extreme. Either it was the guru as god almighty, infallible, or those teachings were ignored. Regardless of which extreme we went to, it was very confusing. In retrospect, I think in both cases it was quite unhealthy. But, in those early days, at least there were well qualified teachers that we were studying with.

Also in those days, a lot of very high initiations were given. They were given to the Tibetans and the few Westerners that were there attended. But, we were a minor part of the audience. In fact the majority of the audiences were Tibetan monks and nuns. They were given the commitment after taking the initiation. This is a lifelong commitment to do the sadhana practice every day. We were there, and many of us felt that we had this commitment and we worked very hard to keep this in the beginning.

Now, when in India or Nepal, we had the time to do those commitments because they took at least one or two hours a day. But, once returning to the West, many had to get jobs or met someone and started to raise a family. I wonder what percentage of those people who took those commitments back in the 1970’s are actually keeping them today. Doing them properly means never missing a day. I think probably just a handful.

Remember, the westerners weren’t the major concern of the lamas who gave these initiations. The main concern was the Tibetan monks and nuns in the audience. This is as it should be actually. We were nothing special, but just sort of there in the corner. As I said, not that far above the Tibetan dog also sitting in the corner.

But, to be fair, there were a few of us who were serious and the teachers could recognize that we were serious. But we had to make an effort. We couldn’t do that passively. We had to be active in terms of going to the teachers and asking questions. In those days, His Holiness’s tutors were there. The great masters of the old generation were there. We could actually go and ask them questions and they did take us fairly seriously. Most of these students learned Tibetan. But, that was just a tiny handful, and for that handful of Westerners the relationship with a spiritual teacher became much more realistic. But, it wasn’t easy.

Just to give you an example. Trijang Rinpoche, the late Junior Tutor of His Holiness, was an incredible lama. Everybody was overwhelmed by how kind he was and so on. Whenever I went to see him, he asked me what I was studying and then he would quiz me about what are the ten of this and the eight of that. It was terrifying to go see him but in that sense, took me seriously. Serkong Rinpoche would say, “Oh, you’re so interested in tantra? Tell me, what are in all the hands of this deity? How are the heads arranged? What are the colors?” I wouldn’t remember. How could they take me seriously? He would say this was the Western “I don’t know mudra,” or the ignorance mudra.

The Emergence of Dharma Centers

But, then the next age was the phase of Dharma centers. Now, we have these Dharma centers in the West and we don’t necessarily have to go to India or Nepal, but what is the level of teachers that we have at the Dharma centers? Either there’s no teacher, or there’s a great teacher who visits maybe once every year or two, or there’s a junior teacher who is sent usually with no knowledge of our language along with a junior translator. They might have gotten their Geshe degree but they probably never had any experience teaching, for example. They might have done a three-year retreat in some of the other traditions but also no experience in teaching and here they are.

How do we relate to them? That is the interesting question. What is their role and how do we relate to them? Here’s this person who is supposed to be a Buddha, and they sure don’t act like a Buddha. Now what? We expect that they are going to give us initiations and so they give us a Chenrezig or a Tara initiation. There is no way that they would dare to do that in Tibetan society, but in the West we expect that. To fulfill our wishes, many of them do that. So, now does that make them a tantric master?

The Current Digital Age

Now, we are in the digital age. But before the digital age there were many translations and many books written more and more. It was a bit overwhelming and then the internet appears and it becomes unbelievable. We type in Buddhism on Google and we get ten million articles. We don’t know where to start. What do we do? What is this?

Then, it’s not just the internet. Now, it’s on the mobile phones as well. This is a very different age and society now. Most people are getting their information more and more on their cell phone anywhere and anytime that they want to. Now, we don’t have to go to India. We don’t really have to go to a Dharma center. We can access the Buddhist teachings whenever and where ever we want to.

What Becomes of the Spiritual Teacher in This Digital Age?

The question now becomes what about the spiritual teacher? Where is the role of the spiritual teacher in such a society and such an age? That I think is the big challenging question, isn’t it, especially for the young people who are on their phones all the time? Being students of Mahayana we are not just thinking about what suits us and our own comfort level. Maybe we are not like a twenty year old on my mobile device all the time. Nevertheless, we are concerned about others and the future of all beings. Therefore, these are questions that we need to take seriously in terms of the sustainability of Buddhism and the ability of Buddhism to adapt to the changing times.

We could complain about the digital age and the younger generation. We could give up on them because they are just on their phones texting to each other; or, we can be good Buddhists and accept reality, then the question is how do we adapt? It’s our responsibility as the older generation to look after the younger digital generation, this generation of social media. In order to assume that responsibility we need to analyze the functions of a spiritual teacher within the traditional context and in the context of how it has evolved as well. What are the actual roles of the spiritual teacher? How to fulfill these roles given the reality of our present age? That’s how we would go about dealing with any problem or situation. As I said, I think it’s our responsibility to the bodhisattva path to help others.

Analysis of the Roles of a Spiritual Teacher and How to Fulfill these Roles in the Digital Age

What are the different roles of a spiritual teacher? What do they do?

A Spiritual Teacher Gives Correct Information

First of all, they give correct information. Correct information originally when Buddha taught, nothing was written down. You had to hear it from someone and obviously there had to be a teacher or at least someone who had memorized what they had to memorize because there were no book. Unless you memorized the material, how could you work with it? This led to getting the lung (the oral transmission) and memorizing. That’s the context.

Even when there were versions of texts in writing, how many were there? They had to be written by hand on palm leaves or carved. They were very precious, for example, this one copy that took thousands of hours to create. They didn’t want grubby little children with runny noses touching them, so still you had to memorize. The context of things is always very important to remember.

Today, we don’t even have to buy the books anymore. There is a tremendous amount of information on the internet. The internet is even better because we have search engines and we can find things more easily. This is an advantage and a disadvantage. The disadvantage is that we only look for what we are interested in and we don’t read the entire article. The advantage is that if we are looking for something we can find it.

The teachings are usually not that easy to understand and so a teacher would explain. But, the internet on a well designed website, there can be explanations of various texts. There can even be recordings of teachers explaining the texts. We don’t have to travel to find that teacher. Very extensive websites can even offer this in our own languages. There can be a whole assortment of languages. It might be very difficult to find someone who speaks our particular language if we go to a monastery.

Given that our lives are incredibly busy and getting even busier, if we have the teachings on our mobile device, then we can study and read while we’re riding on the tram or at any time. It’s a little bit easier to fit it into our schedules. Now, just doing a little piece here and a little piece there is not the greatest method for concentration. But, at least it’s better than nothing.

And just as some teachers aren’t very clear when they teach and they may not be speaking in our language, but others are clearer and don’t need to rely on a translator, likewise on a website, it can be crafted in such a way, that it is a very comfortable wonderful user experience. It can be easy to read, visually very nice and so on. In many ways a well crafted website can do an even better job of conveying information than a teacher with a translator that doesn’t know our language very well and presents something confusing.

One of the problems I think is that beginners are constantly dropping in if we are lucky, actually. The beginner drops in and then the teacher either has to ignore the beginner or they have to go back and repeat the beginning information so the beginner doesn’t feel completely lost. A website can offer some of that beginner material as long as it is clearly indicated that this is where to start and that these are the first steps. It makes for a more efficient use of the Dharma center if the beginners have this material available. Then, if they like it, and want to go further, then they can integrate into the center. Of course, the website has to be easy to find, easily accessible on all devices, and has to be promoted in a sense through social media or in whatever common methods of reaching people.

There are far more efficient ways now with social media to reach large numbers of people than we ever had in the past, for example with a subscription to a newsletter. We should take advantage of that.

A Spiritual Teacher Answers Questions

What about answering questions? If we really listen to the questions that most Westerners ask the lamas, such as the ones that are passed up to His Holiness from the audience, a lot of them are trivial. In addition, a lot of people simply don’t know how to ask a question. A website can have frequently asked questions with the answers. If there were something that is not answered there, then we go to a teacher. That way, we don’t use other students and the teacher’s time with the obvious or trivial. It can supplement the teachers’ function of answering questions. A website can also present common misunderstandings and clarify these points so that people will be better prepared to come and study with a teacher.

To review, these are all aspects of one role of a traditional teacher. The role is to give information, answer questions, and clear up misunderstandings when we are making mistakes. On a basic level, that function can be fulfilled in a digital way. Then, of course the teacher could be available once a week or something like that, online, to answer questions. These would have to be sorted beforehand, to eliminate trivial questions. That way the teacher can reach a much larger audience than just people who have the time and money to come to a Dharma center.

Westerners Want a Spiritual Teacher to Offer Advice on Applying the Teachings to Our Daily Western Lives

Another function that Westerners like, but that didn’t really exist in traditional Buddhist societies and monasteries, is how to apply the teachings to our daily lives and personal problems. That was not a traditional role of a Buddhist teacher. But we would like that. When a Tibetan monk who has spent his life in a monastery in India comes to the West, they really have no idea of what our daily lives are like. It is very difficult for them to advise us in a meaningful way in regard to being married, having children, holding down a job and having financial responsibilities and so on. What experience do they have for that? Usually that role is taken over by senior Western students.

On a website, there could be general advice as to how to apply teachings to daily life in a Western context. One size will not fit everybody but some general guidelines can be there. It would be helpful. This is a very interesting question really. As Westerners, coming from our Western context, what are we used to and what do we expect? We have pastors that we can go to for a general comfort, advice on family matters, and so on. We have counselors and if we need more professional help we have therapists. We have the facilities to give us personal attention and I think many of us expect that from a Buddhist spiritual teacher as well. That is not a role that they traditionally played. What do we do with that issue?

There are various solutions that one can think of, that one can try and see if there is a need for this. Many people feel that there is a need for at least some sort of support on a personal level. Where do we turn for this?

Westerners Want a Sense of Community Concern and Support

We could turn to the group of people in our Buddhist center if there is a sense of community there. In many of the centers that I have visited, the sense of some sort of mutual support, for example if someone is sick, then everyone goes and takes care of the person, bring food etc, this sort of thing seems to be quite rare in our western Buddhist centers. There isn’t really that sense of communal friendship like you might have in some church groups for example.

Then the question is can we foster that type of community concern when someone is sick or hospitalized. Can an online community or social group provide any kind of support? People who join those groups are actually willing to be part of the group. I don’t have an answer to that but it’s an interesting question to explore. How much support can you actually get form an online community? Is an online community going to be able to go food shopping for you when you’re ill or come and cook a meal for you? Is it something to utilize to help us in terms of fulfilling that personal type of interaction even if it is digital? This seems to be the way that so many people are interacting with each other anyway by texting or whatever.

Westerners Want a Spiritual Teacher to be a Trainer

Another role that Westerners want but isn’t found in a traditional Buddhist setting is a trainer. We would like somebody who gives us the discipline to sit and meditate. Tibetan teachers don’t meditate with their students. That didn’t take place in monasteries. They did pujas together but meditation was your own business. That was done in your own room by yourself. But for Westerners, this is quite alien to our culture and we like a trainer. If we take the analogy of training at a gym or a fitness club, it can either be a group trainer, if we meditate in a group, or a personal trainer. It is a little bit awkward for Tibetans when they come as a teacher. I know because as a translator backstage, so to speak, there would be concern about what to do and how to lead a meditation. They didn’t have that in the monastery. What do they want? They don’t know what to do.

My main teacher, Serkong Rinpoche for whom I interpreted, after giving a lam-rim course and going through the entire lam-rim, was asked by the students to please guide a meditation on lam-rim. His reply was okay, “Okay, now we’ll sit and in your meditation go through the entire lam-rim. We’ll do that for two minutes.” The people responded with disbelief and he said, “Okay, three minutes.” That is their idea of how to lead a meditation. This demonstrates that it wasn’t part of their culture.

Actually to be fair to my teacher’s position, the point that he made in terms of that was that we should be able to go through the entire lam-rim in the time it takes to put one foot in the stirrup of a saddle for your horse or yak, and swing your leg over the animal. One should not think that meditation means your sit there and just go through the lam-rim so incredibly slowly. That’s not the aim. The aim is to be able to just get it like that. But he certainly wasn’t going to lead step by step through all of that slow process.

A Spiritual Teacher Gives Inspiration

On a website, there can be guided meditation with audio in a pod cast or with video. There can even be live streaming so there are set hours where people can do this at their homes. There won’t be someone to correct posture through a website but there can be general guidance. It’s a start.

Then, I think we can also gain some level of inspiration from videos of a teacher. It’s certainly not going to be the same level of inspiration as live contact but it’s something. How many people really have the opportunity to have that live contact with the greatest of the great teachers? The ones that just teach at our centers, not all of them are very inspiring, are they? Even if they are inspiring to some people at a center, they might not be to everyone. We don’t have to travel all over the world to go to different teachers to find one that inspires us. It is very important to find someone who inspires us. But, we can search on our mobile device or on our home computer and find videos of most of the great teachers. We can go through all of that and find one who we find particularly inspiring to us, personally. It saves a tremendous amount of time and money. Then, if they are still alive, we try to meet that person. It is sort of like online shopping. Why not? It’s a lot easier.

A Spiritual Teacher Gives Vows and Initiations

If we go to a more advanced serious level, what about giving vows and initiations? This is very interesting. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was asked about this, particularly in things like the Kalachakra initiation. What he decided was that if at the time of giving, for example, bodhisattva vows and tantric vows, although not full monastic vows, if at that time the teacher consciously accepts as the audience those people who are watching on the internet, and if those people seriously in their minds are receiving the vows and the teacher has in his or her mind that they are giving the vows and initiation to everybody who is listening at that time, not a year later, then it’s okay. This is the same as with volunteers not actually in the hall but looking at this on big screens. But, to repeat, this is not years later just watching or listening to the recording. That’s quite a step, isn’t it?

Utilizing the Digital Age

What we’ve seen then is that many of the functions of a teacher can be taken care of digitally not necessarily as a substitute but as a supplement or maybe as first steps. Rather than putting down the digital age environment that we’re in, let’s see how it can be best utilized.

When Is It Essential to Have a Direct Relationship with a Spiritual Teacher?

What cannot be done digitally is the role of a teacher in guiding some super serious student who is very advanced and particularly working with them on their personalities. This is someone for whom Buddhist practice is the top priority in their life and they have entered into an unwritten contract with a spiritual teacher. No matter what the teacher does, they will never get angry with the teacher, will never be sarcastic or criticize the teacher. Whatever the teacher does, whatever the teacher says, they will see it as a teaching. It’s either a teaching of what to do or a teaching of what not to do. That requires an unbelievable trust and commitment and emotional maturity. It’s clear that only a very tiny amount of us are at that stage where we can be a truly proper disciple and it’s worth the time of the teacher to invest on us.


Commitment to a Spiritual Teacher

It’s very important to examine within ourselves what is our level of commitment and is it fair to expect a higher level of commitment of the teacher to me than I’m willing to make to the Buddhist path and the teacher. Subsequently, how do we show our commitment? We show this by not only practicing, but by helping the teacher in whatever way we can. Digitally we can share links with friends, give donations, or if we are working with the teacher, help them to help others. Then we get involved and that’s a greater level of commitment. Then, everything fits together in terms of how we relate to the teacher in terms of our attitude and behavior.

Summary

I think that it is possible for the way that we practice Buddhism and the way that it is taught in the West in the modern digital age to adapt to the changed society and culture and in that way, young people and future generations will still have these wonderful teachings available. It all comes down to skillful means.

Questions

Is it possible for a Western person or Buddhist to go his or her whole life without a teacher?

No, I wouldn’t say that. The point is that whoever is the author of the website becomes the teacher and you can have access to the teacher through digital. Then, if you are really serious, then you can go to that teacher personally. You can still start through digital contact with that teacher through their website, their guided meditations, and online question sessions and so on.

When do you need a personal teacher?

As I said, you need to examine your level of commitment? Are you going there just because you want attention and want to be special or are you going because you are really serious about it? I think that is up to the person to decide as it says in the Seven Point Mind Training. Of the two witnesses, others and yourself, you are the main witness to see what level you are at.

Also, just on a practical level, most of these great teachers travel all the time. Unless you are very wealthy and a groupie and are going to go along with the teacher everywhere, your personal contact with the teacher is always going to be quite limited even if you are the most serious student. For many people His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the most inspiring teacher, so a root teacher. They don’t have personal contact but whenever His Holiness comes, let’s say to Europe, they try to go. It’s an expense but they make an effort to go. A lot of people derive a great deal from that.

I think it’s very important if you are going to do that, don’t go with a groupie mentality in that it’s the thing to do. Go because you really seriously have the motivation that you want to learn something from the teacher. A lot of people go for a spiritual uplifting. They need a boost of inspiration.

Dedication

Let’s end with a dedication. We think whatever positive force, whatever understanding comes from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as cause for everybody be able to access the spiritual teacher in the realistic ways that are available now. Through a healthy reliance on a teacher, without expecting too much or totally discarding the value of a teacher, we can progress on the path and be of greatest help to others and eventually reach enlightenment and really be able to help. The point is start with what is available now. There are things available. It is matter of using them properly.