Blocks in Opening Oneself to a Spiritual Teacher

Paranoia and Vulnerability

One of the most important aspects of healthy disciple-mentor relationships is for disciples to receive inspiration from their mentors. This can only occur if they are open to their mentors' uplifting positive influence. Some disciples, however, are paranoid that if they open themselves to a spiritual mentor, they will come under the control of the person or be manipulated. Alternatively, they may feel that by opening up they become vulnerable. They fear being hurt, betrayed, or abused. If a mentor is not properly qualified, and particularly if the teacher has unscrupulous motives, their reticence is well founded. However, if the teacher is a properly qualified mentor, then to make the most efficient progress, they need to overcome their blocks.

We can open our hearts to receive inspiration in a healthy manner only if we have a basic understanding of voidness – particularly an understanding of how we exist. This is one of the reasons why, as explained earlier, becoming a disciple requires knowledge of the basic Buddhist teachings. Specifically, we need at least an intellectual understanding of the differentiation that Buddhism makes between a conventionally existent "me" and a totally fictitious or false "me." Western psychology speaks of a healthy ego and an inflated ego. A healthy ego is a sense of a conventionally existent "me." An inflated ego is a conception and belief that one's conventional "me" exists in the manner of a false "me."

A conventionally existent "me" is the person to whom the word me refers, based on the unbroken continuity of an individual's unique experience. With a healthy ego, one is able to organize one's life and take care of personal needs. A false "me" is a solidly existent "me," assumed to be findable somewhere inside oneself, acting as an independent boss trying to control one's experience. The notion that a conventional "me" could exist in such a concrete way does not refer to anything real. Modern science agrees: the brain functions as a complex network, without any control center. With an inflated ego, however, one identifies with a false "me" and mistakenly believes that one can completely control what happens.

With a correct understanding of voidness, one stops falling to either of two extremes. On the one hand, one stops projecting and believing that the conventional "me" exists as a false "me." On the other, one does not reject the idea that the conventional "me" exists at all. Thus, qualified mature disciples maintain a balance between being open to a mentor's enlightening influence, without projecting a false "me" onto themselves, and being able to preserve their individuality and integrity on the basis of a conventional "me." Let us explore the issue more fully.

Assorted personal and cultural factors may support one's fear of opening to a spiritual mentor; nevertheless, from a deep point of view, the fear arises from falling to one of the two extremes. A disciple may fear manipulation from having an inflated sense of a false "me" that must resist or become totally out of his or her control. This often occurs with people who are obsessed with trying to control everything in their lives and all situations with others around them. Their obsession makes them particularly leery of manipulation through suggestion, as in guided meditation. Alternatively, paranoia and fear may arise from a dysfunctional sense of a conventional "me," unable to maintain its valid identity in the face of a seemingly independently existent external onslaught.

If, instead of closing, one opens to a mentor while unconsciously maintaining either of the two extreme views, one may develop yet other forms of unhealthy relationships. With a strong sense of a false "me," one may inflate one's ego even further by joining it with the inflated "me" of an inflated mentor. This frequently occurs in disciples who join fascist spiritual cults and gain existential empowerment through the strength of the leaders and the groups. The syndrome also occurs in "spiritual groupies" who follow qualified mentors.

On the other hand, with a dysfunctional sense of a conventional "me," one may become submissive and excessively devotional. One may try to gain a sense of a solid, false "me" by inflating and identifying with the conventional "me" of the mentor, as opposed to doing the same with one's own conventional "me." The result is usually emotional overdependence, with the danger of either transference and degenerative regression, or exploitation and possible abuse.

Thus, opening to inspiration from a spiritual teacher needs great care. To avoid possible pitfalls, the opening needs to be a gradual process, coupled with an ever deeper understanding of the voidness or impossibility of the conventional "me" existing as a false "me." Sutra-level guru-meditation may be helpful here, since it standardly includes focusing on the mentor's conventionally existent weaknesses and faults as devoid of existing as inherent flaws and therefore as features that dependently arise. We may supplement the meditation by also focusing on the conventional "me"s of both the mentor and us. Both are devoid of existing in the manner of a false "me," and yet conventionally existent and functional as a "me" that arises dependently on the aggregate factors of experience.

Systems Analysis

To understand the nonlinear fashion in which such voidness meditation benefits the disciple-mentor relationship, let us borrow some analytical tools from Maturana and Varela's application of systems analysis to deep ecology in The Tree of Knowledge and The Embodied Mind. Understanding voidness, opening to a mentor, and receiving inspiration form a feedback loop. The more we understand, the more we open. The more open we are, the more inspiration we receive. The more inspiration we receive, the more we understand voidness.

As with all feedback loops within living systems, the dynamic is self-regulatory. In other words, at each stage of the development, the disciple-mentor relationship stabilizes into a different pattern. When viewed over long periods, the patterns become progressively more healthy, although in any short period the relationship may go up and down.

The living system here is an open one: in other words, the energy of inspiration continually flows through it. Consequently, at certain points, the living system of the relationship reaches a critical stage. At these points, the system releases and sheds tied-up energy, such as the energy bound in paranoia, inflation, submission, or fanatic devotion. Consequently, the system transforms into a new structure of increased efficiency. The relationship reaches a new quantum level of energy as we begin to relate to and to receive inspiration from our inner guru – our clear light mind.

Openness from the Side of the Mentor

Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche once imparted a profound guideline instruction to me. He said that when, in the future, your disciples see you as a Buddha and you know full well that you are not yet enlightened, do not let this sway you from seeing that your own mentor is a Buddha. The implication is that a spiritual teacher, in understanding the nonliteral meaning of seeing that the mentor is a Buddha, tries to provide the circumstances conducive for disciples to access their clear light minds.

Because qualified spiritual mentors understand voidness, their ways of relating to disciples are free of ego-games. Moreover, the mentors' honesty and sincerity provide open gateways for us, as disciples, to access safely levels of relationship deep beneath ego-trips. As our growing understanding of voidness and increasing inspiration carry us across the threshold, we feel sufficiently safe to begin shedding previous neurotic patterns. Our disciple-mentor relationships slowly become deeply authentic and honest from our sides as well. As we drop increasingly more preconceptions and concepts concerning the relationships, the directness of mind that we reach provides a circumstance conducive for opening to clear light mind.

First, we begin to realize the clear light nature of our mentors' minds – the inseparability of our mentors and Buddhas. With sufficient understanding of voidness, the release of neurotic energy that the insight brings allows us to calm down and shed even deeper levels of concepts, and thus to approach the clear light level within us.

Sometimes, however, unqualified spiritual teachers may play ego-games with us. For example, the teachers may try to convince us to adopt their avidly sectarian attitudes. To avoid the hellish consequences that may follow if teachers attempt to exploit us while we are trying to be sincere, we again need to focus on voidness in guru-meditation. The mentors' faults are devoid of existing as inherent flaws and the seemingly independently existing "me"s that the mentors are trying to assert are devoid of existing in the ways in which they appear.

Moreover, our conventional "me"s are devoid of existing as seemingly independent "me"s that must struggle to resist in order to survive. A correct understanding of voidness allows us the emotional transparency to allow a domineering mentor's ego-trip to pass through us, without causing upset. We may then either say no to the mentor's pressure or keep a respectful distance if a working relationship has become untenable.

Dealing with the Death of a Mentor

The death of one's spiritual mentor may be a devastating occurrence. We may feel abandoned or betrayed, especially if we have inflated the mentor into an actual Buddha, able to decide when to die. We may feel like someone who has lost a beloved spouse and, feeling that no one can ever replace the person, decides never to remarry. Thus, we may feel that no one can ever replace the mentor and so we close to the possibility of relating deeply to another spiritual master again.

One source of the block may be an inflation of the mentor into "the one and only mentor for me." The concept hints at an unconscious influence from the Biblical belief in Jehovah as the one and only God. Belief in another God is not only disloyal, but also heretical, strictly forbidden by divine commandment.

A mentor, however, is not a jealous, vengeful God. To consider someone "the only one" – whether it be the only mentor or the only partner to whom we can relate – is to inflate the person into an independently existent individual with the concrete identity of being the only one. Conventionally, each mentor, like each partner, is a unique individual. No one can exactly replicate someone else or provide the circumstances for the exact same relationship. Nevertheless, if the disciple-mentor relationship has been relatively free of ego-trips, we may be able to see more easily that opening to other mentors is not a betrayal of our relationships with the deceased.

Moreover, a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor does not end with the teacher's death. Even after the mentor has died, we may still receive inspiration from the person in our memories and dreams. In fact, sometimes there may be even fewer blocks to being open. While a teacher is alive and geographically distant, we may feel that the teacher could still be with us but is not. This may seem like a glaring fault and may cause annoyance and complaint. If, on the other hand, we have accepted the mentor's death and sufficiently grieved, ironically we no longer feel distant from the person. The deceased seems present at all times, deep within our hearts.

Inflation, Projection, and Idealization

Unconscious inflation and projection often describe the psychological mechanism of unhealthy relationships with spiritual teachers. For example, we may be working to develop selfless compassion. In the process, however, while still influenced by disturbing patterns, we may deny or repress the narcissistic sides of our personalities. Unconscious inflation may then manifest in an attitude of "holier than thou." The inflation may further manifest in narcissistic preoccupation with and overemphasis on feelings of devotion. We may also project the inflation onto a mentor and, subsequently, aggrandize and identify emotionally with the teacher or his or her lineage.

In projecting and becoming overemotional about a mentor and a lineage, a complementary deflation may emerge. In contrast to them, we may feel that we are inadequate. The more perfect the teacher and lineage appear, the worse we may seem in our own eyes. If we then inflate the negative self-image, we may morbidly fixate on feelings of self-mortification. We may feel that we must sacrifice ourselves. Subsequently, our practice of selfless compassion may unconsciously transform into an exercise of martyrization to glorify the mentor and the lineage.

We may then further inflate and project negativity onto teachers and lineages that are supposedly our mentors' rivals. Consequently, we may aggrandize them into the Devil and become fanatically sectarian. Moreover, if a glorified mentor somehow disappoints or neglects us, we may inflate our low self-esteem and one or more of our so-called inadequacies and feel that we are bad disciples and deserve the punishment. Alternatively, or in addition, we may inflate the neglect and feel that the mentor is as cruel as is Satan.

To try to avoid inflating and projecting negativity, we may supplement sutra-level guru-meditation with bringing to consciousness not only our mentors' faults and shortcomings, but also our own. In acknowledging our own shortcomings, we need to see that they do not exist as inherent flaws. The insight may allow us to develop healthy attitudes regarding the disturbing emotions and attitudes still left at the current stages of our development. The balance gained helps to prevent the relationships with our mentors from becoming unhealthy.

Care is also required not to idealize the teacher. Idealization imputes good qualities onto others that they in fact do not have. For example, we may project and see good qualities in our mentors that we feel that we ourselves lack or that we ourselves need. Often, we had projected these qualities onto our parents in childhood, but had not received the treatment from them that corresponded to our expectations. Even when our mentors have the qualities that we feel we lack, or need, or wished that our parents had possessed, we may inflate these to impossible proportions and thereby thrust our teachers beyond our reach.

Because self-disparagement usually accompanies either idealization or inflation, we need to realize that the good qualities we see reflect the hidden potentials of our own Buddha-natures. This realization is valid whether or not our mentors actually possess the qualities corresponding to our projections. In healthy relationships with spiritual mentors, however, we accent only the good qualities that teachers actually have, without exaggerating or embellishing them with further qualities that we wished they had.


As discussed earlier, a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor does not contain the neurotic devotion that combines emotional fervor with mindless obedience. Nevertheless, even when some of the potentially positive aspects of devotion are present, difficulties may arise. Consider, for example, the uplifting feeling derived from a loss of self in awe of something greater. Devoted persons may lose themselves in the splendor of rituals, or in the face of God, country, just causes, or great figures. When the loss of self entails a loss of the sense of a false "me," devotion is a healthy, constructive emotion.

In some theistic religious contexts, however, pious persons totally devoted to God or to a saint lose themselves in awe of an unknowable mystery. In its classical form, devotion occurs with a leap of faith. This form of devotion sometimes brings problems, because devotees may project the entire unconscious sides of their personalities. Consequently, so long as they regard the object of devotion as a mystery, beyond what they may know, they may block integration of their unconscious potentials into their conscious states. From a Buddhist point of view, they may block realization of their Buddha-natures. Moreover, in losing themselves in awe of the unconscious, they may surrender rational functionality. With feet no longer on the ground, they may be subject to manipulation or possible abuse in moments of religious fervor.

If Western disciples project an unknowable mystery onto a mentor and lose themselves in adoration and awe, the result may be a serious block to healthy relationships. If we suffer from this problem, we may lose all sense of not only a false "me," but also of a conventional "me," and become overdependent on an idolized mentor whom we can only worship and adore. Moreover, viewing the mentor's qualities and actions as an unknowable mystery – beyond all thought, conception, words, and sense of good or bad – may court disaster.

A Mentor's Actions as Inconceivable

Many Nyingma and Kagyu texts describe a Buddha's actions, and thus a mentor's actions, as beyond all thought and conception. One may fathom these actions only when one comprehends the deepest truth and, since the deepest truth is beyond thought and conception, so are the actions that are its "play." Some disciples misunderstand the point. They think that even a teacher's abusive behavior is inconceivable and therefore they had best keep quiet because they are insufficiently spiritually advanced to comprehend its mystery. Resolution of their confusion requires a correct understanding of inconceivability and of the relation between conventional and deepest truths.

We may understand the inconceivability of deepest truth and thus of a mentor's actions in two ways. If we take the deepest truth to be "self-voidness" – the absence of impossible ways of existing – straightforward, non-conceptual understanding of voidness is beyond conceptual thought, words, and so forth. If the deepest truth refers to "other-voidness" – an understanding of reality with a clear light mind – its direct realization is beyond all grosser levels of mind at which conceptual or verbal thinking occur. Inconceivable, then, does not mean unknowable. It merely means that the fullest understanding is beyond the level of conceptual thought.

Whether we take the deepest truth as self- or other-voidness, the appearances of a mentor's actions as the play of voidness are conventionally true phenomena. Appearances' being the play of self-voidness means that conventionally true appearances arise as knowable, comprehensible phenomena only because they are dependently existent. If they were independently existent, they could neither arise nor be known or comprehended. Appearances' being the play of other-voidness means that giving rise to conventionally true appearances is the natural activity of the clear light mind, just as giving rise to rays of sunlight is the natural activity of the sun.

In Buddhism, then, the deepest truth and the conventional truth are two valid facts about an item, seen by two valid ways of knowing something about it. The deepest truth about the appearances of a mentor's actions is how they exist; the conventional truth about them is what they are. The two truths are thus inseparable facts – if one is true, so is the other. Thus, the deepest truth is not a transcendental absolute totally beyond conventional phenomena. Consequently, the non-conceptual realization of the deepest truth does not require transcending and discarding conventional truth with a mystical leap of faith. The realization follows rationally from sufficient strengthening of our networks of good qualities, positive potentials, and deep awareness. If we conceive of the deepest truth as existing independently of conventional truth and if, in addition, we conceive of the valid cognition of the deepest truth as existing independently of the valid cognition of conventional truth, we have not understood the deepest truth or valid cognition.

As explained earlier, the Nyingma and Kagyu literatures typically speak from the resultant viewpoint of a Buddha. A Buddha apprehends the conventional and deepest truths about phenomena simultaneously and inseparably. Thus, since a Buddha's apprehension of self- and other-voidness is beyond the level of conceptual thought, similarly beyond conceptual thought is a Buddha's simultaneous and inseparable apprehension of a mentor's actions as the play of voidness.

From the basis and pathway points of view of disciples, however, a mentor's actions are knowable and comprehensible only with a mind that apprehends conventionally true phenomena non-simultaneously with and separably from self-voidness and the clear light mind. Such a mind normally can understand things only conceptually. Nevertheless, viewing a mentor's actions and trying to understand them with a conceptual mind does not spell inevitable failure and does not render those actions unknowable mysteries. A mind that can validly cognize conventional truths – in this case, the appearances of a mentor's actions – can correctly discriminate between actions that accord with the Dharma and those that contradict it. Thus, the statement that the actions of a mentor are inconceivable does not render disciples incapable of ascertaining correctly what the actions are. Nor does it render the mentor unaccountable for the consequences of them.

The Difference between Seeing That a Mentor Is a Buddha and Projection

Projecting one's "unknowable" unconscious onto a mentor differs significantly from seeing that one's mentor is a Buddha. Similarly different are regarding his or her actions as a mystery and regarding them as a play of clear light mind and self-voidness. If we make our mentors and their qualities and actions into unknowable mysteries, we must accept them as enlightened through a mystical leap of faith. In so doing, we may close our eyes to reality. We may no longer look at or see our mentors' actual good qualities, let alone their actual conventional faults. This starry-eyed blindness creates a block to relating realistically to mentors.

In a healthy relationships with spiritual mentors, and specifically with tantric masters, disciples see that the mentor is a Buddha, but understand clearly what this means. The understanding allows for a strong positive feeling of devotion in which they may lose themselves in awe of something greater than themselves. Here, however, that something greater is knowable, rather than unknowable and a mystery. Consequently, the devotion felt toward it is grounded to earth and does not entail religious ecstasy or the projection of unconscious contents.

Grounded devotion, then, is another connotation of the word awe – inadequately translated by dread or fear – that, as explained earlier, Vasubandhu used to describe a positive emotion that accompanies appreciating the kindness of a spiritual mentor. The loss of self that characterizes this type of awe and devotion, then, is a loss of an inflated ego-sense of a false "me," rather than a loss of a healthy ego-sense of a conventional "me." Thus, grounded devotion to a spiritual mentor leads to a mature and stable opening of oneself to inspiration and balanced joy.