Relationships with All Beings, a Spiritual Teacher and a Yidam

According to Buddhist analysis, not only do a self that is hugging someone, the other person being hugged and an action of hugging arise dependently on and simultaneously with each other, a self that is hugging also arises dependently on and simultaneously with many other factors. These include a body having arms embracing someone, the body of someone else being embraced, the physical sensation of hugging a body, consciousness of that physical sensation, and various emotions such as affection, a feeling of happiness and so on. In each moment, as the body engages in different activities and the consciousness is aware of different things and the emotions and feelings of happiness or unhappiness change, the self arises dependently as an imputation on the combination of them. In this way, the self that experiences these moment-to-moment changes itself changes each moment. Thus, according to Buddhism, the conventional self constitutes a dynamic continuum: it evolves and grows with experience. 

This Buddhist analysis can also be applied to the contextual therapy tool of the five dimensions of relational reality. As the variables in each of the five dimensions change, so too the self, the other and the relationship between the two, as imputations on the combination of these variables, change in accordance and constitute continuums. This leads to a similar conclusion as derived from Buddhism: a self in a relationship, someone other in this relationship and the relationships between the two evolve and grow with experience.

Although we may apply this analysis to all our relationships, it is of particular relevance to practitioners of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions who can apply it to their relationships with all limited beings (sentient beings), their spiritual teacher and their yidam (Buddha-figure, meditational deity). Having taken the commitment to work for the sake of all beings, to entrust their spiritual growth to their spiritual teacher, and to identify themselves at all times with their yidam, such practitioners often find difficulties in balancing these commitments with their commitments to their family members, partners and close friends. It is especially true when they are married and have children. Here, the five dimensions of relational reality can give us an insight into optimal ways of establishing these three core relationships in Buddhist practice while maintaining a balance between them and our other important relationships. By also revealing possible obstacles that might arise, this analysis can help us to overcome them and practice more effectively.    

Application of the Five Dimensions to the Buddhist Practice of Working to Benefit All Limited Beings

When working, in the manner of a bodhisattva, to attain enlightenment and benefit all beings, we need to establish a relationship with all beings in general. The five-dimensional model provides a useful framework for analyzing the optimal way of relating to all beings and the possible dangers that could arise.   

Dimension of Factual Variables

  • Optimally – Us able to relate to anyone according to the bodhisattva model, no matter what our everyday life situation may be. Others in all possible situations.
  • Conventional obstacles – our everyday situation being too challenging and overwhelming, like being too busy, too sick, too poor. Others’ everyday situations being too challenging, such as being too busy, too sick, or disabled.
  • Deepest obstacles – Us identifying ourselves or others as being self-established with one or another set of factual variables and us being unable to relate to the other because of these variables being too different. As explained above, “self-established,” is a Buddhist term meaning inherently established with these factual variables – they arose there by their own power, independently of any influence from external factors. That means they can never be affected by anything and so can never change, which is a major misconception.

Dimension of Psychological Variables

  • Optimally – Us having love, understanding, patience, etc. equally toward everyone and high levels of what Buddhism calls the “five types of deep awareness.” These five describe the most basic mechanism with which the mind deals with information. In terms of information about others: (1) With mirror-like deep awareness, we are able to take in the information about others. (2) With equalizing deep awareness, we are able to fit that information together with similar information so as to detect repeating patterns and make better sense of what we perceive. (3) With individualizing deep awareness, we are able to note the uniqueness of each being in terms of their needs. (4) With accomplishing deep awareness, we are able to relate to others in response to the information we gain from the first three types of deep awareness. (5) And with sphere of reality deep awareness, we are able to know what the information gained from each of the other four types of deep awareness is – what it is that we perceive, what the pattern is, what constitutes its uniqueness and how to respond ­– and that none of the information gained with each of these four is unchanging or self-established. Others in any psychological or emotional state.
  • Conventional obstacles – Us lacking an equal attitude toward everyone, being attracted to some, repelled from others and ignoring yet others; feeling closer to some and more distant from others; being too overwhelmed by disturbing emotions and self-centeredness; overestimating our ability to cope with difficult people; being deficient in any of the five types of deep awareness; having a high level of projection. Others too overwhelmed by their disturbing emotions and us unprepared to deal with them, even if we apply Dharma methods of viewing them with a changed attitude.
  • Deepest obstacles – Us identifying concretely with already being a bodhisattva and overlooking our own unresolved psychological and emotional issues; confusing trying to be a bodhisattva with being a martyr or a saint. 

Dimension of Systemic Variables

  • Optimally – Us being able to keep our commitment to benefiting all beings while living in any system, whether with family or on our own, in an aggressive society like prison or the military, in a society imbued with strong non-Buddhist values, in a society with strong emphasis about competition and “me first” attitude. Others in any society or family situation.
  • Conventional obstacles – Us in family or business situations leaving no time for practice such as raising a family, making money, etc.; pressure to abide to the surrounding societal or religious values that conflict with Buddhist values or practice. Others with close relationships with us, such as family members, partners and friends, demanding an exclusive commitment from us.
  • Deepest obstacles – Us identifying concretely with being a Buddhist and becoming inflexible when dealing with non-Buddhists.

Dimension of Relational Ethics

  • Optimally – from a Buddhist point of view, having received the kindness of all our mothers, Us committed to being available to them and accepting to place their interests before our own; in repaying that kindness with showing kindness and giving help, not expecting any returns, but still accruing benefit indirectly in terms of increased self-worth (positive karmic potential/constructive entitlement). OR: Optimally, realizing that everyone is equal in wanting to be happy and to avoid suffering, and that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, Us placing the interests of others before our own and making no differences among friend, enemy and stranger; treating all three with as much kindness as we would optimally show ourselves. Others benefitting from our kindness in a direct manner.
  • Conventional obstacles – Us having past or present experience of injustices, for instance any kind of exploitation or unfairness leading to an expectation of redress and this blocking us from showing kindness or generosity toward others (destructive entitlement); having a self-serving motivation in helping others. Others making unjust demands on us, becoming dependent on us, resenting the kindness we show to others.
  • Deepest obstacles – Us identifying concretely with being a bodhisattva and confusing bodhisattva behavior with that of a saint or a martyr; imagining having the wisdom and understanding to know how to respond in the most beneficial manner to the needs of others, when in fact lacking them.

 Dimension of Relational Self-Other Establishment

  • Optimally – Us establishing a global “We” in which the self and all others are equal, in the sense that everyone wants to be happy and to avoid suffering; with Us being able to establish with each individual a true “I-You” dialogue. Others whether or not being able to establish a true I-You dialogue with us.
  • Conventional obstacles – Us having difficulty in overcoming the Self/It mode of relation with which we use other beings as instruments for our goal of enlightenment. Others imposing their mode of relating (for example, need for merger as an exclusive “We”; tendencies to relate to us as if we were an object).
  • Deepest obstacles – Us identifying concretely with the merger into a global “We” and, within that “We,” losing any sense of our own or any other’s individuality.

Dealing with Close Personal Relationships While Working to Benefit All Beings

  • Optimally – in accord with the twelfth point of the 22 points to train in, enumerated in Seven-Point Mind Training, “always meditate toward those set aside as close,” Us setting aside special time to be with family members, especially our children, our partners and close friends, and being reliable in keeping this commitment.
  • Conventional obstacles – Us not making time for our family members, partners and close friends; when with them, resenting the time taken away from our working for all others. Family members, partners and close friends feeling neglected and resenting our commitment and time spent in working to help all others.
  • Deepest obstacles – Us taking the equality of all beings as a justification for not making any special time for our family members, partners or close friends; taking the credo “no one is special” too literally and becoming inflexible. 

Application of the Five Dimensions to the Buddhist Relation with the Spiritual Teacher

In Buddhist practice, relating in a healthy manner to our spiritual teacher is considered “the root of the path.” It is the root in the sense that it stabilizes our practice and nourishes us with guidance and inspiration to follow the path correctly. Although in advanced tantra practice, we are instructed to see the teacher as a Buddha, here we shall analyze the Buddhist student/teacher relationship in general, rather than in this special tantric context.

Dimension of Factual Variables

  • Optimally – the biological facts (age, sex and health), economical, familial and professional situations (enabling attendance of teachings), societal status (monastic/ lay, rinpoche/ordinary monk or nun) and geographical conditions of the student and teacher not being obstacles to the relationship; both student and teacher having the ability to communicate with each other directly or indirectly at a level sufficient for the intended studies
  • Conventional obstacles – difficulties or conflicts in any of the variables
  • Deepest obstacles – the teacher or student identifying themselves as being self-established with one or another set of factual variables and as being unable to relate to the other because of these variables being too different, for instance one being a Tibetan and the other being a Westerner. 

Dimension of Psychological Variables

  • Optimally – regardless of the level of the Dharma student and the level of the teacher, each having the necessary cognitive abilities and appropriate psychological balance and emotional maturity for a healthy relationship
  • Conventional obstacles – the student or teacher lacking any of these qualifications; inappropriate projections on the part of the student or the teacher (for example, overvaluation or undervaluation of abilities on the part of the student or the teacher, over-idealization of the other on the part of the student or the teacher, unresolved conscious or unconscious emotional issues leading, for instance, to inappropriate needs or expectations, with the risk of emotional, sexual or economic exploitation)
  • Deepest obstacles – the student identifying concretely with being inadequate compared to the teacher and never being able to gain the teacher’s level of realization. The teacher identifying concretely with their own level of understanding and attainment and, projecting this onto the student, being unable to take into account the student’s limitations, as in “I understand this, why don’t you?”

Dimension of Systemic Variables

  • Optimally – the student and teacher interacting in societies, families, professions and environments conducive for and supportive of spiritual practice
  • Conventional obstacles – the student and teacher being in societies, families, professions or environments not conducive for or supportive of spiritual practice (for example, repressive religious or governmental policies regarding the practice of Buddhism, opposition from family members); the teacher having a large number of other students and many other duties within the monastic system, or traveling a great deal, and so having little or no personal time for the student; the teacher mixing up several roles, such as being a parental figure, friend and employer of the student as well as being the spiritual teacher
  • Deepest obstacles – the student or teacher identifying concretely with the systems in which they live and projecting onto the other the same values and expectations, which might not match theirs, for instance that the Buddhist teacher fulfill the role of a pastor or therapist­­ or that the Western student follow strictly all the protocols of behavior enumerated in the classical texts and is not serious if they fail to attend every class.

Dimension of Relational Ethics

  • Optimally – the student and teacher treating each other in accord with the principles of Buddhist ethics pertaining to giving and receiving between student and teacher (for example, the teacher being generous in giving appropriate teachings and the student being generous in helping the teacher, each showing respect and fair consideration of the other, not making unreasonable demands); the teacher not burdening the student with their own personal issues
  • Conventional obstacles – tendencies coming from past experience of injustices (major losses – a parent, child, partner or homeland – exploitation within the family, political or religious oppression, prejudice, etc.) leading to blindly seeking inappropriate compensations within the student-teacher relation (for example, the student hoping that the teacher will substitute for the lost or unfair parent, by making all decisions for them or by giving them the affection they were missing. Conversely, the teacher hoping that the student will act as a devoted son or daughter that they lost or never had; teachers feeling they deserve the devotion, adoration, sexual or financial availability of the student as a compensation for various past injustices, like being celibate or poor). The teacher only pretending to be a bodhisattva but not actually having sincere concern for the welfare of the student; the student not acknowledging or valuing the good qualities of the teacher, not appreciating their kindness to teach them, and dwelling upon the teacher’s shortcomings; the student lacking the time or abilities to help the teacher. The teacher being pressured by their monasteries to raise money to feed the monks and by the financial needs of the Dharma centers that invite them and so being prevented from following the Buddhist principle of not charging for teachings; the students being prevented from attending because of the high costs.  
  • Deepest obstacles – the student or teacher concretely identifying with their roles and the teacher demanding that the student prioritize them over any other personal relationships and always be available to serve them and feeling betrayed if the student studies with other teachers, or the student relinquishing any responsibility to hold the teacher accountable in case of unethical behavior on their part.

Dimension of Relational Self-Other Establishment

  • Optimally – for the student, the “I-It” elements found in any contractual relationship not precluding occasional moments of “I-You” encounter with the teacher; for the teacher, having the ability to maintain, at least from their side, an “I-You” relationship free of projections, preconceptions and judgements about the student, regardless of the student’s ability to do likewise. The student merging with the teacher to become a “We,” having successfully integrated the teacher’s mode of acting, speaking and thinking with their own; having the ability, when the teacher is either absent or deceased, to maintain a dialogue with the internalized teacher and receive direction for dealing with life in accord with the Buddhist teachings.
  • Conventional obstacles – for both the student and teacher, the “I-It” aspects dominate and prevent any possibility for “I-You” moments. The student, having merged with the teacher, blindly adopting all irrelevant idiosyncrasies of the teacher; because of having received insufficient Buddhist teachings or having had too little knowledge of the teacher, a dialogue with that internalized teacher precluding an objective reassessment of the soundness of the advice they believe they receive.
  • Deepest obstacles – the student concretely identifying with being merged as a “We” with the teacher and assuming that they actually have reached the same level of achievements as the teacher; the teacher concretely identifying with being merged as a “We” with the student and blocking the student from individualizing.

Dealing with Close Personal Relationships While Being in a Buddhist-Style Student-Teacher Relationship

  • Optimally – the student-teacher relationship enhancing the student’s ability to establish and maintain healthy relations with others and not interfering with the student’s commitments and responsibilities to family members, partners and close friends
  • Conventional obstacles – the commitment to the teacher interfering with the student’s commitments and responsibilities to family members, partners and close friends 
  • Deepest obstacles – the student concretely identifying with being the student of their teacher, preventing them from establishing a close relationship with other teachers. The teacher concretely identifying with their role in student-teacher relationships and unable to establish close personal relationships because they impose their role of teacher on anyone they meet.

Application of the Five Dimensions to the Relation with a Yidam (Buddha-figure)

As a Buddha, we can manifest in any enlightening form that will be of benefit to others. These forms include those of a yidam, a so-called Buddha-figure or meditational deity. Some yidams are infographics where each anatomical feature or implement held represents a practice or realization on the path. Other yidams represent various features of samsara that we need to overcome and eliminate. Imagining that we have now manifested as a yidam and imagining that our body, speech (mantra), mind, qualities, activities, surroundings (mandala) and manner of enjoyment are those of a yidam function as causes for being able to attain their resultant states more quickly and efficiently than through the prerequisite sutra methods on which the tantra practices are based. Common examples of yidams are Chenrezig, Tara, Yamantaka, Vajrayogini and Kalachakra.

According to Buddhism, the conventional self, having no beginning and no end, is an imputation on the entire eternal continuum of everchanging aggregate factors of our individual experience. Thus, the conventional self is also an imputation on the aggregate factors of our experience once we have attained enlightenment. 
Yidam practice, found in all classes of tantra, is based on the conventional self being an imputation on the aggregate factors of a yidam (Buddha-figure) that we can manifest as, once we attain the enlightened state of a Buddha. Yidam practice, then, is firmly rooted in bodhichitta – based on love and compassion, our mind being aimed at our not-yet-happening enlightenment that can happen based on our Buddha-nature factors (our networks of positive force and deep awareness dedicated to our attainment of enlightenment, and the voidness of our mental continuums). Bodhichitta is accompanied with the intentions to attain that enlightenment and to benefit all beings as much as possible with that attainment and all along the way to that attainment. Just as the presently-happening self is an imputation on our presently-happening five aggregate factors of experience, so too the not-yet-happening self is an imputation on the not-yet-happening aggregate factors associated with the yidam.


  • Optimally – having a firm foundation in the sutra teachings, especially of determination to be free (renunciation), bodhichitta and the correct view of voidness, completion of an appropriate amount of preliminary practices, guidance from a qualified teacher, an appropriate tantric empowerment, adherence to the required vows, correct understanding of the nature of yidams and their role in tantra practice, and correct instructions in the practice; within the context of the Buddhist concept of fluid time (previously happened, presently-happening and not-yet-happening events), the ability not to lose sight of the fact that despite imagining that already being the yidam, our actually being the yidam is a not-yet-happening event
  • Conventional obstacles – lacking any of these
  • Deepest obstacles – identifying concretely with being the yidam.

 Dimension of Factual Variables

  • Optimally – factual variables, such as personal circumstances or surroundings, not adversely affecting our practice
  • Conventional obstacles – serious physical or mental diseases, being caught in situations of extreme danger to survival, such as torture, and man-made or natural disasters
  • Deepest obstacles – concretely identifying with our biological sex and believing that we cannot imagine ourselves as a yidam of a different sex or simultaneously as all the Buddha-figures in a mandala.

 Dimension of Psychological Variables

  • Optimally – having sufficient cognitive abilities to be able to gain a firm foundation in the sutra teachings, especially voidness; emotional maturity to maintain a healthy relation with a spiritual teacher and all others; the ability to visualize and sufficient discipline and concentration to engage in sustained meditational practice. Further, the yidam suiting our personality and our being comfortable to visualize ourselves in its form. The enlightening qualities of the yidam (infinite compassion, discriminating awareness, etc.) taking precedence over our ordinary, unenlightened qualities
  • Conventional obstacles – lacking of any of these
  • Deepest obstacles – concretely identifying with the yidam and deluding ourselves that we are already an enlightened Buddha in the form of the yidam; incorrectly believing that the yidam practice dispenses us from other forms of Dharma practice; concretely identifying with us as being unenlightened beings and that attaining enlightenment is impossible and therefore yidam practice is hopeless and deluded.

Dimension of Systemic Variables

While there are no ordinary systemic interactions between the self and the yidam, we enter into imagined and visualized transactions through making offerings to the yidam and receiving inspiration from them.

  • Optimally – engaging in yidam practice following all the procedures and steps of traditional sadhana practice. A sadhana is a tantric text which, like the script of a drama, outlines the roles of all the figures in it (offering goddesses, etc.) and the steps of the transformational process needed to become the yidam.
  • Conventional obstacles – engaging in yidam practice divorced from the standard meditational procedures
  • Deepest obstacles – concretely identifying the false “self” with the yidam, imagining that the offerings made to us signify our transformation into worshipped gods. 

Dimension of Relational Ethics

By definition, relational ethics applies to actual relationships between self and other. Here, it is used to describe the giving and receiving between the conventional self and the yidam.

  • Optimally – understanding that our making offerings to the yidam and visualization of helping all beings as the yidam are methods for building up the positive force (constructive entitlement) for attaining enlightenment; understanding that our receiving inspiration from the yidam is to enhance our Buddha-nature factors
  • Conventional obstacles – our visualization of us making these offerings and receiving inspiration being mechanical, lacking any feeling of them actually happening and having a positive effect; our past experience of injustices blocking us from engaging sincerely in these practices due to blocked ability to give to others
  • Deepest obstacles – concretely identifying our false “self” with the yidam, imagining that making offerings and so on will bring our false “self”  to enlightenment in the form of the yidam. 

Dimension of Relational Self-Other Establishment

  • Optimally – an intrasubject counter-position in which the self becomes the yidam and the boundary between self and yidam is defined not in terms of two self-established entities, but in terms of the self being established as a dependently arising imputation on the basis of the yidam, with the self and yidam being neither truly identical nor truly separate. Despite our inviting a deep awareness yidam from its Buddha-field and merging it with the commitment yidam that we visualize ourselves as, not conceiving of the merged combination yidam as being the “Other.” The “We” relationship formed by the merging of the self and the yidam – or in guru-yoga, the merging of the self, the spiritual teacher and the yidam – enhancing the altruistic bodhichitta practice in the relationship of this “We” with all limited beings.
  • Conventional obstacles – in merging with the yidam, losing any sense of our individual conventional self
  • Deepest obstacle – having not refuted the false “me,” understanding the false “me” as being identical with the yidam. 

Dealing with Close Personal Relationships While Relating to a Yidam

  • Optimally – keeping the practice private and behaving in accordance with conventional roles in family, professional and social relationships; the yidam practice fostering ethical behavior toward others and our ability to treat others fairly according to their realistic needs
  • Conventional obstacles – making known to others that we are doing yidam practice, with the expectation of being treated specially by others; the yidam practice interfering with our ability to take into account the realistic needs of others and to respond accordingly; in the extended yidam practice of seeing all beings as yidams, losing any sense of the individuality of each being
  • Deepest obstacles – concretely identifying with a yidam, using it to gain power over others or, acting on the basis of preset Buddhist values, rendering us too rigid to respond creatively to the relational expectations of others.


Traditional Buddhist analysis reveals that self, other and various types of relationships between the two are affected by changing causes, conditions, parts, names and concepts. Thus, like all other affected phenomena, they change from moment to moment and are devoid of being self-established, independent entities. They arise dependently on each other.
The five dimensions of relational reality presented in contextual therapy provide an extensive set of further variables that affect the self, other and relationships between the two. They supplement the Buddhist analysis, broaden our understanding of dependent arising and allow for less rigidity in our relationships. With proper motivation and a correct understanding of dependent arising and voidness, we can optimize the variables in each of the five dimensions and avoid the conventional and deepest obstacles. In doing so, we improve the content of the five aggregate factors that make up each moment of our relationships.
In short, with insight into all the changing factors that affect relationships, we realize that we can improve the quality of our interactions with others. This, in turn, will strengthen our Buddhist practices, including our ability to relate to all beings, our spiritual teacher and our yidam while both maintaining close personal relationships and working for the benefit of all.                 


Boszormenyi-Nagy, Ivan, Foundations of Contextual Therapy: Collected Papers of Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, M.D. New York, New York: Routledge, 1987.

Buber, Martin, I and Thou. New York, New York: Scribner, 1958; original edition, 1923. 

Ducommun-Nagy, Catherine, “Contextual Therapy” in Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy. A. Chambers, D. Breunlin & J. Lebow (eds). New York, New York: Springer International Publishing, 2018.