Teacher, Mentor, Spiritual Friend, Guru — Retreat Review — by Graham Price

Teacher, Mentor, Spiritual friend, Guru; The Big picture.
Bonni Ross, Wangapeka, Friday 13 -Tuesday 17 Oct , 2023

The coat hanger of a course title was not what drew me. I came to meet Bonni. A kind of brief first date, in a familiar landscape that has loved me into Being since the late 1980’s – 2000. I find myself reconnecting with a community that always meant long drives from Dunedin or more recently the remote access of Waikato and the imposed lockdown retreat in delicious Te Kuiti bushland. For the first time in 40 years my spiritual home and an active Namgyal inspired community is now in my Nelson backyard.

I’ve spent 40 years being involved with what it means to be a teacher – being one, training emergent teachers, viewing, critiquing practice, reflecting on pedagogy. In Ancient Greece the pedagogue was actually the servant slave who walked beside the child, a companion, ensuring safe conduct to an actual place of learning for a refining diet of literacy, music and physical education. I always resonated with the idea of “walking alongside”, a view of a shared journey.

So I invite the reader to a glimpse into four shared days, four classes, some sharing circles, shared morning sits, evening sits, dana to the land in Spring time energy. No drama, except for the terror incognito and the unchartered waters of my being.

Bonni shares the practical process of review and a map. The place of question formation arises. It is the student’s question that evokes the teacher. Anyone who has been called to teach anything recognises that moment. The spark of focusing interest that gives energy for potential inquiry to emerge. In easeful accessible language Bonni shared the review process and a map of evaluative tools arising from the foundations of mindfulness for reviewing body, energy, emotions, state of mind, awareness. We meet with these tools early in the Teaching. How do we keep this fresh as a fundamental process? Perhaps by using it as often as possible!

“One of the problems for teaching Buddhadarma to westerners is that our western education system conditions us to expect a movement from simple to more complex concepts that introduce and then extrapolate us towards an unfolding nuanced “truth”. That some kind of esoteric higher learning eventually has a more complete view. However, in the East, in Buddhadarma, we are given the whole story right away, at the beginning! The Four Noble Truths and Foundations of Mindfulness are indeed a complete path, from the outset.” These commencing truths don’t mutate into some higher, more refined Truth.They are not some early scaffolding that can later be abandoned for some more evolved view! Further ‘study’ is not some substitute for continued practice. So Bonni offered us a graphic using a sliding continuum. I spent half a day refining these tools into a diagram that had a personal consistency and meaning. It feels important to this being to have the variables aligned from low – high energy and balancing on a precise centre point of equilibrium. The symbol for me is the antique pre-digital chemical balance, tripod aligned upon the earth, centred, balancing arm pivoting on an agate knife edge fulcrum when raised into its weighing function. I confess I found myself refining this tool, more than applying it to a practiced meditation! (YET)


I became obsessed with the potential for visualising a quick read out of any given moment as a 3D spirit level, a transparent cube which creates a mapping profile for each face around a common central pivot point. Matthew relieved me of the need to pursue this further with the mindful nudge that I was the 3D manifestation! Thank goodness for the opportunity to reflect and share both our confusions and our journeying.

Bonni confessed during class to the term “ungrounded” as a trigger word for her. When did we ever experience the option of not being on this abundant earth which has provided us with all the raw materials for our existence? Thus my flight of fancy, temporarily curtailed, called me home to this body, gratitude to the earth that holds us, in this alive present moment of Now. “Not too many people have a fantasy about Now!” Bonni quips. Try being an embodied pin prick of consciousness on this vast Earth. Try befriending the 3 poisons of ignorance ( include wilful ignoring!), greed, and hatred. These are the fuel for transformation. This can be done at the mental / energetic level. Direct experience occurs within a body! The good news is that you can consider the body at the physical level, as “slowly congealed Mind” capable of change, but perhaps at a slower rate. As the weekend invited us to, insight does transform and meditation is indeed a self medicating act.

An ongoing practice to explore was offered. A refreshingly direct meditation focusing on earth, heart, throat and head using colour at each centre and then returning the flow, gifting back down to the Earth. This practice continued to teach and provided a personal context for review. As if to echo our silent endeavours, the Wangapeka valley glowed with rainbow light, not once but on two consecutive mornings. As the rainbow approached Jones ridge it appeared to divide, red, orange, green behind the ridge and the blue purple marching towards us. I chose to capture the essence of that experience as the external validation of being present in that shared moment.

Now to the nub of this “teacher” business. In Hinayana, the student needs information which the Teacher knows. This is a somewhat impersonal contractual relationship initiated by the student to secure a mentor, to support the path of the individual. In Mahayana, conduct is shaped by intention of service, through the training of the precepts , we recognise what harms Life at ever more subtle levels. As soon as we have sufficient awareness to recognise not only our own suffering but the suffering of others, the desire to free others arises. The Bodhisattva impulse. The meditation master supports the training of mind to provide focus, continuum awareness through repetition and right effort. The student’s attitude defines the nature of the relationship to one’s spiritual friend in this journey.

I’m not going to try and define the vajrayana relationship to Guru other than to touch on the manner in which Bonni shared memories of her journey with Namgyal Rinpoche. Her retelling of a moment at the ship’s bow with Namgyal was beautifully crafted. Set in the panorama of the calm coral sea, her tale had the pause and rhythm of re-membered joy, energetically present in now, an oceanic blue on blue, rising and falling of shared bliss. The intimacy in this moment evoked Samantabhadra in union for me. The experience also catapulted me into my memory of Namgyal, not just his actions, vivid teaching and Presence but into reexamining the vividly remembered shared silences in my own history with him. They are still intact, fresh, profoundly awaiting my undivided attention. Matthew acknowledged this as a “transmission” experience. Whatever label we wish to use, I give thanks to the shared energy of all those present who created the space for this profound moment to be present and continue to nourish our journey.

Sarva Mangalam!