The Dynamics of the Teacher/Student Relationship by Catherine Rathbun

From one Buddhist’s perspective


There is a significant difference in the role of a teacher as a spiritual guide, during the time needed for a student to develop on the road out of suffering towards enlightenment.

At the beginning, the student is studying from a Hinayana perspective. No matter what the practice (Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana), the student usually views the world from a highly personalized perspective. This raises certain questions, such as: “What’s in this for me? How can I emerge out of suffering? How is the road to Enlightenment relevant to me and my life?” In responding to these questions from a meditation perspective, the work may seem closely aligned with therapy. Emotional and psychological healing are part of this work.

In North America, in the last several decades, much effort has gone into the psychological aspects of Buddhism and how they can be relevant to the psychotherapeutic endeavour that has swept the western world. Body centred therapies embrace the Buddhist notion of the First Foundation of Mindfulness. The idea of being present with what ‘is’ rather than trying to pretend is intrinsically part of Buddhist meditation. Aspiring to become better by marshalling the forces of internal resolution is a part of many Mahayana and Vajrayana prayers.

Early on in the dialogue between teacher and student, there may also need to be effort in the direction of coping with the very real concerns of the world. This might include a focus on finishing one’s education for instance. The Buddhist path is considered to be a ‘middle way’, between extremes of idealism and realism, as well as between fanaticism and sloth. How we interact with the world, both personally and professionally, is part of that middle way. Whether we can be skillful or ineffective is also part of the journey. This does not mean that we must all be successful in the way our world values but rather that we should endeavour to be effective and skillful within our own sphere of reference.

In this view, the person who prays ceaselessly for the well being of the planet and its people is just as important as the person who works in the world, midst the concerns of family and job. Historically, in some parts of the early Buddhist community, a distinct prejudice arose, to the effect that those who took up the robes of the renunciate and entered monastic life were somehow more advanced than those who did not. Certainly, the opportunity to awaken is facilitated by withdrawal from the world, at least for a time. However, many teachers also feel that it is vital to re-engage with the world, as that is our true testing ground.

Along with monastic/lay prejudice there came an equally troublesome early Buddhist doctrine that a woman needed to be reborn as a man in order to fully awaken. This teaching persists to this day in some places but is not supported by the words of the Buddha. Great suffering has resulted from this teaching but in reality it was an idea born from a different culture and a different time from ours. The Buddha was not a social reformer and saw difficulties with allowing women into the monastic community but was persuaded to do so by Ananda, his close attendant. This followed a dialogue in which Ananda asked the Buddha if women were equally capable of reaching enlightenment as men and the Buddha said, “Yes”. In later Buddhist history, the great Padmasambhava (considered to be a second Buddha by Tibetans) declared that if a woman’s mind turned to enlightenment, she had a body better suited for it than a man.

These two pre-conceptions have caused much confusion and suffering in many Western communities. The majority of most Buddhist groups in the West are female and most students are part of the lay world. Teachers and students often become enmeshed in the struggle to understand and engage or dis-engage with these views. Western students who study with Eastern masters or who travel to the Far East may run right into these thought formations which are still a part of many cultures.

At the beginning of our search, the teacher is often seen as ‘knowing everything’. Within the Theravadin motif, the reference point is always to the words of the Buddha. Interpretation is often discouraged. But the words in the Buddhist Canons are translations of oral teachings given over a 50 year period, and include the translations of Buddhaghosa (4th or 5th century C.E.). He was the author of the Visuddhimagga, a compendium of all Buddhist doctrine at the time. His great work of translating texts into Pali has remained vitally seminal to the Theravadin world, indeed to the whole of the Buddhist world. The pattern of the threefold aspect of path: Sila(moral conduct) Samadhi (Meditation) and Panna (Wisdom) is still a blueprint for unfoldment.

The teacher who is teaching a person attending to the Hinayana level may seem almost unconcerned in the student’s well being, or conversely, authoritative and even dictatorial. The student must put down firm roots in wholesome moral conduct in order for positive karmic energy to build within the student. There may be insistence that the student follow exactly the instructions of the teacher or work only with that teacher. Or the teacher may hold back from ‘taking on’ the student, waiting to see how deep the commitment is on the part of the student.

It is easy to see how many difficulties can arise within our present culture for both student and teacher. Projection, transference, counter-transference: these are all known terms from modern psychology and can be very real issues confusing and contaminating the relationship. A set time of working together can be of assistance here, so that both parties contract to work together for a certain length of time. At the end of that time, review is necessary to see if continuation is mutually beneficial.

Once Sila has been established firmly within the student’s mind, the capacity for compassion can begin to arise. Here begins the Mahayana ‘view’ of the world. The student begins to understand how intimately connected he/she is with the rest of the world. That the inside and the outside are linked becomes a living reality, brought into clear relief based on personal experience.

The student observes that once we begin to live in a wholesome way with a lessening of the ego’s demands, we begin to care about others. We begin to ‘see’ and become interested in others. The walls of the self are beginning to crumble. Its demands slowly seem less important. There is no abnegation of self here. Rather there is an understanding of the teaching of dependent arising. Finally, the student understands that our interdependence with all creation necessitates the development of compassion.

The relationship with the teacher begins also to evolve to a new level. The teacher becomes ‘the friend on the path’, a person walking alongside, helping through their wisdom and their experience. These qualities are not identical to the student’s but they are entwined with the innate wisdom that is transpersonal. The teacher is the handmaiden on the journey to the light. An easy flow between teacher and student begins. The student can deeply acknowledge the long effort that the teacher has put into the enlightenment journey and thus profit from his/her experience even more profoundly than before.

It is easy to see how much our culture prefers this portraiture of a teacher/student relationship. Several pitfalls are avoided: the teacher doesn’t have to be ‘perfect’ and the student can learn to acknowledge their own road, making them more comfortable with thinking they are choosing their own destiny.

But, if the ego has not been fully purified and made very transparent, a very significant problem can arise as well. The student may begin to trivialize what the teacher is saying. Seeing the teacher as a fellow human who also makes mistakes, has difficulties etc. may lead him/her to ignore the instructions, postpone training until ‘later’ or even walk away in the search for someone else who they think will demonstrate perfection.. The student may even begin to think they are superior to the teacher and search for faults in the teacher or the teachings. This is the ego formation rising to choke progress once again.

In a culture that prizes equality, we may miss some valuable learning at this stage. When this experience arises we need to go back to more purification practices to again clear the klesas (hindrances). As meditation is a solitary path in many ways, the slips in the realm of sila may have been ignored, as the student focuses more and more on his/her personal Samadhi abilities. Some teachers will try to confront the student at this point, and some will simply step back and allow the ego of the person to dance on, hoping that there will be a later ripening of conscience and consciousness.

Without adherence to the personal binding of the monastic rules, this unfortunate occurrence has become a major issue today in various meditation communities. Gossip and opinions can begin to dominate communities and dissolution results. Today’s tendency to want to develop meditation abilities (to say nothing of psychic capacities) without paying attention to wholesome moral conduct is part of an overarching desire in our culture for the quick route. Quick wealth, quick lifestyles, quick marriages, quick divorces, quick meals. Quick Enlightenment. Many quick routes to enlightenment are now being promulgated. Some are a good first step; some are downright dangerous, leading students and sometimes teachers to delusion or madness.

The simple fact is that refinement of consciousness is not a quick journey. We are asked to revamp our entire way of thinking, feeling, acting and speaking on a journey that is evolutionary in nature. If we are privileged to meet someone whose vow is to walk with us on this journey, we are fortunate indeed. If we, as students, can acknowledge and honour the teacher for his/her capacities and be compassionate towards their failings, we will be on the road to wisdom. If we are aspiring to develop the qualities of an enlightened being and perhaps even developing as teachers, we can use the example of the frailty of others to help us develop compassion for our own frailties.

The role of the teacher in Vajrayana retains the role of the midwife of the Mahayana view but adds something more. Because Vajrayana offers the possibility of awakening in one lifetime, whether you are male or female, the teacher plays an even more important role than in either the Theravadin or Mahayana schools. He or she is vital to the development of the psyche of the student. There is a karmic twining that takes place in which the paths are configured so closely, that a sense of union comes about. The Vajrayana teacher has given up his/her own desire for enlightenment in order to be of service to the ‘other’. Nothing is left out of the practice. Nothing is considered to be either too much or too little.

Here the teacher is seen as the doorway to the light. Through him/her the light of the Transcendent Consciousness shines in a form that is recognizable by the student. Because of familiarity, the student can identify the Buddha qualities that are present and use them as a guidepost for development. The enlightenment journey is no longer an abstract pursuit but one which is vividly represented by the presence of the teacher. Here is a possible explanation of the teaching that has troubled so many Westerners. That we should “regard the teacher as even more important than the Buddha or as the Buddha himself” is, for many students, a difficult leap to make. Especially, if the teacher has obvious failings.

We need to understand the principle of embodiment here. The essential Mahayana understanding is that all beings are enlightened at base. By regarding the Vajrayana teacher as the Buddha (especially when he/she is giving teaching) the student is able to receive the transmission that the Buddha promised. That transmission may only become operational when this attitude is present. Slowly over time and through deepening practice, the transmission of the Awakened Consciousness becomes part of the teacher. Even the personality structure of the teacher may seem to be less defined. It may appear like a dancing flame, flickering and changing according to the need of the moment.

So what does the student do if the teacher doesn’t live up to the projections of their idea of the Perfect Buddha? What if the teacher is a bad administrator, or a drunkard, or subject to fits of temper or even becomes a sexual abuser? Where is the Buddha nature then? How do we understand the Path then? Do we walk away? Give up? Take revenge? Try and straighten out the teacher? Condone and facilitate the behaviour? Become an enabler?

There have been students who have taken all of those paths. Perhaps there is another view of Enlightenment that we could come to as we mature on the Path. The demonstration of the energy of Transcendence that comes through the Vajrayana teacher is coming through a human. At some point in the human life, there has been a karmic buildup that may result in destructive behaviour. The Buddha said that not even he could alter the force of karma.

If we are developing students or teachers, we can decide that what we are seeing is not what we will emulate. We can decide that is not how we will present the Buddha Dharma in our own lives. Knowing our own failings, we can decide to identify only with the wholesome part of the teaching we have heard. We can view the bad conduct of the teacher as a demonstration of what not to do. There is no necessity of condoning active harmful behaviour in my personal view. Indeed, there may be a necessity of working to protect the vulnerable by speaking out, no matter the personal cost or consequence.

It must be acknowledged that these are very difficult steps for those who have been abused, particularly if there has been violence or sexual abuse in the interaction between teacher and student. A compassionate heart is said to be the main characteristic to look for in a lama. But compassion wears many faces, including wrathful ones. So, it is a tricky journey for the student, in which the lama may seem to be the ultimate trickster.

And perhaps that is important, for ultimately, the lama who stands in the door is also in the way. The Zen phrase “If you see a Buddha on the path, slay him” might mean that, eventually, the student must walk on, past the lama, and into the room of Transcendence himself. There she will find that the Lama is much bigger than the person at the door. The Lama who dwells in the heart is the true lama. The crucible of the teaching lies in the heart, the seat of the mind, just as is written in the Sadhana of Chenrezig, Bodhisattva of Compassion. Once found, the student, though perhaps lonely, is never alone.

Clearly, the journey to finding the Lama Within is a perilous one and we should not make the mistake of thinking that it is quick or even easy. In order to protect the inner purity, a lengthy and strenuous set of practices are given to the student to perform. They are necessary in order to refine the nature of the student and it is important for the student to have confidence in the teacher so that pitfalls can be avoided.

The lack of exact rules in Vajrayana for the relationship between the teacher and the student can be frustrating and a potential minefield for both parties. Because much suffering has been exposed in the West, many groups are struggling to further define and confine the traditional relationship. But as students, we should watch carefully for those unexpected, magical moments in which much teaching is exposed through an act that is uncharacteristic or surprising. As developing teachers, we must learn to keep sila but also trust in the intuitive mind that leaps first and thinks later.

The Dalai Lama has said that no teacher should ever ask the student to do something that goes against wholesome moral conduct. So in trusting the intuitive, we must be careful to heed that advice. We need cross references always, no matter how ‘advanced’ we may think ourselves. Regular checking with peers and other teachers should remain part of our lives. That is less structured in the West but should nevertheless be a part of our continuing education; there should be no stopping point seen. The stage of ‘no falling back’ actually means not falling back into thinking of oneself as a separate ego formation. It most does not mean a license to conduct oneself any way we like!

The Vajrayana path takes so much practice over such an extended period of time, that sometimes it seems hardly worth the effort. But the changes it brings are so profound and, when they ripen, alter the course of our lives so deeply, it is worth the effort. Particle physics can help to teach us that we are participating in an evolutionary journey with planet wide implications, not just personal changes. Consequently, there is really no other work to be done in this life.

Bringing our personal lives into harmony with the Bodhisattva ideals also brings forth a life that is varied and rich. The problems we face are then not really problems but challenges: to reflect more honestly, move more deeply, communicate more thoughtfully.

Mentors have a part to play in this journey because we need to cross reference our efforts with those who have trod the path before us. These mentors can vary from famous teachers’ words whom we have never met except on the pages of a book, scholastic instructors, living masters, friends on the path, the wisdom of children and the commitment of our partners. The lama is a bit of all of these but one in whom infallibility should not be expected, yet he or she is still the living force of the Great Work. The teaching of a lama must always have its roots in the respected past but that doctrine should not be held in a rigid way but rather in a fluid, respectful and creative fashion, so that the wisdom mind of the present culture can ripen fully.

Each one of us who are called to search within is a part of this journey. If we can walk with awareness towards creating a world that has hope and can still dream, we will be rich indeed.

May we never be without true teachings and true teachers. May the White Dharma shine in the lands of Earth.

Yours in love,
Catherine Jetsun Yeshe
©February 2008

Catherine Rathbun is a lay teacher of Buddhism, living and teaching in Toronto, Canada since 1979.
She also studies and teaches Christian, Sufi and Western Mystery practices.

Her meditation training began in 1969. Since then she has studied with H.H. the XVI Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and with pre-eminent individuals like Ven. Kalu Rinpoché, Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoché, Ven. Namgyal Rinpoché and John

Encouraged by her teachers to begin teaching meditation in 1976, she has students in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S.