37 practices: verse 6, part 2 of 2

The translation of verse 6, to rely on spiritual friends, may be found in part 1 of the class notes, which touches on the definition of spiritual friends; how to identify an authentic teacher; and, once you have found one, how to be an authentic student.

This part of the class notes will include why we are encouraged to view our authentic teacher as the Buddha, how to do that, and how to respond if we feel the teacher has not lived up to our expectations.

Geshe Jampa Tegchok, in Transforming the Heart, explains the traditional instruction that once we have committed ourselves to an authentic teacher, we should then see him or her as a Buddha. “It is important to see our mentors as Buddhas because we will only profit from this attitude. Seeing our teachers this way helps us to practice…. If we realize that even if Shakyamuni Buddha himself were here at this very moment teaching us, he wouldn’t say anything different from what our mentor is saying now, we will pay close attention and be interested and enthusiastic to practice what our mentor teaches.”

He adds that it is not necessary to see all Buddhist teachers as Buddha, but only the teacher we have examined carefully and chosen to be our spiritual guide.

Geshe Jampa Tegchok makes it clear that it is meant to be a conscious choice on our part to view the teacher as Buddha, not necessarily that the teacher fully embodies that exalted level of realization. “We can see our spiritual teachers as Buddhas because it is possible to train our mind to recognize and focus on their many good qualities and to think less and less about their faults until we don’t notice the faults at all…. We cannot actually know if someone is a Buddha or not, but we can decide to view our spiritual guides in that way.”

Ken McLeod advises in Reflections on Silver River, “Cherish the relationship, but do not worship your teacher. He or she has foibles, too. When you ignore them, you are living in a world of your own projections. You are not relating or connecting with the person who is in front of you.”

My personal take on relating to the teacher as a buddha is that it is most useful and reliable when we restrict that vision to his or her dharma teachings. If we have an authentic teacher who has mastered the view and practice of the dharma, we won’t go wrong in following their instructions on these topics, and in seeing them as if they were the Buddha himself bestowing the dharma upon us. I’m not sure it’s always helpful for us to regard the teacher as a buddha with regard to our private life; or in situations specific to our culture, if they come from a different part of the world. This, again, seems to be in accord with the first reliance, to rely primarily upon the teachings rather than the person who is giving them.

Of course, the instruction to view our teacher as Buddha and never question his or her actions seems to be presented literally and unconditionally in many of the traditional teachings, and this has caused understandable confusion for contemporary Western students, who are still in the early stages of developing a cultural context for Buddhism. So while it is traditionally taught that we are benefited by viewing our teacher as perfect without any reservations, this path also involves risks, especially in the transition of the teachings from one culture to another. Even in the traditional teachings we are cautioned to take our time and make sure of our choice before relying on any teacher. In hindsight, based on the experience of a number of students in recent years, it is probably also wise to make sure before committing to a teacher that we understand what our commitment involves and what is expected of us, and develop clear boundaries in our own mind in case questions arise down the road.

Geshe Jampa Tegchok takes it further: “While developing our faith and respect in our teachers, we must also keep in mind that if a teacher instructs us to do something which runs counter to the general teachings of the Buddha, we should not do it. If a teacher acts in a way that is abusive or unethical, we should not follow his example.”

In Path to Buddhahood, Ringu Tulku makes a similar point. “In the Vajrayana it is often said that disciples must have total, unlimited confidence in their master. It must be understood correctly…. If you are given an instruction that you don’t understand or that you feel is not correct, the scriptures say clearly that you can refuse and tell your master you are unable to do what he is asking. It is not compulsory to blindly obey everything that your master tells you to do. If your master cannot accept it, he is indubitably not the master who suits you.”

It is a work in progress, and probably will be for some time, to understand fully the meaning of many instructions as they are expressed in traditional texts, and how to integrate the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet into the often quite different cultural mores of the West. Meanwhile, both Mingyur Rinpoche and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche have released public statements on this topic, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama has spoken publicly about it on several occasions.

How to leave a teacher we no longer feel qualifies as an authentic spiritual mentor? According to Geshe Jampa Tegchok, when we decide to leave a teacher, no matter what the reason, it does not help to respond with anger. “We can keep a respectful distance from them, yet still appreciate what they taught us that helped us along the path. In other words, we don’t need to negate everything positive about the person simply because of one aspect of their character.”

If we simply feel the teacher is not a good fit for us after all, Mingyur Rinpoche recently advised in an article in Lion’s Roar, “The best way to leave is to do so without bad-mouthing the teacher or creating difficulties for those who may be benefiting from the teacher and the community. Leave on good terms, or at the very least, do not leave on bad terms.”

However, if a teacher engages in abuse of power through sexual relationships with students or other unethical conduct, according to both Mingyur Rinpoche and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, then it becomes necessary to address the conduct directly. Mingyur Rinpoche advises, “In some cases, if a teacher has acted inappropriately or harmfully but acknowledges the wrongdoing and commits to avoiding it in the future, then dealing with the matter internally may be adequate. But if there is a long-standing pattern of ethical violations, or if the abuse is extreme, or if the teacher is unwilling to take responsibility, it is appropriate to bring the behavior out into the open.”

I don’t think this contradicts the advice of Geshe Jampa Tegchok and other teachers who advise us to maintain an attitude of equanimity as much as we are able to, even in the face of misconduct and harmful actions. Just like choosing to see our teacher as Buddha, maintaining equanimity in all situations benefits us. Gampopa delineates the disadvantages of anger at some length in the chapter on the paramita of patience in Ornament of Precious Liberation, and devotes most of the chapter to techniques to help us avoid getting drawn into anger and resentment no matter what arises in our lives. It may also help to review the third point of the seven points of mind training, which consists of specific methods for bringing all adversity onto the path of practice. Meanwhile, maintaining equanimity does not prevent us from taking action to correct injustices and harm; in fact, it helps us have the clearest possible vision about what action needs to be taken.

To come back to the point of the verse — that in order to reach fruition on the path of awakening, we need to rely on spiritual friends, in particular on an authentic teacher — Ken McLeod says: “Whatever discipline or training you seek, the teacher embodies in some way what you want to know or how you want to be. Why else would you study with this person?…. It is often more difficult to find a good teacher than it is to find a suitable partner. When you find one, take care of the relationship. Listen to the instructions, engage with your teacher to make sure you understand them, take them to heart, and put them into practice.”

Mingyur Rinpoche’s full article is here.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s statement is here.

The index of the study guide and recordings of the classes are here.

Next practice: Verse 7, the last of the preliminary verses

The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)