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The Teacher Student Relationship, Part 1 


Rob Preece

Many people have a strong desire to seek a spiritual guide. This may be the search for a friend who can give spiritual support in difficult times, or it could be someone who is like a mentor that can be a source of knowledge and insight. It may be for someone who will be a model or inspiration for the journey they wish to follow someone who seems to embody the spiritual values and experiences they aspire to. For some the search for a spiritual guide is for someone they can surrender to and trust as a refuge in a fundamentally alienating and hostile world. There are, however, those who feel complete aversion to the very concept of a spiritual guide, often because they would under no circumstances give up their own volition.


Since the nineteen sixties interest in eastern religions has grown rapidly. It has given an opportunity for many teachers from the east to gradually guide westerners in their practices. This has been in part a response to the absence of genuine examples of spiritually evolution in the west. It is also a reflection of a growing disillusion with established approaches to theistic spirituality particularly Christianity where there is often an absence of a practical path to realisation and transformation. The result has been a huge increase in the number of followers of eastern spiritual traditions particularly Buddhism. More recently, however, the emergence of self-styled charismatic western teachers has become increasingly evident. These may be people who have followed an eastern tradition, but also those who are proclaiming a particularly individualistic spiritual vision. There is now a tremendous diversity of spiritual organisations, cults, sects and gurus, some of which have unfortunately proved to be highly dubious. 


While the teacher/disciple relationship can be an invaluable and fruitful experience, it has become apparent that the process of relating to spiritual teachers also has its hazards. This is in part the result of naiveté amongst westerners as to the nature of the teacher/student or guru/devotee relationship. It is also partly the consequence of a lack of understanding on the part of eastern teachers as to the nature of western psychological makeup. Added to this is the apparent tendency of a few eastern teachers to actually exploit the relationship. With the advent of a growing number of western teachers it is becoming necessary to really address the underlying psychological and ethical basis for this relationship. Too often there are potential abuses of this relationship and confusion particularly around boundaries.

In the east the tradition of the spiritual guide has been present for centuries. The path of bakti or devotion in India was a particularly important one. The relationship between teacher and disciple, however, varies from one tradition to another and from one culture to another. In some countries like Tibet the nature of the culture also gives some high Lamas considerable political power which has some significant consequences. 


The long cultural familiarity with the guru in the east has meant that there is often greater ease with the relationship even though it may be full of prescribed patterns of behaviour. In the Buddhist world this relationship varies from one tradition to another and nowhere is its importance more stressed than within the Tibetan tradition. In Theravada tradition the teacher is a valued and honoured mentor worthy of great respect, a model and inspiration on the path. In the Tibetan tradition however the teacher is viewed as the very root of spiritual realisation and the basis of the entire path. Without the teacher, it is asserted, there can be no experience and insight.


In the teachings of Lam Rim by Tsong Khapa, it is said that the guru is the root of the path and source of realisation and should be viewed as synonymous with the Buddha. Only through skilful devotion to the guru will the disciple receive the blessings of the realisations of the path. In Tibetan texts great emphasis is placed upon praising the virtues of the guru and giving thanks for his (usually men) kindness. In the tantric teachings this is carried further still by repeatedly generating visualisations of the guru and making offerings and reciting praises. This devotional practice known as guru yoga is seen as one of the most profound ways to cultivate the qualities and results of spiritual practice. In the tantric tradition particularly the teacher becomes known as the vajra guru, the one who is the source of initiation into the tantric deity. Having made this relationship, the disciple is asked to enter into a series of vows and commitments that ensure the maintenance of the spiritual link. Some teachers even stress that to break this link is the most serious downfall anyone could make.


How are we as westerners to receive these principles of the guru/disciple relationship? Is the guru so crucial or are we simply seeing the dogma of religious orthodoxy? What is the value of the teacher/disciple relationship? Furthermore how can westerners make sense of this relationship when there could be so much room for confusion? These are not simple questions to resolve and yet increasingly they are important to explore so that we can truly understand the value of this relationship as well as recognise the dangers involved. Regretfully in recent years the problems of this relationship have become more apparent. While some teachers seem impeccable, others are not. 

The patriarchal hierarchy of most of the dominant religions has a particularly distorting effect on the nature and implementation of spiritual authority. This has an impact on the way in which a teacher’s power and authority is viewed and then maintained. It also has a considerable effect on the way women are treated. This patriarchal expression of spiritual authority is highly questionable when introduced into the western context. 


It may also be useful to consider the psychological consequence of a teacher brought up in a rarefied world that has its own prescriptions, moving to a culture that has not the same social and ethical base. There are clearly eastern teachers that make the transition from one culture to another in a clear and skilful way. Others unfortunately do not do so and tend to retain a perspective within the west that can be thoroughly inappropriate. 


These are considerations that may require that we question and re-evaluate the doctrine of guru devotion in modern times. I am aware that to certain Tibetan teachers in particular this would seem like a challenge to possibly the most hallowed principle in Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless we should not be afraid to ask these questions. Fortunately there are certain Tibetan teachers such as the Dalai Lama who are well aware that there is a need for skilful reflection on the relationship to the guru so that we do not fall into some of the possible pitfalls.


The past few years has given westerners more time to look at the way eastern teachers have engaged with the west. This has lead to a greater understanding of the value of a spiritual guide but also of the problems and dangers. It has also begun to offer an insight into how we can resolve some of the contradictions that seem to arise. Perhaps what has become evident to me is that the concept of a guru is not inherently problematic. Problems arise in part because we do not understand the meaning of the guru as a factor in our spiritual path. This is a notion still relatively unfamiliar to the west. Secondly we have too many romantic expectations and fantasies as to the nature of the guru. If we have a strong yearning for a teacher we can easily become caught in an idealised illusion as to what the guru is. 


Many people naively assume that the one they call the guru is going to be perfect and infallible. The teachings of for example Tibetan Buddhism tend to reinforce this view by insisting that we see the guru as Buddha and therefore free of any faults. There may be an emphasis on testing and evaluating the teachings but the authority of the lama remains unassailable.


In most eastern traditions which emphasise devotion or bakti in relation to a teacher, the guru is held to be fully awakened, or an avatar of god. The natural inclination of the devotee is often to be in awe and reverence towards this divine figure. In the east this disposition is highly valued in a devotee and may equally be enshrined in the scriptures and instructions of practice. This requirement or desire to view the guru as enlightened can lead to a profound awakening of insights and experiences that occur because of the state of openness this creates. It may also lead to great confusion if we begin to see that the guru has a human side that is still fallible. 


How then do we come to terms with this duality of nature? Is it possible for us as westerners to come to an understanding of the guru as an embodiment of profound insight and awakening while not falling into the illusion that this person is without fault? To make sense of this paradox it is useful to consider the teachings on the guru within the Tibetan tradition more deeply. Without doing so it is too easy to use the term guru, but not recognise the level on which we are speaking. To open up the meaning of the guru it useful to consider the outer, inner and secret guru.


The paradox of the guru as enlightened yet with human fallibility is one that can only be resolved as we understand the concept of the guru more deeply. In the Tibetan tradition the guru is viewed on three levels namely outer, inner and secret. Our first experience is with the outer guru who can be a vital source of insight and inspiration. He or she may act as an example of the practice and needs to have the compassion and genuine lack of self interest to respond to the disciple with care and support. When this relationship begins it can be truly wonderful, like finding the lost and longed for friend we can trust with our innermost secret and who can lead us in the dark. The connection to the guru opens us to a sense of our true nature. He or she is the catalyst that makes this possible and helps us to deepen that experience. He may also be instrumental in guiding how to develop this experience. 


Our relationship to the outer guru may be one that evolves and changes with time. Whilst it often begins with a kind of falling in love, in time this changes into a more working relationship. The guru as Lama Yeshe once said can shake our heart. He or she may have the capacity to get through to our core in a way that few others can. The consequence of this experience is that the outer guru can be in a place of great power. Indeed the very nature of seeking guidance is that we are investing someone with that power. With the spiritual guide this connection comes from the heart and is therefore of such importance. The process of devotion asks of us that on some level we surrender some aspect of ourselves to the teacher so that we are able to open to our true nature. The power given to the guru requires that they must be someone whose integrity we can trust. Inevitably this carries a great risk, but when we find someone who in genuine the value of such a relationship is extraordinary. 


Gradually as the relationship grows it begins to loose some of the idealistic glow and becomes more real. In this respect the relationship matures and requires greater authenticity. The teacher may test the disciple but equally it may be important for the student to cheque out the teacher. To fail to do so, as H.H.Dalai Lama once said, may spoil the teacher. He felt that too much deference that did not challenge the teacher was a mistake. Whether teachers will be willing or able to take up this challenge is another matter. Some clearly do and others are not so comfortable. 

Perhaps one of the important ingredients in a skilful teacher is the capacity to genuinely empower students to question and find their own way. The outer teacher is crucial in enabling students to discover their own innate potential even if this means going beyond the teacher’s control. The outer guru’s role is to lead the student to an authentic experience of the inner guru. Once they do so the process of the relationship can evolve still further. In the tantric tradition in particular the outer guru is the one who initiates an experience of a deity as an inner expression of our Buddha-nature. It is this deity that begins to hold an experience of the guru in a very different way. The deity becomes known as Yidam or ‘heart bound’ to signify a heart connection to the inner guru as the deity. 


The relationship to the inner guru is therefore initiated by the outer guru, sometimes explicitly sometimes not. One of the most important gifts of the outer guru is the reminder that the real guru is within us. As my own lama (guru), Lama Thubten Yeshe would constantly say, "we must learn to trust our inner knowledge wisdom," our inner guru. He was always wanting his disciples to recognise that their independence and autonomy as individuals was dependent upon finding and trusting the inner experience. The inner guru is a deepening trust in our own knowledge, understanding and truth. This may be the root of a sense of our own individual integrity, authority and self-reliance. This inner wisdom is facilitated in the tantras by the relationship to the Deity. The Deity is seen as inseparable in essence from all the Buddhas and the outer guru’s inner nature. As such, however, it is to be awakened within each individual as an experience of the sacred or the divine within. Our inner relationship acts as a kind of loadstone or touchstone that can be there as a reference when we need it. 


In the practice guru yoga the essential ingredient is to be aware that the essence of the outer guru, our own innate nature and that of all the Buddhas is inseparably unified as the inner guru. Whether this is symbolised in the aspect of a deity or not is dependent on the tradition. In the Tantric tradition in particular the guru is personified in the aspect of a deity. This occurs in two ways. One is where an historical figure such as TsongKaPa, Milarepa or Padmasambava have become deified as the archetypal guru. The second is where actual deities such as Heruka or Vajra Yogini are seen as personifications of the inner guru.


As the inner experience grows and deepens, increasingly we may be able to let go of the emphasis on the outer guru. We may also recognise that an inner quality of clarity and wisdom may inhabit a relatively human and fallible outer form. We can have these two dimensions of our nature existent at the same time. We may nevertheless still be unable to fully embody our true nature as it is veiled by the obscurations of our fallible human conditioning. 


When we see this we are able to more comfortably put together the possibility of someone being both primordially pure and yet shrouded in human fallibility. If we understand this we can then relate to the outer guru in a more real manner. They may indeed have profound insight into the nature of reality or have deep experience of their own deity nature and yet still show signs of their human fallibility. This shift of understanding can be a great relief to students as it opens up a far deeper potential for a real relationship to the outer guru free of some of the confusing contradictions. When we can hold this paradox of the outer guru being relatively fallible yet a vehicle for something primordially pure we can go beyond idealised illusions.


The outer guru leads us to recognise the nature of the inner guru. The inner guru is then like a gateway or threshold to the secret guru or the ultimate nature of the guru. The inner guru is still a relative manifestation of something that gradually awakens. It is the finger pointing at the moon. Increasingly as we open to the innate clarity and spaciousness that lies within we can shift from relative archetypal forms and appearances to an experience that is beyond such duality. We likewise gradually move from reliance upon relative truths, relative wisdom to something far deeper. This dimension of the guru is the direct experience of our mind’s innate clarity. It arises as a quality of pure presence that opens to the empty nature of all reality. In the Tibetan tradition this innate wisdom of non-duality is known as Dharmakaya. This is sometimes seen as the ultimate truth or the ground of being out of which all appearances arise as the play of emptiness. Dharmakaya is profound inner realisation inseparable in nature from the omniscient mind of all the Buddha’s. In this experience there is no person and no duality, it is the experience of totality.


If we recognise and understand the nature of this ultimate guru we need no longer be held to any notions of the relative forms of the guru. The implication of this is far reaching. If we recognise that all phenomenon arise as the play of emptiness, or Dharmakaya, and see that this is the ultimate meaning of guru, then effectively any phenomenon could be seen as a manifestation of the guru. We might for example relate to some object or event in such a way that we recognise its significance and meaning to us. If some thing or experience awakens deeper understanding and insights we could see this as a manifestation of the guru. This does not mean the relative outer guru but the ultimate guru as emptiness and non-duality. The outer guru is also a manifestation of this ultimate guru since this is his or her essential nature manifesting in relative form for our benefit. This is so whether he has fully awakened to it or not. 

The outer guru has an important role as the catalyst for this inner experience to be awakened in the disciple. His human fallibility need not hinder this process. To understand how this relationship takes place it is useful to consider a more psychological understanding of the guru/disciple relationship. 


To understand the manner in which the guru/disciple relationship develops from a more Western psychological perspective it is useful to look at the notion of transference. This can lead to a greater depth of insight into the power of the relationship as well as the potential dangers embodied within it. 

In its simplest sense transference occurs when unconsciously a person endows another with an attribute that is actually projected from within themselves. Counter transference occurs when unconsciously the other takes on this projection and lives it out thereby projecting in return a counter attribute. This process occurs in most relationships but becomes most problematic when the projections are particularly negative.


Jung recognised in his exploration of the psyche, that what we are unconscious of we tend to project into the world around us. This he saw was particularly true of the inner masculine or feminine, he named animus and anima, when they are projected into our relationships. The effect of this projection is well recognised, as we fall in love and become completely enthralled by the appearance of the loved one. This romantic projection endows the beloved with all manner of wonderful attributes that may lead us to feel he or she is the special ‘soul mate’ we have longed for. We may suddenly feel that in this union we have become whole. That we gradually see through this projection to discover the ‘real’ person is in part to our benefit because the relationship grows, but partly a cause of great conflict if, as a result, we experience dissatisfaction and disappointment. 


This process of projection occurs in relation to other archetypal aspects of the psyche and the guru is one such phenomenon. Jung recognised that each of us has as an inner archetypal aspect of what he named the Self, which can manifest in the form of the teacher or guide. This may be expressed in a number of forms. It may be symbolised for example as the old wise man , the messiah-like youth, or the wise woman or crone. One may perhaps add to these an attribute that for many Westerners is Eastern and exotic. I do not think it is mere coincidence that for so many people their image of the teacher is outside their Western culture. The Eastern teacher may offer something that is free of the Western preconceptions and worldly profanities that blur or obscure the potential sacred nature of the symbol. When this archetypal need is constelated in a particular person they will carry a charge or numenosity for us because they embody a deep inner quality. 


When we encounter an individual that draws out the projection of the archetype of the guru the effect can be dramatic. I recall the first occasion on which I met the Lama who became one of my principle teachers. I was stunned by the experience. He entered the crowded meditation room and I could hardly see him. When we sat down and I was eventually able to see him seated upon a high throne surrounded by colourful Tibetan Tangkhas I stared in awe. He looked utterly radiant and beautiful. I had been somewhat primed by the sense of excitement and anticipation present in the hall, nevertheless the feeling of his presence was almost tangible.


As we transfer the inner archetype onto the outer person we may see them as truly awesome. We may fall in love with the wonder and inspirational quality we are seeing. As we do so that person begins to have a powerful effect on our psyche. They are helping to constelate this inner archetype in the conscious world raising all of its power and potential from the depths of the unconscious.


We have unconsciously imbued the outer person with an inner archetypal quality that carries an immense power and presence with it. The outer person may indeed have some extraordinary gifts, but if this projection did not occur the effect would never be so dramatic. In the same way that a man may see a beautiful woman and not be greatly effected, should the projection of his anima occur, however, she will hold a magnetic attraction for him. So too with the guru, if we see a Lama and there is no transference little happens. If, however, we do transfer the unconscious inner guru, and this is not something we can consciously determine, then the effect is very dramatic. 


When we transfer an inner quality onto an outer person there will be a number of consequences. We are giving that person a power over us as a result of the projection. In the case of the guru, one could say in Jungian terms, we are giving the power of the Self away. This carries with it the potential for great insight and inspiration, but also the potential for great danger. In giving this power over to someone else they have a certain hold and influence over us that is hard to resist, we become enthralled or spellbound by the power of the archetype. This may mean we surrender personal autonomy for a while and are willing to follow everything that person asks of us. We may trust this person implicitly because we are seeing our own inner reflection, why should we question it. We may be completely unaware this is happening and consequently when people talk of their first encounters with the guru, they do so in highly romantic idealised terms.


The romance begins and the disciple has found his longed for sense of wholeness as reflected by the guru. This outer person may indeed have the capacity to truly empower the disciple with an experience that is in accordance with the projected ideal. The effect of this positive aspect of the transferred archetypal quality onto a teacher is a profound opening to levels of insight and experience. The skilful teacher gradually enables the disciple to recognise this process and helps to awaken the inner experience. In time the nature of the relationship can become more real and mature. There can then be a growing dialogue between teacher and disciple that is not so bound in the projected idealisation. As this happens the disciple can draw back some of the projection and become more autonomous and individual while retaining a profound loving connection to the teacher. The romance may be long over but deep respect and trust can remain. 


Part 2


The teacher-student relationship is taken from The Wisdom of Imperfection published by Shambala Publications. For further information or comments contact:


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