A Meeting of Minds

Anne C. Klein on the importance of listening, relating, and actively engaging with our teachers as the foundation for a genuine, transformative connection with them.

By Anne Carolyn Klein

Geshe Ngawang Wangyal, Anne C. Klein’s first teacher, was the founder of :absum Shedrub Ling, the first Tibetan Buddhist dharma center in North America. Photograph by the late Paul Conklin.

Concentrate particularly on Guru Yoga, the entrance-way for blessings, and make it the very foundation of your practice. That is the essential point.

—Adzom Drukpa in Lamplight On Your Path

Teaching is the heart of all three jewels—buddha, dharma, and sangha. Buddha teaches, the dharma is the teaching itself, and those to whom it is taught are sangha. Every part of this interaction involves relationship, most especially between teachers and students. The teachings take us to a reality that is vast as space and as intimate as our own heart. Our relationship with a teacher helps us access both.

I write about this as someone extremely fortunate in my relationships with Buddhist teachers. I have had, and still have, close, lasting relationships with renowned Geluk, Nyingma, and Bon teachers from Tibet, and have also been very impacted by one Theravada teacher. 

Any one of these relationships would have been enough to light up a lifetime. They were kind and caring, never in the least untoward. I appreciate what good fortune this was, given the many violations of trust that have come to light across our traditions. Speaking to that challenge is vital, and I am grateful for the many wise ones who are thinking or writing about this with grace and intelligence. Complementing that perspective, I focus here on what is possible when these relationships go well, and the kind of teaching it is to be in the presence of such beings. But I get ahead of myself.

In my own case, it took a long time to see that relationship and friendship are central to growth as a practitioner. My aspirations as I first connected with Buddhist practice did not take account of this. I wasn’t thinking of Buddhism as a path of relationship, I just wanted to stop worrying about how others saw or failed to see me. I thought that once I realized that special thing that Buddhists know, I would be comfortable with everyone. In the meantime, I held back.

“Mirror 14,” 2017. By Murrary Fredericks.

Show Up and Relate

In the mid 1970s, I was able to stay for a while at Geshe Wangyal’s retreat house in Washington, New Jersey. I had heard many stories about his apparent ability to know everything that was going on in the minds of students who stayed there. From this, I concluded that being seen would not be a problem. So, one day as others gathered in his room to chat, I sat in the living room, comfortable in the confidence that he would know my mind and would summon me when he thought I needed a talking-to. It didn’t take long. “Where is that girl? Why doesn’t she say anything?”

Busted. I was going to have to show up and relate.

It wasn’t easy. But it was glorious.

I was studying a bit about the two truths by then, and over the years gained more and more respect for Geshe-la, whom we called Bakshi, his title in Kalmyk. In addition to reading and explaining Tibetan texts to us from time to time, one of his main ways of teaching was cooking. In the kitchen, as elsewhere, he was alternately ferocious and gentle, and he changed the rules all the time. One day he emphatically told us to cut the carrots round. So we cut them round the next day. How dare we? Why hadn’t we asked how to cut them today?! After that, we would go to his room to ask how to treat every other vegetable and, of course, were told to stop bothering him and just cut them. We could only conclude that, while things always changed, and always would be changing, common sense would always be important. This meant finding a middle way between hanging onto the guru’s every idea and developing confidence in one’s own.

Bakshi would come to the kitchen to taste and then add this or that. The results were usually delectable, but occasionally they would be declared disastrous. So sometimes he’d scold us, sometimes he’d praise us. The key thing, in retrospect, is that he was always engaged with us.

It was a vibrant time, this period of learning to relate to a teacher and to sangha friends while also studying about dependent-arising and compassion. Both these key principles, in fact, were embodied in the interactions that unfolded among all of us. This is always true, but the dynamism of a teacher, who really knows interdependence and emptiness, as well as compassion, clarifies these enormously. One day, watching Bakshi stir a pot of soup, his ultimate mind doing such an ordinary thing, I felt I was seeing the union of the two truths! His tutelage, the books, the cooking, brought these key doctrinal elements alive for me as no book could. That’s something a teacher can do.

But, as they say, a cave facing north gets no sun. Like that cave, we can be unreachable.

Our ability to be impacted by a teaching, and a teacher, depends not only on the teacher’s skill, but also on our receptivity, and ultimately on the trust we have in the teacher and in ourselves. That’s why it’s so searing when things go wrong. Trust is a two-way street. The teacher must genuinely care about the student and place that first. And have patience. A student like myself needed a long, winding road to recognize the value and possibility of being porous to such learning.

Attention Is the Start of Love

In the foundational practices (Ngondro) of the Tibetan traditions as taught in Patrul Rinpoche’s Words of My Perfect Teacher (which Bakshi introduced to us long before it became available in English), and in his student Adzom Drukpa’s Lamplight on Your Path, which I am currently translating at the behest of my teacher in Tibet, the very first teaching is on how to listen. Attention is the start of love. As a child, practitioner, or friend, real listening is the beginning of a fruitful relationship. I had to take the risk of talking to Bakshi, of saying the wrong thing, as often happened, in order to hear and see something new.

Trust goes hand in hand with deep listening. Trust takes time. The Tibetan traditions, which place the highest importance on the relationship with the teacher, advise taking five or more years before deciding to place your trust in a teacher. This waiting may seem impossible in the speedy, internet-laced context of modern life, but it’s good advice. Idealization can too easily replace actual trust. Idealization is powerful, yet its ideation is on thin ice; for example, my own wild and compelling idea that a clairvoyant Bakshi would relieve me of the need to talk, to relate.

“Mirror 14,” 2017. By Murray Fredericks.

The Fourth Jewel

In Tibetan tantric traditions the teacher, the lama, is considered a fourth jewel who contains the other three. For Adzom Drukpa, Guru Yoga involves learning how to rely on a teacher, the benefits of doing so, as well as the teaching on transference, powa, used at the time of death. This last is beyond our discussion, but Adzom Drukpa’s very mention of it in this light is testament to the power of Guru Yoga.

In the tantric traditions, we are taught not only to respect, delight in, and listen to a teacher, but to see our teacher as a fully awakened being. Indeed, mixing our mind with the teacher’s awakened mind is the most powerful of all paths. Any tendencies toward unbalanced idealism, which is also a form of reification, will be heightened. So it becomes all the more crucial to distinguish rampant idealization from the trained response of a grounded practitioner. A trusting relationship with the teacher allows us to relax and be receptive.

All wisdom practices in Buddhism require us to lift the veils of the projection and errant assumptions that cause us to see things as more real than they are. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how I cut the carrot. But conventionally, in the context of my relationship to my teacher and myself, it has meaning. Relationships, like dependent arising, teach us the give-and-take of cause and effect. Idealization that is merely reactive forces one-way thinking, which may ignore one’s own experience entirely. My own idealistic idea of Bakshi’s day-and-night clairvoyance (which would, by the way, always be seeing me) and which would trump all communication from my side, is an example of this one-way focus. Holding that idea made me feel safe, temporarily, but it didn’t open my heart. That only happened when I could relax enough to participate in the back-and-forth that the actual relationship offered.

It is worth noting that the deep practice of Guru Yoga does not deliver some instant high. Like any relationship, it takes time and cultivation. And it is embedded in the foundational practices for a reason. In Lamplight On Your Path, Adzom Drukpa writes:

Some people think that these foundational practices are not very important and, filled with high hopes after hearing how profound the teachings of the main practice are, don’t take the time to practice the foundation properly. But to imagine that you can do creation and completion stage practices without going right through to the end of the foundational practices makes no sense whatsoever. 

Such people, he adds, become intractable, their hope-filled minds more idealizing than self-aware. With training, however, Adzom Drukpa says, Guru Yoga actually transcends creation and completion phase practice; that is, the phases of tantric practice where you create your teacher’s presence, and then, being one with the deity whose form your teacher takes in your particular practice, your mind unites with their awakened mind. It is this awakened mind, now your awakened mind, which is the essence of wisdom, and of Guru Yoga. This is what distinguishes it from other paths of practice.

The paths of creation and completion phase meditations and the like do not free you by way of the very essence of what they are….
In guru yoga, realization of how things are emerges in your mindstream through that practice’s own essence alone. In this way, guru yoga is the most profound of all paths.

The gift of connecting with teachers in formal teachings and everyday activities definitely expanded my understanding of what a human being can be. My several close teachers over the decades have been very different in presentation. What was similar was how their utter naturalness in all situations impacted me. It helped me see that the awakened quality is indeed a natural property of a human mind. It is not something foreign at all; it’s just that I (you, we) have too many contrivances built into every layer of my body, speech, and mind to see it. The awakened, empty shining is naturally there, and no amount of activity can diminish it or make it shine brighter. In this way, Longchen Rabjam tells us, it is like the sun. It would be foolish to think that the sun shines only when the clouds are cleared away. When we make effort, therefore, to clear away the clouds of our artifices, thinking that this will turn on our mind’s luminosity, we are mistaken! Effort is necessary on earlier stages of the path, but we are foolish if we think that the sun is not shining all along.

Thus, the essence of Guru Yoga, for Tibetan traditions, is to mix our mind with the empty and luminous quality of the teacher in whom we see these qualities. This is how we catch a glimpse of our own empty shining, and slowly learn to rest in this more and more.

Idealization, by contrast, focuses only on how wonderful the teacher is. This might be the thing that leads you to connect with a teacher in the first place, as it did for me. It has its place, as long we don’t get stuck always looking outside for our own true nature. What’s most necessary in practice is to look into our own minds, to recognize a glimpse of our own luminosity as well as notice the veils that prevent us from recognizing it. That reality is most easily accessed through the heart, bringing a vital sense of intimacy to our experience of reality’s vastness. Like the sun, crossing ninety-three million miles to touch your face, it is right there.

Anne Carolyn Klein

Anne Carolyn Klein (Lama Rigzin Drolma) is cofounder of Dawn Mountain Tibetan Temple, Community Center, and Research Institute in Houston, Texas. She is also a professor of religious studies at Houston’s Rice University and the author of several books including, most recently, Being Human and a Buddha Two: Longchenpa’s Sevenfold Mind Training, and, as translator, Strand of Jewels, a distillation of Dzogchen teachings by Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche.