Are there differences in the roles teachers play in different Buddhist schools and how their students relate to them?
One important way teachers differ is how much authority we give them over our practice and life. In the Theravada tradition, the teacher is an elder who guides us, trains us, and inspires us by their example of following the eightfold path. In Mahayana schools, such as Zen and Chan, the master is likened to a powerful and skilled doctor who does what has to be done to cure our spiritual illnesses. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the teacher is a guru. Tantric gurus are seen as manifesting enlightenment mind in this world for our benefit, and through our devotion we discover that their mind and ours share the same enlightened nature. That’s the theory at least, but personality and teaching style are also important. In practice, a Theravada elder can mind your business as fiercely as any Zen master, and tantric gurus can be the very embodiment of gentleness.