What does it mean to be the student of a Buddhist teacher? I have learned a great deal from the books of a prominent Buddhist teacher, but I’ve never met her. Is it okay if I think of her as my teacher?
The relationship between a student and teacher can take different forms. At one level, a Buddhist teacher can be a kind of elder, someone who sets an example for you of mindfulness and compassion and offers you instruction in Buddhist insights and practices. All of these can come from reading a teacher’s books, and in this way it’s entirely sensible to regard someone you’ve made a strong relationship to through their writings as your teacher.
At another level, a Buddhist teacher can be someone who takes a personal interest in you and gets to know your habitual tendencies—both your potential and your pitfalls. In that way, acting as a “spiritual friend” or even a guru, the teacher can offer care and counsel, and even intervention if need be, in a way that helps you on your path. To be a student in this way probably requires some sort of personal relationship with the teacher, beyond reading their books or watching videos of their talks.
Of course, it’s not necessary to focus all of your energy on just one teacher. Many students have more than one teacher, who play different roles in their lives. If you find the books and talks of a particular teacher are starting to inform and change your life, feel free to think of them as your teacher. The proof is in the benefit.