Lion's Roar

Forum: How to Be a Student

Sharon Salzberg, Norman Fischer, and The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche on how the student-teacher relationship really works.

By Lion’s Roar

Sharon Salzberg, Norman Fischer, and The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche on how the student-teacher relationship really works.

Many years ago I set off hitchhiking across six states in pursuit of a religious experience. I hoped to break free from conventional life and embark on a momentous and romantic spiritual path, the stuff that would make a great autobiography someday. I was going to see the great guru. As I sat in my flouncy, brightly colored pants from Madras, the feeling of expectation was enormous. When Chögyam Trungpa arrived for his talk, it was a bit of an anticlimax. His reputation preceded him, but nothing prepared me for his unholiness. So strong was my urge to learn, however, that I set aside my hopes of hearing choirs of angels rejoicing in his presence. At some point during that talk, he said that the spiritual path only really begins when you experience nausea with yourself, nausea with samsara. “Real nausea,” he said, making clear that it was not a metaphor. As far as I’m concerned, he was the first person to tell me the whole truth, and he seemed not the least bit concerned if it didn’t conform to what the paying customers expected.

Ever after that day I would still try to construct various sandcastle spiritual paths, and always—after a short time or quite a long time—his haunting words “real nausea” would revisit me, in his presence or not. I’m still building the sandcastles and he’s still knocking them down. That’s how it seems to work with a Buddhist master, even though he’s long gone.

The need for a teacher seems to be the sine qua non of all Buddhist traditions, and while the roles and methods of the teacher seem to differ from one to another, as do the descriptions of the teacher and the rituals associated with them, in my observation, there is more commonality than difference. In the various traditions of Theravada, in the Zen and Chan schools, in all the branches of Vajrayana, the teacher is much more than someone who imparts key information in lectures and tests how well you have absorbed it. The teacher is someone who minds your business. The teacher minds the business of individuals and of whole communities. The teacher inspires a minding of each other’s business. Teachers do impart knowledge through lectures and discussions, but because Buddhism involves personal experience—first of mindfulness, awareness, loving-kindness and compassion, and ultimately of liberation—the teacher must see firsthand evidence of such experience and of all the creative mistakes students make in their pursuit of it.

Viewed from the outside, the student-teacher relationship can seem heavy-handed or even manipulative, and if the teacher is a charlatan, it truly is that. But the genuine teacher’s role is not manipulative. The teacher is not a puppet-master, but rather the one who cuts the strings and shows you how to do it yourself. So, if in the end you must do it yourself, why do you need a teacher? Isn’t relying on someone else antithetical to self-discovery?

We need a teacher because the real puppet-master is our own ego, and it’s very hard for ego to participate in its own extinction. Through formally teaching us the dharma and by a variety of other methods, teachers interpose themselves between our ego and our true nature in a way that is impossible for us to do ourselves. In ego’s hands, even the dharma itself can become self-confirming. The ultimate quality-control expert, the teacher, ensures that it will not.

Like all teachers, the three teachers on our panel are also students, and they share their understanding here about what it means to be a student, and how dependence and independence intermingle in the process. While they discuss the student-teacher relationship in one-on-one terms, in my experience such intimacy does not rely on intensive daily contact. Its power is not measured in conventional terms, like how many hours one spends at the feet of the master. Its power is measured in how well we are learning to do it ourselves.

—Barry Boyce

The relationship between student and teacher seems to be a central feature of Buddhism. From the perspective of your own tradition, why is it so important?

Norman Fischer: In the Zen tradition, the relationship between a teacher and a student is crucial. There is an alchemy that takes place when we put together the teachings, the student, and the teacher. The teachings are not external material that one masters. In the dharma, the external material is just a tool to effect an inner transformation. That transformation requires a deep spiritual relationship with another person, who in our tradition is understood to be an ordinary human being, and yet at the same time is envisioned as an empowered Buddha. It’s a human relationship conducted on the basis of dharma. It’s not something that’s optional or that makes the dharma better if it’s there. It’s required to bring about the transformation that is the heart of the dharma.

Sharon Salzberg: In the Theravada tradition, the word for teacher is kalyana-mitta, which means “spiritual friend.” The teacher is not a friend in the sense of being a pal, yet the teacher embodies all those qualities, like trust and comfort, ease and guidance, and a sense of inspiration, that we associate with a very good friend. There is also a lot of importance placed on one’s own effort in working with the teacher. This principle of applying one’s own effort starts with our relationship with the Buddha, who as the primary spiritual friend points the way and inspires us to follow his example. He asks us to make the same effort he made.

We have enormous regard and respect for the teacher as the one person who, as one text puts it, “is always on our side,” the one who is motivated not by self-aggrandizement or a wish to be venerated, but by the wish for the liberation and freedom of the student. The teacher guides us by relying on their expertise both in methodology and the teachings. It is also said that the teacher bring us back to a balance of mind, out of which insight, love, compassion, and other such good qualities can arise. We work with the teacher to open to all of those qualities, and the teacher responds directly to our effort, our seeking, and our understanding.

The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: In Vajrayana Buddhism, the teacher-student relationship goes through several levels of development. It is a personal relationship that is directly connected to the dharma. As Sharon was saying, it is a friendship. Because it is based on dharma, as it becomes more intimate, it becomes more profound and results in spiritual accomplishment. As the student’s commitment matures, the teacher invokes the enlightened nature of the student and shares experiences on the path of realization. When this relationship reaches the level of what we call the guru-disciple relationship, the teacher guides the student through all the different experiences they encounter on the path.

Most people begin the Buddhist path by learning meditation. Even at this simple level, is a teacher necessary, or can one learn to meditate from a book?

Norman Fischer: One can learn meditation from a book. If you don’t have a chance to encounter a spiritual teacher, by all means, learn it from a book and begin practicing. However, no matter where you’re living in the world now, after you’ve been practicing a while, there’s probably a way for you to go to a retreat or find a teacher. Whether or not one has an ongoing relationship with a spiritual teacher is another matter, but certainly one can take advantage of retreat centers or teachers coming to town to expand your relationship with meditation practice. Otherwise, meditation might be viewed as something private and personal, when in fact it goes beyond the personal and the private. That’s why you ultimately need to make contact with another person, even if it’s only someone you meet once.

Meditation is essentially an oral tradition. It’s learned in an apprenticeship model. The written instructions are always generic, and there are no generic people, which is another reason you need a person who can look you in the eye, have some sense of who you are, and give you instructions that are suitable for you.

Sharon Salzberg: By the time someone picks up a book about meditation with the intention of seeking some kind of real transformation, they’ve already done quite a bit of work. Most people in the world don’t get anywhere near that far. That usually means there is a desire to take abstract teachings and make them real. So, if all one has is a book and that’s where you need to start, that’s still a very powerful thing.

I am forever grateful that I have been able to practice under the direct guidance of people. Words on a page can seem very simple. The instruction and the methodology can seem very straightforward, but it’s not so easy when you get right down to it. When I went to India to find the genuine dharma and to learn how to meditate, the very first instruction I got was to sit down and feel my breath. I thought, “I came all the way to India! Why isn’t this more exotic and exciting?” But when I did sit down to do it, I saw that it wasn’t so easy. I was distracted, unhappy, sleepy, restless. It took the kindness, presence, and further instruction of the teacher to guide me through what happened when I actually started to try to follow those simple instructions. Nurturing was very important at that point.

Ponlop Rinpoche: Learning from books or the Internet is very useful. It means many more people can access the path of meditation and gain some sense of what their mind actually is. At the same time, in the Tibetan tradition we have something called thong-gyün which means “visual transmission.” It brings something different than books or online instructions. The visual transmission takes place even when no words are spoken. Simply being in the presence of properly trained practitioners and properly trained teachers, you learn something you cannot find anywhere else.

One of the key things the presence of the teacher offers, as Sharon said, is nurturing, because, as Norman said so clearly, meditation is not generic. It is done by a person. And a person needs the nurturing of a teacher and a sangha. You can share your experiences with the teacher, and when there are uncomfortable experiences or experiences that are too comfortable, the teacher can show you how to overcome that obstacle. In general, the visual transmission directly passes the knowledge of how to meditate, by physical demonstration and the presence of the teacher’s mind.

Norman Fischer: I have never heard that phrase, “visual transmission.” It’s very useful and interesting. In our tradition, the equivalent I think is “face-to-face transmission.”

Ponlop Rinpoche: Oh! That’s very similar.

Norman Fischer: When it’s face-to-face with teacher and student, it’s not about the information. Just as you say, there may not be any words or any instruction, but a mutual recognition in a face-to-face presence is the bottom line of total transformation in Zen.

We have many relationships in our lives that are quite familiar and well known to us: relationships with a parent, boss, colleague, child, and so forth. What is the particular nature of the relationship that one makes with a spiritual teacher?

Sharon Salzberg: It’s many different relationships, and it evolves over time. Overall, faith in the teacher is critical, and the first kind of faith we have is called, in the Theravada tradition, bright faith. You’re sitting alone in a dark, constrained room and the door is closed. Then, something happens. The door swings open and you have a sense of possibility you didn’t have before. Most often that moment of brightness first occurs when we meet a teacher. It’s no longer an abstract sense of possibility—it’s a possibility for us. We have a conviction that our lives can be different. So, often, it is another human being who wakes us up to the immense potential inside of us. The glimpse they give us has all the elements of falling in love. It can be quite dazzling.

While that’s considered a very powerful and potent state, it’s also just the beginning of a journey of faith, because ultimately that sense of possibility needs to rely not on somebody else, but on our own experience of clear seeing and our own practice. You cannot simply depend on that external object; that would be out of balance. Your faith and confidence need to be centered on your own vision of the truth. To bring that about, as the relationship deepens, you have to be willing to put things into practice and test them out for yourself. When you explore for yourself, and probe and question, you will enter a much more mature stage of the relationship.

Trungpa Rinpoche coined a term for the feeling we have toward another person when we fall in love. He said, we want to “engollop” them, to take them over completely. Is that part of the process of falling in love with a teacher?

Sharon Salzberg: I love that word. Well, indeed, there is the possibility of being infatuated and intoxicated and becoming very attached to the feeling state. We don’t understand that the point is not the feeling but what it points to within us: the capacity to open, to care, and to step out of that familiar, dark room. The point is to have the courage to step out of the room, not simply to have this fantastic feeling. The ways that the Theravada tradition talks about people getting stuck there have to do with getting attached to the feeling of falling in love, of brightness, so that we might not be willing to rely on our own experience of the truth, because we don’t want to risk doing anything that might rock the boat and destroy that cherished feeling.

Norman Fischer: The teacher-student relationship is based entirely on the dharma. Although the personal quality is there, it is only in the service of a mutual commitment to the dharma. Wouldn’t it be nice, if in all our relationships, each person was only concerned for the spiritual well-being and development of the other person? That would be a beautiful world, but, in fact, it’s usually not like that. Usually there’s a kind of mutual need, a quid pro quo, that is the basis of even the relationships that are most intimate in our lives.

Ponlop Rinpoche: All of the relationships in our lives are based on what we call the interdependent nature, or what some traditions call “interrelatedness.” The whole world functions and communicates on the basis of interdependence. In the relationship with the teacher, we are actually transcending all levels of all of the relationships, the interdependence, in our lives—parents, friends, enemies, what have you. The very fact of having a relationship that is based on dharma and nothing else is very transcendent, without even adding any specific teachings to it. It is the relationship of all relationships.

Yet working with the teacher is not that straightforward and not so easy sometimes. Even though you’d like it to be very dharmic, spiritual, and enlightening, it also involves a lot of confusion and misunderstanding—and a lot of emotions. It is human. But when you have emotions like jealousy, attachment, or even anger in relating to the teacher, from a Vajrayana perspective, they take place in a sacred context. Having such a relationship becomes the best way of transforming our emotion and our basic relationship issues in life, which means the whole of samsara.

If you have a klesha attack in the presence of the teacher or in regard to the teacher, is that a proper state of mind in which to be working with a teacher?

Ponlop Rinpoche: That’s a very common experience. The whole point here is to apply the instructions we have learned up until that point. Then the teachings we have been studying become dharma in action—not theoretical understanding but applied understanding. When the emotion is directed toward a teacher or fellow dharma practitioners, it becomes a sacred object. As a result, we have more opportunity and support to work with our kleshas. In ordinary life situations, we don’t enjoy that kind of support. The whole point of being in the presence of a teacher is to work with our kleshas. In the Vajrayana, in fact, when the klesha is very strong and powerful, sometimes the guru gives further pointing-out instructions to look at the nature of kleshas and to see their enlightened nature.

When the relationship has evolved to that kind of intimacy, is the teacher there to pull the rug out from under you?

Norman Fischer: Yes and no. I don’t have a doctrinal answer here from Zen, or Buddhism altogether, but just speaking honestly from my own experience, I would say that the rug does get pulled out from under you, but the teacher doesn’t need to do that intentionally. If the teacher is working with you on the basis of dharma, and you’re coming from attachment, desire, and the thirst for accomplishment, you will experience the rug being pulled out from under you just by virtue of the teacher’s ordinary, unintentional responses. The teacher is not scheming, “How can I pull the rug out from under her?” The teacher is just going about his or her own business, in accord with dharma. The student will feel the rug disappearing because of the gap between the student’s ordinary perspective and the perspective of the teacher.

One will have that experience over and over again, and if the relationship is strong and the student is motivated, that gap, and the feeling of the rug disappearing, will be instructive time and time again. It will be a path of training and understanding, just as Rinpoche is saying. All this is possible because the teacher is not an outside object of desire. The teacher is one’s own nature, which is identical with the Buddha. That is the final stage—if we are ever lucky enough to get there—that the relationship is moving toward: seeing the teacher as one’s own basic nature.

On the way to that point, we have all sorts of kleshas and problems that become a beneficial path of training. This transformation of our normal experiences can occur because it all happens in the context of our dharma practice. In Zen we would say everything and everyone is your teacher. Your relationship with your dharma teacher shows you the truth of that.

Sharon Salzberg: When we take refuge in the Buddha, we are taking refuge in the supreme teacher. By doing so, we’re not admiring an externalized being. We are acknowledging something that is obscured within us. We’re also seeing something about the nature of all sentient beings. So the relationship with the teacher is never simply about us or the teacher. It is also universal. The teacher doesn’t exist to be admired by us, but to point us back to our innate nature.

In order to draw out our true nature, the teacher uses many methods, or skillful means. Can you give us some example of the various ways in which the teacher transmits the dharma?

Ponlop Rinpoche: Often, we see teachers in a very formal situation, in a big hall in a very wonderful chair on the stage. They speak wonderful dharma, and we receive great transmissions. But to apply the dharma to everyday life is another story altogether. One way we begin to bring the dharma into everyday life is by serving the teacher, which is a unique experience, especially when you have an authentic teacher. Whatever they do accords with the dharma, so they are teaching all the time, whether they have any spoken dharma to impart or not.

Serving a meal, for example, involves a lot of mindfulness, and in that situation you experience a lot of compassion and love from the teacher. You can see their mindfulness and how they relate with each and every minute of their life. It’s not just serving the teacher, then. It is actually serving oneself, because in the profound moments you spend with your teacher, you learn more about the dharma of everyday life than you can learn in formal teaching. You see how a great master manifests dharma in simple situations, like eating or speaking to their friends or working with their emotions.

Norman Fischer: If we have interactions with the teacher on a more mundane basis, then the teaching becomes concrete. Otherwise, if we simply hear the teacher presenting dharma from the high seat it can be idealized, more than human. I would add that having this kind of relationship transforms all our relationships. So, in serving the teacher, we can learn how to serve all sentient beings. We want to be kind and giving and capable of helping people, but it can be hard to do that. If we can start to do that with the teacher, someone whom we respect and admire, maybe we can learn how to relate that way to ourselves and then to others.

Sharon Salzberg: It’s striking to me how many times, in speaking about their teacher, people will say, “She was very kind to me.” Usually people are speaking about the less formal, unstructured moments. It’s not that we’re excluding their brilliant scholarship or eloquent explanations, but there’s something about the quality of the human kindness that comes out so strongly in situations that are not set up as formal teachings.

What about when the teacher asks you to do something that you resist, that goes beyond what you would like to do?

Norman Fischer: You’re talking about what’s involved in being obedient to the teacher as a practice.

Sharon Salzberg: Yes, when the teacher is making you stretch.


Sharon Salzberg: You might say the teacher exists for that very reason, to take you beyond what you think you can do or who you think you are. In 1974, when I was studying in India, I traveled to Calcutta to see Dipa Ma, on my way back to the United States for what I was sure was going to be a very brief visit. I was planning to return to India and live there for the rest of my life to study with my teacher. As I was about to leave she said, “When you get back to the United States, you’ll be teaching with Joseph Goldstein.”

And I said, “No, I won’t.”

And she said, “Yes, you will.”

And I said, “No, I won’t.”

This went on and on. I felt the absolute conviction that I was completely incapable of doing anything like that. She told me that was the very reason that I should teach. That was a tremendous blessing. It pointed me back to the pain I had been in when I came into the dharma and the pain so many people are in. It made me appreciate again the extraordinary value of the dharma and the power of meditation as a tool for addressing people’s fundamental pain. All my hesitations about my abilities as a public speaker and so forth became secondary. It is never how I would have imagined my life, but she was right about what I needed to do.

Every teacher I’ve had has done that, not only by saying you should do this or that, but by simply taking me beyond my sense of limitation, either explicitly or implicitly sending the message: You can do this!

Norman Fischer: It’s important to note that those commands or directions can only be given when you have given deep permission for the teacher to give them to you, and you are ready to receive them. In Sharon’s case, I imagine that Dipa Ma must have understood Sharon’s deep turning of the heart, which gave her permission to give Sharon that direction.

It’s not as if the teacher is going around giving people directions right and left. They are sensing where there’s permission for that, and even though the permission might be unknown to the student or might require a stretch, the teacher can see whether the permission is there or not. And if it’s not there, there are no directives. The giving and receiving of specific directions can only really occur after the relationship has ripened.

Ponlop Rinpoche: I agree that students do need to give permission for the teacher to be able to give instructions and direction. In the Vajrayana, that permission is called devotion, or confidence. Following the teacher’s instructions comes from one’s own confidence. It demonstrates how deeply we have attained confidence in dharma, in the wisdom of the teachings, and the wisdom of the teacher. The student’s confidence arises based on the qualities of the teacher.

It does seem that we expect a lot from the teacher. Doesn’t that sometimes lead to disappointment?

Ponlop Rinpoche: Sometimes our disappointment clearly shows that we have a misunderstanding of the teacher-student relationship. We have tremendous expectations and a sense of never having enough knowledge or enough materials. We mistake the role of the teacher and what we should expect from them. On the other hand, certainly in the Vajrayana, teachers will provoke our disappointment in order to shake up our usual dualistic concepts about having and not having.

Norman Fischer: There is an essential paradox, which presents itself as a problem from the dualistic perspective: How can the teacher be worthy of the faith and confidence we would apply toward a buddha and at the same time be a human being who might be conditioned in various ways? From the dualistic perspective, this dichotomy is really hard to take. We might ask, if the teacher is worthy of our confidence and the teacher is a buddha, how come he or she says this or does that?

But the problem there is a misunderstanding, as Rinpoche has just said. Our expectations for perfection and superhumanness on the part of the teacher are always idealizations. They are a neurotic expectation that a teacher is supposed to be otherworldly. When we can learn to accept and appreciate the teacher for his or her humanness, we see that humanness as an expression of his or her highest understanding. At that point, we are beginning to achieve some genuine understanding. But we have to go through those horrible periods of disappointment, and if we can stay with the dharma and not leave the teacher or start over again looking for another perfect being, then we can reach that kind of very basic understanding.

There’s something magical, as I said, alchemical, about what happens when student and teacher meet face-to-face. Why should this be so? Why would we need another person to transform ourselves or understand the dharma? You would think we would be able to do it on our own if we’re smart and if we work hard enough. Perhaps we need instruction because somebody has information that we don’t have. All right, so we need the person for information, but why would a human relationship be necessary for this transformation? In terms of how we usually understand learning and transformation, it doesn’t make sense.

Yet there seems to be a magical element involved in this human relationship that carries with it a dharmic dimension that is a necessity for full transformation to take place. Without a teacher, you can certainly master teachings and learn a lot about meditation and have deep concentration states. A great deal is possible without having a teacher, but for true realization, the magical element of a human relationship with a teacher is what is needed. It may be confusing, irrational, and emotional, but that is very much the point. It is a face-to-face encounter of two people seeing each other’s humanness and each other’s buddhaness.

Sharon Salzberg: What seems to be happening is a kind of mirroring. In different encounters with the same teacher, we seem to see so many different facets. Even in the same encounter with one teacher, different students will have a completely different perception of what happened. They will recount the actual words differently, not to mention the teacher’s mood. Someone will recall how stern they were, while another will remember them as being very funny.

What we see and hear is based partly on what we’re able to see and hear and partly based on our projection. Beyond that there is a kind of magic that is greater than what we’re bringing into the situation. There are many layers in any single encounter with the teacher.

You all seem to be suggesting that working with a teacher brings out the full range of our humanness, which also includes becoming very confused, perhaps to the point of abandoning the effort and leaving the teacher. Are there any guidelines about the proper state of mind for working with a teacher that can help us not to get stuck?

Ponlop Rinpoche: In Tibetan Buddhism, a student is one who engages in mind training. So what is most important, in my understanding, is to be always checking our motivation. Why are we doing a certain practice, or why are we trying to connect with the teacher? If we keep in touch with our motivation, we will always be on the right track. A problem can occur if we start out with proper motivation but let it fade away at some point, to the point where we stop asking questions—not only asking questions to teachers but also asking questions to ourselves. Continually questioning our intention becomes the primary way of connecting with a teacher properly, connecting with the dharma properly, and practicing the dharma on the path fruitfully.

Norman Fischer: We’re practicing because we appreciate suffering and to overcome suffering. When we see that everything we’re doing is toward that end, even if it’s difficult sometimes, we’re on the right track. Sometimes, that may involve leaving a teacher. That may be part of our path. Even if we leave a teacher because of self-centeredness and attachment, we may have to do that before we learn how to overcome our obstacles. It’s all part of the path.

Sharon Salzberg: It is important to not become complacent and take people and situations for granted. We can be so comfortable in our relationship with teachers and fellow students that we forget the basic truth of impermanence and how precious the conditions may be that allow us to have a relationship with a teacher. We need to take it very seriously.

Norman Fischer: Although our teachers may feel loving toward us and responsible for us, we’re responsible for our own practice. When sticky and nasty things happen between ourselves and the teacher, it’s because we expect the teacher to take care of our enlightenment, our practice. We’ve given up our own responsibility, and when that happens, on some deep unconscious level we are harboring unrealistic expectations, which may cause us to be quite resentful. Our path is always our responsibility, up to and including doing something we don’t like in order to follow the teacher’s instructions. It’s our responsibility to make that decision to comply; it is not the teacher making us do something. We can never lose sight of our own responsibility.

If we’re not careful, we can end up asking them to do the work.

Norman Fischer: That does sometimes happen without our consciously recognizing it. When we’ve given over our sense of responsibility for our practice, we get into real trouble.

Ponlop Rinpoche: We are always taught that we have to rely on the guru up to a certain point, then we have to rely on our inner guru. That wisdom of being able to be your own guru comes from the blessings, the kindness, of your own teacher. Therefore, you are never parted from your teacher. On the other hand, we must go through the pain of growing up, which is like leaving home. There is a sense of loneliness, but it’s a valuable kind of loneliness, because we are growing up spiritually. The loneliness is a quite profound experience.

So although you begin by depending on your teacher, because otherwise you would be lost, after a while, it seems you have to give up that dependence.

Ponlop Rinpoche: That’s correct. You cannot have a babysitter for your entire life. [Laughter]

Norman Fischer

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Lion’s Roar

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