Your relationship with your teacher can have a profound and lasting effect on your practice. But it can also be difficult and confusing to navigate. Our panel looks at what it means to have a teacher today, how you can make the most of the relationship, and what you can do when it’s not working.
Buddhadharma: In this discussion we want to explore the question of how to engage with a teacher, but the word “teacher” can mean different things between—or even within—different Buddhist traditions, so let’s start by looking at the teacher-student relationship in your practice traditions.
Sallie Jiko Tisdale: In some ways, I’m an outlier because I’m a transmitted lay teacher, and that’s a controversial position in Western Zen, but I’ve also had a formal relationship with a teacher for almost thirty years now, so I’ve been on both sides of the cushion. Much of what is understood about the teacher-student relationship in Soto Zen originates with Eihei Dogen, who emphasized that relationship quite strongly. Dogen was an arrogant young man when he met his teacher, and that relationship changed him dramatically, because for the first time in his life, he was able to surrender.
I have learned over the years that there is a big difference between submission and surrender. I’ve noticed that for some reason, many people who are drawn to Buddhism in the West are type A personalities. I think there’s a real hunger for balance, to find a way to let go of some of the power of our own personality.
In an authentic relationship of surrender with a teacher, students are willing to give up their point of view to some extent and receive another. Zen doesn’t talk much about the experience of devotion, but I think a crucial part of the surrender process is a desire to give to another, to put someone else first. I have experienced intense devotion and love for my teacher, which took me completely by surprise. You can find that in all kinds of relationships—as a parent, as a romantic partner, as a friend—but there’s something tremendously sweet about the relationship with a spiritual teacher.
Mark Power: In the Vajrayana tradition, strong emphasis is placed on the importance of devotion between the student and teacher. As beginning students, we tend to think of devotion and the relationship to the teacher as pure and beautiful, but we come to find out that it’s a very rugged and messy path. If we’re able to develop resilience and maintain a connection with our teacher and lineage, we will discover a genuine expression of devotion, which I think is similar to what Jiko described as surrendering without submitting our sense of genuineness.
Knowing ourselves is the fundamental ground of knowing how to relate to a teacher. That can be a difficult point to navigate. And I would say that many, if not most, of us sidestep that aspect of the path, perhaps because we’re infatuated with the prospect of enlightenment—another of those ideals that we come to understand differently as we practice—and concentrate our efforts on meditation instead.
Sylvia Boorstein: The teacher-student relationship in our community is less formal. Few of our teachers are ordained. Although some teachers are newer to teaching than others, hierarchy is not emphasized. And practitioners do not need to choose one teacher. For instance, the Spirit Rock Teaching Council has about twenty teachers who often co-lead retreats. When I began my practice, I was encouraged to go on retreats as often as I could, and eventually I chose retreats with the teachers whose style most appealed to me.
Over the years, Spirit Rock has begun to offer a variety of long-term training programs. All participants, whether training in end-of-life care, community leadership, or advanced dharma study, choose a teacher. But in this model the teacher is more of a mentor, and the student is respectful but not deferential. We don’t take vows with a teacher or enter into a lifelong committed relationship. I’m available to the students I meet with on a periodic basis and try to keep up with what’s going on with them and offer suggestions about their practice.
Buddhadharma: Whether we’re calling them a mentor or teacher, how key is our relationship with that person to making progress on the spiritual path?
Mark Power: In the Vajrayana tradition, the teacher-student relationship is considered essential to making progress on the spiritual path. I’ve certainly found that to be true in my experience with teachers. While on one hand the relationship has a formal teacher-student hierarchy, unpredictability is a huge component of the teaching style in the Vajrayana tradition. Teachers seem to take great delight in making their students a little bit uncomfortable by turning the dynamics upside down and sideways from time to time, so the ground of that relationship is always changing.
Sallie Jiko Tisdale: I’m a little hesitant to say it’s crucial to have a teacher, and I do tell people it’s not. The Buddha talked about sravakas and pratyekabuddhas as examples of the solitary path. What’s crucial is the willingness to surrender. That doesn’t have to be through a teacher, but it needs to happen somehow in the context of human relationships. There’s a saying, “It’s easy to be enlightened in a cave.” When our karmic triggers are not getting pushed, we can feel pretty enlightened a lot of the time, but as soon as we encounter another human being, we start running into our issues. So one of the most useful things about being in a formal relationship with a teacher is that they can call us on those triggers; they point out the patterns and agendas we carry and invite us to look at the ways we meet the world. We give a teacher permission to see us clearly and tell us what they see.
But 90 percent of what happens in that relationship, I think, comes from the student. My teacher was certainly there to support and encourage me, but the crucial thing was what I brought to the relationship. It only worked because I was willing to take the scary path. I wasn’t always willing to hear what my teacher had to say to me; sometimes I left or had to hear it several times, but eventually I would listen.
Buddhadharma: Can you say more about what this relationship has been for you, whether as a teacher or student?
Sylvia Boorstein: I try to be an engaged and completely supportive sounding board for my students—a holder of their journey. I will offer suggestions if I feel they might be helpful, but mostly I find that warm support is a very good petri dish for people’s own development. Teachers have different personalities and styles with their students. Some teachers in my tradition have a more confrontational style than I do. But I tend to have a great belief in people’s ability to let their unfolding happen in a supportive environment.
Sallie Jiko Tisdale: I have several students who have committed to a formal, lifelong teacher-student relationship with me. Having been on the student side for so long, I always tell them to expect a couple of things. One is that this relationship will inevitably produce disappointment—which is a good thing—and that a teacher should offer both challenge and a place of safety. The relationship can’t just be warm and fuzzy, and it can’t just be challenging and scary; it has to combine these two experiences.
Buddhadharma: This raises an important point. As we know, in any relationship, after a while the bloom can start to fade. When this happens in a student-teacher relationship, how do we know if it’s simply a phase or if it’s a sign of bigger problems?
Mark Power: I wouldn’t say it can fade; I would say it does fade. All relationships have their seasons. At the risk of sounding cliché, I think the teacher-student relationship in the Vajrayana tradition is a lot like a marriage. There is openhearted love at the beginning, then the relationship starts to get more and more gritty. When that happens, students tend to experience disappointment and sometimes feel a sense of failure. It can be hard to know whether that failure is indicative of real problems or is a necessary abrading of what is extra to our practice, a letting go of ways of being that we are so fond of. I have found that two things are especially important at this point: one is unconditional kindness toward ourselves, being willing to honor our experience, and the other is resilience in our faith in our teacher and tradition. This is not an unquestioning faith but a willingness to continue to practice letting go of fixed concepts about what may be happening. If we can remain open, it will become clear whether a rocky period means we’re in a bad relationship or we’re progressing on the path.
Sallie Jiko Tisdale: I agree that the relationship does feel like a marriage. My teacher has variously been a surrogate father, a close friend, a travel partner, and a distant cousin who I can’t get to return my calls. He drives me crazy sometimes. We’ve both got quirks and I love him. As with any long-term relationship, there are times when you’re closer and times when you’re farther apart.
It’s not always easy for a teacher to know if a student who begins to orbit a little more distantly for a time does so out of a healthy need for separation or whether that distance is about running away from something. Divining these intentions is a very intuitive process, and largely a matter of seeing the student clearly. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said that you shouldn’t go see the teacher in your Sunday best because they can see right through it. You’re naked to the teacher. That has always stayed with me. I will often ask myself, is my student dressed up? Are they sitting there dressed up in front of me or are they letting me see them naked? Often you see students come in dressed up, trying to look good and impress you because they’re trying to avoid something.
Sylvia Boorstein: Since my relationships with students are more like a mentoring relationship, we tend to think of each other as friends. When I first begin mentoring a student, I make a point of emphasizing that we should always feel free to check in about whether the relationship is working for both of us, whether we’re making any progress or there’s any point to it. I also did that with my clients when I was a psychotherapist, evaluating how the relationship was going every six months or so. I think this open invitation to address concerns helps alleviate potential problems.
Buddhadharma: Some versions of the teacher-student relationship can seem a bit out of place in Western culture. Do we sometimes find ourselves imitating a relationship that culturally we don’t really understand?
Sallie Jiko Tisdale: Well, it depends what you mean by culture, of course, but what first comes to mind with Zen in the West is the pattern of older Asian male teachers being inappropriate with their younger female students. Of course there are issues of sexual impropriety and abuse that aren’t specific to the cultural or age divide, but it has been a significant factor. There have been two major admissions of abuse in American Zen communities this past year. Both have been very long-term situations, so what’s coming to light is historical abuse for the most part, but I doubt that we’ve seen the end of new problems.
Some aspects of Japanese Zen lend themselves to transparency in the teacher-student relationship; there isn’t a lot of secrecy behind rice-paper walls, and there are forms where the teacher is questioned in front of the community and students present their understanding in front of others. But particularly in the West, there has often been great secrecy around the teacher-student relationship. I think one of the most dangerous influences that we’ve overlaid on practice from Western psychology and therapy is this idea of complete confidentiality.
Sylvia Boorstein: At Spirit Rock, we have long had an ethics council. We make a point of letting practitioners know about it and encourage them to bring forth any grievances. We take complaints about the teacher-student relationship very seriously and have zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior. My generation has been heavily influenced by Western psychology and has experienced the difficulties that arise when people take advantage of others over whom they have power.
Speaking to Jiko’s point about confidentiality, teachers at Spirit Rock understand the dangers of holding that too tightly. Because we are so shaped by psychology, if we have serious worries about a student’s mental state, particularly in the case of long retreats, we will consult a psychologist or psychiatrist if necessary and help the student make other plans if being on retreat is not in their best interest. So we’re very aware of the need to balance confidentiality with our ethical responsibility and the needs of the sangha.
Buddhadharma: Mark, in the Vajrayana, is there a certain amount of cultural imitation that happens for Western students in their relationship with their teachers, and if so, is that a problem?
Mark Power: It does seem inevitable that a certain amount of imitation takes place in bringing Eastern traditions to the West. I can’t speak for all of the Vajrayana traditions taking root in the West, but within Nalandabodhi, under the guidance of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, there’s been a great effort to shed light on the genuine, skillful ways a student can interact with a teacher and with the practices that are culturally appropriate. It requires a lot of thought and education to dissolve presumptions about these forms, or imitative responses to them.
However, there is an initial mimicry that is based in genuine awakening. When we first recognize something genuine in ourselves reflected by a teacher, we begin to follow and emulate that teacher.
The path is a process of opening up and developing a greater understanding of who we are. If we view the path this way rather than as something prescriptive, a more mature adult relationship develops between student and teacher. The real risk is if self-development doesn’t happen. Then one is always in submission, falling into a pattern of dependency rather than coming into the sense of freedom that a genuine teacher reflects.
Sylvia Boorstein: You know, thirty years ago the discussion in pan-Buddhist teacher meetings was largely focused on how to translate the dharma to the West, how much of the cultural forms we should adhere to. Ten years later, the discussion was largely around sexual indiscretions and the various ways that teachers were taking advantage of students. The idea that your teacher had to be surrendered to no matter what was prevalent for some time, and there was a terrible phase when this kind of thinking enabled a great abuse of power. It was very discouraging, but for me it underscored that teachers, like me, weren’t finished individuals, that leaders of spiritual communities needed to better educate their sanghas, and that more vigilance was required on the part of practitioners.
Sallie Jiko Tisdale: I think that risk will always be with us, because a new student will bring that vulnerable mind-set to practice, and a twisted teacher will use it. We’ll never be cured of delusion, either. We need to strive to keep the relationship above board and not forget to confront abuses of power when we see them.
Earlier I said that about 90 percent of the work that happens between a teacher and student is the student’s work. But about 90 percent of the protective nature of that relationship is the teacher’s responsibility. Eventually I reached a point with my teacher where I experienced surrender so deeply that I realized I would do anything for him. It was his integrity that took care of me. On the other side as a teacher now, I’m very conscious that boundaries have to be defined largely by me, because I’m inviting students to explore a vulnerable position they’re not familiar with.
Sylvia Boorstein: As the dharma becomes secure and more fully manifested in the West, I think it’s crucial to educate practitioners about what is and isn’t reasonable for a teacher to ask of a student. A certain level of maturity and understanding about what’s expected— and what’s not—is so important for students entering into relationships with teachers. Mark Power: It’s interesting that we’re focusing on the potentially problematic nature of the student-teacher relationship. As soon as we enter the spiritual path, we’re on unsafe ground. From a certain point of view, we’ve gotten into a boat that has holes in it. Our path is really the process of learning to lean into uncertainty, to let go, and the teacher’s job is to make sure that there is abundant uncertainty. I think we can become overly concerned about how the teacher challenges us. If the teacher doesn’t challenge us, there’s a problem, because the fundamental nature of what we’re working against is clinging; a deep and abiding clinging requires a lot of skillful provocation to allow us to release. So I think the power of the teacher is something to celebrate as much as it is for us to be careful about. Our culture is so invested in individualism that it is very hard for us to unconditionally release.
Buddhadharma: What can students do on their side to make the most of a relationship with a spiritual teacher?
Sylvia Boorstein: My advice for students would be to ask their teacher, “What’s different about you since you’ve been practicing? What can I hope for in myself? What’s a reasonable thing to happen?” It can seem mysterious, how the mind changes over the course of practice, but it’s not. It is miraculous, but it’s not mysterious. Certain causes lead to certain kinds of results.
Sallie Jiko Tisdale: Francis Dojun Cook, a Zen student and translator, once said that at the beginning of practice, Buddhist faith is like a rumor. You hear rumors that if you do a certain practice, you’ll see certain results. So what you’re really doing with your practice is investigating a rumor. That idea resonated with me. We don’t know if something’s true until we throw ourselves into the investigation and find out.
I always encourage students to realize that this means they’ll go down some blind alleys, find some clues that don’t pan out; some things won’t be what they had expected. Perseverance is key to this practice. The Buddha’s last advice was: believe in yourself and in your experience. The teacher is there to help guide you, to see things you’re not seeing, to point you in new directions. I think it was Jack Kornfield who said that being a teacher is like watching someone try to climb a cliff and yelling at them, Go left, go left! But they can’t always hear you. All we can really do is say, Watch out for that rock right in front of you; I tripped over it myself. My advice to students is to show up as authentically and completely as you can, pay attention, and stick with the practice, and eventually you can find out if those rumors are true or not.
Mark Power: I would add that it’s important to be very kind to yourself in the process of getting to know your teacher and tradition. Looking back at my own path, I would say that fear motivated me to go blindly forward. It felt like this fear was an indication that something was wrong with me. If I were to do anything differently, it would be to slow down and spend time getting to know and make friends with my fear.
Buddhadharma: Based on your experience, what would you say a strong teacher-student relationship offers?
Sylvia Boorstein: There are many teachers to whom I’m deeply indebted, principally Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg, all of whom were key teachers in my own progression. Jack knows me; he knows my practice. He has a great deal of wisdom and equanimity, and I know I can call him when I get into trouble in my practice.
I have felt very nurtured and supported knowing that other people cared enough about me to invest a lot of interest in my unfolding. With that support, I came into my own expression.
Sallie Jiko Tisdale: There is an incredible intimacy that develops when you’re with a person who sees you as you are. When you’re willing to be seen, when you know you’re seen and recognized, there is an intimacy that is like nothing else. In Zen you might say there is no gap between you. We don’t get that very often in our lives.
Mark Power: I would say the most satisfying discoveries are genuine love and integrity, which may be saying the same thing. In my experience, genuine love is something that comes from the practice of letting go; the teacher nudges, encourages, and sometimes forces us to the point where it’s up to us to decide, “Am I going to let go?” Integrity is a result of being willing to meet that point again and again with kindness. When we put the two together, they lead us to remember our natural freedom.