Relationship As Teacher

Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön and Lama Karma Zopa Jigme share the value in engaging everything as your teacher, including your relationships.

By Lama Karma Yeshe Chodron

Lama Karma Zopa Jigme
Photo via Pixabay.

When you meet your future spouse at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the foothills of the Himalayas, your relationship and spiritual journeys are intertwined right from the start. 

Twenty years later, this remains our path, paved choice by choice. As friends, sangha, partners, and teacher-peers, we have learned that there is no “happily ever after” in samsara. We experience this as empowering, a consistent inspiration to follow the Buddha’s teachings to genuine happiness within, rather than conduct a fruitless search for it out there somewhere. 

The Vajrayana approach of discerning the teacher beneath the surface of all experience has accompanied us throughout. A vast and intricate topic, we find that Atisha, the Indian master seminal to Buddhism’s reintroduction to Tibet, gets to the crux of it when he describes the best teacher as one who exposes our hidden faults. 

This is a dynamic process of engaging life as fully and deeply as we can, not an exercise in masochism. As Ani Pema Chödrön says, “It’s the willingness to open your eyes, your heart, and your mind, to allow situations in your life to become your teacher.” Intimate relationships in particular, whatever their form, have an uncanny ability to reveal our blind spots and unrecognized wounds. 

For us, discerning the teacher in our partner began with our root guru, Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche. Wise and kind, Rinpoche was a natural model for a teacher. But only two years into our relationship, Rinpoche died suddenly. As one Tibetan expression, gong pa dzog pa, has it, he had fulfilled his enlightened intent for that life. Still, his teaching continued, reinforcing the foremost importance of recollecting impermanence. 

Rinpoche’s stark absence, prominent in those early days of our grief, slowly took on a quality of subtle presence. The shift began in the shape of words: shared memories of Rinpoche, whispered stories, and murmurs of lessons he taught us, which we revisited together. These set our stumbling feet on the path repeatedly. You could not say Rinpoche was with us. Nor could you say he was not. 

Over time, incantations conjuring up Rinpoche became less necessary. The teacher was more subtle—Rinpoche’s wisdom wove into the tissue of our days. Within this exquisite gossamer, we studied Tibetan language, becoming translators at the monastery. Made a home conducive to simplicity. Served dharma, got married, and completed     three-year retreat together. 

Like other couples, partnership reveals our vulnerabilities, which can spark misunderstanding. Shifting again, the teacher, in Atisha’s sense of the word, manifests as disconnection. Reciprocal witness of one another can unveil the illusions we hold close, despite their no longer serving us. As the late Buddhist psychotherapist John Welwood put it, “Love can only heal what presents itself to be healed.”  

Often, this process occurs in alternating cycles: we cradle our partner as they unravel personal fallacies and fears and receive the gift of embrace in our turn. Holding each other as we heal, time and again, encourages us to honor the teacher in one another. 

When intimacy penetrates further, we may encounter the teacher amongst our shadows. Habit patterns laid bare in one of us expose their counterparts in the other. The conflict “brings us to our knees, forcing us to confront the raw and rugged mess of our mental and emotional life,” as Welwood describes. When rawness rubs against rawness, it is difficult to recognize the teacher in the sting. 

The friction within these complex tangles of fragility decenters the self, temporarily. This does not feel great. Equally flooded and spent, we can neither rely on ourselves with confidence, nor reasonably expect that our partner can step into the breach. Left to our own devices, we would flee. Yet, it is precisely when we are both hamstrung that self-acceptance can manifest as our best teacher, with remarkable potential to catalyze transformation.

Now, our shared commitment to engaging everything as teacher serves as a gravitational center, allowing mutual surrender without splitting us apart. Here, the teacher principle is at its most ineffable. Bearing witness to our own and our partner’s hurt, we hold vigil with our hearts in unison. This wordless alchemy reconfigures each of our inner landscapes subtly. When we surface, we are changed, grateful, and better equipped to bring some measure of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche’s wisdom and grace to our lives. 

This has been our way thus far. You may find your crucible in parenting, friendship, family, community, vocation, monasticism. No matter. Our best teachers materialize in astonishing ways. Letting them in makes all the difference. 

Lama Karma Yeshe Chodron

Lama Karma Yeshe Chodron

Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön is a scholar, teacher, and translator in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. She divides her time between the Rigpe Dorje Institute at Pullahari Monastery, Kathmandu, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Before studying Buddhism, she completed graduate degrees in biology and law and worked as a litigator in Miami and Silicon Valley. With her husband, Lama Karma Zopa Jigme, she cofounded Prajna Fire and the Prajna Sparks podcast. She also co-hosts the Opening Dharma Access: Listening to BIPOC teachers podcast.

Lama Karma Zopa Jigme

Lama Karma Zopa Jigme is a practitioner, teacher, and translator in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He is cofounder of Prajna Fire and the Prajna Sparks podcast. Alongside dharma, he practices counseling psychology in Santa Fe, New Mexico.