The Teacher-Student Relationship

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche on how our relationship with the teacher evolves in the three vehicles of Buddhism.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
20 March 2012
Photo by Andrea Roth. From the collection of the Shambhala Archives. Used by permission.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche on how our relationship with the teacher evolves in the three vehicles of Buddhism.

“The teacher is regarded as an elder, spiritual friend, or vajra master. He or she has ways and means to create situations in accordance with our own receptivity, our own particular style, in order to waken our native intelligence.”

when we are infants, we need someone to babysit us—to change our diapers, to give us a bath, to tell us how to eat, to put us in pajamas. That’s the first reference point in our lives for a hierarchical relationship with another human being.

This basic human experience of growing up is an analogy for the teacher- student principle on the Buddhist path. The development of the teacher-student relationship in the three yanas, or vehicles, of Buddhism is analogous to bringing up infants, relating with teenagers, and finally relating with grownups.

The starting point is the relationship to hierarchy or a parental figure in the the path of personal liberation. Our ordinary sense of the growing-up process, whatever we think it entails, is based purely on our dreams. We think we’re going to become Ph.D. candidates without knowing how to speak or write or read properly, almost without being toilet-trained. That’s the kind of ambition we usually have. We say to ourselves, “Of course I can push my shortcomings aside. I can just grow up, and soon I will be accepted in the mainstream of the respectable, high- powered world. I’m sure I can do it.” That’s our usual approach.

Many people believe that professionalism means having a self-confident but amateurish approach to reality, but we’re not talking here about being “professional” Buddhists in that sense. We’re talking about how to actually become adults in the Buddhist world, rather than kids who appear to be grown up. We actually have to grow up and face the problems that exist in our lives. We have to develop a sense of the subtleties, understanding our reactions to the phenomenal world, which are our reactions to ourselves at the same time.

To do this, we need some kind of parental figure to begin with. In the path of individual liberation, that figure is called a sthavira in Sanskrit or them in Pali, which means “elder.” The elder is somebody who has already gone through being babysat and has graduated to become a babysitter. In ordinary life, that person is very important for our development, because we have to know what will happen if we put our fingers on the hot burner. We have to learn the facts and figures and the little details that exist in our lives. That kind of discrimination is important.

There are spiritual facts and figures as well. As a practitioner, you might regard yourself as a grownup who doesn’t need a babysitter. But in terms of spiritual discipline, that reaction is infantile. You are closing off large avenues of learning if you reject those possibilities. Then you have nothing to work with. You will have no idea even how to begin with the ABCs of basic spirituality.
So in the beginning, relating to the teacher as acharya—as master, teacher, elder, parent-figure, and occasionally babysitter—is necessary. That person’s primary goal is not to teach us what’s good and what’s bad, but to help us develop a general sense of composure. That is the beginning of devotion, in some sense. At this point, devotion is not faith at an ethereal or visionary level but a sense of practicality: learning what it is necessary to do and what it is necessary to avoid. It’s a simple, basic thing.

So to begin with, the teachings tell you that your view of the world is an infantile view. You think you’re going to get ice cream every day. As a baby and a young child, you throw temper tantrums so that your daddy or your mommy or your babysitter will come along with a colorful ice-cream cone. But things can’t be that way forever. What we are saying here is that life is based on pain, suffering, misery. A more accurate word for that experience of duhkha, which we usually translate as “suffering,” is “anxiety.” There’s always a kind of anxiousness in life. Initially, you have to be told by somebody that life is full of anxiety. The elder helps us to relate with that first thing, which is actually called a “truth.”

It is truth because it points out that your belief that you can actually win the war against pain and that you might be able to get so-called happiness is not possible. It just doesn’t happen.
The elder tells us these facts and figures. He or she tells us that the world is not made out of honeycombs and oceans of maple syrup. The elder tells us that the world has its own unpleasant and touchy points. When you have been told that truth, you begin to appreciate it more. You begin to respect that truth, which actually goes a very long way—all the rest of your life. For the elder, such truth is old hat: he or she knows it already. The elder has gone through it herself. Nevertheless, she doesn’t give out righteous messages about those things. She simply says, “Look, it’s not as good as you think. It is going to be somewhat painful for you, getting into this world. You can’t help it—you’re already in it—so you’d better work with it and accept the truth.” That is precisely how the Lord Buddha first proclaimed the dharma. His first teaching was the truth of suffering.

So when you are at the level of being babysat, having the teacher as a parental figure, you are simply told how things are. Being told about the truth of suffering is like having your diapers changed. This is an example of the trust and faith in the teacher that develops in the early stage of the teacher-student relationship, when the teacher acts as a babysitter.

The Teacher as Spiritual Friend

Having understood the first noble truth, your relationship with your teacher begins to evolve into a different level in the Mahayana, the vehicle of the bodhisattva path. He or she becomes the kalyanamitra, a Sanskrit word meaning “spiritual friend,” or “friend in the virtue.”

The kalyanamitra is less heavy-handed than the elder or parent, but on the other hand, he is more heavy-handed. He is like a rich uncle who provides money for the family. However, he doesn’t want them to just lounge around and live off his money. The rich uncle would like to be more constructive than that; he would like to have industrious relatives, so that he can increase his capital.

Unlike a rich uncle in ordinary life, the bodhisattva’s approach, the Mahayana approach, is not based on self-aggrandizement. It isn’t self-centered. It is a much closer relationship. The teacher has become a spiritual friend. When relatives give us advice, we have a certain attitude toward their advice: we know that we are being told the relative truth. It has some value, it has some application, but it is still relative truth. When friends give us advice, its effect is more immediate and personal. If we are criticized by our parents, we think it’s their trip, or we think something is wrong with their approach, so we take it lightly. But if we are criticized by our friends, we feel startled. We begin to think there may be some element of truth in what they are saying.

So in the Mahayana, the teacher is a spiritual friend. He or she is much more demanding than the purely relative level. The spiritual friend makes us much more watchful and conscientious. At that point, relative truth has already become somewhat old hat: we already know about pain, the origin of pain, cessation, and the path, the four noble truths. At this point, the spiritual friend tells us, “Don’t just work on yourself. Do something about others. Relate with your projections rather than with the projector alone. Do something about the world outside and tiy to develop some sense of sympathy and warmth in yourself.”

That is usually quite hard for us to do. We are already upset and uptight and resentful that life is painful. It’s very hard to relax, to let go of that. But it can be done. It’s being done in the present and it will be done in the future. So how about giving an inch? Just letting go a little bit? Opening a little bit? We could be generous and disciplined at the same time. Therefore we should be patient and exert ourselves, be aware of everything that is happening, and be clear, all at the same time. That is the teacher’s prescription.

Following this approach is what is called the practice of the six paramitas. These six transcendent actions—generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and discriminating wisdom—are practiced by the Mahayana practitioner, the bodhisattva.

This practice puts us in the spotlight, so to speak. We have a general sense of wanting to open, for the very reason that we have nothing to lose. Our life is already a bundle of misery and chaos. Since we already have nothing to lose, we gain something by just giving, opening. That step is the transition between experiencing the teacher as elder and as spiritual friend.

The Teacher as Vajra Master

In the Vajrayana, or tantric vehicle, your relationship with the teacher becomes very complicated, very tricky. Your teacher becomes what is known as the vajra master, and your relationship with him or her has a different slant entirely. In some sense, the teacher becomes a combination of the elder and the spiritual friend. The process is the same, the line of thinking is the same, but it has its own particular twist. The vajra master is not an elder, a parental figure, a spiritual friend, or a rich uncle. He or she is a born warrior who accepts only a few students. The vajra master will not accept students who are sloppy and unreceptive.

Vajra is a Sanskrit word meaning “indestructible.” The idea of vajra mind is that it is completely well put-together. It does not have any cracks; it cannot be criticized. You cannot bring any confusion into it because it is so well guarded, not out of paranoia, but out of its own existence. It is self-guarded.

The closest analogy for the vajra master is the samurai. Such a teacher is ferocious, but at the same time he has the qualities of a father, an elder, and a friend. He could be very passionate, warm, and sympathetic, but he doesn’t buy any bullshit, if we could speak American at this point. Studying with such a person is dangerous, and it is a very advanced thing to do. You might actually progress much faster on the path. But if you start with the expectation of going faster, you might actually go slower.

Having gone through the path of individual liberation and Mahayana, you are well trained and disciplined. At this point, the vajra master’s approach is to create successive teaching situations in your life. He or she demands complete, unconditional trust and openness from you, without any logic. Maybe some little logic applies, but the invitation and the demand are simple and straightforward: “Would you like to come along with me and take part in this historic battle? Come along, here’s your sword.”

Of course, there is always room to chicken out. But once you accept the invitation, if you chicken out, you could go through a lot of problems. The more you are a coward, that much more the vajra master might try to terrify you, if that is what you need. I don’t want to paint a black picture of the vajra master, but that is the simple truth. The more you try to escape, the more you will be chased and cornered. However, the more you work with the vajra master, the more you will be invited to join that fantastic celebration and mutual dance.

The notion of celebration here is that of sharing a feast. It is not the usual idea of indulging, having parties and eating a lot. Feasting here means sharing rich experiences of all kinds. Sharing together in that sense is the only way that the Vajrayana teachings come alive and become completely appropriate. However, if you are not ready for that, then the vajra master may send you back to your spiritual friend, or if necessary to your elder.

Your commitment to the vajra master is not purely to the external person alone. As well, it has possibilities of commitment to the internal guru, the teacher as expressed in you. However, that takes place only after you meet the vajra master. At that point, you begin to experience a greater level of heroism, fearlessness, and power. You develop a sense of your own resources. That journey takes much longer than you would expect. The vajra master doesn’t want to give you any chance to play out your trip. Otherwise, you might decide to reject your irritating and overwhelming vajra master; you could deceptively internalize by saying, “I don’t have to deal with that person anymore. I can just do it on my own.”

The point here is that, at the Vajrayana level, there is a great deal of magic, power, and immense devotion. That devotion is different from devotion in the theistic traditions. In this case faith and devotion are based not on the sense of giving up or surrendering completely; devotion here is taking on more things, taking all sorts of examples and insight and power into yourself. At this point, you can actually be initiated—that is precisely the word. You can be initiated or empowered. The formal ceremony of empowerment in the Vajrayana is called an abhisheka. You can be abhisheka-ed, to coin a verb.

Faith and devotion in the theistic traditions may have a remote quality. Somebody is out there who will care for you, make you feel secure. Everything is somewhat on an ethereal level, on the level of otherness. The reason why lizards exist, the reason why snakes coil themselves, why rivers rim to the ocean, and why trees grow tall—the reason for all this mysteriousness must be because of “him” or “it.”

That belief actually keeps you from understanding real magic. It keeps you from understanding how things come about or from finding out how you can do something in your own way. When you think that the world must be someone else’s work or creation, you begin to feel as though the whole world is run by a gigantic corporation, including the weather. But we run our own corporation, according to the nontheistic tradition of Buddhism. In order to have complete access to our world, so that we can run our own corporation, we need to have the vajra master give us manuals, techniques, and instructions. And if we are playing dumb, if we are not exuberant, he might actually put us into a very difficult situation to wake us up.

All together faith in the teacher is not worship; the teacher is not particularly regarded as a link to God. The teacher is regarded as a spiritual elder, spiritual friend, or vajra master. He or she has ways and means to create situations in accordance with our own receptivity, our own particular style, in order to waken our native intelligence. In relating with the teacher, your critical input and surrendering work together. They’re not working against each other. The more you get input from the teacher and the phenomenal world and the more you develop, the more, at the same time, you question. So there is a kind of dance taking place between the teacher and yourself. You are not particularly trying to switch off your questioning intelligence and switch on some sort of mindless devotion. Rather, the two—cynicism and devotion—are synchronized together.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1940-1987) is recognized for playing a pivotal role in the transmission of genuine Buddhadharma to the West. One of the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers to come to America, he established Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and an organization of some 200 meditation centers worldwide known as Shambhala International. In addition to his best selling books on the Buddhist teachings, including Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and The Myth of Freedom, he is the author of two books on the Shambhala warrior tradition: Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, and Great Eastern Sun: The Wisdom of Shambhala.