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.
Read the Spring issue for the full conversation with Sallie Jiko Tisdale, Mark Power and Sylvia Boorstein.
Excerpted from the Spring 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.