Wake Up Call: Relationship with the Teacher

Interview with Ken McLeod, published in Mandala Magazine, June-August 2002. Reprinted with permission.

Finding and forming a relationship with a teacher is one of the most difficult aspects of the spiritual path. Many of us fell into teacher-student relationships at the end of the 1960s and in the early 70s. We were fortunate, very fortunate.

So many things need to come together: where one is in one’s life, whether the window for spiritual practice is opening or closing, the personalities of the two individuals involved, chance circumstances. I have no prescription for finding a teacher. Look, explore, interview, and, above all else, use your own good sense. Don’t rely on reputation alone.

Deep in Western culture, especially in America, is a tendency to look for perfection in our teachers. Tibetans don’t see their teachers the same way. I was at a conference with a number of Asian and Western teachers, and one of the Tibetan teachers said simply, “My teacher is Buddha.” It was very clear that he had no expectation that his ‘teacher’ was a perfect being but this was how he regarded the relationship, this was the source for his spiritual guidance and inspiration. It was a subtle point, not said with the usual rhetoric, and I found it very helpful.

My teacher, Kalu Rinpoche was highly accomplished, quite extraordinary. Did I learn everything he had to teach? Not even close. But he was my primary teacher. I’ve done a lot of guru yoga and similar practices with Kalu Rinpoche as the focus, and I don’t see any contradiction between seeing your teacher as Buddha as well as a human being. Remember, Buddha means to be awake. You have to see your teacher as being awake. If you don’t, why are you studying with him or her?

Question: Who are your teachers?

Answer: My principal teacher was the late Kalu Rinpoche [1905-1989]. He was a senior meditation master of the Kagyu Tradition and holder of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, who was living near Darjeeling, India when I met him in 1970. He was often asked by H.H. Dalai Lama and H.H. Karmapa to provide instruction on certain practices to groups of monks and practitioners, and he founded fifty Dharma centers around the world. He also established the first three-year retreat centers in the West. I undertook these long retreats twice, the last time ending in 1983.

Another important teacher was Dezhung Rinpoche, a Sakya teacher who lived in Seattle for many years, and Jamgön Kongtrul III before he died. There have been a number of others, including Thrangu Rinpoche, Nyishöl Khenpo, and Gangteng Tulku. They were all Tibetans.

A very good friend and I have been teacher and student to each other. He comes from another tradition, but we each had the approaches that freed up the other’s practice so we have spent the last 15 years exchanging our respective trainings.

I also have a close relationship with a Zen practitioner. We have taught together in recent years. She brings a wealth of Zen and Vipassana training to our teaching. I learn a lot from her. So, while I teach others, I’m still a student.

Could you elaborate on these approaches?

The four approaches in spiritual work are power (the ability to go directly and just ‘do’); ecstasy (the ability to open); insight (the ability to see into); and compassion (the ability to let go.)

Buddhism specializes in insight and compassion; Zen was originally based on power and the Theravadan, particularly in the Forest Tradition in Thailand, interestingly, still has a strong connection with power (Tibetan Buddhism’s relationship with power is muddy). Ecstatic practice is important in Dzogchen but not in most other Tibetan traditions, whereas Hinduism and Sufism have a lot. But all Buddhist traditions are very strong in insight and compassion. My friend’s tradition, on the other hand, specialized in power and ecstasy. So we were able to complement each other’s training.

Faith and respect in the teacher are important in the Tibetan tradition. What are your views on this topic?

In the mind-only or experience-only school, you see the world as the manifestation of your own mind. The teacher is what manifests in your world to put you in touch with your own potential, Buddha nature. That’s pretty strong stuff. In other words, your teacher is that aspect of your mind that is endeavoring to communicate to you what it means to be awake. So, of course you have to have faith and respect in your teacher, just as you have to have faith and respect for Buddha or being awake.

How do you see the student-teacher relationship in the West and what kind of relationship do you have with your students?

A few years ago a couple of colleagues and I put together a program called “Passing on the Dharma” for Buddhist teachers. Some of the questions we asked were, “What kind of relationship do you have with your students and what kind do you want? Are you a minister heading up a congregation, a central figure in a monastic institution, are you a guide, a mentor, a coach, a therapist, a teacher, do you give spiritual direction or do you teach academically?” Teachers can play many different roles and each of the roles has a definite structure and responsibility. Providing support, for instance, is different from providing inspiration. Unfortunately, the different roles tend to be conflated. Some teachers want to be all things to all people and don’t respect the different roles that teachers may have in a student’s spiritual development.

After becoming disillusioned with being a teacher at a center, I thought, “I’ll be a meditation consultant,” without really knowing what that might mean. The upshot is that now I guide people in their meditation practice. When they have this or that problem, I suggest, “Try this, or that, or you need to put more effort there.” I am providing support where it’s appropriate, and very specific instruction where that is appropriate. I don’t know what happened historically in Tibet, though I think that kind of relationship must have existed, but it’s not the kind of relationship many people seem to have with their teachers. Most teacher-student relationships seem to be more formal. By comparison I have a relatively informal relationship with my students.

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