Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on August 8, 2014

I seem to have difficulty learning from other people. You can call it a learning difficulty if you wish; I have had it all my life. I tell myself that I am just very particular about who my teachers are and, perhaps because of that, I have been fortunate to have very, very good teachers. Or maybe I am just fussy.

If you think I am joking, I am not. Fairly early on, when I was first in grade school it seems I exhibited the same behavior, and apparently it was severe enough that the school demanded that I be put through a battery of tests to see if I was up to going to school. Of course I had no idea what they were doing to me, what this was about. As it turned out, it was just the opposite of what they worried about. They tests showed that I was actually (believe it or not) bright and just bored by school. That much I can remember, the boredom, because this continued until I finally dropped out of school completely. I never did finish high school. And this learning difficult was particularly difficult with spiritual topics.

And I also I survived the onslaught of spiritual teachers in the late 1960s and 1970s and I didn't hide out. I went to see and sit at the feet of a great many and was even willing to open my heart to them. Unfortunately, very little of what I experienced stuck. Time and again I walked away, sometimes shaking my head. A few came close, but still no cigar.

Later on it helped me to know that there are said to be 84,000 different Buddhist teachings, and thus 84,000 kinds of teachers, and 84,000 kinds of students. You would think that with that many teachers they would be easy to find. After all, I only needed one. The trick is that I didn't just need any old teacher; I needed one that I could actually personally learn from. That proved more difficult to come up with, perhaps not that there were no good teachers, but because I have difficulty learning from just anyone. It seems that I am particular.

In the Vajrayana Buddhist teachings it is said that our main teacher (what is called our Tsawi or root Lama) is the one who can successfully point out to us the nature of our own mind so that we can actually get it. Just because you find a famous or high lama is no guarantee that you will be able to learn to see the true nature of your mind through them. Sadly, it does not work that way. And it is not a one-way street. It also depends on our ability to learn. We may not be ready. Students also have responsibilities.

Something else that was hard for me to learn is that the personality of our teacher has little to nothing to do with their ability to teach us. We may have requirements about their personality that we impose, in which case, feel free. As they say, that and ticket will get you a ride on a bus.

The only real requirement is whether we can learn from teachers, not any demands we try to make. If they can help change our mind and view, that is enough. If they also want to sniff 'Crazy Glue', that is up to them. And another thing: in general, a teacher is not our friend, which is not to say they are not friendly and open. I have spent a great deal of time with my teachers, even traveled in close company to Tibet with my main teacher, but I can't say that I ever hung out with him. There is a difference. "Familiarity breeds contempt" is the old saying. None of my teachers has ever been my "familiar." My peers are my familiars.

Also, none of my life teachers has ever charged me one cent for being my teacher. Yes, I have paid to go to intensives, empowerments, and teachings, but none of the one-to-one, teacher-to-student interviews or time together ever had money involved. This is not to say that I did not make donations and offerings, but they were never required, and if I made them it was because I wanted to help and support their efforts. A personal teacher you can learn from is the most precious of commodities. That is what the word "Rinpoche" means "precious one."

In my experience the teacher-student relationship is much closer than just being familiar. In the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism this closeness or bond between teacher and student is called "samaya." We might call it in English mutual-trust, but of the most vulnerable kind. When I first encountered this kind of trust, it changed my life. Here was a teacher who cared more about me, my welfare, than I knew how to care for myself. Here was someone that I did not have to protect myself from, but who naturally protected me, even against my own bad interests.

I believe that when we meet someone who is our teacher, the hard line between the outside world and our tender insides begins to dissolve and the two flow together and are experienced as one. As the poet Sir Edwin Arnold put it "The dewdrop slips into the shining sea!" In Buddhism this is called "mixing." At some point there is a mixing of the mind of the student with the mind of the teacher. The wave and the ocean are both seen to be water.

Another point which I feel is important to keep in mind is that in Tibetan Buddhism the teacher has one and only one task, and that is to point out to us the true nature of our mind so that we get it. Pardon me, but you just read a very important sentence. This event is called recognition of the true nature of the mind, or just "recognition," which is not enlightenment by any means.

Once the student recognizes the true nature of the mind, the task of the teacher is essentially done; their job is effectively over. From the point of recognition forward we are no longer just practicing meditation. We are actually meditating (actively working with our own mind) and given that realization we now know what we have to do to move forward on our own. Imagine that!

In my understanding, after the recognition of the true nature of the mind by the student, real dharma training can begin. From that point onward we are on our own and have everything we need to go on from there by ourselves.

One last thing. We don't have to pinch-hit for our teacher. My first dharma teacher, a Rosicrucian initiator, would often say. "My God is no beggar! I don't have to make the ends meet. The ends already meet."

[Photo taken early morning of a little Cabbage Butterfly who spent the night and got a dew bath to boot.]