It's always a little humbling when you discover that something you have held as more or less sacrosanct isn't quite what you held it to be.
To be specific, I have long held that the teacher-student relationship, particularly in the Tibetan tradition, was an aspect of practice that had to be protected and maintained at all costs. I had originally intended to write a short newsletter about the sanctity of the student-teacher relationship, but when I did a bit more research, I failed to unearth any references that unambiguously supported this view. After I talked with a few colleagues, it became clear that this was just my view on the matter.
What led me to this view? I grew up, spiritually speaking, in the Tibetan tradition, where the student-teacher relationship is taken very seriously. The culture regards it as sacrosanct, even continuing from one life to the next, so it was easy to feel that there was something sacred about it. That view was also reinforced again and again by any number of comments and readings. Here are two that were particularly important to me.
First, in Mind-Training in Seven Points, Chekawa writes:
Take care to prevent three kinds of damage.
In his commentary, Kongtrül explains that the first kind of damage is damage to your relationship with your teacher and this is to be avoided because "All the fine qualities of the mahayana depend on your teacher."
The second was a conversation with Kalu Rinpoche. He was telling me how happy he had been earlier in his in an isolated mountain retreat, living on roasted barley and tea and meditating the live-long day. After a few years had passed, he received a series of letters from the hierarchs at Palpung Monastery asking, and then demanding, that he return to the monastery to teach the three-year retreat. He told me that he ignored these letters. But then a letter arrived from his teacher:
"You can stay in the mountains if you want to, but if you don't come down and teach the three-year retreat, never come to see me again."
"What could I do?" Rinpoche sighed. "I had to leave the mountains and start teaching."
From what he said, Rinpoche had been compelled to give up his life's calling in order to maintain his relationship with his teacher. The story, especially the wistful tone in his voice, left a deep impression.
What Kongtrül says is true, at least within the latitude of poetic license. For most of us, whatever spiritual understanding we develop begins with our teacher's example and instructions. Like any meaningful and valued relationship, the student-teacher relationship requires attention and care. How this is done in today's world is not always clear. We are caught between two models, as Peter Sloterdijk points out in You Must Change Your Life:
In the Indian world, the license to teach is dependent on the master's own complete realization. In Greek and Christian traditions, you have the imperfect teacher, who overrides his or her weaknesses by incorporating them into what he or she teaches.
In the Indian model, your teacher is never regarded or treated as a peer and the primary way in which you take care of the relationship is through service, reverence and obedience. In the Western model, it is more a peer-relationship, though obviously, you regard the teacher as someone who can teach and guide you in your spiritual practice. Here, it seems to me, the primary way you take care of the relationship is through making use of what you receive from your teacher.
We live in a changing world. What were once generally life-long engagements -- marriage, career and spiritual practice, for instance -- are subject to change in ways that they weren't in traditional societies. Because your relationship with your teacher is an important relationship, if it has to change, make the change in such a way that you avoid unnecessary rupture and that leaves you feeling as whole and complete as possible.
For this, I draw on a traditional model, that of Atisha. Early in his spiritual practice, he studied with a red-hot yogin (a loose translation, but it expresses the point) who was skilled in vajrayana, energy transformation and debate (debate being a necessary skill in Indian monasticism). After several years, Atisha had a number of visions that called him to pursue instruction in bodhicitta (awakening mind) and he realized that he needed to take leave of his teacher. His teacher was a bad tempered person and did not know anything about bodhicitta. Atisha went to him, presented him with generous offerings, thanked him for all that he received and took his leave. The teacher, from what Atisha writes, was not at all happy at losing a capable and talented student and he got quite angry. However, Atisha had taken leave of him in such a way that there was nothing he could do.
I have seen too many people who, for one reason or another, were not able to change their relationship with their teacher in a good way, and the rupture left its mark. I've also worked with a number of people who did want to change their relationship with their teacher, in some cases to study with someone else, in others because they felt they could no longer learn from this particular person. For various reasons, they felt trapped and did not know how to proceed and they came to me for advice. My role was to help them find a way of expressing where they were in a way that honored their teacher and the relationship, but also made it clear that the relationship was changing, or had already changed. Once they were clear about where they stood and how to put it into words, they were able to meet with their teacher and say what they needed to say. In each of these cases, the teacher responded positively and the relationship changed without rupture.
The teacher-student relationship is important. It may be one of the most important relationships in your life. But it is not necessarily sacrosanct. As in any relationship, it has its ups and downs. Differences emerge, some of which are reconcilable and others that are not. And, like all relationships, it will come to an end, due to death of the student or teacher or for other reasons. Take care of this relationship, as it begins, as it lasts, as it changes, and as it comes to an end.