Lama Ole Nydahl
Learning in a Total Way
Teacher - Student Relationship

Karmapa International Buddhist Institute, New Delhi, India, 1994

If Buddhism had disappeared five hundred years ago and today we would find its texts and statues, what parts of the teaching would we be able to revive?
Well, if we had made realistic observations about cause and effect in our lives, the insights of the Theravada or Small Way teachings of Southern Buddhism would come easily. We would already know that results come from causes of a similar nature and have some experience of what is useful or harmful in life. The teachings on the level of what is beneficial or unskillful would be self-evident.
Also, if we had reached a certain level of inner peace and power, having energy for more than ourselves and seeing things beyond hope and fear; if we had become convinced that all beings want happiness and want to avoid suffering, and had noticed how everything appears, changes and disappears all the time like in a dream, then we could reawaken the Mahayana or Northern Great Way Buddhism. The Vajrayana or Diamond Way Buddhism, however, could never be recreated from non-living sources. It is beyond the realm of linear thought patterns or conditioned 'rational' feelings. The more advanced the Buddha's teachings, the subtler and more total are the methods employed and the more essential becomes the total transmission of experience from a teacher.
On the Small Way level of cause and effect a teacher is useful, but we can make do with the books. In the Mahayana which develops the inner qualities of compassion and wisdom, a teacher is more important. Involving more aspects of our totality, it helps to have a living example and somebody to watch our development. But the Diamond Way does not even start without a teacher. If no one carried the living experience and was able to pass it on, intellectual or cryptic books and pictures whose esthetics one might like or not like would be all that we have. If there were no living holder of the experience, there would be no access to their transformative power.
So, for the highest level one needs a teacher. It is important, however, to see him or her not as a person or god but as a mirror to one's own potential. Showing us our timeless nature with countless skillful means, he actually represents the Buddha.
Through a teacher we can transform all aspects of life. Every kind of contact is present here: a physical body, his speech, and the teaching of his various reactions to the world. With him, we have a chance for a complete identification and may be inspired on every level of our humanity. Our intelligence, courage, sexuality and potential for joy all become gates for receiving his inspiration. Through the connection to a teacher who embraces a full life style, it is possible to learn in a total way.
Because this meeting of teacher and student gives such a wide basis for growth, it is immensely important that the conditions be clear, that both sides know what to do and not do and which direction to follow in their exchange.
This point is much more important in the modern world today than it was in the traditional societies of the East. In eastern countries the roles are clearly defined and the emotional wish for direct experience is often absent. Here, one did not become Buddhist because one was infatuated by a teacher or wanted quick enlightenment. One supported a certain school and believed in it because one's grandfather and father did so.
In the West, we choose a religion on the basis of what we feel. This approach has the strength that something convincing actually happens and the weakness that experiences change all the time. So, with great idealism we are always running after something which isn't really there.
At this time when Buddhism comes to our countries, we should see ourselves as new brooms sweeping. It is our goal to transfer the unique mind teachings - the dry baby - without the cultural bathing water which has accumulated over centuries and doesn't belong with us. On the other hand we want the whole baby. If pulled over too quickly as in most reformations, it may arrive missing an arm or an leg. Our humble goal, which has probably never been realized in history before, is to consciously graft the best from the highly developed but politically misleading Tibetan spiritual system to the fine achievement of our open modern world. If we stay critical and clear and manage to bring the Diamond Way into the West in a functional shape, we shall have the finest of mind teachings without the cultural stuff which has nothing to do with us.
In the East, on the other hand, everything was in the open. One only needed to know which level of practice the teachers followed to see if one could trust them. For example, Buddha put 250 restrictions on monks and 350 on nuns. They concern the things they should not do, and if they kept these vows they were good monks and nuns. Fully keeping these is probably not possible outside their communities and a celibate who may not touch money or be near the opposite sex is in no easy position in the street. Even the highest incarnates get into trouble when they move too far into politics or money.
Buddha's advice to lay people was on the level of compassion and wisdom. Their job was to sustain society, to support his teachings and to practice in their daily lives. As they needed free hands to progress in the give and take of the world, his advice about things to avoid were limited to the basic vows of not killing, lying , stealing, taking drugs or sexually abusing others, which practical people might find useful to take. With the lay population, motivation was thus the important thing. Their actions should be for the benefit of others, and bring society, their family and friends to a meaningful development.
There was also a third group of people whom the Buddha taught, the yogis. Living beyond conventions and holding the highest view of the purity of all phenomena, their function was to kick the chairs from under the pillars of societies when they became too dualistic, moralistic or dense. Being the holders of vision and constantly testing the boundaries of existence, they were supposed to constantly see everything as naturally fresh and full of potential. Experiencing the world as radiant and sparkling, there was always space for new solutions.
Inside the three levels of monk/ nun, layperson, and yogi the rules of the teacher were thus clear and on the village level, where most lived, people could see if they were adhered to or not. If the monks and nuns became proud, made politics, had sex or did not stay in their monasteries, they had lost it. If the layman's family strayed, or he brought friends into trouble through cheating or bad deals, he lost respect and a yogi who looked like a drowned cat and could neither inspire himself nor others was no yogi at all. People knew exactly what everybody had to do. In the closely knit traditional Buddhist societies, the cases of gurus leading their students astray are not frequent for the simple reason that everybody was busily checking everybody else's behavior.
When Buddhism came to the West, however, it entered societies that are quick-moving, idealistic, open and free, and where people lack those checks. We just do not have rules for monks, lay people and yogis. People live far apart and nobody really examines what gurus do, at least in their inner circles. Everybody wants an emotional respite from having to be critical in politics and jobs and hardly anybody knows the boundaries of their teachers disciplines. Thus people with suggestive power, with words and organizations capable of catching the spirit of the time and evoking strong feelings, came into completely uncharted waters. Being from the East, nobody expected solidarity, democracy or other European values from them and in this way they entered a vacuum where for years they could do almost anything.
Having learned from several recent scandals that Buddhist teachers must also be checked, things now have to be clear right from the beginning. The teacher must act as he speaks. He should also not simply avoid confrontational subjects but point out the causes of future trouble like overpopulation in ghettos and poor countries, and the growth of Islam. If a teacher always tells sweet nothings he is not protecting his students. He must be willing to offend some. This is his responsibility.
Thus, outwardly, the teacher should be relevant and unafraid. At the same time, he should keep a running check of himself and make sure that he is not developing egotism, strange behavior, false sweetness or pride. Frequent questions should be asked, "Am I thinking of the benefit my students may bring my organization or myself or am I thinking of their development? Am I making them dependent or teaching them to find their inborn strength?" While enjoying the potential richness of his or her students, a teacher should always be aware that they were born alone, experience unwanted situations in life, and will probably feel alone when they die. The thing to do right now is therefore to make them so self-reliant, independent and strong that they can handle any event coming up.
It is therefore not glorious to put one's students into power structures or dupe them with mannerisms from cultures they cannot evaluate or dress them in clothes which cut them off from the stream of society. Organizations are not there to make teachers famous but to give them the means for sharing their insights with many. As it is unavoidable that this position will surround one with both friends and groupies, who will protect one and present also one's possible weaknesses in the best light, the teacher has to check himself on the most daily of levels, "Do I still carry my own luggage? Am I still thankful? Am I talking straight to people or talking down to them? Do I see their Buddha-nature and uniqueness? Am I feeling more important than them?" This is vital, because pride easily sneaks in. It gets one from a corner one wouldn't expect and suddenly one has become luxurious, soft and scheming. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is always true.
While the sap of former useful activity produces its good fruits, the roots must still bring new supplies. Therefore, also one's level of activity should be monitored. The teacher should check if he is still fresh and experimental. If he has fun. If he still works as hard as when he stood at the beginning of his career. If his teachings are taken from the books of others or if he talks sentimentally about high levels of mind which he hardly knows. If one teaches people to be fearless because mind is space and cannot be harmed, one should prove one's own basic courage from time to time. If one talks about the joy of mind's clarity, one should also feel that joy, and if one instructs one's students that compassion is natural because we are all part of a totality, one should be kind oneself and work hard.
The teacher should develop and not get stuck with his present limits. Instead, he should keep aware of mind's space and identify with its total potential, with solutions and the ultimate goal. If one does that, there will be ever less mistakes. If one sweats oneself hard enough, there will be no doubt or second thoughts. There will not be any room for scheming, no idea of giving good teachings to donors and medium ones to less interesting people. It just won't happen. One will be naked and true, a real yogi.
This was the teachers' side. Now you will want to know what the students should do. The first condition is that they be willing to learn and work hard. This opens a space beyond ego and concepts, where many kinds of receptivity are set free and the transformative effect of the meeting depends on the confidence invested. Here it is essential that the students get involved in an intelligent, conscious way. Though it is difficult not to be swayed by one's wishes for quick perfection, still they should examine the teacher as well as they can. They must evaluate him and decide how he is, for example, if they would buy a used car from him. As they will surely absorb many of his qualities within the next years, they must first be critical. If they don't ask the necessary questions and the teacher is not solid, their development will surely be derailed, at least till they find a better one.
Of course it is difficult to fully open up to another being, especially when he is in a position of strength. It always means losing some aspects of one's fairy land. One will have things taken away, thoughts that one cherishes and feelings and experiences that one wants to retain. Preconceived ideas must leave to create space for real insights, so the student has to be hard-nosed and unsentimental enough to put up with that. On one's way from the relative and conditioned to the absolute and lasting, one must be willing to let go of the most spiritual of ideas, the finest of concepts, the sweetest of feelings.
One should make that sacrifice, however, and not let a unique opportunity slip by. Only lifetimes of gathering good impressions make evident that the experiencer is immensely more meaningful than any picture or piece of imagination it may manifest, and this conviction may easily be lost again. We thus have nothing more precious than that, and liberation and Enlightenment happen only when the students place their confidence in mind's essence, in the here and now. Faster than any complicated method, basic trust in a dependable teacher may bring forth that radiant consciousness which the student always has, and the rate of development depends on one's openness. If one sees the teacher as a Buddha, one receives a Buddha's blessing. If one sees him as a Bodhisattva, one gets a blessing of that magnitude, and if one should experience the Buddha as an ordinary being, one would probably get nothing but a headache! Behind the games of ego lies nothing but radiant wisdom and mind's joyful radiance will always be there. When such confidence has been installed, mind's veils will fall gradually and by themselves.

Kagyu Life International, No.4, 1995
Copyright ©1995 Kamtsang Choling USA