Do You Need a Teacher? and The Teacher-Student Relationship

By Ken McLeod

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excerpted with permission from
Wake Up To Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention
(HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), Chapter 2

Can you do this work on your own? Basically, the answer is no. A few individuals spontaneously wake up to the nature of things, but, historically, they are very rare. The vast majority of people who undertake the work of dismantling the misperception of separateness rely on teachers who relied, in turn, on their teachers. So, in starting this work, you enter a lineage in which understanding has been transmitted from generation to generation.

When we start exploring the mystery of being, we are still mired in habituated patterns. Limited in perception to a world projected by these patterns, we do not and cannot see things as they are. We need a person, a teacher, who, standing outside our projected world, can show us how to proceed.

Buddhism, in particular, has always viewed internal transformative work as a path and the teacher as a guide who transmits his or her understanding to others. A guide, however, cannot rely only on what has been taught to him or her. To be effective, the guide must also have made the journey. The guide's own experience invests the understanding with vitality and relevance. The special quality of lineage and transmission lies not just in the understanding that is passed from generation to generation but also in the individual experience of those who have made the understanding their own.

So, when you start on this path, look for a teacher to guide you -- one who has done, or at least is doing, his or her own work...

How do you know whom to trust as a teacher? this is a crucial question. To answer it you must rely on your own intelligence and perception. If you find someone you think can guide you, ask questions. What training does this person have? How did she or he come to teach? What, exactly, does he or she teach? If you smell a fish or your stomach turns, the person is probably not right for you, regardless of his or her reputation, credentials, number of followers, or special abilities...

The teacher-student relationship is based on a shared aim -- your awakening to the mystery of being. It is not based on mutual profit or on emotional connection. The responsibilities of a teacher are three:

Everything else is extra and is usually based on the projections of the student, the teacher, or both.

You, as a student, have two responsibilities:

For the teacher-student relationship to work, the teacher must be concerned only with the student's growth and awakening, and the student must know this to be true...

If you do not trust that the teacher, in the role of teacher, is helping you to wake up, you will inevitable interpret the teacher's actions through the lens of your reactive patterns. For example, if you see the teacher as being cruel, then even if the teacher is not cruel, the student-teacher relationship cannot function fruitfully because you will interpret the demands or actions of your teacher as cruelty, not as pointing you to presence or to your own patterned functioning.

You are entrusting a lot to a teacher, so ask questions and observe until you are satisfied that this person has the experience, the training, and the motivation to teach you. Experience means that he or she has sufficient depth of understanding to open new possibilities for you. Training means that he or she can both teach and guide you in the methods that dismantle the sense of separation. Motivation means that the teacher is sincerely dedicated to your spiritual growth and that no other agenda takes precedence in your relationship.

In making these evaluations, remember that you are not looking for a perfect person. You are looking for a person who can be useful to you in catalyzing real and perceivable change in you.

Does the teacher have the depth of experience to guide you in your practice? In reality, the student-teacher relationship is one of ongoing exploration and deepening. As your own experience deepens, you come to appreciate and understand your teacher's efforts more clearly. On the other hand, you may see that, helpful as a teacher has been, this person's experience is not what you are looking for or she or he is unable to penetrate the questions that burn inside you. Buddha Shakyamuni learned how to cultivate attention from his first teachers, but they could not respond to his inquiry into the origin of suffering.

Training is another matter. Does the teacher have a sufficient mastery and understanding of the techniques he or she is teaching? Does she or he have practical experience in the techniques to guide you through the inevitable difficulties and problems? Is the teacher proficient in showing you how to remove obstacles to the practice of presence and how to generate higher levels of energy to power attention? Is the teacher skilled in introducing you to presence?

The teacher's motivation is one of the essential conditions for a productive relationship. Why is this person teaching--for profit, power, status, recognition, or gratification of personal needs, from an obligation to a teacher or institution, to maintain a tradition, as service to others, or in service to what is true? You can tell something about the motivation of a teacher from what is required of students. Possibilities include money, service, obedience, bringing in new students, dependence, effort in practice, or progress in practice. 

If the teacher is interested in you for social, political, or financial reasons, or to satisfy his or her own needs for affection, intimacy, sex, money, recognition, fame, control, or identity, the teacher is merely using you. Sooner or later you will resent the exploitation and feel betrayed. Most people take at least four to five years to heal from this form of betrayal, so pay careful attention to the quality of your relationship with your teacher...

A teacher's students reveal a lot about the teacher. A common set of habituated patterns in a group of students indicates that the teacher is ignoring at least one aspect of presence. Observe the group with the following questions in mind. A yes answer to any of them is usually a sign that things are not right:


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