VTC: Relating to a Spiritual Mentor

by Ven. Thubten Chodron

From Taming the Monkey Mind

Some people wonder if it’s necessary to have a spiritual master. Can’t we learn from books, teach ourselves, and discover the path alone? To learn worldly skills, for example reading, carpentry or surgery we need a teacher. It’s difficult and even dangerous to learn on our own. Since we depend on teachers to learn ordinary skills, we certainly need the guidance of qualified teachers for spiritual matters, which are more profound, complex, and influence not only this life, but many future lives as well. A living teacher can do what a book cannot: answer our questions, act as an example of how to practice the teachings in daily life, encourage and inspire us on the path, and correct our behavior.

Because spiritual mentors will have a great influence on us, it is important to choose them carefully. Nowadays, we are faced with a spiritual supermarket: there are many teachers to choose from and they may be qualified to greater or lesser extents. It is our responsibility to checks someone’s qualities before considering him or her our spiritual mentor. Qualities to look for are: ethical discipline, meditative experience, broad knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings, correct understanding of selflessness, compassion, patience, skill in guiding students, and genuine care for the students.

Having chosen a person as our spiritual mentor, we should follow his or her Dharma instructions to the best of our ability. In that way, we will progress on the path. We should speak and act honestly with our spiritual teachers. In addition, we should avoid being two-faced, acting well in the presence of our teachers, but gossiping, criticizing, and loosing our temper when we are not. Such behavior is counter-productive to our own growth.

We should care for our teachers’ needs, and offer both our service and the requisites they need to live. As our teachers work for the benefit of others and for the spread of the Dharma, our offerings will be put to good use. However, we shouldn’t forget that our Dharma practice—the transformation that takes place in our own mind and heart—is the best offering.

Some people confuse commitment to their spiritual teachers with attachment to them. This can be very painful, for if our teachers don’t give us as much attention as we want, we feel rejected. Attachment can cause us to seek emotional comfort, praise, and attention from our teachers. The purpose of seeking the guidance of Dharma teachers is not to please our egos, but to destroy our ignorance and self-centeredness. As we come to see the benefit of the teachings, we will appreciate our spiritual mentors’ kindness, and that feeling of closeness and gratitude will replace any attachment there may be.