When the spiritual seeker and the teacher come from different cultures, accommodations on both sides are required. But can guru devotion—essential to Tibetan Buddhism and one of the most problematic issues for Westerners—find its place in the West? This question becomes particularly thorny in the United States, where mistrust of authority is historically indigenous and confusion about “the guru” runs rampant. In his new book, Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship (Snow Lion, 2000), Alexander Berzin, Buddhist scholar, translator, and practitioner, maps out this problematic territory with encyclopedic precision and offers practical advice. This excerpt has been adapted from several different chapters for Tricycle.

 A public teaching in a temple courtyard. Courtesy Michael Buckley
A public teaching in a temple courtyard. Courtesy Michael Buckley

The Initial Interaction

The phenomenon of Western Dharma centers—and the arrival of many Tibetan teachers—began in the mid-1970s. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was raging in Tibet, and destruction of the monasteries that had begun in 1959 was nearly complete. Many Tibetan refugees had witnessed India’s border war with China in 1962 and its wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. Indian authorities, unable to support the millions of Bangladeshi refugees they had initially accepted, had sent them back and might easily do the same with Tibetans. Due to tensions in Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan, Tibetan refugees felt insecure there and looked for safer havens in case of emergency.

Several older Tibetan teachers had moved to the West at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s. They had kept a low teaching profile, primarily associated with universities. A few younger Tibetan lamas, however, had also come to the West in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mostly to receive a modern education. Responding to the growing thirst for spiritual guidance, they began to teach Buddhism by the mid-1970s, with some using nontraditional, adaptive methods. They soon invited their own teachers from India and Nepal to tour the West and to inspire their students.

Initially, these great Tibetan masters mostly conducted rituals and tantric initiations. Their primary motivation was to plant seeds of positive potential in the minds of those attending, so that they would reap beneficial results in future lives. But most Westerners had little if any thought of improving future lives. Most came out of curiosity, to fulfill their fantasies of the mystical East, or to find a miracle cure for their problems. The exotic splendor of the rituals enchanted many, and Tibetan Buddhism soon became a fad.

In response to both Western interest and mounting insecurity felt in India and surrounding countries, many Tibetan teachers from both older and younger generations thought to establish a base in the West. Most who came founded their own Dharma centers. No such phenomenon had existed before in the history of Buddhism. Previously, teachers who traveled to lands that were new to Buddhism established only monasteries, not meditation and study facilities for laypeople.

Some of the more dynamic teachers attracted groups in several cities and countries. To meet the growing demand, a few invited geshes and lamas from the Tibetan communities in the Himalayas to live and teach at their centers. Most of these junior teachers would have remained unnoticed in Tibet; circumstances, however, thrust them into positions of spiritual authority normally reserved for those of much higher attainment.

The head lamas and abbots in Tibetan Buddhism do not serve as supervisors for those under their care. Their primary role is to preside over ceremonies and, if a monastic, to ordain monks and nuns. Thus, isolated from their peers and teachers and lacking any checks or balances, many junior teachers in the West adopted a mode of behavior familiar from pre-communist Tibet—they assumed the role of benevolent lord of a spiritual fiefdom to be supported and served with loyal devotion.

On the other side, Western students who returned from India and Nepal mimicked the behavior they had seen Tibetan disciples show toward the highest masters there. When traditional teachings on so-called “guru devotion” and the extremely advanced practice of seeing the mentor as a Buddha were only superficially explained, further confusion was created.

With a new millennium at hand, many Westerners called for a purely Western Buddhism, free of irrelevant religious and cultural trappings of the East. Differentiating the essence from the trappings, however, is never simple. People sometimes discard important factors in haste, without deeply examining the possible effects. Consequently, furious debate flared up between “traditionalists” and “modernists” within the Western Buddhist community. Debates included the language to use for performing ritual practices and the place of belief in rebirth in following the Buddhist path.

Today, the student-teacher relationship as understood and developed in the West needs reexamination. However, any approach at restructuring needs to avoid two extremes. The first is justifying the deification of the teacher to the point that it encourages a cult mentality and whitewashes abuse. The second is justifying the demonization of the teacher to the point that paranoia and distrust prevent the benefits to be gained from a healthy disciple-mentor relationship. In trying to prevent the first extreme, we need great care not to fall to the second.

A legendary disciple and teacher: Milarepa, seated at right, relates his first meditation experience to his teacher, Marpa. Illustration by Amy Soderberg. Courtesy Wisdom Publications, Boston, Mass. From Drinking the Mountain Stream: Songs of Tibet's Beloved Saint, Milarepa, 1995
A legendary disciple and teacher: Milarepa, seated at right, relates his first meditation experience to his teacher, Marpa. Illustration by Amy Soderberg. Courtesy Wisdom Publications, Boston, Mass. From Drinking the Mountain Stream: Songs of Tibet’s Beloved Saint, Milarepa, 1995


The Rectification of Names

Classical Chinese philosophy teaches that difficulties often come from confusion about names. Confucius therefore called for a “rectification of names.” We may extend this principle to spiritual teachers and seekers. If we are sloppy with our use of terms and let anyone call him or herself a guru or a disciple, we open ourselves to unfortunate relationships.

In Personal Instructions from My Totally Excellent Teacher, the outspoken nineteenth-century Nyingma master Patrul indicated that spiritual seekers need to take responsibility themselves. Charlatans and scoundrels may present themselves as great teachers. They may even have professionals launch effective advertising campaigns for their books and lecture tours. Nevertheless, it is up to the public to become their followers. If we set the standards, we will not let imitations fool us.

The most well-known Sanskrit term for a spiritual teacher isguru. Although in several Western countries, the word guru negatively connotes the head of a cult, the term literally means someone weighty with qualifications. Gu is short for guna, good qualities, and ru stands forruchi, a collection. Moreover, gurus are sublime beings, since u stands for uttara, meaning supreme.

The Tibetans translated guru as lama. La means unsurpassable or sublime, while ma means mother. Lamas resemble mothers in that they have given birth internally to what is sublime. Moreover, lamas help others to give birth to a similar state.

As that which is unsurpassed, la refers to bodhichitta—a heart fully focused on enlightenment and totally dedicated to achieving it to benefit others. It derives from love and compassion. Enlightenment is the highest level of spiritual self-development possible, reached with the elimination of every negative trait and with the realization of every positive quality. With its actualization comes Buddhahood and the ability to help others as fully as is possible. Ma connotes wisdom, the mother of all spiritual attainments. Lamas, then, combine a totally dedicated heart with wisdom and are able to lead others to a similar achievement.

The original meaning of a lama, then, is a highly advanced spiritual teacher. Such persons are fully capable of guiding disciples along the entire Buddhist path, all the way to enlightenment. To rectify problems in student-teacher relationships, a spiritual teacher needs to live up to this meaning of the names guru and lama.

Other Uses of the Word Lama

Tibetan Buddhism developed four major traditions—Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug—and spread beyond Tibet to the other Himalayan regions, Mongolia, parts of Siberia, and several other Central Asian cultures. Because of this diversity, the word lama gradually acquired other meanings. One source of confusion about so-called “guru-devotion” comes from thinking that the practice applies to lamas unilaterally.

Many serious practitioners of the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions enter a three-year meditation retreat. During this period, they train in the major Buddha-figure (yidam, deity) systems of their lineage, spend several weeks or months on each tantra system, master its rituals, and familiarize themselves with its meditation practice. The heads of some subdivisions of these lineages have recently started the custom of granting lama as a title to the most proficient graduates of a retreat. In the Gelug tradition, monks who successfully complete rigorous training at one of the tantric monastic colleges near Lhasa receive the name lama, specifically tantric lama, although they do not use the name as a title.

In both cases, lama signifies a ritual master. Although the person has trained in meditation, he or she has not necessarily achieved any spiritual attainment. Nor is the person necessarily qualified to lead others through the Buddhist path. Nevertheless, the person can perform rituals correctly and can instruct others to do so. Among the Tibetans, such lamas serve somewhat like village priests. They travel from village to village and perform rituals for people in their homes.

Persons who are lamas by virtue simply of being ritual masters command respect, but they are not the persons to whom the classical disciple-mentor relationship refers.


Scene of the Buddha's First Sermon, wall painting, Kinnari Cave, Kumtura, China, 8th-9th century CE. Courtesy Staatliche Museen zu Berlin- Preubischer Kulturbesitz, Museum fur Indische Kunst
Scene of the Buddha’s First Sermon, wall painting, Kinnari Cave, Kumtura, China, 8th-9th century CE. Courtesy Staatliche Museen zu Berlin- Preubischer Kulturbesitz, Museum fur Indische Kunst

The Different Types of Spiritual Teachers and Seekers

People at Western Dharma centers often have difficulty relating to spiritual teachers, even properly qualified ones, and are confused by the teaching that they must regard spiritual teachers as Buddhas. They may think that they need to regard all teachers in this way and that they must do so from the start.

To help dispel this confusion, we need to differentiate levels among spiritual teachers. Let us call someone who conveys information about Buddha’s teachings from a withdrawn perspective a “Buddhism professor.” Someone, on the other hand, who imparts the teachings from the point of view of his or her personal experience, shall be named a “Dharma instructor.” A person who trains others in the pragmatic aspects of meditation or ritual practice, we shall call a “meditation or ritual trainer.”

“Spiritual mentor” shall be used for someone who leads others to liberation or enlightenment. Spiritual mentors include “refuge or vow preceptors,” who confer refuge or liberation vows, and “Mahayana masters,” who teach the methods for developing bodhichitta and confer bodhisattva vows. “Tantric master” shall apply to a spiritual mentor who confers initiations and tantric vows. The teacher who turns a seeker’s heart and mind most strongly to the Dharma, we shall refer to as a “root guru.” Most frequently, our root guru is one of our tantric masters.

In conjunction with each type of spiritual teacher, we may formulate a corresponding spiritual seeker. The term “disciple” refers exclusively to those who train for liberation or enlightenment with a spiritual mentor, and certainly not to a newcomer at a Dharma center. Although the purpose of the relationship between any level of spiritual seeker and teacher is to gain inspiration for following the spiritual path, the classical textual presentations of the relationship speak only about disciples and mentors. They do not pertain to prior levels of either of the two.

Seeing All One’s Teachers as Buddhas

Both the sutras and tantras say that we need to regard equally as a Buddha anyone who taught us even one verse of Dharma and someone who taught us the entire spiritual path. In Liberation in the Palm of Our Hand, the early twentieth-century Gelug fundamentalist Pabongka cited the meditation master Drubkang Geleg-gyatso as having been unable to receive any realization until he could see the pure appearance of the disrobed nun who taught him to read. Westerners frequently have difficulty with this example because they interpret it to mean that unless they see their kindergarten teacher as a Buddha, they will not make progress on the spiritual path. Although seeing everyone as a Buddha is helpful for realizing Buddha-nature, the instructions on building a disciple-mentor relationship pertain only to one’s spiritual mentors.

In general, once we have built a disciple-mentor relationship with one teacher, we need to regard and treat all our spiritual teachers, even our previous Buddhism professors, with the same respect as we show our mentor. Before that, when we are still relating to a teacher as our Buddhism professor or Dharma instructor, we show the person respect, but regarding him or her as we would a spiritual mentor and seeking instruction on tantric practice is inappropriate.

The instruction to see one’s spiritual mentor as a Buddha was never intended to be taken literally. The point is to see Buddha-nature—the factors allowing for enlightenment—in one’s mentor, and to gain inspiration to realize Buddha-nature within oneself.


In A Lamp for the Definitive Meaning (Torch of Certainty), the nineteenth-century nonsectarian master Kongtrul correlated an essential element of bodhichitta meditation with guru-meditation. To develop the wish to benefit all beings entails recognizing everyone as having been our mother in some previous life and focusing on our mother’s kindness. Similarly, guru-meditation for gaining inspiration requires focusing on our mentor’s kindness.

Many Westerners, however, have difficulty focusing on the kindness of their mother. One of the reasons may be that she fails to live up to our model of an ideal parent. Similarly, when our spiritual mentor has shortcomings and does not live up to our model of an ideal teacher, we may also have difficulty recognizing his or her kindness.

Our emotional block in appreciating the kindness of our less-than-perfect mentor may derive from a fault in mental labeling. Madhyamaka philosophy explains that words and concepts of knowable general phenomena, such as kindness, are mental labels that refer to a broad set of specific examples. If, however, we have a fixed idea of what kindness is, then we grasp at “kindness” to refer to only one specific form of kindness.

For instance, we may have a mental picture of an ideal spiritual mentor—one who spends all his or her time exclusively on us with loving warmth and affection like our ideal mother or father would. Our spiritual mentor, however, may have many other disciples besides us and may not be particularly demonstrative of physical warmth. Moreover, in a society that is particularly hypersensitive to possible sexual harassment, our mentor may choose to be reserved in showing affection. He or she shows kindness in taking meticulous care of our spiritual needs and in teaching us with consistent dedication and enthusiasm despite our being less than a perfect student. To appreciate our mentor’s kindness and gain inspiration from it in guru-meditation, we need to expand any restricted concept of kindness we may have.

Transforming Negative Circumstances into Positive Ones

Another aspect of seeing mentors as Buddhas is to take all their actions as teachings, even if some actions are, in fact, faulty or destructive. Thus, in establishing a close bond with a spiritual mentor, specifically with a tantric master, we agree to refrain from becoming angry or disrespectful of our teacher, regardless of what he or she may say or do. Even if our mentor acts unethically or causes harm, we try to learn a lesson from it. The lesson may simply be to restrain from acting destructively like this ourselves.

Learning a lesson from the faulty behavior of one’s mentor does not mean denying that the behavior was faulty. If we find the fault unbearable, we may follow the advice of The Kalachakra Tantra and decide to keep a distance from the teacher. Nevertheless, a healthy attitude is to maintain respect for the person’s good qualities.

Beyond Good and Bad

Many Kagyu and Nyingma texts discuss a tantric or Dzogchen master’s behavior as beyond good or bad. They are not speaking, however, about what an action, such as abuse, conventionally is, or what effects such an action produces. Buddhism does not relativize everything to the point that all phenomena lose their conventional identity. Abusive behavior damages both the perpetrator and the victim. Beyond good or bad means that, from a Buddha’s point of view, all actions are beyond the dualistic categories of independently good or bad. It is not a denial of cause and effect. Otherwise, a Buddha’s enlightening actions could not benefit anyone.

Properly qualified tantric or Dzogchen masters, then, would always refrain from abusive behavior. Especially if they are in the public eye, they would also refrain from acting in conventionally destructive ways so that no one would lose faith in Buddhism. In fact, such teachers promise to uphold this guideline as one of their secondary bodhichitta vows.

Thus, the practice of seeing one’s tantric mentor as a Buddha in no way negates the conventional validity of appearances. An appearance of an abusive spiritual mentor as having inherent flaws is ultimately invalid because inherent existence, independent of anything, is impossible. No one is inherently bad. Nevertheless, the appearance may be conventionally valid concerning the fact that the behavior of the abusive teacher has caused suffering. All Tibetan traditions accept a valid distinction between accurate and distorted conventional truths.

Self-Destructive Actions Regarding a Spiritual Mentor

Sometimes there are disastrous self-destructive actions regarding a spiritual teacher, and they fall into three categories. The first is building a relationship with a misleading teacher. Second is disbelieving the good qualities that a mentor actually has and thinking with a distorted, antagonistic attitude about them. The third is relating distortedly with a properly qualified mentor, a violation of the first root tantric vow to avoid scorning or deriding one’s tantric master.

A misleading teacher is someone ruled by disturbing emotions, such as attachment, anger, or naïvete; who pretends to have qualities that he or she lacks; and who hides actual shortcomings. Moreover, such a person has a weak sense of ethics, teaches only for personal gain, and gives incorrect information and instruction. Naïve spiritual seekers may incorrectly consider some of the person’s faults as assets and ascribe good qualities that he or she lacks. Consequently, they build a distorted relationship that is based on deception.

Thinking with a distorted, antagonistic attitude is one of the ten fundamentally destructive actions described in Buddhism. It means to deny or repudiate what is true about someone or something and entails planning to spread one’s prejudiced opinion to others. Here, it refers to denying or repudiating the good qualities that a spiritual mentor actually has and planning to spread false information about the person. This destructive way of thinking, then, goes far beyond merely disbelieving a mentor’s good qualities.


Although devotion is an improper translation of tenpa—the Tibetan word for building a healthy, trustful relationship with a spiritual mentor—nevertheless, the Western phenomenon of devotion often occurs in the relationship. Devotion is a complex emotion, but one of its aspects is the uplifting feeling derived from a loss of self in awe of something greater.

In its classical form, devotion occurs with a leap of faith. This form of devotion sometimes brings problems, because devotees may project the entire unconscious side of their personality.

If Western disciples project as a shadow an unknowable unconscious onto a mentor and lose themselves in adoration and awe, the result may be a serious block to a healthy relationship. One may lose all sense of a conventional “me” and become dependent on an idolized mentor whom one can only worship and adore. Moreover, viewing the mentor’s qualities and actions as an unknowable mystery—beyond all thought, conception, words, and sense of good or bad—may open one to possible abuse.

Showing Respect to a Western Spiritual Teacher

The procedures of guru-meditation apply equally to Tibetan and Western spiritual teachers. However, the manner of showing respect to the teacher may need to differ. General customs of politeness, such as being quiet and attentive when a teacher enters the classroom, suit any society. However, certain ritual Asian forms of showing respect, such as making prostrations, may be uncomfortable.

A sincere expression of respect needs to arise naturally. A mentor needs to let Western disciples express their respect in their own way and to learn to read the language that the disciples use. Most Westerners value freedom of choice. To express their respect in an emotionally comfortable manner, they need a choice of acknowledged ways that do not make them feel like a fool or like a shallow imitator of foreign ways.

In Summary

The tantras unanimously agree that the inspiration gained from a healthy disciple-mentor relationship is a source of true joy and spiritual attainment. However, when misunderstood and mixed with confusion, the relationship becomes unhealthy and may give rise to spiritual devastation and emotional pain. Misunderstanding may occur on the side of the disciple, the mentor, or both; and cultural factors may often add to the confusion.

Many people, disillusioned or outraged at failures in the disciple-mentor relationship in the West, have called for a serious revision. Revision, however, does not require overturning tradition and inventing something entirely new. Revision may come from clearing away confusion about Buddha’s teachings and about the cultural factors unconsciously affecting the thought and behavior of each party in the relationship. When Westerners are involved, imprecise or misleading translation terms frequently worsen the confusion. To build healthy disciple-mentor relationships and to heal the wounds that may have occurred from unhealthy ones, a rectification of names, together with cultural sensitivity, may help to bring emotional clarity.

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