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.

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