How can people in the modern West apply Buddhist teachings to their daily lives? This question—perhaps the central one for many dharma practitioners today—was recently addressed by four reincarnate lamas of the Gelugpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Speaking at a conference hosted by New York’s Tibet Center on June 26-27, the lamas talked about matters ranging from tantric visualization to how to do prostrations. But some of their most interesting comments dealt with human relationships.

Since so many texts warn about the dangers of attachment, some may think of it automatically as a bad thing. Thamthog Rinpoche, a teacher based in Italy, suggested a slightly different attitude for people living in the world: cultivating a “middle way” between high and low levels of attachment, especially in relationships. “With too low a level of attachment,” he said, “you cannot make a relationship.” On the other hand, “if attachment is too high,” people “will always try to control each other. A man will be jealous if the wife even talks to someone else.”

Dagpo Rinpoche, who resides in France, presented a view of the teacher-student relationship that might seem surprising to some. Speaking with Buddhist monk and author the Ven. Gareth Sparham, who translated for the conference, he said, “Some people feel that the teacher has an incredible amount of authority and power. This is very, very mistaken. There is a great deal of freedom in the relationship.

“The Indian word guru comes from the subcontinent,” Dagpo added. “There are many traditions, not only Buddhism, on the subcontinent. Some say every word the guru says is to be taken as truth. In Buddhism, it is not quite that way.” Students always have the freedom, for example, to decline a task if they feel it’s beyond their capacity.

On the other hand, Rinpoche stressed, the teacher-student relationship is considered irrevocable. “There are three relationships you can’t get out of,” he said: those with parents, siblings, and a teacher. For this reason a student should be ready to investigate a teacher carefully and for a long time—possibly as much as twelve years—before enterring into a relationship with him or her.

How can you tell if the teacher is good? “The defining quality is the person’s outlook for himself in this life,” said Dagpo. “If a person is trying to make a big name for himself in this life, that’s not spiritual. A Mahayana teacher must be someone for whom others are more important than oneself.”

One slightly unusual question came from a young woman who asked, “How can I live in harmony with people who are against my study of Buddhism?” Lodro Rinpoche, a lama now living in Switzerland, said, “Buddhism is a religion of the thoughts. It is not necessary to wear Buddhism on one’s sleeve. You can almost lead a secret life.”

The young woman replied that she was living with parents who resented the time she spent on Buddhist studies, and she asked whether she should simply move out. The lamas seemed to find this a hard question to answer: one sensed a certain tension in their minds between the ideals of family loyalty and faithfulness to the dharma. In the end they conceded that she might in fact need to move. “In Buddhist practice, we must feel free,” said Loden Sherap Dagyab Rinpoche, a lama based in Germany.

Although many topics were covered, the underlying tone of the conference was set by the Mahayana teaching of compassion. As Dagpo Rinpoche put it, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all beings were to be free from suffering? This does not happen miraculously; work has to come about. I carry within myself such tremendous potential to alleviate suffering – this thought itself becomes the motivation.”

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