The Teacher / Student Relationship
The purpose of having a Teacher/Lama is to learn the yoga methods of liberation, to reveal a wisdom mind. This very intimate relationship takes place at the most vulnerable level of one’s being. It requires great courage and commitment on both the teacher and the student’s side, and so it is not automatically assumed that this relationship will manifest.
When people very much admire teachers like His Holiness the Dalai Lama or the Karmapa, they may be tempted to call such highly realized Masters their teachers but in a real student-teacher relationship, we are known and we will be challenged. Our pride, anger, ignorance and attachment will be revealed slowly or in some cases startlingly fast.
As students, we want to be as open as possible. We show everything to the teacher including our pain, questions, struggles, doubts and insights. But as mature students, our expectations are not that Lama Jinpa will fix us or do the work for us. Lama la will give us homework and instruction based on who we are and where we are on the path, and as serious students we follow through.
We trust and show respect by listening to his advice. We understand that it will not always be easy and we are not passive. We are willing to be exposed not only to our teacher but to ourselves.
And as we travel along the path, the waves of dark and light become quicker and quicker. And if we are especially brave, we allow our hearts to be opened. The teacher is here to help us with this process. Our heart is like a seed that needs the right conditions, if a sprout is to form. The teacher nurtures the seed by creating an environment that has just the right amount of challenge mixed with compassion and wisdom. Complete liberation is possible if we do the work and follow our teacher’s advice.
In some ways, a Lama/Teacher is like an AA Sponsor in a recovery program. He intimately understands our struggles because at one point, he was in our same shoes and like a sponsor, he is passing along what he learned. However, while similar to sponsor, Lama Jinpa is far more. He is not an ordinary person. He is a realized being. What does it mean to be realized? It means that Lama la is awake to both relative and absolute bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is a spontaneous wish to attain enlightenment motivated by great compassion for all sentient beings accompanied by a falling away of the attachment to the illusion of an inherently existing self.
This does not mean that he walks on water or knows how to fix a computer. And it does not mean Lama Jinpa doesn’t have any negative emotions such as situational sadness. It means that he does not suffer from delusional or conflicted ideas about those negative emotions and it means he is awake to his faults. The sun is always there but he is realistic about the clouds. Lama la has normal human needs. He needs to rest and he needs to eat.
And it is also important to understand that like everybody else, teachers have conventional idiosyncrasies. It is fine to tell Lama la, “You forgot to call…” or “You said this…one time and now you are saying this…” What is important is the tone we use when questioning Lama la. It should never be accusatory. At the same time, we should not have a naive approach, blindly following whatever Lama Jinpa says without question. We want to be in the middle, a place of gentle investigation.
The truth is, the way we work with Lama la is the way we work with others. In our tradition, we do practice on the outer person (Lama Jinpa) until eventually we internalize it. While seemingly simple and so obvious, when we don’t know, it is not so obvious. There have been teacher scandals in America at other centers. People naively and idealistically followed unethical teachers who were not following the Buddha’s path. Some students became victims of physical, economic, sexual and verbal abuse. This is very tragic and sad. Teachers, the same as students, should follow the precepts.
An Awake / Realized Being in the Role of a Teacher
There is a saying in our tradition, “If you see your Lama as a Buddha, you get the blessings of a Buddha. If you see your Lama as a Bodhisattva, you get the blessings of a Bodhisattva, and if you see your Lama as ordinary, you get the blessings of an ordinary being.”
It’s essential to understand that the title “Lama” does not automatically mean Awake. A Teacher is a role. Sometimes teachers are Awake and sometimes not. Awake beings do not always take on the role of teacher. Awake beings also choose the roles of street sweepers, therapists, accountants and so on. We consider ourselves so fortunate at Lion’s Roar Dharma Center to learn from Awake/Realized beings who have taken on the role of Teacher. As serious students who wish to have a productive relationship with Lama Jinpa, it is helpful to have a clear understanding about who Lama Jinpa is and who he is not. Lama la is not a therapist, buddy, mom, dad, lover, boyfriend, husband, consultant or confidant; He is a Realized Teacher who through skillful means gives us opportunities to practice. For example, Lama la may praise us one day but on another day criticize us. He uses the language of criticism to help us learn patience. Instead of reacting to this criticism, we learn to surrender to deep, quiet listening and in this way begin to break apart our habitual, destructive patterns of relating with the world.
Meeting with the Teacher (Darshan)
As we progress along the path, there comes a time when we are ready to meet with Lama Jinpa and receive personal instruction. This meeting is called a darshan. Darshan is a Sanskrit word that means “seeing”, and is a term for a formal practice interview with a teacher. Darshan is a sacred meeting between student and teacher. It is for those refuge students who have made a strong commitment to do formal training, meditation/yoga practices, and embrace the values of a bodhisattva, one who compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others.
The format of this meeting is important to understand. Darshan begins with the simple, beautiful protocol of offering a khata, making a suggested donation, and taking refuge. We then share the virtuous formal practice we are doing (e.g., Shamatha, Lojong, Deity practice, Mahamudra) and describe evidence of the results of this practice. Lama la wants to hear the positive results first (e.g., “I became more peaceful…focused…”). The student then shares the obstacles that arise during their practice (e.g., “When I try to become more peaceful, I notice I have a lot of thoughts or I struggle with feelings of anger, anxiety or boredom…”). Lama then comments on our experience, and we have a conversation, an exchange.
It is only after this, that post-meditation practice (daily life) is discussed. Our approach is to consider how the teachings apply to daily life.
We don’t want to waste this opportunity complaining about ourselves or others. And we don’t want to passively sit there, waiting for the teacher to give us answers or tell us what to do. Darshan is a time to ask Lama Jinpa questions and listen to his advice. What things am I not seeing? What dharma practice would be useful here? What practices would be appropriate to use for my obstacle? Sometimes students forget. They get lost. Instead of dharma, they go back to using old, more familiar conventional-world approaches to their problems. Lama Jinpa helps students remember.
We conclude our darshan with Migtsema, a prayer composed by the founder of our lineage, the famous Tibetan Teacher, Je Tsongkhapa in honor of his own teacher Rendawa Shyonnu Lodro. Rendawa then dedicated the same prayer back to Je Rinpoche. The reason that we conclude our darshan with Migtsema is to remind ourselves of our lineage and to remind ourselves of our commitment to remember with gratitude what we have been given.
A teacher student relationship is comparable to the relationship a novice musician would have with a master musician such as Yo-Yo Ma. There is respect and appreciation. And there is a sacred quality. Together, the devoted student and Teacher present realizations to each other and mutually celebrate the world of happiness and freedom. It is a great misunderstanding to approach such a relationship frivolously. We are so blessed that Lama Jinpa is available to meet with us in this way. Traditionally, students often see their teacher far less frequently. There are many stories of students waiting years and traveling long distances at great personal sacrifice only to see their teacher for a few minutes. We must keep this in mind when we attend darshan. It is truly an incredible opportunity.
Before calling to schedule a darshan, speak with one of Lama la’s attendants (Annette, Teruko or Patty). They will give guidelines on what to expect and how to approach Lama la. Then to schedule this appointment, call Middle Way Health at 916-492-9007 and indicate to the receptionist the purpose of the call.
Lama Jinpa understands that not everyone is ready for this level of commitment and for this reason is open to scheduling short 15 minute sessions prior to and after his formal teachings on Sunday mornings. For beginners, this type of meeting may be more appropriate. If you would like a Sunday morning meeting, please let one of the attendants know and they will help you schedule an appointment.
The Role of an Attendant
Lama la’s attendants are an extension of his enlightened action. This means that they ensure that Lama la has everything necessary for whatever intention he has. One way they do this is by providing assistance much in a way that a personal assistant does to a CEO of a company. They relay messages from members of the Sangha to Lama la, schedule Sunday morning darshan meetings, give beginners guidelines on what to expect and how to approach Lama la during darshan, bring Lama la food and beverages, ensure his safety, hold his belongings while he prostrates, as well as perform whatever tasks or practices necessary to make Lama’s efforts more effective at reaching and serving all sentient beings.
Because they spend so much time near Lama, it may seem that attendants have a “special student” status and/or that there is a higher level of intimacy between Lama and the attendants. This is not the case. One of the Brahma Viharas is Equanimity, the freedom from keeping some close while others distant. Lama la, as an Awake teacher, shares the same level of intimate teaching with all of his students.
The role the attendants fulfill is not of buddies, lovers, “special students,” or yes-men. It is a serving role, for the sake of all sentient beings, so that Lama la’s enlightened activity can reach as many of them as possible.
The Practice of Generosity Dana/ Donations/ Offerings
Westerners often ask, “Why do we make offerings to the teacher?” Generosity is the first of the Six Paramitas. Generous giving is based on a mutual exchange. We receive the gift of dharma, more precious than gold and in return for this priceless gift, we give the gift of dana.
Psychologically, giving serves another purpose as well. Through giving, we learn that we have value. Sometimes people feel that they don’t have anything to offer. They have low self-esteem and feel spiritually poor. Others have inflated self-esteem, feel entitled and don’t want to make any effort or sacrifice. And still others imagine a “real” Lama should live on air, wear a hair shirt and shouldn’t need to accept money. But all these approaches are flawed in that they are obstacles to a simple truth. We are so fortunate to be able to give! Places like India, Haiti, Mexico, and Bangladesh remind us how wealthy we are. Here in the west, we have both material wealth and leisure time which enable us to study and hear the dharma
Lama la wishes to ensure there is no barrier between you and him. If after cutting out all unnecessary luxuries you genuinely don’t have the financial resources to give the gift of dana, please talk with one of Lama Jinpa’s attendants. Lama la is able to make time outside traditional darshan to meet with people who sincerely cannot afford a donation on Sunday mornings.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Don’t argue in front of Lama.
- Don’t direct or project your anger on Lama.
- Do ask Lama questions about your practice.
- Do ask Lama about his actions and decisions with openness and respect, not accusations and attacks.
- When Lama has reached a decision, give that decision weight, try to fulfill it and don’t continue to debate.
- When in the presence of Lama, don’t have side conversations. (This includes in nearby doorways and hallways.)
- When spending time with Lama, in an informal setting, such as before or after service, do consider that others would like the same opportunity. A five to ten minute visit is typically appropriate in order to allow others this chance.
- When in a group setting, do be aware that others also wish to share their thoughts and ask questions. Be mindful not to monopolize the conversation.
- When Lama speaks, listen. Don’t interrupt.
- It is traditional to ask an attendant or Lama for permission to approach and visit.
- When Lama enters a room, do cease talking and stand with respect.
- Don’t directly or indirectly demand Lama’s time.
- Don’t expect a reply to every email.
- Do know that it is okay to send a second email and remind Lama of your question.
- Do know that all of your emails are read.
- Do contact administration or an attendant if your message is time sensitive and you have not heard back.
- Do bring a khata, donation and notebook when going to darshan.
Lion’s Roar Dharma Center’s Lineage Teachers
Jhado Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe Jinpa, Geshe Damchoe and other great Masters have manifested in Sacramento. How amazing! It is an incredible gift to be able to spend time with such highly realized, Awake teachers. We must not take them for granted! Teachers stay and visit Lion’s Roar Dharma Center, not because of our beautiful temple building but because of their compassion for us and because of our love and devotion for them.