In order to diffuse some tension and confusion within the Paldenshangpa community and dharma students at large, I feel there is a need to re-define the whole concept and relationship between teacher and student as least within our Paldenshangpa lineage .
In general terms, the concept of “master” and “disciple” fosters a certain rigidity and exclusiveness that may mislead students as well as teachers. Students may tend to abdicate personal responsibility for their spiritual path and develop a personal attachment to “my master” or “my lama”. Teachers may subsequently be seduced by the illusion of spiritual authority associated with the idea of “my disciple” or “my student”. Both cases result in an unhealthy attachment and co-dependency which can become an obstacle to spiritual independence, personal empowerment, and natural awakening which are the actual point of our buddhist path.
Once such co-dependency develops, it often becomes impossible for other teachers in the community or whoever it might be, to give students needed instructions – the exclusiveness in the student’s mind blocking such advice. Students may of course respect different teachers according to their personal connections, but it is not appropriate for the student or the teacher themselves to determine the extent of the authority that will operate in their connection within the lineage. Determining and designating such authority is in fact the responsibility of the officially recognized holder of the Shangpa lineage. Such designation does not reflect a measure of respect , which is equally due to any one who has completed three-year retreat, long retreat or long study, but rather clearly separates respect from function.
Respect arises naturally toward any individual who kindly leads us to understanding, be it in the religious, academic, therapeutic and social context. The over-expectation and reverence to a “root teacher” within Tibetan Buddhism can become so solid that even if the “root guru” makes a mistake, students may feel inclined to accept it blindly, losing their discernment which is one of the essential qualities to be cultivated in the Buddhist path.
I feel it is important that students, as awakening individuals, learn to see their teachers – as great as they may be – not only as teachers but as human beings, and not idealize them beyond our commen human experience. This is an important protection for the students as well as the teachers.
Function reflects the tasks related to different needs of the student’s growth as well as the qualities of a teacher toward those specific tasks. If there is no specific function defined, then “lamas or teachers” tend to be considered equally qualified for any and all tasks, leading to either too much expectation from students or to a slide down towardspiritual shopping which happens when students start listening only to the teachers or instructions they like, instead of following the personal spiritual guidance given to them as part of their training process.
In setting up this student-teacher configuration for our Shangpa lineage, I wish to place the student’s development and welfare firmly at the center of our educational dharma activity while the four specific educational roles described below will surround and assist the students in their awakening process. Those roles should not be viewed as linear or hierarchical but rather as cyclic, part of an upward spiral that will continue to awaken, deepen, enrich, and integrate dharma comprehension, realizations and values in students’ daily lives.
Here is how I would like to define and distinquish the roles of teachers in our Paldenshangpa community :
-Dharma instructor/lecturer : Correctly introduce students to basic and common understanding of dharma principles and practices. Dharma lecturers may talk about classic and vajrayana buddhism in order to facilitate and transmit basic buddhist and meditation concepts within the reality of people’s life in their different environments; They may not teach vajrayana visualization or techniques, nor give transmission of refuge vows, or bodhisattva vows .
Dharma instructors are naturally very involved in public and private questions and answers with students. These teachers use their position (function) to continuously refresh the student’s mind and reset them back to the reality of dharma in their specific life. By doing so, Dharma instructors foster openness and comprehension through the different phases of the student’s path.
-Meditation instructor: Carefully transmit to students basic meditation tools such as meditative stability (shine), meditative insight (lhaktong), and open hearted compassion training (lodjong) ; these instructors may not teach vajrayana visualization or techniques, nor give transmission of refuge vows and bodhisattva vows. In general these instructors should have completed the three-year retreat and of course be accredited as such by the holder of the lineage.
The role of the meditation instructor is to give precise meditation techniques related to mental stability and emotional management, making sure that each student can clearly relate them to their experience and life. They use a question and answer format to lead the student to a full comprension of the meditaiton mechanism and a total clearing of doubts related to the specific practice. By doing so, the meditation instructor helps students build the basic “mental” tools necessary to an effective and harmonious daily life as well as to further their deepening of dharma understanding and practice. Through regular checks and revisions, these careful instructors can continue to refine, refresh and reset the student’s mind toward the use of these tools and their purposes.
-Spiritual advisor : Wisely guide or advise dedicated students through their spiritual path, motivations and practices, leading them toward harmonious development of wisdom in their life. The spiritual advisor is authorized to give refuge vows, bodhisattva vows, deep visualization or meditation instructions, and certain level of empowerments as per his/her accreditation from the lineage holder. By doing so, the spiritual advisor ensures the correct emotional and spiritual balance of the student, accompanies them in their awakening process, and leads them to a more refined understanding of the nature of their own mind.
-Jewel of the lineage : Provide ultimate guidance toward awakening. This person is responsible for transmitting the full cycle of Shangpa initiations and practice authorizations; accrediting Shangpa teachers; and accepting Three-year retreat applicants. Jewels of lineage are also responsible for assuring the effectiveness of the overall educational process, and the fine tuning of both students and teachers, freeing their minds from the last obstacles toward their full spiritual independence and understanding.
In the same way that I have received official letters of appointment as the head of the Shangpa lineage, within this lineage, any individual in a teaching position would have to receive an official written confirmation of his/her appointment to their position from the current head of the lineage or one of his jewels.
Apart from the specific roles described in this educational configuration, there are many other important roles that enhance and enrich the spiritual and cultural life of our dharma community – be they of an artistic, linguistic, cultural, social, or administrative nature – it is very important to have appreciation and respect for anyone participating in and supporting the functioning of our lineage community .
While dharma is still very much in a transition between eastern and western cultures. It is of upmost importance to cultivate a mutual appreciation and respect between Asian and Western teachers or students. Asian, or Himalayan teachers should do their best to teach in the language of their resident country and learn western concepts and ways of teaching. Western teachers should do their best to learn from the heart, depth and simplicity of the Asian teachers’ approach. Both should make sure that students, be they from the east or the west, appreciate and understand the validity and complementarity of both approaches in a way that fosters dharma harmony in their heart and in the community.
I have deep hope and expectation that the setting up of this teacher-student configuration will enable students to cycle more freely and more efficiently through their dharma education, as well as make them gradually more independent and self-sustaining in their own spiritual path of self-discovery. Just as the internet transformed modes of communication and broke many old barriers to personal growth, it is my wish that this configuration and approach open and prepare our lineage and students for the enhanced independence and interconnection that are characteristic of this 21st century.