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A TEACHER TELLS US WHY
Question: What if I don’t have direct access to a teacher? What can I do to practice and progress?
Answered by Thubten Yeshe (T.Y.)
This is a common issue for students living far from Dharma centers and for those whose teachers are not easily accessible. Without centers and teachers we usually do not have a community of fellow practitioners. Aside from not being able to easily receive teachings, this leaves us without an opportunity for discussion and debate of the teachings. Without discussion and debate it is difficult for us to assess our own understanding, insights and progress. And, it is difficult (sometimes impossible) for us to dispel our doubts and find answers to our questions.
We take in and integrate the teachings through listening (study), reflection and meditation. We first encounter Buddhist teachings through the medium of words. In the 21st century that may be through reading or listening, in person or on the internet. This need not be merely an intellectual process. Even at this first stage, we can take in the words with a mind that is in a contemplative state. If we do, we have already initiated the process of integration. We might think of this as deep listening, truly hearing the teachings on an inner level.
However we take them in initially, we must then deepen our understanding. This happens through analysis and contemplation; we reflect on what we have heard. To enhance this reflection, we might engage in discussion and debate with our teachers and fellow students. We utilize structured contemplative exercises. We expand the scope of our study through reading other texts and commentaries on the same subject.
In his book Becoming Enlightened, His Holiness the Dalai Lama states, “By analyzing without bias you will be capable of seeing advantages and disadvantages.” Further on, he continues, “For this you need to begin with doubt; from doubt, you will question; from questioning, you will analyze; from analysis, the truth will become clear and whatever is untrue will fade. Doubting induces questioning, which induces analysis, which induces ascertainment. In this process, doubt is crucial.”
Doubt is an essential aspect of our practice and should not be suppressed, but rather embraced. A healthy skepticism can lead us into incredibly interesting and significant examinations of the teachings, thus deepening our understanding and forming the basis for transformative insight and a firm commitment to the teachings.
In this way, through these various forms of cognitive processes, we strengthen our understanding and generate insight at a deep level. When these insights begin to shift our thinking and become more intuitive, we use non-conceptual single-pointed meditation to integrate them fully in our mental continuum. With practice, these insights become stable realizations that transform our minds and lives.
Having face-to-face access to a teacher can greatly assist in this process. It can also be a challenge. Our relationship with a teacher can powerfully upend our cherished world view which we often don’t recognize until it is challenged. And, it challenges our cherished view of ourselves. This is not an easy part of spiritual practice, but it is an extremely important and fruitful one. Sadly, if we do not have ready access to teachers, we may only experience a diluted version of this important part of spiritual practice. Sitting in front of a mirror debating with ourselves will rarely cut through our misconceptions and doubts! It might even reinforce them.
Equally, if we merely engage through reading or listening and our own personal reflection, we may just dismiss the challenging bits and miss an opportunity to deepen our understanding and to grow up.
Even if we do have access to centers and teachers, we often do not take full advantage of them, allowing ourselves to be challenged and, thus, transforming our minds. Our teachers, even the Buddha himself, cannot implant spiritual insights and realizations in our minds. Our teachers can only give us the means to do it ourselves. Then, we have to bite the bullet and do the work that our kind teachers have laid out for us. So, do not think that merely having access to teachers and a spiritual community will make this process easy. It will not. This is the rub. In some ways it may make it more difficult. Something very strong within us (the ego perhaps?) does not relish being challenged.
Also, because everything is there and access is easy, we might have a tendency to get a bit lazy and slack, falling back into our comfort zone. We go along to teachings, maybe even meditations and discussions, but when we leave the center we also leave the Dharma behind. We may make a separation between our spiritual practice and the rest of our lives. There must be no separation; they must be completely integrated. If we do not ground our listening, reflecting and meditating in our daily life and relationships – moment to moment – insights will come very slowly, if at all.
In the FPMT, we have excellent resources for those who are in remote areas without easy access to centers, teachers and Dharma communities.
Whenever possible it is a good idea for these students to use the internet – especially fpmt.org and its centers’ websites, and the websites for specific teachers such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Look for teachings that you might be able attend; also seek out teachings from teachers such as His Holiness or FPMT teachers that are available for download, or on CDs and DVDs. There is a wealth of material available on the internet.
However, it is, of course, always advisable for students to carefully check the sources of those teachings. Information about many reliable teachers can be found on fpmt.org and on the web sites of FPMT centers. Links to those centers can be found on the FPMT’s website.
In general, there are many opportunities for making progress in one’s Dharma practice within FPMT’s online offerings. The “Education” section on the FPMT home page will open up a vast array of courses ranging from introductory to advanced levels. Many of these are offered in home study and online versions, and new online material is becoming available in a steady stream.
Students studying online will find that many of the courses, such as Discovering Buddhism and the Basic Program, have two components that help to answer the needs of students without access to teachers and fellow students. These are the discussion forums and the assessment processes, which are both available to all online students. Unfortunately, many of the students doing these programs appear to be unwilling to take up the challenge of engaging with these opportunities. This is disappointing because these students are limiting their ability to progress rapidly in their spiritual growth. Both the online forums and the assessments are moderated by Elders qualified in the relevant program who can answer questions, help dispel doubts and assist students through some of the difficult issues that might arise.
By engaging fully in these programs – including discussion and assessments – many of the disadvantages of being a remote student are alleviated. But you, the student, must take up these advantageous opportunities yourself. Buddha can’t do it for you.
Thubten Yeshe (T.Y.), a student of Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche since 1974, studied in Nepal and India until 1979, during which time she was ordained as a Buddhist nun. She remained a nun for nine years. T.Y. has received teachings over the years from many lamas, including Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche, Geshe Ngawang Dargyey, Kyabje Song Rinpoche, Ribur Rinpoche, Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Since those early days, she has lived and worked in FPMT centers around the world. In 1985, she moved to Australia, where she teaches, lead retreats and engages in other work within the FPMT. T.Y. also serves as an Elder for the FPMT Online Learning Center.
Ask a Lama
For this issue’s “Ask a Lama” installment, Mandala spoke with Yangsi Rinpoche at his budding Buddhist University, Maitripa Institute. A Lharampa Geshe from Sera Je and Gyume Colleges in India, Rinpoche opened Maitripa in January 2006 and serves as both President and professor.
Where are all the Western geshes, khenpos, drupons, and lamas? I’m concerned about the lack of fully-qualified Western teachers. – Rinchen Gyatso, Rosemead, CA.
Two things are happening right now: one is that Western students have completed all the necessary training and have come out with the label of “qualified” or “ready to teach.” Then, there is the other side where, due to individual karmic relationships, the teacher just naturally builds up the necessary qualities, but is not trained in the traditional way. In terms of individual students, you can relate to someone as “this is my teacher, I see he/she as qualified,” but as for society, at this moment, all the traditions are trying to standardize that status.
For me, personally speaking, there are a lot of qualified Western teachers, ordained and non-ordained, but right now the West is a “crossed place”; even though some qualified teachers exist, there’s not this box where people can categorize who is qualified and who is not.
The Geshe qualifications, etc., were founded in Tibetan culture. In the West, you need to adopt a standard in line with your own culture. Already established are the seeds, but the growing hasn’t been completed. The standardization may not go exactly how it went in Tibet and India; once the Dharma is more related with Western culture, it will shape its own identity.
In regards to the foundation for a qualified teacher, if a person is really knowledgeable but lacks compassion and patience in how they relate with students, then I think everything is not so beneficial. If the teacher, whoever that it, has the knowledge and on top of that has compassion and patience toward the students, and of course does this without ego and so forth, then pretty much they’re qualified. Basically, there are ten qualities mentioned in the Lam-Rim – only ten, not hundreds of qualities! If an individual reads and takes responsibility for this, and if that person can handle those ten things, then that’s it, they’re qualified.
In terms of training Westerners to teach tantra, one thing I see is that the Western attitude towards learning needs everything to be explained, everything needs to be laid out. If that mentality stays very strong and dominates their mind, it can be a little bit difficult to become a tantric practitioner. There are so many things beyond our explanation. Some Westerners are already great practitioners, but generally speaking, the scientific mind can create some obstacles. And tantrayana is like poetry; from a scientific point of view it doesn’t make sense. Individuals who can have both minds simultaneously, that is good for making a qualified teacher.
When looking for a teacher, if you have a very conditional mind but at the same time are really wishing to find a teacher, you will be limited in finding someone who can help you. Be very open. I see in the West the “I” being in the center – this is “my” teacher – you are still in the center, like the teacher is a protection or a buffer. It is important for that relationship to not be like a projector, where you project something onto the relationship and see everything there. The relationship of student and teacher is something that grows and grows. And during that time, it won’t be like a perfect picture, you just need to naturally let it grow; don’t be so tight.
Basically, there are three qualities of a master: understanding well the right qualities; having discipline in applying those qualities; and having a very respectful attitude toward students, treating your students like your teachers. Once you have these three qualities, there is no doubt you are trained. There are a lot of students now who are very intelligent and very enthusiastic, so there will be many qualified teachers in the future, definitely.
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