• Claire Villarreal, PhD

Who's your teacher?

As teacher after teacher is revealed to have abused their students, I can't help but wonder: What does this role of "teacher" do for us, anyway?  Why do we seem so eager to have someone to look to, when the risks of trusting such a person are becoming increasingly clear?


In Tibetan Buddhism, the figure of the guru ("lama" is the Tibetan translation of "guru") is very important; in fact, traditionally a lot of folks would doubt that it's even possible to wake up fully without "relying on" a human teacher.  When I first started studying (but not yet practicing) Tibetan Buddhism, I was both fascinated by the role of the lama and also super skeptical.  Honestly, I started by interpreting the whole guru focus as a great way to control and manipulate students.


But now that I've been practicing for years in the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, I understand the emphasis on the lama differently -- because of the way my own lamas have explained and modeled it to me.  The lama's job isn't to enlighten us (a job even the buddhas can't do for us) so much as to channel all the wisdom they've received from their own spiritual lineage, offer that to us, and nudge us to see that ultimately it's our own buddha nature that will rise to the surface as we do our inner work.


So how does this process work?  Of course, we all need some external guidance and structure in the beginning to help us find our groove in meditation and the spiritual life, and these days it's easy to find all kinds of content: books, guided meditation tracks, videos, friends who are familiar with practice, etc.  And as we start putting the instructions into practice, it can feel as though we've discovered a magical power that everyone has but most folks have never explored.  It's difficult not to grab onto the instructions, the teachers, the traditions that have helped us get started on this path if we're getting a lot of benefit from those external teachers, and just as an athlete would keep training with coaches to continue to develop, we'll continue to benefit from external instruction.


As we become more familiar with practice, though, and more connected with our inner wisdom, we may find that inner wisdom becoming more of a guide for our practice, so that we no longer lean so heavily on one tradition or teacher (if we ever stuck to just one).  Optimally our engagement with that practice context has given us the structure we needed to begin to lean into our deep wisdom, but when our deep inner being nudges us to explore other possibilities from that established root of our practice, our job is to listen.


The way this works in Tibetan Buddhism is that a student would spend time (lots and lots of time) doing Guru Yoga, Deity Yoga, and other practices to take in the external image of the lama as a conduit for blessings and realization, all the while receiving the instruction that the lama simply holds and reflects our own already-buddha nature.  This isn't some simplistic idea that there's no spiritual work to be done because we're already perfect.  On the contrary, we might begin to glimpse our deep nature here and there in practice, then here and there in life off the cushion, but those glimpses serve at once to help us trust that awakened nature and to realize how far our lived experience typically is from what it could be.


The path, then, becomes less a way of transforming ourselves from the mess we started out as into some amazing spiritual superhero and more a way of cultivating our ability to see ourselves clearly, to live into our most real nature on a daily basis.  The more we connect with this deep inner nature, the more we realize that it's what's always been drawing us to our spiritual teacher, that it's what we saw in our teachers before we could see it in ourselves.  This deep wisdom doesn't belong to our teachers, and it doesn't belong to us; it's the very fabric of the universe we live in, and as we continue to practice, the path itself becomes more about learning to trust our basic nature than about reading one more book or taking one more course or retreat.

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