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Eventually, I worked with him while in retreat over a hundred-day period. At that time, I realized I hadn’t met anyone since Trungpa Rinpoche who could sense where I was stuck. I was very good at conning everyone and talking about not getting hooked, but Rinpoche somehow had this great ability to hook me. I knew we must have a really old karmic connection. I felt so grateful to have met him, so I asked if he would take me as his student, and he accepted. And he’s continued to mess with me ever since.

Elizabeth Namgyel: Why is it so important in Buddhism to have a teacher?
Pema Chödrön: When you’re with a teacher, their wisdom resonates with your wisdom. It transcends the two personalities. Being with them connects you with your buddhanature. No one can tell you who your teacher is. It’s a completely personal thing based on karma. It’s like falling in love with someone.

The most important requirements for a teacher are to know you well, see where you’re holding on, and be able to create circumstances that highlight your grasping. Situations emerge that allow you to see where you’re stuck. Because it’s happening with your dharma teacher, you don’t run away when you’re insulted or uncomfortable, and that’s the real value. You hang in there and they help you through it.

Elizabeth Namgyel: Since having a teacher is such a unique relationship, what attitude should students take toward a teacher?

Pema Chödrön: In It’s Up to You, the primary focus is self-reflection. Rinpoche has said that whether you have a teacher or not, the key is self-reflection. You need to be interested in reflecting on yourself, and also willing not to bail out. Because when you look at yourself closely, you will see not merely your wisdom-mind, you will also see your craziness, neuroses, and lack of kindness.

To obtain enlightenment you need a deep heart-connection to someone whose sole motivation is waking you up. Without the strong connection, when your buttons get pushed and it’s really tough, you’re automatically going to feel betrayed and disliked. Just when you think the teacher is your best friend, they don’t look at you, they don’t call on you. Yet, it is a relationship of the deepest intimacy, because all of your secrets are exposed, to yourself if not to anybody else.

What I’m describing is devotion. It’s a relationship you stick with, through thick and thin, in order to obtain enlightenment. And it’s based on a love that can withstand strong challenges.

Dzigar Kongtrül: There are teachers you meet with whom you feel a very strong connection. You feel quite moved by the teacher’s qualities and presence, their sense of accomplishment. This is the nature of devotion at the beginning of one’s path.

Over time, though, being a student involves training in the path of dharma. One learns not merely in the academic sense of knowing what the teachings are, but also in the sense of learning how to integrate your mind with the teachings. As a result, a transformation may take place in your mind, such that you have more freedom from conflicting emotions, which in the past may have left you completely clueless. You may not be successful in overcoming them every time you are challenged, but at least you have some positive results in working with them.

This causes you to be grateful to the teacher, and you can extend that gratitude to the lineage masters, and ultimately to the Buddha. The gratitude can also extend to appreciating difficult circumstances you face, because they can transform you. You can feel that kind of appreciation toward people who cause you pain or difficulty. You can feel quite free to have that kind of widespread gratitude because you are not being oppressed by your own mind and the unpredictable mess you had been trapped in.

This gratitude is important, because it undercuts self-importance—the sense that it is me who has these great qualities and me who has worked so hard to achieve them—which threatens to destroy all that one accomplishes or cultivates.

Pema Chödrön: Can you say something about your own teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, challenging you, in the way I was talking about?

Dzigar Kongtrül: I quite often felt challenged by my teacher’s command or simple presence, or what I perceived as displeasure. Sometimes it was just silence, or the teacher looking at me with a certain deep penetration. Yet, I wonder whether it was actually the teacher’s intention to challenge. I think my own mind was projected onto the teacher. I would hold a judgment and project that onto the teacher. In fact, I was dealing with my own mind and its habits, including negative habits that I was not ready to give up, despite the fact that they were dragging me down. There was a dualism going on in my mind: I wanted to be good and then found myself not so good. I wanted to impress the teacher but was not able to because I could not be free of certain thoughts and emotions.

A few times I thought my teacher was quite upset with me, and when I looked into it further I found that he had no judgment whatsoever! Because I thought things were so bad and I was terrified of being confronted, when I found it wasn’t such a big deal, I felt a deep sense of the teacher’s acceptance and love and care, like you would feel from a mother. But it was more than a mother’s care. There was not only acceptance but a sense of not being disturbed altogether. That was wonderful.

In the beginning of the relationship with the teacher, there is maybe a little bit of codependency. Later, when the codependency gets resolved, there is a sense of being a team, a sense of kinship. In my case, it was truly a delight to discuss the dharma, to learn more about how to practice the dharma. At that point, it’s not one person trying to teach another. It’s both parties trying to do the same thing.

When I saw so closely my teachers’ deep appreciation for dharma and their one-hundred-percent conviction in its ability to bring sentient beings to a state of liberation, I felt great joy in sharing that with them. When that happens, your love for dharma begins to equal their love of dharma, and that becomes the basis for deep kinship.

Pema Chödrön: That’s precisely what I was talking about earlier. It isn’t that the teacher messes with you exactly. It’s simply that being in their presence heightens your sense of where you’re stuck. We call it devotion because when that happens you don’t run away. You get to the point where you feel there’s nothing you could do that would cause the teacher to give up on you.

Elizabeth Namgyel: Pema, why have you chosen to write a commentary on The Way of the Bodhisattva at this particular time?

Pema Chödrön: So many dharma teachers seem to be teaching about the bodhisattva path these days, so I feel I am just tuning into the same instinct. Shantideva talks very clearly about confused mind and gives a multitude of tips on how to work with confusion on the spot. Each time, the point is to uncover our basic wisdom. The highlight isn’t just on the confusion; it’s on the awakening heart, bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is a longing to wake up yourself, so that you can help other people do the same.

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