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Shambhala Sun | May 2012
You'll find this article on page 69 of the magazine.

A yearlong series of teachings to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of the Shambhala Sun. 

The Teacher-Student Relationship

“The teacher is regarded as an elder, spiritual friend, or vajra master. He or she has ways and means to create situations in accordance with our own receptivity, our own particular style, in order to waken our native intelligence.”

CHÖGYAM TRUNGPA RINPOCHE on how our relationship with the teacher evolves in the three vehicles of Buddhism.

When we are infants, we need someone to babysit us—to change our diapers, to give us a bath, to tell us how to eat, to put us in pajamas. That’s the first reference point in our lives for a hierarchical relationship with another human being.

This basic human experience of growing up is an analogy for the teacher– student principle on the Buddhist path. The development of the teacher–student relationship in the three yanas, or vehicles, of Buddhism is analogous to bringing up infants, relating with teenagers, and finally relating with grownups.

The Teacher as Elder

The starting point is the relationship to hierarchy or a parental figure in the Hinayana, the vehicle of personal liberation. Our ordinary sense of the growing-up process, whatever we think it entails, is based purely on our dreams. We think we’re going to become Ph.D. candidates without knowing how to speak or write or read properly, almost without being toilet-trained. That’s the kind of ambition we usually have. We say to ourselves, “Of course I can push my shortcomings aside. I can just grow up, and soon I will be accepted in the mainstream of the respectable, highpowered world. I’m sure I can do it.” That’s our usual approach.

Many people believe that professionalism means having a self-confident but amateurish approach to reality, but we’re not talking here about being “professional” Buddhists in that sense. We’re talking about how to actually become adults in the Buddhist world, rather than kids who appear to be grown up. We actually have to grow up and face the problems that exist in our lives. We have to develop a sense of the subtleties, understanding our reactions to the phenomenal world, which are our reactions to ourselves at the same time.

To do this, we need some kind of parental figure to begin with. In the Hinayana tradition, that figure is called a sthavira in Sanskrit or thera in Pali, which means “elder.” The elder is somebody who has already gone through being babysat and has graduated to become a babysitter. In ordinary life, that person is very important for our development, because we have to know what will happen if we put our fingers on the hot burner. We have to learn the facts and figures and the little details that exist in our lives. That kind of discrimination is important.

There are spiritual facts and figures as well. As a practitioner, you might regard yourself as a grownup who doesn’t need a babysitter. But in terms of spiritual discipline, that reaction is infantile. You are closing off large avenues of learning if you reject those possibilities. Then you have nothing to work with. You will have no idea even how to begin with the ABCs of basic spirituality.

So in the beginning, relating to the teacher as acharya—as master, teacher, elder, parent-figure, and occasionally babysitter— is necessary. That person’s primary goal is not to teach us what’s good and what’s bad, but to help us develop a general sense of composure. That is the beginning of devotion, in some sense. At this point, devotion is not faith at an ethereal or visionary level but a sense of practicality: learning what it is necessary to do and what it is necessary to avoid. It’s a simple, basic thing.

So to begin with, the teachings tell you that your view of the world is an infantile view. You think you’re going to get ice cream every day. As a baby and a young child, you throw temper tantrums so that your daddy or your mommy or your babysitter will come along with a colorful ice-cream cone. But things can’t be that way forever. What we are saying here is that life is based on pain, suffering, misery. A more accurate word for that experience of duhkha, which we usually translate as “suffering,” is “anxiety.” There’s always a kind of anxiousness in life. Initially, you have to be told by somebody that life is full of anxiety.

The elder helps us to relate with that first thing, which is actually called a “truth.” It is truth because it points out that your belief that you can actually win the war against pain and that you might be able to get so-called happiness is not possible. It just doesn’t happen. The elder tells us these facts and figures. He or she tells us that the world is not made out of honeycombs and oceans of maple syrup. The elder tells us that the world has its own unpleasant and touchy points. When you have been told that truth, you begin to appreciate it more. You begin to respect that truth, which actually goes a very long way—all the rest of your life. For the elder, such truth is old hat: he or she knows it already. The elder has gone through it herself. Nevertheless, she doesn’t give out righteous messages about those things. She simply says, “Look, it’s not as good as you think. It is going to be somewhat painful for you, getting into this world. You can’t help it—you’re already in it—so you’d better work with it and accept the truth.” That is precisely how the Lord Buddha first proclaimed the dharma. His first teaching was the truth of suffering.

So when you are at the level of being babysat, having the teacher as a parental figure, you are simply told how things are. Being told about the truth of suffering is like having your diapers changed. This is an example of the trust and faith in the teacher that develops in the early stage of the teacher–student relationship, when the teacher acts as a babysitter.

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