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The Teacher as Spiritual Friend

Having understood the first noble truth, your relationship with your teacher begins to evolve into a different level in the Mahayana, the vehicle of the bodhisattva path. He or she becomes the kalyanamitra, a Sanskrit word meaning “spiritual friend,” or “friend in the virtue.”

The kalyanamitra is less heavy-handed than the elder or parent, but on the other hand, he is more heavy-handed. He is like a rich uncle who provides money for the family. However, he doesn’t want them to just lounge around and live off his money. The rich uncle would like to be more constructive than that; he would like to have industrious relatives, so that he can increase his capital. Unlike a rich uncle in ordinary life, the bodhisattva’s approach, the Mahayana approach, is not based on self-aggrandizement. It isn’t self-centered. It is a much closer relationship. The teacher has become a spiritual friend. When relatives give us advice, we have a certain attitude toward their advice: we know that we are being told the relative truth. It has some value, it has some application, but it is still relative truth. When friends give us advice, its effect is more immediate and personal. If we are criticized by our parents, we think it’s their trip, or we think something is wrong with their approach, so we take it lightly. But if we are criticized by our friends, we feel startled. We begin to think there may be some element of truth in what they are saying.

So in the Mahayana, the teacher is a spiritual friend. He or she is much more demanding than the purely relative level. The spiritual friend makes us much more watchful and conscientious. At that point, relative truth has already become somewhat old hat: we already know about pain, the origin of pain, cessation, and the path, the four noble truths. At this point, the spiritual friend tells us, “Don’t just work on yourself. Do something about others. Relate with your projections rather than with the projector alone. Do something about the world outside and try to develop some sense of sympathy and warmth in yourself.”

That is usually quite hard for us to do. We are already upset and uptight and resentful that life is painful. It’s very hard to relax, to let go of that. But it can be done. It’s being done in the present and it will be done in the future. So how about giving an inch? Just letting go a little bit? Opening a little bit? We could be generous and disciplined at the same time. Therefore we should be patient and exert ourselves, be aware of everything that is happening, and be clear, all at the same time. That is the teacher’s prescription.

Following this approach is what is called the practice of the six paramitas. These six transcendent actions—generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and discriminating wisdom—are practiced by the Mahayana practitioner, the bodhisattva.

This practice puts us in the spotlight, so to speak. We have a general sense of wanting to open, for the very reason that we have nothing to lose. Our life is already a bundle of misery and chaos. Since we already have nothing to lose, we gain something by just giving, opening. That step is the transition between experiencing the teacher as elder and as spiritual friend.


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