The Guru-Disciple Relationship
Swami Shishyananda Saraswati is a highly experienced yogini/tantrika who has had the immeasurable blessing to spend a lot of time with great teachers. “Shishyananda” means “bliss through discipleship”, or “ecstatic disciple” and the teacher-student relationship has been central to Shishyananda’s life from a young age in various forms. Shishyananda credits the matrix of the teacher-student relationship with teaching her all the challenging, difficult, transformational and ecstatic lessons learned in this life time.
The Guru is Within You
Ironically the reason a student seeks a teacher is to seek for that which is not wanted, or will not be wanted ultimately. This is the whole point of the tantric concept of guru. At the culmination of sadhana a disciple does not want to have the guru remain outside of oneself as an external saviour. The student seeks to realise the true nature of mind, the nature of their own awareness, is actually the guru.
Guru/teacher is only a bridge, so ultimately wanting, seeking something from an external source is a concept to be transformed, or as the yogis would say, eliminated. The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said: when you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
One of the meanings of this is that it is vital that each aspirant ultimately learns that no-one else can teach him/her. Once this is accepted, once this disappointment has been embraced, once it is deeply and profoundly understood that everything, even the guru or teacher, is a reflection of our own self/Self we can stop collapsing dependently on the teacher, guru, therapist, parent etc.
Questioning the Teacher
Disciples/students get stuck on this concept of dependency and will often have all kinds of grasping towards the teacher. However, Parampara, the Guru-Shishya, Teacher-Student relationship is very intricate and mysterious and there are many ways to look at it.
I will talk here about some traditional perspectives and the reasons for them. However, seek your own understanding and ask lots of questions of anyone teaching you anything, if that helps you to be empowered in the relationship.
There is a romanticised misconception in the philosophical culture that surrounds the teacher-student relationship that utter surrender and devotion proves elevated discipleship. Not true. There is a place for that certainly, in various traditions. However, if a teacher is really doing the job well, especially in the early stages of the teacher-student relationship, they ought to be encouraging an enquiring and questioning mind in the student.
Classically, this is what is expected from the student. At the same time the teacher challenges the student to ask questions that arise from the deep well-spring of their being, not just to ask questions that furtively skirt across the mind and reform somewhere else when challenged, although this many also happen initially.
Yoga and Tantra: Different Aspects of the One Truth
The Zen master says: to be on the path is to know yourself; to be on the path is to forget about yourself. This is reflected in yogic practice as the aim to transcend all distinctions. The ultimate aim of the tantric parampara (teacher-student relationship) is to transform all these distinctions. This really ought to be the fundamental basis of the teacher-student relationship.
The Guru is not a Security Blanket
However this type of teacher-student relationship is rare. Many times it is simply another relationship like two friends, or boyfriend and girlfriend, or parent and child, husband and wife, man and woman etc. The nature of the relationship denotes the nature of the lila or game that gets played.
For example, when a student is insecure they play a game to elicit the teacher’s attention and when the teacher is not accomplished they are also insecure and play a game in response. This insecurity is why students don’t tend to go to a teacher seeking for something they need. They go to the teacher seeking something they want. This happens from the teacher’s perspective also.
There are very few teachers who are really willing to give what the student needs, for what the student needs could, and I stress the word “could”, be very raw, very painful, very naked. Which teacher has the courage to do that? It is very difficult. This is not to say that the teacher-student relationship cannot be completely saturated with effulgent love. It most certainly can, however, we are talking about something else here.
I once was in the presence of a renowned Tibetan Lama who was sitting on his stage in the meeting hall receiving his disciples as they presented white scarves (kata) as blessings. The teacher’s response is usually either to keep the scarf or to place it around the bowed neck of the devotee after it is offered. This alone can raise all kinds of obsessions and thoughts in the disciples: why did he give me mine back? Does this mean I am not good enough? Why did he keep it? Does this mean I am not good enough? The interminable insecurity of this precious human mind.
This particular time there was a female devotee who had been holier than thou all week, putting on a façade of simpering devotion while in the Lama’s presence and being quite offensive to people behind the scenes. When she offered her scarf, he tied it around her head in a massive bow and she became the laughing stock of the gathering.
Her ego received a direct lesson by this one action of the teacher. Harsh some would say, but that one action transformed her life. It was breathtakingly honest and probably cut out years of suffering for her. However, it could also have sent her running, complaining and blaming, never to return. This is the risk that a true teacher takes.
Many teachers have agendas while a true teacher has none at all. We know that from the yogic perspective we are invited to challenge and quell the ego and from the tantric perspective we befriend and transform it. So we need an example in human form – someone who has done it so we can aspire to that example and can even be very devoted to it. This devotion is the medium for bringing into the teacher-student relationship all the possible relationships such as father, mother, Buddha, lover etc.
Transforming the Ego
How can someone be taught to transcend their ego? These various aspects of the teacher-student relationship can propagate this when the student looks upon the teacher in a devotional way, as someone worthy of service and respect. This is the way the ego has been dealt with in the guru-disciple relationship but very often this reason for the relationship aspect has been forgotten and the relationship becomes tainted with misappropriation of agenda and intention, often from the teacher’s perspective just as much as from the student’s. In such circumstances often, eventually, the only way out is via a rift.
When a teacher does not have the courage to give the student what they need and only gives them what they want, the student’s aspiration is best directed via some kind of relationship.
It is a big responsibility for the teacher if the student is genuinely interested in enlightenment because under these conditions, relationship is not the medium – giving and receiving what is needed is the medium. If the student is interested in building a relationship then that is a perfectly acceptable way to go, and, in that, one should be more inferior and the other a little more superior as a means to challenge the ego, so that the student can become an adept and meet the teacher as an equal.
A wise teacher will know that this is the only reason for the outward display of superior and inferior in any kind of teacher-student relationship because ultimately all such projections are illusions. It is a conscious decision on the part of the teacher and the student to make use of this illusion for the transformation of the ego. And take note that I did not say who was to appear outwardly superior and who was to appear outwardly inferior. You can arrange that between yourselves!
Who is a Genuine Teacher?
How can you determine if a someone is a genuine teacher? There is no in front of, or behind the scenes going on. They are the same in all situations – this can tempt the disciple to say the teacher is flawed when all his/her struggling human frailties are on view.
If you have the good fortune to meet a teacher who is not afraid to live among you like this then count your blessings – you have met a true tantric teacher. There is also a very specific reason for this which is to encourage the student not to depend on the person but on the teachings given. This is an insurance, to immerse oneself in sadhana – practice and teachings – because these will always guide the student correctly across any tradition. But finally there is one thing a student should look for: a teacher who is not interested in him/herself; a teacher who is totally interested in you and the upliftment of all beings.
The gift of being in the presence of such a person is we may be blessed to live the truth that all humanity is one undivided and indivisible family and that we cannot detach ourselves from the wickedest soul any more than we can detach ourselves from the most light filled one.
A true teacher simultaneously (not either/or) holds onto nothing and holds nothing away. Find teachers who know this and who have excellent teachings to impart. Find teachers who are experienced in the teacher-student relationship, have seen the view of their own teachers and are able to hold the ambiguity of that truth and illusion equally. Find teachers who know how to create space and how to fill space and when and why each of these must be done.