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The purpose of a spiritual mentor

The purpose of a spiritual mentor

First in a series of talks suggesting how to modify the steps in a 12-step program to fit into a Buddhist framework.

  • How to fit the term “God,” used in a 12-step recovery program, into a Buddhist framework
  • How to balance self-reliance with the need for a spiritual teacher

Buddhism and the 12 steps 01 (download)

I had received an email during the retreat from somebody in Ireland who is doing a Codependents Anonymous group. And he’s finding it very helpful—following the 12 steps—and he wanted some guidance about how to do this within a Buddhist framework. So he was asking some very good questions. So it might take some time to go through them.

So, he was saying it shouldn’t be so much of a problem because they say “higher power,” although the group he does apparently says “God.” But to substitute “Buddha” or “The Three Jewels,” or something like that. So it seems like that would be good. But when he’s thinking about it in more depth then he’s coming up with some questions.

Self-reliance and the need for spiritual mentors

So he said: “What I’m struggling with is the balance that I discern within Buddhism for self-reliance and how this exists alongside the realization that we need spiritual teachers at the same time. The idea that we create our own experience and are responsible for our own karma is a central tenet of Buddhism, obviously; however, there is also the realization that we need qualified spiritual teachers to guide us on the correct course for spiritual awakening.”

So that’s the first part of the question. There’s several parts here.

So, yes, Buddhism talks about self-reliance, but then it also says that you need a spiritual teacher. So does that mean that’s contradictory? No.

We must do the work ourselves

The reliance means that we have to do the work ourselves. That nobody else can do it for us. That drinking blessed water, getting bonked on the head with a vase, swallowing a pill, wearing cords… These kinds of things—the material things themselves—cannot change our mind. If we use those things to change our mind and remind us of the Dharma it’s very valuable, but the real work that we have to do is ourselves inside here. So that’s what the self reliance refers to.

The self-reliance does not refer to making up the path ourselves. Because we’ve been making up the path to happiness ourselves since beginningless time. Yes? And mostly our path to happiness has been sense pleasure. But we’ve been born as everything in previous lives. So we followed this religion, we followed that religion, we probably even made up our own religion in previous lives. You know? Or we took different bits of different things and we mushed them together making what Lama Yeshe would call stew or soup. A little bit from this, a little bet from that, I like all these ideas, I don’t like those so I’ll stick the ones I like and mix them together.

So, that’s not the meaning of self-reliance, picking and choosing ourselves or inventing the path ourselves.

Looking to people who know for guidance

It’s actually much smarter and much wiser to learn from people who know. It’s like our whole life we learn from people who know, don’t we?

I mean, it’s kind of amazing in spiritual things, “Oh, I want to develop it myself!” But everything we know, we learned form other people. People taught us how to talk, they taught us how to type, they taught us how to sweep the floor, how to brush out teeth… Everything we learned from other people.

So, it’s good—I mean, imagine if nobody had taught us how to brush our teeth and we were going to have to invent a way ourselves to keep our teeth and gums healthy. You know? It’s just much better to learn from experts, isn’t it?

So here we definitely need teachers because in the spiritual realm it’s even more important. If you get a typing teacher that doesn’t teach you so well, that’s okay. You can get somebody else who does it better and you can improve your skills and so on, it’s not a big crisis. But if you have a spiritual teacher who teaches you the wrong path, and you follow that path, then all your spiritual attempts are really going to be foiled because you’re not going to get the kind of results that you want.

So that’s why it’s so important to check the qualities of the teacher and the qualities of the teaching.

And so when we look at the teachings that came from the Buddha, we saw that the Buddha himself was a realized being.

Now, somebody might say, “But Buddha just discovered the path that very lifetime, why can’t I?”

Well, that’s one view of looking at the Buddha. But from the Mahayana view we say, actually, the Buddha was enlightened a long time ago, and he appeared in the aspect of an ordinary person 2500 years ago so that he can demonstrate to us how we have to put effort into the practice, and so on. So it wasn’t that the Buddha just sat under the Bodhi Tree and *wham* it all came to him. He was previously enlightened.

Even the Buddhas had teachers

So if you read the chronicles of the Buddhas, they all have teachers in previous lifetimes. And they all make the bodhisattva vow in the presence of those teachers, and receive a prediction and so on. But they really receive teachings. And then we have to think about the teachings ourselves and actualize the meaning ourselves. But it’s much better to learn from an enlightened being such as the Buddha. Okay? Rather than inventing our own path.

Then some people might say, “Well, I can just go directly to the Buddha, I don’t need a live teacher to guide me.”

Teachers especially important in the beginning

I think when we are already involved in the path and have a deep understanding that may be the case. When we’ve already been practicing for a number of years, and so on. But, especially at the beginning, for the first—I don’t know how many—years, until your teachers pass away, you need a teacher. You know, maybe after all your teachers pass away then you rely on the books and so on. But at the beginning we really need a teacher because the texts are not always so easy to understand. We can easily misunderstand them. And some of you, I mean we’ve been going through some of these philosophy texts. Could you read those on your own and understand what was going on? No. Okay? So having a teacher who helps you, and gives you examples, and gives other terms and so on and so forth, that’s really helpful. Also, having a teacher that can help us understand how to practice in our own culture at our own historical time period. Having a teacher who we can discuss with (e.g.) If we’re keeping precepts, well what’s the limit of keeping this precept? And what falls within that limit? And having a teacher who points out to us when we’re doing things that are beyond how we should be behaving, or a beneficial way to behave.

So all of that is really helpful right now in a practical sense of having a real live human being as a teacher.

And actually, in vinaya it says that your preceptor has to be somebody who is alive now. You can’t say the Buddha was my preceptor and ordain yourself.

So we learn from teachers who can trace their lineage back to the Buddha and who have practiced well and who have a good relationship with their teachers and the lineage and so on. And teachers who we’ve checked out their qualifications and who we trust.

Learn from the teachers and put it into practice

So we learn from those teachers, and then the self-reliance part is that we put it into practice, we think about it in terms of, is what we’re learning, does it logically hang together? And if it doesn’t, we ask questions. We practice it. And if we’re getting results from the practice that don’t correspond with what the teachings are saying we should feel, then we go back and we say, “I must not have understood something correctly. So how do I need to readjust my understanding so I get the results that this meditation is supposed to bring?”

So that’s the self-reliant part. And we work together with the Buddha and together with a teacher to bring that about.

So that’s Part 1. He has several questions. We’ll continue.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.

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