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Buddhadharma : Winter 2005
winter 2005| 48 |buddhadharma The Dzogchen PonloP RinPoche: In Vajrayana Buddhism, the teacher-student relationship goes through several levels of development. It is a per- sonal relationship that is directly connected to the dharma. As Sharon was saying, it is a friendship. Because it is based on dharma, as it becomes more intimate, it becomes more profound and results in spiritual accomplishment. As the student’s commit- ment matures, the teacher invokes the enlightened nature of the student and shares experiences on the path of realization. When this relationship reaches the level of what we call the guru-disciple relation- ship, the teacher guides the student through all the different experiences they encounter on the path. Most people begin the Buddhist path by learning meditation. Even at this simple level, is a teacher necessary, or can one learn to meditate from a book? noRman fischeR: One can learn meditation from a book. If you don’t have a chance to encounter a spiritual teacher, by all means, learn it from a book and begin practicing. However, no matter where you’re living in the world now, after you’ve been practicing a while, there’s probably a way for you to go to a retreat or find a teacher. Whether or not one has an ongoing relationship with a spiritual teacher is another matter, but certainly one can take advantage of retreat centers or teachers coming to town to expand your relationship with meditation practice. Otherwise, meditation might be viewed as something private and personal, when in fact it goes beyond the personal and the private. That’s why you ultimately need to make contact with another person, even if it’s only someone you meet once. Meditation is essentially an oral tradition. It’s learned in an apprenticeship model. The written instructions are always generic, and there are no generic people, which is another reason you need a person who can look you in the eye, have some sense of who you are, and give you instructions that are suitable for you. shaRon salzbeRg: By the time someone picks up a book about meditation with the intention of seeking some kind of real transformation, they’ve already done quite a bit of work. Most people in the world don’t get anywhere near that far. That usually means there is a desire to take abstract teachings and make them real. So, if all one has is a book and that’s where you need to start, that’s still a very powerful thing. I am forever grateful that I have been able to practice under the direct guidance of people. Words on a page can seem very simple. The instruction and the methodology can seem very straightforward, but it’s not so easy when you get right down to it. When I went to India to find the genuine dharma and to learn how to meditate, the very first instruction I got was to sit down and feel my breath. I thought, “I came all the way to India! Why isn’t this more exotic and exciting?” But when I did sit down to do it, I saw that it wasn’t so easy. I was distracted, unhappy, sleepy, restless. It took the kindness, pres- ence, and further instruction of the teacher to guide me through what happened when I actually started to try to follow those simple instructions. Nurturing was very important at that point. PonloP RinPoche: Learning from books or the Internet is very useful. It means many more people can access the path of meditation and gain some sense of what their mind actually is. At the same time, in the Tibetan tradition we have something called thong-gyün, which means “visual transmis- sion.” It brings something different than books or online instructions. The visual transmission takes place even when no words are spoken. Simply being in the presence of properly trained practi- tioners and properly trained teachers, you learn something you cannot find anywhere else. One of the key things the presence of the teacher offers, as Sharon said, is nurturing, because as Norman said so clearly, meditation is not generic. It is done by a person. And a person needs the nurturing of a teacher and a sangha. You can share your experiences with the teacher, and when there are uncomfortable experiences or experiences that are too comfortable, the teacher can show you how to overcome that obstacle. In general, the visual transmission directly passes the knowledge of how to meditate by physical demonstration and the presence of the teacher’s mind. noRman fischeR: I have never heard that phrase, “visual transmission.” It’s very useful and inter- esting. In our tradition, I think the equivalent is “face-to-face transmission.” PonloP RinPoche: Oh! That’s very similar. noRman fischeR: When it’s face-to-face with teacher and student, it’s not about the information. Just as you say, there may not be any words or any instruction, but a mutual recognition in a face-to- face presence is the bottom line of total transfor- mation in Zen. We have many relationships in our lives that are quite familiar and well known to us: relation- ships with a parent, boss, colleague, child, and so forth. What is the particular nature of the rela- tionship that one makes with a spiritual teacher? shaRon salzbeRg: It’s many different relationships, and it evolves over time. Overall, faith in the teacher is critical, and the first kind of faith we Meditation is essentially an oral tradition. It’s learned in an apprenticeship model. The written instructions are always generic, and there are no generic people, which is why you need a person who can look you in the eye, have some sense of who you are, and give you instructions that are suitable for you. — Norman Fischer michaelnewhall