What is the role of a spiritual teacher? All teachers have different personalities and are different people. However, if they have attained enlightenment then they do not consider themselves merely a person. The person still functions and has its habits and quirks, but the teacher is acting from the same empty consciousness that you both share. It is behind her, below her, above her and looking out through her eyes. The teacher’s presence is not her presence, it is presence itself. Because of the teacher’s cultivation, we can see ourselves a little bit better when the teacher is around because the teacher gets out of the way of who you both really are.
The teacher can point to who you are in subtle and more dramatic ways. Because they are aware of awareness, you become more and more aware of awareness in their presence. In more direct ways, a teacher can point to who you aren’t and bring you to an experience which will help to clarify the illusory nature of existence and the folly of what you previously thought was real. Basically, anything that you think you are, you are not, and this will be taken from you piece by piece until you get down to reality. The teacher confronts you and shakes you up in order for you to see the work you have left to do to clear yourself out so that you can become the clarity that you both inherently share.
The teacher is like a doctor in a hospital and awareness is the medicine. He sees all kinds of sick people come and he makes them sit down and shows them how to become aware of what is making them sick. He is also somewhat aware of what is making them sick and because he is aware of it you gradually become aware of it. He can also transmit a kind of power that enables you to find your own power to face this reality, as reality can be rather harsh to our illusions. This is why the medicine can be painful at times and we don’t always look forward to seeing the doctor but a growing part of us knows that it is for our own good.
The longer we stay with the teacher the harder and stronger the medicine becomes. We initially think that we can grab the medicine and run away with it, but we come to find that the one who wants to run away with it is the one who is making us sick. We eventually come to realize that we need to stay until the one who wants to run away is extinguished. This is the beginning of wisdom and the beginning of becoming familiar with who we really are – the empty awareness that we both share.
During the course of our time with the teacher we are also building personal power. There are times we feel stagnant, ignored, restless, overworked, frustrated and even angry. We feel like “this is a waste of time” and “what the hell am I doing here.” It takes time and patience to bring these illnesses out into the open so that they may be dissolved. We often do not know they are there until the teacher brings them out for us to see. Our need to be “going somewhere” or “getting something” is part of what is making us sick and we need to see and feel the raw intensity of these feelings first hand in order to transcend them – we cannot just think about them. When delusion arises, it is much stronger than we thought it was going to be! This is the difference between practice and intellectualization and it is something only time and practice and a teacher can offer.
What a teacher is not is someone who tells you a bunch of goofy religious stuff or tells you what to think, do or believe. Quite the opposite, as these things are part of what is making you sick in the first place. The teacher is not ever trying to convince you of anything, they are just waiting and watching you grow and figure it out on your own. If you come across a teacher who wants to convince you of something then you will be wasting your time with that person. Teaching is not about talking, it is about showing. All that is real can be shown in silence so you are definitely wasting your time if there is a lot of talking or convincing going on. A teacher should be pointing to what is happening right now and facilitate your natural becoming, never trying to take you for some mental ride.
We should realize that teaching is not such a glamorous job. The teacher is there because they are somehow principled to be of benefit to others, so we should respect that and not waste the teacher’s time. The main ways that we waste a teacher’s time are trying to validate our egos or hanging around waiting for more “teachings” instead of practicing hard to free ourselves. The teacher, however much or little a friend they may be, is not responsible for our spiritual growth. We are.
Finally, we should not judge the outer character of our teacher. They are not teaching us how to be good people, they are teaching us how to find Nirvana. Some of the most enlightened people ever to teach were roiled in sex scandals, drug use and have said some really, really stupid things. They eat meat, sit on animal skins, smoke cigarettes (Nisargadatta Maharaj was a chain smoker who owned a tobacco shop), they drink (Maezumi Roshi, Tesshu et.al) they do drugs (too many to list! Think LSD, opium, soma, ayahuasca…) and they do all sorts of human, dumb things. And every one of them has died of something. We need to turn away from the personality and find the part of them, and us, that is neither born nor dies. Remember, a dog has buddha nature too.