Teacher-Student Relationships

Man: One of the things that has struck me during the course is how you say very little about the teacher-student relationship even though you’re teachers in your own right. You seem to work creatively in balancing any projections we might have towards you as “teachers”. This is refreshing as these days there seems to be a lot of confusion about the role of the guru-disciple relationship.

Peter: Yes, there is a lot of confusion. Many Westerners have invested a great deal of trust in Japanese, Tibetan and Indian teachers during the past twenty years or so. In these classic traditions the teacher is projected as being free of desire and personal ambition. Within this paradigm it is important for the student’s development to view the teacher as being fully enlightened. The student is expected to place unquestioned trust in their teacher and to see any defects as their own spiritual impurity.

My own involvement in Tibetan Buddhism was framed by this perspective. In my case I feel very fortunate because my relationship with my principle teacher, Lama Thubten Yeshe, was only positive. The unquestioned trust I placed in him was always rewarded with intense and valuable opportunities for spiritual growth. But I know that many people have become disillusioned though their relationships with spiritual masters.

Penny: While the guru-student relationship can be very creative and productive, in other instances it can be quite destructive. The undiscerning projection of perfection onto another individual can lead to disappointment, hurt and confusion. Many students who have been badly burned by the heat of their teacher’s desires are now speaking up. Others have become disillusioned by scandalous stories they’ve heard.

Right now we’re experiencing something of a backlash against the unquestioned trust some students have invested in their spiritual teachers. In some cases the pendulum has swung from trust to mistrust. When this happens people can view all teachers with reservation and suspicion, or down right contempt. Many people are now confined to the positions of trusting or mistrusting spiritual teachers.

Woman: You seem to keep clear of this paradigm.

Peter: We see a need to create a balance between dependence and independence. Whilst we acknowledge that we do play a significant role in the unfolding of this process – and the experiences that people enjoy – we don’t want people to become dependent on us, as this weakens their capacity to recreate a more spacious experience when they are by themselves. We open up a space, taking care to correct any projection that this is entirely dependent on us. Basically, we just try to be real. We let people see that the experiences that occur through our work are created in the interactions between us all. We acknowledge our role as facilitators without tripping out that we are indispensable. If we see that people are becoming co-dependent on us, we point out that this produces serious limitations to their spiritual growth.

Penny: In countries like Tibet the culture was based on a spiritual paradigm in which teacher- student relationships were central. Because of this there were assumptions about a teacher’s integrity and intention that could go unquestioned. In translating these classical traditions into the West, we have to be alert. This is a consumer culture. And being such, people can unconsciously try and consume spirituality in a way that is quite different from places like India and Tibet. We need to be discerning about our spiritual guides and teachers. We need to discover and cultivate relationships with teachers that are neither tainted by distance and suspicion, nor based on blind trust. In this work we consciously dissolve the boundaries between student and teacher without diminishing or ignoring their roles and importance. We do this by observing and feeding back the different identities that people project on us. From our own side we try to operate from a space in which we neither accept, nor reject the perceptions people have of us. We don’t reject the roles that people project on to us, but nor do we collude with those projections.

Peter: We invite participants to free themselves from a mind-set in which the only moves are to reject or accept the identities of “teacher” and “student”. We can become more discerning at an energetic level as to how we create dependence on an external source, or actively seek to maintain our independence. Together we can then enjoy an experience that transcends individual identities.

Woman: You move skillfully between the role of teacher and the role of non-teacher. Without you we have difficulty creating this space by ourselves, and yet when you are here you don’t slip into the usual role of teachers. I am intrigued.

Peter: This begs the question. Who is responsible for what you are experiencing right now?

Woman: I am.

Peter: Are you? Are you responsible for the words you hear me say right now?

Woman: Well no. You are.

Peter: Am I? I thought I was responding to your answers.

Woman: Then, I’m responsible for what you are saying.

Peter: Then what am I going to say next?

Woman:  I don’t know.


Peter: You see, it isn’t possible to say who exactly is responsible for what we are experiencing now. “Responsibility” is simply a concept that occurs in a conversation when we feel a need to assign credit or blame for what we are experiencing.

About Peter

Peter Fenner, PH.D. is spiritual teacher and a leader in the adaption and transmission of Asian nondual wisdom worldwide. He offers training programs and individual coaching and meditation entrainment sessions over the phone. Pioneer in the development of nondual therapy and creator of the Radiant Mind CourseĀ® http://www.radiantmind.net and Natural Awakening: Advanced Nondual Training: http://www.nondualtraining.com, he was a celibate monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for 9 years and has a Ph.D. in the philosophical psychology of Mahayana Buddhism. Over a period of 40 years Peter Fenner has distilled the essence of traditions like Zen, Dzogchen and the Buddhist Middle Way, and adapted them to suit our post-modern culture.
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