A. I don’t know exactly what you mean when you say we may have misunderstood the teacher/student relationship. I can only give my view of what must surely be the most important feature to anyone that aspires to a deep and meaningful practice of the path.

We are encouraged to reflect on the Arya Sangha. Those historical beings, who we draw inspiration and guidance from, all had teachers. Even the Buddha himself had teachers. The many Buddhist traditions have their own interpretations of the Dharma, and schools within traditions still further interpretations. Yet there is at least one teaching they all agree upon, and that is a newly-initiated Buddhist practitioner not only has a teacher, but they should be together for at least 5 years. How can modern serious devotees of the Way ever doubt this essential fact for correct practice? How can anyone seriously believe that it is possible to somehow grow into the depths of insight without a teacher? In my view only the conceit of the western mind could think there may be another way for deep meaningful practice, despite this overwhelming evidence of 2500 years of Buddhist practice.

In broad terms, it seems that the alternative model to the traditional one mentioned above, could be described as a ‘horizontal’ model. In this, you practise with others that are more or less on a par with your own understanding and also with those that may have some more experience but who would never be classified as being ‘teachers’ in the conventional sense. This creates an environment of equality where dangers such as abuse of power are negated. However, the whole structure of spiritual hierarchy that underpins the traditional ‘vertical’ approach is dispensed with.

There is a view held by many in the West that the relationship between student and teacher is as much to do with power as anything else. When you have trust and faith in a teacher firmly in place you have the basic requisite for what can be a very profound and far-reaching practice. During difficult times of practice, with trust and support you can begin to learn to let go of yourself and all your attachments. This can evoke fear and many other types of emotions, but now you can learn to stay with these experiences, something not possible before you had a teacher. Trust when the teacher says, ‘Everything will be okay, open and let go’. You feel supported and may now be in a position to experience the letting go of your precious possessions. This is the crucial aspiration of all Dharma practitioners. We are always going into the unknown in practice and that will always evoke fear in some form or another. To do this practice unaided may not be possible. We will get it wrong, because as we are always going into the unknown, and we cannot know the unknown. How can we therefore know what is the best thing to do? We will inevitably wander off the path without a teacher’s indispensable support.

Another feature of the student/teacher relationship is one of respect and deference. To be always giving your self up to that person who you recognise as having more spiritual maturity is seen as the opportunity to develop humility and openness. In a traditional ordained sangha there is always a very clearly-defined hierarchy in place to help nurture this habit still further beyond your teacher.

To the cynic, hierarchy will be seen as yet another opportunity for power games. However, very complicated forms of hierarchy have been put in place by the wise over the centuries, and these are there to undercut the will to power and encourage surrender and deference, not to mention mindfulness. Hierarchy in all situations throughout the day helps nurture the humility that is necessary for genuine spiritual change to take place, necessary for the breakthrough to our Buddha-nature. Hierarchy is a very profound and indispensable feature of practice. It is the major component that helps create the ‘vertical’ framework, yet it is put to one side by the ‘horizontal’ system.

Hierarchical relationships are crafted so there is always a ‘space’ between you and your teacher, and you and others in your sangha. In that space sticky worldly attachments are avoided, as these can distract and impede the practice to a very serious degree. A ‘horizontal’ sangha runs the danger of becoming ‘worldly’. These are like the relationships you had before you came to the practice, self-driven and filled with self-satisfying emotions. The space (or gap) that a ‘vertical’ form gives is exemplified by your relationship with your teacher, where through ingrained habits you may attach to them, but they will never attach to you! It is a space that is clean, wholesome and non-threatening, and in which you practise the Dharma. You can learn to get familiar and play with the practice in this space without being overtaken by sticky attachments to others. To dispense with the teacher and the qualities of hierarchical sangha is to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’. In my view it is as serious as that. In my view also this will not produce deep spiritual insight, and those that practice in this alternative ‘horizontal ‘ environment could never go on to become spiritual teachers of any substance, fulfilling the need in our western Buddhist world for such precious beings.

Humility, surrender, deference, hierarchy. Wow, such words! Us westerners don’t need all that kind of stuff! I invite the reader to point to any historical saint, bodhisattva, or whatever you wish to call such beings in Buddhism, who has not learnt and cultivated these virtues, primarily through a teacher, before their breakthrough. I doubt that it has ever happened. Yet we are prepared to marginalise the student/teacher relationship and try something else.

We rationalise not having teachers because so many have abused their power and are corrupt. This is true. But the Dharma path is fraught with many dangers, not just corrupt teachers. That is the nature of what we do. If you are burning to see the Dharma, then you will need to take the risk.

We do have a very big dilemma in the West in that so many wish to seriously practise the whole of the path, but there simply are not the teachers to go around. But you the reader need not be put off by this. Go and find one in the tradition that attracts you, even if you have to travel far. It is true not everyone has the luxury, the opportunity to go searching, due to their circumstances in life. This is unfortunate. If this applies to you, then find the best situation for yourself and apply yourself wholeheartedly. Much change can still take place; much of the self can still fall away.