Elevate Difference

Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship

Wise Teacher, Wise Student by Alexander Berzin explores the intricate and complex relationship between Western students and Eastern teachers. This particular type of relationship has its own unique set of challenges due to language barriers, cultural divides, and occasionally conflicting expectations. Berzin focuses on bridging the gap between the two worlds by exploring the student-teacher relationship through the Tibetan Buddhist outlook and its implications for Western students.

The text explores the basics of Tibetan Buddhism, including what a typical spiritual seeker in traditional Tibet would look like. I appreciated that Berzin provided information about the influence on Chinese occupation of Tibet as a means of bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West. While this occupation is indeed tragic, it has provided the vehicle for Western students to learn about and participate in spiritual rituals and practice. I found this to be an important piece of information for understanding why this particular type of relationship needed special exploration in the first place. According to Berzin, Western spiritual seekers are very different from their Eastern counterparts. Tibetan seekers usually start their spiritual journey and education at a very young age, while most Western students begin their study as adults, after receiving a formal education, and expecting equality and full knowledge of each and every step of the spiritual journey.

After exploring these differences, Berzin touched on foundational concepts and ideas such as the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path, rectified terms, including the differences and misconceptions surrounding the terms guru and lama; and laid out basic requirements for a seeker and teacher. While this was only the first of three sections of the book, this one definitely feel the heaviest and most time consuming due to the sheer volume of information it contained. The other two sections explored the dynamics of a healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher, and unhealthy relationship behaviors such as fear, overdependence, and even rebellion. These two I found much more interesting, although somewhat dry.

The section that struck me most was on the importance of establishing a relationship based on respect. Part of establishing a healthy relationship with a mentor is focusing on that mentor’s good qualities and strengths. This is not to say that the student should ignore the bad qualities or shortcomings of their mentor, but that they should mediate and focus their energy on the positive attributes. By dwelling on the negative aspects and things one doesn’t like about their teacher, a student can potentially miss out on the lessons and parts that are positive. I found this to be a great overall piece of advice for engaging in any sort of relationship, be it with a spiritual teacher, a friend, family member, or partner. Many times relationships, of any kind, can be trying and difficult, but if you can focus on the things you appreciate about the person, you’ll be much more willing or in a place to engage in a respectful and healthy manner. Any relationship based on respect, on behalf of both parties engaged, has the greatest chance at being healthy and fruitful for all involved.

On a whole, I found the book to be very overwhelming. There was a lot of important information packed into relatively small sections. At times, it assumed the reader had a slightly greater than basic understanding of Buddhist concepts and practices, but at others, found space to break down actual terms into digestible nuggets of information. Due to this strange assumption about the knowledge base of the reader, I had a difficult time figuring out who the target audience for such a book would be. While I understand the desire to appeal to and be useful to a wider audience, I found it difficult to navigate some of the information. I found it most appropriate for a class at a Dharma center, or an intermediate course on Buddhism.

Written by: Liz Martin, August 9th 2010