The Traditional Meaning of a Spiritual Seeker
by Alexander Berzin
Many people may consider themselves spiritual seekers and may even study with spiritual teachers at Dharma centres. The most committed type of spiritual seeker, however, is a disciple of a spiritual mentor. Problems in relating to spiritual teachers often arise because of students prematurely considering themselves to be someone’s disciples — whether or not the person chosen is a qualified mentor — and then trying to follow the traditional protocol for a disciple-mentor relationship. To begin to dispel this confusion, let us continue our rectification of terms by examining the Sanskrit and Tibetan words usually translated as disciple.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE SANSKRIT TERMS FOR A DISCIPLE
The main Sanskrit terms for a Buddhist disciple are shaiksha, shishya, vaineya, and bhajana. A shaiksha is someone who offers him or herself for shiksha, training by a spiritual mentor. Specifically, this means receiving three types of “higher training” — in ethical self-discipline, concentration on constructive objects, and discriminating awareness of reality.
Training in ethical self-discipline means learning to restrain from acting, speaking, or thinking destructively. It also entails engaging in constructive behaviour and positive ways of thinking and feeling. As with the explanation of spiritual friends and spiritual mentors, constructive implies behaving and thinking without disturbing emotions or attitudes, such as greed, attachment, hostility, or naivety. It also implies having confidence in the benefits of being positive and maintaining a sense of values derived from respecting positive qualities and persons possessing them. Thus, disciples train in methods for self-development, such as meditation, within a wholesome, ethical framework. Moreover, in the context of being a disciple of a Mahayana spiritual friend, constructive also signifies that the higher training aims for reaching enlightenment. Thus, while training to become Buddhas, disciples actively help others as much as they can.
The term shishya derives from the same root as the word shasana, meaning an indication of Buddha’s attainments. Through his way of being and his spoken words later recorded as scriptural texts, Buddha indicated his enlightenment to others and taught methods for attaining it. Correspondingly, disciples learn the three types of higher training from a spiritual mentor through observing the person’s character and demeanour and through listening to his or her explanation of the scriptural teachings. Similarly, disciples combine experiential and theoretical knowledge, to bring about constructive transformations of their personalities and manner.
Vaineya implies someone who trains in vinaya, the methods for “becoming tame.” Through vinaya training, disciples gain ethical self discipline through keeping the vowed restraints of Buddhist laypeople or monastics. By formally taking vows to tame their unruly patterns and to behave and think more constructively, disciples demonstrate a deep level of commitment to the process of self-development.
Bhajana means a receptacle or container. Disciples serve as receptacles for receiving and holding the Dharma teachings. Specifically, they serve as vessels for containing the three types of higher training and either lay or monastic vows. To be proper vessels, disciples require a certain level of maturity before establishing a relationship with a mentor. They need open-mindedness to receive training and vows, stability to maintain the continuity of each, and freedom from strong psychological problems so that they can observe the two purely.
The term chela, commonly used for a Hindu disciple who leaves household life to live and study with a sadhu (a homeless spiritual devotee), means someone who dresses in the rags of an ascetic yogi. The Tibetan translation raypa (ras-pa), however, lost the connotation of a disciple. Instead, it became a term for a tantric yogi who dresses in the scant rags of an Indian ascetic, for example Mila-raypa (Milarepa).
Tibetans translated both shaiksha and shishya as lobma (slob- ma), vaineya as dülja (gdul-bya), and bhajana as nö (snod). The Tibetan terms carry mostly the same nuances as the Sanskrit equivalents, but in certain cases add more richness. The syllable ma in lobma, for example, connotes wisdom, another word for discriminating awareness, as it does in lama. Disciples train to discriminate for themselves what is constructive from what is destructive and fantasy from reality. Nö is often coupled with chü (bcud), meaning the refined essence of something. Disciples serve as proper vessels for receiving and holding the refined essence that a mentor can offer — the enlightening methods for becoming a Buddha.
In short, if spiritual mentors are constructive persons who lead others to behave and to think constructively in order for them to attain enlightenment, disciples are those who are led to enlightenment by such persons through training in constructive behaviour and thought.
THE MEANING OF BEING A TEACHER’S GETRUG
Getrug (dge-phrug), an additional Tibetan term for disciple, corroborates the previous explanations. Ge means constructive and trug means a child. A getrug is a child raised by a spiritual mentor to be constructive — along the way as an increasingly balanced, ethical, and positive person, and ultimately as a Buddha. Child does not necessarily refer to the disciple’s age. It means a minor with respect to the spiritual path.
In addition to its etymological meaning, the term getrug has another connotation. The term may also signify someone who has lived in a teacher’s home since childhood and is included in the finances of the household. Often, getrug are younger relatives. The two meanings of getrug do not necessarily overlap. Spiritual disciples may not be included in the finances of their mentors’ households and those included may hardly receive any formal spiritual training, for example the cook.
THE STARTING POINT FOR BECOMING A DISCIPLE
To understand correctly what being a disciple means in the Buddhist context requires knowing at which stage on the spiritual path one may appropriately become a disciple. Although the classical texts agree on the necessity for spiritual teachers at every stage along the path, spiritual seekers begin the journey long before becoming disciples of qualified mentors. Much confusion has arisen about this point because Kadam masters, such as Sangwayjin, explained the disciple-mentor relationship as the “root of the path” and presented the topic at the start of their graded-path (lamrim, lam-rim) texts. Subsequently, Tsongkapa and all later Gelug masters followed suit. The placement of this topic in the outline of their texts, however, does not mean that seekers need to enter a disciple-mentor relationship as the first step on their spiritual paths. Let us examine what these masters meant.
In The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Phenomena, Tsongkapa explained that the classification system of three Dharma cycles (three turnings of the wheel of Dharma) does not indicate a temporal sequence of teachings. It indicates, instead, a division scheme made according to subject matter. The first cycle’s topic, the “four noble truths,” serves as the basis for the teachings classified in the second two cycles. Similarly, Sangwayjin’s placement of the disciple-mentor relationship as the first major topic in An Extensive Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path does not indicate its temporal position on the path. It merely indicates its essential role as the stable foundation for developing the graded stages of spiritual motivation in their fullest forms.
In The Gateway for Entering the Dharma, Sönam-tsemo, the second of the five Sakya founders, explained that before building a relationship with a spiritual mentor, seekers need to recognise and acknowledge suffering in their lives and to develop the wish to overcome it. In other words, they need a rudimentary level of “renunciation.” In addition, they need knowledge of Buddha’s teachings about what to practice and what to avoid in order to reduce and eliminate the suffering they wish to overcome. Only then are seekers ready to establish a serious relationship with a spiritual mentor, to help them achieve their goals.
Spiritual mentors, however, are teachers who help disciples to reach enlightenment. Therefore, before establishing a disciple-mentor relationship, seekers also need initial interest in becoming Buddhas for everyone’s sake. This is clear from the writings of the Indian master Atisha, the formulator of the graded path and fountainhead of the Kadam tradition. In An [Auto-]Commentary on the Difficult Points of “A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment,” Atisha first mentioned the disciple mentor relationship in the context of developing bodhichitta. Moreover, developing a Mahayana motivation of bodhichitta presumes at least a beginning level of safe direction (refuge) in the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the highly realised Sangha community.
The Fifth Dalai Lama made these points explicit in his graded-path text Personal Instructions from Manjushri. There, he argued for the necessity and propriety of taking safe direction and developing bodhichitta before establishing a disciple-mentor relationship. Following this argument, the Second Panchen Lama, in A Speedy Path, changed the order of Tsongkapa’s Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path. To reflect the actual order of spiritual development, he placed the preliminary practices before the discussion of the disciple-mentor relationship. The preliminaries include taking safe direction and enhancing one’s bodhichitta motivation. Thus, the Kadam/Gelug understanding of the graded path is consistent with the frequent Kagyü and Nyingma explanations that establishing safe direction, bodhichitta, and then a healthy disciple-mentor relationship is the sequence of essential preliminaries for Buddhist spiritual advancement.
Tsongkapa further explained that each stage of self- development along the graded path is a stepping-stone on the way to enlightenment. Thus, although seekers need already to have recognition of suffering, renunciation of it, knowledge of what to practice and avoid, safe direction, and bodhichitta before becoming disciples, they need merely to have the five as a spiritual orientation. The initial level of intensity of the five that seekers possess acts as a stepping-stone for proceeding further, now as disciples of spiritual mentors, and is hardly the end of the development of them along the way. Thus, although having safe direction and bodhichitta implies striving toward liberation and then enlightenment, having the two as merely a spiritual orientation does not imply comprehending and accepting on a visceral level the full implication of attaining these goals.
THE NECESSITY OF CORRECT UNDERSTANDING AND CONVICTION IN REBIRTH FOR A DISCIPLE TO AIM SINCERELY FOR LIBERATION AND ENLIGHTENMENT
To strive toward liberation and then enlightenment, with a full comprehension and visceral acceptance of what these goals imply, comes only after comprehending and viscerally accepting the Buddhist explanation of rebirth. In Buddhism, rebirth does not imply the existence of a permanent soul that goes to an eternal afterlife or that passes from one incarnation to the next, facing progressive lessons that are given to it to learn. The Buddhist understanding implies, instead, an infinite continuity of individual experience, without an unchanging, singular entity, independent from body and mind, which is really “me” and which continues from one life to the next. The continuity proceeds from one lifetime to the next either uncontrollably driven by disturbing emotions and attitudes and by compelling impulses (Skt. karma) or consciously directed through the force of compassion. The Buddhist explanation is sophisticated and extremely difficult to understand.
Liberation means freedom from the suffering of uncontrollably recurring rebirth (Skt. samsara) and its causes, while enlightenment brings the ability to help others gain similar freedom. How can disciples sincerely strive for liberation from uncontrollable rebirth without correctly understanding what rebirth means according to Buddhism and without conviction that they have been experiencing it uncontrollably, without a beginning, and will continue to do so, unless they do something about it? How can they strive for enlightenment without certainty that everyone else also experiences the suffering of samsara?
THE NECESSITY OF CORRECT UNDERSTANDING AND CONVICTION IN REBIRTH FOR A DISCIPLE TO REACH EVEN THE FIRST STAGE OF SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT
Correct understanding and conviction in the Buddhist explanation of rebirth is necessary for reaching even the first stage of spiritual development once one has entered a disciple-mentor relationship. For example, in A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, Atisha identified three distinct stages of self-development that disciples reach while progressing along the graded path to enlightenment. Disciples attain the initial stage when they aim for favourable rebirths because of wishing to avoid the suffering of unfavourable ones. Clearly, they will only aim for favourable rebirths if they are sincerely convinced that future lives exist and that they will experience them after death. They attain the second stage when they aim for liberation from uncontrollable rebirth altogether, whether favourable or unfavourable, and the third when their goal is enlightenment.
The spiritual context of the initial aim of Buddhist disciples differs greatly from that of followers of other traditions who pray to go to heaven after they die and to remain there for eternity. To continue working, beyond this lifetime, toward liberation and enlightenment requires gaining rebirths with circumstances that are conducive for spiritual practice. Thus, gaining favourable rebirths is only a provisional goal for Buddhist disciples.
All subsequent Tibetan formulations of the stages of the path concur with Atisha about the initial level. For example, Sachen, the senior of the five Sakya founders, popularised Manjushri’s revelation to him of Parting from the Four [Stages of] Clinging. In this formulation, the first stage of spiritual life entails parting oneself from clinging to the wish to benefit this lifetime. The four themes of Gampopa, the father of the twelve Dagpo Kagyü lines, echo this view. The first theme, turning one’s mind to the Dharma, also requires switching the major focus of attention from this lifetime to future ones. The consensus is clear.
THE PLACE OF CONVICTION IN REBIRTH IN ENTERING A DISCIPLE-MENTOR RELATIONSHIP
Although a correct Buddhist understanding of rebirth and conviction in its existence are necessary for reaching even the initial level of the graded path to enlightenment, the question remains whether or not conviction in rebirth is a prerequisite for becoming a disciple of a spiritual mentor. I would argue that merely intellectual understanding, openness to the idea, and tentative acceptance are required, but not full conviction, despite the fact that conviction is traditionally assumed. As the place of conviction in rebirth is controversial in Western Buddhism, let us examine the reasoning behind this assertion.
According to the presentation of the graded path, disciples begin training in the initial scope teachings while still obsessed and worried about their material welfare, emotional happiness, and interpersonal relationships in this life. By meditating on the rarity of attaining a human life and on death and impermanence, they overcome that obsession. When their main concern is to gain welfare, happiness, and positive relationships in future lives — but only as provisional goals on the way toward liberation and enlightenment — disciples reach the initial level of spiritual development.
If spiritual seekers had no need to accept rebirth before becoming disciples, but needed to gain conviction in its existence as part of their training to reach the initial level of development, explanations and proofs of past and future lives would appear in the graded-path texts. The logical place for such material is after the discussion of death and impermanence and before the presentation of karma. Its absence there suggests that the intended audience — seekers imbued in the traditional Tibetan worldview — had no need for this material. Only advanced textbooks of logic contain explanations and proofs of rebirth and these are to refute the obscure beliefs of an ancient Indian school of materialists.
Most Tibetans accept rebirth as a reality, although their understanding of it may be vague. When a relative dies, for example, Tibetans regularly request prayers and rituals to help the departed attain a favourable rebirth. Westerners who seek relationships with spiritual teachers, however, typically share few of the cultural assumptions made in the classical Buddhist texts. Despite the Biblical teachings about heaven and hell, most question the existence of an afterlife. Even if Westerners believe in rebirth, they often understand the phenomenon to occur in the manner in which Hindu or New Age texts explain it, which differs significantly from the Buddhist explication. Therefore, they need a correct Buddhist explanation and certainty about its validity before they can reach the initial level of the graded path. If, for most Westerners, conviction in rebirth develops only in stages, where on the spiritual path does consideration of the existence of rebirth as understood in Buddhism logically need to begin?
In the case of renunciation, safe direction, and bodhichitta, seekers need an initial, stepping-stone level of the three as their general spiritual orientation before entering a disciple-mentor relationship. After establishing the relationship, they develop them fully during the course of their training. Correct understanding and conviction in the Buddhist explanation of rebirth are likewise fundamental to a Buddhist spiritual orientation. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assert that potential disciples similarly need an intellectual understanding of rebirth as Buddhism explains it, and either a tentative acceptance of its reality or at least an open mind toward the possibility of its existence, before committing themselves to the Buddhist path. Conviction comes afterwards, before reaching the initial level of spiritual development, through further study and thought about the logical proofs and documented evidence of rebirth.
ENTERING A DISCIPLE-MENTOR RELATIONSHIP WHILE AIMING FOR SPIRITUAL GOALS ONLY IN THIS LIFETIME OR ALSO FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS
Another important question is whether or not Western seekers, to become Buddhist disciples, need concern for fortunate rebirths as their starting motivation, even if their acceptance of the existence of rebirth is still only tentative. I would argue that this does not necessarily need to be so. Sönam-tsemo stated that the prerequisite for becoming a disciple is merely to recognise some level of suffering in one’s life and to have the determination to be free of it. He did not specify the scope of suffering one needs to address.
Moreover, in The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, Tsongkapa differentiated two levels of renunciation, depending on the scope of suffering from which one determines to be free. Following the model of Sachen’s Parting from the Four [Stages of] Clinging, Tsongkapa formulated the two levels in terms of turning first from thoughts of only this lifetime and then from thoughts of only future lives. If disciples advance through progressive stages of renunciation in general, it is reasonable to assert that within a specified stage they also advance through progressive steps.
Most Western seekers recognise the problems that arise from obsession with instant gratification of material and emotional desires. In renouncing that suffering and turning to the Buddhist path, they may be willing to commit themselves first to working for ecologically sustainable material welfare, emotional well-being, and good relationships in the future. The future may include the later part of their lives or, with expanded scope, it may extend to the lifetimes of future generations. However, while having only an intellectual understanding and tentative acceptance of rebirth, Western seekers cannot sincerely work for happiness in future lives as a realistic option in case they do not succeed in reaching their goals before they die.
Similarly, in renouncing the suffering that comes from obsession with instant gratification of desires, Western seekers may be willing to commit themselves to working toward liberation and enlightenment. However, until they gain fi rm conviction in rebirth as understood in Buddhism, they can sincerely aim for liberation and enlightenment only in this lifetime, not in future lives.
I would argue that renouncing the suffering that comes from obsession with instant gratification of desires is sufficient for entering a Buddhist disciple-mentor relationship. I would further assert that provisionally aiming for happiness later in life, or also for future generations, or for liberation and enlightenment only in this lifetime, is sufficient motivation thereafter, until one gains conviction in the Buddhist explanation of future lives. Moreover, I would further assert that, for most Western disciples, aiming for these provisional goals is pragmatically necessary as a preliminary stage for making the classical graded path accessible. Certain stipulations, however, are required.
STIPULATIONS FOR A BEGINNER DISCIPLE TO AIM PROVISIONALLY FOR THE NON TRADITIONAL GOALS
By restraining from destructive behaviour and disturbing emotions and attitudes, disciples may experience sustainable welfare, happiness, and good relationships later in life, but there is no guarantee. Many additional factors may affect what happens, such as being killed in an accident before experiencing the fruits of their efforts. Similarly, there is no certainty that future generations will gain happiness as the result of their constructive steps. Much depends on the behaviour and attitudes of future generations themselves. Thus, while striving to eliminate difficulties later in life or also for future generations, beginner disciples need to understand and acknowledge the impossibility of solving all problems with this limited scope. The best they can hope for is some improvement.
By totally eliminating disturbing emotions and attitudes, disciples may gain liberation in this lifetime, and by additionally eliminating their instincts, they may also reach enlightenment. However, since these goals are extremely difficult to attain, it is quite probable that they will not achieve them in this lifetime. Thus, while striving toward liberation and enlightenment in this life, disciples need to understand and acknowledge that most likely they will only be able to make strides in that direction before they die.
In short, so long as beginner disciples understand and tentatively accept future lives as explained in Buddhism and avoid unrealistic expectations for success, I would argue that they might reasonably strive for spiritual goals only in this lifetime, or also for future generations. In addition, however, they would need to regard these goals as mere stepping-stones until they gain firm conviction in the Buddhist understanding of rebirth. Only with firm conviction may disciples actually progress through the graded levels of motivation outlined in the traditional texts.
One might object that the assertion of these provisional goals violates the logical consistency of the graded path. According to the classical presentation, one of the prerequisite causes of taking safe direction is dread of experiencing the suffering of unfavourable rebirths. If potential disciples need a spiritual orientation of safe direction and yet typical Western seekers hardly dread unfavourable rebirths because they lack conviction in rebirth, how can they have safe direction as their spiritual orientation? I would argue that dread of experiencing emotional problems becoming worse in this lifetime, or also becoming worse for future generations, could serve as a stepping-stone level of incentive prior to having the prescribed motivation. Either of the two could serve as provisional motivations, but with the stipulation that the seeker has a correct understanding of rebirth as explained in Buddhism and a tentative acceptance of its existence.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BECOMING A DISCIPLE OF A SPIRITUAL MENTOR AND BECOMING A CLIENT OF A THERAPIST
Consider someone wishing to gain emotional happiness and good relationships for the rest of his or her life. Becoming a disciple of a spiritual mentor to achieve this goal in many ways resembles becoming a client of a therapist for the same purpose. Both arise from recognising and acknowledging suffering in one’s life and wishing to alleviate it. Both entail working with someone to recognise and understand one’s problems and their causes. Many forms of therapy, in fact, agree with Buddhism that understanding serves as the key for self-transformation.
Further, both Buddhism and therapy embrace schools of thought that emphasise deeply understanding the causes of one’s problems, traditions that stress working on pragmatic methods to overcome these factors, and systems that recommend a balanced combination of the two approaches. In addition, both Buddhism and many forms of therapy advocate establishing a healthy emotional relationship with the mentor or therapist as an important part of the process of self-development. Moreover, although most classical forms of therapy shy away from using ethical guidelines for modifying clients’ behaviour and ways of thinking, a few post classical schools advocate ethical principles similar to those in Buddhism. Such principles include being equally fair to all members of a dysfunctional family and refraining from acting out destructive impulses, such as those of anger.
Despite similarities, at least five significant differences exist between becoming a disciple of a Buddhist mentor and becoming a client of a therapist. The first difference concerns the emotional stage at which one establishes the relationship. Potential clients generally approach a therapist when they are emotionally disturbed. They may even be psychotic and require medication as part of the treatment. Potential disciples, in contrast, do not establish a relationship with a mentor as the first step on their spiritual paths. Prior to this, they have studied Buddha’s teachings and begun to work on themselves. As a result, they have reached a sufficient level of emotional maturity and stability so that the disciple-mentor relationship they establish is constructive in the Buddhist sense of the term. In other words, Buddhist disciples need already to be relatively free of neurotic attitudes and behaviour.
The second difference concerns the interaction one expects in the relationship. Potential clients are mostly interested in having someone listen to them. Therefore, they expect the therapist to devote concentrated attention to them and to their personal problems, even within the context of group therapy. Disciples, on the other hand, normally do not share personal problems with their mentors and do not expect or demand individual attention. Even if they consult the mentor for personal advice, they do not go regularly. The focus in the relationship is on listening to teachings. Buddhist disciples primarily learn methods from their mentors for overcoming general problems that everyone faces. They then assume personal responsibility to apply the methods to their specific situations.
The third difference concerns the results expected from the working relationship. Therapy aims for learning to accept and to live with the problems in one’s life or to minimise them so that they become bearable. If one approaches a Buddhist spiritual mentor with the aim of emotional well-being for this lifetime, one might also expect to minimise one’s problems. Despite life’s being difficult — the first fact of life (noble truth) that Buddha taught — one could make it less difficult.
As stated earlier, making one’s life emotionally less difficult, however, is only a preliminary step for approaching the classical Buddhist path. Disciples of spiritual mentors would at least be orientated toward the greater aims of favourable rebirths, liberation, and enlightenment. Moreover, Buddhist disciples would have an intellectual understanding of rebirth as explained in Buddhism and at least a tentative acceptance of its existence. Therapy clients have no need for thinking about rebirth or about aims beyond improving their immediate situations.
The fourth major difference is the level of commitment to self-transformation. Clients of therapists pay an hourly fee, but do not commit themselves to a lifelong change of attitude and behaviour. Buddhist disciples, on the other hand, may or may not pay for teachings; nevertheless, they formally change their direction in life. In taking safe direction, disciples commit themselves to the course of self-development that the Buddhas have fully traversed and then taught, and that the highly realised spiritual community strives to follow.
Moreover, Buddhist disciples commit themselves to an ethical, constructive course of acting, speaking, and thinking in life. They try, as much as is possible, to avoid destructive patterns and to engage in constructive ones instead. When disciples sincerely wish liberation from the recurring problems of uncontrollable rebirth, they make an even stronger commitment by formally taking lay or monastic vows for individual liberation (Skt. pratimoksha vows). Disciples at this stage of self-development vow for life to restrain at all times from specific modes of conduct that are either naturally destructive or which Buddha recommended that certain people avoid for specific purposes. An example of the latter is monastics abandoning lay dress and wearing robes instead, to reduce attachment. Even disciples who aim to avoid unfavourable rebirths or to minimise emotional difficulties in this lifetime, or also for future generations, might take liberation vows with any of these three provisional objectives before developing the prescribed motivation.
Clients of therapists, on the other hand, agree to follow certain rules of procedure as part of the therapeutic contract, such as keeping to a schedule of fifty-minute appointments. These rules, however, pertain only during treatment. They do not apply outside the therapeutic setting, do not entail refraining from naturally destructive behaviour, and are not for life.
The fifth major difference between disciples and therapy clients concerns the attitude toward the teacher or therapist. Disciples look to their spiritual mentors as living examples of what they strive to attain. They regard them in this way based on correct recognition of the mentors’ good qualities and they maintain and strengthen this view throughout their graded path to enlightenment. Clients, in contrast, may conceive of their therapists as models for emotional health, but they do not require correct awareness of the therapists’ good qualities. Becoming like the therapist is not the aim of the relationship. During the course of treatment, therapists lead their clients beyond projections of ideals.
INAPPROPRIATE USAGE OF THE TERM DISCIPLE
Sometimes, people call themselves disciples of spiritual teachers despite the fact that they, the teacher, or both fall short of fulfilling the proper meaning of the terms. Their naivety often leads them to unrealistic expectations, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and even abuse. Becoming an object of abuse, in this context, means being exploited sexually, emotionally, or financially, or being manipulated by someone in a show of power. In our effort to rectify terms, let us examine three common types of pseudo-disciples found in the West who are especially susceptible to problems with spiritual teachers.
Some people come to Dharma centres looking for fulfilment of their fantasies. They have read or heard something about the “mysterious East” or about superstar gurus, and wish to transcend their seemingly unexciting lives by having an exotic or mystical experience. They meet spiritual teachers and instantly declare themselves to be disciples, especially if the teachers are Asian, and even more so if they are robed. They are prone to similar behaviour with Western teachers who have Asian titles or names, whether or not the persons wear robes.
The quest for the occult often destabilises the relationships such seekers establish with spiritual teachers. Even if they declare themselves disciples of properly qualified mentors, they often leave these teachers when they realise that nothing supernatural is happening, except perhaps in their imaginations. Moreover, the unrealistic attitudes and high expectations of “instant disciples” often cloud their critical faculties. Such persons are particularly open to deception by spiritual charlatans clever in putting on a good act.
Others may come to centres desperate for help to overcome emotional or physical pain. They may have tried various forms of therapy, but to no avail. Now, they seek a miracle cure from a magician/healer. They declare themselves disciples of anyone who might give them a blessing pill, tell them the special prayer or mantra to repeat, or give them the potent practice to do — like making a hundred thousand prostrations — that will automatically fix their problems. They especially turn to the same types of teachers that fascinate people who are in quest of the occult. The “fix-it” mentality of miracle-seekers often leads to disappointment and despair, when following the advice of even qualified mentors does not result in miraculous cures. A “fix-it” mentality also attracts abuse from spiritual quacks.
Still others, especially disenchanted, unemployed youths, come to Dharma centres of cultist sects in the hope of gaining existential empowerment. Charismatic megalomaniacs draw them in by using “spiritual fascist” means. They promise their so-called disciples strength in numbers if they give total allegiance to their sects. They further allure disciples with dramatic descriptions of fierce protectors who will smash their enemies, especially the followers of inferior, impure Buddhist traditions. With grandiose stories of the superhuman powers of the founding fathers of their movements, they try to fulfil the disciples’ dreams of a mighty leader who will lift them to positions of spiritual entitlement. Responding to these promises, such people quickly declare themselves disciples and blindly follow whatever instructions or orders authoritarian teachers give them. The results are usually disastrous.
THE REALISTIC ATTITUDE OF AN AUTHENTIC DISCIPLE
Authentic disciples are relatively mature and sober spiritual seekers whom mentors train in ethical discipline, concentration, and awareness in order to improve the quality of this lifetime, while they are working to gain conviction in rebirth as Buddhism explains it, and then to gain favourable rebirths, liberation, and ultimately enlightenment. They do not expect occult phenomena, miracle cures, or existential empowerment from spiritual mentors. To fulfil the meaning of the term disciple, then, spiritual seekers need realistic attitudes. Such attitudes derive from a proper understanding of the progressive goals their training can bring. Thus, authentic disciples avoid aiming for too little or too much on each stage of the graded path.
On the preliminary level, authentic disciples avoid aiming for ecologically sustainable material welfare, emotional happiness, and good relationships in this lifetime as the final goals of their spiritual paths. Moreover, disciples do not expect that with such an aim they can escape experiencing further problems in this life.
On the initial level, authentic disciples avoid aiming for fortunate rebirths as an excuse for ignoring emotional problems in this life. Further, disciples do not conceive of a fortunate rebirth as an eternal paradise.
On the intermediate level, authentic disciples avoid aiming for liberation merely from emotional problems, without including freedom from the recurring problems of uncontrollable rebirth. Moreover, disciples do not conceive of liberation as a total annihilation of their existence, free from ever appearing again in the world to benefit others. Finally, on the advanced level, authentic disciples avoid aiming for an enlightenment that does not entail liberation from the recurring problems of uncontrollable rebirth. Further, disciples do not conceive of enlightenment as a form of omnipotence, with the power to cure all beings instantly of their problems.
In short, just as not everyone who teaches at a Buddhist centre is an authentic spiritual mentor, similarly not everyone who studies at a centre is an authentic spiritual disciple. The call for a rectification of terms requests precise usage of both the terms mentor and disciple. Full implementation of the policy requires spiritual honesty and lack of pretence.