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It's a koan. In the Buddhist Zen tradition a koan is a paradoxical story, statement or question that is inaccessible to conventional thought. The practitioner uses ...
What Does it Mean to Have a Teacher?

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel first met Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche in Nepal in 1985. She became his first Dharma student and his wife, and has now studied with him for twenty-five years. Kongtrul Rinpoche has appointed Elizabeth as the first retreat master of his retreat centre, Longchen Jigmé Samten Ling, in Crestone, Colorado. Elizabeth has completed seven years of solitary retreat, while at the same time raising their son Jampal. Her first book, The Power of an Open Question, was published by Shambhala in September 2010. In this interview with Michaela Haas for View Magazine, Elizabeth offers a very personal insight into the relationship between student and teacher on the spiritual path.

In the West, the student-teacher relationship is still a new thing and we are still learning what a teacher is. Exactly. This topic of the teacher seems to be about the teacher but it really throws us back on ourselves. I’ve always felt there’s a little bit of loneliness to all of this. We think: “Okay, now we have a teacher we’re not alone! The gap is filled!” That’s what we do with all our relationships. We get in a relationship and we think: “Ah, finally!” But then you start to feel lonelier than ever! Because it accentuates the fact enlightenment is up to us. And this is why the teacher sometimes feels far away, even when we are physically close to him. Sometimes we feel attached to the teacher… but it’s the same with all relationships, and in the end we all have to separate. And, besides that, what can the teacher do for you? He can’t take away your suffering, right? So you’re still in it alone.

What’s so challenging about guru devotion? Particularly in the Vajrayana, the teachings say you should see your teacher as the perfect Buddha. At the same time our mind can’t see ‘perfect’, because our mind is confused and ignorant in many ways and we tend to objectify things, including the teacher. We basically see things in relationship to the ego and ego’s preferences. So we want to see the lama as perfect but this kind of perfect is not like an experienced perfect. It’s a conceptual perfect. A fantasy. And our fantasies are often challenged when the teacher does something we don’t understand. When this happens, our idea of being a perfect student also comes into question. We have many ideas of what perfect is, and yet we experience everything through our ignorance and our preferences—in other words, we experience samsara. The definition of samsara is that we never find satisfaction; it’s not a fixable situation; nothing can reach perfection in samsara. So we want to see the teacher as perfect, but we have this challenge, which is our own mind. What does it mean to see the teacher as perfect? It’s a koan. In the Buddhist Zen tradition a koan is a paradoxical story, statement or question that is inaccessible to conventional thought. The practitioner uses the koan as a starting point for meditative inquiry to transcend ordinary answers or solutions. We decide to study with a teacher to arrive at a better way of seeing things. And we trust in a teacher because a teacher has the qualities of wisdom and compassion. It’s a choice that actually comes from a deeper intelligence that we have, to move away from ignorance. So there must be already a very small window of intelligence there that allows us to recognize and appreciate the teacher’s qualities. There really is a pact between the teacher and the student, and the pact is that we’re going to trust or rely upon them to do this work. From his side, the teacher is trying to bring us out of this confused way of being. So whether we keep that pact or not, or we resist that agreement or not, is really up to us.

In the Vajrayana, there is the analogy of hook and ring that describes the relationship between teacher and student. I think we can hear this and think, “Oh great, if I just hang out with the teacher, he’ll hook me like a fish and just pull me out of my suffering and my misery.” But it doesn’t work like that! Hook and ring means interdependence. If we think the teacher can just save us, it doesn’t challenge us to change, and we can’t attain enlightenment if we don’t change. It’s very safe to put the teacher on a pedestal and have a fantasy. Because again you don’t have to self- reflect, you don’t have to change, you don’t have to give up your ego. You don’t have to become the ring. The teacher is the hook, but we have to become a ring for the teacher to hook. If there is no ring, there can’t be anything to hook.

So how do you become the ring? When we think of the teacher as a perfect buddha in this ordinary way, we just have a very limited and contrived idea of what that is. What happens is when our teacher does something that we don’t understand, we can’t maintain this grand and static view, and perfect starts to fall apart. Then we start to fake our devotion a little, pump it up. And yet we wonder, “What happened to my devotion?” What really happens is that we start to wonder about ourselves. “Why can’t I be like Milarepa and Naropa, and the disciples we read about in the texts? Why can’t I see the teacher as a perfect buddha?” It is a really big dilemma that comes from having a very, very small view of who the teacher is.

Essentially I think this is the same dilemma we have with our own mind. Because on one hand we want to be a good practitioner, that’s very noble, but what do we do with all our humanness? What do we do with all the dissatisfaction that arises? What do we do with our passion, aggression and ignorance? How do we reconcile ‘me’ with enlightenment? Please understand that I’m not saying that the teacher is not extraordinary, but I just don’t think we can know the teacher through our ordinary ways of seeing.

These teachers are like a force of nature. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why they do and say what they do. It can be confusing. I think if you try to figure it out rationally or according to what the ego wants to see, you are not going to get anywhere. It really requires you to have a bigger way of seeing things, which means a desire to give up ego. I can look at a lot of things my teacher said or did and say that’s really not fair. I’m sure I could come up with all kinds of justification for my views. But then who would challenge the limits of my conceptual mind? If we understand the teacher-student relationship correctly, we will take everything on to the path. There have been many things my teacher has said and done that have challenged me. Sometimes I haven’t been able to see the benefit for a long time after… but eventually I do, it never fails, and my appreciation continues to grow.

But still, I don’t think we could sail by just looking at the teacher as divine. The teacher is divine, but not in the way we sometimes make him an icon of divine. The teacher is divine because the teacher understands what it means to be human. The teacher is someone who has gone beyond ordinary, dualistic mind. This is really miraculous. Because they have the same challenges we have: birth, old age, sickness and death. So we need to value what is extraordinary about the teacher in order to know where to meet him. If the teacher was someone living in some divine state ‘up there’ and we were ‘down here’, what could such a teacher do for us? If the teacher doesn’t understand our humanness or understand what we’re up against as human beings, what could we learn from him? How would he help us face these basic human challenges?

So we need to stay awake to the vibrancy of experience. When I think about my teachers, especially with Kongtrul Rinpoche, I’ve seen so much of his human side, but that’s actually what touched me. Sometimes we see humanness as a weakness, or a fault, but Rinpoche has so much passion to engage and understand that I started to understand that the point of waking up is to be fully human, natural and ordinary. This is what I see in my teacher: there is always this passion to understand this natural way of being. And I find this to be extraordinary.

We can’t really see this when we have fantasies. We can’t see our own full humanness, if we have fantasies about how we should be. So, the important point is, really to be able to bear witness to the fullness of life: the suffering and the joy, and all of our humanness. Buddha’s first noble truth was to behold suffering. And not just suffering, we need to be able to behold beauty, and all of our experience.

This points to a very different way of being. When we start to understand this, the teacher koan becomes a little bit clearer and the teachings and experience come together. We can understand how to appreciate the teacher, not being super-human, but being fully human.

You are very open about how difficult it was at first when you met Rinpoche and married him at a young age. How was that for you, meeting the Dharma, meeting Rinpoche, getting married—all at once? I’ll just preface that by saying I feel very fortunate. I was twenty-three, and he was twenty-one. I was quite open, but very naïve. When I met Rinpoche I didn’t know who he was. I met him up at Nagi Gompa [Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s nunnery in Nepal], where he was doing retreat. I thought that he seemed very different from other people—very light and his eyes were very clear. I didn’t know he was a Rinpoche, but he talked to me about Dharma. I had all these questions about Dharma and what to do with my life. I’d go to see different lamas who told me different things, but I couldn’t relate to it at all. When I talked to him, I can’t for the life of me remember what he said, but it meant something to me, and I thought in my mind, “I hope I can meet a lama that I can understand like this person…” After a week, I figured out who he was, so I was like: “Oh wow!” After some time, I asked him to be my teacher. I always felt this great auspiciousness, and luckily I was able to trust that, but at the same time, what is a teacher? At twenty-three you don’t know even what it means to be married, so it was quite confusing for me. There were no other students, and there is not a club of sangyums [lit. “sacred consorts”, i.e. the spiritual wives of Tibetan Lamas] or a website one can go to either. So I couldn’t find anyone to answer it for me, there was really no one to talk to.

You never talked to other sangyums? Sangyums never talk about these things amongst each other. I got some advice from some teachers. Penor Rinpoche once said, “Never see your teacher as ordinary.” What do you do with that? People give you suggestions very kindly, but it’s very hard to understand. What does this mean? I didn’t know, and obviously no one was going to tell me. So I decided to take this as my koan. It’s just become like a tool of learning for me. As students, this is a koan for all of us: What does it mean to have a teacher?

Once one sangyum saw me with Kongtrul Rinpoche. I didn’t know her, had never met her. She took me by the arm really strongly, and pulled me into a private room and she said: “If you don’t serve others you’re going to suffer terribly, and if you serve others you can be happy.” It’s like everybody knows there is some challenge to this kind of relationship, but no one discusses it. But one thing I should also mention is that I feel very blessed because Kongtrul Rinpoche is very open and very progressive as a person. So it’s not like I was totally isolated.

When we go beyond ordinary mind, we become a ring. And then we can see what the perfect teacher is. This is pure perception. This is how you really meet the teacher. Until then the path is kind of lonely. But once this happens there is no more loneliness in the path. You know you actually could be around the teacher twenty-four/seven and never meet the teacher.

I remember once, while a bunch of us were in a restaurant, Kongtrul Rinpoche told a student: “You should understand what the true nature of our relationship is, because when you’re in the bardo, it’s not this ordinary person who you’re drinking a beer with now, that you need to meet in the bardo.”

So knowing the teacher has to do with our mind and practice. I had more of this kind of experience with Kongtrul Rinpoche, especially in retreat when I started to realize: “Oh, this is what my relationship is about.” Before this I always thought I had such weak devotion, I always struggled and wanted to see Rinpoche as perfect. But looking back now, I see that much of that struggle was really a kind of devotion that wanted to truly understand him. In this way I have always had so much faith in Rinpoche. But I had to honestly say that I knew I wasn’t seeing him as perfect. Perfect is not accessible to ordinary dualistic mind. And I couldn’t settle into that ‘idea’ of perfect. Some of my friends were really good at talking about how ‘perfect’ he was and it made me feel worse because I couldn’t see him that way.

What I mean to say is that it is important to deeply appreciate the extraordinary qualities of our teacher, but sometimes we force a contrived notion of ‘perfect’ onto the teacher and I suspect that it has a lot to do with our desire to be a ‘perfect’ disciple. But I don’t think the point of the teacher/student relationship has to do with becoming a poster child for the Dharma. The true purpose has to do with learning how to work with the challenges of being human. That’s my point.

Especially when you’re married to the teacher. You mentioned that Penor Rinpoche told you never to see the teacher as ordinary. And Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s wife also said she never for an instant saw him as ordinary, because he was just so extraordinary. But when you live together you must have ordinary moments and discuss who does the dishes.

Yes, in a way, we have conventional moments where we watch the news or have fun as a family. Our time together is easy, natural and humorous—completely silly and fun. At the same time I must say that Rinpoche is the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met. His life is completely focused on Dharma. I can see this. But we can’t ignore the fact that we all have to work with our ordinary dualistic thoughts and emotions. These things arise all day long in relation to the teacher and everything else. I think when I was young and newly married I felt challenged by him being both my husband and teacher, mostly because some of the ways in which Rinpoche communicated were foreign to me and there were cultural differences too. But it quickly became clear that when push comes to shove, first and foremost, he is my teacher. That has never wavered.

Actually, I met Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s wife. When the Karmapa came to Boulder, she was there. I said, “I’ve always wanted to meet you. I love your book.” She just looked at me. It’s another one of these sangyum moments with a hidden message. She said, “It’s hard, isn’t it?” I felt so touched by her care and insight at that moment I almost burst out crying. I said, “Yeah.” She said, “But you wouldn’t trade it, even for a moment, would you?” And I said, “No.” And that was about the extent of our conversation. We talked about horses after that. That’s it.

I sometimes feel there’s just so much unspoken about the teacher and how to be a good disciple. It is not just a question that comes up if you’re married to your teacher, it’s a question for all students. You want to be a good student and yet you can’t talk about it because there’s this conflict. You feel you should be a certain way, but then you’re human.

You spent seven years in solitary retreat in Colorado while raising your son Jampal. How did you handle these two commitments? Jampal was nine when I went in, and incredibly supportive. When I asked him if he needed me, he’d say, “Mom, I’m fine. I always know where you are.” I think he found a lot of comfort in the fact that I was doing retreat, and always associated practice with something nurturing. I was very fortunate because I had a very close sangha brother or sister living in the house all the time. Our house is about a mile away from my cabin, so I would go home at night for story time, we’d spend time together and I’d sleep in the house with him. Then I’d wake him up and we’d have tea together and then the friend would take him to school. At other times I stayed up at the retreat cabin and he would come and visit me.

So you weren’t in completely strict retreat? The first three years were quite strict, and I didn’t feel like I was losing my boundary when I came home to see him. When I first went into retreat I was really tight about it, I didn’t even want to talk to other retreatants. It was good in a way, but there was some neurosis in it. And so one day, Rinpoche actually pulled me out of retreat and took me to this hot spring—a naked hot spring, where you can’t even wear clothes. It was total exposure. Of course we ran into someone we knew and they were asking, “What are you doing here, aren’t you in retreat?” I was kicking and screaming inside, but it was very helpful.

Personally, what do you think are the greatest benefits of retreat? When you’re living in the world you sometimes can escape or manipulate experience, there are different ways to distract yourself. We are always trying to get what we want, or not get what we don’t want, or struggling with getting what we want and finding out it’s not what we wanted after all. A lot of wants and not wants. In retreat, I was faced with these experiences as everyone is. We want pleasant experience but we feel pummelled by our thoughts, and so on. So there’s this constant struggle, expectation and fear. The ego has so many preferences.

When you’re in retreat alone, you can only go on struggling for so long… you have to find a way to really engage the practice. Retreat is about learning how to accommodate your experience. Learning how to sanely relate to experience. Retreat forces us to do this. That’s the beauty of it.

So early on in the retreat I started to question a much more important boundary than the physical one… because whether we are physically ‘in’ or ‘out’ of retreat is not the point. The point is, “when am I engaging the practice and when am I not.” If I were to give one core advice, it is this: being in retreat and sitting on the cushion is not the point. The point of retreat is to engage the practice. We need to know what this means. When is the mind spinning off? When are we pushing away experience? How do we relate to our experiences in practice? What does it mean to engage the practice? How does this liberate the mind? How do you experience the difference between engaging the practice and not? This is finding the true boundary. I really think this is the main thing, because you could sit on the cushion 24 hours a day and never have a true moment of practice. It’s possible. What we call our life is just a momentary stream of experiences. So whether you’re sitting on the cushion or you’re out in the world, your life is about how you work with your experiences. It’s really pronounced when you’re on the cushion because it’s pretty much in your face, in front of you. And you can’t really escape the experience.

Do you have any advice for other parents with children who would like to practice more? I would suggest that when you’re practising, you practise. And when you’re with your child to just be fully present there. I understand that parents have to struggle with this and I empathize with them, but I also think that having children is very important. For the continuation of the lineage, we need children. It is such an enriching experience and it makes you give up a lot of your own fixations and preferences, to extend kindness and generosity and love. It’s a very valuable experience and a practice in itself. But in terms of trying to do formal practice, which is so important, in terms of stabilizing the view, you need the motivation, then scheduling, and you have to be creative.

But the important question is, what is practice? This is very important to be clear. If you have confidence in this you can go out and engage life in post-meditation and you can connect with practice much more easily. Then there’s so much opportunity to practise because there’s continuous experience. If practise is just relating to experience then there’s experience on the cushion and off the cushion; it’s just that there’s less distraction on the cushion to become clear about these things. Once you have a clear idea of what you’re doing, then you can go out.