finding a modern catalyst: is it possible?

I have been reading some very interesting stuff on the Juniper website, which is very relevant to the Buddhism and modernity discussion we are having on this blog, and one article in particular caught my attention. The article is called Heirs to Insight: Assimilating Buddhist methods into modern culture, and it contains the following passage:

CULTIVATE MODERN TEACHER RELATIONSHIPS

The optimal mode for a relationship with a teacher or guide for Buddhist training, therefore, is the one that best suits the psychological profile, norms, and sensibilities of the time.

Modern catalysts

Teachers, or guides, play a vital role on the Buddhist path. They are the catalysts that open the door to inner change and help to counter resistance and stabilize one’s progress. Although a relationship with a teacher or guide can take many forms, they tend to take on a style that is very much in line with local standards and culture. In some cultures, for example, a very high degree of formality and subservience is accorded to Buddhist teachers, whose words are rarely, if ever, subject to question. Although our modern culture does not have a direct counterpart to Buddhist training, challenging and questioning one’s teacher is well accepted—even encouraged—in other fields, and teacher relationships tend to be more informal.

There is no single correct way in which teacher relationships in Buddhist training should be structured. The degree of formality or subservience, for example, does not in and of itself characterize a successful relationship with a teacher or guide. What matters is the quality of the relationship and the level of mutual respect and trust cultivated over time. The optimal mode for a relationship with a teacher or guide for Buddhist training, therefore, is the one that best suits the psychological profile, norms, and sensibilities of the time.

The right balance

Modern education places a high value on independent thinking, critical inquiry, and the questioning of norms and standards. Successful relationships with teachers tend to be characterized by high levels of respect and trust, but they also allow for high levels of individual expression on the part of the student. Questions and independent thinking are generally encouraged. If this type of relationship is optimum for the psychological profile of the Western or modern individual, it would also seem to be optimal for the Buddhist training of such individuals.

In short, the principle of modern teacher relationships in Buddhist training calls for preserving the potency and vitality of relationships with a teacher or guide in ways that best suit modern norms and sensibilities. The goal is to build a healthy balance between self-reliance and the opening of oneself to the guidance of another. In this way, we will be able to cultivate teacher relationships that reflect modern sensibility while also building the trust needed for teachers to effectively serve as catalysts for growth and inner development.

This is a fascinating and nuanced commentary on the need to tweak the traditional Tibetan notion of reliance upon a Spiritual Guide, a notion that is particularly difficult to translate into a Western context where modern styles of learning  are often so different to the traditional Tibetan educational background. I, for one, find Juniper’s presentation of the issue both illuminating and reassuring, particularly the latter, as it fits in with my own new-found inclination to be a lot more independent and critical in my examination of tradition Buddhist teachings and organisations, especially in the light of my own experience of how reliance upon a Spiritual Guide can be distorted and manipulated as a resource for the furtherance of dysfunctional and authoritarian structures and goals within a Buddhist organisation. Juniper’s approach opens up the possibility of harmoniously combining the best of modern Western educational methods with the traditional Tibetan notion of relying upon a qualified teacher for guidance along the Buddhist path. But it is a possibility that requires much patient and subtle discrimination of what reliance upon a  Spiritual Guide really means and how best to integrate that within one’s own experience so as to retain the autonomy and critical abilities one needs in order to truly take responsibility for one’s own spiritual progress and successfully avoid that autonomy being compromised by the unreasonable demands of any organisation, even an avowedly Buddhist one.

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