Teacher Tips: How to Interact with Students

The old model for Buddhist teachers isn’t really suited for Western society.

The old model paints teachers as aloof authority figures who are either only concerned with a student’s practice, or they pose abstract riddles and are only concerned with the student answering them in a visceral, spontaneous way. They lay down the law and demand that the student respect and obey them the same way they respected and obeyed their teachers.

That’s the antithesis to everything we’re taught to value in the West. I’m not impressed by someone’s fancy certifications, by how respected they are within their fabricated lineage (all lineages are based in fiction), or by how much they know, or how long they’ve practiced.

What I respect in a teacher is decency, that they manifest the Dharma in an authentic way. I can get teachings from Google and the thousands of books available; I can overcome all obstacles to ignorant views by simply moving forward without clinging to any insight as, “The end.”

Anyone can probably learn more meditative methods via the net than we even know ourselves. The modern age has made irrelevant the original role that teachers played in their students’ lives.

And if you bring information to your teacher that’s outside of their set perimeters, they usually tell you to drop it. If you want to explore another practice, they often say that that’s not allowed. If you want to share your life experiences with them, your hopes, fears, and aspirations, they tend to disregard it and say that they’re there to help with Buddhism only.

But life is Buddhism! All these thoughts, fears, hopes, and hates are part of practice. What fuckin’ good is a mentor if they disregard the things that make us human, the desires and insecurities that drive us each day?

“Fuck the fucking fuckers,” as they say.

I have no interest in orthodoxy, or in a corpse-like relationship with a mentor. My mentees are human beings partaking in the same human condition I am. They are fellow travelers first, mentees second.

I think thinking of them as mentees is pivotal. Not students, not disciples: mentees. Buddhism is a trade, like carpentry. Except instead of working with wood, we’re working with the mind; instead of hammers, nails, and screwdrivers, we’re working with Buddhist teachings and contemplative methods.

We aren’t training people how to fly a fuckin’ plane or perform brain surgery. That’s why certificates are irrelevant. A certificate in a Buddhist lineage just tells you that that person is patient, diligent, subordinate, and most likely limited.

Judge your mentors carefully, look past the certifications to see if they’re decent human beings or not, and if they’re free-thinkers or just regurgitating the dead words of their lineage. Be mindful of whether they let you think for yourself, or if they want you to mirror them.

Be mindful of how heavily they push you into the robes. Do they encourage it themselves without you bringing it up? If so, that’s a red flag. That means they’re more focused on propagating their lineage than serving you as an individual. Mentors: don’t ask your mentees to join your club, wait for them to bring it up.

The Relationship

I use DBT as an inspiration with my mentees. Unconditional positive regard, active listening, working with putting all these afflictions into context, finding balance…

This is what’s needed from Buddhist mentors in the West; not more droning lecturers or emotionally distant Zen Masters. We need Bodhisattvas in jeans and T-shirts with their boots on the fuckin’ ground, who are willing to not only point the way to where the mentee is going, but who also go to where the mentee is currently at.

A decent Buddhist mentor has to have been there in the thick of suffering and confusion and be willing to return there for the mentee. To fuckin’ feel what the mentee is feeling. To accept the moments when they break down, to feel their sadness. You don’t have to breakdown with them, in fact most people don’t want that. But you need to feel it, not be a fuckin’ stone mountain.

This doesn’t mean we should be therapists, we’re offering the Dharma not DBT. But the relationship can be similar. A student recently said, “It’s so weird, because I don’t know how to frame what we’re doing here. I mean, it’s like you’re my friend, but also not my friend, you’re my teacher as well.”

“I’m just a mentor. It’s like, I’m a friend who’s teaching you how to type. Once you know how to type, we’ll both be typists and I’ll just be your friend.”

The mentor’s role is to bring the mentee to a place where we’re no longer needed.

We have to let that be known right from the get-go. We’re here to offer them tools and the knowledge on how, and when, to use them. Once they have that knowledge and have developed those skills, our role as mentors is over. Then they can mentor others.

Also, sometimes the roles can reverse when we’re working with mentees. You might learn something from your students about the practice or about yourself. There’s no shame in investigating that, in saying, “Whoa, what’d you do there? That’s neat.” We aren’t fucking gods, there’s more for us to learn as well, always more.

And, of course, the primary rule: never abandon your mentee, your patience must be infinite and your unconditional acceptance, well, unconditional. And if you do get to a place where you think you’re out of your depth, ask if you can bring in another mentor who can help. You aren’t pawning the mentee off on them, but admitting that you’re only human and that sometimes you don’t have all the answers.

Then, once that hurdle’s been crossed, the mentee can decide whether to stick with you or make that other mentor their mentor, cutting you out of the picture.

I’ve been ditched by every teacher I’ve worked with, only one of those times was it for a reason that wasn’t hurtful or disorientating. One teacher abandoned me smack dab in the middle of intense koan practice. That’s some fucked up shit there.

So, never abandon your students; that should be an obvious one.

Lastly, don’t be an idiot—don’t confine yourself to one way of doing things or viewing things. The student is in the driver’s seat, you’re the driver’s ed instructor in the passenger seat. Ask them where they want to go, then explain how to get there. This is their Path you’re facilitating, it has nothing to do with you. Where they want to go might change over time, you have to be ready for that and know how to get there.

The goal isn’t to make your mentee into a Mini-Me, but to help them become themselves by using the same tools, views, and methods you’ve used (which should be many if only to better serve others). As their needs and their location on the Path change, you must adapt to that and offer whatever teaching or method is suitable for that place and time.

What we’re really teaching our mentees is how to mentor themselves, how to intuitively know what tool they need at any given time. That’s it. And we’re doing that in an open, dynamic environment of unconditional acceptance.

Oh, the final final tip haha: Set loose guidelines like how often a student can text you or call you, but be flexible with it in times of need. Explain the rationale behind all of your decisions. The contact guidelines are there to help prevent the mentee from getting too attached to you.

Also, be mindful of how much you praise your mentees. Praise can backfire on you, it can cause a person to only report their successes and not their doubts or failures. Explain to them that they can be open with you about everything and that you won’t judge them or scold them for fucking up. Give them praise and encouragement as needed, not compulsively.

Also, if mentoring others isn’t what defines your practice, if helping people isn’t what’s required for you to progress, then mentoring isn’t for you.

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