I’ve recently been accepted as a student of Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel and as a result I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be in a student/teacher relationship within the context of Buddhism.
When I wrote Wise at Any Age I included a section on teachers. At the time I wanted to emphasize the idea that teachers come in many forms. A teacher isn’t necessarily someone you even like. In fact, I’ve learned a great deal from incredibly difficult people. The experience I’ve had and how I’ve had to work with myself as a result of living or working with a difficult person has taught me so much.
But the formal student/teacher relationship within Buddhism is quite different and I’ve been exploring what it means to be a student and to have a connection with a teacher.
In Buddhist texts this experience is often described as ‘falling in love’. When listening to students of prolific teachers there is a strong sense of this in the way they talk and express their gratitude. But one does not follow a teacher blindly.
I’ve studied teachings from a great many people, including and not limited to Thich Nhat Hanh, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Khandro Rinpoche, Shunryu Suzuki, Judith Simmer-Brown, Reggie Ray, the Dalai Lama and of course, Ani Pema Chodron.
They're all teaching the same things - Buddhist teachings are actually quite brief - but in very different languages. Some are more philosophical, others more academic. Some are more grounded in Eastern culture and traditions, others in the West. Some are far more cutting where others are gentle.
I have benefited from all of them and continue to do so - but none have had such an impact on my practice as Elizabeth.
Before I heard Elizabeth teach I had a puzzle of contemplations, thoughts and teachings in my head and I was struggling to put them together. I could ‘get it’ sometimes but it felt fleeting and often I’d revert back to old habits and frustrations. When I first heard Elizabeth teach and it was like the puzzle came together, falling into place easily.
When we acknowledge the wisdom of others it is recognition of our own wisdom. Elizabeth speaks a language I understand with great clarity. When I listen to her I spend much of my time feeling a deep, profound sense of ‘Yes! That! YES!’.
I find myself better able to articulate my understanding of the teachings and eager to apply practice to everything.
As I go back and listen to talks from other teachers I draw lines from their language to hers, deepening my understanding and opening my mind further each time.
It’s an incredibly powerful and yet also very simple experience. We have had limited contact due to her residence in the States and mine in the UK, and yet I feel connected and supported by her, entirely, because of the mirror she holds up to my practice and the work I’m doing.