Guide for Students of POTGW
In 2007 Dan Brown asked his old friend and lama, Rahob Tulku Rinpoche, to teach our POTGW students Great Completion or Dzogchen meditation. When Rinpoche agreed to teach our students without requiring the traditional preliminary practices, he strongly expressed his wish that we as teachers develop ongoing relationships with students, so as to follow the students' meditation practices. We took his advice seriously. With this posting, we hope to encourage students to allow us to follow their practices, and to clarify the expectations of both teachers and students so that these relationships work as well as possible.
We offer to follow the practices of students who have completed at least one weeklong Level 1 retreat with any of our teachers. Students may choose to follow with any teacher whether or not that teacher was involved in the retreat they attended. Our biographical sketches are available on this website on the Teachers page. Our hope in following students is to develop a relationship that will support the growth of each student's practice.
Benefits of Student / Teacher Relationship
There are a number of potential benefits to establishing an ongoing relationship with a teacher. As you know the 'bus tour' of the weeklong Pointing Out retreats moves along quickly and covers much ground.
In our follow-up interviews we discovered that students sometimes misremember or only partially remember important meditation instructions. The follow-up interviews become an occasion to provide both accurate and complete meditation instructions with an opportunity for the student to make a detailed set of notes to support practice.
Second, many students do not have a good sense of which meditation practices, of all those taught at the retreat, they should practice at home. The ongoing relationship allows the teacher and student to develop a individualized practice plan tailored to the level and specific needs of the student. These plans help the student to avoid common pitfalls and to continue to develop on the path.
Third, daily life practice presents somewhat different opportunities and challenges from those encountered in the intensive retreat setting. The relationship with a teacher helps students grow in understanding of how to use these practices in a way that brings the practice into every facet of daily life.
Fourth, the relationship with the teacher can help to identify and clear up the specific issues that serve to cloud over progress and/or get the practice off track. We all have particular mental proclivities that are for us the ways we are most likely to get off track in practice. Some common ones are feelings of unworthiness, achievement orientation, perfectionism, self-importance and spiritual pride, seeing our practice and realizations as special, attachment to states, conceptualization, and getting pulled off track by strong emotions. If a teacher has the opportunity to get to know a student over time, we can help the student to identify those "favorite clouds" in practice and suggest specific ways to work with them.
Lastly, depending on individual student needs, we may teach additional practices not taught in the retreats as part of the ongoing teacher-student relationship.
Relationships in Lineage Traditions
The meaning of a relationship with a teacher in the Indo-Tibetan tradition of Mahamudra is somewhat different from teacher-student relationships as usually understood in the West. Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachings are lineage teachings, meaning that they have been passed down through heart-to-heart/mind-to-mind transmission from teacher to student in an unbroken line from the early lineage masters, and ultimately from the Buddha. Such lineage teachings contain precious, and previously secret or guarded, pointing out instructions about recognizing awakened Dharmakaya awareness and about developing awakened awareness into full Buddhahood.
Not all Western students fully appreciate the preciousness of these instructions or the rare opportunity they have been given. In traditional Indo-Tibetan terms, a heart relationship between teacher and student is understood to be essential for a student's practice to develop over time. The teacher-student relationship in the Pointing Out method shares both similarities with and differences from the psychotherapist-client relationship in the West. Both constitute fiduciary relationships wherein the ethical duty of the teacher or therapist is to put aside personal needs/agendas in order to support the growth and welfare of the student or client, respectively. In this sense, both traditions are special kinds of relationships wherein the growth of the individual is the central endeavor - emphasizing spiritual growth in meditation and psychological growth in psychotherapy. Both meditation and psychotherapy stress the importance of the development of a stable, on-going relationship for such growth to occur.
Yet, there are important differences between the teacher-student relationship focused on spiritual growth through meditation and psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy relationships typically focus on strengthening the sense of self, whereas the meditation student-teacher relationship focuses on the ultimate emptiness of the self, while the process of self continues on a relative level. Exploration of the contents of experience, like thoughts and emotions, and meaning-making play central roles in psychotherapy. Such content is largely irrelevant in spiritual practice, wherein thoughts, emotions, and sense of self are seen as 'clouds' that obscure the real nature of the mind. Sometimes students very familiar with Western psychotherapy feel 'unseen' by their meditation teacher, because the self and mental contents related to self aren't emphasized, except where they get in the way.
Furthermore, there is a strict rule of confidentiality in psychotherapy. There is a partial rule of confidentiality in the meditation tradition. Teachers generally do not talk to other students about the practices of students they follow. However, since most students will receive teachings from more than one of the teachers in our group, the teachers involved with a student may discuss aspects of that student's practice with other teachers in our group, in order to coordinate our efforts to help students, for example with placement in restricted courses.
Choosing a Teacher
Due to the positive potential for a long-term close relationship between teacher and student, we hope for students to give careful consideration when selecting a teacher. After making that selection we encourage student and teacher to put care into developing a stable, on-going relationship over time. We ask that students reflect carefully on their motivation for practice and for the relationship as they go through the process of choosing a teacher.
Once the relationship is developed, we discourage switching teachers, although we may approve such switches under exceptional circumstances. If a student has met more than once with a teacher, then out of respect for the nature of the student-teacher relationship, that student must contact the teacher to express an interest in meeting with another teacher, prior to contacting any other teacher. Failure to do so will result in an automatic transfer back to the original teacher and a period of restriction with regard to attendance at restricted retreats (if applicable).
As with any relationship, there may be ups and downs. In part, the teacher's role is to help the student identify favorite 'clouds' that obscure true nature, and some students at times may feel defensive or misunderstood for this reason. Other relationship issues may also arise. We strongly encourage students to discuss perceived problems openly and honestly with their ongoing teacher.
We ask that students respect our guidelines with regard to regularity of contact and the expectations with regard to qualification for restricted retreats. With these guidelines we hope to help students understand the precious nature of the heart-to-heart teachings and the potential in the opportunity to have such a stable, on-going relationship.
Certain rare situations (typically entailing serious disrespect of the teachings or teacher, unwillingness to look at spiritual pride, or serious misconduct) could result in dismissal from the student-teacher relationship and from this teaching group. Such decisions typically involve discussion with the teacher group.
Sustaining and Restoring Practice
Having an ongoing relationship does not mean that students do not get off track at times. We understand that students get off track at times in practice, at which point coming back is what is needed, and help with how to come back would be the teacher's role. Please do not stay away out of embarrassment or fear of being criticized. Similarly, most students find that their practices seem to deteriorate when they go home and practice after a retreat. This phenomenon is expected and is a reason to work with more closely with a teacher, not to stay away. We hope to help you!
An ongoing relationship with a teacher is necessary for a student to receive approval to:
Attend restricted retreats beyond Level 1;
Attend private restricted retreats with Rinpoche in upstate New York (not listed on the website); and/or
Receive supporting audio recordings on Pointing Out meditations.
An ongoing teacher-student relationship means: active in the present; and contact with the teacher at least an average of every three months.
The student is responsible for initiating contact. Because our teachers travel at times rather extensively and have other jobs besides teaching, please be persistent if you do not get a response after a week or two. Not all the places we teach have email access, so please be patient and contact us more than once if necessary. Dan Brown is using a web-based scheduling system with links on this site. In this way you may be able to schedule an interview, even if you are unable to reach the teacher directly by email or phone.