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Relationship as Teacher

"This is a dynamic process of releasing what disserves us while engaging life as fully and deeply as we can."

Zopa and Yeshe's article in the Winter 2023 Teacher and Student issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Guide

When you meet your future spouse at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the foothills of the Himalayas, your relationship and spiritual journeys are intertwined right from the start.

Twenty years later, this remains our path, paved choice by choice. As friends, sangha, partners, and teacher-peers, we have learned that there is no “happily ever after” in samsara. We experience this as empowering, a consistent inspiration to follow the Buddha’s teachings to genuine happiness within, rather than conduct a fruitless search for it out there somewhere. 

The Vajrayana approach of discerning the teacher beneath the surface of all experience has accompanied us throughout. A vast and intricate topic, we find that Atisha, the Indian master seminal to Buddhism’s reintroduction to Tibet, gets to the crux of it when he describes the best teacher as one who exposes our hidden faults. “Faults” here refers to whatever hinders wellbeing and awakening. 

This is a dynamic process of releasing what disserves us while engaging life as fully and deeply as we can. As Ani Pema Chodron says, “It’s the willingness to open your eyes, your heart, and your mind, to allow situations in your life to become your teacher.” Intimate relationships in particular, whatever their form, have an uncanny ability to reveal our blind spots and unrecognized wounds. They can be profound teachers, given the chance.

For us, discerning the teacher in our partner began with our root guru, Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche. Wise and kind, Rinpoche was a natural model for a teacher. But only two years into our relationship, Rinpoche died suddenly. As the Tibetan expression gong pa dzog pa has it, he had fulfilled his enlightened intent for that life. Still, his teaching continued, reinforcing the foremost importance of recollecting impermanence. 

Rinpoche’s stark absence, prominent in those early days of our grief, slowly took on a quality of subtle presence. The shift began in the shape of words: shared memories of Rinpoche, whispered stories, and murmurs of lessons he taught us, which we revisited together. These set our stumbling feet on the path repeatedly. You could not say Rinpoche was with us. Nor could you say he was not. 

Over time, incantations conjuring up Rinpoche became less necessary. The teacher was more subtle—Rinpoche’s wisdom wove into the tissue of our days. Within this exquisite gossamer, we studied Tibetan language, becoming translators at the monastery. Made a home conducive to simplicity. Served dharma, got married, and completed three-year retreat together. 

Like other couples, partnership reveals our vulnerabilities, which can spark misunderstanding. Shifting again, the teacher, in Atisha’s sense of the word, manifests as disconnection. Reciprocal witness of one another can unveil the illusions we hold close, despite their no longer serving us. As the late Buddhist psychotherapist John Welwood put it, “Love can only heal what presents itself to be healed.”  

Often, this process occurs in alternating cycles: we cradle our partner as they unravel personal fallacies and fears, and receive the gift of embrace in our turn. Holding each other as we heal, time and again, encourages us to honor the teacher in one another. 

When intimacy penetrates farther, we may encounter the teacher amongst our shadows. Habit patterns laid bare in one of us expose their counterparts in the other. The conflict “brings us to our knees, forcing us to confront the raw and rugged mess of our mental and emotional life,” as Welwood describes. When rawness rubs against rawness, it is difficult to recognize the teacher in the sting. 

The friction within these complex tangles of fragility decenters the self, temporarily. This does not feel great. Equally flooded and spent, we can neither rely on ourselves with confidence, nor reasonably expect that our partner can step into the breach. Left to our own devices, we would flee. Yet, it is precisely when we are both hamstrung that self-acceptance can manifest as our best teacher, with remarkable potential to catalyze transformation.

Now our shared commitment to engaging everything as teacher serves as a gravitational center, allowing mutual surrender without splitting us apart. Here the teacher principle is at its most ineffable. Bearing witness to our own and our partner’s hurt, we hold vigil with our hearts in unison. This wordless alchemy reconfigures each of our inner landscapes subtly. When we surface, we are changed, grateful, and better equipped to bring some measure of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche’s wisdom and grace to our lives. 

This has been our way, thus far. You may find your crucible in parenting, friendship, family, community, vocation, monasticism. No matter. Our best teachers materialize in astonishing ways. Letting them in makes all the difference.


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