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Spiritual Teaching: How it Works

Amir Freimann Interview with Stephen Fulder on 20/10/2015(Edited)

Amir: Let's start with Stephen as a student – who were your teachers and who do you still consider as your teachers today?

Stephen: In the Theravada tradition that I've been practicing and involved with, the principle of a single primary teacher (Root guru, or ‘Satguru’) is not relevant, and so I've had plenty of teachers. My first teacher was S.N. Goenka, but the relationship with him was impersonal, as he was teaching thousands of students. In Goenka’s tradition, based on a Burmese lineage, the teachers teach the practice rather technically and don't really relate to you as an individual and to your issues or your life. They are masters at passing on to you a technique and motivating and encouraging you to practice intensively.

Amir: But even though you say there was no personal relationship with Goenka and he was just communicating the teaching in a technical way, there was something about him that made him a better vehicle for the teaching than many others in that tradition. There was a reason why you went to see him and not hundreds of other teachers. There must have been something about the person that is an important factor in the transmission of the teaching.

Stephen: Yes, I only did one retreat with Goenka himself, who is charismatic and inspiring, and after that I did about a dozen with Sayama. She came from the same tradition as Goenka and they both had the same teacher. Why I kept going back to her is an interesting question. I think it's because she embodied a very finely tuned and subtle understanding of practice. I really respected her extraordinary power of mind, her Samadhi, and how she brought this into the practice. There was something about her that was crystal clear… as if she was coming from a subtle awareness and a space that I could trust, that did not embody a lot of belief or tradition or control. She radiated a present moment awareness that was very big, free, unbounded, powerful and deserved respect. Also, Sayama was one of the few teachers I met in my life that clearly had extraordinary powers. She would often answer my questions before I asked them. I would come into her room with a question in my mind and she would immediately start to answer it and so I didn’t need to say anything. So in terms of a student-teacher relationship there was definitely more content, flow and dynamism than the relationship with Goenka.

Amir: Could you say that in your relationship with Sayama there was spiritual intimacy or a deep connection? Because what you described of her ability to know what’s in your mind and respond, must surely have something to do with knowing each other very well or communicating on a deep level.

Stephen: Not exactly. There was deep communication but it was not at all personal. It was technique oriented. She didn’t know me or was interested in me as Stephen, with a certain character and personality. I don’t think she really cared about me that much… [laughing]. She was dedicated to understanding and guiding my experiences, on a specific well-trodden path within the frame of reference of the practice. There is a benefit in this dedication, but also a cost, since it is a bit like a parent only relating to their child according to how well they do at school. A lot will be missing, for example the ability to know the gifts and inner life of each person and so guide the practice more holistically and individually.

Since then I met many teachers who I sat with and talked to and though I wouldn’t say they were major teachers in my life they certainly helped me on the road. Some of those really did have a much more personal relationship with me, such that in a way we never forgot each other. There are a few who I would say have been more significant guides, friends and co-travellers along the way, including Fred von Allman, Joseph Goldstein and particularly Christopher Titmuss, whom I have been close to for more than 30 years, and for whom I have enormous respect and appreciation as a friend, a teacher and a colleague.

I want to stress that teaching happens at several levels at once, not all of which may be consciously known by the student. There is the guiding in which the teacher as a kind of ‘tour guide’ defines the path and the way and supports the student along it. There is the imparting of verbal knowledge, inspiration and hints of what is beyond. There is the modeling, in which the teacher radiates a more invisible way of being. Teaching can also happen when the teacher mirrors or reflects back to you something you asked or did, offering a larger, freer and wiser perspective, and in that moment they become teachers of yours, although it's not consciously a teacher-student relationship in any way. Once I was in India on a 6-week self-retreat, in a small room in an ashram, and there was a spiritual teacher teaching in a nearby ashram. He used to come to my room 5:30 in the morning every couple of days and we would sit and talk. He would first of all kiss my feet, which is of course an Indian way of expressing his appreciation for my practice, and I bowed to his feet as well because the appreciation was mutual. Then we would talk and I felt that any question I threw out was answered from a huge space, as if throwing a pebble into a great clay jar and listening to the unlimited resonances. You could feel that space behind his eyes, from which I was seen and understood. The words could be about rice and beans or about the most subtle and delicate movements in consciousness. Everything that was put in there came back out spontaneously, immediately, with no obvious thought behind it, emerging like an echo from this expanded awareness.

He’s not my teacher and I did not see him before or after that, but we had something very powerful intimate and unforgettable that went on between us. I was clearly in the role of student and he was in the role of teacher. Maybe in another time it could have been reversed, where I might’ve helped him, but that was the framework we chose and kind of agreed on without words, and we were both happy with that.

Amir: You're really giving a few very different examples or different models of the teacher-student relationship.

Stephen: Yes, teaching can be much more existential than sitting on a stage and giving talks. It can be with the eyes, with body language, with the way you are with people, with how you sing to a baby or how you relate to a dog or a cat in the street… and that’s teaching. On a subtle level it is teaching because it’s coming from that expanded awareness and clarity and wisdom that I was talking about, manifesting naturally within ordinary life. I feel that people who are quite developed teach that way. They don’t always teach as intentionally and consistently, it might be quite spontaneous and actually they can’t do anything else. This doesn’t need a label – but it is teaching.

Amir: Are you saying that for some people the formality of a defined teacher-student interrelation can enhance their ability, and draw them towards greater depth, responsibility, care, and freedom, while for others it may do the opposite and actually be an obstacle?

Stephen: That’s right. In many cases it is really needed to start off, as it sets the scene, defines the territory of teaching, and is familiar to students, a bit like going back to school. Thus it is an agreement that reduces the concerns and insecurities of the unknown. But indeed there are some students who don’t really need this theatre and for whom the projections and roles of teacher and student are just a nuisance. More than that it may trigger psychological resistance and friction, perhaps because of some previous pain connected with their relationship with ‘father’. In any case, the formality and the separation and the roles gradually break down along the way, and then the word "teacher" becomes irrelevant. When you talk about a deeper level, the roles, concepts and words tend to break down and cease to function as a medium of teaching. One should be aware of that. The teaching then happens naturally because nothing else can happen, and it is expressed in speech, body and mind. There isn’t anything that a teacher needs to do, he or she is manifesting their spirituality through themselves. The role vanishes and there is no thought that says: "I'm going to teach now. Look at the way I'm walking down the corridor."

Amir: And yet you seem OK with being called a teacher, you seem comfortable being in that position and fulfilling that function – why is that? Are there any benefits, psychological or spiritual, that you get from being a teacher?

Stephen: For sure. The importance is in the doing of it, not in the label, which is not interesting. If I am called a teacher or not called a teacher, it doesn’t turn a hair. One benefit for me is that the expression or teaching of the dharma releases more of the stream. Teaching moves through me and out, so I feel the flow and that’s joyful, and that's one reason why I keep teaching. Another reason is that there is nothing more interesting for me to do in life. What else is there? Go to the office every day and do an ordinary job? It’s so joyful to be in the environment of the teaching situation and to be creative, and playful. It brings out of me qualities that are needed in this struggling world, so I think it’s what I can do to help the world. Another benefit I feel is that teaching simply opens the heart in the present moment meetings with an individual or even a group. In the last year I have been going round pubs and bars, under the title ‘Buddha at the Bar’, giving talks and meditations to large numbers of people, and it warms the heart to bring a different message to young people who are often so much in need of a more hopeful and meaningful view beyond the usual diet of conflict, materialism, competitiveness, pressure and agitation.

Amir: Are you saying that to have the right relationship to what comes out of you as a teacher you have to let go of any sense of possessing the teaching or identifying yourself with it.

Stephen: Yes, definitely. You let go of possessing the teaching, of owning the role, and in the same way you let go of you possessing yourself – the self that's on stage. You have to let go of that. The Dalai Lama expresses this very beautifully before giving teachings by symbolically bowing down to the seat before sitting on it. It’s a ritual that says: "I’m going to sit on that seat and honour the role given to me, but I wear the role like clothes, and then come down and take the clothes off." Someone once told me that being a Dharma teacher is not about giving the most charismatic and wonderful talk you can give; but if you give the worst talk ever, you get up from your seat and have no more thoughts about it.

Amir: Do you think that, as the Dalai Lama sits on his seat and puts on those clothes, he also activates in himself certain human qualities, that are required of somebody in that role? Is that something you experience when you sit on the stage in front of people asking you questions; that certain human qualities manifest in you that don’t manifest in other situations?

Stephen: No, I don’t think there are qualities I don’t have in other situations too, but certainly conditions will pull out of you and emphasise particular qualities that are needed and fitting to that situation. For example the condition of running – I run every couple of days – pulls out of me qualities of perseverance. Teaching enhances sensitivity in a few dimensions. It invites me to be particularly caring and very watchful, and not to talk unkindly or unwisely; more watchful or mindful than perhaps I am with my grandchildren. Then, it encourages me to develop qualities of steadiness and confidence as well as fine-tuned ethics and care, clarity of mind, kindness, confidence, and a little bit of authority. I’m given the authority and I am aware of that and appreciate it so I hold it with tenderness and some respect. Maybe there's also a lift in energy that comes from being on the stage. A lift of the heart I would say.

Amir: Would you say that you are spiritually elevated as you step into that position?

Stephen: In a way yes, but there are many other situations in life when I also feel that. So it’s definitely not the only one. I might feel that also in the deep silence of early morning before sunrise, when everything is quiet and I can only hear the jackals far away. So it’s not only in the teacher role, but the conditions of the teaching do tend to elevate you to the best you can be. Yes, I do feel that.

Amir: How do you feel or respond when people say to you that you are their teacher, or ask you to be their teacher?

Stephen: I don’t prevent it, I don't tell people they must not say that about me… I can’t. But I don't at all encourage it. I don’t support exclusivity in today’s modern culture, and I suggest to students to learn from many teachers. Sometimes when people say to me "I want you to be my teacher" I say to them, OK, I don’t mind you regarding me as being the main teacher for the moment, but I don’t really like the label, and eventually you should have other teachers as well. I tend to discourage exclusivity whether in relation to myself or other teachers because I think it reduces the autonomy, the independence of mind and the authenticity and confidence of the student.

The other thing is that I don’t want to be constantly available for those who expect me to be in that role all the time. The role of personal teacher would carry with it an obligation. I just don’t want to be disturbed when I’m not teaching, like when I’m in my vegetable garden. I actually don’t want people calling me with questions like "should I go to India?", "should I get married?", "should I change jobs?" etc. I am fine if they ask me those questions in the context of retreats and teaching, and then I’d relate to them, but that’s it and then I go home and I take off that role like peeling off well-worn clothes.

Amir: This is solving quite a few problems that are inherent in other models of teacher-student relationship. But after guiding a lot of people along the path, don’t you think that for some people the process of surrender to or via a teacher, of trusting somebody else very deeply, more than they trust themselves, is an important catalyst on their journey?

Stephen: It can indeed be helpful but only if it’s light. If it’s too intense and total it can undo their spiritual journey, because they’re replacing themselves with someone else. But of all the questions you have asked so far, this is the most problematic and nuanced. Because on the one hand you can say what’s wrong with praying to the Buddha, as a larger-than-life figure, identifying with and respecting his qualities and so letting the prayer to the Buddha remind you of your own Buddha qualities? But it only works if it is quite light. If there is a strong sense of supplication, worship, glorification, and deification of a teacher or an icon, it can disempower our practice and disconnect us from our spiritual sources. Where I feel it’s too much I would tend to question it and bring it back down to size. I would tend to say to the person: “You’re going too far making the teacher unrealistically dominant, using projection onto the teacher to avoid meeting your own existential pain and joy, and I suggest you go back to yourself a little bit”. I think it’s the scale; when trust and dependence on a teacher goes over the top it almost begins to be pathological.

In our Theravada tradition we would tend to constantly shift the focus from the teacher to the teaching, the Dharma itself. I would tend to say: "Take refuge in the Dharma, not in Stephen". This is different from the guru tradition, where the guru would be happy to hold that place of dependence for longer, to allow more intensity of transference. But it’s a good question and not black-and-white.

Amir: It seems that in the tradition of the guru-disciple relationship there is more love and personal bonding.

Stephen: Yes, I agree, and I'm not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing. It can sometimes be a great heart-opening friendship and appreciation. A teacher can take a student under his wing and he or she might blossom there. But it is not the primary way of our practice oriented tradition, in which the teacher can be a spiritual friend and encourage the students to be the highest that they can be, but is one stage removed.

There are also of course many dangers and possible abuses in the guru-disciple relationship and I think it’s better to play it safe and be careful. It’s worth remembering that the higher the teacher’s status and the more students surrender to them, the more perfect they need to be. When they overstep the boundaries of ethical sensitivity, or they get tempted by all kinds of desires and needs, or they become narcissistic and controlling, or they don’t walk their talk, they can crash down from the high place that the students have placed them. I’ve met many people who have gone through really difficult situations with gurus, and eventually they came to the Dharma and said: "What a relief! Thank goodness I’m out of that mess, of believing totally in a person and doing what he says".

Amir: After one interview in particular, I recently started thinking about a distinction I make between what I call "therapeutic relationships" and "transformative relationships". A few weeks ago I interviewed in New York, the founder of the New York Zen Dojo, a Zen master and a psychotherapist by the name of Barry Magid, and he said that all those who come to the spiritual path do so because they have a psychological problem. He explained that the most common problems are self-hatred and difficulty to deal with the complexity of life, and whether they come to him as a therapist or as a Zen teacher, it’s basically the same for him. What do you think of that approach?

Stephen: It is very cloudy issue, I’m afraid, and a complex question to answer. I am going to try to answer it various ways that are not linearly related. It is true that everybody that comes to the spiritual journey has psychological issues. There's nobody without them. And they do need to be addressed otherwise they will weigh you down and you will feel imprisoned by your issues and stories. But you can’t afford to spend all your life fixing yourself. The statement of Barry Magid reflects a very widespread view in American and Western culture, of not being good enough, and having to constantly repair oneself: "first I've got to fix my fears, then I’ve got to fix my addictions, my relationship issues, my money problems, my miserable childhood” and on and on. The whole spiritual journey gets reduced to busy housecleaning and repairing bits and pieces of yourself. But it is perfectly possible to go through very deep transformative experiences and wrap up the psychological issues later. Instead of endlessly repairing your psychology you can put yourself entirely in another place, of freedom and “Being”. Then, although the psychological issues haven’t disappeared, in that context they do not have the same power to cause suffering. So in my view the transformative dimension can be experienced right from the start along with the therapeutic, and very slowly the territory of the therapeutic is reduced and the transformative grows.

Some people will be more dominated by psychological issues and then the teacher and the teaching can help them to allow, receive and view the psychological issues with more equanimity, detachment and inner peace. Yet the practice must move on to reveal the basic emptiness of these patterns, something of the ‘me’ that is burdened with them and the nature of the suffering itself that they cause. Yes, you’ve got psychological issues but what is your connection to deep silence? What about the freedom which is not connected to psychological issues? What is the consciousness of the ocean, from which a wave called, for example, self-esteem, rises? The self-esteem is a form in consciousness that gives you trouble, but there is the consciousness itself, that gives rise to the form. I’m always trying to integrate the psychological and the spiritual and I think we can go much further and deeper than the statement of the Zen teacher implies.

Amir: So are we talking about two different motivations – a motivation to heal and a motivation to transcend, or is it the same motivation and some people interpret it as psychological and others as spiritual?

Stephen: That’s an interesting question. They are not really two, more of a continuum which starts as healing and continues as transcendence with a big overlap in the middle. I'd say it’s up to me as a teacher to constantly take the motivation one step forward from wherever it is. Indeed lots of people come to meditation at the beginning because they’ve got migraines or insomnia or things like that. I regard that as completely legitimate and I say okay, let’s practice. Then as the practice continues I encourage the discovery of deeper intentions, and refinement of the motivations. When you climb a mountain, the reasons why you’re climbing can change on the way up. Maybe at bottom of the mountain you say: "I’m going to climb that mountain because I have to cure my childhood issues. I had a terrible childhood, I have a lot of anxieties, and I need to climb this mountain and deal with them." I would respond: "okay, let’s start. I’ll help you, we’ll climb together." We would start steadily climbing, and after a few hundred meters up the mountain I'd call out: "Hey, did you noticed the small blue flowers next to the path?" “Yeah. They are really nice." I'd suggest: "Let’s pay more attention to the flowers." Then, after another two hundred meters I'd say: “What an amazing sunset. “Yes, it is really inspiring.” After some time, I might throw out: ‘What about the flowers and the beautiful sunset inside you. Do you see them as you walk?” And you go: "Wow, oh, yes, of course, I have flowers in me…" The whole psychological motivation that was at the beginning has really been purified and transformed. It becomes the longing for total freedom. Eventually that too dissolves, and there is no real need for any motivation based on the wish to be somewhere else other than where you really are and who you really are. The mountain vanishes and climbing is the same as being.

[i] This interview with Stephen Fulder, carried out by Amir Freimann, is one of many with spiritual teachers and students from various paths and traditions, that will be published in Fall 2018 by Monkfish Book Publishing Company under the title: Spiritual Transmission: Paradoxes and Dilemmas.

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