How do we strengthen our connection to our teachers?

A student writes:

Your emphasis on heart connections has re-stimulated an issue that is a tricky one for me. Which is: while I have great respect and admiration for my previous teachers and their lineage, I have never really felt that I have a heart connection with them.

I would characterise my previous teachers as more scholarly in their approach but somehow since joining the Awakened Heart Sangha’s Living the Awakened Heart Training, this seems to feel significant and emphasis what was missing before. I feel incredibly grateful for your teachings and the structure in which they are laid out. I feel that this year has seen a significant change in how I practise.

The question I have is: how can I strengthen my heart connections with my previous teachers, but at the same time be honest to myself about the reality of what my heart actually feels when I think of them?

Lama Shenpen responds:

Your question is an important one. I think in modern Western culture we do not have a strong sense of heart connection and our ideas about relationships are in some ways rather superficial. We tend to put a lot of importance on how we feel about a relationship as if somehow what we felt at any particular moment was terribly important.

It is a very difficult topic to talk about because we only have words like ‘feeling’ to go on and we use them for things that are deep and important, reliable, and even real as well as for what is superficial, conditioned, unreliable, and fundamentally unimportant.

For example, a person with a lot of charisma can make many people feel very happy and good – they get a strong heart response from them – and then it fades and nothing much happens. Another person might not have much of that kind of immediate charisma but as you come to know them you feel the benefit of their qualities and then you cannot honestly say there is not a deep connection, however much you notice that certain important qualities are not coming through that particular relationship.

This is not a problem. The important thing is to keep your eye on the ball. What is the ball? In this case it’s our connection with the path to Awakening. It’s not a matter of making our teachers conform to our preconceived ideas of how they should be but of noticing what qualities a teacher arouses in us.

Then we have to give our allegiance to those qualities in ourselves and in the teacher so that our hearts really meet and eventually fuse. What often happens is that we have different relationships with different teachers depending on their personality, our personality, the circumstances in which we meet, the kind of teaching we receive and the connection we might have – possibly from past lives, that cause us to be drawn to each other and for the process of transmission to take place.

Two of Lama Shenpen’s teachers: Lama’s main teacher Khenpo Rinpoche and Kalu Rinpoche. An image featured in Lama Shenpen’s book.

Each teacher contributes to that process in a special way, they were or are there for us at whatever time it was and is that we needed or need them and helped or help us in whatever way they could and can. So, we can remain committed to all our teachers and honour our connection to them all and see them as all-of-apiece – they are all important and are all manifestations of The Guru Principle, our living connection with the teacher in the world – the teacher who makes that live connection for us.

So whatever Dharma practice we do, we offer it to all our teachers and make the prayer to always meet them and work with them on the path to Awakening and to bring all beings to Awakening.

This may raise the question for you about what does it mean then to settle with one teacher and not shop around? What would it mean or what would be the point of remaining loyal to a teacher one has committed oneself to practice under when maybe after some time one found other teachers who inspired one more?

To be honest I don’t think it’s possible to give one simple blanket answer to this question, so many factors are involved. So much depends on the individual circumstances. In my experience mostly it works fine to stay with one main teacher and simply derive benefit from whatever other teachers can give us – making connections that help us now and which will no doubt ripen in good connections in future, whether in this life or the next.

Occasionally the situation is such that it makes sense to ask to be released from one’s commitment to one teacher and to make a new commitment to another teacher. Having said that, I have to admit that many people practise all their lives without ever committing to any one particular teacher.

For people like this the problem is that they can always slip through the net – nobody is really taking responsibility for them and they might find they are always holding the teacher at arm’s length – never really letting go of their ego-clinging enough to let it go. However, I cannot say that it is guaranteed those who commit to a particular teacher do much better or that those who work somewhat at arm’s length cannot somehow receive the adhistana (or power/blessing) to slip out of the net of ego-clinging.

When I say some people ‘slip through the net of ego-clinging even without a commitment to a specific teacher’, I am talking about special people who are somehow able to receive the full force of the teaching from a somewhat arm’s length situation in terms of their relationship to the teacher. Maybe I shouldn’t call this an arm’s length situation since if the teaching works, obviously the student has a deep heart connection from their own side, and this undoubtedly comes from connections with teachers in the past.

So, any answer to this kind of question begs many other questions – too many to answer here! But I hope this helps.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

Lama Shenpen’s new book ‘The Guru Prinicple: A Guide to the Teacher-Student Relationship‘ is published this month by Shambhala – “With honesty and clarity, Lama Shenpen discusses the roles of the teacher, practices related to the guru, and commonly asked questions she receives as a teacher. This handbook is the first of its kind, breaking down in a pragmatic and relatable way everything one needs to know to enter a student-teacher relationship with open eyes and an open heart.”
Read more about the book here. Available from the publishers and from all book shops and book sellers.

Become a student of Lama Shenpen – Join the Awakened Heart Sangha:

Lama Shenpen’s students are members of the Awakened Heart Sangha and are all engaging in the Living the Awakened Heart Training – the structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training, that’s open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join the Awakened Heart Sangha and start your journey to discover the heart of Buddhism at