top of page

On Being a Teacher #3: Emptiness and Bodhicitta

Impermanence and the awakened heart

I’m halfway through my Edinburgh weekend and sitting back in the Salisbury Centre guest room, resting after dinner, before I sleep.

But I wanted to revisit the theme of being a teacher one more time looking at Emptiness.

There are two further – rather more Buddhisty – aspects that occur to me. One to do with impermanence and the other to do with the awakened heart. Though these are perhaps intertwined.

One morning grumpy… another filled with the gales of inspiration

Re. impermanence, I was talking to my lovely friend Rachel, a few days back, (who I feel has taken my teachings and run far ahead of me with them), and pondering the fact that I feel so irregular. One morning I might be grumpy, angry with Daniel, a million miles from the ‘awakened state’. Then I might teach a course and feel filled to the spinnaker with the gales of inspiration. And then 24 hours later I’m back to feeling glum and exhausted again.

And we decided that this was not a spiritual failing but rather the experience of all-too-human impermanence.

The illusion of a coherent self… a permanent, fat and delusional lie

The incoherence of my experience (a good practitioner one moment and a rubbish one the next) is not a mistake. It is actually one of the core features of human existence. The very unreliability of these personality traits is a deep human reality. Indeed, the illusion of a coherent self is a papier-mâché mask that covers up the crazy, swirling kaleidoscope of reality.

Often, as a meditator and doubly so as a meditation teacher, I try and work as if I am coherent. As if I know the nature of things in a coherent way. I might admit to being confused in the past but only so I can highlight how together I am right now. But it’s a lie. A permanent, fat and delusional lie.

They’re really a shifting magma flow of red hot mess

The really skilled teacher/therapist/parent is one that has embraced the crazy mishmash as a badge of humanity, as a sign of reality. If they play at being coherent, it’s only for a contingency – a job interview, a bureaucratic form, a photo opportunity. They know really that they’re a shifting magma flow of red hot mess. And they’re fine with it.

Up until very recently (i.e. yesterday) I didn’t feel like a teacher if I was feeling average. To stand in front of a group, I felt I ought to model some kind of coherent specialness. But I’m now starting to see that the changeable smudge of one-thing-after-another is actually a wiser place to be than some desperately half-baked mask of coherence. Because being incoherent is a human reality and being human is, in fact, what a meditation teacher most desperately needs to model.

The ‘cage of personality’ is the death of the awakened heart

Being special (as a TV presenter, for example) turned out to be a terrible curse. (Like Alice Miller’s tragedy of the ‘gifted child’.) Being special kills off those ‘branches of feeling, out and about’ that Prynne talks about. You stop relating to each other as ‘sharers of the world’ and retreat into the ‘cage of personality’ and that is the death of the awakened heart.

Which brings me to this second thing: the awakened heart a.k.a bodhicitta.

The aspiration to act from love for the world

As a catch up: the bodhicitta motivation is that everything that you do is for the benefit of the world. As Reggie says, a Buddha is someone who is in love with whole world. No exceptions. And while it’s evident that we all fail to live up to this standard (except perhaps a very exulted few) the aspiration to act from love for the world is the hallmark of the awakened heart.

The safest, soundest meditation teachers are drenched in bodhicitta. To teach from that space – where the self is so very secondary to the reality of others – is some security that the teaching doesn’t stick to the sides of the ego.

Then magic happens

Buddhism speaks of ‘two-fold egolessness, empty of self and empty of other.’ In essence, this means that our hallucinatory, superstitious ideas about ourselves and others float off and we experience the situation just as it is, empty of preconceptions. And this is automatically a field of bodhicitta.

When the teaching space is like this then magic happens.

No one’s really in control

When there is no teacher, no student, just humans experiencing then it’s magical and something new occurs. As I said today in Edinburgh, people practising together in a room become like a host of fruitful flower-stamens, with the air all about filled with enlightenment pollen, dusty with brightness. No one’s really in control. The pollinations are haphazard and spontaneous. No one collision of pollen and fruit-bearer is the same.

In situations like this, the teacher can really only aspire to open-hearted awareness. Her aspiration can be quite pure even if her mind-state is all over the shop.

Since it is the human reality to shape-shift and be an incoherent moment to moment, there is no real coherent teacher anyway. The best she can do is simply wish to act for the benefit of the world. And then, the magnetic field of the bodhicitta holds the iron filings of self in the right constellation. It becomes the best guarantee of a positive, but unpredictable, outcome.

What happens when aspiration is there but the teacher is harmful

This brings me to the very powerful question of what happens when the aspiration is there but the behaviour (unconscious, unexamined) of the teacher is nonetheless harmful.

We can aspire to help people as a therapist or teacher, or a doctor or a nurse. But sometimes habits, unconsciously-triggered material or half-submerged personality traits take over and we end up hurting people instead of helping them.

They end up hurting people

I’ve ‘strongly enforced’ the container on a retreat before – shouting at people for breaking the silence (!) on Holy Island – and nearly ruined the whole retreat by my unexamined power trip. Somewhere I must have made the vow to help the people on the retreat but I still fucked-up.

This question kicks in very strongly with teachers who have been embroiled in abuse scandals. They think they are acting from a place of wisdom and love but nonetheless, they end up hurting people. And maybe hurting them twice as hard because the wounded students trusted them.

Hurting another person would be like hurting yourself

In some ways this is the biggest question. Can people like this really have tasted bodhicitta or emptiness? Does this sort of behaviour rule them out as suitable templates for practitioners?

Tibetan Buddhist teaching implies that when a human has truly stabilised their mind in the experience of ‘emptiness’, when they no longer get caught up in the stories that create a self or create another, then there is no possibility of cruelty or meanness or harm. In that field of emptiness, harm makes no sense. When everything is unified in non-dual awareness, hurting another person would be like hurting yourself.

Maybe we need to trust our own light and spaciousness

Maybe a fully-realised Buddha experiences this. But how many of those are there in the world? And until there’s one in your city, what are you supposed to do? Wait? In the interim, we have to rely on semi-realised practitioners. People further along. Or perhaps we just have to relax and not be so demanding of others at all. Maybe we need to trust our own light and spaciousness. Maybe the teacher only needs to point to that and then bow out of the room.

My friend Kristine really helped me understand this when she was talking about her teacher, Lama Yeshe Rinpoche. And I immediately translated it to help with my grumbling and pain around Reggie.

‘My teacher is a window that lets the sun into my life’

She said, ‘My teacher is a window that lets the sun into my life. When I see him I often feel the sun of enlightenment vividly and directly on my face. But he’s not the sun. I have made the mistake of thinking he’s the source but he’s not. He’s a window – sometimes wonky, sometimes bent-out-of-shape – but the window for this amazing light to come into my life. I’m grateful to him. But it’s the light I love’. (I’m paraphrasing, I’m afraid. Kristine explained it much more beautifully in her kitchen in Edinburgh…)

This is the paradox with these very great teachers. Beings who have spent their entire life (and maybe many before) perfecting their “window-hood”. They bring light into the world, but we shouldn’t mistake their human messiness for the light. That’s just the window frame.

We are all potential windows for the sun of enlightenment to shine through

This is true for Tibetan lamas, but on a lesser level, it’s true for every single human being. We are all potential windows for the sun of enlightenment to shine through. And while we may be diffident about the suitability of our glass or our frame, it would be unskilful bashfulness for anyone of us (teachers, students, anyone) to forget that when we settle the mind and stay present with our experience we let the sunshine through for others.

Obviously, I’m nowhere near this permanent space of emptiness and spontaneous bodhicitta. I regularly get triggered and lost in a fog of dissociation or the hot mess of anger or desire. But nonetheless, I do find these teachings on emptiness really helpful. As a practitioner and as a teacher.

Emptiness and bodhicitta are the window cleaners of the path

Sometimes, as teachers /therapists/parents we do sense that too much ego is piling up. We feel that the crazy-shifting tectonic plates of self are getting too unruly. At this moment, we can turn to the protective field of emptiness and bodhicitta. We can recognise that self is empty and feel the immediate relief of this. It’s like the pressure-cooker of our little self immediately gets depressurised, and the space of the Big Self opens up. Then at the same time, we can suddenly relax into the underlying desire to help others, serve others, love others (and by others I mean the whole Universe). And this magnetic field clicks in and starts to re-arrange our hearts into an open and loving space.

I suspect it’s these moments of self-correction; of aerating the situation that benefits other beings. The spacious heart of everyone in the room resonates with the sudden in-rush of space and warmth into yours. And the overall sunlight in the room gets brighter.

Emptiness and bodhicitta. They are the window-cleaners of the path.

Click here to sign up for Alistair’s newsletter. Find out more about The Mindsprings School, a series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

8 views0 comments

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page