Are You Confused About the Mentor-Disciple Relationship?

In the West people tend to be uncomfortable thinking of of a mentor-disciple relationship. First it is confused with business mentoring. Then the word disciple is unclear for people with Western religious training. Here are some of the questions that I have heard.

 If you have a mentor do you have to be just like them?
 Do I have to lose my independence and do whatever they say?
 My mentor is way ahead of where I am. How can I ever be like that?

Since there seems to be a lot of confusion and mixed feelings about this relationship, I want to describe what I think a mentor-disciple relationship is meant to be. I do have a caveat – my own understanding of it has changed over time. You could use the word student instead of disciple.

The Disciple Chooses the Mentor

The disciple chooses the mentor. It is not the other way. Around. This is not a top down relationship. It is a relationship of equals. Initially the mentor will be more advanced along the spiritual path than the disciple, but ultimately the disciple may well surpass his mentor. They both have the same mission, to bring people out of suffering by helping them to become happy one by one.

Role of the Mentor

A mentor in Buddhism embodies the Buddhist way of life in the way they live day to day. Their role is to teach Buddhist philosophy but also to demonstrate, through the way they live their own lives, how to live in the best way possible.

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Look at, President Ikeda’s writings, who has been a mentor to many. He encourages each person to live in the way that seems best to them. He also encourages each of us to follow our path and not let anyone talk us out of it. He knows that each of us have a unique mission that we will pursue according to our abilities.

A mentor is not a super-hero, but a person just like you or me. The moment they are placed on a high pedestal and revered, is the moment the mentor-disciple relation is lost. This is so because the disciple doesn’t see a way to ever measure up.

Role of the Disciple

The role of the disciple is to choose the mentor. The disciple then absorbs and applies the Buddhist teachings in their own life by learning from the example of their mentor.  In turn, they come to embody them one day.

Integrating the teachings is a subtle and profound process that develops over many years through one experience after another. Every time you grow, then plateau, you find something deeper to learn. The disciple must have a seeking spirit which compels him to learn from the mentor and apply the Buddhist teachings in his own life.

How Does a Mentor Teach the Disciple?

Let’s examine how two mentors have done it, Nichiren Daishonin, the founder of this branch of Buddhism and President Daisaku Ikeda, the current president of the SGI and the author of many books on Nichiren Buddhism.

If you look at Nichiren’s writings he not only elucidates the Buddhist teachings but he gives his disciples practical and specific advice on how to behave like a human being. He demonstrates the teachings in his own life as he handles the obstacles and challenges with which he was faced.

President Ikeda does the same. His daily encouragements and Faith into Action are full of practical advice on how to live. He also teaches us about Buddhism, then helps us to understand it through his commentaries. He demonstrates with his own life how to apply it through his books such as The Human Revolution and videos.  As he meets people he tries to give each one something of value. He treasures each person and does his utmost to help them become happy.

Finally, he demonstrates the mentor-disciple relationship works, both through his relationship with President Toda and with Nichiren.

How to Make the Writings Relevant

Sometimes the Buddhist writings seem so old and far away. How can the life of a Japanese monk 700 years ago apply to our lives today? Yoshi K., an SGI leader in Oregon, recently gave a lecture on one of Nichiren’s letters to his followers, where he suggested that we substitute ourselves in the place of Ikeda or Nichiren when we read their writings. Use “I” and then substitute the place name for where you live in place of the Japanese names. By putting yourself in their place, you will see that they are just people who have faced major obstacles and challenges. Just like you.

Then you might ask these questions.

  • How would, name the mentor, respond in my situation?
  • How would he/she advise me?
  • How can I create value and show actual proof through this situation I am facing?

Then study the writings of Nichiren and President Ikeda to locate answers. You will find the indexes in their books very helpful for locating the topic you want.

When you ask these kinds of questions the mentor-disciple relationship comes alive. You have started applying the teachings in your own life.