Meditation: Charming Teachers, by Catherine Rathbun (Lama Jetsun Yeshe)
I have been present at boring talks by boring monks who warn students about ‘charming teachers’ and I have been present at talks given by people whose magnetism is so great that it seems impossible not to go along with all their ideas. What place does ‘charm’ have in the spiritual life?
When a person charms us, we may find ourselves acquiescing to ideas and values that we might otherwise have questioned. Desire for a meaningful life can make us susceptible to being influenced by people who are cultists. It is an interesting fact that intelligent people are more susceptible to becoming cult followers than dull minded people. It surely has to do with this yearning for meaning.
If a spiritual teacher exhibits a charming mien, and their intention is wholesome, then the result for the student may be wholesome also and even life changing. A strong moral sense must be maintained on both sides in order to safeguard the teaching of transcendence, otherwise the politics of projection may interfere with the spiritual growth of both teacher and student.
The charm of a spiritual teacher also implies their ‘vibration’; when we sit in the presence of an advanced practitioner we may become aware of the invisible presence of their energy. This energy, if wholesome, will feel light and healing to us and we may be invited to ‘bathe’ within it for a time. We need to be aware of any dark or sticky type of energy or any sense of being ‘sucked’ in to them, as this indicates a potential interaction that may not be beneficial.
Throughout the ages, charms have been used by healers and by practitioners. Whether in the form of rattles, feathers, protective amulets or incantations, these symbolic talismans have brought hope and comfort to many. Understanding resonance enables us to perceive that the vibration of the healer can imbue an object with an energy that may be able to transfer to us, if we are prepared and open to it. Over time, objects can build up tremendous power; so too can places on the planet where others have come to pray or to meditate. In the 1960s and 70s, there was much ‘buzz’ about the lei lines or dragon lines of Europe. More recently crop circles have drawn the attention of many. Certain minerals in the ground, or types of tree growth can promote or detract from healing. Many New Age healers use crystals and stones as aids, they hope, to heal and protect their customers.
At first, mantra was thought by many Westerners to be ‘merely’ a protective charm but deeper understanding of its use leads us to understand that mantra offers healing by vibration as well as visualization and mental cultivation. If studied over a period of time, a meditator comes to be able to skilfully invoke a particular vibration in order to help herself towards healing. A teacher whose study is deep enough can recommend a particular mantra to enable a student to unfold quickly. This is not thought of, in Buddhist terms, as a charm to protect but rather as a tool of healing and exploration. The ultimate protection of mantra lies in understanding that certain sounds invoke certain states of mind, activating certain principles of life and that these can form a protection around a person .
In the 1960s, our Western cult of the individual predisposed us to being taken in by promises of being given a ‘special, secret and personal mantra.’ While such naivete is understandable, it can prevent maturation of a spiritual seeker, as the quality of the questioning mind is submerged by an over idealized and rather fantastical belief. It tends to reinforce the ego, giving us the idea that we are somehow extra ‘special’. Sometimes, large sums of money have been extracted from the unwary.
As East and Western spirituality meet and take on forms more appropriate for the present age, I look forward to a more sophisticated understanding of the uses and abuses of charms, whether emanating from an individual or from a mantra or from the ceremonial use of a tool.
Catherine Rathbun received her traditional teaching name, Lama Jetsun Yeshe, from Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoche, a lineage master of the Sakya and Kagyu traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, in 2002. She taught meditation at York University (1989 to 1997) and is the founding teacher at Friends of the Heart, a meditation centre in Toronto. With a background in dance — she was a member of the National Ballet Company of Canada from 1962 to 1963 — and a modern dance career in England (1967-69). She is the author of Developing the World Mind and Clear Heart, Open Mind, and is currently working on a new book called Waiting for Truffles: Meditations for Daily Living.