Teacher and disciple

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A teacher (garu, Sanskrit guru) is a person who imparts skills or knowledge and a disciple (sàvaka) is one who learns from a teacher.

In some religions, and even within the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism, the disciple is expected to dedicate him or her self totally to the teacher and obey him unquestioningly. This is very much at odds with what the Buddha both taught to and required from his disciples. He advised that before learning under a teacher, and even while receiving instruction, the disciple should maintain a respectful but questioning and discriminating attitude. First, the disciple should investigate (vãmaüseyya) the teacher by watching and listening to see if his or her behaviour is consistent with what they teach. Continuing to investigate over a period of time, the disciple should try to see if the good qualities the teacher appears to have are internalized or only the result of making an effort or trying to impress.

Other things that might indicate a teacher’s true worth are seeing if they act differently in public than in private and whether they are affected by fame and success (M.I,318-20). The Buddha approved of respect and reverence by a disciple towards a teacher. He said; ‘A teacher should look upon his student as a son. A student should look upon his teacher as a father. United by this mutual reverence and deference and living in communion with each other, both will achieve increase, growth and progress in this Dhamma and discipline’ (Vin.IV,45). However, the truly sincere teacher wants the disciple to attain the same level of virtue and knowledge as him or her self or even to surpass it, and this can only be done in an environment where questioning and free expression are encouraged.