Modern understanding of Mentor-Disciple’s Bond

Why do I need a Mentor for practicing Buddhism?

In order to know about Buddhism, one does not need a mentor.

Seeking information about a particular school of Buddhism can be easily obtained,

for example, through bookstores or from the internet.

However, Buddhism is not a collection of theoretical concepts.  It is a practice for self-mastery, and for overcoming life’s hardships.  Such a practice requires verifiable proof of the validity of its teaching in the daily life of practitioners.  It is the application of Buddhist principles in reality which gives the proof of the teachings validity.

From this perspective, Buddhism can be taught only by those who manifest Buddhist principles in daily life.  In other words, teaching Buddhism is inseparable from the behaviour of the teacher of Buddhism:

        The purpose of the appearance in this world of Shakyamuni Buddha,

        the lord of teachings, lies in his behaviour as a human being”.   WND1 p 852

According to Nichiren, a teacher of Buddhism is a “role model” of humanistic behaviour or - put simply - a "mentor".

“Freelance Buddhists” and the reluctance to accept the vision of mentor: 

Following a mentor’s guidance in whatever field of activity, such as sport, music learning, education ...etc... requires rigorous training.  A mentor’s guidance may appear even strict and challenging.  It is easier for reluctant practitioner to dismiss the need for a mentor than to follow a guidance, which requires constant self reflection and dedicated efforts.

Another reason for reluctance to create a bond with a mentor is unwillingness to take responsibility for advancing Buddhism in society. Buddhist activities are based on collective efforts dedicated to realising the Buddha’s teachings world wide.  Without taking responsibility for action through mentor-disciple bond, Buddhist teachings could not have reached millions of practitioners world wide.

SGI Mentors

A Mentor in SGI Buddhism is an inspiring “Role Model” of behaviour for the purpose of propagating Buddhist humanism, and the Mentor-Disciple bond reflects the oneness of purpose of both:

        “...mentor and disciple are comrades advancing together toward the common objective

        of world peace...

        On a more fundamental level mentor and disciple are comrades standing side by side”.   Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 2 p. 139

P.Ikeda states that the “Buddha” is the original mentor of SGI Buddhism:

        “The Gohonzon manifests in its entirety the great state of life of the Buddha

        who is our eternal mentor”. The World of Nichiren Daishonin’s Writings, Vol. 2 p. 135.

In a further statement P Ikeda explains:

        The mentor-disciple relationship is the very foundation of Buddhism.

        Our eternal and unchanging mentor is the Gohonzon of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo 

        and Nichiren Daishonin.

        The true spirit of oneness of mentor and disciple pulses vibrantly in the lives

        of mentors and disciples of the SGI committed to the cause of realising

        Kosen-Rufu just as Nichiren Daishonin teaches.

        The lifeblood of faith for attaining Buddhahood courses vigorously within them.

        The first three presidents of the Soka Gakkai - Mr. Makiguchi, Mr. Toda and myself -

        have advanced on the path of of mentor and disciple

        deeply aware of this eternal formula of Buddhism”. SGI Newsletter No. 6866, 6 June, 2006.

Mentor-Disciple’s bond throughout history

For about 2500 years, the teachings of Buddhism were transferred from a generation to the next through a system of “masters” teaching their “disciples”.  In today’s Mahayana schools of Buddhism, the terms “Zen Master” or “Tibetan Lama” - for example - are quiet familiar.

In general terms, Traditional Buddhism considers the master-disciple relationship as that of priest of a higher position to a disciple priest under his guidance, with an emphasis on a special “spiritual authority” of the Master (or the High Priest). For example, Tibetan Lama is referred to by the title: “His Holiness”.  SGI teachings, on the other hand, do not assign a “holy aspect” to Master, Mentor or to High Priest.

The spirit of “mentorship” in Western history

In essence, Western civilisation is based on the principles of Greek philosophy. Whether in the field of mathematics, physics, cosmology, ethics, and other subjects of human activities, the basic concepts of Greek philosophy were recorded and expanded through a mentor-disciple bond, in particular that of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In case of Plato, it was his commitment to make the teachings of his mentor Socrates known that prompted him to reconstruct his mentor’s thoughts in many of his writings, which influenced the western mind for hundreds of years.  Aristotle in turn, mentored by Plato, had many followers whom he taught and guided, and in particular he is known to be the mentor of Alexander the Great.

In most fields requiring continuous encouragement and guidance, such as in sport or education, mentoring is regarded as an essential activity to ensure successful results of practitioners.  In contemporary terms, the spirit of “giving encouragement and guidance” is systemised in various universities through mentoring programs, a basic practice in most western educational institutions.

The English word “mentor” is derived from the Greek Mythology conveying the meaning of “adviser and role model”.

The spirit of “mentorship” in Eastern tradition

An early record about the tradition of mentoring was attributed to young disciples of Confucius (551 - 479 BC) in China – (close to the time Socrates would mentor his youth disciples in Greece).  Confucius was contemporary to Shakyamuni Buddha who initiated and mentored the Samgha (Community of Believers).

Early disciples of the Buddha recorded his teachings in various Sutras, many starting by the phrase: “Thus I Heard”.  SGI literature refers to this phrase as an expression of the oneness of the Buddha followers with their mentor:

        “The essence of ‘This is what I heard’ is the oneness of mentor and disciple,

        and that is the quintessence of the transmission of Buddhism.

        The drama of the oneness of mentor and disciple, in which there is a mutual resonance

        and response to save all living beings is epitomised in this expression,

        ‘This is what I heard.’”.

                                                                                                                    The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra vol 1 p. 74.

In “The Record for the Orally Transmitted Teachings”, Nichiren refers to the mentor – disciple’s bond as an expression of “courageous action” encapsulated in the formation of the word “lion”:

        The lion's roar indicates the preaching of the Buddha. The preaching of the Law

        refers to the Lotus Sutra, and specifically to Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

        The first Chinese character [of the word lion], meaning ‘teacher,'

        represents the Mystic Law as it is passed on by the mentor.

        The second Chinese character [of the word lion], meaning ‘child,'

        indicates the Mystic Law as it is received by the disciples.

        ‘Roar,' meanwhile, refers to the sound of mentor and disciple chanting

        [daimoku] together in unison”.    Orally Transmitted Teachings, p.111 Encouraging Devotion Chapter

The potentials of mentor-disciple bond: On a personal level, without his 1947 encounter with Josei Toda, the young Daisaku Ikeda could have remained an obscure person, with no prospect for benefiting the lives of millions of individuals world wide. 

At that time, when Ikeda attended his first meeting, the membership of the Soka Gakkai was just about only 600 members.  In few decades, the outstanding development of the world peace movement provided a proof of the immense potential of the principle of the “mentor – disciple bond”, their determination and oneness in purpose.

Basically, the success of the world peace movement initiated by presidents Toda and Ikeda is attributed to its grass root structure based on small group discussion, an activity introduced by their mentor, Makiguchi, in the first place.  Living the mentor-disciple spirit can produce unparalleled effects, which were already envisioned by Nichiren: “ My disciples, form your [groups] and follow me”WND1 p 765


Author:  Safwan Darshams  

                                           Mentor-Disciple in the Lotus Sutra

  Master-Disciple in Zen, Tibetan, Nichiren Shu and ShoShu Buddhism



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