How And Why To Find A Mentor

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In Nichiren Buddhism, the mentor-disciple relationship—the relationship between teacher and student—is considered essential for attaining happiness.

How does Nichiren Buddhism envision this relationship works?  First, in a true mentor-disciple relationship, the mentor, contrary to what many believe, is not intrinsically superior to the disciple.  Human beings have a tendency to conceive of all relationships in terms of power and authority:  all of us tend to think of other people as either superior, equal, or inferior to us.  A mentor-disciple relationship, on the other hand, functions optimally only when both mentor and disciple consider themselves fundamentally equal.  If they don’t, the greatest hope they share—that the disciple will surpass the mentor in accomplishment—will almost certainly never come to pass.  For a disciple to learn most effectively from a mentor, he must resist the impulse to place the mentor on a pedestal and himself at the mentor’s feet, because if he refuses to believe that he can become as great as the mentor, he never will.  Though almost by definition a disciple is inferior in knowledge and experience in comparison to the mentor, in their degree of commitment to achieving mastery and creating the most value possible with their skills, and most importantly, in their commitment to accomplishing their shared mission—whatever it may be—a disciple must be, in every way, the mentor’s equal.  They must fight side by side, never one behind the other, or one for the other.  That way lies subservience, ego, and failure.  A true disciple shares the dream of the mentor as his or her own.

Interestingly, a disciple need never tell a mentor he considers himself that mentor’s disciple for a mentor-disciple relationship to exist.  In fact, mentor and disciple never even need meet.  The disciple is the one who creates the mentor-disciple relationship simply by observing the mentor, by making the mentor’s mission his or her own, and in so doing, learning from the mentor.  Nor does the length of the mentor-disciple relationship determine its impact on the disciple.  I once observed an attending talk for five minutes with a disgruntled patient in a way that simultaneously made the patient feel heard, blunted the patient’s anger, and instilled confidence in the patient that he would be all right.  For those five minutes, that attending was my mentor and provided me a lesson I have never forgotten, one that still informs the way I interact with patients to this day.  A mentor-disciple relationship, in other words, can come into existence over even a brief glance, or a single, quietly-spoken word.  Everyone has something to teach us.  Everyone has the power to inspire us.  It’s the attitude of the disciple that creates the mentor-disciple relationship, not the attitude of the mentor.

Choosing a mentor with whom we establish an active and enduring connection, on the other hand, brings a benefit not seen in momentary mentor-disciple relationships:  trust.  In feeling trust in a mentor, we open our hearts in a particularly important way:  we become willing to listen to him or her in a way we aren’t willing to listen to others.  When our mentor speaks, we automatically prepare ourselves to receive value.  We therefore open ourselves to change.  We relax our biases, our attachment to our ego, and tend to absorb even negative feedback in a constructive way, thereby opening the door to the possibility of genuine self-improvement.  Thus the greatest benefit, in the end, to choosing a mentor is the way it opens our minds to hearing difficult truths and makes possible our growth in a way no other relationship can.  So we should all choose our mentors wisely.  For that choice will bias us to believe what we hear from them.  So what we hear from them had better be the truth.

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  • What happens in a situation when it seems that you really don’t have a choice of Mentors? For example, when you feel strongly that the generally recognized Mentor does not seem right for you?

    My experience has been that many who are in a Mentor-Disciple relationship not only make the mistake that you describe; that of placing the Mentor on a pedestal, but peer pressure from within the group seems to FORCE this position. This, in my opinion sets up a potentially dangerous co-dependent relationship, and turns what should be a nurturing transforming relationship into a cult based on conformance.

    How does one “choose” a Mentor when only one appears to be filling that role?

    Martin: I don’t think wanting to be a mentor qualifies one to be a mentor. What qualifies a person to be a mentor is a commitment to excellence and a genuine love of people. If you find the available mentor doesn’t fit this bill, look elsewhere. Look in places you don’t expect to find one.


  • Then there are the times when the mentor-disciple trust is betrayed and the relationship falls apart, leaving one with sadness and a whole other kind of education.

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  • Great topic, Alex! I had a mentor in grad school 20 years ago who has played a major role in my evolution as a human being. BTW, I did try Nichiren Buddhism about four years ago here in the Philadelphia suburbs; went to a couple of home meetings, with wonderful wonderful people but it was not for me. Earlier this year I developed insulin-dependent diabetes as a result of the antirejection meds I went on due to having a kidney transplant. Just this week,I discovered the teachings of Joel Fuhrman, MD. I am now his disciple. His book Eat Right to Live has had a profound effect on me. Though I don’t agree with everything he says, his teachings have been invaluable. Again, a great column, Alex!!!

  • Alex, would you consider writing a column with your thoughts on how we can learn to not be constantly seeking the approval of/validation from others? I seem to keep falling into this… especially in the context of these mentor relationships. I always seem to want the teacher to recognize and approve of me….


    Lynn: Not a bad idea…I’ll chew on it a bit…


  • I have a couple of mentors in the 12-step programs I attend, and people always seem surprised at who they are, knowing that I have “more time” than the mentors, even though we are warned that its a “one day at a time” program.

    I found people who “have what I want”; they both have a way with people and relationships that appeal to me and that I lack. I learn so much from watching them, listening to them and conferring with them when I am confused. My mentors are both blessings in my life. One of the best things about them is that they share only their own experience, strength and hope; no pedestal, no rank.

  • I have been reading your blogs over the past one year. Your posts make me think and reflect over and above the usual. As a grad student, I get ample opportunities to learn, teach, mentor and be mentored by others. The informal atmosphere seems to aid the exchange of advice. There are some parallels between choosing a long-term mentor that you mention and choosing a thesis advisor: One must first of all be very interested in the area he/she works in. Secondly, one must feel inspired by the advisor’s instruction, motivation and research work. Thirdly, there must be a personal compatibility in the work ethic (which can be gauged through independent study with the person). Other factors such as funding can also come into play.

    Another thing I noticed from my personal experience was that to learn from books, classrooms or people/experiences, it’s good to get my ego out of the way and focus (after recognizing) on the lesson. Overall great topic and close to my heart!

  • Excellent! I now have a different view of the mentor relationship. Never thought of this way of thinking regarding a mentor. Removing the pedestal also gives one less reason for my ego to awaken. Thanks for your thoughts. Thanks, Tom

  • It immediately occurred to me that this is actually the definition of *any* good relationship. I had to think of my partner and myself; I realize that without making it explicit, we’ve pretty much modeled our relationship on equality, shared commitment to ideals and commitment to each other’s growth. I could also see this as a model for a parent-child relationship.

    And indeed, everyone has something to teach us!

  • My 93 year old Aunt has always been my mentor for family/social situations. She has grace, respect, minimal judgment of others and doesn’t gossip. I now understand that I can have different mentors for different aspects of my life. I don’t tell them. I watch, listen, evaluate and take the parts which inspire me to be a better person in my workplace or as a mother, partner, daughter, friend. Today I personally got the most-out-of-your-post!!! Thanks

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  • Having a mentor strikes me as a rather alien concept in the UK, where people are generally cynical of a relationship that appears to be one of dependency. The UK I feel, is much more into independent personal development (hence the ‘stiff upper lip’ stereotype of the British). There is much to support this way of thinking, as there are numerous examples of either self-appointed gurus who have turned out to be corrupt, or alternatively, individuals, who have been put on a pedestal by others, but have been shown to be flawed over the course of time. For a true mentor-disciple relationship to work is seems to me that integrity and constant effort on behalf of both parties involved is required. As this is something that may be achieved temporarily, but is extremely difficult to sustain, it is not surprising that people are dubious of the outcome. Perhaps, taking whatever we deem to be of positive value from each ‘relationship’ in our lives, is the best we can expect. For me, (for the time being at least), Daisaku Ikeda has proved to be a durable mentor, who says as much by his behaviour, as he does by his numerous publications. He is not the only figure I respect and will listen to, but he has in my experience maintained his integrity to this day: a feat which I have said before, cannot have been at all easy to achieve.