If we have disciples we must help them by guiding them along the path, as far as we are able to, provide them with whatever they need for their Dharma practice, and take special care of our faithful disciples.
Even if we are not a formal Dharma teacher, there may arise within this lifetime some people with whom we have a karmic relationship of providing them with spiritual advice that they are happy to receive. Even though it would be wholly culturally inappropriate to refer to these people as “our disciples” we can nonetheless consider them as such – or at least consider them a similitude of such. Ultimately, if we have bodhichitta, we view all beings as our future disciples because we have made the promise to assume personal responsibility to eventually lead them to freedom. We view and relate to our spouse and kids differently than we do somebody on the street largely due to our imputing them as our spouse and kids. Other than this imputation, there is no particular reason for us to think of them any differently than we do anybody else. In the same way, if we impute “future disciple” onto all living beings, it completely reorganizes our mental outlook towards all of them. We start to view the present manifestation of our relationship with them in a much larger context of us eventually leading them to liberation and enlightenment. When we know where we are going with a relationship, we know how to act in that relationship.
It goes without saying that we don’t go around and tell everyone that “their savior has arrived, and it is me!” Such an approach would quickly cause them to flee in terror and land us in a mental hospital. But internally, we should assume this mantle and strive to live up to its mandate. Just as viewing all beings as our mother or as our children functions to ripen our virtuous qualities and actions towards them, so too viewing all beings as our special disciples ripens our mind and our relationship with them in special ways.
Depending on our karma, we all have more or less a certain degree of karmic responsibility for others. For example, our kids, our employees, our close friends, our family, etc. The beating heart of bodhichitta is the mind of “superior intention,” a mind which assumes personal responsibility for the eventual liberation of somebody else. These are the people we are responsible for. In the beginning, it might not be many, but as our bodhichitta expands and becomes more qualified, quite naturally more and more people will fall under our care. Our ability to help them depends upon (1) us having useful realizations/experience to share with them, and (2) the quality of our relatioship with them. So practically speaking, we work on improving both. Some people will be with us for our whole life and others only for a short while, but in any case we do everything we can so that their interaction with us functions to bend the trajectory of their mental continuum in the directiion of enlightenment.
Venerable Tharchin says, “for every step we take towards enlightenment, we bring all living beings with us in dependence upon their karmic relationship with us.” This makes sense – if we are headed straight for enlightenment and others travel along side of us, even if only for a short while, they too are heading towards enligthenment – even if they don’t realize how it is so.
Venerable Tharchin also explains that those who serve as the basis of our bodhichitta will be the first ones we liberate when we ourselves become a Buddha. This also makes sense because when we generate the wish to become a Buddha for certain people, this pure karmic action will naturally ripen in a way that it becomes a reality.
Of course, none of this may happen in this lifetime. We do the best we can, bringing people along as best we can, but we accept that this is a work that will span many lifetimes. Nonetheless, from our side, we have the mind of the person who has come back for them and who, if they are willing, will see them to safety.
If we are currently a teacher, obviously this vow has particular importance for guiding our relationship with our students. If we were a teacher but are no longer, our responsibility towards our former students never ceases. We never know when they may contact us for help, even if they abandoned the Dharma long ago. We always stand ready to help, and they should know our door will always be open to them. The bonds of family are for life, the bonds of Sangha are forever.