I realize a lot of Buddhists, especially in the West, go it alone. I haven’t really tried to do that as a practitioner, so I can’t speak directly to the effectiveness of such an approach. The cliché (or adage) of course is that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. But I think that holds up in any kind of relationship, and it’s really a matter of do we want to learn or not? If so, then we should be ready for a relationship with a teacher of some sort, at any time. Ultimately, the teacher is our own mind, but since most of us do not live in complete solitude and it usually takes a while to be receptive enough to have this be sufficient, we can look to the interactions of our everyday lives, as well to the more intentional relationships with Dhamma teachers. I have been very lucky with all of the teachers I have had on this path, both formal and informal.* and I’d like to talk a little bit here about the different kinds of teachers available to us, about how to find a teacher and, how best to evaluate a teacher so we know we’re benefiting from the relationship.
One of the reasons I’m compelled to write about this is quite a few people in my life have asked if I want to teach meditation, the Dhamma (in a formal way). And I say, without hesitation, that’s not for me to decide. I believe very strongly that a certain level of wisdom is necessary, so that the teacher is capable of guiding students of different levels and of offering the most benefit possible. From that perspective, I certainly have a lot more to learn. What is that “certain level” though? Who knows. Not sure it can be measured in any definitive way. I don’t think it necessarily has to do with jhanas or with stages of enlightenment. It does have to do with understanding things as they truly are however. And it’s mostly those who also have some decent understanding in that regard (other contemplatives) who can really spot it. Therefore, I think some kind of transmission is important when we are talking about formal teachings.
I attended Milarepa’s Songs of Realization retreat several weeks ago with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Though this was my first time receiving teachings in the Tibetan tradition, I qualified for the retreat because I am an “advanced” practitioner of vipassana, according to Tergar International’s standards. In Mahamudra training, students most have experience with both samatha (Skt: shamatha) and vipassanā (Skt: vipashyanā) before they can be introduced to nature of mind teachings. In order to avoid misinterpretation of these advanced teachings, we aren’t allowed to share them with others who have not had a similar level of training. This concept is foreign to me, but I will certainly respect the tradition and not divulge information that could potentially be harmful to others. On a more elementary level though, Rinpoche offered us some guidelines for evaluating a teacher. Here they are:
1) The teacher should come from an authentic lineage (this is the direct transmission piece)
2) The teacher should have a history of practice (it’s not all intellectual, in the Tibetan tradition this would mean at least one 3-year solitary retreat)
3) The teacher operates within a discipline
4) The teacher demonstrates compassion
I would also add that a sign of a good teacher is that she has more experience than you, and that she also demonstrates a capacity and willingness to learn from the student.
So how do we find a teacher (outside of our daily lives)? Is it true that when we are ready the teacher will find us, or do we need to be more proactive than that? Nowadays, there are so many teachings available to us just by jumping online or by going in a bookstore. It gives us a chance to do an initial exploring and vetting of what’s out there without having to invest ourselves completely. We also aren’t necessarily limited to those teachers in the immediate vicinity of our homes.
When I said I’ve been lucky, I mean that I hardly had to try to find each of the most influential teachers in my life. In college, I signed up for a freshman seminar called “Journeys Toward Spiritual Growth”, after which I became a religion major and never looked back. My professor had been a student of my own grandfather in Divinity School, had been recruited for Christian education at Carleton, and then proceeded to teach himself Chinese, Japanese and Sanskrit and introduced an East Asian religion program. We had very similar backgrounds and similar inclinations. He introduced me to the I Ching, taoism, mysticism, and helped me really dig much deeper in the Buddhist teachings I had started to explore on my own. It was a deeply personal relationship and tremendously inspiring. He was in his last year before retirement. It was quite lucky our paths crossed.
Later, after reacting strongly against a video-taught Goenka style vipassanā retreat and 18 months after finally getting over it and wanting to practice again, I discovered one of my childhood friend’s mother was a meditator and practiced in my home town. She introduced me to my next teacher, who provided precisely the right balance of discipline and compassion needed to encourage me to practice again. Unfortunately I was just moving across the country so it wasn’t until another two years passed that I was able to start working closely with my teacher, who continues to be my main teacher here in the US. We gather in a private home and sit and walk throughout the day, sharing meals — students and teacher together, and having private interviews on a daily basis. There is a lot of relating, even though we observe noble silence. We prepare meals together, work in the garden together, listen to Dhamma talks together, share solitude together.
Finally, when I made the decision to go to Asia to practice, even though I had thought for a long time it would be Japan where I would go, Burma was just the obvious destination – a country that still lives and breathes Buddhism in many ways. I asked my teacher, where (to whom) should I go? And he said, well, you’d probably like U Tejaniya. I looked him up, listened to and read whatever was available online, and had not one iota of hesitation. Immediately it felt right upon arriving in Yangon, totally like making a moon landing but feeling right at home. At one point during the retreat I wondered if I shouldn’t have had more samatha practice before diving so deep into this open awareness stuff – it took me three months of meditating all day, every day to experience samadhi. When I did truly experience samma samadhi, stability of mind, it was with a deep, virtually bullet-proof understanding of what it means to neither want nor resist anything. Even when I did 11 hours of sitting meditation every day at Shelburne Falls in 2004, with clear instruction to do body sweeping, I was practicing open awareness. For me, it’s where the mind naturally goes. In Burma, that there was as much intensity as each yogi wanted, in addition to the opportunity to really apply the practice to daily life (including via talking meditation), was a critical part of the learning process as well. I always end up just where I need to be. Even now, in all this uncertainty, it’s exactly right.
I’ll end with a few questions that may be helpful in evaluating whether or not a teacher is appropriate for us at a given time, in addition to the qualities mentioned by Mingyur Rinpoche.
- Do the teacher’s words and actions resonate with you? Are her ethics in line with yours? Do you intuitively feel like there is wisdom there? Can you check back against your own experience?
- Does the method being taught make sense to you? Is it natural for the mind? What is the motivation – there shouldn’t be too much greed for a “bliss-out” state, nor should there be too much aversion (e.g., if too structured, too loose, etc.).
- Does the teacher provide the proper balance between compassion and discipline?
- Does the teacher ask questions as opposed to give answers? Does she encourage you to think for yourself and learn via direct experience?
- As you get to know the teacher, does she push your buttons? Does she help identify areas where you maybe have particularly deep conditioning?
- Are you learning? Can you directly attribute your growing understanding to the relationship with your teacher?
These may be helpful things to keep in mind. When it comes down to it, though, I think the most important thing is to be open to the variety of teachers that may appear in our lives, at any moment. Also, being able to recognize through direct experience when someone is speaking truth. Don’t just take what someone is saying without some wise and skillful reflection. From my own experience, I would also argue that being able to practice in an intimate setting with one’s teacher over time is an incredible privilege and learning opportunity. If possible, I would really encourage such an approach.
In closing, I hope that if you are looking for a teacher that you can open your eyes to those that are already plainly in front of you, and that the rest will find their way to you soon.
* It’s interesting to note that all my formal teachers have been men, and virtually all those of note in the informal category women. More than anything I believe this reflects cultural attitudes of what and what isn’t an appropriate role by gender. We also receive teachings both directly and indirectly. Although there are far fewer women writing about the Dhamma in English than men, of the five or so teachers that have influenced me the most, at least three of them are women. And how many women have claimed enlightenment or been recognized as an arhant over the years?
And some reading:
“What are you looking for in a teacher?” by Ken McLeod (see also: “Someone you’ll listen to no matter how crazy you are…”)
“Finding a spiritual teacher” by David Nichtern
“Forum: Selecting a Teacher” with Ponlop Rinpoche, Jack Kornfield, Ajahn Amaro, Yvonne Rand, and Richard Shrobe (Buddhadharma, Spring 2003)
(Edit 8/19/10) “How to Find a Spiritual Teacher” by Mariana Caplan, excerpted from When the Student Is Ready: The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher, Sounds True, 2011
Also, articles from the Buddhadharma Spring 2010 Issue on “Going it Alone: Making it work as an unaffiliated Buddhist”
- Buddhism’s New Pioneers by Norman Fischer
- What if? Guidelines for Choosing a Buddhist Teacher by Lewis Richmond
- Diving into Buddhist Teachings by Judy Lief
- Community: Extending the View of Sangha by Gaylon Ferguson
Also, a note: I’ve also been fascinated with several sites online that evaluate gurus and spiritual teachers (many in the nondual traditions). I am not sure entirely what standards they use – especially if the individuals that are presenting the information haven’t necessarily met the teachers themselves in person – but it’s interesting nonetheless. An example here: http://www.globalserve.net/~sarlo/Ratings.htm