A Personal Guide to Finding a Buddhist Teacher.

Via John Pappas
on Jan 4, 2011
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If there is one thing I learned from being a Buddhist in the Great Plains, it is the importance of finding the right teacher and the trick of holding an even keel and keeping the wind in my sail while aboard this prairie schooner.

As easy as slipping into a glove, a practitioner can fall into the habit of attaching their practice completely to any teacher or group.  Almost as easy, a practitioner can fall into the opposite extreme and insist that they are (or would) only be hampered or constrained by a teacher.

On one hand, a proper guide can bring form, routine, guidance and challenge to a practice that may never be there without one.  At the same time a teacher can limit you through these same devises when applied in a dogmatic or careless way.  Or worse, a teacher can abuse the trust that a student puts into a relationship.  It is, when all things considered, up to us as individual practitioners to find and evaluate the best guide while still trying to steer our practice across this ocean of grasses and sage.

This quest continues to be an interesting one.  Some teachers have even blocked me, cursed at me or simply never got back to emails.  One outright asked for money upfront and others have kindly suggested I look closer to home for a guide or if my practice was really serious, I would be willing to make the attempts to travel.  Given the choice between a retreat and making my mortgage, my mortgage wins every time…hands down.  We need to face inward as well as outward and as a lay-person I need to look towards the benefit of my family first while on rout to benefitting all beings.  For now, it is best for me to focus on compassion, selflessness and wisdom while this wheel keeps turning.

So here is my list of guiding principles to finding a Buddhist teacher…perhaps not the best one but it will hopefully steer you away from any quacks.  And while I am focusing on Buddhist teachers, I think the same principals can be useful during the search for any contemplative guide.

  1. Engage.  Ask for recommendations from those that you respect.  Many are available but remember that teachers know their strengths and limitations and any worth their salt attempt to provide aid within those frameworks.  I have heard many a “No” on the annoying but understandable constraint that they may never meet me in the flesh.  Most authentic teachers are open to conversation but understand that tweeting to @dalailama will probably not get any results.
  2. Beware of bullshit sectarianism.  We are in the middle of a fairly large mixing bowl and there are several different traditions floating out in the void.  Some of these traditions are quite divisive and almost evangelical in nature and habit.  I see more benefit in understanding and engaging in other traditions rather than insisting that mine is better (more skillful, less deluded, “True” etc).  To my great surprise some of those that see themselves as “non-sectarian” are actually the most divisive and harmful.
  3. A good teacher will teach to the students need. That may be by providing a more secular or non-traditional presentation of the Dharma or adhering to a more traditional view.  This is nothing new.  The first Japanese Buddhist Missionaries recognized this and presented the Dharma in a fashion that was more applicable to a culture that had very little experience in Buddhism.  At the same time, this needs to be coupled with the first point, non-sectarianism, and we need to look out for those that take a presentation of the teaching for the “True” teaching.  Also remember that form is not necessarily bad (in fact quite good) but attaching to it is a different manner.  Big warning though – avoid the “guru trap”…avoid charisma and ego…so onto…
  4. Be wary of charisma and salesmen.  Choosing a teacher is based upon our own innate skepticism and natural reason.  There are many out there.  I don’t need teachers to focus on the Great promises; I just want you to deliver on the small.  If you feel all warm and fuzzy from a teacher, ask yourself why.  That same warm blanket can be used to smother you later.  Exercise your own judgment.  The Buddha went through a few teachers during his quest…
  5. No person is above a basic ethical code of conduct.  If you don’t like the way they act or actions that they take then you need to walk away.  At the same time be wary of dismissing teachers because of an event that happened in the past.  Richard Baker Roshi seems to be a good example of this.  While involved with a scandal at the San Fransisco Zen Center 25 years ago;  he addressed it openly and has been teaching ever since.  If you are going to discard someone for a mistake then your search is gonna be hard.  At the same time look for patterns of abuse and behavior.  When you see a consistent pattern of unethical behavior walk with care. Despite the scandal at the Zen Studies Society over Eido Shimano’s sexual abuse of students, the Zen Center seems honestly willing to ensure that such teacher abuse will never happen again.  (See bottom of page for ethical guidelines)

    “Each student must be encouraged to take responsible measures to confront teachers with unethical aspects of their conduct. If the teacher shows no sign of reform, students should not hesitate to publicize any unethical behavior of which there is irrefutable evidence. This should be done irrespective of other beneficial aspects of his or her work and of one’s spiritual commitment to that teacher. It should also be made clear in any publicity that such conduct is not in conformity with Buddhist teachings. No matter what level of spiritual attainment a teacher has, or claims to have, reached, no person can stand above the norms of ethical conduct.” — via Shimano Archives (originally from a meeting on March 16-19, 1993  between His Holiness The Fourteenth Dalai Lama and a group of twenty-two Western dharma teachers.)

  6. People use their own cultural evolution to manifest the Dharma.  This leads to a large and wonderful amount of variety.  Best to learn first about a practice and ask rather than assume.  Bottom line?  Don’t be too quick to call bullshit on something before you gain some insight…then you can call bullshit if necessary and in triplicate.
  7. There is a level of maturity that needs to be expressed in a teacher. Seriously?  Throw that crazy wisdom sh*t out the window.  Look for those whose maturity manifests itself in your interactions with the teacher.  It need not be pretty and nice but it should be expressed through compassion, generosity and wisdom.   If you don’t see that emotional maturity (this is not something associated with age) then walk away.  Maturity in an organization is also helpful.  Ask for the ethical guidelines of teachers.  For me this indicates that the governance of the organization is looking out for the safety of students and not just feeding a guru’s ego or looking to milk another cash-cow.  Spiritual searching opens one up and allows a certain amount of vulnerability.  Is anyone watching for abuse?  Is anyone concerned about your wellbeing?
  8. Authenticity.  If a teacher is asking you to become a disciple or lay-follower then they should be transparent about their lineage or lack of it.  If you hear “I was instructed by many lamas and roshis but due to the controversial nature of my teachings they asked to remain anonymous” then WALK AWAY.  By no means does Dharma transmission make or break a teacher but lack of transparency does.  One of my favorite guides is a lay-practitioner, and he does not pretend to be more than that and his wisdom shines through.  Ask for proof of authenticity or for lineage and expect honesty and transparency in response or at least a mature organizational response.  It is that simple.
  9. A teacher needs a student as much as a student needs a teacher.  This may be my Zen leaning shining through but a good teacher puts themselves in the roll of student and allows the student to instruct.  But also these roles require a certain amount of maturity, transparency and openness.
  10. As corny as it sounds, everyone is a teacher. Be aware of those around you that teach naturally through action and intent and allow yourself the opportunity to express your own practice in return.
  11. From the Zen Studies Society and provided here to give an example of what every Zen/Dharma Center or Temple should expect from their teachers or monks.  The following behaviors are not permissible for any teacher, guest lecturer, monastic, Sangha member, program attendee or visitor at either Dai Bosatsu Zendo or New York Zendo:
    • Failure to conform to zendo or monastery rules.
    • Any willful removal or damaging of property, or theft of funds.
    • Withholding or falsely reporting any income generated by the Zen Studies Society.
    Threatening, abusive or obscene behavior.
    • Disrespectful or preferential treatment towards anyone on the basis of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, age, physical disability, income or national origin.
    Willfully causing injury, whether physical or psychological, to anyone.
    • Any type of illegal drug use, possession or sale.
    • Consumption of alcohol unless served at an officially sponsored event.
    • Possession of any firearms or other weapons.
    • Misrepresenting personal information. �
    • Engaging in any type of unlawful activity.
    Sexual advances or liaisons between teachers or guest lecturers or monastics and Sangha members, program attendees or visitors.
    Sexual harassment, defined as any single act or multiple persistent acts of physical or verbal conduct that is/are sexual in nature and (1) sufficiently severe or intense to be abusive to a reasonable person in the context; or (2) unwelcome or offensive behavior in the view of the receiver of such attentions.”

As general required reading, every student of Zen or the Dharma in general should read Stuart Lach’s  “The Zen Master in America” on the dangers of the “Roshi” (or tulku, lama, guru) ideal.  This is not the Middle Ages.  The mystic edge has long since dulled.  It is your responsibility to questions those that teacher and hold them to a standard of conduct rather than place them on a pedestal.

Happy Searching!


About John Pappas

John Pappas is a struggling Zen practitioner with a slight Vajrayana palate (but he won't admit it) stumbling between the relative and absolute through the Buddhist Purgatory otherwise known as the Great Plains of South Dakota. Emerging writer, librarian and aspiring hungry ghost, John spews his skewed perception of the dharma all over his personal blog, Subtle Dharma Mouth Punch as well as on the ephemeral Elephant Journal and occasionally (while having no artistic ability to speak of) on Dharma/Arte. John also loves tacos, homebrew, yoginis and obscure Cthulhu references. You can follow him on twitter under the handle @zendustzendirt


12 Responses to “A Personal Guide to Finding a Buddhist Teacher.”

  1. Joyce says:

    Adding on from the Tibetan perspective – "whatever appears is the gauge of our own mind". . .

    You can find false teachers everywhere, not only in America. On a relative level, it is important to rely on a good teacher who has the ability to open our own wisdom and compassion. They will lead us on the path beyond dualistic mind, even beyond samsara and nirvana, to full liberation. Although Buddha nature is inherent in all of us, it has not blossomed due to always relying on our own dualistic mind. So we must develop the ability to choose teachers with wisdom and compassion, who are not teaching out of confusion or for their own fame or gain.

    However, our phenomena belong only to us, and whatever appears is only a gauge of our own mind. As Rinpoche points out in the interview, the absolutely crucial point is to examine our own minds. Although good or bad teachers may appear to you, you can only perceive them at the level of your own mind. If our minds are negative, then it is like someone with jaundice who will perceive a pure white snow mountain as yellow. The qualities and faults that we see in another person fully depend upon our own mental capacity. It is never necessary to reject or condemn others since we may later appreciate them with a different view. Practice actually means to purify one’s own mind until all phenomena are perceived as pure. Practice turns our usual focus on others around to focus on ourselves. Usually we take our own faults, which are like the size of a mountain, and try to hide them. Then we find others’ faults, which are like the size of a sesame seed, and display them for everyone to see and talk about. Instead, we should try to practice from a Buddhist point of view. Even though one person may have a hundred different faults, still they have at least one quality. Instead of judging the hundred faults, we should find that one quality and emulate it. Then we will be connected only with positive phenomena, not negative, which will lead us to greater purity. This is the Buddhist way. If we practice pure Dharma to purify our own minds, then we will recognize the qualities of pure teachers and not need to reject impure ones. This wisdom was given to me from my root lama Dungsé Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. Please take this heart advice and put it into sincere practice without thought of worldly gain or politics. I am old now, and neither Rinpoche nor I have any need to collect more students or fame. We only wish to give advice which will actually benefit beings and release them from their suffering and confusion.

    Lama Tharchin Rinpoche

  2. Jack Daw says:

    "You can find false teachers everywhere, not only in America. "

    No doubt but it seems that they would be called out quicker in Tibet or India since Buddhism is more deeply ingrained into the culture that here. While here money, marketing and "BIG" personalities are often more (not important necessarily) but garners more influence. I know that same thing happens elsewhere.

    From the gauge of my own mind a teacher becomes less and less important. They more and more seem as lost, unenlightened and ineffectual as myself. Worthless? No. But only one small part in the support of a personal practice. No more important than a meditation group, loving parents, intent or a rock in the backyard.

    My main point is that evaluation needs to come before infatuation when looking at teachers. Rejecting teachers outright is an infatuation of sorts as well.

  3. It is a wonderful question but so easily faked…and honestly "happy" people are sometimes the most stretched and repressed that I know!

    A recent study asked parents if they were happier with children and generally they said "No" but what they experienced was positive affect that goes beyond happiness. Perhaps a better question to a teacher is "Are you satisfied?"


  4. Don Mead says:

    I would suggest asking the question, “Are you happy?” I would not be as interested in the answer as I would be in the reaction of the “teacher” to the question.

    When HH Dali Lama was asked this question. His answer was to laugh and say, “Yes, yes; most definitely.”

  5. What a wonderful blog, John! So carefully nuanced, well-thought-out and pleasantly irreverent. This is going to be really valuable to a lot of people.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  6. Or drive enough of them crazy that they hunt me down with pitchforks and torches.

  7. tamingauthor says:

    John, very interesting challenge. The exercise caused me to consider how one might construct a list.

    The first thing, which I noticed was not highlighted on your list but which probably should be:

    Does the teacher know the Dharma?
    Does the teacher know how to impart the Dharma?
    Is the teacher willing to impart the Dharma?
    Under what conditions is the teacher willing to impart the Dharma?

    This is somewhat of a Catch-22. If the student knows the Dharma, he or she does not need a teacher. If the student does not know the Dharma how are they to evaluate a teacher? So one gets a "blind leading the blind" situation.

    To solve this dilemma, one can work in increments. One can study the teachings of the Buddha as much as is possible through the texts. Once one has studied the basic texts one has some benchmarks one can use to compare the Buddha's thought with the teacher.

    In most cases, you will find the teacher does not understand the Buddha. There is a huge disconnect in most cases, which allows you to move on.

    You offer an excellent example in the choices you face. On the one hand, there is Zen and then there is Vajrayana. When one runs the "does this comport with the teachings of the Buddha?" test, there is no comparison.

    Zen is "off the reservation" doing its own thing. It should not even be called Buddhism. On the other hand, Vajrayana is consistent with the teachings in their fullness. Zen has traveled through one culture after another, picking up changes along the way. Vajrayana, in addition to having one of the latest transmissions of the work from the Buddha, has been secluded in Tibet, and thus is much less altered.

    That is a beginning step. Once you have seen that difference (which, to me, is striking in its clarity) one can begin to isolate further differences. One somewhat stable marker I have discovered is the title "Rinpoche." If you are working with a Rinpoche you are at somewhat in the ballpark. Thus, one might begin by studying the works of the Rinpoches. Some have been written with surprising clarity.

    I would start with most of the works of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, definitely consider Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche, and the works of Sogyal Rinpoche. With a good knowledge of their work, your search will be better grounded and you will have some criteria from which to work in selecting a more immediate teacher.

    Oddly enough, if you go far enough in the study of their work and you meditate with diligence and skill you will find you do not need to travel. You will already be there with the teacher.

  8. tamingauthor says:

    John, here are a few other signposts that may be worth considering:

    1) Does the teacher acknowledge former lives? If not, run. The Buddha was clear and repetitive in putting forth his former lives and saying that such knowledge was vital to the lessons. See the last verse of the Dhammapada for a clear exposition. Also, see chapter sixteen of the Lotus Sutra. If the teacher does not understand this area, or considers "that is just Hinduism" then depart with all due haste.

    2) Does the teacher thoroughly reject materialism? The Buddha's entire body of work was a refutation of the premises of materialism. If the teacher continues to cling to materialism, in any way, no matter how subtle, you know you have not found a teacher of the Dharma. Walk away. You will be wasting your time otherwise.

    3) Does the teacher feel he must redact anything and everything in the texts that refers to the supernatural? (This is a version of #2.) If so, it is not Buddhism. Run. A visible example of this is Stephen Batchelor who presents anti-Buddhism in "Buddhism Without Beliefs." If the teacher reacts with anything but total disgust at that book, leave.

    4) Does the teacher believe the Buddha is just some dead guy who lived 2500 years ago? If so, excuse yourself and continue your search. The Buddha made it clear that he was not that body, not that aggregate heap. If one says that is all he was…time to depart. The Buddha teaches to this day. If you study his texts you will see he made this promise.

    5) Does the teacher hem and haw when it comes to reincarnation? Do they insist on using the term "rebirth" in a way that simply means matter and energy recombine in many forms? If so, you have found someone working to twist the teachings into materialism. Time to depart.

    6) Is the teacher preparing you for more than just this one life? Is the teacher preparing you for the bardo stages? Is the teacher preparing you to become a bodhisattva? Stick around. It could get interesting. You have found at least an interim teacher.

    7) Does the teacher believe that bodhisattvas only return wearing robes and traditional garb? Or does the teacher believe a bodhisattva can teach the Dharma in any type of form and in the midst of any culture? If so, worth paying attention.

    8) Does the teacher go on about the brain as though it were the mind? If so, find someone who understands it is their job to help you separate (cease attachment) to the brain/body. If the teacher in any way clings to the body as the focus of the practice, slip slide away. They have not even understood the early Pali Canon, let alone Vajrayana, and they will only get you twisted up in the bramble bushes.

    9) Does the teacher really understand the concept of emptiness and the teachings of the twelve nidanas? If they offer tautologies (form is emptiness and emptiness is form) without explanation as to what that means in a concrete manner, skip the stop. If they do not understand the link between ignorance and fabrication, you have stumbled into the wrong place. Depart, as they will never be able to lead you up the path to the place where one really starts the practice.

    10) If you have found a teacher who pushes compassion and compassion and compassion but never provides you the tools to look under the hood at the causes and conditions that bring about a lack of compassion, then slide away. They have the words right but have no idea of what they mean. Most of us have the aspiration to live with compassion but we do not have the tools. Restating the aspiration in many different and colorful ways is fine, but it does not get the heavy lifting done. What are the horrors we must face in order to cleanse the karmic slate? That is what one needs to know.

    11) If the teacher does not understand the need to purify karmic imprints, you are in the wrong place. If karma is just an odd term that the teacher dismisses with the pat phrase "that is Hinduism" then you are in the wrong place. The teacher should be able to give you examples of karmic imprints and examples of how they are purified. They should be able to tell you how they plan to go about helping you wipe clean the mud from your windshield so you can see more clearly. They should realize the nature of the storehouse mind with all its karmic imprints and they should know how that monkey mind dictates your actions, thoughts, and perceptions. If they do not have a coherent explanation and description it is probably time to look elsewhere.

    Anyway, one can compile a list of basic truths of the Dharma by which one can then evaluate whether or not one is working with a teacher who will truly help.

  9. You provided a large list and a good one. And we both know that we can list things out forever and a day (Buddhists love lists!). This was more of a personal reflection into what I found as important points. Knowledge of dharma is important, no doubt, but tough to evaluate.

    I purposefully kept mine broad and away from specifics. For example 12 nidanas or understanding emptiness. How is a beginner even to know how to evaluate a teacher on the understanding of emptiness? hoo boy, that is tough. 12 Nidanas are not a teaching tool I would expect from most zen teachers so lacking that I would not judge too harshly (although a wonderful element that is sorely missed).

    I did not inclue guru yoga in my list nor did I frame it in that tradition. I actually have someone more experienced in that realm doing a guest post on my blog soon so I hope that you will come and comment there on the specifics.

    Bottom line: I provided a an idea for a class and you provided a syllabus. A very good one too.


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  12. Chamomile says:

    I tuhghot I’d have to read a book for a discovery like this!