January 5, 2011

A Personal Guide to Finding a Buddhist Teacher.

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!

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