“What If?” Guidelines for choosing a Buddhist teacher

How should you go about choosing a Buddhist teacher? Lewis Richmond has some smart suggestions for you in this full article from the “Going It Alone: Making It Work as an Unaffiliated Buddhist” section of the Spring 2010 issue of Buddhadharma — at your favorite newsstand now.

Just click through here to read and leave a comment.

What If: Guidelines for Choosing a Teacher
by Lewis Richmond

You may be perfectly content to study and practice the dharma on your own, without a Buddhist teacher or community. But the time may come when you feel that isn’t enough, and you decide you want to seek one out. If that happens, how do you go about finding a teacher (and by extension, a community) that’s right for you?

It’s important to know that the wisdom you’re seeking is already within you. It guides your spiritual search, and is the reason you are already on the path. So to some extent you can rely on your own instincts and intuition to help you.

With that in mind, I recommend approaching your search as a five-step process: watch, ask, feel, try it on, and commit.

Watch what the teacher does and says, and how he or she treats people. Kindness, friendliness, humility, a sense of humor, as well as a forthright and honest manner are qualities of spiritual maturity recognized by every Buddhist tradition. They are the precepts in action. Some say you should watch a teacher for three years before accepting him or her. I’m not sure that is realistic or necessary, but whether it is three weeks or three years, take your time.

Ask questions, and don’t be shy. See how the teacher responds. Don’t be rude, but don’t hold back either. Questions that feel dumb are often the best questions. When I was with my root teacher, I wanted to look good to him and so I tended not to ask questions that exposed my ignorance. I regret that. A good teacher will not be offended or defensive about such questions.

Also, when asking questions, ask everyone. The teacher’s close students know him or her best. Find out what they know or are willing to share. In assessing their responses, use your “wisdom stomach.” If there are any secrets about the teacher or the community that you need to know, these students are your best sources.

How do you feel? After watching and asking, take stock of your own gut feeling. Is your feeling about the teacher pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? That feeling is a clue. There is a principle in Buddhism—in Zen we call it innen—which can be translated as “affinity” or “coincidence.” It refers to the causes and conditions of human relationship that have brought you and the teacher together. For a teacher–student relationship to work, there needs to be this sense of affinity. You should feel a positive regard for the teacher. If not, this teacher may not right for you.

Try it on. After watching, asking, and feeling, it may be a time to “try it on.” A good teacher or community will offer some level of provisional commitment—a chance to accept the teacher more deeply without throwing yourself off a cliff. Depending on the tradition, this might involve a ceremony, a private interview, or acceptance into a retreat or more intensive level of practice.

Be cautious about a teacher or community that requires a life-changing, irrevocable commitment up front. Quitting your job, being ordained as a monk or nun, giving away money or property, becoming a full-time resident—these might conceivably be in your future, or not. But wherever your spiritual path leads you, these decisions are yours, not someone else’s.

Time to commit. The Buddhist path eventually requires commitment as well as trust. In your developing relationship with a teacher, there may come a time when both of you are ready for a commitment. If this time has come, don’t hold back. Perhaps it will be good; perhaps it will turn out to be a mistake. In the end, you need to put one foot in front of the other, and see where the path leads you. All seekers of the Way have done this.

In dharma, as in life, there are no guarantees. Things that count involve risk. As they say in sports, “No guts, no glory.” Good luck!

Lewis Richmond is the founder of the Vimala Sangha in Mill Valley, California, named after Vimalakirti, the “householder Buddha,” and is a teacher with the Shogaku Priest Ongoing Training (SPOT) program.

More from Lewis Richmond (links open in new windows):

And for more on deepening your practice — especially if you’re practicing without a formal affiliation to a Buddhist group or organization, be sure to see the Spring 2010 issue of Buddhadharma.

See also (links open in new windows):

You’ll also find a section about “Going It Alone” at the ShambhalaSun.com homepage.

5 Comments

  1. Posted February 26, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate this article Lewis, thank you for writing it. While still "unaffiliated" in a sense I am doing what you recommend, trying something on right now. Will pay attention to the rest of your advice as well.

  2. Andre
    Posted February 28, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    I was in a real hurry to get a teacher when I first started. Like that old saying when the student is ready the teacher will appear. I was posting on a local websight and somebody was treating my comments as thought I were an idiot as none of the others were really the profound. I wanted to keep my ignorance. Buddhist and alanons look at compassion and detachment in different ways.

    As I try to strengthen my practice, I find much greater faith than the buddhist ego can support at times. I have become so scatterbrain. I work on mindfullness meditation and just memory of the basic precepts so when people ask me the difference between karma and dependant origination over three lives… and I'm not preoccupied with whats in the basket.

    I know the poisions and disires that are leading me away. Some day I will have wisdom and understanding. Good sound advice in this article.

  3. John Palmer
    Posted March 23, 2010 at 3:20 am | Permalink

    Good advice.
    In my experience when an unpleasant gut feeling returns, I found it important to reassess the teacher as that might be the time to seek another teacher. We may need several teachers as we progress. We each have different life experiences and may need another teacher to help us over our next hurdle as they may have had a similar experience and can give good guidance
    John from down under

  4. heartgarden
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    I never intended to become a Buddhist. I've been sitting with an informal group for three years and am curious about attending to my practice. I realized after talking to a friend that there is an opportunity for a teacher to ask me questions about my practice that I might not have thought of or might need to be reminded of. It seems like now is a good time to seek out a teacher.

  5. plenty moron
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    hi – Good advice, but students closest to a teacher are not always the best sources to learn secrets or to discern a teacher's true nature. sometimes objective observers are best especially when a student is unable to get anywhere near the "teacher."

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