Many Buddhist suggest there is a value of having a teacher as you follow the path of Buddhism. But we have all heard of stories of teachers that have lead students astray. So, do you need a formal teacher to practice or grow in Buddhism? What is the actual value when we are already complete beings?
Some of the commentaries around the necessity of a teacher include Dogen, Japanese Buddhist priest, and founder of the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan, who is quoted as saying, “If you cannot find a true teacher, it is better not to study (Buddhism) at all”.
My own tradition, under the Recommended Reading page, starts off with the book list with this comment:
The 3 steps of starting a Zen Practice
- Quit reading and start sitting
- Find a teacher
- Continue sitting
Once you have established a regular meditation practice and joined a Sanga then restart reading.
There are stories that Buddha himself was taught Buddhism on another realm prior to his birth. You may view that as the way of it or just that he became independently enlightened after interactions with the two teachers he had before he sat under a Bodhi tree.
Regardless, you’ll find the idea of value in finding a teacher prevalent in Buddhism.
Now, on the other hand, there are instances of Buddhist teachers that do more harm than good. As recently as May of this year, the Kalapa Council, the international leaders of Shambhala tradition, released a statement that said: “In our complex history there have been instances of sexual harm and inappropriate relations between members and between teachers and students. We are still emerging from a time in which such cases were not always addressed with care and skill”. Further, we can’t forget the Aum Shinrikyo cult who in 1996 used a deadly nerve gas in a Tokyo subway killing 12 people. Although these horrible examples are exceptions to the common teacher/student experience, they do lead many of us to decide to avoid the whole teacher thing altogether. We either go it alone, or with the support of internet groups, or with real-time or virtual Sanghas.
My own experience is that for many years, I was being taught by books and podcast. At a point, I realized that I needed more, and after some Sangha shopping, found peers in Open Sangha. It was and continues to be of great value; hearing many voices, sharing different views, keeping an open mind and realizing there are many dharmas, an important piece of my path.
But there got to be a point where I realized that I only studied what I wanted; since historical Buddhism was boring to me, I ignored it. Since I didn’t believe in realms of heaven and hells, I ignored all teaching around it. My mind was already set to a certain path and I created no energy to change that.
When I only did what I thought was valuable, based on my own experience and perception, I became closed to that which was outside of my narrow view. Although I would think of myself as open-minded, I was much like a political fanatic; I had my belief and it was locked in – we could discuss another view, but I was really just waiting my turn to rebuke or ignore yours.
So for me, finding a teacher was so that I broke free of having My dharma and to be reminded that there are many dharmas. That Buddhism had 2500 years of text, history, teachers, philosophies, and traditions and that there was value in seeing more than my limited vision can see. This doesn’t mean I accept all dharmas as being of value to me – I still do not believe in literal realms of heaven and hells. But the study of it, of the concept, may well lead me to understand something that does assist me. And sometimes I do feel like I am trapped on the plain of hungry ghost.
One of the first things my current teacher, Thay Z, said to me was his job isn’t to tell me what to do. He would offer advice and suggestions on occasion, but he was really doing nothing more than holding up a mirror. And to make sure that I looked at that mirror on occasion and to help me question what I saw.
Thay Z asked me about my current practice and said “that is good” or “you should do more of that” but keeps putting things back on my lap. That is to say, he guides, but it is a light touch. He didn’t say “read this book”, he sent me a box of books and then asks me what I am reading.
Another example is he never said “shave off your goatee”; what he did say was “in our order, many find it valuable” and that lead me to think about it. And in processing that, I found my ego was attached to my appearance, and decided shaving would be valuable, and did so.
Finding the right teacher for you is often a challenge.
My first teacher, I found right here in Columbus, but I wasn’t ready. Or better said, I wanted to be a monk, and thus sought out a teacher to move me along becoming a monk. I realized as we went along that my desire was incorrect, and retired from that training.
Years later, I noticed a fellow I’ve known since 2009 posting some insightful stuff on Facebook. We had a similar background and I has a good feel for who he was and that we aligned ethically. So when I saw him walking around an event in his monk’s robes, neither of us was surprised when I asked him to formally take me on as a teacher.
Brad Warner, on finding a teacher, says
“In the end, it may come down more to instinct than anything else. When you find a good teacher you’ll have a gut feeling that he or she is right. But be very careful here not to follow your emotions because a deeply ingrained emotional response can often feel like intuition when it’s really nothing of the kind. Examine your reaction quietly. Don’t worry about your own likes or dislikes. I intensely disliked my ordaining teacher, Nishijima Roshi, when I first encountered him. Yet I knew somehow that what he was saying was right even if I hated it” (From http://hardcorezen.info/do-i-need-a-teacher)