In Tibetan Buddhism, the foundation of our practice is not a belief, a text, or a ritual – but a teacher. The importance of a teacher really can’t be over-emphasized.
At the most basic level, because Buddhism is a practice-based psychology, the role of the teacher is like that of the golf coach, the piano teacher or the driving instructor – to show us how it’s done. How to meditate. How to live mindfully between sessions. How to apply Buddhist teachings to the life in which we find ourselves, in such a way that we may let go of suffering and cultivate wellbeing.
So important is the role of the teacher that we train to see him as being like a Buddha. Down the ages, teachers have been regarded as kinder that even Shakyamuni – the historical Buddha of 2,500 years ago. This idea that may seem like sacrilege, but is explained, very simply, on the basis that unlike Shakyamuni, our teacher is with us, here and now, trying to get us over the line to enlightenment.
Of course, if our teacher is in some way embodying Shakyamuni in his or her teachings, that suggests an even more intriguing dimension to what is going on.
In the West, many people are ambivalent about gurus, unwilling to invest too many expectations in someone who may turn out to be all too human. From time to time we see media reports about this guru who collected Rolls Royces and that guru who sexually exploited his female followers. The easy reaction is the cynical one – to dismiss the whole lot of them as charlatans.
But this is neither an accurate response, nor a helpful one. There will always be members of any group or profession whose behaviour disappoints. That doesn’t invalidate the integrity of every single member.
We need to recognise that certain things can’t be learned from books – no amount of study is going to get you through your driving test if you’ve never sat behind the steering wheel of a car. We should also review our own experience of learning: most of us, even decades after leaving school, have no difficulty remembering the name of a teacher who made a profound and positive impact on us. As an impressionable child, their encouragement may well have been life-changing.
So – who to choose for our own teacher? Well, here’s a tip: it is almost certainly not a name that will appear at the top of a Google search. This person probably won’t have an up-to-date website – unless it’s run by an obliging student – and will almost definitely not be on Facebook, Twitter or SnapChat. Projecting a carefully-curated image with a view to gathering as many followers as possible indicates a worldly preoccupation most unlikely in a realised person.
The best teacher for you is also unlikely to be someone who lives in another country and who flies into your city every three years, to offer blessings and empowerments before flying out again. We are fortunate to have such lamas with us, and privileged more than we can know if we’re able to receive teachings or initiations from them. But unless we can connect with them regularly in person, especially in the early days of our journey when we have so many questions, how can we go beyond words and ritual? If they’re not there for us when we’re facing decisions or difficulties, and we’re not there for them, orbiting within their sphere of influence, then how much of an impact can they really make on our minds?
What qualities should we be looking for from our teacher? Fortunately my own vajra guru, Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, spells these out clearly in his book, Path to Enlightenment:
- A mind controlled by pure morality.
- A mind that is pacified and undistracted through the practice of concentration.
- A mind completely pacified by discriminating wisdom.
- Having greater knowledge than the disciple.
- Having perseverance.
- A wealth of scriptural knowledge.
- Realisation of suchness, the wisdom perceiving emptiness.
- Skill in teaching the Dharma.
- Having love and compassion.
- Having abandoned discouragement and laziness in teaching the Dharma.
Ever pragmatic, Geshe Loden goes on to say:
“If, however, you cannot find a teacher with the ten qualities you should look for a guru who has at least five of these ten. He should have: ethics (1), concentration (2), wisdom (3), the wisdom that perceives emptiness (7) and compassion (9). If this is not possible, then at a minimum a guru should have the three: more qualities than faults, more concern for others than himself and more interest in future lives than this life.” (Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, Path to Enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism, Tushita Publications, Melbourne, page 98)
Our teacher need not be Tibetan, or a full time lama. He or she may have a regular job and also teach weekly classes from a living room. Geshe Loden emphasizes the importance of getting to know the person, even if it takes several years to be confident enough of their good qualities to accept them as a teacher.
Can you have more than one guru? Of course. If you once received an empowerment from a visiting lama, he can remain your guru. But you may find it helpful to receive regular teachings from someone who lives closer to home – and that person may become your guru too. While still getting a grounding in the teachings, it is better to stick to one teacher. But over time it is quite likely you will receive teachings from others. Ultimately, as we come to understand, all gurus are of the same nature.
A directory of teachers and centres you may find helpful can be found at: http://www.buddhanet.net/
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(Photo of smiling monk courtesy of: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/Minuialwenofthegreenforest/smiles-and-laughter/)
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