Monday, April 23, 2012

How To Choose a Spiritual Teacher

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Photo/Tenzin Choejor

We live in an age and time of an abundance of spiritual teachers. Some spiritual teachers teach according to different faith traditions, such as Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, and many kinds of shamans are with or without a connection to a particular group or tradition. In this article I focus on choosing a spiritual teacher in the Buddhist context, but there may be people of other traditions who will find general guidelines here for choosing a spiritual teacher that are applicable in non-Buddhist traditions. My Buddhist background is in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition – almost all the Buddhist literature I have read is from this tradition. Therefore, the sources I cite for this article and my main approach to the topic of the spiritual teacher will be from this perspective. But, as I mentioned for non-Buddhist traditions, I hope the ideas I present here will be helpful to students of any spiritual background.
Khensur Denma Locho Rinpoche

Encountering the Dharma
Our first encounter with a spiritual teacher or with a spiritual practice group is often from an Internet search, from Youtube or reading articles. Thrangu Rinpoche, a respected teacher of Tibetan Buddhism advises, regarding Dharma study, “Read as much as you can – all the Dharma books you can find. Some will be good and some will be bad, but read them all anyway. We can also watch videos, or listen to tapes and start learning something from these.”1 Teachers will be like their books – some good and some bad.
Khensur Jhado Tulku Rinpoche - 6th Jhado tulku

Why do we need a teacher?
Just as we have a teacher in any field, just as we would not be able to read or write without a teacher, the spiritual teacher is of major importance for anyone wishing to attain enlightenment. In the East, there is great respect for teachers in any area, because they give us useful tools for life. All the more respect is accorded a spiritual teacher, who gives us tools not only for this life, and who is worthy of the title. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (director of the films “The Cup,” and “Travelers and Magicians”) says that we can rely on a spiritual teacher the way we rely on a driving instructor – as long as the student's intention is to attain enlightenment and the intention of the teacher is to bring him to enlightenment, the teacher can provide efficient methods to shorten the path along the way, to suit the specific needs of the student. The practice and study we do are most important. A teacher who knows the way, can help to shorten a journey that can also take several lifetimes, even eons. I have no doubt today that a good spiritual teacher helps spiritual practice. It is very hard to free oneself of the mistaken view of 'I' alone, without the help of another, without the help of a spiritual teacher.
The 17th Karmapa Orgyen Trinley Dorje
Examine carefully
One needs to rely on good judgement, examine the options, and do one's very best to steer clear of charlatans. The Dalai Lama says that just as we can discern fish in the water by the eddies on the water's surface, so we can sometimes discern the nature of the teacher by his behavior, and he recommends checking “for twelve years.”
An in-depth examination cannot prevent us from making a mistake. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche explains that karma also comes into play. The fortunate ones will be like bees, going straight to the sweet smelling flowers. The less fortunate ones (the luckless 'schlemazels,' as in Isaac Bashevis Singer's wonderful story, “Mazel and Schlemazel”) will be like flies, going straight to the sewage, because they can't discern the different smells.

What to avoid – teachers who empower the ego, the source of suffering
I'll share a personal story. I don't think there has ever been anyone more suspicious or more cautious than me with regard to spiritual teachers. I'm a rabbi's daughter, descended from many generations of rabbis. Judaism taught me that Moses was humble, there was no other teacher like Moses (though it is also said: “Between Moses and Moses (Maimonides), there has not been another like Moses”), and in the entire Passover Haggadah, Moses is not mentioned, so that we will not rely on a flesh and blood teacher, but rather on God. I first encountered the Eastern spiritual teacher phenomenon with a Chinese teacher, who, in his own words, belonged to the “Black Sect of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism.” My Chinese language instructor pressured and persuaded me with such insistence that I finally agreed to study with his teacher. I observed the spiritual teacher phenomenon with suspicion and skepticism. Devoted disciples heaped gifts and money on the teacher with great generosity, founded a temple in his honor and never ceased to praise his astounding psychic and prophetic abilities, his ability to diagnose and offer solutions. Without a doubt, this teacher had highly developed psychic ability, and also taught meditation techniques, techniques that I adopted and continued to practice. The “Buddhism” he taught did not include negating the mistaken view of self, or cultivating compassion, love and altruism – a sincere wish for the happiness of others and for relieving the suffering of others, but rather, endless rituals and methods to develop “the power of the Buddha,” for increasing abundance, success and happiness in all areas of life: business, health, relationship and studies. Although I wasn't swept up by him like his disciples, and kept a guarded and reserved attitude towards him, I stayed away from Buddhism altogether after my meeting with this teacher; I didn't open a book or go near any spiritual teacher for twenty years.

Nevertheless, one learns from all one's teachers, even the bad ones. The Buddha taught that the ego, the mistaken perception of the way the self exists, is the source of all suffering. From my first teacher, I learned how a person can take advantage of his psychic abilities for egotistical purposes and also encourage and teach thought, speech and action directed towards empowering ego. True Buddhist practice is not easy, and demands a revolution of one's thinking, as one learns to abandon, or to hold on less, to the things we are accustomed to identifying as the sources of happiness and pleasure, and to lean a little more into the suffering and the unpleasant, as the antidote for our tendency to run away from the unpleasant. A teacher who teaches how 'I' will have more – more material wealth, more success, more pleasant experiences, instead of generating the thought that 'I' as the center of the world is the source of suffering, is wrong and mistaken. From a poor teacher we can learn the causes of suffering, and sometimes even experience suffering, and from a good teacher we can learn how to cultivate the causes and conditions to be free of suffering. 

Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche - 9th Thrangu tulku
Many good teachers
Twenty years later, following the advice of many teachers, I approached the teacher I chose with great caution, while scrutinizing him closely. Slowly, slowly, over months and years, I met many teachers, so that today I have an abundance of teachers, of all the streams of Tibetan Buddhism and of Buddhism generally. As Thrangu Rinpoche explains, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana are all the true teachings of the Buddha. My many teachers explain that true refuge develops in the mind, and does not necessarily involve any particular ritual. When we see someone who we aspire to be like, in whom we recognize some qualities that we would like to acquire for ourselves, that is the true refuge. The best teachers do not only teach the Dharma, but have realized the Dharma and have succeeded in purifying their own mindstreams. An equally good teacher is someone who is working and practicing, who is in the process of purifying his mind, and is developing equanimity and compassion in order to benefit all sentient beings. Are there any qualities we will want to adopt and that we might be able to recognize in a spiritual teacher?
Geshe Pema Dorjee

The Buddhist custom is to prostrate before the image of the teacher who is shared by all, the Buddha, and in the Tibetan tradition, also to the teachers. Prostration symbolizes the lowering of the ego, a practice of humility. Jhado Tulku Rinpoche, Abbot Emeritus of the Dalai Lama's personal monastery, said of this custom, “Our emptiness prostrates to the teacher's emptiness,” in other words: I am empty, just as you are empty, you also have the possibility to realize this realization of emptiness that I have realized, there is no difference between you and me, just as I am empty of inherent existence, you are also empty of independent existence. Ven. Sean said of this custom, “We prostrate to the teachers because they worked hard and we were lazy.”

Every teacher has a teacher. The movie “Kungfu Panda” is a wonderful Dharma teaching and warmly recommended. After the Panda's victory over wicked Tai Long, while everyone is cheering and praising him, the Panda suddenly remembers his teacher, Master Sifu ('Sifu' means master or spiritual teacher in Chinese). The Panda turns around, abandoning the cheering crowd, and runs to his teacher, to whom he owes his victory. Just as there is no self that exists independently from its own side, so the Panda's victory was dependent upon his teacher.

Mind training is Sisyphean, painstakingly slow work. There is a Buddhist story about a man who wanted to reduce his negative thoughts and to increase his positive thoughts. For every negative thought he set aside a black stone, and for every positive thought he set aside a white stone on the other side. When he began his practice, the pile of black stones was large and the pile of white stones was very small. Over the years, the pile of black stones got smaller and the pile of white stones grew, until all his thoughts became white, with pure intentions, altruistic and compassionate. We need to stand guard at all times, to reduce negative thoughts, speech and actions and to increase the positive in our lives. From this, we can deduce that the basis of the spiritual path is a strong foundation in ethics. Ethics is an essential basis for the student and for the teacher throughout the whole spiritual path.2
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
Dzongsar Khyentse lists several desirable qualities of the spiritual teacher, including the understanding of emptiness, which gives rise to genuine compassion and fearlessness. The only problem is that only someone who has himself directly experienced emptiness can discern this quality in another. The most important quality of the teacher is kindness, but it doesn't hurt if he is also educated, has self-restraint and avoids harming others.

Which teacher is best for us?
Gampopa (1074-1153), father of the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, in his book “Jewel Ornament of Liberation,” explains that at different levels of the path we will be able to meet and learn from teachers of different levels of spiritual development. He classified different levels of spiritual teachers: 1. ordinary teachers, 2. teachers who are bodhisattvas, 3. realized teachers or Buddhas (Buddhas have a visible body and a hidden body). We will have spiritual teachers at these different levels according to our own level of spiritual development. In that case, according to Gampopa, who is the most beneficial teacher for us? “When we are in the obscuring darkness of the karma of afflicting emotions we have no opportunity to even see the face of a superior spiritual master, so how could we attend one? By meeting ordinary spiritual masters, receiving the light of their teachings and shining it on the paths, one will gain the opportunity to see the superior spiritual masters. So therefore, the greatest benefactor for us is the ordinary spiritual master. (p. 72)”3

Gampopa delineates the qualities of the ordinary spiritual teachers according to eight, four and two qualities:
  •  “has the moral ethics of a Bodhisattva, is learned in the bodhisattva's teachings, possesses realization, possesses compassion and kindness, possesses fearlessness, possesses patience, possesses an indefatigable mind and is expert in verbal expression.” (8 qualities)
  • “possessing great scholarship and dispelling doubt, whatever he says is acceptable, distinguishing the two realities” (4 qualities)
  • “learned in the Mahayana vehicle (compassion and universal love) and and holds the bodhisattva's vow.” (2 qualities)
Any of the above teachers will be beneficial for us. 
Ani Rita Riniker
(Lobsang Palmo)

The student's intention when choosing a teacher
There is no word, “Buddhist,” in Tibetan. The Tibetan word 'nangba,' usually translated as Buddhist, comes from 'nang,' inner, within. 'Ba' is like the English -er, the ending for a professional (e.g., teacher, painter). A Dharma practitioner is someone who practices innerness, who looks within. In that spirit, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, brings us back to ourselves, to look within, and instead of giving answers, he asks questions. Dzongsar Khyentse is sharp and has a great sense of humor. “Basically, what I'm trying to tell you is that your motivation, your intention, is the key to all this guru/student thing. What is your intention? First of all, why are you looking for a guru? And why are you looking for this particular guru? And why are you looking for one? Why are you looking for many? Intention plays a very important role.”5 He's essentially telling us to sort the stones, to examine our thoughts closely. Wrong intentions in the search for a spiritual teacher, or a spiritual friend, are money, power, influence, loneliness, attention, friendship, company, hormones, wanting a friend, brother/sister, mother/father. The wish to attain enlightenment is the only right and worthy intention for finding a spiritual teacher. Nevertheless, he says that if you found a spiritual teacher due to hormones, for example, and you were lucky and the teacher was also a worthy teacher, you might also attain enlightenment. Good can follow bad, maybe.

The main purpose of the spiritual teacher, a 'spiritual friend,' is the student's enlightenment, But we will consider all the other aspects as a bonus – wealth, prosperity, attention, friendship, companionship, someone to share a pizza with,”5 says Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. “It’s not like I will give you a list and with this list you will go around and ask,' Does he have the qualities?'”6 “Therefore lama’s looks, lama’s height, lama’s size, guru’s education, guru’s influence, guru’s charisma, guru’s hobbies don’t really matter any more. Whether the guru can provide you with the path to enlightenment becomes more important; all the other things become secondary. Right now they are important for many of us, because we are not seeking enlightenment. We are seeking companionship, we are seeking mitra (companion), not kalyana (kalyanamitra, spiritual companion).”7

However, if your intention is to attain enlightenment, and the spiritual teacher's intention is to bring you to enlightenment, be prepared to hear difficult things sometimes and to also hear the truth. The truth is not always comfortable. It's hard to accept criticism. It order to seek enlightenment, to want, to aspire to enlightenment, we need to change what we value, and to realize that daily existence lacks real value. “We are talking about really seeing that this endless worldly life has no essential value. That is going to bring a certain amount of depression. I think that’s good. I’m beginning to realize depression is good, especially if you are practitioners,”8 Dzongsar Khyentse explains. With this kind of intention for enlightenment, sooner or later we will find a teacher who fulfills our wish.
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
The spiritual teacher in different Buddhist traditions
In Tibetan Buddhism, unlike other Buddhist traditions, the teacher is considered the basis of the Path to Enlightenment, and also the path itself. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche talks about the differences in the spiritual teacher in the Vajrayana tradition, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and in the Mahayana tradition common in Japan, China and Korea. Of course, Mahayana does have the concept of master or preceptor, but the Mahayana guru is mainly a guide, a tutor or a coach, whereas in Vajrayana he or she may appear as the coach, but more as the path itself. Even in the practice it is evident. In the Mahayana tradition there is never a method of dissolving oneself into the guru’s heart or of the guru dissolving into you.9 In all three vehicles, in all the streams of Buddhism, the main teacher is the mind itself. The external teacher, the spiritual teacher serves as a mirror, so that we examine our own mind that much more effectively and deeply.

What if the teacher has faults?
Ultimately, the spiritual teacher is the guide for the Dharma, for the Buddha's teachings, that we need to apply ourselves. So, if the teacher isn't so great, examine the Dharma, the teachings themselves, and apply them and see if they have any benefit for us. One doesn't need blind faith, Thrangu Rinpoche9 explains, and there's no need to delude ourselves if the teacher has faults. In this case, one should rely on the Dharma and not on the teacher. If the teacher is stingy or greedy, then don't practice stinginess or greed!

The Path to Enlightenment is a well-traveled path, many before us have walked it. Many teachers know the path and the signs on the path well. The path is a path of looking inward, of constant examination: What is our intention now? Hormones or the sincere intention to attain enlightenment? Just as we ask for directions when looking for an address, in the same way, a spiritual teacher can direct us to our goal and guide our practice. It is also said that when a person is ready, the teacher will simply appear.

May all beings be happy!

Recommended reading
Berzin, Alexander. Relating to a spiritual teacher: building a healthy relationship. 
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. How to look for a guru and be a student. Four articles in Gentle Voice: A Newsletter of Siddhartha's Intent Issues 25 (Apr 2006) , 26 (Oct 2006), 27 (Apr 2007), 28 (Nov 2007).
Gampopa. Jewel Ornament of Liberation. Trans. Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche. New York: Snow Lion Publications. 1998.

Harderwijk, Rudy. A spiritual teacher. An excellent webpage on the spiritual teacher on a reliable Buddhist site that is a rich source of information

Harderwijk, Rudy. Where and when to find a guru? From FAQs, a concise answer
Patten, Lesley Ann. Words of My Perfect Teacher. 2003. Film about the teacher-student relationship, on Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.
Sogyal Rinpoche. Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Eds. Patrick Gaffney, Andrew Harvey. New York: HarperCollins. 2002. 
Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. On Gurus and Devotion. Trans. Karma Cheophel. Hong Kong: Dharmakara Publication 2008.
1 In Buddhism, the 10 non-virtues for the practice of ethics are: 3 of body – no killing (of any living being), no stealing, no inappropriate sexual misconduct; 4 of speech – no lying, no divisive speech, no harmful speech (criticism, defamation, ridicule, harsh speech), no idle, meaningless speech; 3 of thought – no envy, no harmful intent, no wrong views (e.g., there are no enlightenment, no past and future lives, etc.). Additional sources re ethics: For ethics practice suitable for any person, without regard for religion, ethnicity, gender, I recommend the Dalai Lama Foundation “Ethics for the New Millennium” study guide, available for free download in six languages; Dalai Lama Foundation course: “The Ethics of Altruism”
2 Gampopa. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, p. 72. Trans. Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche. New York: Snow Lion Publications. 1998.
3 Ibid., p. 73
4 Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. How to look for a guru and be a student. 2006. Gentle Voice 25:3.
5 Ibid., p. 2
6 Ibid., p. 10
7 Ibid, p. 10
8 Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. How to look for a guru and be a student. 2007. Gentle Voice 28:4
9 Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. On Gurus and Devotion. Trans. Karma Cheophel. Hong Kong: Dharmakara Publication 2008.
By Janna Weiss. Translated from the Hebrew original. 2010. 


  1. Khwaja Shamsuddin Azeemi​

    “At first the Spiritual Master makes you aware of your own Self, a treasure that resides within you; then he opens the door of that treasure.”

    1. Sufi saint
      Khwaja Shamsuddin Azeemi​