Choosing a Teacher
March 07, 2024

The Buddha says there are two reactions to pain. One is bewilderment: “Why is there this pain, why is there this suffering?” Then two, a search. As he phrases the search, “Is there someone who knows a way or two to put an end to this pain?”

Just think of that: You’re looking for someone who has knowledge about how to put an end to pain, who is truthful, and has the compassion to tell you the way. But at the same time, you’re bewildered. You’re not sure who has that knowledge, who has the compassion, who has the truthfulness. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

This is the position we’re in as we look for a teacher.

The question often comes up, “If I’m going to find a teacher, what do I look for?”

Remind yourself of the position you’re in and exactly what you’re looking for—and that you have to be very observant. As the Buddha said, you’re not going to know someone until you’ve been with them for a while. You’re not going to know their virtue—i.e., their truthfulness—until you’ve been with them for a while and seen them in action. And you have to be observant. This requires that you be honest, too.

You’re not going to know a person’s discernment until you hear them discuss issues and see how they treat a particular issue, how they treat different questions: which questions need to be answered categorically, which questions need to be re-analyzed, which questions need to have a counter-question to clear things up before the answer comes, and which questions deserve being put aside. Mastering that list of the four types of questions, the Buddha says, is an essential part of discernment.

You’re not going to know a person’s endurance until you’ve seen that person endure hardship. And again, you have to be observant. Spend time. And you’re not going to know the person’s purity unless you’ve had dealings with that person.

The sutta doesn’t define what “dealings” are meant in this context, but two things come to mind. One is simply trade, making exchanges. Does the person make fair exchanges, or does he try to take advantage of the other side? The other issue concerns arguments. If you have a debate with someone, you get a sense pretty quickly as to whether they’re fair in how they treat your position, how they treat your arguments, how they treat you as a person.

So it takes time to know people. But the Buddha does give you a list of things to look for, specifically, in a teacher. And again, it comes down to the issue of someone who is knowledgeable, truthful, and compassionate.

One of the questions he has you ask is: “Would this person ever claim to know something that he or she doesn’t know?” That gives you a sense of the truthfulness of the person.

When the person teaches, do the teachings clear things up? The Buddha says that he trained his students to be experts in cross-questioning. In other words, when a teacher gave a teaching, and if the student didn’t understand what the teacher was saying, the student was free to ask, “What does this word mean, what does that word mean?”

At the same time, the teacher was supposed to be free to question the student. If the student asked a question, the teacher could ask, “What do you mean? What are you getting at?”

This kind of relationship, the Buddha says, is conducive to understanding the truth.

What you don’t want is someone who’s good in bombast, someone who can spin fine phrases, sound impressive, but when you press the person on what they exactly mean, they equivocate. They don’t make things clear.

Think about that story of Marilyn Monroe when she was married to a playwright and was getting to know the intellectuals in New York. She had lunch with one famous intellectual one time and afterwards she said, “He’s not an intellectual. He doesn’t make things clear to me.”

You want someone who makes things clear. That gives you a sense that the person really knows what he or she is talking about.

As for a compassion, ask yourself, “Would this person tell someone else to do something that was not in that other person’s best interest?”

Watch. Be observant. Don’t go by the impression you get simply by listening to a few Dhamma talks on YouTube. Although one thing you can learn is if you go into a chat room, and there’s a teacher involved in the chat room, notice how the teacher handles arguments. That can give you a sense of how he or she deals with people. Otherwise, you have to know the person in person. We have to take time to get a sense of whether there can be a rapport based on compassion.

I know in my case with the Ajaan Fuang, there were a lot of things he didn’t know about Western culture. There were times when I would ask him questions that to me seemed very natural. But as soon as the question came out of my mouth, I got a quizzical look from him. He made me realize that this was very much an American question and I was going to have to work it out on my own. But the sense of compassion that I felt from him was much more important than having him answer all my questions.

He really did seem to be concerned about my well-being, which meant that even when he was harsh, it was for a good reason. I would be doing something that was lazy, stupid, or thoughtless, and he would let me know. And I’m glad he let me know.

One of my jobs was to be his attendant. As I went up the hill every day to his hut, if there was a question I had either about my practice or about some issue in the monastery, I realized I had to practice it in my head before I broached the topic with him. There had been times when I would broach a topic, and he came right back in a way that indicated that the conversation was already over before it even began. I came to realize it was the way I broached the topic. So I had to think very carefully: How do you broach a topic in a way that you’re not putting any burdens on him, not placing responsibility on him for something that you should be responsible for yourself?

Then years later after he died I had dealings with other senior monks, and I noticed other monks who had not been trained in this way getting themselves into a lot of trouble. Whereas I was in a position to think things through—I’d had that practice. I’d have dealings with senior monks who were said to be difficult and I didn’t have any difficulties with them.

So you’re not looking for someone who’s simply kind in a sweet, flowery sort of way. The kindness has to run deeper. You’re looking for someone who’s willing to train you, and that takes a lot of effort on their part, so you have to have some compassion for the teacher. But if you feel that the teacher is compassionate, the teacher has your true well-being in mind, that’s a lot of the relationship right there.

So you’re looking for someone who’s knowledgeable, truthful, and compassionate. Learn to ask the right questions, so that you can overcome some of your bewilderment and see who is actually truthful, knowledgeable, compassionate.

As the Buddha said, a person of no integrity or little integrity cannot recognize a person of integrity, cannot recognize a person of no integrity. It’s hard to see.

So you have to look to your integrity as the number one issue. But if you honestly want to put an end to suffering and you’re willing to do whatever is needed to put an end to suffering, that puts you on the right track. And when you’re on the right track, you’re in a much better position to find people who can help you along the way.