Chapter Two

A True Teacher

Before the Buddha gave his first talk, he had to establish the right relationship with his audience, a group of five monks (Mv I.6.10–31). He needed to convince them of the possibility that he knew what he was talking about, that he would tell them the truth, and that they would benefit from hearing it. In other words, he had to convince them that he was knowledgeable, truthful, and compassionate: the qualities anyone would look for in a teacher offering to give instruction on the way to end suffering.

Now, the Buddha already had some history with the five monks. They had been his attendants during a six-year period when he subjected himself to extreme austerities, almost starving himself to death in his search for the deathless. When he realized that if he continued with those austerities he would die without having achieved his goal, he began eating again in moderation. The five monks, seeing this, decided that he had given up on his search. Disgusted, they left (MN 36).

As it so happened, the Buddha hadn’t given up at all. He had actually gained his first insight into one of the factors of the actual path to the deathless, the practice of right concentration. But with his body so emaciated, he couldn’t attain that concentration. That was why he had started eating again.

Still, in their eyes, he had slacked off. So, when after gaining awakening he sought them out to teach them, he had to convince them that it would be worth their while to listen to him and follow his instructions. At first, they resisted. When he told them that he was now awakened, that he had attained the deathless, and that he could teach them how they, too, could follow the way to the deathless, they rejected his claims. How could he have found the way to the deathless after slacking off? Three times he asserted his claims—which, in the culture then, was a sign of his earnestness—but three times they rejected them. He then reminded them of what they knew of his truthfulness: Had he ever made a claim like this before? No.

So the group of five were willing to listen. The Buddha taught them the four noble truths along with the duties appropriate to each, and at the end of the talk, one of the five gained his first glimpse of the deathless. The Buddha now had a witness to confirm his claims. Shortly thereafter, he was able to help all five to fully attain the goal.

This was the first instance of a pattern that was repeated again and again in the first years of the Buddha’s teaching career: He had to convince his listeners of his knowledge, his truthfulness, and his compassion. When they could see that he was the kind of teacher they were looking for in their search to end suffering, they were willing to put his teachings into practice and gained the desired results: either fully awakening to the end of suffering, or gaining a glimpse of the goal and knowing that eventually they would arrive there.

In taking on the role of teacher, the Buddha presented himself as what he called an admirable friend. To listen to him and follow his instructions was to enter into an admirable friendship with him. He later defined this sort of friendship in a way that could apply to other reliable teachers as well (AN 8:54).

Simply put, you enter into an admirable friendship first by looking for a person whose behavior embodies four qualities—conviction, virtue, generosity, and discernment—and who encourages other people to develop those qualities as well. Then you establish a relationship where you try to emulate those qualities in your own behavior, too. This relationship, the Buddha said, was the most important external factor in awakening to the end of suffering (Iti 17).

Conviction, here, means conviction in the Buddha’s awakening, and particularly in the principle of kamma (karma) that the Buddha discovered in the course of his awakening: that your experience of pleasure and pain comes from your own actions, either present or past.

Virtue means abstaining from five forms of harm: killing living beings, stealing, engaging in illicit sex, telling lies, and taking intoxicants.

Generosity refers to being generous not only with your material possessions, but also with your time, energy, and knowledge.

Discernment means understanding the principles of cause and effect as they can be mastered to put an end to suffering and stress.

Of these four qualities, conviction and discernment relate to the teacher’s knowledge, virtue to the teacher’s truthfulness and compassion, and generosity to the teacher’s compassion as well.

In addition to defining admirable friendship, the Buddha set up a monastic order to train his disciples to be admirable friends to themselves and to others. Around this order, he established a culture of training and apprenticeship that would encourage the practice of admirable friendships to last for many generations. Several aspects of that training were particularly aimed at ensuring that the values of knowledge, truthfulness, and compassion would be fostered in the culture he left behind—a culture that has lasted to the present day.

In terms of knowledge, he trained his students in cross-questioning. If there was anything in the teaching they didn’t understand, they were encouraged to ask for clarification—and to keep asking until they understood well enough to put the teachings into practice. The Buddha contrasted this style of teaching with what he called “training in bombast,” in which the teacher teaches using flowery and lofty words with no clear meaning, and the students are discouraged from asking what, precisely, those words might mean (AN 2:46).

Because training in cross-questioning is aimed at the students’ understanding, it’s also training in compassion. The act of teaching should serve, not the glory or popularity of the teacher, but the students’ ability to benefit from it.

In terms of truthfulness, the rules by which the Buddhist monks and nuns live encourage them to be truthful in three areas:

(a) To begin with, they should be truthful in observing their own actions. The rules were designed so that if a monk broke a rule, the severity of the offense often depended on the intention behind the act, and on the perceptions that informed it. For instance, taking something you perceive to be yours carries no penalty, whereas taking—with the intent to steal—something you correctly perceive as belonging to someone else can get you permanently evicted from the order. The importance of these mental factors in determining an offense forces the monks to be observant not only of their physical actions, but also of the intentions and perceptions behind their actions. It also sensitizes them to the fact that their perceptions can often be wrong. If they take their training seriously, they have to check their perceptions again and again, to make sure they’re accurate. This aspect of truthfulness can be called truth in observation.

(b) When a monk is accused of an offense, he should truthfully report his actions to the monks judging the case. They’re instructed not to settle the case until they’re convinced that the accused is telling the truth about what he did. This aspect of truthfulness can be called truth in reporting.

(c) When a monk is accusing another monk of an offense, he should be truthful in citing the basis of the accusation: Is it based on what he saw? What he heard? Or only what he suspected? Those judging the case have to make sure that the accuser is not exaggerating the strength of his evidence. This aspect of truthfulness can be called truth in citation.

As we’ll see in Chapters 9, 10, and 11, these three forms of truthfulness play a role, not only socially, within the monastic community, but also internally, in the way you approach the practice. Just as you look for a teacher who’s truthful in these three ways, you should be truthful in the same three ways as you examine the views you bring to the practice and as you engage in training your mind.

In terms of compassion, the monks and nuns are enjoined to teach the Dhamma freely, and not to accept payment for a Dhamma teaching (AN 5:159). The Buddha himself rejected, in very strong terms, any payment for what he taught (Sn 1:4). This is because the Dhamma is best learned when it is treated as a gift. After all, the Dhamma emphasizes the virtue of generosity as a feature of admirable friendship and as a foundation for the practice, and the best way to teach generosity is to be generous with your teaching.

It’s for this reason that the monks and nuns are required to live off the gifts of others, for two main purposes: One, they’re under no pressure to teach, as their needs are met, so there is no reason for them to use the Dhamma as a means of livelihood. Two, living off the generosity of others, they’re encouraged to feel gratitude and to express that gratitude by practicing well and offering the Dhamma with a generous heart (Iti 107).

Of course, even in the context of a culture designed to foster the values of knowledge, truthfulness, and compassion, it’s possible that not all the monks and nuns have fully absorbed the training. In the Buddha’s image, there are those who are like the tongue that immediately knows the taste of the soup, and those who are like the spoon that can sit in the soup forever and never know its taste (Dhp 64). This was true in the Buddha’s time, and is still true now. Just because a person can claim to be a product of this culture doesn’t mean that he/she is qualified to teach.

For this reason, the Buddha also laid down standards for potential students to use in judging how well a potential teacher embodies qualities of knowledge, truthfulness, and compassion. This is to help protect you against studying with a spoon.

These lessons appear in the larger context of the Buddha’s analysis of the steps to be followed in awakening to the truth (MN 95). Finding a true teacher is the very first step, and the first requirement in that step is to develop the quality of truthfulness in yourself. As the Buddha noted, you can’t judge another person’s integrity unless you have some integrity of your own (MN 110). At the same time, you have to be observant, willing to spend time with a teacher, watching his/her behavior, until you’re convinced that the teacher is worthy of your trust (AN 4:192).

This is why the Buddha looked for two qualities in a student: that the student be observant and not deceptive (MN 80). To be observant means that you watch carefully your own behavior and that of others. You’re quick and objective in seeing your own good points and faults, as well as theirs. To be not deceptive means that you report your behavior truthfully to others, without hiding any lapses in terms of your morality.

In addition to looking for truthfulness in a teacher, you’re also looking for someone who knows what’s best for you, and who really has your best interests at heart. The Buddha has no use for the idea that all teachings are just a power play, an effort to bring others under the teacher’s control. Admittedly, such teachings do exist in the world, but if a teacher is showing you the correct way to totally end your suffering, how compassionate can you get? It’s entirely for your benefit when the teacher, in the Buddha’s words, has this attitude toward teaching:

“That’s the purpose of discussion, that’s the purpose of counsel, that’s the purpose of drawing near, that’s the purpose of lending ear: i.e., the liberation of the mind through no clinging.” — AN 3:68

To find the sort of person who would want to see you liberate your mind, the Buddha suggests three ways to test a teacher’s knowledge, truthfulness, and compassion. Spend time with the teacher who seems knowledgeable, and try to measure the teacher against these three questions:

1. For knowledge: Does this person teach truths that would be hard for a person of greed, aversion, and delusion to know?

2. For truthfulness: Does this person have the greed, aversion, or delusion that would inspire him/her to claim knowledge that he/she didn’t have?

3. For compassion: Does this person have the greed, aversion, or delusion that would inspire him/her to get another person to do things that would lead to that person’s long-term harm or suffering?

If the answer to the first of these questions is No, or the answer to either of the other two is Yes, look for another teacher. If the answer to the first is Yes and to the other two No, then you can go on to the next steps in awakening to the truth: develop conviction in the teacher, draw near, and listen to the Dhamma that he/she has to teach. As you listen to the Dhamma, remember that you will be hearing truths expressed in words, and that those words are meant to be put into practice.