Finding a Teacher
Every earnest meditator needs a teacher. Because meditation is training in new ways to act, you learn best when you can watch an experienced meditator in action and at the same time can let an experienced meditator watch you in action. That way you tap into the accumulated wisdom of the lineage of teachers stretching back to the Buddha, and don’t have to work through every problem completely on your own. You don’t have to keep reinventing the Dhamma wheel from scratch.
At the same time, a teacher is often needed to help you see areas of your practice that you may not recognize as problems. This is because, when you’re deluded, you don’t know you’re deluded. So one of the basic principles of the practice is to open your behavior not only to your own scrutiny but also to the scrutiny of a teacher whose knowledge and goodwill you trust. That way you learn how to be open with others—and yourself—about your mistakes, in an environment where you’re most likely to be willing to learn.
This is especially important when you’re learning a skill—which is what meditation is. You can learn from books and talks, but when the time comes to practice you’ll encounter the main issue that no book or talk can cover: knowing how to judge which lesson to apply to which situation. If you’re not getting results, is it because you’re not putting in enough effort? Or are you making the wrong sort of effort? In the words of the Pali Canon, are you squeezing a cow’s horn in the effort to get milk when you should be squeezing the udder? Only someone who has faced the same problem, and who knows what you’ve been doing, is in a position to help you answer questions like these.
Also, if you’ve suffered emotional trauma or are dealing with an addiction, you need guidance specifically tailored to your strengths and weaknesses—something no book can provide. Even if you don’t suffer from these issues, a teaching tailored to your needs can save you a lot of wasted time and effort, and can help prevent you from going down some wrong, dead-end roads. This is why the Buddha didn’t write meditation guides like this, and instead set up the monastic training as a form of apprenticeship. Meditation skills are best passed down person-to-person.
For these reasons, if you really want to become skillful in your thoughts, words, and deeds, you need to find a trustworthy teacher to point out your blind spots. And because those spots are blindest around your unskillful habits, the primary duty of the teacher is to point out your faults—for only when you see your faults can you correct them; only when you correct them are you benefiting from your teacher’s compassion in pointing them out.
This means that the first prerequisite in benefiting from a teacher is being willing to take criticism, both gentle and harsh. This is why genuine teachers don’t teach for money. If the teacher must be paid, the person paying is the one determining what’s taught, and people rarely pay for the criticism they need to hear.
But even if the teacher is teaching for free, you run into an uncomfortable truth: You can’t open your heart to just anyone. Not everyone who is certified as a teacher is really qualified to be a teacher. When you listen to a teacher, you’re adding that teacher’s voice to the committee of your mind, passing judgments on your actions, so you want to make sure that that voice will be a positive addition. As the Buddha pointed out, if you can’t find a trustworthy teacher, you’re better off practicing on your own. An unqualified teacher can do more harm than good. You have to take care in choosing a teacher whose judgments will influence the way you shape your mind.
To take care means not falling into the easy trap of being judgmental or non-judgmental—judgmental in trusting your knee-jerk likes or dislikes, non-judgmental in trusting that every meditation teacher would be equally beneficial as a guide. Instead, be judicious in choosing the person whose judgments you’re going to take on as your own.
This, of course, sounds like a Catch-22: You need a good teacher to help develop your powers of judgment, but well-developed powers of judgment to recognize who a good teacher might be. And even though there’s no foolproof way out of the catch—after all, you can master a foolproof way and still be a fool—there is a way if you’re willing to learn from experience.
The first step in learning to be judicious is to remember what it means to judge in a helpful way. Think, not of a Supreme Court Justice sitting on her bench, passing a final verdict of guilt or innocence, but of a piano teacher listening to you play. She’s not passing a final verdict on your potential as a pianist. Instead, she’s judging a work in progress: listening to your intention for the performance, listening to your execution of that intention, and then deciding whether it works. If it doesn’t, she has to figure out if the problem is with the intention or the execution, make helpful suggestions, and then let you try again. She keeps this up until she’s satisfied with your performance. The important principle is that she never direct her judgments at you as a person. Instead she has to stay focused on your actions, to keep looking for better ways to raise them to higher and higher standards.
At the same time, you’re learning from her how to judge your own playing: thinking more carefully about your intention, listening more carefully to your execution, developing higher standards for what works, and learning to think outside of the box for ways to improve. Most important of all, you’re learning to focus your judgment on your performance—your actions—and not on yourself. This way, when there’s less you invested in your habits, you’re more willing to recognize unskillful habits and to drop them in favor of more skillful ones.
Of course, when you and your teacher are judging your improvement on a particular piece, it’s part of a longer process of judging how well the relationship is working. She has to judge, over time, if you’re benefiting from her guidance, and so do you. But again, neither of you is judging the worth of the other person.
In the same way, when you’re evaluating a potential meditation teacher, look for someone who will evaluate your actions as a work in progress. And apply the same standard to him or her. Even teachers who can read minds need to get to know you over time to sense what might and might not work in your particular case. The best teachers are those who say, “Try this. If it doesn’t work out, come back and let me know what happened, so we can figure out what might work for you.” Beware of teachers who tell you not to think about what you’re doing, or who try to force you into a one-size-fits-all technique. The relationship should be one of trying things out together.
So when judging a teacher, you’re not trying to take on the superhuman role of evaluating another person’s essential worth. After all, the only way we know anything about other people is through their actions, so that’s as far as our judgments can fairly extend.
At the same time, though, because you’re judging whether you want to internalize another person’s standards, it’s not unfair to pass judgment on what that person is doing. It’s for your own protection. This is why you should look for two qualities in a teacher: wisdom and integrity. To gauge these qualities, though, takes time and sensitivity. You have to be willing to spend time with the person and try to be really observant of how that person acts, because you can’t judge people just by first impressions. Integrity is easy to talk about, and the appearance of wisdom is easy to fake—especially if the teacher has psychic powers. It’s important to remember that powers of that sort simply come from a concentrated mind. They’re no guarantee of wisdom and integrity. And if they’re exercised without wisdom and integrity, you’re better off staying away.
So your search has to ignore flashy qualities and focus on qualities that are more plain and down-to-earth. To save time and needless pain in the search, there are four early warning signs indicating that potential teachers don’t have the wisdom or integrity to merit your trust.
The warning signs for untrustworthy wisdom are two. The first is when people show no gratitude for the help they’ve received—and this applies especially to help from their parents and teachers. If they deprecate their teachers, you have to wonder if they have anything of value to pass on to you. People with no gratitude don’t appreciate goodness, don’t value the effort that goes into being helpful, and so will probably not put out that effort themselves.
The second warning sign is that they don’t hold to the principle of karma. They either deny that we have freedom of choice, or else teach that one person can clear away another person’s bad karma from the past. People of this sort are unlikely to put forth the effort to be genuinely skillful, and so are untrustworthy guides.
Lack of integrity also has two warning signs. The first is when people feel no shame in telling a deliberate lie. The second is when they don’t conduct arguments in a fair and aboveboard manner: misrepresenting their opponents, pouncing on the other side’s minor lapses, not acknowledging the valid points the other side has made. People of this sort aren’t even worth talking to, much less taking on as teachers.
As for people who don’t display these early warning signs, there are some questions you can ask yourself about their behavior to gauge the level of wisdom and integrity in their actions over time.
One question is whether a teacher’s actions betray any of the greed, anger, or delusion that would inspire him to claim knowledge of something he didn’t know, or to tell another person to do something that was not in that person’s best interests. To test for a teacher’s wisdom, notice how he or she responds to questions about what’s skillful and what’s not, and how well he or she handles adversity. To test for integrity, look for virtue in day-to-day activities, and purity in the teacher’s dealings with others. Does this person make excuses for breaking the precepts, bringing the precepts down to his level of behavior rather than lifting his behavior to theirs? Does he take unfair advantage of other people? If so, you’d better find another teacher.
This, however, is where another uncomfortable truth comes in: You can’t be a fair judge of another person’s integrity until you’ve developed some of your own. This is probably the most uncomfortable truth of all, for it requires that you accept responsibility for your judgments. If you want to test other people’s potential for good guidance, you have to pass a few tests yourself. Again, it’s like listening to a pianist. The better you are as a pianist, the better your ability to judge the other person’s playing.
Fortunately, there are guidelines for developing integrity, and they don’t require that you start out innately good. All they require is a measure of truthfulness and maturity: the realization that your actions make all the difference in your life, so you have to take care in how you act, looking carefully at your motivation for acting and at the actual results that come when you act. Before you act in thought, word, or deed, look at the results you expect from your action. If it’s going to harm you or anyone else, don’t do it. If you don’t foresee any harm, go ahead and act. While you’re acting, check to see if you’re causing any unforeseen harm. If you are, stop. If not, continue until you’re done. After you’re done, look at the long-term results of your action. If it caused any harm, talk it over with someone else on the path, develop a healthy sense of shame around the mistake, and resolve not to repeat it. If it caused no harm, take joy in the fact and keep on training.
As you train yourself in this way, you get more sensitive to what is and isn’t skillful, because you’re more sensitive to the connections between actions and their results. This helps you become a better judge of a potential teacher in two ways, both in judging the teacher’s actions and in evaluating the advice the teacher gives you.
For the only way really to evaluate that advice is to see what results it gives when put into action: your own actions. If acting in that way fosters within you such admirable qualities as being dispassionate, modest, content, energetic, and unburdensome, the advice to act that way is the genuine thing. The person who gives you that advice has passed at least that test for being a genuine friend. And you’re learning still more about how to judge for yourself.
Some people might object that it’s selfish and inhumane to keep testing people to see if they fit the bill, but remember: In testing a teacher you’re also testing yourself. As you assimilate the qualities of an admirable teacher, you become the sort of person who can offer admirable help to others. Again, it’s like practicing under a good piano teacher. As you improve as a pianist, you’re not the only one who can enjoy your playing. The better you get, the more joy you bring to others. The better you understand the process of playing, the more effectively you can teach anyone who sincerely wants to learn from you. This is how teaching lineages of high caliber get established for the benefit of the world.
So when you find an admirable meditation teacher, you’re tapping into a long lineage of admirable teachers, stretching back to the Buddha, and helping it to extend into the future. Joining this lineage may require accepting some uncomfortable truths, such as the need to learn from criticism and to take responsibility for your actions. But if you’re up for the challenge, you learn to take this human power of judgment—which, when untrained, can so easily cause harm—and train it for the greater good.
Passages from the Pali Canon discussing what to look for in a teacher are included in the study guide, Into the Stream.
On the values of the practice: “The Customs of the Noble Ones”