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Finding Your Teacher

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Buddhist teacher
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The first step in finding a Buddhist teacher is clarifying why you need one. A teacher cannot give you the life you want or make you the person you want to be. A teacher cannot take your pain away and give you enlightenment. If you are looking for someone who can correct your flaws for you and make you happy, you're in the wrong religion.

So, why do you need a teacher? I've met many people who insist they don't need one, never needed one, and have no intention of seeking one. After all, the Buddha taught --

By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depended on oneself; no one can purify another. (Dhammapada XII, verse 165)

But as Ken McLeod wrote in Wake Up to Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), "When we start exploring the mystery of being, we are still mired in habituated patterns. Limited in perception to a world projected by these patterns, we do not and cannot see things as they are. We need a person, a teacher, who, standing outside our projected world, can show us how to proceed."

Ego Is Not a Good Teacher

My first teacher used to say that his entire function was pulling rugs out from under people. He'd see a student grow complacent or settle into new conceptual patterns, and riiiiip.

If your understanding is never challenged you can spend years fooling yourself. I can't tell you how many times I've gone into the interview room thinking I knew something. But when challenged, what my ego told me was great insight vanished like smoke in the breeze. On the other hand, when realization is genuine, a teacher can guide you to deeper realization.

Remember, you are not likely to see through the illusion of ego by protecting your ego.

True and False Teachers

How do you know which teachers are for real and which are phonies? Many schools of Buddhism place great importance on lineage -- the teacher's teacher, the teacher's teacher's teacher, and so on, going back generations. Most schools of Buddhism only recognize teachers who have been authorized to teach either by that school's institutions or by another authorized teacher.

It's true that such authorization is no guarantee of quality. And not all unauthorized teachers are charlatans. But I would be very cautious about working with anyone who calls himself a "Buddhist" teacher but who has no association whatsoever with a recognized Buddhist lineage or institution. Such a teacher is almost certainly a fraud.

A few tips: Only the phonies claim to be "fully enlightened." Beware of teachers who ooze charisma and are worshiped by their students. The best teachers are the most ordinary ones. The true teachers are those who say they have nothing to give you.

No Students, No Teachers

It's common to develop an attitude about authority figures, usually because of bad experiences with them. When I was younger I was easily intimidated by authority figures, including teachers.

But remember the Madhyamika teaching -- things have identity only in relation to each other. Students create teachers. Followers create leaders. Children create parents. And vice versa, of course. No person is, in fact, an authority figure. "Authority figure" is a relationship construct that is caused to manifest by "submissive figure." It is not anyone's intrinsic identity.

When I began to see that, I became less fearful of authority figures. Certainly in many situations -- employment, the military -- one cannot exactly blow off the authority figure illusion without consequences. But seeing through dualistic delusions -- such as authority figure/submissive figure -- is an essential part of the Buddhist path. And you can't very well resolve an issue by avoiding it.

Also, in the case of working with a Buddhist teacher, if you feel something's wrong, you can always walk away. I've yet to hear of a genuine teacher who would try to hang onto or control a student who wished to leave.

But keep in mind that the spiritual path goes through our wounds, not around them or away from them. Don't let discomfort hold you back.

Finding Your Teacher

Once you decide to find a teacher, how do you find a teacher? If there are any Buddhist centers near where you live, start there. Studying year-round with a teacher within a community of Buddhists is ideal. The famous teacher whose books you admire may not be the best teacher for you if you can only travel to see her occasionally.

Consider that karma put you where you are. Begin by working with that. You don't have to go out of the way to find your path; it's already beneath your feet. Just walk.

If you find you do need to widen your search, I suggest starting with BuddhaNet's Online World Buddhist Directory. This is in a searchable database format. The database lists Buddhist centers and organizations in Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, the Middle East, North America, Oceania and South America.

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