How can we know a spiritual teacher is trustworthy?

On the spiritual path, we need teachers we can trust, and who will guide us correctly and not leads us into deeper confusion. So what is the main criteria for a qualified teacher?  How can we tell whether the teacher is a trustworthy, good person and not someone who is interested in their personal gain? A group of Western Buddhist teachers once asked Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche how to become a lama. By the way, the word ‘Lama’ is a Tibetan word which refers to teachers in the Tibetan tradition. In his usual simplicity he simply replied: “If your motivation is good!”

The reason why motivation is so important is explained in the teachings on karma. The main factor that makes an action positive or negative is the motivation and intention behind it. A positive action is considered to be something that is done with pure motivation and without attachment and aversion in the mind. The main message of the teachings on karma is therefore to always have a pure mind and good intention. I wrote a lot about karma recently if you are interested in reflecting more about this topic.

Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche

The most important quality of a teacher is that their motivation is pure. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche writes “that true teachers are kind, compassionate, tireless in their desire to share whatever wisdom they have acquired from their masters, never abuse or manipulate their students under any circumstances, never under any circumstances abandon them, serve not their own ends but the greatness of the teachings, and always remain humble. Real trust can and should only grow toward someone whom you come to know, over time, embodies all these qualities. You will find that this trust becomes the ground of your life, there to support you through all the difficulties of life and death.”

Determining if a teacher truly has good motivation is not easy, but if you keep watching for some time with your eyes and heart open it should become clear. The main message of the teachings on karma is that you need to look at the big picture. If you zoom in on every little action and try to apply some fixed standards you are missing the point. Over time you will get a sense of whether a teacher has a pure heart and motivation. If something rotten and foul smelling is wrapped up very nicely, it may look good for a while, but eventually the packet will start smelling! You don’t want to buy donkey meat wrapped in a deerskin that is sold as venison, as they say in Tibet.

A certain degree of realization is also important. Nyoshul Khenpo’s answer to the group of teachers that a pure motivation was the most important quality of a teacher was very simple but also very profound. A good motivation is not easy. It is more than just an occasional emotional feeling of a good heart. It must be something stable. This is not possible unless you have overcome your own negative emotions. Otherwise selfish concerns might keep creeping in! This requires wisdom, because without realization of the nature of reality it is not possible to truly become free of negative emotions.

Besides developing trust that a teacher’s motivation is good, we need to come to a deep personal confidence and conviction that the teacher has realized the essence of what they are teaching. They don’t have to be enlightened but they need to have a personal experience of the truth of the teaching and know how to convey that.

Walking the talk

We should also ask whether they embody and live the teachings. As you get to know your teacher ask yourself: How do they react when they are done wrong, harmed or criticized? Do they hold malice in their heart? Do they respond in kind? Teachers might choose not defend themselves against criticism. While they might always be eager to resolve any complaint with anyone personally, they might never respond to criticism or accusations in public.

When asked for advice on how to respond to accusations Buddhist teachers often advice not to respond. They say: “Time will tell! The dust will blow away and the gold will remain.” This is based on the Buddhist approach to not exacerbate conflict and confrontation. Responding often just adds fuel to the fire. Anger cannot overcome anger. Only love, compassion and patience can. My teachers say that, when criticized, it is best to listen. They advice to try to understand the other person’s point of view, and use it as an opportunity to keep learning how to avoid misunderstanding in the future. In the modern world we tend to take silence as an admission of guilt. So we need to be open to the possibility that the silence is golden!

That a teacher is genuine doesn’t mean that they never make the slightest mistakes or that you will never have any doubts or questions. Even if we always act with the purest motivation, sometimes the result will be good and sometimes it will not work out. When things don’t work out, we may have a part in failure. Maybe we were unskillful, made an error in judgment. For example, my teacher sometimes says that he is always learning and often amazed to discover how deep seated people’s problems and confusions are. So even if you are with a genuine teacher, who is realized and a very good person and is acting with best intentions, things may not always work out perfectly. That is the nature of life, as long as we are in samsara!

So when we check out a teacher, we cannot just look at how the actions look from the outside. That is neither objective nor reliable. We also need to look at the motivation behind them. Teachers might sometimes do things that you or other people think is not right. We need to keep in mind that this is a very subjective matter. It depends on our perception, which is colored by our conditioning, expectations, and opinions. When different people look at the same actions it is possible that everyone comes up with a different conclusion. If you expect every action to appear as perfect and pure then you will continuously find faults. That’s why the main point is to look at the big picture.

Sogyal Rinpoche

Concluding that a teacher is genuine means having confidence that fundamentally they are OK. For this you need to look at the big picture. If you zoom in too much with a magnifying glass you miss the point and will find lots of little faults that are not relevant to the question of whether they are qualified authentic teachers. Even with the best teacher, you might not agree with or understand every little thing they do, but you can trust them because you know they will never let you down on your spiritual path.

Like I said above, deep confidence and trust can sometimes happen very quickly. However, we should not hesitate to take as much time as we need to come to a conclusion about this. The most important point with this is to rely on our personal experience, our heart and inner wisdom, more than our superficial reactions and critical judgments. A teacher that pushes our buttons and makes us face our stuff may actually be much better for us than a teacher who makes us feel good all the time.

Most of all, it is not about just finding any authentic teaching or teacher, but the one that is right for you. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche advises to “Read the great spiritual books of all the traditions, come to some understanding of what the masters might mean by liberation and enlightenment, and find out which approach to absolute reality really attracts and suits you most. Exercise in your search as much discernment as you can; the spiritual path demands more intelligence, more sober understanding, more subtle powers of discrimination than any other discipline, because the highest truth is at stake. Use your common sense at every moment.”

But when we meet a spiritual teacher, I think it is also good to give them a chance. The fact that we met them usually means that we have some kind of connection. Often we have the karma to meet a spiritual teaching or a teacher, but then we need to create the karma to continue. This requires perseverance and open-mindedness. Things are never going to “perfect”. For example, if we find a rare and excellent restaurant with delicious healthy food, wouldn’t it be a pity if we leave because we don’t like the color the wall is painted, or the design of the dishes … just to end up in a greasy burger joint!

The spiritual path is not easy and there are going to be difficulties, doubts or crisis of faith. Whatever challenges you have with a teacher or spiritual path, I always say to my friends the main thing is to not give up on the spiritual path. It is so precious to meet spiritual teachings in our crazy modern world. So don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater! So my most important advice to anyone would be to never give up because of disappointments and challenges and to keep searching for a teacher and a path that works for you. But also don’t be too perfectionistic! Things will never be exactly the way you would like them. And life is too short to waste time. That’s why I tried to highlight what I find to be the most important qualities of an authentic teacher.

If you would like to reflect on this more I suggest that you read Chapter Nine in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. It has a wealth of advice on this topic.

This is the second of a three part series on this topic. The first post was: “What makes an authentic spiritual teacher?” and the third is  “A sign of an authentic spiritual teacher is devotion”.

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3 Responses to How can we know a spiritual teacher is trustworthy?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention How can we know a spiritual teacher is trustworthy? | In the footsteps of the Buddha --

  2. Edith says:

    Another interesting and well written post. Your approach is so balanced, practical and full of common sense. Thank you for helping me work out my own ‘take’ on the thorny problem of choosing a teacher. I do believe that in order to progress along the spiritual path it is ultimately necessary to settle with a singe tradition and work both with it and within it, in order to fully understand and integrate its teachings. Of course the dilemma arises when the time comes to ‘choose’ a tradition and teacher! However as you have indicated herethis decision is not made overnight. It emerges slowly after a long period of time spent in quiet, reflective attentiveness to the teachings and manners of one’s guide.

  3. Bernie Schreck says:

    Thanks Edith! It is wonderful how much thought you are giving this topic of choosing a teacher! Cheers Bernie

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