How do you know if a teacher is trustworthy and genuine? This is a question I have reflected on quite a lot in the last few months. I thought this would be a good theme to conclude the series of posts on the essence of Buddhism that I have been writing over the last few months.
If we seriously want to follow a spiritual path we need teachers! And, when choosing a teacher, it is important to be concerned, diligent and cautious. In the following I am going to share some personal reflection on what I have learned from the teachings in my tradition about how we can ensure that we will not be mislead or taken advantage of on our spiritual journey.
These days, I don’t think it is not so easy to determine who is a genuine spiritual teacher. There are so many teachers and traditions. Everyone you ask seems to have a different opinion of who is a good teacher and who not. There is also almost no teacher that does not have some people criticizing them. I find this puzzling and have reflected about this a bit. How can that be?
Maybe this is because most spiritual teachers in the modern world live in the midst of us. They do not live in remote isolated places or secluded monastic communities. They live ordinary lives and have not renounced being involved in the world and its pleasures. I personally think that it is very beneficial when teachers lives like you and me. Teachers like that get to understand the challenges of modern life from personal experience. Then, when we ask them for advice they know what we are dealing with from their own experience.
However, it makes it more difficult to determine if a teacher is genuine. When we see them dealing with the same dramas of life that we experience, it no longer fits our idealistic notion of spirituality. Why? Because it is very difficult to see whether inwardly they are dealing with these dramas like ordinary people or not. Looking from outside, it is often very difficult to distinguish whether someone is an ordinary deluded person or an accomplished spiritual practitioner who is living his life, going through emotions, and interacting in his relationships with a genuine spiritual perspective.
Even in 19th century Tibet, which we think of nowadays as a spiritual heaven, the great master Patrul Rinpoche wrote: “The extraordinary qualities of great beings who hide their nature escapes ordinary people like us, despite our best efforts in examining them. On the other hand, even ordinary charlatans are expert at deceiving others by behaving like saints.” (from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal; Rinpoche)
I am not proposing that we shouldn’t care whether we see faults in a teacher. But I think what really matters is what kind of faults we see. There are some aspects to all of us, including spiritual teachers, that are a matter of perception. Some people will like us, some will not. Some will criticize what we do, others will praise the very same actions. I think when we want to determine if someone is an authentic and trustworthy teacher, we need to look beyond that.
So how do we figure out who is trustworthy and able to guide us on an authentic path? In my tradition, there is actually a lot of guidance on how to examine a teacher. The good news is that we don’t have to rush! We can take our time. In the beginning, the most important thing is to focus on the teaching and ensure that it is authentic. The first step is to begin to learn the basic teachings of the tradition we have chosen to explore. This doesn’t require a deep commitment to a teacher. As long as the teachings are authentic you will benefit.
In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche says: “It cannot be stressed too often that it is the truth of the teaching which is all-important, and never the personality of the teacher. This is why Buddha reminded us in the “Four Reliances”:
Rely on the message of the teacher, not on his personality;
Rely on the meaning, not just on the words;
Rely on the real meaning, not on the provisional one;
Rely on your wisdom mind, not on your ordinary, judgmental mind.”
Here are three criteria that I have personally found very useful to guide me step-by-step through the process of determining the authenticity of the teaching and the teacher: authentic training, good credential and our personal experience of their character and realization.
When we meet a spiritual teaching and consider studying it, we need to look at the training and education of the person who is teaching it. Have they been trained well? Are they qualified to explain the teaching of their tradition? To answer this we can begin by asking questions like: Who have they studied with? How long have they studied?
What you want to look for is a someone who has personally been trained and guided by a good teacher for a long time. The greatest teachers keep being students their whole life. When their teachers pass away they continue to study with their successors. However, watch out! An impressive list of teachers is not enough. These days many people call themselves students of a teacher even though they have only come to a few public teachings and that teacher does not know them personally at all.
If you find a teacher that has been trained well you can be sure that you are going to learn something useful and authentic. That’s a good start. You are not going to be mislead or waste your time.
Once you get started you can then take your time to verify the credentials of the teacher more thoroughly. This can be tricky. It might take a while of actually being around. Have you ever seen a spiritual bio that doesn’t make it sound like the teacher is authentic? These days, it is very easy for any teacher to get a photo of an audience with a respected teacher. It is also easy to quote what another respected teacher might have said to them out of context, to make it sound like an endorsement and authentication.
At best, a teacher would be authenticated by the head of their tradition, or at least a really respected senior teacher. In my tradition, ideally that would be the Dalai Lama or one of the heads of the other schools. When teachers like these keep visiting your teacher’s center and speak highly of him or her, then you can be quite certain he or she is a genuine trustworthy teacher. Over a period of time observe things like: Does your teacher invite other teachers? Is there some consistency and continuity in these visits? Or is it just a random stream of visiting teachers?
Usually, when we begin to explore a tradition there shouldn’t be any pressure to make a serious commitment. It is only later on, when we decide to follow a path more seriously, that students are often asked to make a commitment. Even more than to a person or a tradition, this is a commitment to the truth, to following the path until you realize it.
Before we make that kind of deeper commitment we need to examine the teacher and arrive at a personal conviction that he is trustworthy guide. For some people this can be very fast. I remember that Sogyal Rinpoche once told his students that after receiving just one teaching from Dudjom Rinpoche — who then became one of his main teachers — he had unshakable confidence in him as being a trustworthy realized teacher. For other people this might take a long time and require going through a thorough process of examination and reflection.
Being trained and having good credentials is important but it is not enough. In my tradition it is not even sufficient to be recognized as an incarnation of a great spiritual teacher. It just means such a person has a potential but isn’t enough to determine that they are a trustworthy teacher. Unless they accomplish the practice and embody it, that potential will not be fully manifest.
How to judge a teacher’s character
Being able to judge a teacher’s character requires that we also know ourselves to a certain extent. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche advises us to “come to the path as humorously aware as possible of the baggage you will be bringing with you: your lacks, fantasies, failings, and projections.”
I think we often have a fantasy of how working with or getting to know a teacher more closely should be. For example, when we watch a Kung Fu movie and see the hardship that the master puts the student through, the idea that the spiritual path is hard seems very romantic. But when we get to know a teacher and he starts working with us in a personal way it is a different story. As soon our feelings get hurt a little, maybe just because of feeling ignored or not listened to a little, that whole perspective goes out of the window. We take it personally and blame the teacher for our pain or disappointment. We feel it is not right and that they made us feel bad. At this time, we need to know our own emotional baggage and sensitivities. Only then will we be able to take a step back. We might then discover that they are trying to show us our sensitive buttons (and the stuff behind them) so that we can recognize heal and transform these.
It is quite difficult to find teachers that have all the qualities that I have writing about here. Having good credential is a good indication, but if you don’t have them it doesn’t necessarily mean you are not a good teacher. My teachers have also explained that a good character and a pure heart is actually the most important quality. They said that if a teacher has Bodhichitta, the compassionate wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, even if they are not as learned as would be ideal, you will still benefit. But if someone doesn’t have a good heart and their motivation is not pure, then they can definitely not be a trustworthy teacher.
In my next two post “How can we know a spiritual teacher is trustworthy?” and “A sign of an authentic spiritual teacher is devotion” I will write more about this topic.