Finding the "right teacher"

by Lim Kooi Fong, The Buddhist Channel, Jan 2, 2008

Ven. Thubten Chodron talks about an age old problem faced by practitioners: How does one find a teacher that is "suitable"? What does being suitable mean? And suitable for who? Lim Kooi Fong finds out in his hour long interview with the learned Venerable.

Petaling Jaya, Malaysia -- Funny how enlightened moments announce their arrival. Dew drops clinging on at the edge of a fresh, young sapling in a misty morning. A ray of gold bursting forth from behind grey weather. And a little kitten snuggling in the comfort of her mother's embrace.

Voices of enlightened masters teaches us that such moments arrive because our minds are ready to receive them. Initiations such as these come and go day after day. And yet, many don't even notice their presence.

But when the mind is ready, and the situation is there, the condition is then said to have arrived for a ripening of insight. Or "spiritual uplift". But how and when do we know that we are ready? Who can we rely on to tell us so?

"Reliance on a teacher," says Ven. Thubten Chodron, "can be a kind of paradox."

"While a teacher's responsibility is to teach, more important as well is their responsibility to help students respond to them," she advises.

She further adds that "a student's obligation is to think about what has been taught, to assess and to analyze the worthiness of the teachings. They also need to show a genuine interest in the Dharma, and to be open minded, that is, not to hold onto preconceived ideas and concepts that impedes spiritual enquiry."

But how do we know if a teacher has actually "realized" the spiritual insight he or she claims to have?

To this, the venerable explains, "Some teachers may be able to dispense with deep teachings. We need not however, be overly concerned with whether the person has realized the teachings he or she is giving or not. If the explanation of the teachings is unsatisfactory, we need not expose the deficiency of the teacher because of the possibility of a misinterpretation. As long as the teachings does not contradict ethics, we should continue to have faith in his or her spiritual ability."

Ven. Chodron cautions however, that it is not right for students to speculate on the attainment of their teachers. "It's a like a cook, you know. A good cook would never say that he or she is a good cook. The judgment sits on the onus of those who eats the food." She further elaborated the metaphor by emphasizing that "in Tibetan Buddhism, it is forbidden to talk about one's attainment."

"However," the venerable continues, "if what the teacher says clearly cannot match the deed with words, then we have to be cautious. For instance, if a teachers talks about compassion, but gets angry ever so often, then we have to be aware of the manner which is contrary to the teaching."

"The spiritually health of a teacher-student's relationship is only useful when the mutual dependence of one another succeeds in positive mental engagement. What this means is that when students sincerely listens to the teachings and puts them into practice, some will find their life become more meaningful. As a result, their respect for the teacher increases," she explains.

Does that give rise to a possibility of the student being attached to the teacher, I enquired. And what if the teacher possesses charismatic tendencies? Won't that too affects the ability of the student to establish spiritually healthy and useful relationships with their mentors?

Ven. Chodron uses the term "idolatry attachment" to describe the danger when students get too close to their teacher.

"The ability of a skilled spiritual master to unlock the "bodhicitta" in their students is no doubt something that is truly treasured," she emphasized. "You can say that most people expects this to be the end result of a master-apprentice affiliation. But this can only happen if the students can relate to the teachings in an uplifting way."

"The danger is," she warns, "when the students becomes so much attached to the teacher that instead of fermenting spiritual ties, the relationship degenerates into jealousy, with each student studiously looking out at who is getting more attention from the teacher."

"I spoke earlier of the need for students to have the ability to assess and to analyze situations," she reminded me.

"Teachers too need such qualities to avoid falling into the charismatic trap. Newcomers to Buddhism, especially in the west, are often people who needs emotional support more than spiritual guidance. Some hope to fill this void by trying to look deeply within themselves, depending on someone to help them along the way. Others however, tries to fulfill their 'spiritual emptiness' by looking for someone or something to worship. They carry their idolatry tendencies, that is worshipping movie stars, politicians and sports celebrity into the religious realms," the venerable laments.

"By all means, students must remember that all the training they receive only has one ultimate aim, and that is to become an evolved individual which has the ability to help sentient beings. If their end goal is to be dedicated only to the teacher, and only to caring and helping the teacher, they inevitably fall into the 'guru devotion' dilemma. This is by all account," she warns, "a spiritual misnomer because the final destiny of a teacher-student relationship is the mutual spiritual enrichment of both parties."

Simply put, "both become better people."

Our discussion thus far have put paid to the idea that all it needs to be enlightened is to have the "right touch" from a "right guru". To have expected half as much of such romanticized idea from this respected venerable would be like looking out for a flight of fancy. The bottom line remains that a useful, healthy, teacher-student relationship is very much a symbiosis. A skilful teacher is a learner most of the time, and a teacher only some of the time.

The pull and push factors in the emotional rollercoaster that plague most teacher-student relationship is only a phase where both side try to discover one another. During such a social and spiritual ride, the interesting thing they learn is, and ultimately, all that they discover are their true selves.

And while morning dewdrops need a sapling to cling on, and a ray of sunlight needs a pall of grey clouds to breakthrough, the magic is only established when the elements starts to leave one another. Thus the enlightening glory arrives only when the dew actually drops away from the sapling, and the ray of gold leaving the clouds behind, basking the landscape with its shades and hues, and awakening the land with all its glorious colors.

As Ven. Thubten Chodron deftly describes it, "When a teacher reprimands a student, and the student returns with a serene look, you know that the spiritual bond is strong, and the practice is firm. The ego does not run away."

But when the two do part, the world is better for it because now, there is one more to save sentient beings," she adds.

The dew has dropped, the sun is shining, and the student is transformed into a teacher. And the enlightening cycle of life rolls on.

This article was originally published on the Buddhist News Network, Jan 14, 2004