Finding The Right Teacher

“The actual reliance on a spiritual teacher is done through the cultivation of certain thoughts, particularly, faith, admiration and respect, based on the recognition of your teacher's great kindness… The very purpose of cultivating such attitudes is to arouse enthusiasm for dedication to your practice." 

- H.H. Dalai Lama, Illuminating the path to Enlightenment


Anyone reading this article is enjoying the fruits of the efforts of a good teacher. Even if you disagree with some of these ideas, the ability to read, comprehend and analyse manifested thanks to the patience and kindness of someone who took the time to help us learn. Having the right tools to help us identify the right teachers is worth is weight in gold, and while these ideas stem from a Buddhist philosophical perspective, you can apply it's ideas anywhere. 

In “Approaching the Guru”, Dzongsar Khyentse advises: 


“Before you start to follow a guru, you should have a good understanding of the dharma. I don’t mean that you have to understand it completely, but at least you should have some understanding.


You should analyze, and you should be skeptical and critical. Perhaps you should argue, and try to find fault by using logic and reflection. But while you are doing this, you should not have the journalist’s approach of looking for faults.


The aim here is to find the path, not to find faults. So, when you study Buddhism, you should try to see whether this path suits you or not, whether this path makes sense or not.”

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Equipped with this basic knowledge and some self analysis of the Dhamma, we then are faced with the challenge of deciding on why we should commit to a single teacher. In my conversation with Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche, he shared his belief that it is important to identify a primary teacher in order to have clear instruction (two teachers may have contradictory ideas).


This resonated with S.N. Goenka’s analogy that non-committal to a practice was akin to trying to find water by digging ten wells of one meter, as opposed to one well of ten meters.  Selection of where to dig, or which teacher and tradition to follow becomes crucial.


In “Healing Anger – The power of patience from a Buddhist perspective”, the Dalai Lama stated: 

“There is a tremendous potential for abuse in this idea of trying to see all the behaviours of the guru as pure, of seeing everything the guru does as enlightened. I have stated that this is like a poison.”

Here are extracts from a traditional description of the qualities of an authentic master and the defects of a false teacher, taken from the Treasury of Precious Qualities* by Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa (1729-1798), with the commentary of Kangyur Rinpoche (1898-1975), Shambhala Publications. The following describes the negative traits of inauthentic ‘masters’. 

1. They teach out of pride, for themselves or lineage

2. They have a fear that their tradition will decline

3. They do not live congruently with their teachings

4. They are ignorant of the precepts and lack discipline 

“If the teacher is motivated by mundane aspirations, such as wanting to be known as a great scholar, to attract money or other material offerings or to bring people under his or her influence, then that teacher’s motivation is certainly polluted.”

- H.H. Dalai Lama, Illuminating the path to Enlightenment

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Clearly there is a lot of work to do in selecting the right teacher. This same text offers a glimpse into the immeasurable value of the right teacher: 


“They are the roots of all spiritual accomplishments. They act exclusively for the good of everyone. They are like a beneficial rain that extinguishes the fires of karma and negative emotion. Like the sun and moon, they dissipate the darkness of ignorance and like the earth itself, they are the support of all without exception. Like loving parents, they cherish all beings impartially. Their compassion is like a river, immense and swift, aiming to free all beings from suffering and its causes.”


In his article “Treat Everyone as the Buddha”, Mingyur Rinpoche recommends the following four criteria in selection of the right teacher:

1. Teacher comes from an authentic lineage 

2. Teacher’s own commitment to study and practice

3. Teacher must demonstrate compassion and trust 

4. Teacher should uphold vows and precepts


In his blog post “A Point of View” Matthieu Ricard offers a set of tools for critical observation of teachers. 

1. Examine the teacher from afar

2. Examine the teacher through consultation with 3rd parties

3. Examine the teacher through direct personal encounter

4. Allow the time (even years) to do a proper assessment 

Lama Tsong Khapa goes into detail in his Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path, describing the qualifications of the spiritual teacher:

1. A disciplined mind
(having mastered the higher training in ethical discipline).
2. A calmed mind
(having mastered the higher training in meditation and concentration).
3. A mind that is thoroughly calmed
(having mastered the higher training in wisdom, particularly the wisdom of no-self)
4. Knowledge exceeding that of the student in whatever subjectis being taught.  

5. Energy and enthusiasm for teaching the student.
6. Vast learning  from which to draw examples and citations.
7. Realization of emptiness—if possible, a genuine realization of emptiness, but at least a strong commitment to the practice of emptiness on the basis of deep admiration for the teachings on it.
8. Eloquence and skill in presenting the Dharma so that the teaching is effective.
9. Deep compassion and concern for the well-being of the student to whom the teaching is given (perhaps the most important quality of all).
10. The resilience to maintain enthusiasm for and commitment to the student, not becoming discouraged no matter how many times the teaching has to be repeated.

Going further, the teacher thus far we have been exploring is considered the "Outer Guru" in the Vajrayana tradition. Könchok Lhundrup of the Sakyapa tradition spoke of the 3 guides one should develop:


1. Outer Guru - The physical person you can see and communicate with, from whom you can receive verbal and symbolic teachings and instructions


2. Inner Guru - inner guru is the nature of your mind—in other words, a mind that is not thinking of a “thing” but is simply cognizant and undeniably present. 


3. Secret Guru - the emptiness of all phenomena.


Gook luck! 

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Treasury of Precious Qualities* by Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa (1729-1798), with the commentary of Kangyur Rinpoche (1898-1975), Shambhala Publications.

Illuminating the Path to Enlightenment - H.H. Dalai Lama