In part six of the Mangala Sutra, we look at the importance of having a teacher, guide, or spiritual friend. We are obviously going to face obstacles and hindrances on the path, so having someone with experience to support us is essential.
You may be a secular Buddhist and not wish to join any group, club, or organisation because you don’t want to be tied to any belief system, or you may be someone who doesn’t like groups and would sooner study from books. There is no problem with either of these. However, I strongly believe you still need a teacher or mentor to help you along your spiritual path.
Buddha’s teachings aren’t about blindly believing a set of principles or being given a practice and told to get on with it. It is about working on your own mind and experiences, and sorting through your own problems and difficulties. Sometimes we are going to come across obstacles that we will need help navigating. This is where teachers come in handy. They can guide us through our difficult times and encourage us to persevere.
Even though Buddha encouraged us to be a refuge to ourselves and not look for external refuge, he wasn’t talking about going it alone. He meant that we should not be looking outside of ourselves for gods or higher beings to take responsibility for our lives. That responsibility is ours and ours alone.
So, a teacher is a guide, mentor, and spiritual friend, not a god or a higher being. Their job is to help us along the way. It states this in the Dhammapada, verse 276:
‘You yourselves must strive; the masters only point the way. Those who meditate and practice the path are freed from the bonds of destructive emotions.’
There have been many reports of abuse by teachers recently, especially of a sexual nature, so it is clear we must choose our teachers very carefully. I would suggest a good teacher is someone who doesn’t profess to have all the answers because that isn’t possible. Good teachers are themselves simply working on their own practice and are willing to share their experiences with others. They would also be willing to learn from their students’ experiences. Two necessary traits of a good teacher are humility and modesty. For our part, we should realise that teachers are only human; like us, they are flawed and will inevitably make mistakes.
Buddha did not claim any divine status for himself, nor did he say he was a personal saviour. He said he was simply a guide and teacher. If your teachers don’t have any of the characteristics mentioned above but have a title or call themselves a guru or higher being, I would suggest you check them out very carefully.
Here are five qualities we should look for in a teacher:
‘Buddha’s teachings should be taught with the thought, “I will speak step-by-step” … “I will speak explaining the sequence” … “I will speak out of compassion” … “I will speak not for the purpose of material reward” … “I will speak without disparaging others.”’
Let’s look at these five qualities. As we go through them, keep your teacher/mentor in mind and see if he or she embraces these five qualities.
First, the teacher should speak step by step. It is of very little use to learn about emptiness or nonself if you haven’t first understood that there is an unease or discontentment running through your life. When I first started studying Buddhism I had so many teachings on what a Bodhisattva does and doesn’t do, but I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to be doing myself. I learnt about how Milarepa (a famous Tibetan yogi) became enlightened in one lifetime, but Buddha took three countless aeons. I expect these stories have their place, but it certainly isn’t when one is just starting out on the path.
We need to start at the beginning of the path and slowly work our way along, one step at a time. This will help reduce any confusion. Many students get so confused that they turn away from Buddhism, believing it is not relevant to them, when in fact it could be that they are not being taught step by step. One of the great things about Buddhism is that Buddha’s discourses are numbered—five precepts, ten harmful acts, four truths, five qualities of a teacher—which makes it easier to follow and remember the individual steps of the teachings.
Second, the teacher should explain the sequence. I have had teachings where someone has asked about why are things done in this order, only to be told that it is tradition, which I find very annoying and not very helpful. So, the sequence should be explained. Why in the four truths do we start with ‘there is suffering’ and then go on to ‘the causes of suffering’, followed by ‘there is an end, or at least a way to reduce, suffering’, and finally, ‘the path that leads to the reduction of our suffering’? There is a reason for this sequence and your teacher should explain it clearly. This will ensure there is no confusion or misunderstanding.
Third, the teacher’s motivation for teaching should be one of kindness, caring and compassion. Teachers should see that people are discontented with their lives and need some help to find their way. Teachers should not be motivated by pride, thinking they are better than their students, or arrogant, thinking they know more than their students. Their teachings should be grounded in an overwhelming sense of wanting to help others.
Fourth, the teacher should not teach just to get material gain. How can you sit and listen to a teacher telling you not to get attached to things when the teacher quite clearly is attached to them? This goes back to a point I mentioned earlier: teachers’ words should reflect their actions.
Finally, their teachings should not disparage others. I have to be honest with you and say I have had quite a few teachings that have put other schools of Buddhism down. This, I believe, is done so teachers can gain control over their students. They say that their teachings are the quickest, best, simplest, most powerful way to reach enlightenment—all of this is said without offering any proof.
I have also had teachers make fun of other religions because these don’t believe what Buddhists believe. One ridiculed other religions for believing in god, and then he proceeded to do a protector prayer. This prayer is to ask some mythical being outside of yourself to help you—in other words, a god type figure.
Buddha’s teachings are just one form of help we can use to improve our lives, but they clearly aren’t the only one. We are all different, and so what suits one will not suit another. The teacher should focus on giving you the facts and not spend time disparaging others.
I would like to add another quality that I think is very important, and that is the five precepts. I believe any Buddhist teacher should attempt to follow the precepts. Of course, they are only human and may come up short sometimes, but they should at least try to follow them. I find it hard to take teachings on board when teachers are trying to teach me how to act, and they quite clearly cannot act that way themselves. ‘Do as I say and not as I do’ doesn’t work these days.
Check your teachers carefully and be sure their words and actions match. Also be sure your teachers challenge you and not just make you feel comfortable and safe.
How should the student act? Some people think to show respect to their teachers they have to bow down to them, treat them as higher beings, shower them with gifts and blindly follow every word they say. I do not think this sycophantic way of acting is giving respect. If you truly want to respect your teachers, then listen to their teachings, ask questions to clear up any doubts, reflect and meditate on the teaching and then, finally, put what they have taught into practice. What better way to respect anyone?
The problem with students acting this way is that they sometimes end up lusting after time with teachers, hanging on their every word and doing things they wouldn’t usually do just to please this higher being. They totally forget that this is about the student, not the teacher. They project special powers onto teachers, which they don’t have. I have a friend who thinks his teacher can hear and see everything that is happening to his students. If the teacher looks at him in an angry way, he will look back over the last few days and imagine it is for something he did. This way of thinking is not just irrational, it is also dangerous, as it is leaving you wide open for abuse.
Once you start seeing this human being as someone higher, better, and more worthy than yourself, you start along that slippery slope of being taken for a ride. This is how cults are formed. You think the teacher is a godlike figure who knows what is good for you, so you surrender. He gets you doing irrational and quite often immoral things, but you blindly follow because he is the chosen one, he knows best. This can lead you to act in an unethical way, do things you would never have dreamed of doing until you met your teacher, and it can also lead to psychological problems. What it definitely won’t do is help alleviate your suffering.
I think you have to look carefully at what you want out of your relationship with your teacher. Do you want a guide to help you reduce your suffering, or do you want someone to take responsibility for your life? ‘Are you wanting to learn from them or lean on them?’
Buddha’s teachings are an inward journey where we look at the human condition and try to tweak it to make life more bearable. It isn’t about handing over your life to someone else and letting them do whatever they want with it. I believe it is a journey of discovery about what makes us who we are, why we act in a certain way and how we can reduce the suffering in our life. For me it is not about mythical figures or realms; I see those as the outside world. It is about trying to make myself the best possible person I can be in this life, and that is why I need a teacher, or teachers, to help me explore my inner world. I don’t want to lean on them—I have my friends for that—I want to learn from them.
On a positive note, there are without doubt some wonderful teachers out there who are compassionate, grounded, and informed; we just have to find them. I will reiterate what I said at the start: it is extremely important to have a teacher/mentor to guide us along our chosen path, so please do not be put off by bad teachers—good teachers by far outweigh the bad ones.
Once we have found a teacher and have has their teachings, it is good to discuss those teachings. The main reasons for discussing the teachings is to clear up any doubts you may have, prevent you from just blindly following what has been said and to help you with your understanding of the teaching.
Doubt can totally take you off course, stop you from implementing the teaching and cause you to walk away thinking this teaching is not for you. I know in many traditional texts it is stated that you should not have doubt. But how is that possible? If you have doubt, then you have doubt. Doubts are not going to be cleared up by saying you shouldn’t have them.
What many traditional texts want you to do is blindly follow the teachings and the teachers. In my experience, this doesn’t work. If I have doubts, I discuss them and try to clear them up. I don’t suppress them or pretend I don’t have them. Buddha told a story about a blind man and a piece of white cloth, which shows how unhelpful blind faith is.
There was this man who was blind from birth who had heard from people with good eyesight that a piece of white cloth was beautiful, spotless, and clean. So, he went in search of a piece of white cloth. He came upon a man who said he had a beautiful, spotless, clean piece of white cloth, but what he actually had was a grimy, oil-stained rag. The blind man took the rag and put it on. He thought he had a piece of white cloth, so he was gratified. Buddha asked the assembly if the blind man had taken the cloth out of faith or through knowing and seeing. Of course, they proclaimed it was out of faith, and Buddha said we should never accept things out of faith alone. We should only accept things from knowing and seeing, which means from our experience.
So, don’t blindly believe things; check to see if they fit your experiences. We have to listen to, or read, teachings with a critical mind. It doesn’t matter if the book you are reading is a hundred-or-so years old, or your teacher has a wonderful title; we still need to check out what is being said. That goes for what I am saying here as well. Check my words out and see if it fits with your experiences, please don’t blindly believe it.
The final point here is that we need to discuss the teachings in order to help with our understanding. It is great to have a group of like-minded people to bounce things off or a friend that is also following the teachings of Buddha. It is funny, but once you start to articulate things they can seem different to how you imagined them in your head.
If you are studying in a group, don’t be afraid to raise any doubts you may have. When I first started studying Buddha’s teachings, I found it hard to believe in rebirth—I think a lot of Westerners struggle with this concept. As I was in a group, I didn’t want to bring it up because I thought everyone else believed it. It became quite an obstacle for me and was starting to prevent me from moving forward with my studies. One day I brought it up in a question-and-answer session. To my surprise, over eighty percent of the group were also struggling with it. It was such a weight off my shoulders.
My teacher at the time was quite forward thinking and told us not to worry about it, leave it to one side and move on. He advised us to revisit the issue now and again and see if it had started to fit into place. I have to say that it never has with me, but it hasn’t stopped my studies or, more important, my practice. As I have previously stated, I don’t know if I have been here before or if I will visit again, but what I do know is that I am here now, and that is what is most important to me. We have to understand that sometimes issues, such as rebirth or the traditional understanding of karma, cannot be reconciled, so don’t worry. It is fine to put things on the back burner. What we shouldn’t do is throw Buddha out with the bath water by dismissing the whole of his teachings because of these things.
This blog is based on my book ‘Life’s Meandering Path’- available from Amazon and Kindle.