Sunday, March 15, 2009

Do You Need A Teacher?

One of the questions that comes up in spiritual practice of any type is what about a teacher?  Do we need one?  Can we progress along the path without one?  And what is the role of the teacher?   I can only speak from the personal experience I have had with and without a teacher.  Maybe some will find my comments helpful.  That is the spirit in which this piece is intended.  It's a topic that comes up with friends on the path.   Some have teachers, some don't, some have had teachers, some are looking for teachers.

Joko Beck in her book, "Nothing Special", says, "A lot of my students try to turn me into a substitute parent.  That is not my role.  Students in difficulty often come running to me; as much as possible, I set them to dealing with the problem themselves.  Once students have some idea of how they might deal with the problem, the best thing to do is to let them struggle.  Then there is some possibility of transformation."

To clarify my situation (a wonderful professor of mine, Fred Marcuse, said when you hear some information, always consider the source)  I have a relationship with a Zen teacher, although I am no longer a formal part of the Sangha.  And when Beck says "once students have some idea of how they might deal with the problem," this I believe is the invaluable role of the teacher.  A teacher can help you see how to use the Dharma in your own life.  This is particularly helpful when we are confused or angry or experiencing greed, (ah the 3 poisons) because they cloud our vision and make it difficult to see.  Before I met my teacher (with whom my relationship is quite loose at this point in my training) I used to refer to myself as a 'bookstore Buddhist'.  I read and read and read, but found it difficult to put into practice what I read.

A good teacher can help us see where our work is and offer us a starting point but always we must do the work.  Sometimes we know where we need to do the work but are baffled about where to start.  We may know we are filled with anger at someone and keep falling in the burning pit, but what to do?  And when we are fooling ourselves, or making excuses or looking for an easy way out, or for some sympathy, a good teacher will let us in on the little secret that everyone can see but us.  Sometimes that might make us angry or we might disagree initially, but if we are willing to be honest with ourselves and look hard enough we will see the truth.

Always it is up to us to decide what is the truth.  It is abdicating responsibility to follow blindly (and I know some might regard this as shaky ground.)  Some people may say that the teacher is wiser than us and we need to take their advice unquestioningly.  Certainly in monastic settings, this is the monk/teacher relationship.  I think you must know the teacher very well and have a high level of trust to do this.  From my observation, every teacher is human and susceptible to human foibles, so to follow unquestioningly seems unwise to me.  Maybe I lack trust or faith, but at this point in my life that is how I see it.  I believe I need to be as honest with myself as possible (and sometimes that is not a pretty picture!) and then I need to digest any advice offered.

One of the wonderful advantages of having a teacher is that you get to observe how someone with experience and wisdom "lives" the Dharma.  If you are fortunate enough to have teacher that is willing to be transparent, they will share vignettes of their daily training with students.  Then we are really fortunate if we can be led by example, if we can hear about where they fall in a hole and watch them train with their own greed, hate and delusion.  Are they humble, are they kind and compassionate?  Can they show you what right effort looks like?  Can they apologize when they make a mistake?  Do they have a sense of humour and joy?

A teacher is an invaluable resource but I have watched students grow dependent on the opinions and advice of the teacher which seems counter intuitive to the way of practice.   They put the teacher on a pedestal and need to check out every detail with them.  Practice is supposed to make us grow up and help us learn to find our own answers, the ones that only we can know, the ones we are here to learn.  

I do believe that anyone on the Spiritual path at some point benefits from the wisdom of the right teacher.  That teacher may look very different for different students.  I think you are drawn to the teacher that suits you (that being said, you need to be aware that there are charlatans and less wise teachers out there).  Perhaps if your practice is very loose or your personal style is very loose, you might benefit from someone who offers a tighter, more strict practice.  If you are very sensitive, then perhaps someone with a harsh personal style would not be a good fit, or maybe it might provide just the opportunity you need.  Only you can know.

In the movie "Words of My Perfect Teacher", Dsongzar Khyentse Norbu offers his students some interesting teachings.  Students comment how they may spend periods of time where they are very close to him and then he disappears for a year, not contacting them at all.  Push a few buttons?  You bet. In the movie he tells them to meet him at the airport, where they spend hours waiting for him, only to find he had gone on to Germany on his own.  Then they are left wondering did they misunderstand or did he set them up for a little teaching.  It is a pithy, first hand, push your buttons, teaching style.  Some may love this, others may not find it to their taste.

And in the end if we are really observant and willing and patient, isn't life our greatest teacher?  Isn't the teaching everywhere if we look?  If we are quiet and attentive and know how to listen, isn't what we need to know being constantly brought to us, to lie at our feet, awaiting our discovery or the print of our rather heavy boot?


  1. Absolutely lovely...

    And for now I would say you are also my "teacher" - not because you have assumed the role, or because I have put you in that role - but because the words that come through you speak to me. (Don't worry I won't be moving to Canada to sit with you :) In a sense I think we are all each other's teachers. All in some way helping each other to navigate through life - through the eddies and rapids. I have several "teachers" like that - ones on the Internet and "friends" I sit across from having tea with. And the difficult "teachers" like family, illness and so forth. Which, by the way, I am grateful that you have "mother issues" that you blog about because what you share helps me with my own mother! And once I even unknowingly spent time with a New Age charlatan - silly me. It took me a while to actually see what was going on and several years to recover from it. But that too was a teaching for me... for which I paid a huge price, and only recently felt any gratitude for.

    Truth be told,I'd love for a "guru" to show up at my door - literally :) For now I'll read your blogs everyday, and watch other "teacher" videos on YouTube and see what Life has to offer that way. :)

    Thank you for the words that come through you and how you share them.


  2. Well I forgot to put that one in there --"we are all each other's teacher", that is so true. And it happens in so many conscious and unconscious ways.

    Thanks for your kind words, as always, and especially as relating to the writing I do about my mother. It is a tender spot because it feels like a place where all my meanness and pettiness and anger hangs out for all to see. But it is offered in the spirit that you've taken it, that we all have these places, if we're honest. And we get to see we're all paddling around in the same leaky little rowboats doing the best we can and our training reminds us that we can do better.

    bows to you, Christine!