Finding a Spiritual Teacher

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Our situation in the West nowadays is really quite different from the classic type of situation in Tibet. First of all, most of us are not monastics; we’re not monks and nuns. In Tibet and in traditional Buddhist societies, if you really wanted to go seriously into Buddhist training, you became a monk or a nun. Householders did not have that much access to teachings. They occasionally would go to discourses and so on, but they wouldn’t have the detailed type of training that a monastic would have. In fact, teaching meditation to householders is a very recent phenomenon that started actually in Burma just in the – I think it was the early part of the twentieth century. I don’t think it went back as far as into the nineteenth. And it was not generally taught in the Tibetan tradition to householders. Householders, aside from going to some teachings and so on, basically said mantras. Most of them were illiterate to start with, so they couldn’t really read the texts. So they recite mantras, memorize a few prayers, circumambulate, offer butter lamps, this sort of thing.

So now in the West, the situation is really very, very different, since the majority of Western students are certainly not monastics, we already have an education – we’re not coming to the Dharma as uneducated children – and we have other things going on in our lives; we’re not just monastics for whom the Dharma study and practice and the rituals are the only thing that they do. And for most of us, we don’t have close contact with the great spiritual masters; we certainly don’t live with them. And in most situations, we also have to pay for teachings, since we don’t live in a society that supports the whole Buddhist institution with monasteries, offerings, things like that, so rent needs to be paid, people have to pay health insurance, and stuff like that. So naturally the situation is very different for us. And for most of us, we only have very, very limited contact with the great masters. Maybe a few times we might go to a large teaching of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Or occasionally some great masters might come to our city, and we go in a large audience to teachings. And most of the time, we have available to us in our city only a much less qualified teacher; it could be a Tibetan geshe or khenpo or a monk or whatever. And we sometimes don’t even have that, and we just have more senior students leading discussions.

There’s no point in complaining about that. It’s the reality of what our situation is. The challenge is to make the best of that, and that’s why I emphasize the different levels of teacher and for ourselves the different levels. For most of us, we don’t have the opportunity to be able to devote all our time to Buddhist practice. We have families, we have to make a living, etc. So be realistic about that. If we have a realistic attitude, it helps us to not become disappointed when our local teacher is not quite the quality of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, let’s say. And probably even if we were able to be with His Holiness all the time and get private teachings from him, it would be so much over our heads in terms of advanced level that we wouldn’t be able to really relate to him and take the best advantage of his guidance.


I remember when I first went to India, back in 1969, although I had already done all my study for my doctorate, and I had studied the various Asian languages, including Tibetan and Sanskrit. Buddhism was taught basically as a science, a dead subject, at that time, and we only learned how to read Tibetan; the professor didn’t even have a clear idea of how the language was pronounced. So I started studying and having teachers in India for language and basic Dharma. And when I first met the great teachers, His Holiness and His Holiness’s teachers, the way that I perceived them was like a horse that was galloping very, very quickly, and I couldn’t possibly get on that horse now – it was going too quickly, they were speaking too quickly, the language I couldn’t really understand, and what they were talking about was much too fast and too advanced. But the strong aspiration was to be able to ride that horse and to train myself to get up to that level at which I could actually understand them and take advantage of such an incredible thoroughbred horse to ride. If you’re on a merry-go-round, you don’t need a thoroughbred horse; a wooden horse will do to go around.

So working with our local teachers – obviously the relation with that teacher needs to be respectful and so on, but it’s not quite the same as the relation with the greatest masters that we might only meet a couple of times in our life. And they might not be so inspiring for us; but nevertheless we can learn from them; they can help us to train. And what’s important is having, even if we don’t meet them very often, someone that really, really inspires us. They don’t have to be with us all the time, because as I said, they might be running too fast that we couldn’t even keep up with them.

The other really important point that needs to be emphasized is that the relation with the spiritual teacher is not like the relationship with somebody in the army. It isn’t “Yes, sir” and you obey no matter what they say. We’ve examined the teacher very well, hopefully, beforehand before actually committing ourselves, entrusting ourselves, to be guided by that person, even if it’s from a distance. Beforehand we can of course go to their teachings, like a lecture and so on, but that’s very different from the attitude of actually from our side making that commitment.

And nobody in the Tibetan tradition that I know of would actually say to a teacher, “Can I be your disciple?” and the teacher says, “Yes, I welcome you!” and hugs you and whatever, and now you’r e their disciple. That is some sort of romantic vision of what it’s like. So even if there is some sort of mutual recognition from a previous lifetime or whatever, no big deal is made out of it.

I remember with Serkong Rinpoche (the main teacher that I studied with), although I had met him a few times previously, when I actually moved to Dharamsala and met him, just after I spoke with him and so on, he just said, “Well, stay here at the side of the room and watch the way that I’m interacting with people and so on.” So it was just totally natural, with no big deal made out of it. “Now here you are. Well, of course.” Then he just started to train me.

I remember with the young reincarnation of Serkong Rinpoche (who I am also extremely close with), when I translated for him for the first time, when he gave a private teaching, I said, “How wonderful it is to be translating for you again.” And his favorite line: “Well, nothing special. Of course you’re translating for me again. What do you expect?” So there’s no big deal about anything. And I think that’s a very helpful style; otherwise we make everything like sort of dramatic movie and have a big inflation of ourselves and the guru and how great this is, a big ego trip.

But in establishing a relation with a teacher, it is similar to what Tsongkhapa describes as the circumstances for developing bodhichitta. He says that there are some people who have very strong instincts for bodhichitta, and they’re just very naturally drawn to this type of meditation, this type of aspiration, and so on. And there are those who have to put a great deal of effort in this lifetime to develop these type of aspirations and thoughts. And he says that for those who have sort of an instinct toward this, their development of bodhichitta will be easier, more stable. Now, that doesn’t mean that if we don’t have this instinctive drive we can’t develop bodhichitta, but it will be more difficult.

So now we extrapolate that to finding the spiritual teacher. There will be some of us that are just very naturally drawn to a teacher, and that’s a very important indication to watch for. And it shouldn’t be based on the fact that this happens to be the teacher who comes to your Dharma center, who is in your Dharma center. It shouldn’t be based on the fact that this is the head or the founder of the Dharma center or organization that you go to. Likewise it shouldn’t be based on just the big name and fame and charisma and the whole thing that goes together with some of these teachers. There’s no reason on earth why everybody at a Dharma center should be connected with the person who founded that center or the teachers who are there. If it’s the only thing that’s available in our city, or of the various alternatives it’s sort of the best for us, fine. We can benefit from coming to the center and studying with those teachers, no problem. But still keep an eye open for who might be the root teacher, the one that we’ll find the most inspiring.

How do you know that you have some instinctive connection with someone? Well, one indication is that you just happen to be there when this person is there. You happen to meet all the time. You go to see them, and they’re there; they’re not away. But other indications are that it’s almost like a magnet: you can’t take your eyes off of this person. And that’s not the same as when you have longing desire or lust for a beautiful person and you can’t take your eyes away because you have such strong desire. It’s a very different quality. It’s not a disturbing or upsetting experience. Seeing this person makes you feel more calm, more comfortable, more at ease, joyous in a very calm level – not whoopee! type of joy – it just feels right.

I think we all know what that’s like if we’ve ever bought a pair of shoes. You try on different shoes, and you get one that you walk a few steps and it just feels right. It’s comfortable. This is the shoe I’m going to get.

So it’s this type of feeling – that it just feels right, it fits – with the spiritual teacher. But as with bodhichitta, there may be no one that we feel this strong instinctive connection with, which Buddhism would explain from previous lives (whether we believe in previous lives or not is another issue, but Buddhism would explain it that way). And then we really have to put a great deal of effort into establishing a relation with the teacher. And how do you do that? Well, by being a very serious, sincere seeker – that you really want to be able to learn to practice to transform yourself.

I remember when I went to India and I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama the first time. I was very, very moved by the realization that everything that I had studied at university, which was like as if it were a dead subject, was actually for real. There was somebody that actually knew what everything meant and embodied it. And remember I met His Holiness only ten years after they came out of Tibet, so at that time it was much, much easier to actually meet His Holiness and interact with him and his teachers and so on – a completely different time.

I forget whether it was the second or third time that I met him – whenever it was, I said that “I offer myself to you. Please give me the opportunity to be trained. I have a lot of shortcomings, but give me the opportunity to be trained, and then I will serve you – not as a servant, but serve you in the sense of trying to further your work.” And I was very, very sincere about that. And His Holiness did give me all the opportunities to be able to stay in India to get the best training that was possible. And after I started being more and more together with Serkong Rinpoche, I used the classic line of “Please train me like a donkey to become a human being.” My background was that I was a super, super intelligent student at Harvard University, very arrogant, and I had very little ability to be able to socially interact with others. I was quite horrible in that sense, I must say, very arrogant, and I really needed to learn how to relate to other people. And so this is what I asked Serkong Rinpoche to teach me. I think this is why he only scolded me, only called me idiot, and in nine years only thanked me twice. Very, very helpful. Right? “You think you’r e smart? You’re nothing.” And he never ever failed to point out when I said something or did something that was stupid, especially in front of a lot of people.

But my point is that you have to be very brave, very strong, in order to endure that type of training. And you put effort in from your side. Even though there’s some instinctive, karmic connection, you put effort in from your side. “Train me. I’m willing to be trained. Give me the opportunity,” and then you actually do it. And in that way you establish the relationship.

And as it says, help the teacher. If you want to establish a relationship, offer to help. Train to become the teacher’s translator or to transcribe their teachings or to arrange their travels. That’s how you get close with the teacher. Do something. Don’t expect that you can just be sitting in the audience and the teacher will see you and come over and “Oh, welcome!” like that. But you have to be totally, totally sincere, which means that you’ve examined yourself well enough to know whether or not you are strong enough to, as they say, endure the relationship with the spiritual teacher. To use the image that I was saying, are you strong enough to ride that really fast galloping horse?

So in summary, as I say, it doesn’t help us to complain that we don’t have access to these great spiritual teachers and say, “But look what we have in our city,” and so on. That is not going to get you anywhere. But if you really want to advance and so on, you put the effort into it. Look at how much effort these great masters put in in order to be able to walk from Tibet to India and study with the Indian masters and learn the languages and so on. We’re very fortunate that we don’t have to do like that.

If I look at the situation of Buddhism and Tibetan studies now compared to fifty years ago, when I was just starting, it’s unbelievably easier now than it was when I started. Just as an example, there was almost nothing available for learning the Tibetan language. There was only one book, which tried to explain Tibetan grammar in terms of Latin, which makes absolutely no sense. And my teacher at Harvard had no idea how it was pronounced. So when I went to India, I had to figure out the sound structure of the language, like going to Borneo and working with some tribe. So look how many materials and how much is available now. There was hardly anything translated when I started. Now there’s so much available. In fact we complain that there’s too much and we don’t even know where to start.

So there’s no reason to complain or feel sorry for ourselves, that “Poor me. I’m living in this obscure place.” Moscow is not such an obscure place now. You have so many more teachers coming than when I first started coming (toward the end of the Soviet period). Come on! So if you want to do it, just do it, if you’re really serious. And if you’re really serious, the teachers will take you seriously.

The Qualities of a Spiritual Teacher

There are many levels of spiritual teachers and there are different lists of qualifications. For each subsequent level, you need more qualifications, in addition to the ones in the earlier levels. The most important are:

  • Ethical discipline.
  • A good level of concentration.
  • They have pacified, to a great extent, their disturbing emotions.
  • They have great enthusiasm to teach and joy in doing it.
  • And they obviously have more knowledge than we have, more experience than we have.
  • And then of course their motivation is sincerely to help the student, with loving-kindness, compassion, and so on
  • And they're not a hypocrite, pretending to have qualities that they don’t have. They need to be honest.

And as it says in so many texts, to find the teacher that has all the qualifications is extremely rare, so they need to have more positive qualities than negative qualities, at least some of these. And the most important is being an ethical person, having sincere motivation to help others, and having more knowledge and experience than we have, and being honest about it. These are really very, very important. They’re not a hypocrite.

Concerning the spiritual qualities we are looking for in a spiritual teacher, one is that they have a correct motivation, bodhichitta. But how can we check whether the person has bodhichitta when we haven’t yet developed it ourselves?

When we look at the qualifications, the term that appears in the lists is the term that means loving-kindness (brtse-ba). They don’t list bodhichitta as a term in the list, which is used in general for a preceptor that gives the vows, because it needs to be valid for both Hinayana and Mahayana teachers. In the qualifications for the Mahayana teacher, the one who gives bodhisattva vows, obviously they need to have bodhichitta, that’s correct.

And how do we know about these qualities if we haven’t achieved them ourselves? The analogy which is used is that you may not be able to see a fish deep in the water, but you can detect the presence of the fish by the ripples on the surface. So in terms of loving-kindness, is the teacher really interested in the various students and disciples? Are they are concerned about their welfare and so on? Or are they are just exploiting them to get money, fame, sexual favors, etc.? And what are they working on in terms of bodhichitta? Are they working to become a Buddha themselves? Are they continuing to go to teachings? Are they continuing to do meditation retreats and stuff like that? Or are they just trying to become the biggest, most famous teacher with a big empire? Are they really working to benefit others? So see for yourself in terms of your interaction, you ask others, and you evaluate – use discriminating awareness. And remember, any type of realization – we’re talking about realization as a qualification for a spiritual mentor – there are many different levels of that, and we evaluate it in terms of the effect that it would have. What kind of transformation has it made in this person?

Teachers Who Act in an Unethical Way

What should I do if a person who I considered to be one of my teachers for more than fifteen years suddenly starts behaving in strange ways that I find unacceptable? Should I use such a person as a source of information and still read, listen to, and attend their lectures? Should I continue considering that person to be one of my teachers while considering some of his actions unacceptable?

It says very clearly in many texts that if we have entered into a relation with a spiritual teacher perhaps prematurely, without really examining very well over a long period of time, and later we find that they have serious flaws, we should maintain respect for the benefits that we might have received from that teacher, but we keep a respectful distance.

And it says also very clearly in many texts that throughout the relationship with the spiritual teacher, we never lose our discriminating awareness. And so if we find that the teacher is acting in a strange way – in an unethical way, I should say (it could be eccentric, but let’s say in an unethical way) – or the teacher asks us to do something which is unethical or improper, then you say no without anger, without incrimination (“You’re bad”), and so on. Or the alternative would be to say, “You’ve asked me to do something which is unethical or unreasonable” – it doesn’t have to be unethical, it could be unreasonable – “Could you please explain to me why you said that? What is your thinking behind that?”

If the person is acting in an unethical way, we should maintain a distance?

If they ask us to act in an unethical way, either you say no, or you could politely say – in addition to not doing it (if it’s unethical) – “Why are you saying that? What is your reason?” Or if they ask us to do something which is beyond our ability and really impossible for us to do, then: “Could you please explain why you’re asking me to do that? What is your thinking?” Discriminate.

I’ll relate to you my personal experience with that. Once His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked me and two rinpoches that I was doing translations with to translate this huge encyclopedia by Kongtrul [Jamgon Kongtrul’s Ocean of Infinite Knowledge (Shes-bya kun-khyab)]. Now, mind you, this is what was undertaken by Kalu Rinpoche’s translation group, and they’ve been working on it for the last, I don’t know, twenty-five years, and they still haven’t finished it, and there’s a huge group of people (not huge but many people) working on it. So we asked His Holiness very politely that “Well, thank you very much, but this will probably take the rest of our lives to do. Could you please explain what your thinking is, why you want us to spend the rest of our lives doing this, translating this encyclopedia?” So not freaking out but asking very politely. And His Holiness said, “Well, yeah, I think it would be good to have it translated, but perhaps you’re right; it’s too big for just the three of you to undertake.” So he excused us from that.

But then there are other things that His Holiness has asked me to do which seemed as though they were impossible, what I often call “mission impossibles,” but I have enough confidence in His Holiness that His Holiness is able to see cause and effect and so on, what connections people have. I remember once he said, “I want you to find for me and bring me a black African Sufi master from West Africa.” And it was amazing – I was able to find such a master with almost no effort whatsoever. I met a German diplomat soon after that who was a diplomat in Africa, and so I asked him. And he said, “Oh, this friend of mine is the Sufi leader of Guinea” – a country in West Africa – and he just happened to be in India for some ayurvedic treatment, and it just happened to be exactly when I was going back to India, and it just happened that he would be in Delhi at the same time as I was and had a few extra days, and so I could accompany him up to Dharamsala to meet His Holiness. So although one could joke and say it was just pure coincidence, obviously His Holiness was able to know all the karmic causes and so on that would bring something like that about.

So one discriminates between not to translate this encyclopedia – “Come on, that’s a little bit beyond my ability” – and bringing a West African Sufi master to Dharamsala for him.