Finding a Spiritual Teacher

Differences in Circumstances

At the present time, our situation as Buddhists in the West is really quite different from the classic structure in Tibet. To begin, most of us are not monastics. In Tibet and in traditional Buddhist societies, someone who wanted to engage seriously in Buddhist training became a monk or a nun. Householders didn’t have that much access to teachings. Most were illiterate and couldn’t read the texts. They occasionally would go to discourses and so on; but they wouldn’t receive the detailed training available to a monastic.

In fact, teaching meditation to householders is a very recent phenomenon that started in Burma in the early part of the twentieth century. I don’t think it went back as far as into the nineteenth. Meditation was not generally taught in the Tibetan tradition to householders. Aside from going to some teachings as mentioned, householders basically recited mantras, memorized a few prayers, circumambulated, offered butter lamps – these sorts of things.

Today, in the West, there are many differences. Not only are the majority of students not monastic, but we have many other aspects and involvements in our lives. As monastics we would only have Dharma study, practice and rituals as our main focus, and they would be all that we do. In addition, we Westerners already have an education. We’re not approaching the Dharma as uneducated children. Most of us don’t have close contact with the great spiritual masters and we certainly don’t live with them, as many young novices do in Tibetan monasteries. Also, in most situations, we have to pay for teachings. We don’t live in societies that support the Buddhist institutions and monasteries with offerings and such. Still, rent needs to be paid, people need health insurance, food, and so on. So naturally the situation is very different for us.

Most of us only have very limited contact with the current great masters. Perhaps we’ve had the good fortune to attend to a large teaching of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Occasionally some great masters might come to our city, and we go in a large audience to their teachings. The rest of the time, what is available to us in our cities is a much less experienced and less qualified teacher, whether a Tibetan geshe, khenpo or an educated monk or nun. Sometimes, we don’t even have that, and we just have senior students leading discussions.

Different Levels of Teachers

There’s no point in complaining; it’s the reality of our situation. The challenge is to make the best of that, and that’s why we need to recognize and accept the different levels of teachers for ourselves as we progress along our spiritual journey. Most of us don’t have the opportunity to be able to devote all our time to Buddhist practice. We have families to support and we need to make a living, etc. We need to be realistic about that.

If we have a realistic attitude, it helps us not to become disappointed when, let’s say, our local teacher is not quite the quality of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Consider that even if we were able to be with His Holiness all the time and receive private teachings from him, it would be at such an advanced level, and perhaps so much over our heads, 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, I had already completed the course work for my doctorate at Harvard, and had already studied the various Asian languages, including Tibetan and Sanskrit. However, Buddhism was taught basically as a science, a dead subject. At that time, we only learned how to read Tibetan; the professor lacked a clear idea of how the language was pronounced. It was only in India that I first was able to study spoken Tibetan and basic Dharma with qualified teachers.

When I first met the great teachers – His Holiness and His Holiness’s teachers – my perception of them was they were like horses galloping very, very quickly. I felt that I couldn’t possibly get on any of those horses. They were speaking too quickly in a language I couldn’t really understand; and what they were talking about was much too fast and advanced. But I had the strong aspiration to be able to ride those horses and to train to get up to that level when I could actually understand them and take advantage of the ride on such incredible thoroughbreds.

If we’re on a merry-go-round, we don’t need a thoroughbred horse; a wooden horse will do to go around. In that way, we work first with our local teachers. Obviously, the relation with that teacher needs to be respectful and so on; still, it’s not quite the same as a relation with the greatest masters that we might meet only a couple of times in our life. Perhaps, our local Dharma teachers might not be as inspiring for us; but nevertheless, we can learn a great deal from them. They can help us to train.

What is important about meeting the great masters of our time, even if we don’t meet them very often, is having someone that really inspires us. They don’t have to be with us all the time, because as I said, they might be galloping so 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 a “Yes, sir” and then we obey no matter what. We need to have examined the teacher very well. We need to do this before actually committing and entrusting ourselves to be guided by that person, even if it’s from a distance. Beforehand, we can of course go to their teachings, lectures and so on; but, that’s very different from the attitude of actually making that commitment.

Becoming a Disciple

It is unlikely in the traditional Tibetan tradition that a student would actually ask a teacher, “Can I be your disciple?” and the teacher would warmly welcome and hug that student, and presto, the student is now a beloved disciple. That is a romanticized version of what it’s like. Even with some sort of a mutual recognition due to a previous lifetime connection, there is no dramatic fanfare.

A good example is my experience with Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, the main teacher that I studied with. Although I’d met him a few times previously, when I actually moved to Dharamsala and met him again, just after I spoke with him, he said, “Stay here at the side of the room and watch the way that I’m interacting with people.” It was just totally natural, with no big deal made out of it. “Now, here you are. Well, of course you’re here.” Then he just started to train me.

I am also extremely close with the young reincarnation of Serkong Rinpoche. I remember when I translated for him for the first time at a private teaching, I said, “How wonderful it is to be translating for you again.” Using his favorite line, he responded: “Nothing special – of course you’re translating for me again. What do you expect?” There’s no big deal made about anything. That’s a very helpful attitude; otherwise, we turn everything into some dramatic inflation of ourselves and the guru in a big ego trip.

Finding a Root Teacher

Establishing a deep relation with a teacher 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; they’re just naturally drawn to this type of aspiration and meditation. There are others who have to put a great deal of effort in this lifetime to develop this type of aspiration. He explains that for those with an instinct toward this, their development of bodhichitta will be easier and more stable. That doesn’t mean that if we don’t have this instinctive drive, we can’t develop bodhichitta, but it will be more difficult.

We can relate this to finding a spiritual teacher, a so-called “root guru,” the one whose inspiration serves as a root to anchor and nourish our spiritual growth. There will be some of us very naturally drawn to a teacher, and that’s a very important indication to watch for. But choosing a spiritual teacher shouldn’t be based simply on the fact that the person happens to be the teacher at your local Dharma center, or that he or she is the founder of the Dharma center or organization that you go to. Likewise, it shouldn’t be based on fame or charisma – the kind of packaging 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 founder or the teachers there. If the teacher at our local center is the only one available in our city, or of the various alternatives he or she is the best, fine. We can benefit from coming to the center and studying with such teachers, no problem. But we need to still keep an eye open for who could be our root teacher, the one that we’ll find the most inspiring.

How do you know that you have some instinctive connection with someone? One indication is that we just happen to be at a place when this person is there, and this happens often. When we go to see them unannounced, they’re not away. Other indications are that they are almost like a magnet in that we can’t take our eyes off of this person. It’s not the same as when we have longing desire or lust for a beautiful person. It’s a very different quality. It’s not a disturbing or upsetting experience. Seeing this person makes us feel calmer, more comfortable, more at ease, and joyous in a very serene way. It’s not over-excitation; it just feels right.

We all have experienced something like this if we’ve ever bought a pair of shoes. We try on different shoes, walk a few steps, and there is one pair that just feels right. It’s comfortable. It’s this type of feeling with the spiritual teacher – it just feels right, it fits. But as with bodhichitta, there may be no one with whom we find this strong instinctive bond coming from a previous life connection. In this case, we really need to put a great deal of effort into establishing a relation with the most qualified teacher we can have access to, regardless of the degree to which we find them inspiring. How do we do that? It’s by being a very serious, sincere seeker who really wants to learn how to practice and transform.

I remember when I went to India in 1969 and I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama the first time. It was only ten years after the Tibetan refugees had escaped from Tibet, and unlike today, it was much easier to meet and actually interact with His Holiness and his teachers. I was very moved by the realization that everything I had studied about Tibetan Buddhism at university, as if it were a dead subject like Egyptology, was actually alive and for real. Here was somebody who actually knew what everything meant and embodied it. It was a life-changing revelation.

The second or third time that I met His Holiness, I straightforwardly said: “I offer myself to you. I have a lot of shortcomings; but give me the opportunity to be trained and I will serve you the rest of my life by trying to further your works.” I was 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.

After I started spending more and more time with Serkong Rinpoche, I used the classic line, “Please train me like a donkey to become a human being.” My background was that I was a highly intelligent student at Harvard University, very arrogant, with very little ability 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. This is what I asked Serkong Rinpoche to teach me. This is why he mostly scolded me and called me “idiot” whenever I acted like one. In the nine years of serving him as his translator and making all the arrangements for his foreign teachings and so on, he only thanked me twice. For me, this was very helpful. He would say, “You think you’re so smart? You’re not.” He never ever failed to point out when I said or did something that was stupid, especially in front of a lot of people. And from my side, I never once got angry with him, because I recognized this was his way of training me and I appreciated his immense kindness to invest all the time and trouble to do that.

The point isn’t just that we have to be very brave and emotionally strong in order to endure that type of training. To transform, we need to put effort in from our side. Even though there may be some instinctive, karmic connection from a previous lifetime, we can’t be passive. If we ask for the opportunity to be trained, we need to actually follow that training and never complain or get angry. In that way we establish the proper relationship.

The traditional Buddhist texts also say to help the teacher. If we want to establish a close relationship, we need to offer to help. We can train to become the teacher’s translator, to transcribe their teachings, or to arrange their travels. That’s how to get close with the teacher. Do something. Don’t expect that we can just be sitting in the audience and the teacher will see us, walk over and single us out to welcome us.

We have to be totally sincere. This means that we’ve examined ourselves well enough to know whether or not we are strong enough to, as they say, endure the relationship with the spiritual teacher. To use the previous image, are we strong enough to ride that really fast galloping horse?

Just Do It!

In summary, it doesn’t help to complain that we don’t have access to these great spiritual teachers. That’s not going to be productive. If we really want to advance, we need to put the effort into it. Look at how much these great masters of the past endured, how they walked from Tibet to India to study with the Indian masters and learn the languages and so on. We’re very fortunate that we don’t have to do all that.

Comparing the situation of Buddhism and Tibetan studies now with fifty years ago when I started out, it’s unbelievably easier now. Just as an example, there was almost nothing available for learning the Tibetan language or pronunciation. There was only one book, which tried to explain Tibetan grammar in terms of Latin, which makes absolutely no sense. When I went to India, I had to figure out the sound structure of the spoken language. There was hardly anything translated. Look at how much material is available now. In fact, it is a new problem; we complain that there’s too much and we don’t know where to start!

There’s no reason for anyone to complain or feel sorry for living in a remote location. We are in Moscow for these talks today; therefore, clearly Moscow is not such an obscure place for Buddhism as it once was. There are many more teachers coming here than when we first started meeting toward the end of the Soviet period. Come on! If we want to do it, if we’re really serious, just do it. If we’re really serious, the teachers will take us seriously.


The Qualities of a Spiritual Teacher

You mentioned that there are many levels of spiritual teachers. What are the qualities of a teacher that we should look out for when we are searching for one?

Yes, there are many levels of spiritual teachers and there are different lists of qualifications. For each subsequent level, the teacher needs further qualifications, in addition to the ones in the earlier levels. The most important are:

  • Ethical discipline
  • A good level of concentration
  • Pacification, to a great extent, of their disturbing emotions
  • Great enthusiasm for teaching and joy in doing so
  • More knowledge and experience of practicing Dharma than we have
  • As sole motivation, the sincere wish to help the students, with loving-kindness, compassion, and so on
  • Honesty and lack of hypocrisy, never pretending to have qualities they don’t have.

As so many texts say, to find a teacher that has all the qualifications is extremely rare. But at least the person needs to have some qualities from this list and more positive qualities than negative ones. The most important qualities are being an ethical person, having sincere motivation to help others, having more knowledge and experience than we have, and being honest about it. These are really very, very important. The person must not be a hypocrite.

Checking a Potential Teacher

Concerning the spiritual qualities that we’re 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 means loving-kindness (brtse-ba). The list is used in general for a preceptor that gives the vows, and it doesn’t contain bodhichitta as a qualification because it needs to be valid for both Hinayana and Mahayana teachers. In the list of qualifications specifically for a Mahayana teacher, the one who gives us bodhisattva vows, obviously the person needs to have bodhichitta, that’s correct.

How do we know about these qualities if we haven’t achieved them ourselves? The analogy often used is that we may not be able to see a fish swimming deep in the water, but we can detect its presence by the ripples it causes on the surface. So, in terms of loving-kindness, is the teacher really interested in the various students and disciples – and not just the wealthy patrons, but especially the poorer, more ordinary ones? Are they 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? Or are they just trying to become the biggest, most famous teacher with a big empire? Are they really working to benefit others? These are things we need to check, like looking for ripples on the surface of a lake.

We need to see for ourselves from our own personal interaction with the teacher. Ask others, too, about their personal interactions with him or her and then evaluate – use discriminating awareness. And remember, to evaluate someone’s realization of any good quality, look for the effect it should have had on the person. What kind of transformation has it made?

Teachers Who Act in an Unethical Manner

What should I do if a person whom 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 the person very well over a long period of time, and later we find that they have serious flaws, we should maintain respect for the benefits we might have received from that teacher, but we should keep a respectful distance.

The texts also clearly state that throughout the relationship with a spiritual teacher, we should never lose our discriminating awareness. If the teacher asks us to do something unethical or improper, we should say no, but without anger or incrimination. As an alternative, we could say, “You’ve asked me to do something unethical or unreasonable,” – it doesn’t have to be unethical, it could be unreasonable – “could you please explain why you said that? What is your thinking behind that?”

I’ll relate to you my personal experience with that. Once His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked me and the two Rinpoches with whom I was translating small works for him to translate Ocean of Infinite Knowledge (Shes-bya kun-khyab), this huge Buddhist encyclopedia by Jamgon Kongtrul. Now, mind you, this project was undertaken some years later by Kalu Rinpoche’s translation group. They’ve been working on it for the last, I don’t know, twenty-five years, and they still haven’t completed it, despite having many teams working on different sections of it. When His Holiness sent us this request, we didn’t just unquestioningly obey, but instead at the next audience we had, we asked His Holiness very politely, “Thank you very much for your confidence in our translation abilities, but this project is so huge, it will probably take us the rest of our lives to complete. Could you please explain your thinking on this? Why would you like us to spend the rest of our lives translating this encyclopedia?” His Holiness laughed and replied, “Well, I thought 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 that seemed as though they were impossible – what I often call “mission impossibles” – but, using my discrimination, I accepted them. Based on prior experience, I was confident that His Holiness is able to see karmic cause and effect and what connections people have. Let me give an example.

Once His Holiness asked me, “I want you to find for me and bring back to Dharamsala a black Sufi master from West Africa.” He was very specific. And it was amazing: I was actually able to find such a master with almost no effort whatsoever. Soon after that audience, while I was on a lecture tour in Europe, I met a German diplomat who had been serving in Africa. I asked him if he knew anyone that fit the description. He said, “Oh, I have a good friend who is the hereditary Sufi leader of Guinea” – a country in West Africa. I contacted the man and it just happened that he was going to India for some ayurvedic treatment, and it just happened that it would be finished exactly when I would be returning to India, and it just happened that he would be in Delhi at the same time as I would be. And it just happened that he had a few extra days, so I could accompany him up to Dharamsala to meet His Holiness. And this is what I did.

Although you could joke and say it was just pure coincidence that everything worked out so easily like that, but obviously His Holiness was able to know all the karmic causes and so on that would bring something like that about. So, I used my discrimination to evaluate what was possible for me to do when my spiritual teacher asked me to do something for him: translate an encyclopedia or find and bring him a West African Sufi master. As Buddha himself advised, always examine everything, like when buying gold. 

Original Audio from the Seminar