In the Anguttara Nikaya Gautama Buddha stated the five qualities we should look for in a teacher: ‘Gautama 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.’
Firstly, the teacher should speak step by step. It is of very little use to learn about emptiness or non-self, if you haven’t first understood that there is an unease or discontentment running throughout your life. When I first started studying Buddhism I had so many teachings on what a Bodhisattva does and doesn’t do, but didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to be doing myself. I learnt about how Milarepa got enlightened in one lifetime, but Gautama Buddha took three countless aeons. I expect these stories have there 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 confuse. One of the great things about Buddhism is that things are numbered – five precepts, ten harmful acts, four truths, five qualities of a teacher – and so it makes it easier to follow and remember the individual steps of the teachings.
Secondly, the teacher should explain the sequence. I have had teachings were someone has asked about why are things done in this order, only to be told that it is tradition – 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 to suffering’ and finally, ‘the path that leads to the end 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.
Thirdly, the teachers motivation for teaching should be one of kindness, caring and compassion. He should see that people are discontented with their lives and need some help to reduce their suffering. The teacher should not be motivated by pride, thinking they are better than their students, or arrogance, thinking they know more than their students. Their teachings should be grounded in an overwhelming sense of wanting to help others.
Fourthly, the teacher should not teacher just to get material gain. In Tibetan Buddhism (and probably other forms of Buddhism as well, but I only have experience of Tibetan Buddhist teachers) many teachers have huge houses, large cars, big TV’s and all the material trappings of the 21st century. This really is a turn off. How can anyone sit and listen to a teacher telling them not to get attached to things, when the teacher quite clearly is attached himself.
I do understand that some teachers are professionals and so have to charge, so as to make a living. There is no problem with that, as long as their fees are reasonable and they are not just teaching to rip people off. A friend of mine told me a story about when she went to a teaching in America. She wasn’t working at the time and so had very little money, but she really wanted the teaching. She asked the centre if she could do some work for the centre to pay off the cost of the teaching. She was told that it wasn’t a charity and she would never go to a supermarket and ask to work to pay off her grocery bill, so why is she asking here. This is wrong on so many levels.
I believe any Buddhist teacher should attempt to follow the precepts
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 the teacher can gain control over the students. They say that their teachings are the quickest, best, simplest, most powerful way to reach enlightenment – all of this is said without offering up any proof.
I have also had teachers making fun of other religions because they 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.
Buddhism is just one form of help we can use to reduce our suffering. It isn’t the only one. We are all different and so what suits one will not suit another. So the teacher should give you the facts and not spend time disparaging others.
I would like to add another quality that I think is also 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 personally find it hard to take someone seriously if they are trying to teach me how to act, when they quite clearly cannot act that way themselves. Do as I say and not as I do doesn’t wash these days.
That is how a teacher should act, but what about the student? Some people think to show respect to their teacher 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 teacher then listen to their teachings, ask questions to clear up any doubt, meditate on the teaching and then, finally, put what they have taught into practice. Now what better way to respect anyone?
There are without doubt some wonderful teachers out there. Ones that are compassionate, grounded and informed, we just have to find them
The problem with the student acting this way is that they sometimes end up lusting after time with the teacher, 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 the teacher, which they don’t have. I have a friend that 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 yourself wide open for abuse and a big fall.
Once you start seeing this human being as someone higher, better and more worthy than yourself, you start along that slippery slope to being taken for a ride. This is how cults are formed. You think the teacher is a god like figure and he knows what is good for you, so you surrender to him. He gets you doing irrational and quite often immoral things, but you just 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 defiantly won’t do is help alleviate your suffering.
If your teacher is any good he will tell you upfront that he does not have all the answers, he is not a higher being and he is just sharing his experiences and wants to learn from your experiences. But many teachers love the adulation, as it boosts their pride and makes them feel special. For them it is all about ego, power, control and money, it has very little to do with wanting to help others.
I think I should end on a positive note. There are without doubt some wonderful teachers out there. Ones that are compassionate, grounded and informed, we just have to find them. I will reiterate what I said at the start of this principle, it is extremely important to have a teacher 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.
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