You may be
perfectly content to study and practice the dharma on your own, without a
Buddhist teacher or community. But the time may come when you feel that
isn’t enough, and you decide you want to seek one out. If that happens,
how do you go about finding a teacher (and by extension, a community)
that’s right for you?
important to know that the wisdom you’re seeking is already within you.
It guides your spiritual search, and is the reason you are already on
the path. So to some extent you can rely on your own instincts and
intuition to help you.
With that in mind, I recommend approaching your search as a five-step process: watch, ask, feel, try it on, and commit.
what the teacher does and says, and how he or she treats people.
Kindness, friendliness, humility, a sense of humor, as well as a
forthright and honest manner are qualities of spiritual maturity
recognized by every Buddhist tradition. They are the precepts in action.
Some say you should watch a teacher for three years before accepting
him or her. I’m not sure that is realistic or necessary, but whether it
is three weeks or three years, take your time.
questions, and don’t be shy. See how the teacher responds. Don’t be
rude, but don’t hold back either. Questions that feel dumb are often the
best questions. When I was with my root teacher, I wanted to look good
to him and so I tended not to ask questions that exposed my ignorance. I
regret that. A good teacher will not be offended or defensive about
when asking questions, ask everyone. The teacher’s close students know
him or her best. Find out what they know or are willing to share. In
assessing their responses, use your “wisdom stomach.” If there are any
secrets about the teacher or the community that you need to know, these
students are your best sources.
do you feel? After watching and asking, take stock of your own gut
feeling. Is your feeling about the teacher pleasant, unpleasant, or
neutral? That feeling is a clue. There is a principle in Buddhism—in Zen
we call it innen—which can be translated as “affinity” or
“coincidence.” It refers to the causes and conditions of human
relationship that have brought you and the teacher together. For a
teacher–student relationship to work, there needs to be this sense of
affinity. You should feel a positive regard for the teacher. If not,
this teacher may not right for you.
it on. After watching, asking, and feeling, it may be a time to “try it
on.” A good teacher or community will offer some level of provisional
commitment—a chance to accept the teacher more deeply without throwing
yourself off a cliff. Depending on the tradition, this might involve a
ceremony, a private interview, or acceptance into a retreat or more
intensive level of practice.
cautious about a teacher or community that requires a life-changing,
irrevocable commitment up front. Quitting your job, being ordained as a
monk or nun, giving away money or property, becoming a full-time
resident—these might conceivably be in your future, or not. But wherever
your spiritual path leads you, these decisions are yours, not someone
to commit. The Buddhist path eventually requires commitment as well as
trust. In your developing relationship with a teacher, there may come a
time when both of you are ready for a commitment. If this time has come,
don’t hold back. Perhaps it will be good; perhaps it will turn out to
be a mistake. In the end, you need to put one foot in front of the
other, and see where the path leads you. All seekers of the Way have
dharma, as in life, there are no guarantees. Things that count involve
risk. As they say in sports, “No guts, no glory.” Good luck!
Richmond is the founder of the Vimala Sangha in Mill Valley,
California, named after Vimalakirti, the “householder Buddha,” and is a
teacher with the Shogaku Priest Ongoing Training (SPOT) program.