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Hello! This is a post about finding, investigating and discovering an authentic meditation teacher.
How many of us here in the West even know where to start on this journey? Finding a qualified teacher is important – especially if you consider your spiritual practice and progress to be important. It’s like going to a properly trained surgeon to have your appendix removed. You wouldn’t go to a lawyer for that job, would you? Here is an example of merely going to someone who claims to know what they are doing, but when you get there the conversation goes like this:
“Hello, I just wanted to be sure before we started, you are a doctor right? Because my appendix is having problems man!”
“Yes, I got my doctorate in Herpetology from Whahoopitz College.”
“Wait, what?! I thought you were a surgeon.”
“No I study reptiles, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. I learned that some reptiles have appendixes.”
“Oh, well in that case, this is hurting pretty bad so we might as well get started…”
Seriously!?! Big problem. We want to be sure we are getting quality training from a qualified teacher. If nothing else, we certainly don’t want to back-slide down the ever-so-treacherous and steep spiritual path. Yes, unfortunately there are frauds out there, plus there are well-meaning people who might have learned a couple things from an authentic teacher and then decided they were ready to teach (which translates to: they are ready to inflate their egos and make claims they really can’t back up). So get it right the first time!
Here is some pithy advice:
If you meet someone who claims to be an advanced meditation teacher, run! Get the hell out of there as fast as you can! The strongest, highest quality anyone can have is loving-kindness and the second most coveted spiritual quality is humility [and modesty].
If you find out that someone wears certain clothing on the days they are teaching, but then they put on a completely different outfit the other six days of the week… you might want to skedaddle. Take the words “clothing” and “outfit” here to also mean personality, behavioral standards, ethical conduct, etc.
If a “teacher” says one thing but overtly goes against their advice, this might be a bad sign. It is definitely a bad sign if you question them about this and instead of patiently discussing why they went against their advice, they get defensive and suddenly you feel victimized. Run! Fast! This is not an authentic teacher! Get the hell out of Dodge!
If someone’s name is Master Whoseewhatee, be extra skeptical. What makes them a master? Who says they are a master? Where did they study? Are their students truly benefiting and growing? Remember the humility comment above – and with that in mind, who would call themselves Master So-and-so? AND can they answer the questions in this next paragraph in the affirmative?:
A qualified meditation teacher can and will answer the following questions in a way that is clear, unequivocal and in a parsimonious fashion. Oh and they will be open and honest about the answers: Who did you train under (who are your teachers)? What makes you qualified to teach meditation? Do you have the blessing of a qualified teacher? Do you have a title? Who gave it to you? Are you a part of an authentic (living) lineage of teachings? Do you know the root texts on meditation? Do you speak / read the root languages of those root texts?
Keep in mind that here in the West, there are many, pardon the turn of speech, white people who have never spent significant time in the East, who are becoming authentically qualified to teach. Or at least they have their teacher’s blessings to teach. Therefore, these qualifications that I set forth in the above paragraph are strict – who besides a well-educated religious studies scholar would know those root languages? Or who other than a Buddhist monk (or nun) who has gone through their rigorous Shedra – or monastic colleges? Well sincere monks are typically authentic meditation teachers but sometimes it is difficult to find a Buddhist monk or nun to teach you. What then? Sometimes an authentic meditation teacher will not know those root languages and that is okay, just not ideal. They should at least know a little about the root texts.
Here’s the thing – if someone has studied the root languages of the root texts, and if they can teach meditation, then there is a chance that they are able to do two important things: think critically (from diligent, systematic study) and have decent emotional intelligence. It is one thing to be able to think rationally and be a linear type of person, but it is quite another to be able to do that when it suits the situation; and when we enter the watery psychological realm of emotions, rationality and linear processes often fly out the window, and an authentic teacher ideally should be able to understand both of these processes.
To wrap up, we want to find a teacher who is approachable, down-to-earth and who knows the subject matter. Someone who is arrogant is not an authentic teacher. Someone who seems like they are too humble to be anyone special is often just that – many Tibetan lamas seem to be content little bumbling monks, who claim not to know or do anything special in the least. And then when they die, the world discovers that they were secretly keeping rainbows and spiritual realizations in their hearts… So stick with humility, modesty and balance and you won’t go wrong in your search.
For an example of an authentic teacher, I would like to share my experience of living above a Zen Buddhist temple, and therefore, having the Zen Priest as my landlord and teacher. Also, if you have not already, you can visit the “Dharma” page on my blog – there you will find my experience with another secret yogi who passed away in 2008. That was a unique connection for me. But back to the Zen Priest.
This man was retired, having been an engineer and occasional adjunct professor at UVa. He did all the manual labor around the Zendo, which I was happy to pitch in to help with. So I would come home from school sometimes and find him mowing the lawn, or weeding, or even putting stain on the new fence. This was despite the fact that he was in his 70’s. Also, he never claimed to have any special qualities and he would always change the subject or minimize your perceptions of him if asked. He was great at practicing self-deprecation, but in a humorous almost respectful sort of way. No one was better at pointing out his own flaws than himself.
However, I would always feel really, really good if I was lucky enough to sit next to him in the Zendo. (By the way, see my first few posts on here to see pictures of that Zendo.) Also, if I was fortunate enough to be the last out the door, meaning that I would have a few minutes alone with him, I would also feel very good upon leaving. It was never anything he said. It was never anything noticeable that he did. But the sensations of joy and happiness would almost always linger for a few hours after meditating with him. The only indication of his qualities came through if you asked him who his teachers were. Unfortunately, being more a student of Tibetan Buddhism, I did not know much about Zen or its teachers, but later, when I looked them up, he had studied with some true masters indeed.
He never called himself more than he was. He said in Zen that a teacher’s teacher was called the Roshi. As a Zen Priest, he was capable of doing the ceremony for others to become Priests, and he was the leader of all the Zen practices and ceremonies. But that was it. For him, it is literally a life of chop wood, carry water. And it has done something marvelous for him.
In closing, may all beings be blessed to know and spend time with an authentic teacher!