Recently someone new to Buddhism asked the question of how to pick a good teacher.
I found this to be a very powerful question, and one that I would not want to answer frivolously. Also, I can see clearly that any answer I might provide can only be based on my own personal experiences. And what may be right for me, or have been beneficial to me, may not especially be the best path for someone else.
To begin with, there are so many schools and branches of Buddhism, such as Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Zen, Pure Land, and more. In addition to these, we have what is commonly referred to as Modern Western Buddhism. With this most modern iteration being one that is predominately taught by laypeople rather than monastics. Which in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Heck, if we think about it logically, the Buddha was a layperson before he became awakened!
So how does anyone choose? Is a Monk (Bhikkhu) or Nun (Bhikkhuni) a good teacher, or is a layperson perhaps a better choice for most Americans?
I think that one important watch out is that getting attached to the wrong teacher can actually turn out to be more harmful than helpful. There needs to be a certain amount of skillful discernment that takes place before any of us put our confidence in any teacher, monastic or laity. Which begs the question of how we can know which choice of a good teacher will be beneficial and which may not, without some leap of faith so to speak.
Over my many years of practice I have heard hundreds of people say that we should find something or someone that “resonates” with us. But personally I find that to be somewhat of a fluffy word. What does resonate truly mean? With Buddhism being a fact based practice, any resonating that happens is purely feelings and perceptions. And the Buddhist practice is founded in the elimination of such sensory illusions. In addition, it is often the most dynamic people who are the most attractive to many of us. Their charisma is easy to be caught-up in, and often promises of happiness, success and peace are so too juicy to pass up. Yet I can see that these individuals would not be successful if it was not worthwhile to thousands of people. So I suppose that the first question you must ask yourself is, what do you want from Buddhism? If your goal is to just live a happier and more contented life, then I would suggest starting with a teacher who embodies those qualities.
But on the other hand, if your aim is to understand this life with all of the suffering and dissatisfaction that we are born into, I suggest you look elsewhere. What you are looking for is a dhamma teacher. And this may well be someone who disturbs you initially because they cause you to see things that you were not ready to look at. Things like your ego, greed, attachments, and desires.
The true nature of this practice is not a feel good and be happy path. Which is made abundantly clear when Buddha states the First Noble Truth as “there is suffering”. And while the Buddha continues to say that there is a cause to suffering, a path out of suffering, and an end to suffering, we must first fully understand that suffering exists.
Returning to the original question of how to pick a good teacher, I offer these loving suggestions.
First of all, take your time. Talk to many different people, both monastic and lay. Go to the library or bookstore and peruse dozens of books until you find one that seems clear and understandable to you. And lastly, do not be in any hurry to find a teacher. Know that the seed of enlightenment is already planted inside of you. This is the candle which has been lit already by your interest in this path and brought you to this very point in your life. Within you is everything that you need in terms of loving kindness, goodwill, compassion and virtue. Be immensely grateful for what you have already discovered, and continue your path lovingly. One breath at a time.
since he is revealing a hidden treasure. For all those
following such wise one, it all grows better not worse.
~ Dhammapada Verse 76