Ten Qualities of a Suitable Teacher

Ten Qualities of a Suitable Teacher

by Jeffrey Brooks

At a public talk a Chinese woman asked the Dalai Lama about a matter that was very troubling to her.

She told him about some men traveling in China, dressed in the saffron and maroon robes of Tibetan Buddhist monks. These men called themselves “Dharma Rajas” or “Kings of Buddhist Teachings” and attracted many followers in China.

But, this woman said, these men were only interested in getting money from their followers and having sex with the female disciples.

The Dalai Lama had been speaking to his Chinese audience about practicing Buddhism today. He said that today people give great care to their bodies – meaning they seek comforts and pleasures and are very interested in clothing and appearance – but they treat the Buddha’s teaching as “something lower than the bones left over from their meals that they would feed to a dog.”

He does not speak this way to western audiences. But to Asian Buddhists, who have longer experience with Buddhism, he is frank.

The Chinese woman asked the Dalai Lama, “What can we do about corrupt phonies like this, who go around disgracing the Buddha’s teaching, and abusing the sincere people who come to them for help and understanding?”

The Dalai Lama was very direct in his response. He told her these followers have no one to blame but themselves. According to Buddhist teachings, he explained, it is essential for each of us who seek out a teacher to examine the teacher’s character and ability scrupulously for as long at it takes to determine, confidently, for ourselves, that this teacher is capable and good.

This is a very different response than she was expecting. She seemed to expect the Dalai Lama to swoop down on the phonies with his dharma squad, discredit them and announce forcefully that people should not study with them or follow them.

Instead he said it is up to each of us. We need to take responsibility for ourselves and our training.

This kind of careful evaluation of a prospective teacher is the opposite of what too often happens when people seek out training in martial arts and in Buddhism. It is normal for people find their way to a dojo or a dharma center hopefully but casually, by accident or by advertising, and, taking for granted that it’s all about the same, get seduced by a sales pitch.  Then, after putting a little time and money into the relationship, declare their teacher the greatest teacher and their style the greatest style and thus validate their path and privilege their judgment over all others.

This is commonplace, it is naive and it is corrupt.

It is common to all religions. It causes unhappiness, limits people’s intelligence, reduces their freedom, and it often leads to friction and even violence on the way to decline.

In the “Mitra Varga” or “Verses about Friends” it says

People degenerate by relying on those inferior to themselves

By relying on equals, they stay the same

By relying on those superior, they attain excellence

Thus rely on those who are superior to yourself.

If you rely on whoever is superior – thoroughly

And endowed with ethical wisdom

And exceeding wisdom

You will become superior even to those who are superior.

In the “Sutra Lamkara” it says

Rely on a teacher of Buddhism who is disciplined, serene, thoroughly pacified;

Has good qualities surpassing those of the students;

Is energetic;

Has a wealth of scriptural knowledge;

Possessing loving concern;

Has thorough knowledge of reality and skill in instructing disciples,

And has abandoned dispiritedness

We can understand through Buddhism that if we are deceived by a teacher it is a result of our own karma. That does not absolve the corrupt and abusive teachers or political leaders or radicals from the evil they do. But it does tell us that the responsibility is ours to choose well and to deal with the consequences if we don’t.

According to Buddhist teaching we now live in the age of decline. We live in the time when, 2,500 years after the historical Buddha came into the world, people no longer are able follow the Buddha’s teachings. Even though the teachings themselves are present in books and are as valid as they ever were, the cultural conditions have declined to the point where, according to sutra, political leaders no longer support morality, people are primarily concerned with sex and money, minds are disturbed and bodies are sick.

During this age of decline, according to sutra, there are countless Bodhisattvas, great spiritual practitioners, at large in the universe, who keep the teachings alive by manifesting the teachings, by living out the profound wisdom and kindness in them, who maintain a karmic connection with the Buddhas past and future, and work tirelessly to return to the world and by sharing the dharma, save beings from suffering.

In an age when it is not unusual to encounter people who believe that most of the world is your enemy, that happiness will come from sex and money, that whoever dies with the most stuff wins, that we should kill people to express our grievances, that lying is to be expected, that we should brutalize and enslave people who criticize us, that we should hide when frightened and placate our oppressors, it is difficult to practice well.

But despite all the imperfections of our age and the limits of our own lives, we do have some freedom even now. A few blessings, a clear mind, a healthy body, friends around us. A few moments of peace in the morning and evening for practice. The energy to do some good for someone every day.

One of these blessings is that we get to hear this: the Great Bodhisattvas are everywhere. Around us and within us. They will appear to us to guide us immediately, in infinite ways, as soon as we want them.

And that we can join with them right now.

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