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The Spiritual Teacher

The meaning and role of a spiritual teacher (guru in Sanskrit, lama in Tibetan) is less well known in Western cultures. Some people think that with a spiritual teacher you have to be gullible and follow everything blindly, like in a sect, but that is not the case in Buddhism at all. Believing blindly and not taking personal responsibility are taboos that every practitioner should guard against.

Why a spiritual teacher?

If you see Buddhism only as an intellectual study like geography or history, you don't really need a guru. You can then study with 'normal' teachers or professors to gain factual knowledge as a school study. But if you really want to embark on the spiritual path and hope to realize the teachings of the Buddha himself, then a good teacher is indispensable.

When you want to climb snowy peaks on your own, without any experience, you are asking for trouble, even if you have a book and a map with you. The spiritual friend is needed (just like an experienced mountaineer) in order not to get lost and to avoid dangerous situations. You're following a path with someone who knows how to get where you want to go. They've been to where you desire to travel and are like a boat that can safely take you across the ocean of existence.

It is essential to understand that a guru can help you develop your own wisdom, because ultimately, we are meant to achieve our own enlightenment and even Buddhahood.

How do you choose a spiritual teacher?

"A guru is one who can show you the true nature of your mind, and who knows the right remedies for your mental problems. One who does not know his/her own mind can never know the minds of others, and thus cannot be a guru."
Llama Yeshe

A spiritual teacher can influence and determine a large part of your life path. Therefore, before entering into a personal relationship as a student with a spiritual teacher, it is essential to take the responsibility of checking him or her out thoroughly. Especially in the world of religion and spirituality there are quite a few charlatans around, and it is always difficult to find out what the true motivation is of someone, especially a charlatan. Someone may be very friendly and tell you all kinds of new things, but so do good salespeople...

Some things to keep in mind when choosing a guru:

  • Qualification: how long has he/she been a Buddhist, how long has he/she studied and meditated, and under which teachers?
  • Behavior: Is the behavior ethical, patient and motivated by compassion?
  • Opinion of others: what do others say about this teacher? Note: Followers can also love charlatans, so find out if there are any controversies with the teacher or the organization.
  • Knowledge and wisdom: does the teacher seem to have a lot of knowledge and real wisdom, especially about emptiness and selflessness?

Characteristics of a student

Just as a spiritual teacher must have certain qualities, it is important to understand that a student must also meet a number of conditions for a successful relationship.

A good student tries to avoid the three bad attitudes:

  • like an upside-down barrel: refusing to learn and stubborn
  • like a leaking barrel: forget everything and have no interest
  • like a dirty vessel: to be very prejudiced and think to know everything better than the teacher

Also, a student should try to be the following:

  • 'open-minded', without much bias
  • intelligent and critical: being able to understand different topics and not believing everything blindly
  • have ambition: to want to practice and to want results in one's own mind, not just scholastic study

"While respect and openness to the guru are important for your growth, blind devotion fixes you only on the teacher's personality. You can then easily be limited by the teacher's personality, instead of being liberated by the teachings."
From 'Opening the heart of compassion' by Lowenthal and Short.

See next page: Main Traditions - Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana