Guide to searching for a Buddhist Teacher

If there is one thing I learned from being a Buddhist in the Great Plains, it is the importance of finding the right teacher and the importance of being able to hold an even keel and keeping the wind in my sail while aboard this prairie schooner.  As easy as slipping into a glove, a practitioner can fall into the habit of attaching their practice completely to a teacher or group.  Almost as easy, a practitioner can fall into the opposite extreme and insist that they are (or would) only hampered or contrained by a teacher.  A proper guide can bring form, routine, guidance and challenge to a practice that may never be there without one.  At the same time a teacher can limit you through these same devises when applied in a dogmatic or careless way.  It is thus up to you (or me) to find the best guide and still to steer across this ocean of grasses and sage while searching.

Through twitter, blogs and email correspondance I have attempted to engage as many teachers as possible as the standard face-to-face is difficult when there are none nearby.  Teachers have to understand my personal limitations:  cost and location.  I, in return, attempt to understand their own limitations and reservations in taking a student that they may never even meet face-to-face. This makes my little quest difficult but not nearly impossible.  Several teachers have made it a goal to come out to these areas to teach and my own grassroots sangha has sesshins run by Roshi Gerri Shishin Wicke from the Great Mountain Zen Center in Colorado and I am very greatful to @ponlop and @tsemtulku for having such a positive but engaging and challenging presence on twitter.

This quest continues to be an interesting one.  Some teachers have even blocked me, cursed at me or simply never got back to emails.  One outright asked for money upfront and others have kindly suggested I look closer to home for a guide or if my practice was really progressing, I would be able to make the attempts to travel.  Given the choice between a retreat and making my mortgage, my mortgage wins every time…hands down.  We need to face inward as well as outward and as a lay-person I need to look towards the benefit of my family first while enroute to benefitting all beings.  Best to focus on compassion, selflessness and wisdom while this wheel keeps turning.

Either way, the process has been an engaging one for me.  I have learned quite a few things in my search and made several mistakes.  I have been fooled by hucksters and have met some valuable fellow practitioners along the way. 

So here is my list of guiding principles to finding a Buddhist teacher. (to find some tips on finding a zen/dharma center…check this older post of mine.)

  1. First and foremost.  Engage.  Send emails, talk on twitter or comment on blogs.  Ask for recommendations from those that you respect.  Many are available but remember that teachers know their strengths and limitations and any worth their salt attempt to help within those frameworks.  I have heard many a “No” on the annoying but understandable constaint that they may never meet me in the flesh.
  2. Beware of bullshit sectarianism.  We are in the middle of a fairly large mixing bowl and there are several different traditions out there.  Some of these traditions are quite divisive and almost evangelical in nature and habit.  While my foundation is in the Zen tradition, I see more benefit in understanding and engaging in other tradtions rather than insisting that mine is better (more skillful, less deluded, “True” etc).  To my great surprise some of the those that see themselves as “non-sectarian” are actually the most divisive. Go figure!  At the same time understand that fitting a Zen hand into a Vajrayana glove or Theravadan mitten is not always possible.  If the glove don’t fit…
  3. A good teacher will teach to the students need.  That may be by providing a more secular or non-traditional presentation of the Dharma.  This is nothing new to this country.  The first Japanese Buddhist Missionaries recognized this and presented the Dharma in a fashion that was more applicable to a culture that had very little experience in Buddhism.  At the same time, this needs to be coupled with the first point, non-sectarianism, and we need to look out for those that take a presentation of the teaching for the “True” teaching.  Also remember that form is not necessarily bad (in fact quite good) but attaching to it is a different manner.
  4. Be wary of charisma and salesmen.  Choosing a teacher is based upon our own innate skepticism and natural reason.  There are many out there.  I don’t want to focus on the Great promises, I just want you to deliver on the small.  If you feel all warm and fuzzy from a teacher, ask yourself why.  That same warm blanket can be used to smother you later.  Excercise your own judgment.  The Buddha went through a few teachers during his quest…
  5. No person is above a basic ethical code of conduct.  If you don’t like the way they act or actions that they take then you need to walk away.  At the same time be wary of dismissing teachers because of an event that happened in the past.  Richard Baker Roshi seems to be a good example of this.  While involved with a scandal at the San Fransisco Zen Center 25 years ago;  he addressed it openly and has been teaching ever since.  If you are going to discard someone for a mistake then your search is gonna be hard.  At the same time look for patterns of abuse and behavior.  When you see a consistent pattern of unethical behavior walk with care.
  6. People use their own cultural evolution to manifest the Dharma.  This leads to a large amount of variety.  Best to learn first about a practice and ask rather than assume.  In addressing a sitting group at my college that was all Asian, I asked if I could join and if there was an english translation…there was not.  This group was serving as primarily a net of cultural security for many of the Asian students at the college with some Dharma intermixed.  I understood that and found a sitting group that was more inclusive.  When asked if I was angry about this, I just thought about how difficult it would be for me in the same situation.   Bottom line?  Don’t be too quick to call bullshit on something before you gain some insight…then you can call bullshit in necessary. 
  7. There is a level of maturity that needs to be expressed in a teacher.  That maturity will manifest itself in your interactions with the teacher and will be expressed through compassion, generosity and wisdom.   If you don’t see that emotional maturity (this is not something associated with age BTW) then walk away.  Maturity in an organization is also helpful.  Ask for the ethical guidelines of teachers.  For me this indicates that the governance of the organization is looking for the safety of students.  Spiritual searching opens one up and allows a certain amount of vulnerability.  Is anyone watching for abuse? 
  8. Authenticity.  If a teacher is asking you to become a disciple or lay-follower then they should be transparent about their lineage or lack of it.  If you hear “I was instructed by many lamas and roshis but due to the controversial nature of my teachings they asked to remain anonymous” then WALK AWAY.  By no means does Dharma transmission make or break a teacher but hiding a lack of it does.  One of my favorite guides is a lay-practitioner, and he does not pretend to be more than that but his wisdom shines through.
  9. A teacher needs a student as much as a student needs a teacher.  This may be my Zen leaning shining through but a good teacher puts themselves in the roll of student and allows the student to instruct.  But also these roles require a certain amount of maturity, transparency and openness.
  10. As corny as it sounds, everyone is a teacher.  Be aware of those around you that teach you and allow you opportunity to express your own practice.


According to an email I received the picture depicts Sante Poromaa and Bodhin Kjolhede, dharma heirs of Philip Kapleau


9 thoughts on “Guide to searching for a Buddhist Teacher

  1. Thanks for this. For many years I sat with a sangha that followed TNH exclusively. It relied on one of his lay dharma teachers for instruction and no other traditions or teachers were ever included. At one point an attempt to bring in a different dharma teacher created conflict and turf wars. It wasn’t pretty. After leaving this sangha I have discovered how much I have missed and how limited my practice had become. I look at the sangha now and despite its rapid growth in membership, it feels claustrophobic to me. Now I’m busy trying to make up for lost time and am relearning Buddhism from as many viewpoints and traditions as I can. Still, I have noticed my practice becoming unfocused and I have been floundering recently. I think you are right about the importance of finding the right teacher to steady things a little. I’m looking for a teacher in my area, but slowly and carefully.

  2. My small zazen sitting group is mostly Zennies but we also have a few Theravadan and Vajrayana practitioners that sit with us as we are the only game in town. Recently we became affiliated with a larger Zen Center (Soto/Rinzai fusion) and while our Sunday services is very similar to the larger group we have a “lay” meeting on tuesdays where we obviously do zazen but then spend the rest of the time engaging in a practice that someone brings in (we did some TNH stuff) and some more Tibetan style meditation etc.At least we used to do it that way. With a toddler and a preggers wife, I rarely get to sit with a group these days.

  3. Thanks for this post, Jack Daw. I learned to meditate with the FWBO. But I still find a lot of inspiration in Christian texts and many other traditions. I think my main teachers are people I have only met through their books. I am very much a jackdaw – picking up what I find inspiring from whatever source.

  4. Thanks Mark, I jokingly say that I am a crow picking at Buddha’s bones. I suppose I need to store it somewhere. What is your opinion of the FWBO? I have been wanting to get some people’s opinion as they are very large in UK but less well-known in the States.

  5. Well, there are some lovely people in the FWBO. Lots of controversy around Sangharakshita, but I’ve never met him. I found them a bit anti-relationship (the men’s order came across as a bit anti-women at times). I am a straight guy who aspires to being a feminist (John Stoltenberg is one of my heroes). Also I found they were quite anti-Christianity. I never really felt totally comfortable somehow. I learned a lot from some of the order members though.

  6. John,Very nice blog post, but I feel that you may have omitted one thing, either intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes our teacher may find us or at least that was my personal experience. I was out and about, in the practice of my life and one day, knock, knock and then a “who’s there,” appeared. At the time, I had no understanding or foresight that it would turn into a teacher student relationship, yet that’s precisely the way that it unfolded for me and Genjo Osho. For me, a critical aspect it to be open enough that when the knock is made, my heart, mind and ears are open enough to recognize it. My every day, distracted, planning, expecting mind can be so self-involved that the voice of my life can easily be eclipsed. Let the prairie wide bring you home, as much as you may be and feel that you are the captain of your schooner. War Smiles – every Day,~Seiho

  7. @mattedia We are in similar boats. I still employ many resources that you list but am lucky enough to have found a small sangha. However, no teacher just yet. I do find it funny that perspective plays such a huge part here. Were I in Colorado Springs, I would be able to attend our affiliating zendo (Great Mountain Zen Center) more often as it is a 6 hour plus trip.Cheers and thanks for reading and commenting.John

  8. It’s oddly reassuring to read that others sometimes have a difficult time finding a teacher and a Sangha. I have been practicing for over five years and although I have been attending the same Sangha in NYC, I still don’t feel connected to a teacher. I suppose I’m not ready to learn even after all the books I have read and the daily practice for years. I’m a bit discouraged. I tried one other center years ago but didn’t like it. I should try more centers but when I only see men teaching I look elsewhere. Problem is, not too many elsewheres even in this metropolis.

  9. @blissedbitch It is reassuring isn’t it, to see others having the same difficulty. Like we are all in the same boat. I tend to think “If I were back on the east coast, I wouldn’t have this problem” but perhaps the problem is not with location after all…I can see the lack of female teachers to be trying but plenty of them blogging out there. If you are into Zen then really I would suggest trying to contact the Great Vow Zen Center…while a distance away Jan Chozen Bays is an awesome teacher and while I never reached out to her maybe it would be worth your effort to engage.Good luck!

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