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Are you My Teacher? One Seeker's Quest to Deepen Her Practice, Part 4


How do you know who is 'fit to teach'? Digging deeper into the question of (Buddhist) authority and knowledge.

"I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework" -- Lily Tomlin

In each of our life histories, there are stories about teachers -- good ones, great ones, mediocre ones, and truly horrible ones. Thankfully, I've been spared the rod, but many of my friends who attended Catholic school were not-- and they can vividly attest to to indelible mark left on them by Sister So-and-so and her iron fist (or eraser). These stories remind us that the teacher/student relationship has the potential to be both sublime and insufferable, but a lot of what passes for 'teaching' is somewhere in between. And to me, it all comes down to a question of authority. Who knows enough to teach, who has the sort of relationship to the knowledge acquisition process that makes one suited to invite another person into it, and how does the delicate dance of learning and teaching work, anyway?

In Buddhism, perhaps more so than any of the other major faith traditions, there are innumerable ways to identify a teacher: By her or his name/title, her or his standing in the community, and even by the color and cut of robes worn. For each one of the major lineages, there are literally dozens of schools and sects, and a dizzying array of indicators of one's 'knowledge chops.' For example, in the Tibetan School, there are names given for different levels of awareness reached, and different names indicating association with the person (and school) from whom you obtained Dharma transmission. In Zen Buddhism, a Roshi is an elder, a person who has completed years of training, and is typically accompanied by demonstrated grasp of a certain number and complexity of Koans. There are other titles, like Sensei, Osho, and Zen Master, to denote particular levels of 'ascension' up the knowledge tree. Other lineages likewise have different honorific titles and different ways of achieving them.

Ideally, these 'anointments' have the kind of integrity that helps new students to feel safe as they progress along a journey of knowledge of their own. These are wise ones; their titles and the respect accorded to them are indicators of personal sacrifice and a commitment to advancing the knowledge of all, and are not meant to cow newer students into submission or a sense of inferiority. Of course, this is an idea, rather than a reality. As I discussed in a previous installation of this series, teacher authority can be a powerful intoxicant, and can lead to all sorts of betrayals of student faith and vulnerability. Nonetheless, the teacher-appointment 'system' (or rather, the panoply of complex ways that individuals become part of a Buddhist teacher hierarchy) have been functioning fruitfully since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, enabling literally millions of seekers like me (and maybe like you, too) to gain insight in a deeper way. Their authority is not an achievement, but a guide.

In the tradition that I call my own, Vipassana (also known as Insight Meditation), there is not nearly as well-developed a system for becoming a teacher, nor is it necessarily easy to identify a teacher that is both prepared and open to taking students. I learned this the hard way by innocently asking longtime students I met at my Sangha if they were teachers and thus could teach me; one burst into laughter and said, "if this Sangha has made me a teacher, it is in real fucking trouble." The lack of honorific titles and other trappings of hierarchy was something that made its founder, S.N. Goenka, incredibly proud-- he was aiming to make Buddhism more and more accessible all the time, and today most centers that focus on sharing the benefits of Vipassana are not only 'head honcho title free,' they are literally free. Free, as in, you don't need money to visit and benefit from the gifts therein. But along with that resistance to the trappings of formality comes a bit of a haze around who is actually able to pass down the teachings, and who is able to do so in a way that is both confident and reverent.

I confess that the part of me that is a little bit of a socialist really resonates with the lack of titles, genuflection, and fancy robes in Vipassana. The part of me that is a little bit of an intellectual snob-- I am, after all, a college professor, which means I have invested most of my life in going to school -- wishes I could better understand the 'creds' of the folks who teach at my Sangha, so I'd also feel more certain who to ask to guide me, and know what I could expect in terms of their intentions for doing so.

Without these trappings, I look for ways of figuring out who is best suited to help me learn more, to enter into a teaching relationship in a real and beneficial way. I don't need to see the diploma, but I do need a roadmap to avoid assuming that 'long time practitioner' means 'ready and willing to teach. To that end, advice is welcome.

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Hello. Have you talked to people who have teachers and gotten their input? I'd like to hear about that.


You might have written about this already, but it is possible (and easy in NYC) to develop relationships with numerous teachers without taking them on as a guru. Finding a guru and committing are much trickier. What about this teacher/guru distinction? As a Vipassana person, you might not want a guru. Are you thinking about leaving Insight Meditation behind and joining up with a more guru-centric tradition?





Great Post

Great question Susanna -- it's one that I've been trying to tackle from a slightly different angle for the past two years.

I think that there are positives and negatives to both having the "titles and structure" and also not.

With the titles and structures also comes a superficial label, in which, unknowing or newer practitioners can place too much trust, thereby externalizing authority and cutting themselves off from the intimacy that seems to be required on the path.

Not having titles rests discretion right back upon the student to keep asking "am I sure?.." and helps cultivate curiosity.

On the other hand, having clear distinctions in social organizations, like a teaching/learning community, is helpful in the same way that good architecture helps to create clarity and focus in a physical environment.  

I don't really know the answer to my teacher or lineage journey yet, but "not knowing" has certainly created a great sense of personal inquiry, which I might not have cultivated were the direction so clear from the start.


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