Recently a student on one of my retreats wrote and asked, “Do you need a teacher to follow a spiritual path?” We had watched a film on the life of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche that was followed by a lively dialogue.
[Some people on the retreat] seemed to feel that we don’t need guides/gurus/teachers…that the whole idea was to find out everything for yourself. I didn’t then have a way of articulating concisely yet comprehensively my idea that we each very much needed a teacher – often teachers – to nudge us in the right direction. Traditionally, no skill or knowledge or life-path was attained without a teacher. And I do believe there is a universal reason for that.
During that retreat, we spent the weekend learning contemplative practices to help us access a direct connection to our inner wisdom. This approach requires no intermediary.
But, in some instances, especially in the Vajrayana path of Buddhism, a teacher is absolutely essential to follow the path to enlightenment.
So in a sense, both are true:
1. We have all the answers inside, and
2. We may need the help of someone who has already realised this to help us see it in ourselves.
There are dangers to both sides.
Those who think they don’t need a teacher may end up with an inflated ego and get very lost. And those who think they can only get what they need through a teacher may end up putting the teacher on a pedestal and following blindly, without ever really looking inside.
Here are a few guidelines to consider when approaching a teacher to guide you on a path to wisdom.
A teacher provides instruction and guidance.
From a practical perspective, there are skills, practices and techniques to learn. If you are going to follow a path to wisdom, whether it is yoga, meditation, mind-training or esoteric visualisations, you need to know what to do. You need the instructions to follow practice techniques.
It helps to learn wisdom from those who have gone before you. Having a teacher to inspire and guide you along the path can save you a lot of trouble and time, and help you avoid pitfalls. It helps to have support and encouragement – a witness to your journey who has been there before you. The path can be lonely and confusing, and a wise guide can help alleviate fears and confusion. While sangha and like-minded community can also provide some of this, a qualified teacher offers assurance you are on the right path and will mirror back to you when you stray from the path.
Continuing the lineage
Some practices in the Tibetan tradition require a teacher to give permission—or transmission– to begin the practice. There’s an exchange that happens between teacher and student—sort of like lighting a candle from someone else’s flame. It has to start somewhere; you can’t just magically poof your own fire at the beginning. There is an aura surrounding a teacher who has been down the path and experienced profound insights.
In my experience, what happens around an authentic guru is that the mind tunes in on a much more subtle level than usual. Normal everyday awareness is selective; much passes below the radar. An authentic teacher shows the illusory nature of the hopes and dreams that make up the landscape of our reality and helps us tune into signs that come from the phenomenal world. Progressing on the spiritual path is not about getting what you want: the guru is not interested in helping you to fulfil your worldly goals. S/He will steer you towards the lessons that you need most in order to purify the obscurations that hide the brilliance of mind. Then maybe your worldly goals will be fulfilled, but this is not the main point. This is all really hard to do without a teacher.
It is worth noting the difference between a teacher and a guru. Guru literally means “heavy,” like s/he has got the goods. It indicates someone who has not only experience of walking the path, but also realization of the nature of mind. It is possible to learn from teachers who may not yet be fully realized, but only a guru can take you the whole way. If s/he ain’t heavy, s/he’s your teacher.
You already have all the answers.
You have direct access to inner – or universal – wisdom. You just need to learn to listen to yourself.
BUT, it’s this “you” that needs to be identified. This requires looking. It’s not small you that has all the answers – intellectual knowledge will not take you all the way to wisdom. It’s a matter of expanding the idea of who you are to include the entire universe. Try wrapping your mind around that one!
Most of us have blocked our inner wisdom from disuse. We need to clear away whatever obscures this wisdom and reconnect with it. This is why we practice. A good teacher is like therapist trying to talk herself out of a job—shows you the edges of what this means so you can have your own experience of it.
It’s about relationship.
Ultimately, it’s about the quality of the relationship with the teacher– we need to learn to be good students. If we put the teacher on a pedestal, we reduce ourselves to unworthy servants of this great being. I don’t think this is the right attitude. Yes, it’s important to respect the teacher and recognise the qualities s/he has, but we also have the seeds of these same qualities. This is the whole reason to be around an authentic teacher – to recognise that we have that same potential in ourselves, and to experience what happens once the seeds have grown into full flower through seeing it in another being.
I hear Dharma students in the west sometimes complain that it is too difficult to meet an authentic teacher. And if you don’t make the effort to go find them, this is true. But having spent nearly two decades traveling around South Asia to study with my various teachers, I can tell you from experience that if you want to meet authentic teachers, you can. But you have to make the effort. This is the point of pilgrimage. Naropa, the 11th century Indian saint, spent 12 years following his teacher Tilopa, waiting for him to give him teachings. When you make the effort to seek wisdom teachings, the teacher will arise to meet you. It’s often said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.
First, be a disciple
This is where the word discipline comes from. Isn’t it interesting that we tend to think of discipline as a harsh punishment for some infraction or disobedience, whereas a disciple was a follower of a teacher of wisdom. Discipline understood in that context might mean something like, “training with the teacher.” Or perhaps, training the mind.
In the west we have had many scandals in recent years involving teachers who abused their position and created chaos within their community. It is normal that we should be a bit wary of jumping in to a teacher-student relationship. The Guru-Disciple relationship is not a traditional part of western culture. This is why it is so important to be careful who you study with. If the teacher is unauthentic or confused, then you might end up confused too
So this question of how to relate to the teacher is quite important. Westerners might rely on the familiar judeo-christian framework and consider the teacher-student relationship as just an earthly manifestation of a god-mortal relationship. And IMHO, that doesn’t really serve anyone. There have to keep our intelligence and discriminating awareness intact even as we put our faith in another to guide us.
So do you need a teacher to follow a spiritual path?
Ultimately an authentic teacher will teach you to develop this guru-disciple relationship with yourself.
The short answer is that the teacher is inside you. But you have to listen to the right voice. It is possible to mistake confusion as your wisdom voice.
“Each person must find his or her own path. Nonetheless, seek guidance from wise and compassionate people and listen to them earnestly. This will help you find the best way to proceed – now and in the future.”
– His Holiness 17th Karmapa
At a certain point the practice itself becomes the teacher. This does not mean that we disregard the external teacher. Just as we trust our teacher, we must trust our inner guide. Listen to your heart, which is the inner guru. The outer teacher shows you this.