Finding The Right Teacher, Finding the Right Practice

Lama Yeshe and Jan Willis, 1974

Wesleyan University Professor Jan Willis tells a beautiful story [1] about finding her teacher, Lama Yeshe. The first time she heard his name mentioned:

“I began to experience a strange, though pleasant, sensation.  It was unlike any sensation I had ever experienced before: a sort of warm tingling feeling that began at the nape of my neck and then radiated downward and outward to encircle my whole body.  Then, as though I had suddenly stepped into an invisible field of static electricity, I noticed that the hairs on my skin stood up erect.”

Before meeting her future teacher, Willis had a near death experience in a terrible automobile accident while hitchhiking from Paris to Lyon. After Willis’s first meeting with Lama Yeshe in Nepal, his parting words were:

“Lama is so happy you… have come, especially after… you know… that bad thing in France.”

She had never discussed her accident or traveling in Europe with him.  How could he have possibly known?

Their’s was a magical connection from the very first.

If you have a story like that to tell, then you too have met your teacher.

If you don’t have a story like that, how do you find your teacher?  How do you discover which tradition to practice with?  One of the Tibetan schools?  Zen?  Pure Land?  Theravada?

There are so many choices — 84,000 Dharma doors.

For most of us, our journey begins from the time we first learned about the Dharma.  It seems pure happenstance, how and when we first learn of something.  Of course, some would say it’s no accident — that our opportunities to learn the Dharma are a function of our karma.

I’ve written before about my first exposure to Zen at a series of Alan Watts lectures at my college.  Those lectures kindled my interest in Buddhism, but didn’t lead to my finding a teacher.  At least, not immediately.  Think of it as a seed that had been planted, but the conditions were not yet ripe for it to come to fruition. Some of my contemporaries did find teachers.  One friend went to Rochester and became a Zen priest under the guidance of Philip Kapleau Roshi.  I, on the other hand, had just graduated college, was looking for work, was thinking about a career, was getting married.  Running off to Rochester – never mind Katmandu!  — was not in my plans.

My introduction to practice came years later when Ferris Urbanowski, one of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR teachers, came to Connecticut to give a talk.  I’d seen Jon’s work on a PBS Bill Moyer’s series called The Healing of the Mind and was immediately hooked.  Watching the filmed images of Jon teaching meditation to chronic pain patients awakened the seed planted years earlier by Alan Watts.  As a psychologist, I’d treated chronic pain patients with biofeedback and hypnosis with limited success.  I was intrigued by the possibility of using meditation to ease their suffering.  When I attended Ferris’s workshop, I thought I was acquiring a skill to help my patients.  Instead, as I meditated for the first time under her guidance, I discovered something of vital importance for myself.  At the end of the workshop I asked Ferris if I could train at the Center for Mindfulness.  She told me I’d first need to cultivate my own meditation practice and then complete at least one ten-day retreat before applying.  I began sitting daily, did my first ten-day retreat at IMS with Ruth Denison, and did my internship at the Center for Mindfulness.  I was off and running.

Ferris, Jon and Ruth were fabulous first teachers, but neither Ferris nor Jon billed themselves as Buddhist teachers, and Ruth, who was authorized to teach, was on the other side of the continent.  I began searching for local teachers I could learn more from.  I attended the Buddhism in America conference in Boston in 1997 where I heard Dharma talks from a variety of teachers from different traditions.  Two of them “clicked” for me: Larry Rosenberg and Toni Packer.  I then went on a number of retreats with both of them and am deeply grateful for what I learned.

What made Larry and Toni “right” for me?  For one thing, they didn’t have inflated egos.  They didn’t call themselves “Enlightened.”  They didn’t surround themselves with  admirers.  They didn’t project themselves as charismatic leaders.  They didn’t ask for submission, obedience, agreement, or belief.

The first thing I felt with both of them was “safe.”  I didn’t have to surrender my intelligence or my independence.  For better or worse, that’s what I needed.  You might argue that I overvalue intellect and independence — that these are attachments I need to work on — but I could never have gotten started by surrendering them.

Another thing that attracted me to Toni and Larry is that they didn’t push aspects of the teachings that would have been too much of a stretch for my analytical-empirical mind.  I could explore everything Toni and Larry talked about on my own to see if it was true for me.  Teachers who might have stressed rebirth, celestial beings, special powers, etc. would have lost me at “hello.”

Finally, as I spent more time observing Larry and Toni I could see that they were trustworthy and that they embodied the Dharma in their own lives.  Who they were was consistent with how they presented themselves and what they were teaching.

To summarize, I started with them because they were 1) nearby, 2) non-threatening, 3) trustworthy, and 4) allowed me to absorb the Dharma with my analytical-empirical approach to things 5) without surrendering my independence.  That’s what I needed to start out.  As I’ve continued my journey I’ve met many wonderful teachers.  It may be that as I go on in the Dharma I may need teachers who offer something different — something more challenging — something less compatible with my natural approach to the world and my view of myself.  We’ll see.

Over the years I’ve been exposed to a variety of traditions.  I started out in the Insight Meditation tradition, which has sometimes been described as Theravada practice with a Mahayana frame. I’ve practiced with non-teacher Toni Packer in her non-tradition.  I’ve received pointing-out instructions for Dzogchen practice from a Tibetan lama.  I currently practice with Zen’s White Plum Asanga tradition.  All of these traditions stress the cultivation of awareness.

What brought me to my current practice community?  It’s nearby.  I like the leadership and the teachers.  I like the sangha members.  It stresses the practices, values and teachings that are important to me: awareness, compassion, and non-clinging.  There isn’t a lot of talk about reincarnation or celestial beings.  It’s a congenial practice home.

Is it the “right” place for me?  Is it the “best” practice for me?  Where is the all-knowing Celestial Judge who could possibly answer that question?  It’s the one my karma has led me to, and I’ll continue to follow it as long as it continues to be of benefit.  Or until my karma brings me to the teacher who makes my hair stand on end.

Here’s my advice on how to find a tradition and a teacher.  Try a few out.  See what’s a good fit — a place where you can practice with sincerity and without giving up what you value in yourself.  See if you seem to be benefiting.  See if the teacher is genuinely there to benefit others and isn’t simply on an ego-trip.  There isn’t one true school of Buddhism.  There are 84,000 Dharma doors.  You only need to find one that works for you.

When you find one that’s congenial, try sticking with it.  Don’t keep looking for the perfect place, the perfect practice — the one that will magically make you enlightened within a year.  The perfect place is wherever you happen to be.  The perfect practice is your own awareness here and now, and compassion for the people you encounter every day.

Thanks to Terry Sherwood for suggesting I write on this topic.

 

 

 

  1. [1] Willis, Jan (2001). Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman’s Spiritual Journey. Riverhead Books: New York.

24 Replies to “Finding The Right Teacher, Finding the Right Practice”

  1. In my experience, I’ve learned the most from those teachers who have cared enough to make me extremely uncomfortable – even to the point of leaving them.

    Of course, I have rarely had the wisdom to recognize the gift buried within that discomfort – at least, not at the time.

    1. Thanks, Barry, for a different perspective. I hope their intent was not to make you uncomfortable, but to help you to take a look at something you’d been neglecting or avoiding that was blocking your growth. My own belief is that it’s possible for a teacher to do that with kindness and without surplus discomfort! The operative word here is “surplus,” because there’s always some discomfort at looking at the stuff we don’t want to see!

      1. Perhaps I’m uniquely perverse (chances are!), but I like to think that even an intent to create discomfort has its place in teaching the dharma. This history of Zen is certainly filled with stories of teachers who made their students extremely uncomfortable (Mazu’s twisting of Baizhang’s nose was certainly intentional and apparently quite painful).

        From a dharmic perspective, perhaps any action that illuminates and awakens a student to Mind ultimately has a “kind” intent. (I’m always a little leery of the word “kind” since it’s so subject to self-centered views.)

        Thanks for this nice exchange. I appreciate your blog very much!

        Barry

        1. The Chan/Zen lore is riddled with stories of rough treatment by masters and gruesome sacrifices by students. If life in the zendo was like that now, I’d be knocking on another Dharma door. I worry that some teachers can find justification for acting out sadistic impulses or narcissistic dominance fantasies in this lore. I understand it’s possible to be “cruel to be kind,” but as a retired psychologist, I’m naturally suspicious of other’s motives. As a therapist I never found it necessary to be cruel as expedient means.

    2. I read this quote this morning:

      “Teaching which does not sound as if it is forcing something on you is not true teaching”
      Dogen ( quoted in “Zen Mind,Beginner’s Mind”, p. 103)

      So too perhaps with teachers?

      1. @ Terry,

        One could imagine this quote used by any cult.
        “Force” is not an ideal in my world by any stretch.
        Great heresy, could Dogen have been wrong?
        Cult or Teacher — “force” should not be in their portfolio.

  2. Seth, you have been to my site a few times but I don’t know if you read the comments of David Chapman. He belongs to a unique Vajrayana sect which he has written about. Here, he also wrestles with the idea of how to choose a teacher/religion. He uses the same phrase “Good Fit”, just like you have. Fit is important, but how do we find it? Mormons, Camping-ites, Snake-handling Baptists and others may use the same fuzzy, subjective feel good criteria. There seems no way around the subjectivity.

    Yet your list was a good starting point for many of us:
    — made me feel safe
    — did not need to surrender intelligence
    — did not need to surrender independence
    — time-tested trustworthiness

    And I loved your caveat:

    For better or worse, that’s what I needed. You might argue that I overvalue intellect and independence — that these are attachments I need to work on — but I could never have gotten started by surrendering them.

    So you tell us that it is tough to understand fit and to find a teacher but worth the search. But I was very surprised with the subjective criteria that began your post: miracle. You said that great Buddhist teachers can be psychics and include it as a test to find your personal teacher. You tell a miracle story of a Lama knowing something he shouldn’t have access to and say:

    If you have a story like that to tell, then you too have met your teacher.

    Groups which sell their teacher for his/her miracles is one I put a caution mark on. “Miracle” should be one of the last things on anyones list looking for a safe group or trustworthy teacher. IMHO.

    1. I wasn’t listing “miracle” as a criteria. I was just stating a fact: when a “miracle” occurs what can you do but accept it with grace? Lama Yeshe wasn’t selling miracles — he was miraculous for Jan. As it turns out, that decades long teacher-student relationship was as beautiful as any I’ve ever heard of. In the last months of his life, Yeshe came to Wesleyan University to study Western Philosophy with Jan. She’d spend hours with him each morning teaching him the Western canon. The teacher becomes student. What a final gift!

      I’ve never met a teacher who makes my hair stand up, but if I did, I’d welcome it.

  3. Seth, thanks for kindly sharing this informative and helpful perspective. Thanks to for the other perspectives in the comments.

    My views on the issues are evolving. About a month ago I posted this which may be of some interest: http://dhammanovice.tumblr.com/post/4804352369/the-truth-is-a-pathless-land

    In practice here in England there are few options because there are so few Buddhist groups and even fewer teachers but I am very grateful to be a member of some local Buddhist-oriented meditation groups and recently have started to explore Quaker meetings. Thinking of the Quaker approach of no ministers but direct linking to “God” raises the issue of whether or not one needs a teacher or on intermediary at all in order to access the ultimate teacher, The Buddha, or our innate Buddha-nature.

    With metta, Terry

    1. Thank you, Terry, for stimulating me to write this post! Enjoy your exploration of Quaker practice. Toni Packer was once accused of practicing “Quaker Zen.” I always thought of it as a compliment rather than a critique.

  4. Nice post, Seth. However, for once, I am in agreement with Sabio. The “miracle” story doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of your very rational approach. And I’m rather surprised that you write something like, “If you have a story like that to tell, then you too have met your teacher.” To me this just reinforces the kind of thinking that should be avoided.

    It’s a bit of a sore subject to me because I have seen firsthand how dangerous these miraculous teacher stories can be. I practiced with an organization that made all sorts of wild and ludicrous claims regarding our fearless leader/guru, and today, I find it painful to see so many people fooled by teachers who claim Arhatship and so on. The psychological damage inflicted by this kind of stuff is very real, and, in the end, when folks realize that their teacher is just a human being with faults, the disillusionment often results in the discontinuation of their Buddhist practice.

    Hope you don’t mind me throwing my two cents in.

    1. I think, David, that you may be projecting your own past bad experiences with SGI onto poor Lama Yeshe, who was, as I hear it, a very sweet, unassuming guy. He wasn’t making wild or exaggerated claims to Jan — Jan was just describing her own experience with him. I had the pleasure of auditing Jan’s course in Tibetan Buddhism at Wesleyan about ten years ago and got to hear more about Lama Yeshe than what’s in her biography. Jan’s a very down-to-earth and sensible person and I believe her description of their decades long relationship. She was very lucky to have the kind of a relationship with her teacher that she had. We should all be so lucky. Her book gives a fuller account of the story than I could squeeze into my little blog post and I’m afraid I’ve done the story an injustice by truncating it.

      None of this is to deny the truth you describe of the harm that charismatic teachers and cult-like organizations can cause. I agree with you whole-heartedly about that.

      As far as my “rational approach” is concerned, it’s very provisionally held. I don’t believe in things until I can see them for myself — but I’m open to all sorts of things if there’s evidence for them. Many people that I know and trust have personal stories of unusual events that go beyond what science believes is possible. Psychologist Charles Tart maintains a website (http://www.issc-taste.org/index.shtm) of scientists’s anomalous experiences which emphasizes that point. I haven’t had any such experiences myself, but I am open and waiting. It’s all provisional.

      1. @ David/b>,
        Ouch! “However, for once, I am in agreement with Sabio.”

        @ Seth,
        I was disappointed at your response to David — accusing him of projection.
        Kind of a generic defense you’d expect from a psychologist.
        David and I are saying the same thing.
        We are not attacking Lama Yeshe.
        We are not attacking Jan.
        We are not doubting a touching, deep, wonderful relationship between the two.
        We are not doubting the value of Lama Yeshe and Jan’s contribution to this planet.
        We are doubting that skilled meditators can do magic like read minds or know things from a distance.
        Simple as that.
        You then complicated it by saying,

        when a “miracle” occurs what can you do but accept it with grace?

        No, when a supposed miracle occurs (tears on Virgin Mary statue, healing at a prayer meeting, good weather on a wedding day), I think of natural explanations and have not one part of me that looks for magic.
        It is cool if you believe in miracles, looks of religious people do. That is the only thing we are addressing.
        I have books by Lama Yeshe that I value, btw!

        BTW: here is a link explaining your link on “Charles T. Tate“. I guess this shows your bent. Maybe you just haven’t written about this side of yourself.

        1. I guess, Sabio, I’m open to the question of whether some people can have access to knowledge at a distance. I have a number of close friends who knew instantaneously when relatives of theirs had died in far away places. (One of them had died in an automobile accident in Africa. When my friend called her family in Africa to check out her apprehension, no one was aware there was a problem until his body was discovered in a remote area several days later.) Similarly, Charles Tart tells a simply remarkable account (it’s on his website) of experiences he and a friend had at the moment the Symbionese Liberation Army was in the process of kidnapping Patty Hearst. When we find an answer to phenomena like these, we won’t need to invoke magic, but we will need a more advanced science than we have today. I’ve never personally had an experience of this nature, but I’m skeptical that skeptics have all the answers. Etzel Cardena, Stanley Krippner, and Steven J. Lynn edited a wonderful book in 2000 published by the American Psychological Association called “The Varieties of Anomalous Experience” that explored what we know and what we don’t know about such experiences. I think it’s helpful to keep an open mind (although, as I noted in my review of that book at the time, “not so open that your brain falls out”). Let’s just say that I think that there are some creditable accounts of anomalous experiences, and I’m respectful rather than dismissive of them.

  5. Great galloping garbanzo beans!! There must be some weird alignment of the planets to put Sabio and myself on the same page.

    @Seth

    I was not casting any aspersions upon Jan or Lama Yeshe or any experience anyone might have had with him. I have one of Lama Yeshe’s book which I thought was very good.

    I was reacting more I suppose to the way you described it. I am tempted to sat that perhaps it was an unfortunate choice of words, but I probably have no business doing so since you are a far better wordsmith than I will ever be.

    I am sure that Jan and Lama Yesh’s connection was magical. Yet, at the same time the story smacks of the same kind of thing I used to hear ad nauseam about Daisaku Ikeda, 99.9% of which were grossly inflated by people’s emotions and imagination. So, I think we need to be careful when we use words like “magical”, “mystical”, “miraculous” and so on. I am thinking of someone who recently left a comment here on your blog who said that they appreciated how you made things understandable for those who don’t know a lot about Buddhism. I am sure there are many more like him or her who haven’t left comments. Some of them may be impressionable, and you have some credentials that gives a bit more weight to what you write. Some folks reading this may think then, well I will never meet a good teacher until I have some magical, mystical, miraculous experience. I’m sure you’ll agree that that is not the basis on which people should choose teachers. Anyway, this is long enough but hopefully I clarified where I am coming from. Hope I didn’t make you mad, cause I respect and like ya’.

    @Sabio
    Ouch? Lighten up. I wasn’t jabbing at ya. Perhaps instead of “force” you could think of it more in terms of “challenge” which is really Suzuki’s overall point. A good teacher should challenge you, the teachings should challenge you. After that quote, Suzuki says, “The teaching itself is true, and in itself does not force anything upon us, but because of our human tendency we receive the teaching as if something was being forced on us. But whether we feel good or bad about it, this truth exists.”

    1. Gosh, David — no fear! We’re still best buds!

      Some folks reading this may think then, well I will never meet a good teacher until I have some magical, mystical, miraculous experience. I’m sure you’ll agree that that is not the basis on which people should choose teachers.

      It wasn’t my intention to reinforce unrealistic expectations. People shouldn’t go looking for teachers expecting magic — that’s a set-up for all kinds of disappointments and misadventures. As a retired therapist, I remember what often happens when clients go looking for magical therapists. It’s not pretty. On the other hand, let’s not deny that magic does occur for some people — can we celebrate their good fortune and be happy for them? As the noted philosopher Jon Sebastian once asked, “Do you believe in magic?” 😉

      In recounting Jan’s story, I was not trying to set up an idealized norm, but to set up a contrast for what most of us will realistically experience. (The serial experiences with teachers Lawrence Shainberg so brilliantly described in “Ambivalent Zen” are probably a lot more typical than Jan’s experience.) I’ve met a good number of intelligent, sincere, kind, and inspiring non-magical teachers in this lifetime. I consider myself fortunate.

      1. You know I do believe in magic.

        I’ve had a few mystical experiences and I’ve also seen how connections between people can be intuitive, almost psychic. Plus, I know you had no intention of reinforcing something unrealistic. I guess I was thrown by the disconnect that Katharine mentioned.

  6. Wow. Didn’t know so much had happened here since leaving my own glowing comment…It’s funny, I did notice a bit of disconnect between Jan’s story and Seth’s own approach to finding a teacher–the latter of which I relate to on many levels, the former of which, not at all.

    To Barry’s point, absolutely, some of our best teachers are those that make us most uncomfortable. Precisely the reason I am looking forward to having a certain teacher for a certain program next year. However, the criteria of feeling safe, of feeling like you can trust your teacher, and so on are far more important (for many people) for a relationship early on in one’s practice and search. The pushing buttons can come later.

    As for David’s and Sabio’s concerns, I read the contrasting methods presented here a little differently. I saw Seth saying, even if my approach is one way, I am not advocating it as the sole method. I saw his introduction as a way of recognizing that for certain people, a kind of sixth sense (not in the Buddhist terminology of “mind”, but the more colloquial one) connection to a teacher is a really important criterion. And he’s respectful of that. He’s agnostic about that. I did not see Seth saying abuses of power are okay, or false claims of clairvoyance or what have you are okay, just that for some people this mysterious element is the crux of the matter and that may be their path…

  7. @ David, Katherine & Berry,
    If the word “force” is changed to “challenge” or “make uncomfortable”, I think the saying is appropriate for all the reasons you mention. And I am sure you understand my hesitations with the word “force”.

    @ Seth,
    Yes, that is clear. We disagree in the degree which we are willing to grant credibility to clairvoyance and such. But then, “that makes horse races”! (Mark Twain)

    Cardena’s book is $90 used, so I won’t be looking at that soon. There is also a guy who compiled lots of stories about reincarnation who you possibly like too.

    The Remarkable Randy has done a great job showing how many of these aparent miracles work — as have other debunkers of the miraculous.

    We lean different ways, it seems on understand these. But that is not an important difference at all.

    But I don’t think people should seek the miraculous in finding a teacher or sect. But you clarified saying you were not saying that.

    Thank you.

  8. Two comments… first – thank you for this post and particularly for your comment not to “keep looking for the perfect place – the perfect practice… The perfect place is wherever you happen to be. The perfect practice is your own awareness here and now, and compassion for the people you encounter every day.” I have found a Sangha in my area that I believe to be a good fit and yet I keep searching for the “perfect” community… This I do because it is easier to continue searching than it is to begin my practice. After reading your article I vow to stop looking and to begin my practice. now.

    Second… I’d like to add my thoughts about some of the comments that have been posted. Do miracles happen? Is magic real? Personally – I believe the answer is yes. I do not believe this means there is any type of “supernatural” force in the world. I believe a miracle/magic is something that happens because of a natural force which human science is – as of yet – unable to explain. Just we cannot explain it does not mean it is not real.

  9. I’m glad, Susan that the post was useful for you. May your practice be of benefit to yourself and others!

    I agree with you that “miraculous” happenings may be explainable at some future point when science knows more about the nature of matter and of consciousness than it does at present. It’s useful to be skeptical of things that defy current explanation — but one shouldn’t be so skeptical that one denies the accounts of reputable witnesses out of hand. (Of course we are all predisposed by our prior beliefs to credit some events and some witnesses more than others. )

    Thanks for contributing! I enjoyed reading your blog post about “shades of gray,” and wish you luck with your blog.

  10. I think Seth states the caveats well. But one further caveat I would like to add is that though a person may seem “reputable” in many realms, it does not mean their witness in all realms is should be given a large amount of possible credence when it contradict testing we have tested to date.

    No matter how skilled a meditator, no matter how compassionate, no matter how brilliant, if they tell you they can levitate, you should doubt that witness to the highest degree. The halo effect can easily deceive us.

    You comment inspired me to write this post today on compartmentalization.

    We all compartmentalize — a great guru can believe bizarre things. Likewise, we often turn off our skepticism for that which confirms our biases — we protect many compartments in ways we’d see through the same deception in others.

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