11. On Teachers

10. Objects for Insight Practice   |  12. Daily Life and Retreats

There are many types of teachers out there from many traditions. Some are very ordinary, and some seem to radiate positive qualities from every pore. Some are kind, some are dispassionate, and some may seem like sergeants in boot camp. Some stress reliance on our own efforts, others stress reliance on the grace of the guru. Some are available, accessible, and approachable, and some may live far away, grant few interviews, or have so many students vying for their time that you may rarely get a chance to talk with them. Some seem to embody the highest ideals of the perfected spiritual life in their every waking moment, while others may appear to have many quirks, faults, and failings.

Some live by strict moral codes, while others may push the boundaries of social conventions and mores. Some may be very old, and some may be very young. Some may require strict commitments and obedience, others may hardly seem to care at all what we do, and some may seem to actively put barriers to interaction with them in our way. Some may advocate specific practices, stating that their way is the only way or the best way, while others may draw from many traditions or be open to your doing so. Some may point out our successes, while others may highlight our failures.

Some may stress traditional renunciation or even ordination into a monastic order, while others seem relentlessly engaged with “the world”. Some charge a bundle for teachings, while others offer them at no charge. Some deeply respect scholarship and the lingo of meditation, while others may openly disapprove of formal terms, conceptual frameworks, and therefore never refer to them. Some teachers may be more like friends or peers that just want to help us learn something they happened to be good at, while others may be more into hierarchy, traditional structures, and the role of being a teacher.

Hierarchy is a huge topic when dealing with any organization, community, and teacher-
student situation. Hierarchies vary widely in the degree to which they promote real spiritual development, growth, and good practice in those who enter them. Some hierarchies are very natural. When I was in calculus class in high school, the teacher knew calculus, while I did not. I wanted to learn calculus, and she taught me calculus. Roles and expectations were straightforward. I followed along with her lectures, did the homework, and took the tests. She got paid from the community’s taxes. Good learning occurred. If anything, she was the one who was exploited, given how little teachers are paid where I grew up. Still, it was healthy as teaching situations go.

Similar situations occur in good, healthy hierarchical meditation teaching situations, and those can be found. To pretend that we must dispense with hierarchies altogether is therefore naive and simplistic. If we did then we could never learn anything from another who undeniably had more training and experience than we do. It’s a ridiculous idea if you parse it out with some clear thinking.

However, as we all know, there are hierarchical situations that range from suboptimal to extremely toxic. In these, the exchange is not always straightforward, learning to the level of the teacher is not actually encouraged, and teacher roles are ambiguous or involve domination and exploitation rather than true support. Often, the problem in these situations is that there is some mix of authentically healthy with unhealthy, unconscious elements. We find ourselves making compromises to get to the good parts while giving away things we value, such as healthy boundaries, reasonable autonomy, self-respect, and our own empowerment to be competent practitioners capable of standing on our own two feet.

While Pragmatic Dharma as a movement has generally favored less hierarchical situations out of a reasonable fear of the many possible unhealthy situations more formal hierarchies can produce, we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and we need not, indeed cannot, dispense with or avoid hierarchies altogether. Most of the skills I learned in my life I learned from experts who taught me what they knew in good hierarchical situations, and the same is true of meditation. I studied with established meditation masters in standard teacher-student situations, typically traditional monasteries and retreat centers where the teacher was the teacher and I was the student. They taught according to their tradition. I practiced according to their skillful instructions. This approach worked out well.

I personally have been lucky in this regard, but some of my friends have not been so lucky, as they have found themselves in suboptimal hierarchies and exploitative situations. The take-home is that you also can find well-established, time-tested teachers who are in clear and healthy teacher roles and you can enter healthy student roles with them and learn well this way. If you somehow find yourself in an unhealthy meditation or spirituality hierarchy, respectfully remove yourself from it and find a healthy one, as there are plenty out there.

Some teachers will speak openly about attainments, and some may not. Some teachers are remarkably predictable in their manner and teaching style, while others swing wide in strange and unpredictable ways. Some may seem very tranquil and mild-mannered, while others may seem outrageous or rambunctious. Some are great communicators and others have real difficulty putting together coherent sentences. Some speak very calmly and slowly, while others spit out the dharma at a zillion words a minute (guilty as charged). Some may speak our language and others obviously don’t. Some may seem to listen patiently, others may cut us off. Some may seem extremely humble and unimposing, while others may seem particularly arrogant and presumptuous (guilty as charged, though working on it).

Some may seem to have serious personality disorders, and others may seem highly self-actualized in the psychological sense: sane and mature. Some are charismatic, while others may be distinctly lacking in social skills and charm. Some may readily give us extensive advice, and some just listen and nod. Some may really “look the part” with robes, hats, and whatever hairstyle you associate with a guru, while others look more like something that just crawled out of a dive bar, prison, mental institution, dark alley, or corporate boardroom. Some seem the living embodiment of gentleness and love, and others may piss us off on a regular basis. Some teachers may instantly click with us, while others just leave us cold. Some teachers may be willing to teach us, and some may not.

As far as I can tell, none of these apparent features of various teachers are related in any way to their meditation ability or to the depths of their understanding or attainment. While it is basically guaranteed that you will judge meditation teachers by their covers, recognize this and try to do better. It’s possible that all these aspects appear to us to help us identify within ourselves the habitual projections and expectations within which we operate. It’s well worth getting to know ourselves in relation to whatever it is a given teacher might kick up in us. However, if they are kicking up too much stuff, maybe that is just a poor fit and you need to find another one. While sometimes our hearts open through challenge and conflict, sometimes ease, safety, sanity, predictability, straightforwardness, and gentleness do just as well or better.

There is much richness to be gained by challenging this tendency in ourselves to judge another’s spirituality based on appearances. What is important is that a teacher’s style and personality inspire us to practice well, to live the life we want to live, to find what it is we wish to find, to understand what we wish to understand. Some of us may wander for a long time before we find a good fit. Some of us will turn to books for guidance, reading and practicing without the distinct advantages or profound challenges of teachers. Some of us may seem to click with a practice or teacher, try to follow it for years and get nowhere. Others seem to fly regardless. One of the most interesting things about reality is that we get to test it out. One way or another, we will get to see what works for us and what doesn’t, what happens when we do certain practices or follow the advice of certain teachers, as well as what happens when we don’t.

Remember well: we don’t have to become a replica of a teacher to apply to ourselves what they teach or to learn about how to investigate reality and become great meditators and great people. We can take what is good, leave what is bad, and take responsibility for our own actions and way of being in the world. The best meditation teachers give away their power, knowledge, and position to us as best they can. They try to transmit the dharma as powerfully as they can so that we learn what they know. They even encourage us to exceed them in knowledge. The flip side of this is that bad teachers try to retain their power and teach in a way that produces no peers or rivals to their authority and position. Even worse are the teachers that engage in spiritual bullying and who may even encourage those around them to do likewise. Oddly enough, some teachers who may be entirely qualified can paradoxically impede our progress and promote our disempowerment and dependency. Avoid those like the plague. The best teachers inspire us to be our very best, even if our best is greater than the best the teacher was capable of.

Another thing about teachers is that they only know what they know. If we use the scopes of the three trainings to examine this, we may find that some teachers may have a good grasp of some of these scopes and not have a good grasp of the others. In fact, mastery in each area guarantees nothing about mastery in the others. It is worth being realistic about this fact, and so I will go on and on about it later. I know some great insight teachers whose concentration skills suck. I know teachers who have awesome concentration skills but are still somewhat lacking in deep insight. I know some paragons of morality that are not that well developed in meditation. I know some extremely strong meditators who are not that well-developed in morality. In other words, it is easy to imagine that just because someone may have meditation skills in one specific area that they might magically know and be good at all sorts of other things. I have great skepticism about these sorts of assumptions and plenty of real-world evidence upon which to doubt them.

It is easy to imagine that just because they are ethically impeccable that they have some understanding of deep wisdom, and conversely it is easy to imagine that just because they have some deep wisdom they will be moral. As the ongoing Pragmatic Dharma experiment has shown in spades, it is easier to develop strong concentration and insight than it is to develop strong morality, or simply basic kindness for that matter. There are those who have a strong degree of mastery of all three, and those are people to seek out and learn from whenever possible.

Beware assuming that those who know ultimate reality to whatever degree can’t have unskillful relationships to money, power, drugs, and sex. Call me a prude, a traditionalist, or whatever, and not to presume to tell anyone else how to live their life, but I assert that, in general, it is best to avoid having sex with your dharma teachers. This goes doubly if secrecy is demanded or if you are involving yourself with someone who publicly claims celibacy or is in another “closed” relationship. Following this simple advice will save you and them, and many others, all kinds of serious trouble. There are many people out there to have sex with. Those who claim that this is to benefit you or that it will lead to special wisdom are just selling something. It’s easy to avoid this trap if you learn a bit about your own investment in being or feeling “special”, which often touches on difficult-to-identify and significant psychological wounding. You have been warned.

I was once at a Buddhist Geeks conference in which we discussed the fact of the wide range of relationships that some teachers have to sexuality, language, substances, and other similarly adult subjects. Someone made the very interesting and perhaps reasonable proposal that teachers should be rated as movies are in the American film rating system and expected to adhere to their rating, so that people can at least know what they might be getting themselves into. Teachers rated something like an R should have additional labels that explain why they get that rating, such as drugs, sex, language, etc. In this system, Rated G teachers should not be expected to act like Rated XXX teachers, for example. However, were a Rated XXX teacher to behave like the Rated XXX teacher they are, that could hardly be cause for alarm or scandal, or accusations of hypocrisy. While we could debate the pros and cons of such a system, it is more reasonable than what currently happens, which is that nearly all teachers are assumed to be G or PG at most, whereas some reasonable number are way past PG-13 in practice. I personally would likely get a PG-13 due to the language that I routinely use.

[Definitely check out the extensive Buddhist Geeks online archive of interviews about the dharma and how it may relate to modern life.]

When we interact with teachers, we may wish to consider which of their areas of expertise we wish to draw from, that is, which of the three trainings we want help with. In fact, I think it’s very important to be clear about this from the outset, so that when we go in to talk with a teacher, we can ask questions from the correct conceptual framework and fit their advice back into the correct framework. If we ask a teacher about how to attain to some high state and they mention tuning in to boundless joy during meditation, and we then try to do this when driving to work and crash into the rear of the car of the poor commuter in front of us, we have not followed their advice properly or skillfully.

Similarly, we may wish to explicitly ask our teachers if they are skilled in the aspect of the specific training we are interested in mastering and to what level. Obviously, not all will be honest when answering this question for various reasons. If they say something like, “No, I don’t know enough to speak on that level, as my own abilities are not that strong yet,” then at least you know to seek advice elsewhere, unless of course they are lying to you. I have much more respect for a teacher who once told me that he didn’t feel qualified to teach me than for the numerous teachers who were not qualified to teach me who either didn’t realize this or tried to pretend otherwise.

It is also definitely true that some teachers are loathe to speak about their specific attainments and skill sets, which can make things much more confusing for those trying to figure out who knows what. Regardless of whether this is motivated by humility, vows, cultural conditioning, or some other reason, it still makes things confusing for those who are trying to follow a pragmatic approach and who are used to straightforward communication. There are also obviously deceptive teachers who artificially inflate their abilities through overt boasting, as well as those who take the opposite approach, using gestures of humility that are intended to create an impression of great knowledge. Would that all this were easy!

I would recommend making your goals for your life and practice specific. For instance, you may wish to get a job as a dishwasher so that you can continue to feed yourself as you prioritize your practice. You go to the meditation teacher and say, “I want to get a job as a dishwasher. Do you know how to do this?”

They may say, “Yeah, sure.”

To which you could reply, “How do you know this?”

They could just as easily have said, “I am sorry, I can’t help you there. I am a meditation teacher, not a career counselor or restaurant manager.”

The same basic conversational pattern could be repeated just as easily for the other two trainings. For instance, you could ask a meditation teacher, “I wish to learn how to get into the early concentration states. Do you know how to do this?”

You could also ask, “I wish to attain to the first stage of enlightenment. Do you know how to do this?”

If they say, “Yes,” the next question would be, “Would you be willing to guide me in those steps, please?”

This sort of straightforward approach to spirituality is extremely practical, grounded, and empowering. Further, it makes interactions with teachers more fruitful. However, there are teachers who can still teach you useful things that won’t respond well to those sorts of direct questions, and here we find the murky territory for which I have no great ability to provide guidance except to say keep your wits about you, be respectful, ask reasonable questions of those in the community about the quality of the teacher and the actual results that students have when they study with them, and pay attention. Traditional monastics will almost never discuss their practice directly, though some will give hints, some of which are glaring, and the talk and gossip around monasteries will often involve guesses and rumors about who knows what.

Teachers can generally tell if you are serious and if you have clearly thought through what you want. For instance, it takes about ten seconds of someone asking a meditation teacher for advice on their emotional stuff for the teacher to realize that this person is interested in working on conventional happiness, that is, psychological or emotional well-being, and not in learning or doing insight practices. There is nothing wrong with working on emotional well-being, and you certainly need a baseline of it to be able to progress in meditation practice; but, if it’s your priority, you may need to first focus on strengthening your training in morality before embarking on insight practices. Similarly, it takes few conversations with a student to figure out if they are following your advice or not, so don’t think you can fool them. If you don’t like their advice, better to tell them that and explain why, so that they can address the issue either by modifying their advice or by further explaining why they feel their advice might be helpful.

Further, if you follow some of their advice but change parts, or select parts and add other things, cutting and pasting to suit your preferences, and then find that this way of working has not produced the desired results, be careful about criticizing the teacher or the method, as you have not performed the experiment as recommended. If someone told you, for example, to stabilize your attention on the individual sensations that make up the experience of breathing so clearly that you could see the beginning and ending of every single sensation consistently for an hour, and instead you ricochet back and forth from the breath to other mental and physical sensations, or stop the practice before you apply the exact instruction given, don’t blame them if you do not get the promised results. Barring insurmountable external circumstances, the choice not to do the work is clearly yours, and thus you should accept personal responsibility for your own failure. I am not trying to be harsh, only honest and realistic. I am obviously a firm believer that people should take responsibility for what happens in their lives and practices. Not doing so is tantamount to you selecting to disempower yourself.

Tangentially, but important to point out, teachers are wherever they are on their own path, dealing with their own lives, coming at things from their own conditioning, and filtering their perception of reality through wherever they find themselves in their own practice, just as everyone else is. There are cycles in our bodies, our lives, and our practices that can significantly color how we see things, and that applies to meditation teachers as much or perhaps at times even more so than everyone else, as strong practice can produce some strong side effects.

So, if you have some odd interaction with someone in a teacher role, it might be that they just got some really bad news about their sibling being sick, or are coming down with a stomach bug, or started having bad menstrual cramps when they were scheduled to have their interview with you, or maybe you remind them of their ex who they just broke up with. Something in your own practice, your face, your story, your way of speaking—or whatever—might contain some psychological triggers specific to them and their conditioning. Just as you want understanding from others dealing with you, grant that to others, and be mindful of how their being in a position of authority may short-circuit your own capacity for empathy.

Their own practice might be in a strange or difficult place and they might not be able to fully control the bleed-through from that. So, if something seems off in an interview or interaction, consider gently asking what is going on. They might not tell you, and they might not even know or be able to identify the reason for the difficulty at that moment or ever (check out Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, for fascinating information on how we try to retrospectively explain our behavior and just make things up). It might be that that’s the way they are, but at least considering the issue shows that you have enough of a meta-perspective to come up with a broader assessment of what is happening at that moment rather than personalizing it and backsliding to reactivity.

However, it is also possible that something about that interaction is in fact personal in relative terms, meaning that the reaction is about you and your way of being in that interaction. What personal, meditative, psychological or other things were going on that influenced each part of this book as I wrote it? I am certain I couldn’t tell you everything that influenced the tone and presentation of each part, and in person in real-time my assessment would probably be just as inaccurate and incomplete.

In a similar vein, those in teaching roles may personally be doing very different practices from the ones they are teaching you, and coming from a perspective that has been transformed into something very different from the one you are coming to the practice with. Sometimes people can be in places and doing practices that are very different from the one they started with or are known for (such as in a book or in a talk from their past). For example, the last time I did formal noting was probably sometime in 2001 or so, and that would have been only briefly, and the last time I practiced noting a lot was in 1996 or so. If a teacher has a profoundly transformed perception of reality and has been this way long enough, it can be difficult to relate to those who are facing the problems and issues that arise in an earlier phase of practice.

In fact, it seems to be relatively common for people far along the path to start teaching a way of practicing that makes sense if you are as far along the path as they are, but might not be anything like the practices they did to get to the point where that way of teaching and those practices and perspectives make sense or can be well integrated. Because of this, the teacher’s current practice or take on things might not make much or any sense for where you currently are, whereas, were that teacher to teach you the basics and the techniques that got him or her their early breaks, practices they may not have done in years or decades, then you might do much better.

The specific form of this that I find most unfortunate and dangerous is the teacher who spent years doing a strict practice under a particular teacher or tradition, requiring a specific technique, discipline, study, and hard cushion hours, who then on the basis of that practice gains some degree of insight, has some form of awakening experience, and then disavows the teacher or tradition they trained under because they themselves no longer feel they need it, having gained some of the promised realizations and insights. They deny crediting the rigorous path they followed with their current realization, tell their followers this, and of course those followers do nothing, apply no discipline, technique, or effort, and predictably get nowhere but are nevertheless wowed by the snippets of real, hard-won, practice-derived insight the teacher does offer them in talks and Q&A sessions. In fact, I can think of numerous contemporary examples of teachers who teach perspectives and (non- or anti-) techniques that ironically in no way resemble what helped them arrive at their own realizations.

It’s an unfortunate, if unconscious, form of deception and undermines the precious real estate of others’ minds. There are also those with previously cultivated training who claim to have never practiced anything. It’s just a question of time to see if their approaches and teachings will lead to sustainably realized, behaviorally-transformed followers.

There is also a subtle (or perhaps overt) form of what I will loosely term arrogance on the part of some teachers who now teach from some impressively high perspective just to highlight what they have attained and even though the perspective they are currently teaching from wasn’t one that would have remotely helped them when they were coming up in their practice. However, as this new way of perceiving reality is now at the forefront of their experiencing, it is very compelling and fascinating. Never underestimate the mind’s ability to grip tightly the fruits of practice and cause serious trouble with them.

If such individuals could go back in time to when they first started practicing and ask themselves what their current perspective was, would it do them any good? Would they themselves have gotten the insights they currently have following the totally different advice they now dispense? I suspect not, though the experiment can’t be done. Regardless, be skeptical of those who advocate a completely different path from the one that got them their current insights. Those who followed a hard, strict, technique-heavy, disciplined path who now disavow and/or advocate no path are, in my view, missing something crucial about

Further, even for those who do teach the practices that worked for them, it takes personal discipline and deepening empathy on the part of the teacher to keep remembering that while they may have repeated the basic foundational concepts hundreds of times, they may not have repeated them to you. For those who teach a lot, a certain amount of burnout can set in, and this can cause them to forget to keep presenting things in a logical, straightforward, complete way, and to do this for meditator after meditator, dharma talk after dharma talk, retreat after retreat, year after year. Imagine making a professor of high-level calculus go back and teach kindergarteners to count—some can do this well, but plenty can’t. This is normal human behavior, however disappointing.

This raises another apparent paradox: teachers who are closer to where you are on the path might sometimes make better teachers for you. If they just recently mastered what you are trying to master, just dealt with whatever you are dealing with, their easy recollection of familiar challenges may be more helpful to you than the perspective of someone who hasn’t had to personally deal with those challenges in a long time. While teachers who are far along the path often can be very inspiring, that doesn’t mean that the people sitting on the cushions beside the main teacher might not actually provide us more timely and relevant advice.

As the practices of those in teaching roles develop and change, they may go off in very different directions than the ones we expect or desire. The common scenario is that from their point of view they may stand to gain from another tradition and so shift in the direction of those practices, and perhaps in the direction of their related concepts, terms, and even their traditional contexts and approaches, while we, from our vantage point, still think that what would serve us best is for them to stay interested in the teachings or practices for which we came to appreciate them. This can cause a lot of confusion and resentment in those who don’t appreciate the fact that we each are developing our minds and our hearts to fit with our visions of what we think is possible and skillful, and this applies equally to people we think of as dharma teachers or dharma friends.

Similarly, it is not that uncommon these days for teachers, mentors, or role models to declare that some previous thing that they believed and spoke of with such certainty no longer feels to be completely or even partially true, be it something on the nature of reality, practice, or their own attainments. Predictably, this too can cause much confusion, judgment, anger, and resentment. The dilemma faced by mature and advanced practitioners, who understand and are sympathetic to the fact that this can cause a lot of confusion, is how to respond to this situation.

All too often the people who have changed some view based on further advancement in their own practice simply keep quiet about it, skip over it, or even repeat things they no longer believe to avoid the chaos that can ensue or because they believe these falsehoods will still yet provide some benefit to practitioners at earlier stages. This is generally a bad sign, a sign that they have too heavily bought into the role of being some fixed authority who must stick to their story regardless of their changing paradigm or perspective. In communities where it is not known that some of this is to be expected in teachers who are still practicing, the rewards for sweeping such issues under the rug can seem to that teacher to outweigh the rewards of being straightforward and open about what is going on with the teacher. This temptation can be hard to resist.

It takes a lot of courage to say that we were wrong, that understanding was only partially developed, or that we are changing our mind. I hope that more mature meditation communities will develop an acceptance that some of this is a positive sign of people’s development and growth rather than some vile inconsistency that must be demonized and punished. This point will apply even more once we start talking about various levels of attainment, many of which are easy to overestimate when they first arise.

Some of my dharma friends and I have a concept we call “the funnel”. A funnel has a wide end and a narrow end. The wide end symbolizes dharma that is easily accessible to a large group of people, or dharma for mass consumption, if you will. The other end is narrow, symbolizing dharma that is not accessible to the masses, as it is advanced, technical, subtle, and potentially very confusing, alienating, or perhaps even dangerous for anyone who has not progressed or matured enough in practice. There is also the middle of the funnel, which is somewhere in-between. Teachers tend to have an area of the funnel that they resonate with best, which they teach most skillfully and naturally. You would think that the part of the funnel they are most suited to teaching might be a mark of where they are in their own development, but this is not necessarily the case.

I have known very advanced teachers who were better at teaching students in the wide or middle part than the narrow, though it is true that to teach to the narrow end you must be an extremely well-developed and integrated practitioner and individual. I have known teachers who were great at teaching the narrow end but ill-suited to the wide end, though not all of them knew this. I know a few teachers who excel at teaching people in all parts of the funnel.

It is not always obvious to which part of the funnel a teacher is teaching. I had a teacher who liked to read the Frog and Toad children’s books during her dharma talks. Her style would have seemed about as wide-ended as it gets. Yet, the gently spoken and simple words she spoke had great profundity on many levels, and some points she made would only make sense to me years down the road and much farther along my path. As Kenneth points out, there is room in the meditative ecosystem for teachers in all parts of the funnel. As you practice, you will likely move from the wide end to the narrow end, and, as you move, you may need to draw on the support of different teachers and communities who are more suited to where you find yourself.

We need kindergarten teachers as much as we need graduate school teachers, as well as all the teachers for the grades in-between. We also wouldn’t necessarily expect graduate school professors to do a good job teaching kindergarten and vice versa, though some do both well. I am implying no hierarchy with this funnel model, just pointing out the general issues so that you may better understand how to interact with teachers. 

While all this advice on practices and teachers may seem a bit overwhelming, I recommend continuously reconnecting with the basics, the essentials, the “simple” practices of the spiritual life, as it is these which I have come to appreciate as often being the most profoundly transformative. It is your practice that will help you in the end. Here is reality. Here you are. Inhabit this moment and engage with it directly.

10. Objects for Insight Practice   |  12. Daily Life and Retreats