Recently on the internet, I read a comment where someone said that the only way to learn anything about Buddhism is to have master teachers show you the way.
That reminded me that I have heard similar comments used repeatedly on the internet, in person, and in books.
So, do you really need a teacher? What are the pros and cons?
First, Let’s Define a Buddhism Teacher
A teacher is one who is knowledgeable about the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) and Buddhist practice. Typically, and traditionally, this is a Buddhist monastic. However, there are also layperson teachers (as taught and sponsored by Buddhist monastics/organizations) that are included.
The teacher’s goal should be both education about the Dharma, and to challenge your current ‘view’ of the world (perceptions, assumptions, etc.) which are often clouding your ability to understand the Dharma.
Meditation is also a technique that often requires a teacher to assist you with performing correctly.
So, let’s go over some reasons why you may, or may not, need a teacher:
Why you may NOT NEED a Buddhism teacher:
- The Buddha Didn’t Have a Teacher to Gain Enlightenment
The historical Buddha went and learned from many teachers, and different methods, in the beginning. All of which led him to extremes and confusion. The Buddha himself vowed to sit and meditate under a pipal tree (now called the Bodhi tree) until he understood (enlightenment). The Buddha also learned from the greatest teacher of all, life. His first excursions outside of his sheltered existence showed him the Dukkha (dissatisfaction, sadness, unpleasantness, etc.) of life and the human condition, which became his catalyst for change. As a note of caution, this example can often lead one to believe they can “go it alone” with Buddhism, but the Buddha (when he was Siddhartha Gotama) was a remarkable being. He had spent countless lifetimes as a Bodhisattva, and in his last rebirth in a heavenly realm, decided when he would be reborn on earth to become a Buddha. It’s safe to say most of us are not at this level on earth.
- To Become Enlightened
A Buddhist teacher, however, is not going to make you enlightened (a Buddha). As the Buddha said, “By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depended on oneself; no one can purify another.” (Dhammapada XII, verse 165)¹. A teacher can help show you the way, but it’s all up to you and your own effort. This also brings up another point, don’t fall for any teacher who says they are ‘enlightened’, because that can be a red flag that they are not.
- It’s Already Explained
The Buddha’s teachings, and the path you should take, are already listed in Buddhist scripture. So, why would you need a teacher? The teachings of the Buddha did include laypersons like you and me, but the majority were meant for monastics, not householders (laypersons). This means that a teaching that is now 2,600 years old in a culture and society we may not fully understand, the meaning and purpose of the teaching can be misconstrued by us. This is a reason why teachers are important. Tuddhist scriptures are now widely available to anyone, which wasn’t always the case over 2,600 years ago. As Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained:
To rely on the Dharma is to always rely on the truth. We cannot rely on people because everyone has different perceptions and interpretations. Any single teacher is subject to birth, aging, sickness, and death, but the Dharma has not changed since beginningless time. So in seeking the Way, we must always rely on the Dharma itself and not on the people who teach it.
- There Are No Local Teachers
In the Buddha’s day, everything was taught by word of mouth, and his teachings were not written down until centuries after his death. This meant that having a teacher was imperative because of both illiteracy and access to the teachings. But what if you don’t have access to a teacher in the traditional sense? What if there is nobody around or you don’t like the available teachers? The internet is here to help! Nowadays you can access the Buddhist scriptures as eBooks, the internet, printed books, etc. Buddhanet features its impressive “Buddhist Studies” section at http://buddhanet.net/e-learning/index.htm. Schools and teachers can also be easily found on their websites or on social media, such as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (Thầy) who has both his Plum Village website (http://www.plumvillage.org) and a new online monastery (http://pvom.org/). This is all in stark contrast to the world before books, TV, and the internet. You absolutely had to go to a temple or have a teacher to even hear the teachings. Now, teachers can come to you in many forms such as books, videos, Skype/Zoom/FaceTime sessions, Facebook Groups, online discussion boards, and more. You can be taught, and be challenged, without ever having to be “face to face” with a teacher.
Why you may NEED a teacher:
- The Buddha Became a Teacher
What the Buddha learned, he wanted to pass on. Although there were Buddhas before him, he was the first to teach others the path to enlightenment and create a monastic community (called the Sangha) so those who wished to devote themselves could. Even in his last moments before death, he asked if anyone had questions about his teachings. And what a fabulous teacher he was as we continue to follow his teachings 2,600 years after his death.
- Your Buddhist Sect Requires It
You may be in a Buddhist sect, such as Ch’an/Zen, which requires a teacher based on their interpretation of the teachings. A teacher also helps you understand some complex things, and further engages you to stop having a ‘wild’ or ‘monkey’ mind! Something like that can’t be done alone, and meditation can only take you so far. Even those sects have had members who achieved enlightenment without the constant use of a teacher.
- Your Thinking Can Be Challenged
Buddhism requires you to look at the world as it really is, rather than the vision we have of it. So, it is easy enough to stay ‘in the clouds’ without a teacher bringing us back down to reality. Sometimes they do this by challenging our observations when we think that we ‘got it’, or by posing questions that make us think differently (Zen Buddhism does this with koans). While you can practice Buddhism without a teacher, it’s almost impossible to challenge your own mind (it’s very skillful at deceiving you). It’s easy to think “I don’t need a teacher” and “I’m progressing”, but that can only hinder and deceive you. Get out there and consult with a teacher so your perceptions can be challenged every so often.
- It Helps People
There is a reason we go to school and have teachers because that is how most people learn. We can look at a book all day, but unless a teacher assists us, we may never understand that math problem or any other topic. The same goes for Buddhism, having a teacher to help and guide you along the path is a blessing.
- It’s More Than Being Book Smart
The Buddha’s teachings are already listed in Buddhist scriptures, which are widely available. However, it’s best to think of Buddhism more in the medical sense, than religious, to understand the context. The Buddha can be thought of as the Doctor, Dukkha (“suffering”) as the diagnosis with the prognosis being good, the Eightfold Path as the prescription, the Sangha (community) as the nursing staff, and all the people as the patients.³ Going at it alone can be like performing surgery on yourself with limited skill and knowledge. You can find a great worldwide listing of Buddhist teachers here: http://www.buddhanet.info/wbd/
Whoever sees me sees the teaching, and whoever sees the teaching sees me. ~ Buddha
In our “individualistic” world, we believe we can learn anything on our own, and do anything we set our mind to.
While having determination and effort in practicing and learning Buddhism is important, one shouldn’t overlook the crucial importance of teachers.
Buddhist monastics are there to help us understand the Buddhist teachings so we can change our behavior, thoughts, and ultimately our actions. Being “scripture smart” might sound like a great academic achievement, but it won’t make you enlightened.
The Threefold Training in Buddhism (wisdom, concentration, and conduct) ensures a balanced and holistic approach where we also take refuge in the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha). That Sangha portion, the monastics, is important because our Buddhist practice of supporting and learning from them allows them to also practice by teaching us.
While you may not have a temple or teacher near you to attend, you can still learn from them in a variety of ways in order to practice Buddhism correctly.
- Featured Image: CC Photo by Davidlohr Bueso on Flickr
- ¹ http://buddhism.about.com/od/findingatempleandsangha/a/teacherfine.htm (28 Nov 2011)
- ² http://www.pbs.org/thebuddha/compassion/ (28 Nov 2011)
- ³ http://www.blia.org/english/publications/booklet/pages/37.htm (28 Nov 2011)
The information contained in this article is for general information purposes only. Alan Peto assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this site. The information contained is provided on an as-is basis with no guarantees of completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or timeliness, and without any warranties of any kind whatsoever, express or implied. Read full disclaimer here.
If you enjoyed this article, please share! 🙏