Do You Need Buddhist Teachers to Learn Buddhism?

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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 that 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

Here’s the Buddha explaining the Four Noble Truths (which was his very first teaching).

A teacher is one who is knowledgeable about the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), which are often found in a book called the Dhammapada (and other Buddhist scripture).

The teacher’s goal should be both education about the Dharma, and to challenge your current ‘view’ of the world.  Both of which can help you towards your development in Buddhism.  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:

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  • 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 both the Dukkha (dissatisfaction, sadness, unpleasantness, etc.) of life and the human condition, which became his catalyst for change.
  • 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 on you.  This also brings up another point, don’t fall for any teacher who says they are ‘enlightened’, because that means they are not.  Look at the current Dali Lama who refers to himself as a simple monk (and not the major religious Tibetan figure he is).
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  • Don’t Believe Everything You Teacher Says, Not Even the Buddha
    To quote the Dali Lama, “Buddha said my followers should not accept my teaching out of devotion but rather your own experiment. Even Buddha himself in order to get final enlightenment needs hard work. So, investigate based on reason but through logical investigation. If something contradicts, in Buddha’s own words, then we have the right to reject that.  But first, we need to properly understand the meaning to ensure we are not gripped by delusion. ²
  • It’s Already Explained
    The Buddha’s teachings, and the path you should take, are already listed in Buddhist scripture, such as the Dhammapada, and other scripture.  There is also other Buddhist scriptures 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 for about 200 years 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 their impressive “Buddhist Studies” section at http://buddhanet.net/e-learning/index.htm.  Schools and teachers can also be easily found on their websites or 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, or 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:

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  • 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 was asking 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 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 you 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 assist 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/

Parting Thoughts

Whoever sees me sees the teaching, and whoever sees the teaching sees me. ~ Buddha

No matter what choice you make regarding a Buddhist teacher, let this saying by Zen Master Linji stay with you:  “If you meet the Buddha, kill him”.

He was talking symbolically, of course, eluding to the fact that when you think you finally “understand”, or have become enlightened, or an expert on Buddhism, you should kill that ‘thought’ because you don’t get it.

Those Zen Buddhism master teachers really liked to make us think and reflect, don’t they?  Which is a good reason to have a Buddhism teacher after all.

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