Amended: Do We Need to Idealise Buddhist Teachers?
Do We Need to Idealise Buddhist Teachers?
The most ideal teachers can teach the most non-ideal students to become the most ideal teachers. - stonepeace
Does the role of a Buddhist teacher really necessitate them being idealised? This seems so - to some extent, but not always to the total extent. Generally, a teacher can be realistically idealised to the extent that the teacher is worthy as a teacher, but not beyond. There is some degree of 'idealisation' needed to inspire oneself sufficiently though, so as to motivate us to wish to learn from the teacher. The above would apply to the Buddha himself too - as the first and original Buddhist teacher in our world. Even he does not demand unquestioning faith or idealisation. Instead, he encourages intelligent doubt, as famously recorded in the Kalama Sutta, and the faith that arises from resolving these doubts.Though with much emphasis on the importance of guru devotion, the above idea of not unrealistically idealising teachers applies in the Vajrayana tradition too. For instance, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche comments thus in 'Creation and Completion: Essential Points of Tantric Meditation' (Jamgon Kongtrul, 2002, p.92) - 'However, faith in one's guru does not mean blind faith. It does not mean believing "My guru is perfect," even though your guru is not perfect. It is not pretending that your guru's defects are qualities. It is not rationalizing every foible of the guru into a superhumane virtue. After all, most gurus will have defects. You need to recognize them for what they are. You don't have to pretend that your guru's defects are qualities, because the object of your devotion is not the foibles, quirks, or defects of your guru, but the Dharma that your guru teaches you. You are not practicing the guru's foibles.'So it seems, the Dharma is truly the central refuge in the Threefold Refuge of the Triple Gem. Even if one takes the 'fourth' refuge in the guru, the Dharma he teaches or represents is the core of that worth taking refuge in.Rationalising for teachers' seemingly wayward ways can become tricky when things get increasingly grey. On one hand, one may think a teacher's 'displayed' faults are intentional, as a skilful means to assume 'normalcy', so as to let us relate to him 'better'. On the other hand, their faults might be blatant human mistakes that even they are not mindful of. Then again, it is possible for a cunning teacher to do the opposite of skilfully covering up many unwholesome acts. Personally, when in doubt, I would politely ask the teacher about the apparent 'fault' to hear his explanation. And when in doubt about carrying out a peculiar or seemingly unethical instruction, why not just ask respectfully for its rationale? There is indeed no need to rationalise for anyone, especially one's spiritual teachers. After all, spirituality entails not the rationalisation of truth, but the realisation of truth.In Vajrayana Buddhism in the days of old, a good disciple was expected to carefully observe one's potential master for years before accepting him as a guru. In busy modern life, how many truly do that? Both due to prominent 'stains' in the recent history of the integrity of some Buddhist teachers, to place all of one's eggs 'of faith' in one basket (guru) without much thought is surely dangerous both rationally and emotionally, spiritually and materially. But this does not means it is not important to seek a good master - especially when uncertain of how to learn and practise the Dharma. What this means is that we need to be more cautious.About seeing one's guru as the Buddha per se, this can be potentially tricky too - when it extends beyond the meditation hall. If one's guru pridefully expects or demands being seen as a Buddha, he ironically becomes straightaway apparently egoistic and is thus 'un-Buddha-like'. Many Buddhists are more comfortable with seeing the Buddha as the Buddha, and teachers as teachers, or even, great teachers as great students inspired by the Buddha. Like me, they seem more comfortable with seeing the Buddha as the ultimate guru, beyond compare to even the next best of teachers. After all, it is hard to 'beat' the all-rounded completeness of the Buddha, whose exemplary conduct and teachings have been recorded in the scriptures.Other than the classical one-way top-down teaching relationship of a teacher and a student, I had always seen it possible for teachers to learn from students and for students to 'teach' teachers too - simply because most of us are 'unenlightened' in different aspects of life, though teachers are supposed to be generally 'more enlightened' spiritually. This is possible only when there is great mutual-respect to help each other grow. If a teacher refuses to learn anything, or to hear what his student has to say, would it not cast doubts on how open, kind and patient he is? This surely isn't very enlightened.We need teachers because we are not wise enough. Yet ironically, we are first supposed to be wise enough to discern if someone is wise enough to be our teachers. Even more ironically, it is not uncommon that we learn how to discern good teachers from the ones we are considering to be our teachers - even if from books written by them. We are supposed to examine a potential teacher carefully. But we are imperfect - so we examine imperfectly. Thus, there seems to be a great potential to fall short, even in the best of our judgements. If so, we need to be constantly increasing our own wisdom to judge well, with or without a teacher, using the Dharma. Even when there is correct judgement of a teacher's integrity in terms of Dharma and conduct in the moment, there is sadly no one who can guarantee that the teacher will not change his character in time, secretly or unexpectedly. Thus is it important to not be attached to even the 'best' teacher we know.If we reflect carefully, no matter what Buddhist tradition we might be of, it seems that we are ultimately dependent on ourselves spiritually. At the end of the day, the onus lies on us to... 'Be islands (lamps) unto yourselves, be a refuge unto yourselves with no other refuge. Let the Dhamma be your island, let the Dhamma be your refuge, with no other refuge.' (Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta) At the bare minimum, the spiritual path is just us plus what we perceive to be the path of the Dharma as core refuges. Even choosing to take refuge in a guru is still a personal choice one makes based upon our idea of ourselves and what we understand of the Dharma we can learn from the guru. Some final food for thought... on the Four Reliances -Rely on the teaching, not on the person;
Rely on the meaning, not on the words;
Rely on the definitive meaning, not on the provisional;
Rely on your wisdom mind, not on your ordinary mind.
- Shen Shi'an