Choose your spiritual teacher very carefully because you’re going to end up like them!

Jan 27, 2022



Why do we need a spiritual teacher and what is one? The Sanskrit word is guru and I believe it implies someone “heavy with qualities” – who doesn’t need someone like that? The Tibetan equivalent is lama.


I think if we look at our lives we can see that there’s nothing that we have learned, nothing, that hasn’t been taught to us by someone else, or that we haven’t learned from another source like a book or watching somebody. Since we were little children, our mothers taught us how to tie our shoelaces, wipe our little bottoms, eat, read, get out of bed, put our clothes on. 


The quickest way to learn something is go find someone who’s done it before, who’s good at it, and ask them, “Show me please.” Why reinvent the wheel? I mean, you will spend many hundreds of thousands of dollars and many years researching how to make a cake instead of simply asking your mother.


And where did she get the knowledge from? Her mother? And she? From her mother. It’s how knowledge is passed along, from one mind to another. There’s a lineage of cake gurus out there: use them. 


And this is how I first learned to make a cake. It’s such a good example. It shows the logic, the benefit of having a teacher. It’s really stressed in the Buddhist tradition. But of course, here, the knowledge is pretty rare and it’s uncharted territory for us: becoming enlightened.


The very first thing is you have to know you want to make a cake, you want to get enlightened. We all know from the time we were children and sent to school, we hadn’t made that clear decision that we wanted to learn math, wanted to learn to write. Of course, we were dragged by our noses and resisted mightily – because we didn’t make the decision! 


I remember when I was 11 or 12 and finally made the decision I wanted to study, suddenly everything changed because now I wanted to learn. I went in, deep in. It’s very obvious; you’ve got to want it. 


I think I was 26 when I decided I wanted to make a cake; I wasn’t five. I was living in London, and I was a bit of a hippie, and I think I wanted to make a carrot cake. Anyway, I was going home to Melbourne to see my family and I decided to ask my mother. “Please Mum, show me how to make a cake.” Well, I’m sure she was totally delighted having waited twenty-something years for me to ask! And she’d been so sensible: she had never tried to force me. We know that doesn’t work! 


Let’s look at this. Why did I ask my mother? It’s because I knew she knew how to make cakes. How did I know? Because I had tasted them. And not only that, other people said she was a good cake maker: I had checked with her peers. Are they respected as a teacher by other people? Was she admired for her cake-making ability? 


You’ve also got to check the students; that’s a very good way to learn about a teacher’s qualities. I checked my mother’s students, my sisters. They could make very good cakes. And how had they learned? From my mother. 


I did all of this intuitively, not thinking about it, but it’s actually what we do. So far I had done my due diligence. I had checked the teacher, checked the product, checked her peers, checked the students.


Why do we need to do all this? Because I had no basis experientially for deciding that when my mother finally said, “Okay, darling, now get the flour and put the two eggs in and do this and do that,” she knew what she was talking about. And how foolish to get led up a garden path, wasting my time learning how to do something wrongly.


The only way to check is on these other things: her teachings, her peers, her students. Having done my due diligence, I could be confident. I had inferential certainty about her qualities. I could be confident that what she will tell me is valid. 


From this point of view, it’s fairly easy to check the Dalai Lama, isn’t it? I mean, you ask any Tibetan, and you can see immediately that he’s valued as a very marvelous teacher. Everybody says he’s a great scholar, he’s a great practitioner. And then you check the incredible quality of his thousands of disciples all over the world. 


It’s clear, whether you want to learn how to make a cake or a table or play the piano or learn math, you’re going to do this kind of checking, aren’t you? You’re not going to just jump in emotionally and get all overexcited when you get to hear about some cake maker because you think he’s really handsome, “Oh wow, he’s so divine; he must be a brilliant cake maker.” I mean there’s no logic. Hitler made a lot of people very happy. They got very overexcited. Well, look where he led them! You’ve got to use your common sense, not just your emotions. 


This is exactly the Buddhist approach. But unfortunately, because we mystify religion and get all excited about it and lose our common sense and think of it in emotional terms. We go to some talk of some teacher, “Oh, wow, he’s so charismatic! He must be a buddha! There’s no logic whatsoever. And then when he disappoints us we want to sue him.


I think we’re almost more serious about finding a proper cake maker than we are finding a spiritual teacher because we mystify spiritual teachings.


The crucial point of the checking process is that you, you, have to be confident. I had to be confident when I was in that kitchen that my mother knew what she was talking about and wouldn’t lead me astray. 


Interestingly, I remember the moment; I remember the day; I remember the kitchen; I remember the house. And I remember the cake: it was an apple and walnut cake; it wasn’t a carrot cake. 


Why do I remember it so vividly? Because it was the first time that cakes became real for me. The knowledge went straight from my mother’s mind into mine. That’s powerful! As Lama Yeshe said, Buddha is dead, so the first time that the four noble truths become real for me is when I hear about them from the mouth of the person in front of me, the person I’ve checked up on, the person I am confident about: my lama.


We need that human connection. It’s so powerful. We all know that we can sit and read books about Buddhism, but then when we go to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings, suddenly it becomes real. It’s coming from a person who’s valid, who has the direct experiences. It becomes alive for us. That’s the function of a teacher. It’s not just something intellectual. We have human hearts; we need to have our hearts opened.


And so to have a relationship with the person who embodies the qualities you want to have yourself, who is valid, this is very, very powerful. But we have to have confidence before we can enter into that relationship. It’s extremely important to be confident because when they start saying do this and do that, and you’ve never heard it before, you’ll have confidence that this person is leading you in the right direction. 


As Pabongka Rinpoche says, we need to check our gurus very carefully – because we’re going to end up like them!


Look at the word “confident,” its Latin root: con fide, “with faith,” “with trust.” That’s a very interesting word, isn’t it? We say faith and it makes us scared; but when we say confidence, it feels stronger.


Well, faith in Buddhist terms is exactly that: it’s confidence. Confidence is something based on your own wisdom. You’re really confident now that that is right; you’re really confident that person is valid because you have checked up. You have checked up; you have checked up. That’s the point. You have to choose that guru, that spiritual teacher.


And then, having checked, with confidence you follow their advice and become a buddha, just like them.

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