Why do we need a teacher?

Oct 16, 2020

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.” They’re “knowledge-holders”: rigzin.

We so often mystify all of these Asian things; let’s deconstruct it; let’s strip it away and look at the very heart of it, at the point of it.

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. Our mothers taught us how to tie our shoelaces, how to wipe our little bottoms, how to put our clothes on.

Since then, whatever we have learned has been taught to us by someone else. It’s the easiest way to learn, isn’t it? It’s the most practical. Find someone who knows how to do it and ask them to show you.

Why reinvent the wheel? We’d spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and many years researching how to make a cake instead of just asking our mother! There’s a lineage of cake gurus out there – it’s called your mother, your grandma, your great grandma – it goes back and back.

This is emphasized in Buddhism. There’s a line of people going back and back, people who know how to do something who were taught it by someone before them who, in turn, was taught by someone before them. The lamas, when they give a teaching, they would say they’ve learned this from their own lama who got it from the previous lama, and so on, tracking right back to the Buddha. This indeed shows the authenticity of something. It’s very reasonable, it’s very good to see that something is tried and tested.

I always use the simple example of how I first learned to make a cake, from my mother, as an example of the benefit of having a teacher and how it works, and how in the Buddhist approach they would suggest how to go about finding one and the appropriate way to have the relationship with the teacher.

The very first thing is you have to know that you want to make a cake. You have to know you want to get enlightened; you have to want that. With me and making cakes, 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. I remember I went home to Melbourne to see my family and I said, “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 knowing my mind – that I’m so proud – she hadn’t tried to force me. She was delighted to show me how to make a cake.


Check the cake itself, check the teacher’s qualities, check their reputation, check the disciples

And why did I ask my mother? Well, believe me, it wasn’t because I was being kind to her! It’s because I knew she knew how to make cakes. How did I know? Because I’d tasted them. Not only that, I’d checked her peers. She was renowned for her cake-making. You’ve also got to check the students. That’s a very good way to learn about the teacher’s qualities. I’d also checked my mother’s students, my sisters. Where did they get their skills from? From my mother. There’s evidence. I did all of this intuitively, of course.

From this point of view it’s fairly easy to check His Holiness the Dalai Lama, let’s say, 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, a great practitioner. And he has this incredible reputation among other scholars and practitioners. And then you look at the way people respond to him, and then you look at people who’ve known him over the years, who have talked to him, who’ve been with him: they see he is kind and compassionate. And you see the quality of his disciples.

It’s clear – whether you want to learn how to make a cake or whether you want to go learn how to become a buddha, 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. He makes me so happy.” I mean there’s no logic. Hitler made a lot of people very happy. They got completely overexcited. Well, look where he led them! You’ve got to use your common sense not just your emotions.


We need to be confident

Why do we need to do all this checking? 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 and do this and do that,” I had no experiential basis for judging what she’s saying. I’d never made a cake, I had no experience at all.

So all I could do was develop inferential certainty about her. I had to use my intelligence. That is the only way I can have confidence initially that she is valid. The crucial point of the checking is that you, you have to be confident. I had to be confident, when I was in that kitchen and my mother started telling what to do Because I’d checked, because I was confident she was valid, I did what she said.

I remember the moment, I remember the day, I remember the kitchen. And I remember the cake: it was an apple and walnut cake, it wasn’t a carrot cake. And why do I remember it so vividly? Because it was the first time that cakes became real for me. And that’s the point of a teacher, that’s the simple function of a teacher. It’s the human component. 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 out of the human mouth, from a person who’s valid, who has the direct experience, who’s a knowledge-holder. It becomes real for us, the knowledge comes alive. That’s the function of a teacher. It’s not just something intellectual.

And anyway, we have human hearts, we need to have our hearts opened. That’s what devotion is. As Lama Yeshe says, we’re dying for love!

To have a relationship with the person who embodies these qualities, who is valid: this is very, very powerful. But we have to have the confidence before we can enter into that relationship; extremely important to be confident. Because when they start saying do this and do that, and you’ve never heard it before, you have no experiential basis for judging whether it is valid, you have to have confidence that this person is leading you in the right direction. And the only way to have that confidence is from your own research.

If I hand’t checked on my mother, if when she started to tell me how to make this apple and walnut cake and I’d say, “Well, what do you mean, two eggs? Why not six? What are you talking about?” What a waste of time: my time and her time! But, having checked, I was confident, so I did what she said.

Then as you go along, you start internalizing your cake guru. You remember the instructions, and next time you’re able to do it without her showing you. And you recall that she said do this and do that. You’re still tentative but now slowly you begin to develop your own experience of it, and then you begin to verify it for yourself: “Oh, she was right, if you put too many eggs it’ll go this way. If you put too much flour, it’ll be that. She’s right, she said this. Look, now I’ve proved to myself.” That’s when it becomes your own experience.



Check your guru carefully because you’re going to end up like them!

I remember I learned martial arts when I was living in New York, in the 1970s. I chose this teacher because the particular group suited me, not because the person was a valid teacher. Well then, for a year or so I was studying with this teacher. Then I went to Melbourne and continued studying in a new place, and I had already gotten a couple of belts in New York. But after my first class the new teacher put me back to the beginners’ group, the white belts. I was completely insulted! But I thought about it and I realized that I had learned wrongly. Because I didn’t use my intelligence to choose, I based my choice of a teacher on the wrong things. I didn’t check enough. For a year or so I wasted my life learning wrongly, so I had to go back to square one.

That’s when I realized we need valid teachers and the necessity to check up on them and be confident. Of course, that was just martial arts! Here we’re talking about putting ourselves in the wrong direction for many lifetimes!

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


Condfidence: with faith

We need to check very carefully. And until we are confident, until I am confident that that teacher is valid, until then you don’t start. And you have to have a basis for your confidence.

Look at the word “confident:” its Latin root: “with faith,” “con fide,” “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. That’s the point: because you have to make the decision.

Usually we run around doing what everyone else says, we just believe what everyone tells us. We think we’re so scientific – but when’s the last time you checked what was on that food package? Have you scientifically researched to prove that it was right: this much fat, this much protein? Of course you havne’t! You believed it. “Oh, it says right here on the package. Oh, but it’s all scientific!” Excuse me! You’re just believing it. Blind faith.

We live our lives with blind faith, actually, and then we wonder why we get into trouble. “Oh he’s such a handsome guy, he’s gorgeous. . .” and you deduce from this that he must be a good person. And then you get into trouble: six months later you find out he’s a creep. “Oh, I wish I would have known what he was like six months ago.” Well, excuse me, it was all in there; you just couldn’t see it because you were blinded by your own delusions. We’ve got to use our intelligence.


Having found a teacher, how to devote oneself

Okay, having found our teacher – one can have many – then what is the way, what is the skillful way to get the best from that relationship? What is the skillful way? There’re very extensive teachings on this in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

The most difficult approach to develop, which is said to be the key to success, broadly speaking, is: the more confidence I can have in my mother – in other words, the more totally open I am to her, the more I see her as just the best cake-maker in the whole world – which I can only have if I have checked up and have confidence – the more likely I am to become a really good cook.

If my delusions and my ego are in the way, whom am I harming? Myself. I’m blocking myself off from really getting the knowledge. The more open – the more pure, if you like – the more unstained, the more clear like a mirror my mind is, and seeing her in the best way possible, the more likely I am to become, very quickly, a very good cake-maker. Now that’s reasonable, we understand that.

To put that in Buddhist terms: the practice is to see your guru as the Buddha. To see your guru as already fully enlightened, as perfect. This is the secret to success.

One lama, Ribur Rinpoche, said this is the most difficult practice. The way they say it in the texts is: this approach is the basis of all our realizations, the basis of our capacity to develop and become a buddha. It’s a really tough one. Tough because in our world we see everything through the filter of our own delusions, our attachment and our neuroses, and our criticism and our judgment, and our fears and our lack of trust and all of the nonsense polluting our minds; we see everyone and everything through that filter.

If I’ve got a deluded mind, an arrogant mind, I’m going to see my mother and think, “Huh, who does she think she is? What’s she telling me this for, and what do you mean this, and oh I don’t think she’s a very good cake-maker.” The more deluded I am in seeing her, the less likely I am to learn how to make great cakes, because I’m imputing my own junk on top of her.

The more we can imagine that our lama is a buddha manifesting in this human form for my sake, the more benefit we will receive, the more quickly I’ll become a buddha myself, just like them. It’s logical.

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