How to spot a good Buddhist teacher

Posted by on Oct 22, 2012 in Buddhism | No Comments

One set of meditation practices in the Buddhist tradition are the ‘Brahmaviharas’. This can be translated as ‘sublime abodes’ or ‘dwelling places of the gods’ or something like that.

There are four practices:

  • Metta bhavana (cultivation of loving-kindness)
  • Karuna bhavana (cultivation of compassion)
  • Mudita bhavana (cultivation of sympathetic joy)
  • Upekka bhavana (cultivation of equanimity)

They’re all based on the first one – the cultivation of loving-kindness. It’s like the energy you need to do anything else.

Once you’ve developed metta to some extent, it will naturally become compassion when you see people who are suffering. It will naturally become sympathetic joy when you see people who are having a good time. The practices are ways of further developing these natural tendencies.

Equanimity is a weird one that I don’t really have much of a first-hand feeling for. As far as I can tell, once insight into the nature of reality kicks in, you will have an ‘equanimous’ response when faced with any situation. Once there’s a real letting go (which is not the same as indifference and not the same as being blocked). So equanimity is what happens when metta meets reality.

Is it wisdom or delusion?

Whenever I experience equanimity, I’m always fairly suspicious. I’ve seen Buddhists get into a state of pseudo equanimity and pretend (even to themselves) they’ve got it sussed.

It looks cool in some people’s eyes. You can build a following of eager disciples out of this kind of delusion.┬áThere’s a kind of unruffled grace about it.

But after a few years of knowing this kind of teacher, you realise that actually they’re just unwilling to feel. It’s too messy and it’s harder to stay in control. Your limbs flap about more. Your face gets into weird shapes (smiles, frowns, etc). Not quite as beautiful to look at. From one perspective anyway. And of course feeling involves feeling pain as well as all the good stuff.

What does a real Buddhist teacher look like?

It seems that in the west there’s this idea that Buddhists aren’t supposed to be ruffled. They are supposed to be on top of things. They’re supposed to breeze through dramas. I’m sure Hollywood’s got something to do with this. That bloke out of The Matrix is a good example.

There’s some truth to this. Buddhist practice does increase your emotional stability. It does allow you to let go of needing things to be a certain way in order to feel well and happy. And this allows you to be a bit more flexible with others and with changing situations. This can come across as unruffled.

But people who get into identifying with being ‘Buddhist’ can paint on something fairly similar and prance about pretending to be Obi-Wan Kenobe and lots of people won’t know the difference. Even the Obi-Wannabe might not know the difference.

If you keep practising, however, eventually, reality bleeds through. All the feelings you’ve been ignoring for years find their way out, and you have to start being a real Buddhist. Not just the shell of one. And that could look like pretty much anything at all.

Don’t judge a Buddhist book by its cover

I guess what I’m saying is don’t judge a Buddhist book by its cover. If you’re looking for a teacher, my advice is to go for someone down to Earth who doesn’t seem too exotic and trippy. The exotic and trippy ones might be cool, but it’s harder to spot whether or not they are.

Just because someone swears when they stub their toe, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad Buddhist teacher with no real wisdom. They’re probably more honest and spontaneous than someone who takes a deep breath, smiles sweetly and walks away mindfully.

However, just because someone takes a deep breath and walks away mindfully, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad teacher either! We all have our shortcomings. Just remember they’re all human, they’re all not so different from you, and they’re all just trying to make some sense out of this crazy life. And maybe within all that, they can help you out by introducing you to the path and walking alongside you for a while.


Did you know The Meditator's Handbook is out? It has everything you need to set up and maintain an effective meditation practice. Check it out!

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