How do Buddhist teachers work with doubt?

Sometimes when I teach I feel like I’m pretending to be someone I’m not because I see where I fail to live up to these precious teachings. I begin to doubt.

By Lion’s Roar

Photo by Le Minh Phuong.

Question: I’ve been teaching meditation and leading Buddhists classes for a number of years. Sometimes when I teach I feel like I’m pretending to be someone I’m not because I see where I fail to live up to these precious teachings. Then I begin to doubt my ability to teach. How do you work with this as a teacher?

Tulku Thondup: Living according to what you teach makes one an ideal teacher of dharma. You can then communicate not only at the level of words, but also at the level of heart feeling. If your heart is filled with love and wisdom, even if you don’t teach much, your mere presence will become a great source of learning and inspiration.

However, even if you haven’t lived up to what you are teaching in terms of your own experience, if you understand the teachings correctly you will still benefit others—not because of you but because of the dharma that you are teaching. A story about one of the Buddha’s disciples illustrates this. This disciple had to leave the Buddha to go to a faraway country. There he taught the Buddha’s teachings, though he himself wasn’t realized, and his students quickly realized the Truth. Wanting to meet the Buddha, they asked their teacher whether they should travel to meet him via their teacher’s power (siddhi) or theirs. Realizing that he did not possess any power, the teacher told his students that he’d get back to them in one week. During that week he meditated assiduously on the very teachings he had been teaching and realized the Truth. So they all flew to visit the Buddha through the teacher’s miraculous power.

There are real dangers every dharma teacher should try to avoid. We must be careful to remain dharma friends to others and not use our status as teachers to polish our egos and heighten our arrogance. We must try to be generous and giving, and not think about how to fill our greedy, deep pockets. We must be honest and straightforward about what we do and do not know, and not deceive others or ourselves. Even if you are not perfect, if you are humble, giving and honest, you will greatly benefit others by sharing what you know.

Blanche Hartman: Of course the same doubts arise in me. I would be concerned if I, or anyone, did not notice how often we fall short of our aspirations. That’s why we always continue our own practice, so we can see when self-clinging arises and let it go again and again. We live a life of vow and repentance: we constantly renew our vow to awaken for the benefit of all beings, and we constantly see how limited we are, and sincerely repent, and again renew our vow. Suzuki Roshi said, “Zen is about making our best effort on each moment forever.”

Doubt as humility is seeing one’s practice without pretentiousness. If the Dalai Lama says that after a lifetime of serious practice he is not satisfied with the results, how could any of us be? – Narayan Liebenson Grady

It is important to live what we teach to the very best of our ability. Dogen Zenji said, “To expound the dharma with this body is foremost. Its virtue returns to the ocean of reality. It is unfathomable; we just accept it with respect and gratitude.” And yet, in spite of our limitations, how can we not do our best to share the gift we have received from our teachers, so that it may continue to be available to future generations? Isn’t that how we can best express our gratitude?

Narayan Liebenson Grady: It seems to me that it is necessary to discern between three kinds of doubt: doubt as humility, doubt as conditioning and doubt as a voice of wisdom.

Doubt as humility is seeing one’s practice without pretentiousness. If the Dalai Lama says that after a lifetime of serious practice he is not satisfied with the results, how could any of us be? Doubt as habitual conditioning is the doubt that tends to cling to any convenient area of one’s life. Some of us have been deeply conditioned to think that nothing we do is good enough. Naturally, teaching would be included. Two ways of working with this kind of doubt come to mind: one is to make a clear and determined effort to include it as part of your practice and the other is to speak with the teacher who initially encouraged you to teach. This teacher’s guidance and confidence in you might help you to let go of this conditioning.

As far as doubt being a voice of wisdom, if you find yourself talking about things that you don’t understand or if there is a significant gap between your actions and words, this kind of doubt might be telling you something you need to listen to.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.