When I first showed up at the Minnesota Zen Center forty-five years ago and met its head teacher, Dainin Katagiri, I was full of misapprehensions and naive expectations about studying with a spiritual teacher.
Eventually I discovered that most people, when they first consider working with a spiritual teacher, have many of the same misapprehensions and expectations.
This isn’t foolish or dysfunctional; it’s normal. When we begin any potentially important relationship, we can’t know exactly how it will evolve. We can only live into it—and, if necessary, back out of it—as mindfully as possible.
Most authentic student–teacher relationships start out simply and productively. As these relationships unfold, however, many of us eventually experience some shock, surprise, confusion, and disappointment. We discover that the relationship is at least partly not what we expected. Much of what we learn through that relationship may be equally unexpected. All of this, too, is normal.
If we stay with this process rather than attempt to flee from the dukkha, we may find ourselves at a place of reappraisal, integration, reorientation, and renewal.
There’s no way to circumvent this process. It’s a necessary part of many folks’ spiritual journeys.
However, it’s possible to post some signs along the route. These signs can help people who walk the path to stay on it; to traverse it more swiftly; to stumble less often; to get up more quickly when they do; and to not lose sight of why they’re on the journey.
What follows are nineteen such signposts.
All spiritual teachers—no matter how enlightened (or deluded)—are human beings, with the same physical, mental, and emotional equipment as the rest of us. If they weren’t, how could we possibly follow in their footsteps, and what could they really teach us?
When we accept that our teachers are fundamentally just like us, we give ourselves a huge gift: we accept in ourselves the potential to embody the same wisdom, compassion, and spirit of service that we value in them.
At the heart of every healthy student–teacher relationship are five essential elements:
The student’s desire to become wiser or more fully human.
The teacher’s commitment—whether overt or implied—to assist the student in this endeavor.
The teacher’s parallel commitment to consistently act in the student’s best interests. This includes not harming or exploiting the student in any way. It also includes never putting the teacher’s interests ahead of the student’s.
The student’s faith that the teacher will honor these commitments.
The student’s honest intention to not exploit the teacher for their own gratification or gain.
In healthy relationships, these elements enable the student and teacher to develop a deep and abiding trust in one another. In unhealthy ones, one or more of these elements are often violated.
In any healthy teacher–student relationship, both people are adults who are fully responsible for their own actions and decisions.
Spiritual teachers can guide us, encourage us, and tell us when we’re full of crap. But they are not—and should not be—our surrogate parents.
In fact, some of the most troublesome issues between spiritual teachers and their students arise when we try to make the teachers into parental figures, or project our own parental or authority issues onto them.
A good teacher will help you become more of who you are, not less.
Any authentic religious practice helps us grow into ourselves—not into a mold shaped like someone else.
A wise teacher won’t order you around, tell you what to think, make you into a robot, or treat you like a child. They also won’t offer you brownie points for pleasing them or jumping through spiritual hoops.
Instead, when the two of you are together, they will be fully present, both intellectually and emotionally. And they will hear and respond to your questions, not merely pose their own.
Most of us have encountered folks who act, talk, or dress like their teacher, imagining that this will somehow imbue them with their teacher’s wisdom. It doesn’t, any more than adopting Denzel Washington’s habits will make you a great actor.
And if a teacher picks out a spouse or career for you, or otherwise tries to micromanage you or take control of any significant aspect of your personal life, back away. There’s a good chance you’re dealing with someone dangerous.
Questioning or challenging a teacher is a vital part of any healthy student–teacher relationship. This includes subjecting everything a teacher says to your own careful scrutiny. The more insightful a teacher is, the more this scrutiny will validate what they say, and the deeper their teaching will sink in.
When something a teacher says doesn’t hold up to your careful observation, it’s important to question them, challenge them, or ask them to help you refine your understanding. This enables you to go deeper and get clarification. When a teacher’s response falls short, it gives you a better feel for their weaknesses and limitations. It also gives the teacher a better sense of how you think and feel.
An authentic teacher will expect you to test and mull over what they teach you, not merely accept it on faith. You will discover that, over time, this testing and questioning will serve you well—not just in your relationship with your teacher, but in almost every relationship and situation. Eventually, this process will become second nature, and you will have developed faith in your own powers of observation and discernment.
Your teacher won’t give you the Answer. It’s not that there’s no Answer—but it doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped description or explanation.
No spiritual teacher can give us a perfect recipe for enlightenment, or happiness, or living a life that matters. Nor can they explain human life to us—though we may want or ask them to. Life can’t be explained, because it’s not a concept. It’s an endlessly unfolding process.
What a good teacher can do is help us see this process more clearly—and act in ways that support human sanity, health, and happiness.
In any case, what explanation can possibly remove the ache in your heart—or the confusion in your mind? That can only come from seeing things for yourself, not by listening to someone else’s explanation.
No spiritual teacher, even a highly talented one, is going to solve your problems for you. When we first begin learning from a spiritual teacher, we may assume they have the power to staunch our pain or solve our problems. But neither of these is part of their job.
A spiritual teacher can help you see more clearly, point out where you’re stuck, offer a perspective that will help you make your own decision, or—sometimes—suggest a specific course of action. But you’re the one who has to live your life.
Many of us students try to avoid the unavoidable pain of making our own decisions, living into their consequences, and growing up. So we ask our teachers to make some of those decisions for us.
A good teacher will refuse to make any decision for you that you need to make on your own—and will hand the power and responsibility back to you. They may also help you examine your own emotions and uncertainty around the issue.
Your teacher is not larger than life, even if some of the folks around them think they are. Once someone has learned to stay present and pay attention, they’ll naturally notice things that most other folks don’t. While we might call this a special talent, it’s neither supernatural nor unique to spiritual teachers. Such people are just fully here, rather than lost in their thoughts or hopes or fears or agendas.
Spiritual teachers sometimes have moments of great insight, just as many of us do. But that doesn’t mean they’re larger than life; it means that life is much larger than us.
All spiritual teachers—no matter how enlightened—make some mistakes and misjudgments. Spiritual insight does not magically wipe out all of a teacher’s limitations, failings, neuroses, moral blind spots, or goofy ideas. At times, we may see our teacher lose their temper, argue with their partner, wear mismatched socks, or eat three Snickers bars before dinner.
If they’re a decent and authentic teacher, however, they’ll readily and publicly admit their mistakes and limitations—and, when appropriate, apologize and make amends. They’ll also say “I don’t know” when they don’t know.
Don’t judge a spiritual teacher by how well-known they are, how many books they have published, or how many students they have. Like members of all professions, spiritual teachers range from wise, authentic, and wonderfully helpful to incompetent, deeply deluded, and outright fraudulent. They also range from internationally famous to largely unknown.
Although fame and ability often go together, sometimes the opposite is the case. In fact, charismatic charlatans, predators, and narcissists often attract very large followings.
When investigating a spiritual teacher, ignore their popularity (or lack of it). Instead, observe them carefully as you and others interact with them, and evaluate what you witness with your own heart, body, and mind.
You can tell a lot about a spiritual teacher by observing the community that has formed around them. The emotional and spiritual health of a community tends to reflect the emotional and spiritual health of its teachers.
A sane, loving, and wise teacher will mostly have sane and loving (though not necessarily wise) students; a teacher with limited insight or personality problems will tend to attract like-minded students. And a community that forms around a narcissistic or deluded teacher will feel like a fan club, a pep rally, a platoon, or a cult.
As Jack Kornfeld notes, “The problems of teachers cannot be easily separated from the communities around them.”
It’s easy for us to unwittingly project our own hopes, fears, and motivations onto our teachers. This isn’t pathological or neurotic; it’s natural and common. Most of us do it, more or less unconsciously, with everyone we care about.
As part of our relationship with our teacher, we need to watch our own minds and actions so that, over time, we can see for ourselves what we’re doing.
We also need to observe our teachers carefully, but not jump to conclusions about their motivations. Instead, we can hold our interpretations and beliefs lightly, test them repeatedly, and amend or drop them in light of our emerging experience.
It’s fine for a spiritual teacher to be wealthy if they earned or inherited their money—but if their wealth comes from their students, consider this a huge red flag. There’s nothing wrong with a spiritual teacher charging money for what they do, so long as their fees are reasonable and transparent.A spiritual teacher’s time and effort are valuable, just as yours are. Why shouldn’t they be entitled to charge reasonable fees and to make an honest (but not lavish) living from them? We all need—and deserve—to eat.
However, we also deserve to be free from exploitation.Spiritual guidance is not a product to be delivered at the highest cost that the market will bear. It’s a form of love and service. As such, it should either be given freely or—when circumstances warrant—provided at a fair and affordable price.
If you see a teacher living large off the backs of their students, turn around and run.
The most common error sincere spiritual teachers make is believing themselves to be wiser or more aware than they actually are. Because this error is so common, there’s never a time when our own powers of discernment—our cognitive skills, our intuition, and our courage to question and investigate—become optional. We always need them, even with the people we trust the most.
This is not because human beings are inherently malicious or selfish, but because all of us are fallible. No one is exempt from this reality—including spiritual teachers.
About a decade ago, I met a highly respected Buddhist teacher who came down with dementia as she grew old. She continued to teach, but her decisions and actions became steadily more questionable. Her neurological decline overshadowed her very real wisdom.
We need to accept the sad and humbling fact that even the wisest spiritual teacher can’t pray or meditate away their body chemistry.
A teacher who is ideal for you may not be right for your partner, your best friend, or your child. Each of us has our own interests, obsessions, fears, and burning spiritual questions. Some of us do better when we’re gently coaxed, others when we’re vigorously challenged. Some of us want a teacher who speaks primarily to our heart; others lean toward teachers who first engage our intellect. Some of us want to closely study sacred texts; others focus naturally on everyday ethics, devotion, and service. Some of us are especially drawn to mystical teachings; others want to hear about the practical applications of those teachings.
It’s wise, then, to select a spiritual teacher based on your own interests and inner promptings, rather than those of someone else, no matter how close you may be to them.
Your teacher may guide you in one direction, yet guide a different student in another. Every student and every situation is unique. So is every moment.
Guidance from a spiritual teacher should be consistently compassionate and wise. But the specifics of that guidance may change from one person—and one situation—to the next.
Sometimes, there will be other footprints on the path in front of you. At other times, you’ll need to walk through unexplored territory. And, occasionally, you may see lots of footprints headed in the seemingly opposite direction. Your task—with your teacher’s guidance—is to discern your own path and then step forward on it.
A good spiritual teacher never stops studying, practicing, and growing. Often, they have a teacher of their own. As many teachers have pointed out, spiritual study and practice offer us no finish line, no ultimate graduation ceremony. Indeed, often distinctions between the journey and the traveler become quite blurred. Because a good teacher knows this in their bones, their own spiritual study and practice never ends.
When a spiritual teacher has a teacher of their own, it isn’t a sign of weakness or immaturity. Instead, it’s often a sign of humility and openness—perhaps the two most important characteristics of any good spiritual teacher.
A spiritual teacher has only as much power as their students give them. We always have the option of ignoring a teacher or walking away from them. Without us, they’d have no one to teach.
Part of our job as students is to give our teachers the right amount of power. This means allowing them to influence us, perhaps quite deeply—but not allowing an unwise or unethical teacher to brainwash us, control us, or make us smaller or less human.
Most spiritual teachers are less concerned with imparting information than they are with reminding you of what is already in your heart. Your own heart, body, mind, and gut are where your spiritual study will resonate. They are where you will discern what is of value and what is not. And they are where you and a good spiritual teacher will meet, over and over.
Portions of this article are copyright 2011 and 2017 by Scott Edelstein.