You may be perfectly content to study and practice the dharma on your own, without a Buddhist teacher or community. But the time may come when you feel that isn’t enough, and you decide you want to seek one out. If that happens, how do you go about finding a teacher (and by extension, a community) that’s right for you?
It’s important to know that the wisdom you’re seeking is already within you. It guides your spiritual search, and is the reason you are already on the path. So to some extent you can rely on your own instincts and intuition to help you.
With that in mind, I recommend approaching your search as a five-step process: watch, ask, feel, try it on, and commit.
Watch what the teacher does and says, and how he or she treats people. Kindness, friendliness, humility, a sense of humor, as well as a forthright and honest manner are qualities of spiritual maturity recognized by every Buddhist tradition. They are the precepts in action. Some say you should watch a teacher for three years before accepting him or her. I’m not sure that is realistic or necessary, but whether it is three weeks or three years, take your time.
Ask questions, and don’t be shy. See how the teacher responds. Don’t be rude, but don’t hold back either. Questions that feel dumb are often the best questions. When I was with my root teacher, I wanted to look good to him and so I tended not to ask questions that exposed my ignorance. I regret that. A good teacher will not be offended or defensive about such questions.
Also, when asking questions, ask everyone. The teacher’s close students know him or her best. Find out what they know or are willing to share. In assessing their responses, use your “wisdom stomach.” If there are any secrets about the teacher or the community that you need to know, these students are your best sources.
How do you feel? After watching and asking, take stock of your own gut feeling. Is your feeling about the teacher pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? That feeling is a clue. There is a principle in Buddhism—in Zen we call it innen—which can be translated as “affinity” or “coincidence.” It refers to the causes and conditions of human relationship that have brought you and the teacher together. For a teacher–student relationship to work, there needs to be this sense of affinity. You should feel a positive regard for the teacher. If not, this teacher may not right for you.
Try it on. After watching, asking, and feeling, it may be a time to “try it on.” A good teacher or community will offer some level of provisional commitment—a chance to accept the teacher more deeply without throwing yourself off a cliff. Depending on the tradition, this might involve a ceremony, a private interview, or acceptance into a retreat or more intensive level of practice.
Be cautious about a teacher or community that requires a life-changing, irrevocable commitment up front. Quitting your job, being ordained as a monk or nun, giving away money or property, becoming a full-time resident—these might conceivably be in your future, or not. But wherever your spiritual path leads you, these decisions are yours, not someone else’s.
Time to commit. The Buddhist path eventually requires commitment as well as trust. In your developing relationship with a teacher, there may come a time when both of you are ready for a commitment. If this time has come, don’t hold back. Perhaps it will be good; perhaps it will turn out to be a mistake. In the end, you need to put one foot in front of the other, and see where the path leads you. All seekers of the Way have done this.
In dharma, as in life, there are no guarantees. Things that count involve risk. As they say in sports, “No guts, no glory.” Good luck!