When Teachers Don’t Practice What They Preach

Tenku Ruff on what to do when you discover a teacher is all too human.

Tenku Ruff
28 May 2019
Illustration by Chad Grohman.

Question: Some Buddhist teachers’ lives don’t match what they teach. Usually it’s ordinary human faults, but in some cases they’ve done really bad things. How do I evaluate a dharma teacher—by their teachings, which I’ve benefitted from, or by the way they lead their lives?

Answer: Buddhist teachings don’t belong to any one person, so it’s certainly possible to benefit from teachings even when the messenger’s ethical conduct falls short. Buddhist teachings belong to everyone.

It’s normal for a teacher’s life to occasionally be out of sync with their words. We’re all aspiring, but please evaluate how teachers respond during and after those times. Are they able to acknowledge and apologize for their mistakes? Do they demonstrate humility? What about vulnerability? If a teacher never makes mistakes—or at least never admits to making mistakes—something may be amiss. Our mistakes are our practice.

Please trust your intuition.

Many of us fall into the trap of expecting our teachers to be perfect. That’s our mistake, not theirs. Please consider whether this is going on for you before you get into the unhelpful pattern of continuously searching for someone better. Sometimes teachers perpetuate this perfection myth themselves, by subtly hinting or overtly stating that their understanding of Buddhist teachings is the best. Sometimes other students perpetuate this myth. If you hear a Buddhist teacher or their students making these claims, please exercise a strong degree of caution.

Many Buddhist teachers cite a long list of credentials, but lack accountability. Investigate whether a teacher is accountable to an organization other than themselves, with a code of conduct or ethics statement. Does the teacher live according to that code? If not, who holds them accountable? Some Buddhist organizations operate more like affinity groups, without a code and with people self-selecting in and out. These groups have their own benefits, but will not be able to do anything if a teacher steps out of line.

Finally, please trust your intuition. Don’t expect your teacher to be perfect, but being off in “really bad ways” is a sign you may need to consider another teacher.

Tenku Ruff

Tenku Ruff

Tenku Ruff, Osho, is a Soto Zen priest who trained in Japan. She is a professional chaplain living in New York and holds a Master of Divinity from Maitripa College.