Marshall Glickman on the doubts, traps and insecurities that come with the title “Buddhist teacher.”
“Do you want to teach?”
This wasn’t an offer but a question about my aspirations. I was at a restaurant with a small group of Buddhists, and if there is such a thing as a spiritual resume, I had, in a meandering way, just given mine: sitting for over twenty years, practicing according to different traditions, and eventually committing to the method of vipassana taught by S.N. Goenka, which I wrote a book about. For some, teaching would be the next step.
“No,” I said. “I have too many flaws.”
At the time, I was pleased with my modest-sounding and true-enough answer. But thinking about it later, I realized I hadn’t been completely honest. I’d imagined myself as a teacher plenty of times. Given free rein, I’d fantasized that I was a spiritual leader and best-selling author, free from ego, who stood on the teaching platform dispensing wisdom to an admiring audience. It’s a slightly embarrassing confession, but I suspect such daydreams aren’t uncommon.
“We get a few emails or calls every day from people interested in taking our teaching training program. Some of them have never even meditated before,” explains Melissa Blacker, codirector of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic (MBSR) founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts.
“You can see the appeal,” says Kabat-Zinn, with a twinkle detectable even over the phone. “It seems so simple. After all, what do you have to do but say, ‘Breathe in; breathe out’ and ‘Let go’? Plus it’s right livelihood and you have the Buddha behind you and all.”
Kabat-Zinn is a respected and influential teacher who can smile at such naive notions because he knows just how hard teaching can be. “After twenty-five years,” says Kabat-Zinn, “I still wouldn’t say I’m good at it.”
In my more aware moments, I recognize my fantasies of teaching grandeur as just that. I sometimes remember that should such grand visions come true, they’d bring their own challenges. The one time I was in a meditation hall with S. N. Goenka, the room was packed. All eyes and ears were on him, scrutinizing his every move and hanging on his every word. Goenkaji, as his students call him, appeared unfazed by the attention, but it seemed stressful to me.
Roshi Joan Halifax says that managing her Santa Fe, New Mexico, Zen center can feel like being responsible for a small country. “Part of me was horrified when I received inka from Bernie Glassman,” she confesses. “I recognized it as the beginning of my problems.”
Even lower-profile teachers with fewer responsibilities feel the pressure. Jonathan Crowley, a recently appointed assistant teacher at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, admits, “Since becoming a teacher I’m more aware of how what I say and do may appear to students.”
More importantly, whole communities rely on their teachers for guidance. “At times, it can feel a bit daunting,” says Crowley. “You become part of a line of teachers that in a real sense represents the Buddha.”
So how does someone know if they’re ready to take on such responsibilities? Most teachers—if not all—must be prey to self-aggrandizement. Most—if not all—must space out on the cushion sometimes. Most—if not all—must occasionally get frustrated with their students. Joseph Goldstein, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts, and author of One Dharma, says, “Most people who are teaching have some combination of wisdom and ignorance.”
I assume every student who has walked the dharma trail for a few seasons has seen cracks in the enlightened behavior of otherwise gifted, even master, teachers. In Crooked Cucumber, the biography of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, author David Chadwick recounts a couple of incidents in which the venerable Roshi inappropriately lost his temper (and soon after apologized). By then, Suzuki Roshi had been teaching for many years and had attracted a large following through his genuine, fluid presence. In other words, if it could happen to him, it could happen to just about anyone.
Few of us expect perfection from our teachers, but if a roshi blows up frequently at students, we’re likely to question his or her authority. What makes a good teacher, then, seems to depend on the ratio of wisdom to ignorance. How little delusion and how much wisdom are needed? What other qualities are present? And what lessons, if any, can those of us who are unlikely to ever teach learn from those who have taken on those responsibilities?
“Whether we like it or not, we’re all our most important teachers,” says Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American-born, Thai-trained Theravadin monk who is abbot of Metta Forest Monastery outside San Diego. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen carefully to those whom we consider to have wisdom. But we can’t abdicate responsibility for our training or path.”
Years ago, during a retreat, I asked a Vipassana teacher if it was necessary to have had a “nirvanic dip” before teaching. “No,” he answered. “There are good players and good coaches. The best players aren’t necessarily the best coaches, and sometimes the best coaches aren’t the best players.” I nodded, did a little bow and shuffled back to my cushion. But later I began to wonder about his answer. So recently I asked other teachers that same question.
Not surprisingly, all agreed that it’s best to have a teacher who is both a great player and a great coach—someone who lives the teachings, communicates his or her understanding well, and has a thorough knowledge of his or her Buddhist tradition (and ideally, has had exposure to other schools). “One needs insight, a strong practice, and a good grounding in early Buddhism,” says Halifax. But of these, she believes knowledge of texts is least important. “The sutras offer crucial guidance and contain the conceptual core of Buddhism. But if you’ve had a profound realization and have a deep practice, it might not be necessary to know the sutras.”
“A teacher should have experienced the deathless,” says Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who is known to his students as Than Geoff. “In dharma, you have to be a good player before you can be a good coach. You have to know where you’re headed and how you got there. That’s why conviction in karma is a characteristic of a stream-enterer. They see the principle of karma through the process of their awakening.”
Although experiencing “the deathless” may not be a goal for all practices, most traditions expect teachers to have some fundamental insight into the nature of reality and the mind. “In Tibetan Buddhism,” explains Reginald A. Ray, author of Secret of the Vajra World, “ultimately the teacher needs to learn how to rest his or her mind in nonconceptual awareness and to let his or her responses and actions emerge from that in a natural way.” Expressing a similar sentiment, former Zen and now Vipassana teacher Trudy Goodman says, “You should be standing on the solid ground of emptiness.”
I wondered if there was a way to express that in more practical terms. “The traditional Zen answer,” offers Kabat-Zinn, “is that your mind should no longer be attached, or you should know when it is attached.”
Acknowledging that phrases like “nonconceptual awareness” may be a bit abstract, Ray explains, “By saying a teacher should be ‘selfless,’ I don’t mean that someone is without ego. But rather that when working with students and presented with a need, teachers can let go of whatever agenda or self-concept they are carrying and meet that need directly.”
Yet, while insight is crucial, Ray points out that insight alone doesn’t make a teacher. “Some of the most realized people in our sangha don’t officially teach,” he says. “It’s just not their thing.”
I had been under the impression that once someone reaches a certain level of realization he or she is almost obligated to step into a teaching role. But as Ray explains, “The obligation is to help others.” Or, as Zen poet and author Norman Fischer puts it: “The commitment is to the practice and to sharing it however you can. Some people teach by the way they sweep a floor; others by their presence in the meditation hall; others by working in a soup kitchen.”
That sounds so classically Zen that at first I didn’t really hear it. But after I listened to my taped interview with Fischer a second time, it started to sink in. “A good spiritual teacher,” explains Fischer, “fully manifests the karma of his or her own life as a way of expressing dharma. People differ so much, it’s hard to say what a spiritual teacher is supposed to look and taste and feel like—a really good one might be quite the opposite of what you would expect.”
Fischer’s words resonated on the second hearing because by then most of the people I’d talked to had, in different ways, said the same thing: that each teacher, though pointing to the same basic truths, will express his or her understanding in his or her own way.
In A Path with Heart, Jack Kornfield writes, “Spiritual practice can never be fulfilled by imitation of an outer form of perfection. This leads us only to ‘acting spiritual.’ While we may be genuinely inspired by the examples of wise teachers and traditions, their very inspiration can also create problems for us. We want to imitate them instead of being honest and true in ourselves.”
Often we associate achievement or great skill with vast knowledge and complexity. We tend to think that teachers know something we don’t, as though somehow they have possessions we need. And while it’s true that the teachers I spoke with have a great deal of knowledge, their true skill lies not in what they’ve gained, but rather in what they’ve let go of. As Kornfield notes, “Letting go sounds so simple, but it’s also an advanced practice.”
“A teacher is in a role,” says Fischer. “In a sense you’re not really the teacher, but channeling the Buddha’s teachings.” Clearly, this leaves little room for egotism.
“There have been times when my ambition to be a good teacher has interfered with the teaching process,” admits Ray. Fischer has also encountered this problem. “Students will actually encourage you to have self-inflated thoughts,” he says. “They project qualities onto you that they want you to have.”
“Sometimes people idealize you and it can be very seductive,” explains Goodman. She recalls one such an occasion during a Zen retreat: “A very attractive student did a prostration at my feet and at the end of the prostration he kissed my toes. Shivers went through me and I have to admit some part of me really liked it. At the same time, I understood what was going on. So it gave me a flash of ‘Oh, this is how it happens.’ It was a vivid reminder that it’s essential to be awake and mindful when you’re in this powerful role.”
I asked Kabat-Zinn how he keeps his vanity in check. “The first thing,” he explains, “is to be aware that the projections you’re receiving are not true. They are projections of other people’s minds because of ignorance and desire. That isn’t to say you can’t have a positive effect on people as an instrument of the dharma. But if you start thinking, ‘So many people think I’m marvelous, then I must be marvelous,’ that is the kiss of death. If I started believing that, the ego would know no bounds. The question is, what do you want out of life? Do you want to just ride the rocket of your own ego to wherever it takes you? Or, are you already convinced that in some real way that would be a waste of your entire life and a betrayal of what’s truly possible for human beings?”
“The second thing is awareness of all the different currents in the mind that are related to greed and desire and the personal pronouns I, me and mine—and how much I want this, that, and the other thing, or how much I don’t want this, that, and the other thing.
“Third is to counterbalance the ways you could get hooked emotionally. One way to do that is to name what is happening; for example, ‘feeling like I’m really terrific,’ or ‘feeling intoxicated with how well things are going,’ or whatever the self-satisfied thought may be. That way feelings of self-satisfaction don’t go by without being noticed.”
Other teachers I spoke with also talked about the need to keep a wary eye on egotism. “There have been times,” said one teacher, “when I seriously considered not teaching anymore because of its effect on my ego.” Another teacher, who reported that egotism wasn’t his particular weak link, still said, “Sometimes I need to slap myself and recognize I’m being ridiculous.” Like Kabat-Zinn, each teacher guards against the ego by using a combination of awareness, familiarity with his or her vulnerabilities, and preparedness. “A teacher is on a dangerous journey,” says Ray, “but if you’re well prepared for difficulties, you’re likely to do fine.”
Like the Buddha on the eve of his enlightenment, today’s teachers are faced with the temptations of greed and pleasure. The Buddha had to navigate this alone, while today’s teachers have the benefit of established guidelines and safeguards, as well as support from colleagues. “Since we tend to face similar issues, it’s very helpful to meet with other teachers,” says Goodman.
Recognizing the value of collective wisdom, Kornfield and other founding teachers at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, have developed a teacher-training program that cultivates future teachers in small groups. “Every four or five years,” explains Kornfield, “a group of established teachers consult with one another. We consider students who have a depth of practice, a compassionate heart, natural teaching skills, excellent ethics and psychological self-knowledge—as well as whether they have a maturity both in emptiness and in their ability to manifest the qualities that would make a good teacher.” Of the thousands of students who are part of the Spirit Rock community, a handful or fewer are invited to take part in the four- to five-year training program. During that time, these teachers-to-be will complete a recommended reading curriculum, take part in intimate discussion groups and gradually take on teaching roles.
Much of the training, which focuses on ripening a teacher’s depth of practice and knowledge of dharma, could be considered traditional. What’s new about Spirit Rock’s approach is its attention to psychological work. It deals with the psychological issues that may arise for teachers as individuals, as well as with the difficulties that they are likely to face as a teacher. Adding this aspect to a teacher’s training reflects the fluid and complex roles Western teachers typically take on.
Most American teachers are laypeople, often with families, who have middle-class financial obligations. They also teach students of both genders. Handling many different roles requires self-knowledge, maturity and a well-rounded personality. “When considering someone to participate in our acharya [teacher] program,” explains Ray, “one thing I look for is a basic groundedness and level-headedness.”
In some ways, maintaining discipline while juggling different roles as a layperson is more difficult than maintaining responsibilities after you’ve committed to becoming a monk or nun. “I’m not sure how lay teachers do it,” says Than Geoff, who even as a monk finds “always being available for your students” one of the hardest challenges of teaching. There’s no way around it—teaching means giving up lots of private time and, for most, it also means financial sacrifice.
As a teacher in the tradition of S. N. Goenka, Crowley receives no compensation for his efforts, yet he’s committed to teaching a minimum of two ten-day retreats a year, doing his own retreats, and maintaining his two hours of daily practice. In Crowley’s case, you’ll also often find him peeling carrots in the center’s kitchen, answering e-mails in the office, painting the meditation hall, or organizing a meditation retreat for prisoners. He works as the administrative director of a small nonprofit, which gives him scheduling flexibility. Yet integrating career and dharma has been challenging for him.
It’s a dilemma facing most lay teachers and their communities. “In our sangha,” explains Ray, “we wrestled for a long time about whether teachers should be paid or not. Eventually we decided it was helpful, since some practitioners who would make fine teachers just couldn’t afford to take the time to teach without some compensation. But we also recognized that if teachers rely on that source of income alone, it could cause problems.”
Not surprisingly, integrity and honesty is key. “A teacher’s mind must be transparent not only to themselves, but to others,” stresses Halifax. This means a teacher should be comfortable admitting mistakes.
“If a teacher openly acknowledges his problems or missteps,” says Kornfield, “the whole community feels more relaxed with such matters. When there’s a façade of being beyond human cracks, a spirit of judgment, fear, secrecy and hypocrisy are likely to seep in.” Blacker, who is a Zen teacher as well as co-director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Clinic, observes that “If teachers try to set themselves up as perfect, it’s unlikely they’ll see their students as equals.” When I asked Ray if openly admitting mistakes could possibly hurt students’ inspiration—as in, “If he can’t do it, how can I?”—he said, “I was taught by my teacher to trust in the vulnerability of the human condition.”
“No matter how well we know ourselves and how much we achieve a steadiness of character,” writes Norman Fischer in Taking Our Places, “we are never immune to mistakes. With self-acceptance we know this, and we try to make use of our mistakes, learning from them as best we can.” A few paragraphs later, Fischer remembers how he often benefited when his own teachers made mistakes. “Far from seeing the mistake-making as a flaw that lowered the estimation of my teacher in my eyes, I saw it as a wonderful badge of his or her humanity, which helped me to accept my own imperfection more easily.”
A few months ago, if someone had asked me if there is a line that separates a teacher from a serious student, I would have said, “No. Clear boundaries rarely exist.” Yet, I was unconsciously looking for one or several definitive qualities that make someone a teacher. After interviewing various teachers, I got a sense of some of the core qualities a teacher embodies, such as insight, devotion to service and integrity. And ideally, a good teacher will manifest all these in various combinations according to the needs of the situation they find themselves in. (However, as Fischer points out, a person can still be an excellent teacher without embodying all these qualities.) But, eventually, it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to find any one thing that defines a teacher.
Around the time I realized this, I happened to come across a pithy summation of the coaching philosophy of the legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno: “Work hard, stick to the basics, and execute perfectly.” While executing perfectly seems much to ask, the gist of the coach’s advice still applies to teachers. There is no magic line to cross, but a teacher must do the “simple” things well and consistently. And in retrospect it seems obvious, but somehow I’d overlooked the crucial element of hard work.
I suppose if there is a secret, it’s recognizing there really is no secret. One simply devotes themselves to developing greater wisdom and serving others. At some point, one may find oneself in the role of teacher. And if that role fits and makes sense, it becomes part of one’s path.
When I look more carefully at my teaching fantasies, I see that they were propelled not just by egotism or the desire to be universally loved, but by subtler and perhaps even more powerful forces: laziness and impatience. When I imagine myself as a revered teacher, what I’m really after is to be done, to have no more work to do, no more battles to fight. I’m imagining that I have passed some spiritual boundary—I’m not exactly fully enlightened (apparently even my fantasies retain some tinge of realism), but I’ve attained a sort of scaled-down, materialistic version of that. (Sitting up on the platform, disciples at my hem, seems to be my rendering of having spiritually arrived.)
“It is as if,” writes Kornfield in After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, “deep down we all hope that some experience, some great realization, enough years of dedicated practice might finally lift us beyond the touch of life, beyond the mundane struggles of the world. We cling to some hope that in spiritual life we can rise above the wounds of our human pain, never to suffer them again.”
In other words, the desire to be done runs deep. That doesn’t mean we need grinding, inflexible discipline, but we shouldn’t underestimate our resistance to making consistent, skillful efforts. “You’ll probably hear lots about how important wisdom and compassion are to good teaching—and of course they are,” says Halifax. “But equally important is resilience.”
And that’s one kernel of wisdom, whether beginner or almost-bodhisattva, we would all do well to keep in mind.