Thread: Is having a Buddhist teacher always necessary?

  1. #1

    Is having a Buddhist teacher always necessary?

    Dear friends,

    Is having a recognised and reliable teacher at a Buddhist centre or a monastery important for the various stages of our path? - or should we rely exclusively on solitary practice and the study of ancient texts from the different traditions ?

    What's your opinion?

    With metta,


  2. #2
    Forums Member justusryans's Avatar
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    Jun 2012
    Buckingham, Virginia
    I would love to have a recognized and reliable leader at a Sangha, and did for some time when I lived in Richmond. I have since moved to a small town near the Chesapeake Bay and there is no Sangha in the area. I study texts from different traditions and do solitary practice now.

    While each has its merits I think having the freedom to study what you want and and do solitary practice exceeds going to a Sangha. I appreciate the ability to study what you want to and follow different traditions, rather then being limited to just one set of ideas and teachings.

    I think it’s a very individual question and on one hand I see both sides of this issue... on the other hand I think finding a teacher who is suitable is a difficult task. At least it has been for me. I find myself limited to watching u tube videos and reading. I do have favorite teachers online...but it’s one thing to follow online, quite another to be present to listen and discuss their teachings.

    So I’ll just have to continue doing what I’m doing and enjoy the ability to read and study the ancient texts on my own. 🧘

  3. #3
    Technical Administrator woodscooter's Avatar
    London UK
    It is a very individual issue, and I think the need for a teacher varies at different stages of one's life.

    I've personally benefited from hearing thoughts that were new to me, from teachers I have listened to, and I've understood more by hearing ideas discussed in more depth or from a different angle, from teachers.

    There have been times when I've realised I have put into practice the things I've heard about, without the reliance on a teacher.

    You don't necessarily have to have an ongoing relationship with a specific teacher. There's benefit in finding a lay person mature in the path, to become an 'admirable friend'*, or kalyana-mitta.

    * Anguttara Nikaya 8.54

  4. #4
    Forums Member
    Join Date
    Sep 2010
    As the others posted in response to this question, I agree that there is benefits in both.

    My experience has been a combination of Teachers and sanghas at times, and times when I am engaged in solitary practice.

    The key to the question for me, "a recognised and reliable teacher at a Buddhist centre or a monastery" it has been my experience that recognising a reliable teacher is difficult, unless you have had at least some solitary study to get some perspective.

    It can also be difficult to see clearly some of the key concepts in Buddhism, particularly when you have had only solitary practice as a context, a teachers guidance can be invaluable.

    Without proper perspective we can spend years in blind alleys, thinking we have grasped a concept when we were actually blind to the meaning.

    This is not to say that everyone can find a sangha and teacher, (although in the electronic age there are many online opportunities to join a sangha, such as BWB), it may not be possible, but even if you do not have a suitable sangha nearby, retreat practice with a reputable teacher can help enormously

    My understanding is that Buddhism is simple, but is swimming against the stream of worldly understanding, so with out some basic understanding it is hard to grasp, we need to intellectually understand the concepts initially, but progress begins when you practice. It helps enormously to talk through your experiences with someone who has had the same experiences and can guide you.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by McKmike
    It helps enormously to talk through your experiences with someone who has had the same experiences and can guide you.
    I agree. However, I think we need to be very cautious about seemingly helpful and "charismatic" teachers, in view of all the misconduct and abuse allegations surfacing in recent years.

    I think I've probably said before somewhere that it would be more sensible if one -to -one interviews with a teacher were conducted with a chaperone present (as in Theravada monasteries), or were at the end of a talk where other people are present in the room. (as in some centres and Monasteries)

  6. #6
    Previous Member
    Join Date
    Sep 2018
    My lineage is Zen, so this teacher question is, thankfully, not as rigid as in other lineages. The Zen teacher merely points the way, and a student is expected to leave a teacher that isn't working out for them. It is always up to the student to determine who may or may not be a suitable teacher.

    I used to be very against the idea that I even needed a teacher. Some years ago I met Ken McLeod, a Tibetan Buddhist lama, at a talk he was giving in Portland concerning the book he had written. After his talk, I asked him about this very question, understanding that as a Tibetan Buddhist he had a very different idea on the role of a teacher than Zen did. Why, I asked him, did I need a teacher? At some point, isn't everything we encounter in our lives our teacher? The friend, the neighbor next door, the cat, the sky, the earth? Yes, he said, that is true. But sometimes you need someone to tell you what the back of your head looks like. Later, it struck me that he had skillfully given me a Zen type answer, as I had mentioned to him that I was a Zen student before asking him the teacher question. This was confirmed when I later saw him give a talk at the Portland Zen Center. He gave very short and concise answers to questions, and tailored things to his audience.

    But to get back to his reply to my question about needing a teacher, what got my attention was that I immediately understood what he really meant as soon as he said it. Without someone that is knowledgeable and unbiased to lend a hand occasionally, we rely too much on our own ideas on what practice should be, and that is not a good thing. We will always be influenced by our ego to go towards the things we agree with, and shy away from the things we don't like. Having someone to give their view is a good thing, even if it's just a friend or another sangha member. I am always locked into me, and it is impossible to see how I am, just as it is impossible for me to see what the back of my head looks like. I can see the reflection of it in a mirror, but can never see the back as it is w/o that reflection. Just as I can only see how I think I am, which is not at all the same thing as how I am. We can't evrn trust our own thoughts or ideas, that is clear after only a few meditation sessions.

    I'm still not sure if we need a teacher. Everyone has to make their own mind up on that question. But having someone to ck us on our stuff is very helpful indeed.
    Last edited by steve marino; 13 Sep 18 at 02:15.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by steve marino
    Ken McLeod, a Tibetan Buddhist lama
    Hi Steve,

    Ken Mcleod was a western student of the first Kalu Rinpoche (1905-1989) of the Tibetan Kagyu tradition and also a translator, then later he wrote books and gave talks about Tibetan Buddhism. (and I think he's also a business consultant).

    I don't think he was ever officially awarded the title of "Lama" by any Tibetan Buddhist lineage, though I may be wrong of course.

    Unfortunately, he also appears on a list of controversial teachers and groups :

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