Finding a Teacher

The Rahob lineage tree

The Rahob lineage tree

How does one find a “qualified” meditation teacher? This is no easy task. Start with asking about Lineage* and who follows the teacher’s own meditation practice. Every teacher I respect comes from a lineage. They were trained by someone who trained with someone who trained with someone and so on, going back hundreds if not thousands or tens of thousands of years.

To ask about someone’s lineage is in no way, and should not be received as, insulting. In fact, a good meditation teacher is really just a receptacle and spokesperson for ancient wisdom and, thus, they should easily be able to point to where that knowledge comes from. If they don’t have a lineage, or say they don’t need one, or state that “Non-duality” or other concepts equal enlightenment, or, ask you to read their bio before they will speak with you, choose your path wisely. A friend recently told me about a person who went to their first weekend-long meditation retreat and, upon their return, began setting up shop as a Meditation Teacher (capital “M,” capital “T”). I was initially surprised to hear about this, as an introductory retreat is not a lot of time to learn the ins-and-outs of meditation practice, much less to learn how to teach it to others. Despite my amazement, sadly, I hear about these sorts of things happening far too frequently now. My own teacher training and meditation background, as well as references to my lineages, are listed on the Generous Heart Sangha “About” page so you can make an informed decision about entering a Practitioner relationship. The Lineage trees in symbolic form are represented on this page.

Having been fortunate enough to train with Lineage holders and Spiritual leaders of Buddhist traditions, each and every teacher I ever trained with have all said this statement in one form or another, “Rob, one thing I know is that I don’t know anything.” Any worthy meditation teacher recognizes that they will always remain a student and that there is always more to learn. The fact that we are practitioners and on the Path together, helping one another, is what matters.

So if I seem a bit skeptical of someone taking one weekend retreat and calling themselves a “Meditation Teacher,” you now have a glimpse as to why. My issue isn’t with this one individual, but how the rise in popularity of meditation has led to a stream of self-professed teachers who haven’t been trained to hold space for individuals as they navigate the tricky waters of their own minds. In the East, preliminaries are the activities that prepare one’s mind to receive the teachings. Here in the West, integrating psychotherapy and Buddhist teachings serve as the preliminaries, preparing one’s mind to develop and enhance the qualities and conduct necessary to progress on the meditative path.

Who follows a meditation teacher’s own practice is also important. Any teacher should be followed or mentored by an Eastern teacher. I have both a Western teacher (Daniel Brown, who is a lineage holder) and, several Eastern teachers. Someone who believes they have had a great awakening and thus are above receiving teachings from living humans is likely deceiving themselves. If you turn to a teacher and ask them who they actively study with and they are vague about it, this may be another indicator to keep looking.

It’s unfortunate, and doesn’t meet the definition of Eastern generosity -one should give without any expectation of return, however, I can’t help but suspect that with the sudden boom in popularity in meditation that some people see an emerging financial market and want to position themselves as a “teacher” within it. Quotes such as, “Learn to turn off your mind…” “Learn to relax,” or, “Become one with the Universe,” or some other nonsense, are prevalent. Meditation is not relaxation therapy, although it can have that benefit; and, Meditation is about befriending, not turning off, your mind, and, seeing things as they are. “What is it? It is like this….” Mindfulness is not enlightenment. It is a continuity of consciousness that contains an element of wisdom that can be used for good or evil. As Buddhist Nun and teacher Robina Courtin has said many times, “…One also needs mindfulness to rob a bank.”

If someone’s motivation to lead meditation is to get rich or famous that is not good, but thankfully is easy to spot a proverbial mile away. They ignore the concerns of individuals seeking for help, and only take gigs that are lucrative or will make them look cooler. Many of my favorite teachers balance the grandiose events, where they are invited to teach, with smaller teaching engagements that pay little to no money. I once contacted a few mediation places locally to enquire about services; that was suffering. Generally, these folks are not followed by Tibetans, Chinese, or Mongolians, but by Western teachers that can have even bigger Ego’s. Beware of biography photography to impress rather than to inform by expressing a way of being in the world. Conduct is everything. As is said sometimes, as a light-hearted attempt to guide, “Watch out for Tibetan fashion show….”

The Menri lineage tree

The Menri lineage tree

The best motivation for teaching, as told to me by my teachers, is because the teacher understands the transformational aspect of meditation and wants to make it as widely accessible as possible to those requesting teachings. Ultimately, a good teacher will simply embody the teachings. They will be present, kind, and light-and-open-hearted with you. They will have done the “work,” so-to-speak, so you are less tempted to ask about the benefits of meditation because you see it in their very being and are inspired. If you can find a teacher like that, and they are able to answer these questions, cherish these kinds of spiritual friends, as they are quite rare.

* Lineage holder means an unbroken chain of transmission that can be traced from a Buddhist teacher all the way back to the historical Buddha or to another ‘enlightened being’. Lineage is basically concerned with authenticity and preserving the spiritual potency of the Buddhist teachings. It is a means of ensuring the continuity of the true ‘Buddha dharma’. A common view held by Buddhists is that when looking for a suitable teacher, one should ensure that they are of an established Buddhist lineage. The idea is that by working with or receiving teachings from a reputable ‘lineage holder’, a practitioner can reassure themselves that they are in good hands and are getting the ‘real deal’.

According to prominent Buddhist teachers, a person only becomes a ‘lineage holder’ when, following sustained practice, they gradually realize the inner meaning of the transmitted teachings and infuse them with all aspects of their being. Thus, being a holder of a particular lineage doesn’t just mean that a person has received teachings or spent time with an accomplished Buddhist teacher, it means that their understanding has effectively ‘merged’ with that of the entire family of lineage forefathers within a given Buddhist tradition. In essence, authentic living lineages are those where the lineage holder has either realized their enlightened nature, or is well on the way to doing so.

…Contributions for this page come from Dan Brown, Ph.D, His Holiness Menri Trizin, Rahob Rinpoche and, Lodro Rinzler