I’ve read many books and attended more workshops than I can count. But I need a personal teacher to guide me. Don’t people need a teacher, guru, or guide to complete the journey?
Practicing in isolation may breed illusions. We come to know ourselves best in relationship to others. While we can learn much from books, a personal teacher can tailor guidance to our individual temperament and needs. So Buddhism and other traditions recommend the trinity of a teacher, a teaching, and a community of practitioners as the ideal learning environment. But it’s a minefield out there: Even genuine teachers are sometimes corrupted by the adulation of their devotees. So be wary and wise; keep your eyes as wide open as your heart. Teachers need to earn their students’ trust over time. Avoid any who demand complete devotion from the beginning. Pay attention less to what teachers say than to what they do.
And notice: Do their students live a life to which you aspire? Are they kind, compassionate, balanced, healthy, honest, open, respectful? Do they show a sense of humor? If not, look elsewhere.
Our approach to teachers often corresponds to three stages of life: childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. Children seek a parent to guide and protect them, and make good followers (and some teachers are happy to play parent). Adolescents reject authority and have a skeptical view of most teachers. Adults apply intelligent discernment and learn what they can, where they can, whether teachings appear in the form of fools or sages, friends or adversaries, animals, infants, or elders.
Masters teachers are found not only on lonely mountaintops or in ashrams in the East. Our teachers take the form of friends and adversaries — of clouds, animals, wind and water. Moment to moment, our teachers reveal all we need to know. The question is, are you paying attention? When the student is ready, the teacher appears . . . everywhere.
We also learn through experience and circumstance, hardship and insight. Consider this story:
Zembu, a young samurai, had an affair with the wife of his superior. When discovered, he slew the nobleman in self-defense, then fled to a distant province. Unable to find employment, he became a thief, until one morning, in a flash of understanding, Zembu saw what he had made of his life. To atone for the harm he had done, he resolved to accomplish some good deed as a sincere act of repentance. Soon after, while walking upon a dangerous road over a cliff that had caused the death of many persons, he decided to cut a tunnel through the mountain. Begging food to sustain himself during the day, Zembu dug each night. Thirty years later, when the tunnel was two-thousand feet long and within a few months of completion, Zembu was confronted by Katsuo, a young samurai who had come to kill him to avenge the death of his father, the nobleman whom Zembu had slain years before.
Facing Katsuo’s sword, Zembu said, “I will gladly give you my life if you will only allow me to complete my work.” So Katsuo awaited impatiently as several months passed and Zembu kept digging. Seeing that Zembu was nearing the end, and tired of doing nothing, Katsuo began to help Zembu dig. As they worked side by side, Katsuo came to admire the older man’s strong will and character. Finally the tunnel was finished; travelers could now pass safely.
Zembu turned to the young swordsman. “My work is done. You may cut off my head,” he said. Tears flowed from Katsuo’s eyes as he asked, “How can I cut off my own teacher’s head?”