Buddhism has a very guru-and-teacher-oriented side to it, but I don’t think it was ever meant to. The Buddha found his own way to freedom from suffering. He followed various teachers beforehand, but after thoroughly understanding what they were talking about, he realised they had not reached final liberation. Finally, he sat beneath the bodhi tree and penetrated the depths of his own mind and consciousness. Then he found the way. And basically that is what he advised others to do.
In one sense you can say that the Buddha himself was a teacher. After all he spent forty-five years ‘giving the dharma’, as we might say, or speaking the truth, but what he spoke about was how to find one’s own way through. That is why meditation, personal insight, is central to his advice and not ritual or belief.
Whilst Buddha related what he had found for himself, he was adamant that people should not just believe it. His teaching was pointing towards experimenting, discovering, treading the path oneself rather than blindly following teachers or teachings. That is what is so different about Buddhism and what draws most of us to it. It is a direct doing rather than a copying or going through the motions of ‘being a Buddhist’. Therefore it is a path of courage because we have to face the reality of what is. If we don’t find a way out of confusion, suffering and ignorance, then we shall remain within these things. Believing others, following others, isn’t freedom for us. The best teachers, then, in my opinion at least, are the one’s who push us into ourselves.
What the Buddha did recommend was to associate with good spiritual friends, friends in the dharma. We can seek help from genuine spiritual friends and take their advice if it seems right. And there is great value in meditating with others in a retreat or being with a group of people with the same motivation, especially for those who are facing alienation at home from family and friends who think they have gone mad with their crazy ideas. So we have to do it ourselves, but we’re not on our own. The Buddha and countless others have done it already and have left their teachings for us to follow. And as Shohaku Okumura says in his article Zazenshin*
Even though my practice is my personal practice, still this is actually connected with all buddhas, all ancestors and all other people.
But hunting out teachers, blindly following teachers and doting on teachers because we think we need them is a very un-Buddhist thing to do. Of course this isn’t a new development; looking for ‘enlightened beings’ has been going on for centuries.
There is a reference on page 212 in a book by Helen J. Baroni, Obaku Zen, Hawaii Press, 2005, which caught my eye and relates to this point:
I say that during the Yuan dynasty, monks from India and other central Asian nations were revered and were quite successful as a group. They came and went on horseback like lords and princes. They received the red fur headdresses and were solemn and proud. Famous and virtuous monks throughout the country would always tuck up their robes and rush to meet them to ask them for their blessing. Hsing Hung-chiao made a small bow, turned around, and said: ‘I myself follow the Way. Why would I seek for it from them?’
[From Ta-ming kao-seng ch’uan (J. Daimin kosoden), a compendium of biographies of Buddhist masters from the Ming period of China, compiled by Ju-hsing, published in 1617.]
If we find the way and follow the way, there is no need to seek it. People can teach us techniques, but those techniques are merely hints or stepping stones to something beyond, something more natural, something real in the moment; methods and techniques cannot be the reality itself. All the words that we hear coming from others have to be translated into something actual that we feel and know beyond those words and descriptions, like knowing when your tea is too hot and knowing joy or embarrassment or anything else. Then the scriptures, the things we read and hear, are meditations that can inspire us rather than commandments that bog us down. Our job is to find the way, but it’s inside, it is where we are, not anywhere else.