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.
* Buddhism Now [Part 6 Zazenshin: Acupuncture Needle of Zazen]
Categories: Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, Diana St Ruth
Just another apparent paradox. I alone can do it, but I can’t do it alone.
And Ajahn Sumedo teaches beautifully. Had one of his books – it was excellent. Question from the City, Answers from the Forest. – dn
Good advice. Many people come to the Dharma with their past conditioning of how to “do” religion fully intact and functioning enthusiastically – they just change the nouns, and now it’s Buddhism instead of whatever.
By the same token, if you could just do it yourself, then why an -ism ? So there is this dynamic tension in buddhadharma between the practionor’s advice (teacher or Buddha himself) from a little further up the road, and you, where you are standing, right here, right now.
Rally good issue to bring up. Nice blog! – dn
A very insightful post. I too, have difficulty getting to a meditation center. It’s good to know that I am not alone in this.Hopefully this situation will become less of an issue in the future.
I really needed to read this article this morning. I am a disabled man who is a Buddhist, but often (as with the commenter above), I have trouble getting to retreats and/or sittings. Thus, I often felt somewhat fraudulent when claiming “I take refuge in the Sangha”. Now I can see that I needn’t feel “less than” a Buddhist by virtue of the fact that I do, indeed, take refuge in sites such as these. YOU, all Buddhists, are my Sangha whether I am in your physical presence or not…
Thank you, thank you. This has been the trip-me-up point along my path. Always questioning, looking for someone to point a way.
I have taken refuge. I don’t know who I am, not sure where I’m going but I sure am not lost:) I AM Buddhist.
Interesting and thought provoking. I shall remember the words.
this article is one of those serendipitous things that can really speak to you ( me) especially when as this happened to me: a group of women i was with last night were disscusing meditation ( not in relation to Buddhism ) and i had said, even though we have ‘teachers’ the best teachers are the ones that point me in the direction and leave me to discover the truth .. my truth.
Great article! It is true that we all search a teacher to tell us what to do, but it is true that we have to just become comfortable with OUR path and test things out for ourselves. Definetely one of the many amazing things about what buddha taught. Thank you!
Thank you so much for this! This is just what I needed to hear, just what I needed to know right now. Thank you.
For a variety of reasons, going to meditation group regularly just hasn’t been feasible for me.
This article is a reassurance that an independent path isn’t somehow evil or wrong…an all-too-easy misunderstanding for someone raised in an very fundementalist evangelical christian family. For children of evangelical christian culture, walking a different path is difficult. In some cases, any group spirituality (even Buddhist) is uncomfortable, even toxic, rather than the comfort and support it is intended to be.
I’ve wanted for many years to say to another human being that I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha…but hesitated because I didn’t think I could say Sangha truthfully.
First there was none where I lived. Now there is, but I still don’t go. As such, I didn’t feel I could say “I am Buddhist”
The independent awakening of the Buddha as you describe it here shows that the opposite is possible too. Saying “I am Buddhist” IS taking refuge in the Sangha…the Sangha of all through the world and through the ages who have walked the middle way, all who have taken refuge in the Buddha and the Dharma.
Perhaps, now, through the web, this larger Sangha is becoming easier to see.
With Love and Thanks