Spiritual newbie: "how do I identify enlightened masters?"
October 2, 2017 10:52 AM   Subscribe

How does a non-enlightened spiritual seeker judge whether a teacher is enlightened, in the Buddhist sense of the word?

For purposes of the question, you may consider "teacher" to be either a teacher under whom you study directly, or else a teacher from whom you learn indirectly via books, audiobooks, podcasts, or other media.

For example, popular and widely published Buddhist writers like Pema Chödron or Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama come across as enlightened masters. They communicate very wise and kind things in their books and media, they present the visual image of an "official Zen master" (apparel, hair, etc), and they seem to be massively popular in their communities and maintain good reputations (no known sexual or financial scandals, etc).

Given that we have many choices of teachers - especially in terms of those who share their teachings in books and media - I figure it’s best to pick resources from teachers who are truly enlightened, rather than those who are merely good writers or smart thinkers. (And, wherever possible, to study under such teachers in person.)

But how can you know that your teacher is enlightened, without also being enlightened?
And if you are enlightened, and thus able to judge your teacher from the same standpoint, the 'teacher' is just a peer and you no longer 'need' him or her to show you the way. So, how to resolve this circular dependency?
posted by theorique to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Enlightenment is not a permanent state one achieves and never regresses from. It's an ongoing process, it can manifest at any time from any life condition, and there's really no checklist for it. Enlightenment can only be expressed externally through behavior.

You just have to keep learning and testing what you're learning by its effects in your life.

Unenlightened beings can also teach, exhibit wisdom and aid you on your own journey. Top-level concert musicians take lessons from people who are arguably less talented/skilled/famous than themselves.

Choose your teachers because their behavior is aligned with wisdom and empathy, not because of any externally-applied label of authority.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 11:14 AM on October 2, 2017 [14 favorites]


And if you are enlightened, and thus able to judge your teacher from the same standpoint, the 'teacher' is just a peer and you no longer 'need' him or her to show you the way.

We are all each other's teacher. Enlightenment comes through your practice, not someone else's, and is as impermanent as everything else.

The teachers you mention make a point of saying they are simply fellow practitioners and that the teachings are their guides. So I guess a thing to look for would be a person teaching that we are all interdependent and that there is no distinction between teacher and student, we are all both. A person who makes it all about them would not be someone to seek wisdom from, although there is plenty to learn from that kind of person too.

Your question is a reminder to me to be grateful that I encountered Thich Nhat Hanh when I did. You are a teacher too! So thank you.
posted by headnsouth at 11:18 AM on October 2, 2017 [7 favorites]


How does a non-enlightened spiritual seeker judge whether a teacher is enlightened, in the Buddhist sense of the word?

Ask this question, and follow only those who do not give a useful answer.
posted by amtho at 11:27 AM on October 2, 2017 [4 favorites]


I don't think you can know this. I think you especially can't know this as a seeker among many teachers. Most of all, you don't need to know. Is the person a good teacher? Are they widely judged, by you and others you trust, to be wise? Then learn from them.
posted by theora55 at 11:28 AM on October 2, 2017 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm pretty sure Buddhist thought isn't so hierarchical as you're making it out to be.

As an analogy: even in a very hierarchical pursuit like academics or medicine, doctors and professors are constantly learning from each other. It's a huge industry: peers get together and learn from each other. Even though they are all masters, and have reached this pinnacle, none of them is really master of everything all at once.

In the same analogy: when you're in college, you can learn plenty from a TA: even though they are not a true master, they are more advanced than you, and in some ways the fact that they are still in process makes them better teachers than the people who spend their days on proverbial mountain tops.

So learn from anyone you can, and if anyone seems more enlightened than you, they probably are. If someone seems like they are talking nonsense, ignore it and move on.

In this vein, let me quote my favorite fake saying of Buddha:

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

Now, it's probably a sort of bad summary of part of the Kalama Sutta, but there is still a hint of the right ideas there, because a lot of it is about not trusting scripture and dogma simply because they are so. Rather than present my own (bad, misleading) summary, I suggest you read the original yourself, and that the words of Buddha are probably a source that you can generally count as enlightened and authoritative.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:56 AM on October 2, 2017 [1 favorite]


There really can't be a badge or set criteria, but there are sure a bunch of checkoffs that disqualify. Are they asking for a lot of money to continue the program? Are they asking one to do something that is uncomfortable or counter to general standards of good behavior. Are they a bit too evangelical. Do they require isolation from family or the world in general. Do they have disciples that constantly inflate the image of the leader.

The authentic "masters" like the ones you mentioned publish books at standard prices, have retreats that are not crazy expensive and express their ideas but don't "tell you what you should believe".
posted by sammyo at 11:57 AM on October 2, 2017 [8 favorites]


There really can't be a badge or set criteria, but there are sure a bunch of checkoffs that disqualify. Are they asking for a lot of money to continue the program? Are they asking one to do something that is uncomfortable or counter to general standards of good behavior. Are they a bit too evangelical. Do they require isolation from family or the world in general. Do they have disciples that constantly inflate the image of the leader.

Another decent rule of thumb: any teacher who would claim themselves to be enlightened is probably running a scam. Like headnsouth points out, the one thing that Pema Chödron, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lama all have in common is that none would ever claim themselves to be anything more than more experienced fellow-practitioners; none make any kind of exclusive claim to teachings that are outside the reach of normal people.
posted by Itaxpica at 12:21 PM on October 2, 2017 [1 favorite]


Different Buddhist sects have clerical and monastic hierarchies that are mostly based on how many years you've been in the game and whether your own teacher has decided that you're ready to yourself be a teacher. But enlightenment is something you do, not something you are.

General guideline, though? Anyone who claims to be enlightened is probably trying to sell you something or get in your pants (or quite possibly both).

I attended a Buddhist temple for over a decade and have met my share of Buddhist teachers and monastics. None of them ever in a thousand years would ever claim to be inerrant, infallible, or in any other regard different from anyone else.
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:48 PM on October 2, 2017 [3 favorites]


A good teacher will want you to flourish and there shouldn't be a lick of controlling speech or behavior. They shouldn't "need" you for anything, they shouldn't have an agenda in general.

I'm also wary of people who self-describe as spectacular, special people, it's fine to list objective accomplishments and experience but my spidey senses perk up if they're like "I'm world renowned", the ego needs to be in check.
posted by lafemma at 12:49 PM on October 2, 2017


I gauge my alignment to a particular practitioner by how it feels under the words, but that might not be a helpful measurement for you. Also by how easy it is to slip into a clearer state by exploring their work. For example, Mooji has really clear energy, and when he speaks my mental chatter falls away so I can feel the beingness of no-self more clearly. My own teacher when she speaks, I feel an outpouring of love and compassion.

There's not anything you can see on the surface in my opinion. An enlightened master might even engage in wild unethical behavior to teach you not to rely so much on a master outside yourself.

Discernment is useful. A good teacher will help you feel simultaneously like you have a lot to learn yet AND like they are a dear friend and you are coming home. Or you'll feel your own ego crap much more vividly when you're around them.

This is all also going to depend on the type of Buddhist enlightenment you're seeking. I would recommend avoiding anybody that calls themselves enlightened as others have said.
posted by crunchy potato at 3:38 PM on October 2, 2017


But how can you know that your teacher is enlightened, without also being enlightened?

You don't know, and it doesn't exactly matter. What you are looking for is someone who knows how to show you the way, regardless of how far they are on the path. The people you mentioned, the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron and Thich Naht Hanh are all traditional buddhists on a traditional buddhist path, and what they teach is not their own made-up directions on how to get enlightened, but what they have learned, and it is basically identical to what you would find with any authentic *buddhist master.

If you like lists, you might enjoy The Guru Drinks Bourbon? by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. It is a guide on how to find an authentic dharma teacher (more from a Tibetan buddhist standpoint, but still applicable to your question).

*I don't know of any other system religious or otherwise that does this other than buddhism, I am sure they are out there, but buddhism is what I see that is widely available today.
posted by nanook at 4:33 PM on October 2, 2017


IME, the best Buddhist teachers not only have and exhibit the capacity for humility, they understand how it is a necessary prerequisite for positive change. And they are always learning and working on themselves. They don't consider that they've achieved an unsurpassable level of attainment. Additionally, they know their minds very well and are not going to teach beyond their level of attainment. They will refer any teachings beyond that level to a better teacher.

They also cultivate the student's self-reliance and healthy skepticism by routinely challenging the student to scrutinize the teachings in order to better understand and really internalize them. To quote the Buddha: "O monks and wise men, just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so must you examine my words and accept them, not merely out of reverence for me." I would be very, very skeptical of anyone who expected me to accept anything on faith alone, without proper scrutiny.

I've been really privileged to learn from teachers that have developed their compassion to the point where they radiate with it. They are incredibly healing and uplifting to be around. However, that doesn't necessarily make them the best teacher for me, right now. For example, the teacher that I find the most helpful right now can be really fierce actually, but she's fierce in a way that constantly challenges her students to really think about what they are learning.
posted by jazzbaby at 4:52 PM on October 2, 2017


Thank you for your responses - they are helping me and reminding me to focus on the real priority, which is the experience of the student attempting to make forward progress. An excessive focus on whether a teacher is "good enough" or "sufficiently qualified" is a yet another distraction from that primary goal.

I appreciate the practical tips on evaluating teachers and teachings and looking for potential red flags.

I think this AskMe question has ultimately emerged from two related concerns: (1) the "paradox of choice" arising from the superabundant abundant availability of books and materials on the subject of Buddhism (2) worrying about making a long-lived or irreversible "wrong" decision about a spiritual path to follow, based on incomplete or insufficient information.

Thank you again for your help!
posted by theorique at 2:10 AM on October 3, 2017


One person's enlightened being is another's cult leader. You might like reading a contrarian point of view.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:47 AM on October 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the book reference, Obscure Reference. Amazon doesn't have a lot of detail about the book but the reviews seem kind of polarized - people seem to either love it or hate it. Could you say more about the content of the book?

It seems more like a story or memoir about a guru, rather than a detailed manual for spiritual practice, if I'm understanding the reviews correctly. (Example)
posted by theorique at 2:27 AM on October 4, 2017




Follow up:

A key reason for my question was to avoid "teachers" like this guy.

I came across his materials and videos, but something seemed "off". I'm glad I avoided wasting any time with his teachings.
posted by theorique at 10:05 AM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]


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