My ratings of teachers cover a tiny portion of the people you will encounter. What is needed are some guidelines for choosing a spiritual teacher to facilitate your own evaluations. Some people argue that you are in no position to judge someone with a superior perspective, or that in matters of the spirit, all turns out for the best. However, there are teachers and groups whose only lesson is seemingly for sharpening your judgment.
Chance will be your introduction, and reason and intuition must be your guides.
Here are some issues to consider before choosing a spiritual teacher or system:
1: Preoccupation with money and material. This is a controversial point. The argument goes that a spiritual teacher provides a service, like a plumber, so deserves to be compensated. Also, if the disciples pay the teacher, then the teacher can spend more time helping them. My retort: if a person has had a complete realization, the idea of asking someone to pay to speak with you is ludicrous. It is reasonable to ask people to help pay to rent a room, or help with travel expenses, or buy a book.
I like Tara Brach’s comment on charging:
I offer all my meditations for free. I feel like this came to me. This was given from the universe and I want to give it back. I like whenever possible not to have to charge for something in this domain of waking up.
There is no need to expect our teacher to live as a monk, yet a preoccupation with “big cigars and motor cars” is cause for concern. We know all too well of the stories of fancy cars, wild parties, country estates, and big bank accounts. Seen with your own eyes, such behavior is unexcusable. Why? Because a spiritual realization doesn’t plunge you further into this dream world.
2: Secrecy when there is no threat. You may be required to pass certain tests before meeting a group or teacher. In free countries, this sort of activity is indicative of paranoia (delusions of importance) or criminal intent. An inaccesible teacher is of little use to you, as are promises of future meetings once you’ve proven your worth.
3: The founder or teacher’s depth of spiritual realization. Why undertake a system which has not worked for its founder? If none of the teachers have reached a final realization, then why should I pin my hopes upon this system working for me? Which is not to say that a teacher or technique is not worth looking into and using as part of one’s path, if it appeals to you.
4: Ritual. Most groups will have some ritual, perhaps as simple as having tea after a meeting. Ritual is a way of rememberance, technique to achieve a mood, and show of community. However, ritual can be an effective gloss over lack of substance. And no ritual is holy in and of itself. Beware too much emphasis on robes and letters (holy texts), insistance on particular postures, or titles and chains of command.
5: An abundance of successors. A good example of this is the ever expanding lineage of many American Neo-Advaita teachers. A gaggle of appointed successors reveals a teacher concerned with creating a lineage and a monument to their self. Or it points to a relatively shallow depth of realization that is easily attained. Even your plumber has limited apprentices capable of becoming worthy masters.
6: Appeals to your weakness. A group or teacher that allows you to believe rather than discover for yourself, or dally with endless theories if you are of a scientific bent. Offers a method that appeals to laziness: enlightenment in a weekend, or in five minute a day lessons. Claims there is nothing for you to do, so simply sit back and relax. Gives you license to do as thou wilt, because you are a superior or karma-free being.
Here is set of reasonable criteria suggested by a friend:
1. Popularity. Teachers with the most visibility are generally the ones with the largest followings, which probably means that they are putting together a package for mass consumption — and thus something inoffensive and reinforcing of current beliefs rather than something that challenges us to wake up and find the truth.
2.Vocabulary. Teachers who speak simply, using their own words, are more likely to be speaking from profound realization than are polished orators or wordsmiths. And if the speaker cites one document as bearing final authority, run the other way. This is a fanatic, not a Light-bearer.
3. Know-it-all. A teacher who has an answer for every question may be a clever concept mechanic or engineer. Honest teachers don’t hesitate to admit to what they don’t know. On the other hand, if the teacher doesn’t demonstrate a conviction about knowing something for sure, then that person may still be mired in conceptual speculation.
4. Fearless. A person who has died while living would be fearless, but not foolhardy, in the face of death. If a teacher evidences fear of death — or fear of speaking his mind plainly, or doesn’t know “whither” he goes at death, then it may be a case of the blind leading the blind.
5. Non-promoter. Is the teacher interested in selling books, tapes, CDs, seminars, and so forth? In creating an organization that promotes products and beliefs? To be successfully marketed, the products have to appeal to a broad audience and thus have to be soothing rather than challenging. A real teacher is not out to make a big splash or to leave a monument to an illusory self.
6. Paradox. If a teacher doesn’t exhibit a profound sense of paradox — of seeming contradictions that may nevertheless be true — then he may still be stuck in relativity. The true teacher has traveled “beyond opinion.” On the other hand, a clever impostor can hide behind paradoxical double-talk, so there’s no substitute for intuitional accuracy on the part of the seeker.
7. Understands the pervasive fooling of the mind by the mind. True teachers understand the workings of the mind — by having arrived at a point of view superior to the mind. They are thus able to point at a solution beyond that of trying to find temporary peace or happiness within the mind.
8. Humor. A humorless teacher is someone who takes himself seriously — which means he doesn’t know himself. A true teacher helps us see the apparent absurdity of the human condition and yet act in the face of it. On the other hand, if a teacher doesn’t take the pursuit of truth seriously, then he must not have found something of permanent value.
9. Love of truth. A person who has discovered his true nature is probably someone who couldn’t settle for conventional beliefs and herd conditioning and thus was unwilling to stop short of total Truth. And having found it, he places no value higher than It.
10. No religion higher than friendship. The flowering of the human condition is the impersonal friendship that transcends personal love, where two or more people are able to relax their ego-demands in favor of a larger good. If a teacher’s direction, either explicitly or through group pressure, is to split a person from friends and loved ones who don’t share the new paradigm, beware of brainwashing. On the other hand, the people we spend time with influence our lives, so we need to use discernment in our relationship with friends who may encourage behavior we’d like to move away from.
Here is a relevant quote from Nisargadatta Maharaj in I Am That:
Q: How can I make out whom to follow and whom to mistrust?
N: Mistrust all, until you are convinced. The true Guru will never humiliate you, nor will he estrange you from yourself. He will constantly bring you back to the fact of your inherent perfection and encourage you to seek within. He knows you need nothing, not even him, and is never tired of reminding you. The self-appointed Guru is more concerned with himself than with his disciples.
Thanks to a reader for suggesting the creation of this page. Good luck in your search, and let me know any suggestions you have for choosing a spiritual teacher or system.
Here is another list: Andrew Paterson’s False Guru Test. A good list, though I disagree with his first condition: that a false guru proclaims his enlightenment. Flaunting the claim is one matter, but when asked if they are enlightened, what is a teacher to say? Nor should we trust a teacher because someone else “verifies” their enlightenment.
Below are a few books that might server as lessons in discernment for choosing a spiritual teacher. Also consider my book, Subtraction: The Simple Math of Enlightenment, for an informative and inspiring look at my run-ins with gurus both real and false.