A Teacher is knowledgeable about and practiced in, the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha). They can help you understand the teachings in a practical way and challenge your preconceived ideas about the world. A good teacher will also be skilled in giving meditation instruction to keep your practice on track.
A teacher is of course not required on the spiritual path. The Buddha himself was self-taught. After studying under many gurus, he discovered that his own life would be his guide. However since we have thousands of years of teachings at our disposal, we don’t have to make all the same mistakes that previous practitioners made. A teacher can mitigate useless suffering on the path and point us in the right direction.
1. Buddhism is an oral tradition
Buddhism is primarily an oral tradition, transmitted from teachers to students since the time of the Buddha. Although, many books about meditation and Buddhism are available as learning resources, most traditions emphasize the importance of hearing the Dharma directly from a teacher. Some teachings in the Tibetan tradition, for example, can only be received by hearing them from a lama or senior teacher. An instructor can help you connect to the Buddhist path on a deeper level by embodying the Dharma in their presentation of the teachings.
2. Its easy to deceive yourself
A genuine teacher will challenge your ego and keep you grounded. Without guidance it’s easy to be deceived by your thoughts or feelings. Its important to be able to check in with someone who has been practicing and teaching for awhile who can help identify what is progress and what is self deception. What might feel exciting or like a big deal during practice, may just be a thought or feeling that that has taken over. In Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mihpham Rinpoche writes about visiting a student on a three year meditation retreat. After a year on retreat, Rinpoche’s student passionately described to him all the breakthroughs and revelations he was having. “Without saying he was right or wrong, I encouraged him to keep practicing,” writes Sakyong Mipham. After the second year, his student realized he was being sucked in by a thought process. “I realized it was just a giant thought. It lasted about a year, and in the past few months I’ve just seen it for what it was a let it go.” Having a teacher to check in with will help you avoid becoming stuck or pulled in by spiritual fantasies.
3. It helps you stay committed
It’s popular these days to do a lot of spiritual shopping. Many people put together many elements from different spiritual traditions, making their own personalized path. While its good to find a path that resonates with you, dabbling without settling down can be a way to avoid going deeper. A teacher can help clarify a path, and keep you on the strait and narrow. Meditation can be challenging and a teacher who deeply understands the dharma can help you out when things get difficult. They can’t walk the path for you, but they can help you stay committed to the practice and stay honest with yourself.
4. Its good to ask for help
It’s sometimes tempting to take an aggressive or self-disciplining attitude towards meditation practice. Many students try to do it all themselves, feeling that they can be their own teacher. However, it’s a privilege to have support along the path. Having a teacher is no different from having a mentor as a child, or a university professor as an adult. Its hard to self teach ourselves to read, and the same applies for meditation. A good teacher can teach the dharma in a way tailored to our personal background or personality, like a good teacher would accommodate their teachings to an individual students learning style. The path of meditation can also be more complicated than it seems. It’s useful to have a guide to teach us about the Buddhist perspective on working with the mind and emotions. Being willing to ask for support is important so we don’t give up when the going gets tough.
5. Some traditions require it
Many Zendos require students to have a teacher guide them on the path. Shambhala Buddhism requires students have meditation instructors to help answer questions and keep them grounded on their path. Some advanced teachings require close work with a teacher. This should not be considered a neccesity, but can be useful to gain a deeper understanding of complex teachings and tame your wild mind.