The Buddhist tradition is an oral tradition, and receiving a transmission directly from a teacher can have a lasting effect on one’s practice. The teachers on this list are for the most part accessible to new students. They have not (yet) reached the celebrity status of Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama, who you might be able to see in a very large auditorium, but with whom you would have a difficult time getting a personal audience. Of course teachers’ styles vary in accessibility and teaching method.
(We tried making a top 10 teacher list which is a rather silly idea. In the process, we kept finding more and more teachings that we could not conceive of omitting. Apologies to all the other amazing teachers not included in this page. Perhaps the best approach is to find a teacher with the qualities of these great teachers, who lives close by you, with a smaller following, and to whom you have some level of access.)
Khandro Rinpoche, Tibetan Buddhism (Virginia, Tours Worldwide )
“Untouched, undisturbed, This life is perfect just as it is, But still I try to change the world.”
Khandro Rinpoche is recognized by the 16th Karmapa as a reincarnation of the Tibetan Dakini Khandro Urgyen Tsomo. Born into the Mindrolling practice lineage of Tibet, she comes from a long line of revered female masters. Based in the US, she travels frequently visiting sanghas in India and Europe. Khandro Rinpoche also oversees several charitable organizations working to educate and empower women in India.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala (Halifax and Boulder, Tours Worldwide)
“Karma moves in two directions. If we act virtuously, the seed we plant will result in happiness. If we act nonvirtuously, suffering results.”
Continuing in the path of his father Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is the current head of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. He oversees a global network of meditation and retreat centers that emphasize human goodness and social transformation. He is also the author of Turning the Mind into and Ally, a simple and straightforward introduction to meditation practice. His popularity is growing among young people looking to connect their practice with social engagement, so he may not be accessible for long.
Sharon Salzberg, Vipassana (Massachusetts)
“Most of us are shrinking in the face of psycho-social and physical poisons, of the toxins of our world. But compassion, the generation of compassion, actually mobilizes our immunity.”
Salzberg is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, where she teaches Vipassana and loving kindness meditation. Her teachings have been hugely influential in bringing mindfulness practice to psychotherapy and stress reduction science. Her writing and teachings consistently translate age old dharmic wisdom into contemporary everyday issues infused with a whole lot of compassion and patience.
Pema Chödrön, Tibetan Buddhism (Colorado, Tours Wordwide)
“If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.”
Much loved by her students and vast readership alike, Pema is the founding director at Gampo Abbey Monastery in Canada. Her compassionate yet direct approach has touched thousands of readers, helping them turn suffering into a path of liberation. She is the author of No Time to Lose, a beautiful and accessible commentary on the Path of the Bodhisattva by the 8th century Tibetan Monk Shantideva.
Tsultrim Allione, Tibetan Buddhism (Colorado)
We find conflict in so many places today, within ourselves, in relationships, between countries, and even in places we associate with peace, like the Himalayas. What is the solution? The Buddha teaches that violence leads to more violence. So how can we be actively engaged in change, yet not caught in patterns that perpetuate suffering? Meditation can create a working basis for changing the fundamental causes of suffering and moving toward natural liberation.
Born in the United States, Allione traveled to Nepal in the 1960s and became the first American woman to be ordained as a Buddhist Nun. She has since established herself as a scholar of Women in Buddhism. In 1995 Allione founded founder and director of Tara Mandala, an international Vajrayana Buddhist community in Pagoda Springs, CO. Her book Feeding Your Demons, explores how to work with negative and emotions and illness on the path.
Shinzen Young, Vipassana (California, Teaches Worldwide)
“Suffering = Pain x Resistance”
Young has taught Vipassana meditation in the United states since the mid-seventies. In Asia, he did extensive training in the three major Buddhist traditions: Vajrayana, Zen and Vipassana. He also has a spiritual background in Shingon Buddhism and native american traditions. Young’s secular approach and interest in neuroscience has made him popular among psychotherapists, scientists and researchers.
Young teaches workshops and classes in the U.S. and Europe and offers a home retreat programs via Skype and telephone. If you are interested in straight mindfulness practice, broken down to its basics, Young may be right for you.
He is the author of numerous books and recordings including: Working with Thoughts, The Science of Enlightenment, and Natural Pain Relief: How to Soothe and Dissolve Physical Pain with Mindfulness.
Bernie Glassman, Zen (Massachusetts, Teaches Worldwide)
“When we bear witness, when we become the situation — homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death — the right action arises by itself. We don’t have to worry about what to do. We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time. Peacemaking is the functioning of bearing witness. Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises.”
Glassman is an innovative pioneer, American Zen master and social entrepreneur. He is the founder and spiritual leader of the Zen Peacemakers, an international organization of socially engaged Buddhists. Peacemakers lead witness retreats, practicing in difficult areas such as conflict-zones as well practice activism and advocacy for a variety of causes.
He has a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from UCLA in 1970 and developed the Greyson Mandala, a network of socially responsible of for-profit and non-profit businesses. Perhaps the most well known venture is the Greyson Bakery in Yonkers, NY. Since a a very humble beginning in 1982, the bakery now employees more than 75 people (many homeless or previously unemployed) and boasts $14 million in revenues.
Noah Levine, Shambhala (New York City)
“Waking up is not a selfish pursuit of happiness, it is a revolutionary stance, from the inside out, for the benefit of all beings in existence.”
Covered head to toe in tattoos, Noah does not fit the mold of conventional Buddhist teacher. After his own transformation from rebellious teen to meditation master, Levine has emphasized the “against the stream” aspects of Buddhism, teaching students how to transform their anger and aggression into fuel for their path. Under his guidance, Dharma Punx meditation groups have popped up around the country, engaging in rebellion against ignorance and delusion.
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche (Tibetan Buddhism, Colorado)
When we trust our creativity we encounter a supreme kind of enjoyment – an amazement at the natural unfolding of life beyond our ordinary way of looking at things.
Recognized as an incarnate lama of the Nyingma school, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche teaches at a variety of centers and retreat centers in the US. Pema Chödrön herself is one of Rinpoche’s students. Rinpoche is also an abstract expressionist painter, and his sangha has attracted artistic types drawn by the merging of creativity and meditation.
Reginald A. Ray (Tibetan Buddhism, Colorado)
“Meditating with the body involves learning, through a variety of practices, how to reside fully within our bodies. What we are doing is not quite learning a technique, not quite learning how to “do” something. Rather, we are readjusting the focal length, the direction, and the domain of our consciousness. Thus, we gradually arrive at an awareness that is actually in our bodies rather than in our heads. It’s not something you actually learn to do; it’s a way of learning how to be differently.”
Reggie Ray is the founder and spiritual director of Dharma Ocean, an organization dedicated to the practice, study and preservation of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings. Reggie is also a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. His book Indestructible Truth is a rich but accessible introduction to Tibetan Buddhism.
Jack Kornfield, Vipassana (California, Teaches Worldwide)
“Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.” (From Buddha’s Little Instruction Book)
Jack Kornfield is well known for popularizing mindfulness practice in the west. He trained with forest monks in Thailand and the renowned meditation master, Mahāsi Sayādaw in Burma. He has written several introductions to mindfulness including Buddha’s Little Instruction Book and Meditation for Beginners. Trained as a clinical psychologist, Kornfield has also written and taught extensively on the relationship between Eastern and Western psychology.
Joan Halifax Roshi, Zen (New Mexico)
“We live in a time when science is validating what humans have known throughout the ages: that compassion is not a luxury; it is a necessity for our well-being, resilience, and survival.”
Joan Halifax is an American Zen Priest and abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, NM. She is also a medical anthropologist and pioneer in the field of end of life care. She has studied death and dying and trains healthcare workers in the spiritual aspects of end of life care. She is also a member of Zen Peacemakers, and the director of the Upaya Prison Project, which teaches meditation and other mindfulness practices to inmates as a means to ending the cycle of incarceration.
Check out her awesome Ted talk Compassion and the True Meaning of Empathy.
Lama Tsering Everest, Tibetan Buddhism (Brazil)
“The Dharma is very counter-intuitive. Our own intuition is generally very self-centered, and it’s very oriented towards success and happiness for ourselves and our family, and so when we start to face unconditional love, compassion, and the wisdom of the nature of form, sound, and thought, it’s not really very logical for our ordinary mind. And so it takes a tremendous capacity and ripening for a person to be able to really be receptive, and then to really be able to hold it.”
Born in the United States, Tsering has been the Lama in residence at the Chagdud Gonpa Odsal Ling center in Sao Paulo for over 20 years. She established the center on her teacher Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche’s request to create a seat for the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism in Latin America.
She is renowned by her students for her warm, humorous and accessible teaching style.
Adyashanti, Non-Duality (San Francisco, Teaches Worldwide)
“Freedom is not necessarily exciting; it’s just free. Very peaceful and quiet, so very quiet. Of course, it is also filled with joy and wonder, but it is not what you imagine. It is much, much less. Many mistake the intoxicating power of otherworldly charisma for enlightenment. More often than not it is simply otherworldly, and not necessarily free or enlightened. In order to be truly free, you must desire to know the truth more than you want to feel good.”
Adyashanti (meaning “primordial peace”) is a spiritual teacher, writer and founder of Open Gate Sangha. Although trained in Zen, Adyashanti’s teachings are informed by Christian mysticism. The Truth he points to is not confined within any religious point of view, belief system, or doctrine, but is open to all and found within all.
Enkyo Pat O’Hara, Zen (New York City)
“This process of stilling the mind and opening the heart brings a great feeling of ease that courses through the body, releasing the sensation of holding back, of fragility or tightness, and freeing us to work with the challenges of life. I call that true intimacy.”
A Founding member of the Zen Peacemakers, O’Hara is the abbot of Village Zendo in New York City. A socially engaged Buddhist, much of her activism has been focused on HIV/Aids and gay, lesbian and gender issues. Her first book, Most Intimate–a Zen approach to life’s challenges, is an accessible introduction to Zen practice and includes exercises for individual and group practice.
Dzogchen Punlop Rinpoche, Seattle (Tibetan Buddhism)
Love is when you are thinking: “How can I make you happy?” Attachment is when you are thinking: “Why aren’t you making me happy?”
Considered one of the highest Tulkus in the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, Dzogchen Punlop Rinpoche is a revered teacher and prolific scholar of Buddhist Philosophy and Psychology. He is also the United States Representative for the 17th Karmapa. In addition to his contributions on buddhist scholarship, Rinpoche also blogs regularly for publications such as Huffington Post and Elephant Magazine. He is a proponent of American Buddhism and insists in his book Rebel Buddha that Dharma can transcend its cultural context.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche (Colorado) and Mingyur Rinpoche (On Retreat), Tibetan Buddhism
“If you have a hundred thoughts, you will have a hundred helpers in your meditation.”
Sons of Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen, Tsoknyi and Mingyur are both accomplished teachers and authors. Mingyur’s engaging teachings style weaves ancient teachings together with scientific research in a playful and fresh way. His most recent book, The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, is a New York Times best-seller.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche has been teaching for over 20 years, and travels frequently. Like his brother, Tsoknyi has an interest in the relationship between modern science and Buddhism and his teaching often explores the dialogue between the two.
“Instead of focusing on some thoughts and feelings and pushing away others, just look at them as feathers flying in the wind. The wind is your awareness, your inborn openness and clarity.”
Lama Palden Drolma, Tibetan Buddhism (California)
“Many times I have heard a Westerner ask a Tibetan Rinpoche,’are the deities real or are they archetypes?’ Every time the master has answered that the yidams, the protectors and the deities are as real as we are. Just as we exist so too do they exist.”
In Western culture, we lack female archetypes that embody the complete range of our potential qualities, but in Buddhism we see embodiments of all aspects of pure form.
Palden Drolma became one of the first women to be authorized as a Lama in the Vajrayana tradition. She is the founder and director of the Sukhasiddhi Foundation, a retreat center in Marin County, CA. Lama Palden is also a psychotherapist and is interested in the intersection of psychology and spirituality.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, Tibetan Buddhism (California & Virginia, Teaches Worldwide)
“Ignorance can be compared to a dark room in which you sleep. No matter how long the room has been dark, and hour or a million years, the moment the lamp of awareness is lit the entire room becomes luminous. You are that luminosity. You are that clear light.” (From The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep)
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche was one of the first teachers to bring the Bon tradition of Tibetan Buddhism to the west. The indigenous religion of Tibet, Bon is a unique variant of Tibetan Buddhism. He has written extensively on the Bon tradition, receiving several research fellowships for his work. In 1998 Rinpoche founded the Serenity Ridge Retreat Center, the international headquarters for the Ligmincha institute–his organization dedicated to preserving Bon Buddhism.
Ethan Nichtern, Shambhala (New York City)
“One of the greatest lessons that comes from meditation is that a relaxed curiosity about life and sleepwalking through it are two radically different choices.”
Nichtern is a young shastri (or senior teacher) in the Shambhala tradition. He is also the founder of the Interdependence Project, a secular Buddhist center in New York City. His quirky, down-to-earth teaching style has brought a generation of young people onto the cushion for the first time. He is the author of One City, a look at Buddhist social engagement, and most recently The Road Home: A Contemporary exploration of the Buddhist Path.
International Listings of Buddhist Teachers:
Female Teachers in Buddhism