“Don’t misunderstand – this teacher is not always a person. It can embrace you like morning dew in a field, and you get a strange feeling, Oh, this is it, my teacher is this field.”
— Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi
Finding a Spiritual Teacher
In 1970 I was sixteen and reading Chögyam Trungpa’s first book, Meditation in Action. My hair was long and I carried the book in my back pocket (or ones by Alan Watts or Herman Hesse). Part of me knew, and part of me had no idea that Chögyam Trungpa would become my teacher.
If Buddhism is a way to become truly human, then we encounter many teachers in our lifetime, beginning with our parents. We generally think of a spiritual teacher with a capital T, but how do we find one? The path seems to be one of tendril, a Tibetan word meaning that all situations arise through the coming together of various forces.
In Western terms the word synchronicity is similar, in which uncanny and seemingly impossible-to-foresee events conspire to lead us, in this case, to a teacher. This path is a narrative, a deeply personal story.
To participate in this story we need both openness and critical intelligence.
Openness is a humility, a knowing that we don’t know and a yearning for true knowledge, a recognition that wisdom passes to us through lineages. Sometimes a poem or novel might awaken this openness (thus Allen Ginsberg or Toni Morrison might be our lineage forbearer), sometimes a person.
Critical intelligence means a trust in ourselves, a tendency not to be duped, a recognition that the path of wisdom is fundamentally inside us, that the story is our own. As Chögyam Trungpa once said, “A teacher or fellow traveler or the scriptures might show us where we are on a map and where we might go from there, but we must make the journey ourselves.” Similarly, Trungpa once said following the spiritual path is something we must do alone, and the role of the teacher is to tell us that.
In terms of Buddhism, our search for a teacher will likely if not inevitably be conducted within the, now myriad, meditation programs and centers found throughout the West and the world. The first person who correctly instructs us in meditation will be our teacher. So, inevitably, will many others. Perhaps we will never find a teacher with a capital T.
My first teacher of meditation had only two years more experience than I did, but she instructed me well. I can still remember our first meditation session. I sat for one hour with a small group of other students. This felt like the longest hour of my life; how could my body hurt so much, be so restless? But also, the most vivid hour of my life.
Although Buddhism (especially Varjrayana Buddhism) places great emphasis on a teacher, the teacher we find may not always be living. This has been especially true in the wake of the passing of some of the great Tibetan gurus of the Twentieth Century: the Sixteen Gyalwa Karmapa, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche or Chögyam Trungpa.
Through dreams, through atmospheric presence, or through knowing one of their students, many people have a genuine and steadfast connection to one of these teachers. I have met many such people. I personally feel Chögyam Trungpa’s presence as strongly now as when he was alive.
Carl Jung, in his book Memories, Dreams and Reflections, tells an interesting story: Jung himself had an “invisible” teacher, Philamen – “At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality. I went walking up and down the garden with him, and to me he was what the Indians call a guru.” This must have been an admission that Jung was reluctant to make…that his guru was a spirit or drala!
Jung went on to discuss an encounter he had some years later with a highly educated Indian man, a friend of Gandhi’s. Jung said the two of them discussed education, particularly the role of guru and chela (disciple) and at one point the Indian gentleman disclosed his own guru, “Oh yes, he was Shankaracharya.”
“You don’t mean the commentator on the Vedas who died centuries ago?” I (Jung) asked.
“Yes, I mean him,” he said to my amazement.”
“Then you are referring to a spirit?” I asked.
“Of course it was his spirit,” he agreed. At that moment I thought of Philemon. “There are ghostly gurus too,” he added. “Most people have living gurus. But there are always some who have a spirit for teacher.”
The First Steps Toward Finding a Teacher
Finding a teacher is not something we can manufacture, but it is something we can set out to do, something we can, as mentioned, have a longing for.
The best way to begin the process of finding a teacher, is to begin working on ourselves. It is like preparing the soil of a garden. If the soil is dug deeply, is well fertilized with organic material and kept watered, the seeds that we plant in it will grow.
Meditation is available to all of us now. It can even be learned online. Meditation is preparing the garden. In the openness and alertness that emerges from our practice of meditation, we are much more prone to recognizing the teacher. Without the ability to recognize, we might never notice the teacher, even if we bump into her.
In one of his talks, the late Zen teacher Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi drew attention to the fact of how we always think we “are bad,” and the teacher is someone who tells us otherwise. But he added, “Don’t misunderstand – this teacher is not always a person. It can embrace you like morning dew in a field, and you get a strange feeling, Oh, this is it, my teacher is this field.”
Conversely, Otogawa was once asked,
“When all the teachers are gone, who will be your teacher?” A student replied: “Everything!” Otogawa, paused, then said: “No, you.”
Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teaching and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.