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Vajrayana Buddhism is esoteric, in the sense that the transmission of certain teachings only occurs directly from teacher to student during an initiation or empowerment and cannot be simply learned from a book. Many techniques are also commonly said to be secret, but some Vajrayana teachers have responded that secrecy itself is not important and only a side-effect of the reality that the techniques have no validity outside the teacher-student lineage. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vajrayana#Esoteric_transmission)

But in my travels through the Buddhist landscape, I find that teachers are human: some good, some mediocre. How do I find the right teacher? Are there tests that the student can apply to the teacher?

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"The Words of My Perfect Teacher" by Patrul Rinpoche has a chapter (Ch. 6) on how to choose, test and follow a "spiritual friend" (teacher):

  • pure, never having contravened any of the commitments or prohibitions (Pratimoksha, Bodhisattva's Vow, Secret Vows of Secret Mantrayana)
  • unstained by negative emotions
  • learned, not lacking in knowledge of sutras, tantras and shastras
  • heart suffused with compassion, loves each being like his only child
  • well-versed in vast array of rituals and ceremonies
  • not merely verbal but by putting the meaning of teaching into practice has actualized in himself the achievements of riddance and realization
  • generous, completely free of attachments
  • language should be pleasant
  • teaches each according to person's needs
  • acts in accordance with what he teaches

Teachers to avoid:

  • Like a millstone made of wool (high lamas by birth but have not studied and practiced seriously enough for the above qualities to arise)
  • Like the frog that lived in a well (with very limited exposure to true depth and breadth of Practice, having never seen a genuine spiritual master)
  • Mad guides (loose in discipline, strong in emotions, overemphasizing the esoteric and transcendental)
  • Blind guides (don't know what they are talking about)

"Treasury of Precious Qualities" by Jigme Lingpa has several pages (in Ch.5) on fully qualified masters vs. false teachers:

(repeats most of the above and adds the following)

  • Good teacher must have few activities, exclusively preoccupied with Dharma
  • His presence has transforming effect, inspiring all who meet him to seek for liberation
  • Must have an unconfined view, having realized the equality of nirvana and samsara
  • Having direct experience of the above, he is the source of his own freedom
  • Has been ripened by empowerments that came down to him in an uninterrupted lineage.
  • Could you quote some of this, if it's not too much trouble? – user50 Jun 27 '14 at 2:21
  • @KevinJohnsrude, added – Andrei Volkov Jun 27 '14 at 12:22
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    Here is one more link to some good commentary on finding a good teacher from one of my favorite teaches, Alex Berzin: "Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship", berzinarchives.com/web/x/nav/group.html_1305527811.html – PFS32 Aug 4 '14 at 17:19
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The "Jewel Ornament of Liberation" by Gampopa describes different levels of teachers and their qualifications. Some rely on the 31st chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra (also known independently as the "Sutra of the Ten Bhumis") which describes a set of criteria on which to judge someone as a Mahayana teacher.

edit: it occurs to me that you may have been wondering about specifics, not just where you can find it talked about.

Some basics would be: have they taken the Bodhisattva Vow? Do they have demonstrable knowledge of the Mahayana path? Are they patient while teaching? Do they make sure people understand? Do they seem to get discouraged or disappointed with students? Can they speak to you at your level of understanding?

And of course standard things like ethical behavior.

  • What is the Bodhisattva Vow? – user50 Jun 27 '14 at 2:22
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    The Bodhisattva Vow is a life-transcending vow to attain full-Buddhahood to benefit all sentient beings. If you took the vow in this life, that vow would continue into future lives as well. The mindstream would be "stained" by it creating tendencies towards the dharma and repeating the vow in those future lives (in theory). – DespreTine Jun 27 '14 at 2:48
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(Disclaimer: This is not a Vajrayāna approach so feel free to discard it but I'd say the advice is useful nonetheless.)
To find a skillful teacher, one could approach the matter prudently by trying to get the most points checked from the following list:

  • Doesn't accept any money, especially for teaching.1
  • Has the qualities mentioned in AN 4.73 & AN 4.192.
  • Doesn't show traces of greed, hatred or delusion in their behavior.
  • Meditates frequently and for lengthy periods.
  • Eats once a day before noon.2
  • Is content with very little.3
  • Is bent on solitude & seclusion.4

Note that these points are just good guidelines and should be taken as a supplement to one's own discernment.

For further references, you might want to read some early discourses concerning this:

  • DN 12: Teachers that are worthy & unworthy of criticism.
  • MN 8: The whole discourse is worth reading but I linked to the specific section about instruction called "Quenching".
  • MN 47: This discourse addresses the issue head-on.
  • AN 5.100: Teachers being covered up by their pupils.
  • AN 5.159: Five qualities a teacher should set up.
  • Dhp 158-159: Two verses about teachers.

Footnotes:

  1. AN 5.159 has five qualities a teacher should set up. The fourth one is that he will not speak for the purpose of material reward.
  2. MN 65 is a good reference about the Buddha's thoughts concerning this issue.
  3. AN 4.27 is a good reminder about contentment with the bare minimum but I wouldn't advocate it as a necessary guideline.
  4. AN 8.53 has the qualities that make-up the Buddha's teaching and one of them is solitude\seclusion.
  • I would have voted you the answer but your answer needed more text and fewer references. – user50 Jul 3 '14 at 5:17
  • When it is possible, I prefer to let the texts speak for themselves. Additionally, the question mentions "What in tradition or the literature explains how to find the appropriate teacher?", so the answer seems quite to the point apart from not being Vajrayāna as already mentioned in the disclaimer. Thank you for the comment anyway. – Unrul3r Jul 3 '14 at 12:13
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I disagree with the comment "Don't accept money, especially for a teaching."

I am not sure where that particular comment comes from, but as both a Tibetan practitioner and an ordained monk, I have Never seen it written that one should not accept a teacher who is paid for his/her teachings. In fact, and supporting teachers, who traveled from afar, individuals, benefactors, and Dharma centers all make donations to the teacher.

Most likely, the implication is that students should be wary of teachers who appear to be"money – hungry."

Finally, if you find yourself in a group where money and making money seem to be more important than teachings and/or Dharma, it is probably not a good place to be.

  • Did you see the "Disclaimer: This is not a Vajrayāna approach" at the top of that message? It references the Udayi Sutta which says, "The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, 'I will speak not for the purpose of material reward.'" – ChrisW Jun 16 '15 at 21:27

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