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If a meditation teacher is not enlightened, is there any point in learning from him/her? According to Satipatthana Sutta, the awakening should usually take some time between 7 days and 7 years. If somebody who devoted his life to teaching meditation still hasn't got enlightened, there must be something wrong with his method, then? Or am I missing something?

The question is general, but to give some context: I have been to a meditation retreat using S.N. Goenka's method, and what I learnt seems to have some merits. But if I assumed a Buddhist point of view that the awakening is the ultimate goal, there is no reason to follow his advice, since Goenka has stated that he is not enlightened. Is there any point in using his techniques?

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Is there any point in learning meditation from an unenlightened person?

If there are arahants living, it would make more sense to learn from them. But that being the case, it's quite hard to identify them, and they vow not to openly declare such accomplishment.

In these circumstances, consider the negative answer: after deciding there is no point in learning from an unenlightened person we still have to face the fact that we are left as unenlightened being subject to suffering.

The same question applies to the suttas: are they the actual words of the Buddha? If we allow the "maybe not" answer, does this mean it render the texts useless?

In the end, the burden is on the learner, to be autonomous, critical, and to learn to evaluate his/her own steps, directions and options, even if he is, often times, not in the best position to perform these evaluations. And as @Crab suggested, learning is "incremental", and we naturally can learn from people who know "a little more". For example, we don't need to demand isaac newton to teach us physics, nor it makes much sense to only regard nobel laureates able to teach their fields. A school teacher might do "just fine". Of course, there are limits to "just fine", as an unenlightened teacher is subject to mistakes -- and that's were the tension lies.

The fact is that, in our generation, that's our circumstance and that's what we have at our disposal. And we have to work with it.

  • 'The same question applies to the suttas: are they the actual words of the Buddha? If we allow the "maybe not" answer, does this mean it render the texts useless? In the end, the burden is on the learner, to be autonomous, critical, and to learn to evaluate his/her own steps, directions and options, even if he is, often times, not in the best position to perform these evaluations.' very practical. – jitin Feb 27 '15 at 15:40
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The Buddha tells the Kalamas to choose a teacher wisely in the Kalama Sutta based on the usefulness or skillfulness of the teachings, as well as you can identify the characteristics of the "disciple of the noble ones":

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness" — then you should enter & remain in them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, one who is a disciple of the noble ones — thus devoid of greed, devoid of ill will, undeluded, alert, & resolute — keeps pervading the first direction [the east] — as well as the second direction, the third, & the fourth — with an awareness imbued with good will. Thus he keeps pervading above, below, & all around, everywhere & in every respect the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with good will: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.

At the same time, in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha advises the sangha to take full refuge unto the dhamma and depend on themselves.

"When he dwells contemplating the body in the body, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world; when he dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, the mind in the mind, and mental objects in mental objects, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world, then, truly, he is an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge; having the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge.

"Those bhikkhus of mine, Ananda, who now or after I am gone, abide as an island unto themselves, as a refuge unto themselves, seeking no other refuge; having the Dhamma as their island and refuge, seeking no other refuge: it is they who will become the highest, if they have the desire to learn."

Please note the last advice on the "desire to learn".

So:

  • Take the Dhamma as your island and refuge
  • Depend on yourself
  • Have the desire to learn
  • Learn from teachers whose teachings you find to be useful and skillful (need not be arahants)
  • Identify that the teacher is, preferably, a "disciple of the noble ones" (see above)
  • But don't depend on those teachers - depend on yourself and the Dhamma
  • Alagaddupama Sutta also warns of making sure that we understand the Dhamma properly and also not getting overly attached to it ("In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto.")
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From a practical perspective there aren't going to be that many enlightened people around so if you want to have anything approaching personal instruction then you will have no option but to engage with an unenlightened teacher. I would argue that the personal connection is far more important than being in contact with someone who has completed the path. Even if there was an enlightened person in your area they probably wouldn't advertise that fact - so unless you had a very close student/teacher connection already, you wouldn't necessarily know.

Also it depends whether you think that it's enlightenment or bust. If you think that enlightenment is all or nothing and unless you have achieved it then you've wasted your time - then hold on for an enlightened teacher. However if you think that it is an incremental process, then anyone on a stage of the path further on than you would be perfectly good teacher. Established concepts such as stream-entrant, once-returner etc.. point to the latter point of view.

Lastly as someone else has said the Sattipanna Sutta has a particular point of view about the time it takes to get enlightened. If you read other texts then you will get other perspectives. In the Lotus Sutra for example the time it takes to get enlightened ranges from between a few moments for the Dragon Kings daughter to 'as may kalpas as there are grains of sand in the Ganges' - which is considerably longer than 7 years.

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Just as you let a thought pass through you during meditation rather than trying to crush it, let this opportunity pass through your life rather than crushing it.

Disclaimer: I am not "enlightened"

If a teacher has not attained enlightenment, that does not automatically show that there is a flaw in his meditation teachings, for there is more to an individual than merely what they teach. And, even if they are flawed (as we all are), that does not mean you have nothing to learn from them. It merely means they will not be able to "teach you to be awake," but that means little since no teacher can teach you to be awake. Besides, needing to find someone who is "enlightened" means you are attached to the idea of being taught by an enlightened person.

When we meditate, and a thought appears, we are not instructed to stop the thought in its tracks. We calmly let it play out, observing it. Once it is gone, calmness is back. It is reasonable to map this into life: if you have an option to train from an imperfect source, let it pass through your life, observing all you can from this opportunity. You may find that their flawed teachings enlighten you, or you may not. Or, given that the student-teacher relationship often works in reverse, you may assist him or her in enlightenment.

It is entirely possible that this teacher cannot teach you enough to attain enlightenment yourself. This is true for any teacher. However, unless you attach yourself to their methods so deeply that you cannot learn from any other teacher, you are always free to thank them for their wisdom, and move on to a teacher which will teach you new things. This new teacher may be "enlightened," or they may not. Once again, let it play out, and patiently observe.

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Anyone can state he/she is enlightened so you can't just believe their words. Satipatthana Sutta seems overly optimistic about this.

Many persons avoid the use of the word enlightened altogether so I just would just suggest listening to what a teacher has to say. If their words make sense, listen. If their words or teaching no longer have value for you, you can always walk out.

  • Yes, they have some value for me, but I wonder if they have any value for Buddhists, as they don't seem to lead to enlightenment. I'm talking about a situation where the teacher clearly said he is not enlightened. I have no reason to doubt what he says. Satipatthana Sutta gives information provided by an enlightened person. I haven't heard of any enlightened individual who would say that those times are overly optimistic. – michau Feb 24 '15 at 13:49
  • Yes, well my answer was outside of buddhist tradition so somebody else might have an answer within the tradition. – Simo Kivistö Feb 24 '15 at 13:59
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A teacher who follows and explains rigorously and profoundly the Anapana Sutta and the Mahasatipatthana Sutta is worth to be appreciated, enlightened or not.

Anyway, nobody can explain Buddha's teachings in a such a way without 'seeing and knowing'.

S.N. Goenka:

"Observing reality as it is by observing the truth inside—this is knowing oneself directly and experientially. As one practices, one keeps freeing oneself from the misery of mental impurities. From the gross, external, apparent truth, one penetrates to the ultimate truth of mind and matter. Then one transcends that, and experiences a truth that is beyond mind and matter, beyond time and space, beyond the conditioned field of relativity: the truth of total liberation from all defilements, all impurities, all suffering. Whatever name one gives this ultimate truth is irrelevant; it is the final goal of everyone". S.N. Goenka, (2014), The Art of Dying, p. 154:

Whatever name one gives this ultimate truth is irrelevant... Indeed.

  • How is a somebody potentially interested in Buddhism supposed to know whether a particular person's explanation is rigorous and profound? – michau Feb 24 '15 at 15:41
  • Can you please clarify what is your point? Do you mean that Goenka was actually enlightened, just didn't give it the name "enlightenment"? – michau Feb 24 '15 at 15:51
  • @michau - 'rigourous & profound': "If with a pure mind one performs any action of speech or body, then happiness will follow that person as a shadow that never departs." (Dhammapada 1.2) – Guy Eugène Dubois Feb 24 '15 at 15:52
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    I still don't understand. Do you mean that if somebody's teaching causes my happiness, that's enough to decide that he is a good teacher? – michau Feb 24 '15 at 15:57
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Truth is, there is only YOU who can decide (for yourself) if any teacher (or any person for that matter) is "enlightened" or not, so this question is actually empty. Authorities that you respect may vouch for one teacher or the other, but again it is YOU deciding that those authorities are authoritative. It is YOU who decided that meditation is worthwhile. So it always falls back on you. Accept that you have this responsibility of deciding things for yourself, and practice.

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You don't 'become' enlightened. You are enlightened. It's a question of whether you've had an experience of truly realizing this. Nor is this experience a perpetual state of being, at least for the vast majority of people. So holding out for an 'enlightened' teacher is really missing the point. @Simo Kivistö has a good answer. Look for a teacher who makes sense to you in terms of your knowledge, experience, feeling - or lack of same.

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Paramahansa Yogananda was considered to be enlightened, he founded Self-Realization Fellowship to disseminate his meditation techniques. As good a place to start as any, I guess.

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