Finding a Teacher: What They Don’t Tell You


Once you go along on your path in Vajrayana Buddhism for a while, you will hear over and over about “finding a teacher”.  What I want to express here is that this phrase means many different things to different Tibetan lamas. Finding a teacher (guru) is not as you may think being a westerner.  It is also possible to have more than one teacher, and that is important to know as well. Here are the key things that I have uncovered:

  1. No Uniformity: Unlike other organized religions, like Catholicism, there is no central entity that regulates Tibetan Buddhism. Thus, there is no clear path to finding a teacher. It is possible to go along for some time thinking that a particular lama is your teacher, only to discover, embarrassingly, that he or she does not consider you their student. I wish I could answer for you how this can possibly happen. Sadly, I am at a loss. Know that the relationship between student and teacher is not always clear. In fact, it is often opaque and fuzzy. However, there is at least one American lama, who actually has a delineated set of steps to being accepted as her student. You can see her work here.
  2. No Guidance: Expect zero guidance from others when it comes to your own relationship to a lama. It is the kind of thing that no one can really help you with. In fact, some people are very shy to ever talk about their teacher at all, for fear of speaking ill of them and/or of breaking vows of devotion and respect to one’s lama. There is one book that I read that helped a little bit in understanding this dynamic. It is called Not For Happiness: A Guide to the So-called Preliminary Practices. The author is an authentic lama who knows and understands the Western mind. Chapter 6 explains as best I have found the cultural and traditional elements about finding a teacher (guru). But at the end of the day, reading this book will not find you a teacher. I recommend wishing prayers; a lot of them, and living every moment of your life implementing as much sincere kindness for others as you can. On the Buddhist view, this will help you more than any book.
  3. Different Definitions: For me, as I listened to others talk about their teacher, I had this idea in my head that a teacher was someone who  would know me, who would interact with  me personally and would offer me customized spiritual guidance. I see now that this definition is not wrong exactly, but in many cases, it is not accurate either. Some people seem to consider a lama whose lectures they attend in large venues, who they have never met personally, is their teacher. And I have heard others who feel a deep connection to certain books lamas who are no longer alive have written; they consider them to be their “teacher”.  Finally, I have heard of people following lamas on their YouTube Channel, and considering them to be their teacher. So, there are many ways to define what a teacher is, it seems. And they all seem to be correct to a certain extent.  But still, when you read  Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse  , he definitely gives the idea that a teacher is more personal; more involved in your life. What I have noticed…the heavy hitters, the super accomplished lamas and monks do seem to have teachers in real life, who know them personally. But for the little guys like most of us, or the non-celebrities, we are often left with the more “teacher for the masses”-type experiences. 
  4. You Know It When It Happens At some point, you will attend a teaching or an event given by a lama and you will literally “fall in love”. Of course, not in any romantic sense, but the experience is the same. You will feel distracted by them in your practice; always thinking of them and wanting to do your best as a practitioner in their name. You will think of them often in your daily life, and you will find yourself putting even more effort in to your  practice than you ever thought possible. Further, you will notice your practice is taken to the next level, to a place you never even imagined; to a place that is beyond magical; a place that is beyond words. When you have similar experiences, you know that lama is your teacher.
  5. Think Beyond Physical Limits: On the Tibetan Buddhist view as I understand it, your teacher does not have to be physically close to you. Your guru is with you from afar. Your guru is with you simply by invoking him/her from where ever you are and whatever you are doing. You will find, that as the relationship with your guru deepens, or progresses, they will appear in your dreams and give you teachings. So, the teacher/student relationship is not only complicated, it transcends a lot of what we take to be ordinary laws of physics and expectations. Be prepared for and open to this.

These 5 items are true for ALL the teachers you may come upon on your path. It is not uncommon for Buddhist practitioners to have multiple teachers. There is a caveat here though; at least to my mind. There seems to always be a main teacher; one who is the primary director of your spiritual life. It is important to know too, that this relationship is fluid. The teacher who is  main guide at one point, may be replaced. It is not that one lama is kicked to the curb, but only that the style and personality of another guru is best for you now.

Let me be clear; you need a teacher. Buddhism will be un-navigable without one. You will need patience. And you will need to pay attention to a million subtle little things that change in your practice as you move forward. Once you have pursued Buddhism somewhat, the overwhelming recognition that understanding the nature of your own mind is so difficult will seem intractable. But it is in that moment you truly understand why Gurus exist, and why they are the personification of Compassion itself. In my case, once I reached this understanding, it was not too long before my teacher presented themselves to me. For the record.


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