There is a saying that “Life is the greatest Teacher” which is profoundly true. We all know someone who has made a deep impact on our heart and mind, opening the door to question the world as we know it.
In the west we call them “Life Teachers”, people who have crossed our paths and forever changed us as a result.
If you’re studying Buddhism, then by far, the most important teacher in your life is your Lama.
It’s one of the most treasured relationships that you can forge in this lifetime (and the next), so it’s critical that you find someone who is authentic, knowledgeable and represents the teachings in their actions and words.
Mindfulness and meditation has gained great popularity in the West, and with this, comes the inevitable tidal wave of self-appointed Gurus.
To study the path, you need to find a Dharma teacher who genuinely has your best interest at heart, but where do you start?
“In the Sandalwood Forests on the Malaya Mountains, when an ordinary tree falls, it’s wood is gradually impregnated with the sweet perfume of the sandal. After some years, that ordinary wood come to smell as sweet as the sandal trees around it. In just the same way, if you live and study with a perfect teacher of good qualities, you will be permeated by the perfume of those qualities and everything you do will come to resemble him”- Patrul Rinpoche
To help you on your search, Tamkey (former Tibetan Buddhist monk of 19 years) and I have put together a list of qualities that your Dharma teacher should possess.
These qualities and their meanings are translated from Tekpa chenpö do de gyen (Tibetan for the 5 treatises of Maitreya, The Mahayanasutralankara)
Before we start, I should note that there are 3 levels of Teaching according to Buddhism. They are Hinayana, Mahayana and Tantrayana.
In each level there are qualities you should look for, however today we’re going to focus on the Mahayana Dharma Teacher.
A truly great Mahayana Teacher will possess all the qualities required to teach Hinayana, conversely, they will encompass the qualities of a Tantrayana teacher and will demonstrate this when they feel you are ready to study the Tantra.
The 10 qualities of a Mahayana Teacher (Lama) are;
- Demonstrates higher discipline and ethics;
Teachers of Mahayana make a lifelong commitment to follow their vows (18 root vows and 46 down-falls), the most important of which is to never harm other sentient beings.
- Demonstrate highest meditative stabilisation
In simple terms, your Lama or Guru, has contemplated the deeper meaning and integrated the Buddha’s teachings with their meditational practice.
- Demonstrates higher wisdom
Your Lama has trained in the contemplative method of understanding the true nature of all things (emptiness)
- Higher Dharma knowledge than your students
Sounds simple really, but your Teacher should have an extensive knowledge of the Dharma, to be able to explain all aspects of the path.
- Great motivation to teach
A genuine Lama, or Guru, is not motivated by money or fame, but the desire to help others onto the path. They demonstrate a great joy in sharing this with others at any time and are enthusiastic to do so.
- Knowledge of the three scriptural collections- set of discourses, sets of discipline, sets of manifest knowledge (all of Buddhas Teachings)
In Tibetan the name for great Teacher is “Lama”, meaning “holder and practitioner of Highest Buddhist Knowledge”. Great Teachers of Buddhism are also known by the Sanskrit term “Guru”. This is a lifelong commitment, a Geshe or Khenpo (the Tibetan name for Highest Teacher/Doctorate of Buddhism) studies for a minimum of 15 years.
- Realisation of emptiness
It’s impossible to check a Lama’s realisation, however through investigation, a student can check the purity of their lineage, the teachings on emptiness that their Lama has received from their Root Guru, and their ability to explain the concepts of emptiness generally.
- Great skills in understanding, translating and explaining the Dharma
The best teachers are those who are able to connect your heart and mind to the Dharma, inspiring a desire to practice and learn more. They are able to translate the teachings, delivering them to the student without diluting the essence of the meaning.
- Genuinely possess great loving kindness for all sentient beings with great emphasis on the relationships with their students
This is a quality that is easy to see, a genuine Lama, motivated by the desire to help others, shows the kind of love towards their students that you may witness from a mother to a child. They embrace all of their students good and bad qualities, guiding them to practice the Dharma by demonstrating compassion and wisdom at all times.
- Great willingness to share the teachings whenever the opportunity arises
Having the realisation of the teachings, a great Lama is energised and joyful to teach at any time, including times of great personal difficulty and regardless of circumstance.
Recognising that to find a teacher with all 10 of these qualities is very difficult, it’s important that any teacher you choose has a minimum of 2 qualities, the most important being that they have more knowledge than you do, and that their motivation is pure, which is evidenced by the fact that their actions and words embody compassion and wisdom.
We hope you have found this list useful, we know how deeply personal this spiritual journey is, so take the time to check your teachers carefully, remembering that they too will be checking you 😉
Good luck on your path!
For more information about finding an authentic teacher, please see: