who are perfect teachers,
do not require [constructive] criticism from their students.
What do you do when you encounter a Dharma teacher who teaches in ways far from perfect? I used to slap an invisible label of ‘lousy’ on him or her, and shun his or her teachings indefinitely. Thankfully, after I started teaching, my attitude changed. I became eager for feedback on my imperfect teaching. In time to come, I realised that some of the best improvements I’ve made in my teaching come from the most honest feedback. In contrast, those who merely complimented (who are more than those who ‘complained’) mostly motivated me to maintain my current standard. But, hey, compliments are important too – because they show you that you are doing something right, while complaints show you how you can be even better.
If we, as Buddhist students, do not help Buddhist teachers (especially those who don’t seem to have other teachers ‘above’ them) to improve by offering our feedback, who will? Guru devotion, especially to the more influential ones, also means devotion to helping the guru improve. After all, the essence of guru devotion does not lie in flattering any guru with sweet words; what we are devoted to is the Dharma embodied and expressed. If teachers’ offering of feedback is important for their students, students’ offering of feedback to their teachers is even more crucial – because this can help many more students taught by these teachers in their lifetimes. It is much easier to feedback to busy teachers these days, who might find it difficult to find time to discuss with us on our points of concern. I do it by sending sincere and detailed emails.
We need to note too, that just because a teacher does not seem very well-versed in a teaching does not mean he or she is not proficient in other teachings. That said, it is the responsibility of teachers to study and practise the relevant aspects of the Dharma well, before teaching accordingly from theoretical and practical points of view. Failing to do so could mean there is lack of respect for the teaching and its students. Even though it is common for teachers to give opening disclaimers that they have imperfect grasp of the subject being taught, the point is to prepare and present it best they can – because students will always be looking up to teachers to do their best, and are mostly unaware of which parts of the teaching having blemishes that distort what ought to be learnt.
If you have no satisfactory teacher,
then take this sure Dhamma and practise it.
For Dhamma is sure and when rightly undertaken,
it will be to your welfare and happiness for a long time.
– The Buddha (M I.401)
As long as unenlightened,
the best teachers are also the best students.