When the student is ready,
the master appears.
(When the students wrongly assume they are ready,
the might maras appear.)
– Zen Saying (extended)
There is the mistaken notion, that after ‘carefully’ choosing human gurus (spiritual teachers), we should trust them completely, that as all gurus are ‘empty’ in nature, all the good and bad qualities we perceive of them are merely our projections. This idea is wrong on many levels. Because we are not enlightened, the teacher we choose might be unenlightened as well. Thus, if we totally entrust our spirituality to them without question, it could be dangerous. (Even recent history shows that there are gurus assumed to be ‘great’ who turn out to have great misgivings.) Yet, we have to choose who is worth learning from with the best of our limited wisdom – which we should continually strive to increase. Blind faith in any teacher or teaching is a big no-no, for it is the nemesis of discerning wisdom. True spiritual devotion is towards the perfect wisdom that teachers dispense; not to their imperfect personalities. If any teacher demands the latter, he or she would surely be a faulty self-centred teacher; and not a Dharma-centred one.
If everything about teachers is projected from the side of the students, this would mean that the teachers would be exactly the same as each student in every way! Of course, this is never the case. If all teachers are not different from their students, the teachers ought to be done away with, for every student might as well simply take their reflections in the mirror to be their own teachers! It is exactly because teachers are supposedly superior in compassion and wisdom that students learn from them. However, the ways teachers are perceived are indeed to some extent dependent on their students’ perceptions. But if they are willing to learn, they learn to be open-minded, by clarifying doubts and clearing bias instead of just stubbornly hanging on to them. When students stop intelligent enquiry though, blind faith in their teachers starts seeping in. They might even aggressively rationalise their teacher’s faults to others.
Some even use faulty teachings learnt to defend sound criticisms about their teachers, claiming the critics to be biased, when they are the ones who are. Some say that their teachers being criticised only reflects that all teachers, like everything else, are of ’emptiness’. This is a severely deluded perspective. If everything is of ’emptiness’, does it mean that anything goes when it comes to conduct and teachings? Why learn anything from any specific teacher then? Some erroneously claim that as their teachers are ’empty’, if they are seen as erroneous, it is due to erroneous personal perceptions. Surely, when teachers break the precepts, it does not mean that their misconduct is their students’ fault. Sometimes, poor teachers might turn out to have good students, who have better conduct than them! Seeing anyone as ‘empty’ does not absolve that person’s misdeeds or dissolve the possible harms of such mistakes.
And if all is of ’emptiness’, why even defend an ’empty’ teacher from ’empty’ blame? What is true emptiness in Buddhism? Emptiness refers to mind and matter being subject to change, thus empty of any fixed nature. Some change to be more and more blameworthy though, not always kinder and wiser. Spiritual cultivation is to advance in the right direction of increasing compassion and wisdom. Emptiness does not mean there is no right or wrong, or there would be no wholesome or unwholesome conduct, good or bad karma, and anything goes. Even if some teachers have benefited their students to some extent, where they go wrong, they are still wrong. It is better to address these mistakes sooner than later, before they accumulate in quantity and quality. There are many charismatic but dangerous teachers in our world. Some do become notorious cult leaders when left unchecked by growing followings.
Once teachers start to make grave mistakes, the mistakes should be highlighted to protect those who are not aware – lest they come to learn and practise wrongly through them. It cannot be assumed that teachers who have once helped many will never harm any, just as it cannot be assumed that one who had harmed many will never help any. To be silent is to passively condone the mistakes, especially when asked about the teacher. It is worse to be blindly defensive. It should be out of compassion for the faulty teachers too, that their mistakes are highlighted. If they are unrepentant, it is all the more important to highlight the dangers of following them. As an extreme example, Hitler was able to climb to great power because many remained silent – even those who knew he was increasingly wrong. In spirituality, beyond physical lives being endangered, mental damage can be terrible and hard to cure.
The great Nagarjuna unequivocally taught that there is no cure for those who cling to misunderstandings of emptiness. Another seriously warped abuse of ’emptiness’ is to use it to justify the occasional wrong teachings of teachers, saying that the teachings are ’empty’ in nature anyway, not fixed. Once again, this means anything goes. One might as well learn how to make the world a better place from Hitler then. Even cult leaders occasionally teach right teachings. The problem is that they are mixed with wrong teachings, that are not easy to sift away. If a someone asks us if a well with pure water plus a few drops of poison is okay to drink from, what should we say? We would advise staying clear. Even a few drops of spiritual poison can lethally corrupt morality and distort truth, capable of killing spiritual life in the long run. And physical life too, in some cases. Think cult mass suicides, that still occasionally occur.
Faulty teachers teach the Dharma in dangerously lopsided ways. For example, to teach about ’emptiness’ with little focus on actualising Bodhicitta (the aspiration to guide all beings to liberation) is to assume universal wisdom can be realised without cultivating universal compassion (and moral conduct). In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha instructed that all Bodhisattvas should not abide in objects of the senses. While not abiding anywhere however, they should give rise to the mind of purity (based on Bodhicitta). (金刚经: 诸菩萨摩诃萨应如是生清净心, 不应住色生心, 不应住声香味触法生心, 应无所住而生其心.) In other words, the Buddha was saying that even as one abides nowhere in particular, by being free within emptiness, one should also give rise to Bodhicitta. Without Bodhicitta, one would not be a Bodhisattva, and can never become a Buddha.
May all faulty teachers swiftly awaken to their mistakes.
May all faulty students swiftly awaken to their mistakes.
May all swiftly awaken one another to one another’s mistakes.
– A Faulty Student’s Prayer
Are All Outer Evils Projected By Us?
Danger of Clinging to Emptiness
How Students Can Become Teachers
When Teachers Are Not Yet One with the Dharma
How Poor Students Can Create Poor Teachers
14 Articles on Dharma Teachers
Devotion to the Truth & Guru
Who Do You Take Refuge In?
Proximity & Distance
My Perfect Guru
How to Find Your Guru
Guru Not (Article with comments that inspired this article)