Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism
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kc2dpt
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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby kc2dpt » Tue Sep 08, 2009 12:12 am

TheDhamma wrote:For those of you who believe in the supremacy of having a teacher, what would you do in the following situation:

You follow Theravada, from the Mahavihara classical position or just Theravada, if you prefer that term by itself, and your teacher tells you not to pay attention to the Abhidhamma. The teacher tells you jhanas are unnecessary and not important. The teacher tells you reading and study is also not important, you just need to sit and follow your breath and do no other practice. And you are not a beginner and know that there are other practices and doctrines of Theravada which could help your practice. What do you do?

There's a few things here.

1] You say this is my teacher. If this person is my teacher then I chose them to be my teacher. I must have had a reason and that will factor in to what I do in this situation.

2] If my teacher says X is unnecessary and I think X should be part of my practice then I can conclude that it would be fruitless to ask his teacher about X. A teacher is not a boss, they are someone I can ask questions and get guidance. If a teacher isn't into a particular practice then I would not go to him for guidance on that practice. But just because they don't do a particular practice does not mean that I can't.

Now in your hypothetical they have also said that particular practice is unnecessary or shouldn't be done. On this point I would want to know why they feel that way. Now this is a hypothetical so we can only go so far with this... but in my experience when a teacher says this it is because they themselves don't do that practice and therefore feel no one needs to. That is a common, though unfortunate, occurrence. But again, that doesn't have to have any bearing on what I do. If this is a practice I have found to be useful then I would continue with it. Which leads us to...

3] If it was a practice I haven't yet tried but was considering trying, or if it wasn't even something I had heard of due to my own lack of study, then I would just follow my teacher's advice. After all, what difference does it make? If I think my teacher has something worthwhile to teach me, then what is the harm in trying out his preferred practice rather than some other practice? To take your example, there is really no harm in NOT reading Abhidhamma, NOT worrying about jhanas, and just watching the breath. It seems to me that is a good practice that with proper guidance can take one far on the Path.

The above is a hypothetical example, but not unrealistic and I have seen some teachers take such a position. Do you just ignore those teachings? Find another teacher?

It depends. Neither would be unreasonable depending on where you're at in your practice.

Otherwise, you might just blindly follow a bad teacher and yes, there are some out there.

Firstly, following the breath is a good practice. I would not so quickly call a teacher who teaches in this way a "bad teacher". Secondly, one could follow a bad teacher and one could follow a bad self. At least a teacher is more likely to have the support of his teachers and fellows in the holy life. All you've got is you.
- Peter

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby kc2dpt » Tue Sep 08, 2009 12:26 am

retrofuturist wrote:What makes you think that what I do is essentially any more different than what you're doing then?

It doesn't seem to be very different. The difference seems to be our attitude to it. It think it is important, perhaps vital, to get guidance from those with longer and deeper connections to the teachings (and the Buddha) than I have. You appear to find it completely optional.
- Peter

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby siaophengyou » Tue Sep 08, 2009 12:31 am

...
Last edited by siaophengyou on Tue Sep 08, 2009 5:39 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby David N. Snyder » Tue Sep 08, 2009 12:34 am

Peter wrote:
The above is a hypothetical example, but not unrealistic and I have seen some teachers take such a position. Do you just ignore those teachings? Find another teacher?

It depends. Neither would be unreasonable depending on where you're at in your practice.


In the example I gave I mentioned that one is not a beginner:

"The teacher tells you reading and study is also not important, you just need to sit and follow your breath and do no other practice. And you are not a beginner and know that there are other practices and doctrines of Theravada which could help your practice. What do you do?"

Firstly, following the breath is a good practice. I would not so quickly call a teacher who teaches in this way a "bad teacher". Secondly, one could follow a bad teacher and one could follow a bad self. At least a teacher is more likely to have the support of his teachers and fellows in the holy life. All you've got is you.


I didn't say following the breath is bad instruction or bad teaching from a bad teacher. That was a separate point not related to the hypothetical student referred to before who was not a beginner.

But, on the subject of a bad teacher, what about a teacher who instructed you to drink alcohol while you meditate? If there is no study, how would you know that is a violation of the precepts?

All you've got is you.


Why? What happened to the Dhamma? The Dhamma, the Buddha's dispensation is still with us. The Pali Canon is here in (virtually) full translation for us to read and study.

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby Ngawang Drolma. » Tue Sep 08, 2009 12:39 am

Hi all,

Just a note from my personal experience. I'm so immeasurably grateful for the guidance and information I've received from teachers. It's been invaluable to me. And I seriously doubt that I could have ever reached such conclusions on my own. If I could it would take a very long time. The nice thing about teachers, both lay and ordained, is that they have a lot of information and experience that they can share and provide, if you're willing to be receptive. They've dedicated their lives to the dharma, whereas for me it's something for which I have to make time from my other daily responsibilities. But different strokes for different folks, as it goes. For me, I'll soak up anything from someone who has made a profession and life of dharma (assuming it's a reliable teacher) that they're willing to give.

Best,
Drolma

:anjali:

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby Ben » Tue Sep 08, 2009 12:41 am

Hi David

I don't think there's anything wrong with trying out different approaches. However, I wouldn't be too concerned about a teacher saying to his or her students 'concentrate on x - don't worry about y'. For the vast majority of us, as householders, we don't have the time or the personal resources to engage in practicing all the various samatha techniques uninterrupted for years on end in total seclusion, nor the time to practice all vipassana variants.
At some point, I believe, one must devote oneself to one particular approach for a length of time to see if it gives benefit. If it doesn't one simply moves on. But having a teacher (let's say another hypothetical teacher), who provided his students with a variety of practices could be counter to the student making any progress at all. One does a little bit of anapana, earth kasina, perhaps vipassana, contemplation of death and others. One may not get established in either one and there is a danger that such approach can turn the experience into another sensory entertainment, a smorgasbord.

It was the students of Webu Sayadaw who said that he became an arahant on little more than observing his breath. On reading his discourses, it is clear that he knew nothing of the Abhidhamma and according to U Ba Khin and others, the Sayadaw knew no Pali.

So I don't think its a problem. If one doesn't get benefit from one's teacher's approach following a trial period of following that teacher's instructions, then move on.
Kind regards

Ben
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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby David N. Snyder » Tue Sep 08, 2009 12:47 am

Ben wrote:So I don't think its a problem. If one doesn't get benefit from one's teacher's approach following a trial period of following that teacher's instructions, then move on.


Hi Ben,

Yes, I agree. And the way one will know when and how to do this is from study.

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby Ben » Tue Sep 08, 2009 12:54 am

TheDhamma wrote:
Ben wrote:So I don't think its a problem. If one doesn't get benefit from one's teacher's approach following a trial period of following that teacher's instructions, then move on.


Hi Ben,

Yes, I agree. And the way one will know when and how to do this is from study.


Ok, from my perspective, it needs to be experienced.
Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.

Taṃ nadīhi vijānātha:
sobbhesu padaresu ca,
saṇantā yanti kusobbhā,
tuṇhīyanti mahodadhī.

Sutta Nipata 3.725

Compassionate Hands Foundation (Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • Buddhist Global ReliefUNHCR
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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby David N. Snyder » Tue Sep 08, 2009 12:58 am

Ben wrote:Ok, from my perspective, it needs to be experienced.


Can't it be both? Or one or the other? The Buddha gave us the Dhamma and Discipline, no need to re-invent the wheel. We can study and practice and learn from both.

Thanks to the Buddha we don't have to just sit only and figure this all out. There are the discourses that can be studied and put into practice (both).

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby retrofuturist » Tue Sep 08, 2009 1:03 am

Greetings Peter,

It think it is important, perhaps vital, to get guidance from those with longer and deeper connections to the teachings (and the Buddha) than I have. You appear to find it completely optional.


Not at all.

Consider all the people here more knowledgeable than me... consider all the people who write and speak on the Dhamma (as obtained via books, talks, online texts) who are more knowledgeable than me. Consider those who translate texts and speak to them through their own "longer and deeper connections to the teachings and the Buddha". I am open to what all of them have to say.

Even someone generally less knowledgeable than myself on the Dhamma can illuminate something useful for consideration that I may have otherwise been blind to.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby retrofuturist » Tue Sep 08, 2009 1:15 am

Greetings siaophengyou,

siaophengyou wrote:i will surrender myself completely to the instructions of my Teacher.


But how did you find your Teacher? Surely you didn't just lob up to the first teacher or monk you came across and surrender yourself completely to their instruction? Surely there was some due diligence, research, investigation and analysis done in determining that the Teacher was appropriate for your requirements. If so, what process was that? What logic or criteria were at play? Do you take Refuge in your teacher?

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


Dharma Wheel (Mahayana / Vajrayana forum) -- Open flower ~ Open book (blog)

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby Cittasanto » Tue Sep 08, 2009 1:19 am

Admirable friendship is the whole of the path!

My 'teacher' lives in france, I converse propperly with him seldomly, maybe once a year now a days, and maily through a brief mail, when we talk it is more a personal hello than anything else!
he gives a teaching and then he goes, it is always the same, "live with love and let all else go, now shut up and do the practice!"

after about 3 years I am still uncomfortable calling him my teacher because he isn't my teacher, he is my friend who happends to teach! his teacher Reweta Dhamma told him when he asked 'who his teacher was?' he pointed to the Buddha statue near by and said 'his teacher was the Buddha, who taught for 45 years and died, passing on his teachings to his disciples who passed the teachings on down through the centuries to him' - basicly there is only one teacher and that is the Buddha, there is only one teaching and that is the Dhamma, and there is only one vhehicle for the transmition of the Dhamma and that is Admirable Friendship.

just my 2 pence at this stage of the discussion here.
This offering maybe right, or wrong, but it is one, the other, both, or neither!
Blog, - Some Suttas Translated, Ajahn Chah.
"Others will misconstrue reality due to their personal perspectives, doggedly holding onto and not easily discarding them; We shall not misconstrue reality due to our own personal perspectives, nor doggedly holding onto them, but will discard them easily. This effacement shall be done."

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby zavk » Tue Sep 08, 2009 1:20 am

Dear friends,

What an interesting thread! I have been following the responses and I find myself agreeing with some aspects of both sides of the argument. If I may offer a slightly different perspective to open up the discussion...

As I was reading the posts, it dawned upon me that this very thread--such a discussion about whether a teacher or sangha or self-study is effective or not--is a unique phenomenon of contemporary (Western) Buddhism. Why do I say this?

Well, the Western encounter with Buddhism in the nineteenth century opened up ways of engaging with the Dhamma. The Western academy facilitated the translation and publication of texts, and in doing so, made the teachings widely available and intelligible to a range of audience. Buddhist historians have noted that the development of Western Buddhism has blurred the lines between the monastic and lay communities, such that teachings and practices that were once restricted to ordained Buddhists are now available to lay people. This historical development, in turn, raised questions about the boundaries of authority and expertise.

Yet, this historical development that has blurred the boundaries of authority and expertise is the very same development which has provided us with the abilities to now debate questions of authority and expertise. Produced and shaped by certain (historical, social, cultural) conditions, we are now trying to speak about these conditions--yet, all the while we are within these very conditions. It seems to me that we are, as it were, like fishes trying to argue with one another about how the sea is 'really like'!

What this suggests to me is that, regardless of what one's position is on the importance of teacher/sangha/self-study, one's position is already from the start contingent upon various circumstances. By recognising the conditionality of one's own position, we might then see that there is no one definitive way of approaching the dhamma that can be equally applied to all. In the presence of certain conditions, a student might find one approach beneficial. While in the absence of certain conditions, another student might find another approach beneficial. And conditions being conditions, are anicca and anatta.

My two cents...
Last edited by zavk on Tue Sep 08, 2009 1:27 am, edited 1 time in total.
With metta,
zavk

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby kc2dpt » Tue Sep 08, 2009 1:25 am

retrofuturist wrote:But how did you find your Teacher? Surely you didn't just lob up to the first teacher or monk you came across and surrender yourself completely to their instruction? Surely there was some due research, investigation and analysis done in determining that the Teacher was appropriate for your requirements. If so, what process was that? What logic or criteria were at play? Do you take Refuge in your teacher?

The Buddha tells us how to evaluate a teacher (scroll down to "There is the case"). It is, I think, noteworthy that seeing how well that teacher knows the teachings is not one of the criteria. Rather one chooses a teacher based on other qualities, then learns what that teacher had to teach, then puts those teachings into practice, and then sees for oneself where those teachings lead.

This idea that we must study scripture and then only choose a teacher who's interpretation of that scripture agrees with our own interpretation... this does not seem to be an approach taught by the Buddha.
- Peter

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby retrofuturist » Tue Sep 08, 2009 1:26 am

Greetings Manapa,

Manapa wrote:just my 2 pence at this stage of the discussion here.


Far more valuable than that! Well said.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


Dharma Wheel (Mahayana / Vajrayana forum) -- Open flower ~ Open book (blog)

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby Cittasanto » Tue Sep 08, 2009 1:27 am

:broke: it will need to be Dana from now on!

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings Manapa,

Manapa wrote:just my 2 pence at this stage of the discussion here.


Far more valuable than that! Well said.

Metta,
Retro. :)
This offering maybe right, or wrong, but it is one, the other, both, or neither!
Blog, - Some Suttas Translated, Ajahn Chah.
"Others will misconstrue reality due to their personal perspectives, doggedly holding onto and not easily discarding them; We shall not misconstrue reality due to our own personal perspectives, nor doggedly holding onto them, but will discard them easily. This effacement shall be done."

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby retrofuturist » Tue Sep 08, 2009 1:48 am

Greetings Peter,

Peter wrote:
retrofuturist wrote:But how did you find your Teacher? Surely you didn't just lob up to the first teacher or monk you came across and surrender yourself completely to their instruction? Surely there was some due research, investigation and analysis done in determining that the Teacher was appropriate for your requirements. If so, what process was that? What logic or criteria were at play? Do you take Refuge in your teacher?

The Buddha tells us how to evaluate a teacher (scroll down to "There is the case"). It is, I think, noteworthy that seeing how well that teacher knows the teachings is not one of the criteria. Rather one chooses a teacher based on other qualities, then learns what that teacher had to teach, then puts those teachings into practice, and then sees for oneself where those teachings lead.

This idea that we must study scripture and then only choose a teacher who's interpretation of that scripture agrees with our own interpretation... this does not seem to be an approach taught by the Buddha.


Canki was a brahman so of course the Buddha couldn't give him the kind of instruction he gave the bhikkhus in DN16! By that criteria, the knowers of the vedas and such, (from Canki's perspective) would be the most suitable teachers, and the Buddha hardly wanted to teach Canki that! ;)

The point of the Canki Sutta is to show that the Sangha are exemplars of better qualities than the brahmans and that thus, their doctrine and discipline is better...

As he observes him, he comes to know, 'There are in this venerable one no such qualities based on delusion... His bodily behavior & verbal behavior are those of one not deluded. And the Dhamma he teaches is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. This Dhamma can't easily be taught by a person who's deluded.


...and they are more worthy of emulation. Then he goes to show the qualities of a spiritual-seeker that Canki would do well to employ in his quest for the truth.

I disagree that it's a guide for finding a teacher... rather, it's a guide for finding an effective doctrine and discipline, not dissimilar to that given in the Kalama Sutta to an equally non-Buddhist audience.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


Dharma Wheel (Mahayana / Vajrayana forum) -- Open flower ~ Open book (blog)

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby Ngawang Drolma. » Tue Sep 08, 2009 1:58 am

What I find sort of peculiar is that there's this subtle suggestion that if a teacher isn't a good fit, that we're not entirely free to move on and find the right teacher. This happens so often and is a totally appropriate, acceptable thing to do. In fact in my tradition it's recommended. Maybe it's different in Theravada? Where I come from, if a teacher makes suggestions or teaches dharma in a way that a student doesn't find agreeable or it's not a good personal match, it's best to find a better fit.

Kindly,
Drolma

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby Cittasanto » Tue Sep 08, 2009 2:12 am

Ngawang Drolma wrote:What I find sort of peculiar is that there's this subtle suggestion that if a teacher isn't a good fit, that we're not entirely free to move on and find the right teacher. This happens so often and is a totally appropriate, acceptable thing to do. In fact in my tradition it's recommended. Maybe it's different in Theravada? Where I come from, if a teacher makes suggestions or teaches dharma in a way that a student doesn't find agreeable or it's not a good personal match, it's best to find a better fit.

Kindly,
Drolma

:anjali:

I believe it is essentially the same, I know some teachers send student off to another teacher who may or may not be better for them but it doesn't stop the originaal teacher being their teacher, even reflecting on others has its benefits.
This offering maybe right, or wrong, but it is one, the other, both, or neither!
Blog, - Some Suttas Translated, Ajahn Chah.
"Others will misconstrue reality due to their personal perspectives, doggedly holding onto and not easily discarding them; We shall not misconstrue reality due to our own personal perspectives, nor doggedly holding onto them, but will discard them easily. This effacement shall be done."

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Re: Sangha or Teacher: Which is Most Essential?

Postby Ngawang Drolma. » Tue Sep 08, 2009 2:15 am

Manapa wrote:
Ngawang Drolma wrote:What I find sort of peculiar is that there's this subtle suggestion that if a teacher isn't a good fit, that we're not entirely free to move on and find the right teacher. This happens so often and is a totally appropriate, acceptable thing to do. In fact in my tradition it's recommended. Maybe it's different in Theravada? Where I come from, if a teacher makes suggestions or teaches dharma in a way that a student doesn't find agreeable or it's not a good personal match, it's best to find a better fit.

Kindly,
Drolma

:anjali:

I believe it is essentially the same, I know some teachers send student off to another teacher who may or may not be better for them but it doesn't stop the originaal teacher being their teacher, even reflecting on others has its benefits.


Thanks Manapa, that's helpful. I was puzzled.

:namaste:


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