Role of the teacher in Theravada

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism

Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby Lazy_eye » Mon Sep 06, 2010 11:19 am

To what extent is personal, on-site interaction with a teacher necessary in Theravada? ("Necessary" as opposed to "beneficial").

It seems to me -- and this may be a misunderstanding on my part -- that in Theravada the greatest emphasis in on the teachings, as presented in the Pali Canon. The teacher is subordinate to the teachings, and is not some sort of a guru figure. Therefore, it should be possible to make progress via books, videos, podcasts, sutta study and discussions with fellow practitioners of the kind that we have here.

The methods of practice are clearly outlined in the suttas. Of course, it is helpful to be guided in these practices by an experienced teacher. Still, this does not necessarily have to happen within a "live" setting.

I would think breath meditation, metta and, to some degree, vipassana could be learned on one's own. Maybe not jhana.

Again, my question has to do with the necessity of a teacher. I think most of us would agree that having a teacher is a good thing. But it seems to me that in certain Mahayana traditions, personal contact with the teacher is an absolute prerequisite, almost to the point that it becomes more about the teacher than the teachings.

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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby appicchato » Mon Sep 06, 2010 11:50 am

In a general way I am in agreement with you (FWIW)...and to answer the question (from my perspective), it's not...
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby bodom » Mon Sep 06, 2010 12:02 pm

I always liked Buddhadasa's advice on the matter.

The next consideration is what they call an "acariya (teacher, master)".But in truth, even in the old training systems, they did not talk much about "acariya." They called such a person a "good friend (kalyana-mitta)." To say "friend" - an advisor who can help us with certain things - is correct.We should not forget, however, principle that no one can help someone else directly. Yet nowadays, everyone wants to have a teacher to supervise them! A good friend is someone who has extensive personal experience and knowledge about the meditation practice or whatever else it is that we are striving to do. Although he is able to answer questions and explain some difficulties, it is not necessary for him to sit over us and supervise every breath. A good friend who will answer questions and help us work through certain obstacles is more than enough. To have such a kalyana-mitta is one more thing to arrange.


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The heart of the path is SO simple. No need for long explanations. Give up clinging to love and hate, just rest with things as they are. That is all I do in my own practice. Do not try to become anything. Do not make yourself into anything. Do not be a meditator. Do not become enlightened. When you sit, let it be. When you walk, let it be. Grasp at nothing. Resist nothing. Of course, there are dozens of meditation techniques to develop samadhi and many kinds of vipassana. But it all comes back to this - just let it all be. Step over here where it is cool, out of the battle. - Ajahn Chah
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby Goedert » Mon Sep 06, 2010 1:11 pm

In the ancient times, the teacher and preceptor, I think, played an important rule in the trainning of a new bhikkhu. Of course they were subordinated to the vinaya and dhamma of The Lord.

Today as far technology goes and some bhikkhus go to the homeless life, just to get a living, this two figures are losing their importance. Just time will tell us if this is good or not good for the preservation of the teaching.
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby Sanghamitta » Mon Sep 06, 2010 1:36 pm

Not essential at all times for everyone...but often a very good idea. Particularly for those who approach Dhamma with a preexisting set of beliefs and opinions gleaned from here and there and sometime contradictory.
For specific systems like Vipassana hands on teaching is highly desirable . But there is no "guru" or " sensei" figure in the Theravada. As Ajahn Munindo says " you dont need a guru, you might though benefit from a spiritual friend who knows a bit more about all this than you do."
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby tiltbillings » Mon Sep 06, 2010 1:52 pm

Lazy_eye wrote:I would think breath meditation, metta and, to some degree, vipassana could be learned on one's own. Maybe not jhana.
On your own only if you are willing to not hang onto anything that arises from one's practice. It is all too easy to get bamboozled by meditative experiences. A good teacher is a good idea, but even that is not a guarantee against bamboozlement.
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby JeffR » Mon Sep 06, 2010 4:05 pm

It seems to me a teacher is no more necessary to learn the way of the Buddha than a teacher is necessary to learn the intricate details of quantum mechanics.

It could be done; but getting onto the wrong path or getting stuck is more likely.

-Jeff :buddha1:
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby mikenz66 » Mon Sep 06, 2010 8:59 pm

JeffR wrote:It seems to me a teacher is no more necessary to learn the way of the Buddha than a teacher is necessary to learn the intricate details of quantum mechanics.

It could be done; but getting onto the wrong path or getting stuck is more likely.

Yes, I can vouch for that from both sides...

I'm always puzzled by those who seem to have actually learned something by simply reading Suttas. It would never have worked for me...

:anjali:
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby 5heaps » Mon Sep 06, 2010 9:28 pm

Lazy_eye wrote:Again, my question has to do with the necessity of a teacher. I think most of us would agree that having a teacher is a good thing. But it seems to me that in certain Mahayana traditions, personal contact with the teacher is an absolute prerequisite, almost to the point that it becomes more about the teacher than the teachings.

the vajrayana idea of a teacher is based on their understanding of ultimate truth. cant separate the 2 and unfortunately their idea of the ultimate is difficult

for standard mahayana its the same as theravada, good teachers are the difference between making big progress or not
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby David N. Snyder » Mon Sep 06, 2010 11:17 pm

I think it is one of the strengths of the Theravada that a teacher is not an absolute necessity; beneficial in some aspects, yes, but not an absolute requirement. Teachers are human and subject to human error. The Pali Canon is a much better guide, in my opinion.

Additionaly, there have been some (not all) Zen and Vajrayana teachers exploiting their power relationship over their students and getting into all kinds of scandals. More reason to rely on the texts first, imo.
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby bodom » Mon Sep 06, 2010 11:30 pm

David N. Snyder wrote:More reason to rely on the texts first, imo.


"Whatever Dhamma and Vinaya I have pointed out and formulated for you, that will be your Teacher when I am gone." - DN 16


:anjali:
The heart of the path is SO simple. No need for long explanations. Give up clinging to love and hate, just rest with things as they are. That is all I do in my own practice. Do not try to become anything. Do not make yourself into anything. Do not be a meditator. Do not become enlightened. When you sit, let it be. When you walk, let it be. Grasp at nothing. Resist nothing. Of course, there are dozens of meditation techniques to develop samadhi and many kinds of vipassana. But it all comes back to this - just let it all be. Step over here where it is cool, out of the battle. - Ajahn Chah
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby Lazy_eye » Mon Sep 06, 2010 11:48 pm

David N. Snyder wrote:I think it is one of the strengths of the Theravada that a teacher is not an absolute necessity; beneficial in some aspects, yes, but not an absolute requirement. Teachers are human and subject to human error. The Pali Canon is a much better guide, in my opinion.

Additionaly, there have been some (not all) Zen and Vajrayana teachers exploiting their power relationship over their students and getting into all kinds of scandals. More reason to rely on the texts first, imo.


David, that was one of the concerns that prompted my question. My sense is that there's an element of transparency and accountability which is lost when the focus shifts from teachings to teacher, as in the "guru" and "sensei" models which Sanghamitta referenced earlier.

Thanks everyone. Much to ponder.
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby 5heaps » Tue Sep 07, 2010 12:02 am

David N. Snyder wrote:Teachers are human and subject to human error.

kind of contradicts the very notions of the sangha jewel and the dharma jewel (cessations) dont you think?

More reason to rely on the texts first, imo.

why? spoken words are the same as written ones and are subject to the same critical thinking
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby David N. Snyder » Tue Sep 07, 2010 1:56 am

5heaps wrote:
David N. Snyder wrote:
More reason to rely on the texts first, imo.

why? spoken words are the same as written ones and are subject to the same critical thinking


The texts were the teachings of Arahants. The spoken word today, in most cases, are the words of puthujjanas. No offense meant toward any teachers today, just that the Theras and Arahants of the Buddha's time are much wiser.
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby retrofuturist » Tue Sep 07, 2010 1:59 am

Greetings,

I think the aforementioned emphasis on kalyana-mitta is correct, particularly as the Buddha pronounced this as half of the spiritual life.

See: SN 45.2: Upaddha Sutta
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html

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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby Maitri » Tue Sep 07, 2010 2:26 am

This is a good question because I have been thinking a lot about this recently ;)

I have had the good fortune of having a Bhante to speak with one-on-one with about my meditation practice. I've had experiences in mediation that have left me stumped and confused over the years. Speaking with a teacher about these have been very helpful in navigating where I have been wandering in my meditation. Especially when he provides guided Vipassana instructions I notice a profound shift in my fording through pitfalls.

I was speaking with him about this and he told me that many people have had similar issues with "plateauing" in meditation. One aspect he told me is that many in the West have so many options that it is easy to get lose in all the various instructions, guidance, and teachings out there. While everything you hear may be perfectly legit practice and taught by knowledgeable teachers, it can lead to mixing up methods and stalling in practice.One teacher says this, and another that. Working with a teacher can help in avoiding this kind of issue or guiding one through the path once it has. This made sense to me and I've been able to make some progress with just a few adjustments.

Working with Pali canon is also a great way to develop, but having a teacher to work with is extremely helpful. Having different tools to access is a nice way to balance my practice.

Thank you Bodom for Buddhadassa's quote. I think that expresses my view as well. :anjali:
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby mikenz66 » Tue Sep 07, 2010 2:43 am

Thanks for your observations Maitri,

As I said above, I doubt I would have got far without teachers. Certainly I would never have gotten started by just reading Suttas --- has anyone actually done this (no modern books, teachers, recordings, ...)?

I do agree, however, that relying on a particular teacher is not necessary, or even desirable. Due to various circumstances my teachers have come and gone, and my current teacher often tells us not become attached to him in particular, or feel that we have to wait around for a teacher to turn up - just get on with it!

:anjali:
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby Paññāsikhara » Tue Sep 07, 2010 2:52 am

I generally agree with what has been said above. However, I would like to add a comment or two.

1. One of the problems with "rely on the texts" is that for 99% of people, it is "rely on an interpretation of the texts". Very few can read the Pali texts themselves, and have sufficient grounding in the language, the idioms, the culture and so forth, to really read it in context. (I'm sure we've seen plenty of examples online when somebody with a Pali dictionary pulls out a word or two here and there, and makes all sorts of crazy claims about them. Enough said.) Therefore, to rely on a "translation / interpretation", we are most of the time already relying on a teacher, ie. the translator. We should acknowledge that, at least. It's more of a problem when we don't acknowledge it, and say boldly "But the sutta says ...", and then give everyone a dose of the opinions of translator X.

2. The "sensei model". Perhaps someone is using the wrong term here. "Sensei" is a general honorific, referring to anybody of an elder generation to oneself. Perhaps the more appropriate term would be "roshi" (though this is also very broad). Roshi is closer to guru, and sensei is quite a long way from it.

3. The majority of Mahayana teachings talk more about a relationship between student and "spiritual friend" (kalyana-mitra) rather than a guru. Just that the forms popular in the West are not exactly representative of Mahayana as a whole.
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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby Kenshou » Tue Sep 07, 2010 3:00 am

...has anyone actually done this (no modern books, teachers, recordings, ...)?


Gotten started with just suttas? I'd say that I did. Thanissaro's translations on you-know-where were the first real Buddhist literature I had ever read, besides some insubstantial and vague summaries on the different schools of Buddhism and what they're all about. But it's when I started reading suttas that things really began to make sense, so I'd say that's how I initially stuck my foot through the door. I don't restrict myself entirely to that body of literature, but it put gas in the tank well enough, so to say.

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Re: Role of the teacher in Theravada

Postby mikenz66 » Tue Sep 07, 2010 3:14 am

Thanks Kenshou for that account. Obviously there are different ways in. I didn't know a sutta from a subway, or what the difference between Theravada and other schools was until I'd been attending my Wat for about a year (the food, friendship, and chanting were good...) and having instruction for about six months. For me a key thing was meeting real people (monks and lay people) who were making an effort to follow the Dhamma.

I've now read a considerable amount of suttas and old and new commentarial material. However, I'm not always convinced that much of that study was necessary (though it's fun and interesting...). I might have made faster progress spending more time just putting my teachers' instructions into practise...

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