Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How to find a teacher of Buddhism or meditation, Part 1

The other day, a blog commenter asked a question about how to find a teacher of Buddhism or meditation (the question was unqualified). 

This, of course, was a subject I had been intending to address via a series of posts, but it's simultaneously the simplest question and the toughest answer, which is why I hadn't gotten to it yet.

Finding a teacher may feel like navigating one's way through a foreign maze of complex ancient history. 

View looking through the 13th century cloister at the Buddhist temple known as Banteay Kdei in Cambodia.  Pic courtesy of this Photo Dharma site / Creative Commons. 
The problem is that there's a major Catch-22 involved: Buddhism is neither homogeneous nor hierarchical (in a familiar expected way, such as how the Catholic church is structured, for example).  In order to identify a teacher who is a good fit to the student's needs, the student first has to know something of "what's out there" in the way of groups, schools, and their associated teachers.  But the "what's out there" is so complicated that it's very difficult for students to learn about it without first finding a teacher!

I could spend the next six weeks expounding on the background of that complexity, but I'm not sure what value that would add.  Instead, let me simply embrace that difficult situation on its face and offer a few purely-practical steps that you can consider taking as you fumble your way toward identifying the situation that best fits your needs:

(1) Read books.  No matter which way you go with Buddhism and/or meditation, you are going to be facing a learning curve that needs to be climbed, and that curve is going to be steep in places.  This is just the reality of it, so jump in and start reading.  This post summarizes a collection of "Buddhism 101" books, none of which I'm very pleased with as introductory texts, but it's the best we've got to work with right now.  Don't worry if you don't "get" stuff right away.  Comprehension starts out as being rudimentary and then deepens with time and experience. 

(2)  Research temples and groups.  This, obviously, is the part of the equation that South Houston Sangha News is trying to help streamline and make more manageable - this process of basic research which otherwise is so daunting to people that it is almost insurmountable, as challenges go.  On the left sidebar to this blog you will find the current line-up of greater Houston's temples and groups, ordered alphabetically and by geographic location.  Note that the list is a work in progress at the moment because I haven't yet had the time to research all of the approximately forty Buddhism and meditation facilities and groups located in our area.  Additionally, of those facilities that are linked at left, some of them are raw links to the facilities' own websites, but others are meta-links to Temple Profiles, where I have managed to pull together information not only from the facilities' own webpages (if they have internet presences), but also from third-party commentary, vetting, and research as well.  Eventually I will get them all properly profiled - it's mostly a matter of time. 

(3) Show up.  You'll never know until you try.  You'll never get a feeling about a particular meditation group or temple until you actually attend a few times.  And as soon as you show up (or maybe even before), proceed straight into this next step below. 

(4)  Ask questions.  Many newcomers visit meditation groups and introduce themselves literally by saying, "Hi, I'm So-and-So, and I'm completely clueless about Buddhism and this group."  Group members and teachers will expect to be greeted that way, so don't feel self-conscious if you fit this description.  Questions can (and should) be directed without reservation to any and all of the following:
  • Individual members of different groups.  They all understand perfectly what it's like to be a newcomer and will welcome you warmly.
  • Teachers and temple leaders.  Despite Buddhism's complexity, good teachers and monastics are much like western priests and ministers in that they make themselves available to people who wish to ask questions.  If you would like to speak with a particular teacher, it is a good idea to first ask them what their procedure is for one-on-one consultation.  This is particularly true for Asian monastics who may maintain strict personal schedules. 
  • This blogger.  Some people decide that maybe they want to visit this temple or that temple, but they are still not sure if they should.  So some of them contact me by email (SouthHoustonSangha - gmail) and ask me questions in private before they make their first public appearance at any facility.  I consider it an honor if people seek my input on things that are obviously so personally important to them.  If I don't have the answer to any given question, I can usually track down someone who does. 
(5)  Trust your gut.  If you investigate multiple groups in succession, which most seekers do, by the way, you will inevitably encounter specific individuals who are enthusiastic about their particular lineage or practice, and who maybe will even tell you that theirs is "the best".  It is useful to note for reference the degree of satisfaction exhibited by such folks, but their experience is not your experience.  Don't succumb to covert or ouvert pressure to join any particular group.  This is your life, and spirituality is one of the most personal facets of anyone's life.  You need to find what works for you, not what is most enthusiastically endorsed or most popular. 

(6)  If at first you do not succeed...  Try, try again.  Remember that blog entry I made about the English speaker who showed up multiple times at a local temple without ever finding anyone there who spoke English.  That person proceeded to realize their goals at subsequent facilities, and their experiences at the non-English-speaking facility were extremely helpful to me as I was researching it.  Persistence not only pays off - it's also highly useful to others.  And being useful to others is a huge part of what Buddhism is all about.

This summary is quick 'n' dirty and doesn't nearly do the kind of justice that this teacher topic demands.  But hopefully this can serve the purpose as a triage-style start.

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