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I once sat in on a lecture by a lama who was promoting a new book he’d written. This lama liked to ride motorcycles and his general bad-assery appealed to me as a fellow motorcycle-riding Buddhist. What didn’t appeal to me was his utterly literal interpretation of karma. When an audience member described the deep suffering she’d recently experienced, he told her that she’d done something of equally negative consequence in a past life, and this was simply how her karma was balancing out and achieving equilibrium. The implication that she somehow deserved and was responsible for the awful circumstances that had befallen her was appalling. The lama later used rush-hour gridlock as a metaphor, asking the audience, “Do you know what gridlock is?”, a phrase that to this day my wife and I can’t help but ask each other when experiencing gridlock. So I guess the lecture wasn’t a total waste of time.
See also: What Is Karma, Really?
Religious history is rife with imposters, phonies, and that murkiest of category, well-intentioned fools: those who truly believe in their heart of hearts that they have achieved a depth of understanding that must be shared with the general public. I’m reminded of a scene in the cult classic The Tao of Steve, in which the eponymous main character says, “You think all Buddhist monks are like the Dalai Lama? You don’t think there are guys in Nepal who are, like, ‘What should I do? Should I carry packs of heavy shit for Westerners to the top of the base camp of Everest? Or should I stay down here in Kathmandu and chant all day and check out chicks and pretend to be holy?’”
The current mindfulness boom has only exacerbated this imposter problem, especially with the Internet acting as the largest soapbox in history. Anyone and everyone is free to shill serenity…for the right price. Given this landscape, how can one tell if a teacher is the real deal? Here are three questions to ask yourself:
Are they focused on self-promotion?
The first thing I would ask is, have they ever actually referred to themselves as “the real deal”? A relinquishing of the chains of the ego does not usually go hand-in-hand with shameless self-promotion. I recently had a guru reach out to me via social media looking for some good press. He concluded his message by saying, “Google me,” a phrase that I have a hard time picturing the Buddha uttering, the existence of Google notwithstanding. Such unabashed interest in notoriety or material gains is surely a red flag.
What’s the cost?
Of course, practice may be priceless, but at the end of the day it does have a price. How this cost is levied is crucial. Are there opportunities for those with less means to participate? Is the price fixed and required up front? One thing that appeals to me about the Zen center to which I belong is that the monthly dana (contribution) is presented as a suggestion, and when my credit card expired and I mistakenly didn’t offer any dana for several months no one came after me with the encouragement stick (a friendly email allowed me to rectify the situation). Money may be a necessary part of the equation, but if it is the main part of the equation or the cost is exorbitant, then something is likely amiss.
Are their offerings accessible to all?
Another red flag is any sort of exclusivity. A Zen teacher once related the experience of attending a talk by a prominent Buddhist teacher. During the Q&A, someone asked how a person in a wheelchair might be able to practice, to which the teacher responded that unfortunately they would not be able to, due to their physical limitation. The Zen teacher was appropriately horrified. The practice of paying attention is available to all who are willing to pay attention, wheelchair or not. Any indication otherwise is a clear sign that one should run (or wheel) away as fast as possible.
See also: Do Modern Yoga Students Need a Guru?
It takes all kinds
Ultimately, there is no hard-and-fast rule about who is able to teach and who is not. One man’s swindler might be another man’s spiritual guide. The motorcycle-riding Lama that I found objectionable has surely inspired many people to practice, and that’s certainly more than I can say.
Buddhist history is rife with iconoclasts who rejected the status quo and challenged the preconceptions of what a teacher ought to be. The sixth patriarch in Zen Buddhism, Huineng, was an illiterate cook. And it is said that Milarepa, the famous Tibetan master, was a murderer in his youth. Though I might have trouble overlooking the latter transgression, the point stands: The ability to teach is based not on Twitter followers or perfection, but on understanding (though anyone who emphasizes their Twitter followers or claims perfection is definitely not qualified).
Have faith, but also skepticism
Zen Buddhists often speak of the great faith, great doubt, and great determination required for practice. This concept usually refers to the faith we have in the dharma—the doubt that allows us to question further and resist complacency—and the determination we have to follow through and remain committed to the way. As with many things dharma-related, I have chosen to reinterpret this concept to suit my specific premise (which is as clear a sign as any that I’m not the real deal): as it relates to Buddhist teachers, great faith can be the honest and open attention we bring to the equation—the recognition that each moment can be instructive despite the potential for poor instruction. Great doubt can act as an important counterbalance, the inherent skepticism that holds us and others accountable for their words and actions. And great determination is the resolve to seek the teacher that challenges us, to persist in our practice despite the frustration that might arise when the way seems elusive, or the teacher exasperating.
There is nothing that precludes someone from attaining wisdom and sharing it with others. But it is up to each of us to determine who we receive that wisdom from and how that exchange is enacted. We must calibrate our own bullshit detectors as best we can, and part of our journey may be in learning just how to do that. We must earnestly apply ourselves while retaining a healthy dose of doubt. Go ahead and drink the Kool-Aid—but don’t hesitate to spit it out. It’s nowhere near as refreshing as water.