I found myself at a "Dharma Talk" several weeks ago that astounded me. Not for the teacher's insight or their ability to bring clarity to my life. But for his reverence of a Rimpoche, a teacher on whom the meditation studio had built its lineage.
The Rimpoche's photo was hung behind their alter as if in worship, as I have seen done often in places of meditation. HIs name was spoken in hushed tones of pride. Yet when this speaker talked of his experience while working with this revered teacher, his stories were not of a monastic man deep in thought and contemplation. Instead, they were stories of his drinking. Of how he, as this Rimpoche's assistant, often carried him home after nights of cocktails in the bars of San Francisco in the 1970s. Of how this teacher was up on a stage one night with a girl on his lap, a cocktail in hand and a famous poet at his feet.
In the next breath, he spoke of charlatans and false teachers who could not speak in Tibetan or write in Sanskrit; who had not studied in a formal Buddhist school. It reminded me of glorious churches with gold chalices that give mass in Latin — a wonderfully staged experience that leaves one feeling wanting after all is said and done. A lot of poetry and tradition for the past, but not necessarily with a lot of understanding for the present.
The stories relayed in this "Dharma Talk" created an image for me. Not of a devout man who was on his path toward enlightenment, or even balance, but of a man who lived like so many men live when they have no direction or awareness. It reminded me of the stories some of my students who are tired of floating from one pleasure to the next so that they can make something meaningful of their lives.
At some point in that evening my thoughts became less about paths, or journeys, or the search for peace, happiness or enlightenment. They became thoughts of what is a teacher? I asked myself, Why was this man chosen to be the guiding light for this school? Did he truly reflect the ideals they were seeking, or was he simply available at the right time and with the right price, so to speak?
Is the prerequisite for being a teacher merely the fact that you have read the books and taken the classes? Or it is because you reflect the ideals the school professes? Is it enough, in the world of Dharmas and Fourfold paths, to merely talk about the manuscripts? Or should it go further? Should you actually walk the path you claim to walk?
I thought of my own students and why each has come to me. I thought of why so many had become disillusioned with Buddhism. As much as I have been told again and again that Buddhism is not a religion, it seems to have, in some cases, gained a structure and bureaucracy that is more concerned with preserving its own traditions than with honoring the ideas that the Buddha taught.
As my own contemplation turned nonjudgmental, I came to the conclusion that in the end, there are all sorts of teachers and schools. Just as there are all sorts of students. It's not for me or anyone to judge whether they are good or bad. Everyone is at a different point in their journey and has different capacities to learn the lessons they need to learn.
In the end, it's not up to every school to uphold every standard. It's up to the student to be the responsible one. It's up to the student to make the choice as to what kind of experience they want and, ultimately, what kind of teacher is right for them. Some students want to reduce the pains and fear the physical world can bring. Others want to go deeper and explore a level of spirituality they are only becoming aware of.
As I always tell people, first the physical, then the philosophical, then the spiritual. Attend to each to gain a healthy mind, body and spirit. You see, time is really the only factor in your journey. Your path will unfold in it's own time. If you try to rush your journey, you will only find yourself who are not right for YOU at this moment of YOUR life.
Along the way you need to find a teacher that can help you for the here and now, but always with an eye for the future. As that old American adage states, anyone can talk the talk, but sooner or later you have to walk the walk, and finding someone who has not just read about where the path leads, but has walked it - will make your journey that much easier.
I guess that is why we call them guides.