Guidance on Finding
a Buddhist Teacher or Organization

By George Draffan

revised 2013 March

Teachers in the Buddhist Tradition

Buddhist Titles & Credentials: A Glossary

Questions to Ask When Considering Involvement with a Teacher or Group

Is This A Cult?

Additional Resources

-- Finding and Relating to a Teacher

-- Resources on Cults

-- Buddhist Ethical Statements & Standards

-- Organizations Developing Teacher Registries

-- Finding a Teacher in the Real World, by Leland Shields

-- What Are You Looking for in a Teacher? by Ken McLeod

-- Do You Need a Teacher? and The Teacher-Student Relationship, by Ken McLeod

Teachers in the Buddhist Tradition

Each Buddhist tradition has its own structure, culture, and language. Judging one tradition by the practices and standards of a different tradition is a source of great confusion and conflict. If one is sincere about resolving conflict, it is essential to begin from a place of understanding.

There are many different Buddhist traditions, each with many lineages and institutions. The basic classification of Buddhism into Thervada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Pure Land, etc is a great simplification of what are essentially hundreds of lineages that practice and teach thousands of methods. Because of the diversity, and the many different cultures and languages, there is no single comprehensive source of information that explains their training methods or credentials.

Most traditions have a formal training process but have also engaged in quite informal methods of transmission as well.

In addition, most Buddhist lineages are now being spread across the world, and new institutions are being established, each with their own methods, and each with their own standards and criteria (or lack of standards and criteria) for teacher training. What used to be a clear and limited title of authority indicating completion of a specific course of training may now be used as an informal title of respect. And new programs of teacher training are being organized that may not be recognized by the traditional authorities of that tradition.

It may be helpful to consider how Buddhism is organized and taught. One classification that might be useful is to realize that there are

  • monks and nuns ordained in various lineages, who may or may not teach,

  • monastic or lay teachers who have been trained in a particular lineage and have been authorized to teach,

  • lay teachers who do not have authorization or credentials from a lineage or institution,

  • leaders of meditation groups who are not officially "teachers" but who give meditation instruction or other guidance.

 Teachers are regarded differently in various Buddhist traditions, and by different students within those traditions:

  • as a spiritual friend,

  • as a preceptor in the monastic traditions,

  • as a ritual master for certain practices,

  • as a minister of people's needs,

  • as a examplar of scholarship, of moral behavior, or as a living Buddha.

To some extent in all Buddhist traditions, the teacher should be at least to some extent an exemplar of ethical behavior, an inspiration for training in meditation methods, and an embodiment of the understanding that is the fruit of Buddhist practice.

Alexander Berzzin's book Relating to a Spiritual Teachers: Building a Healthy Relationship (Snow Lion Publications, 2000) provides a detailed discussion of the traditional and modern issues involved in the student-teacher relationship. While his discussion is based on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, most of the issues and dynamics also apply to the other traditions.

Buddhist Titles & Credentials: A Glossary

While the differences between the traditions go deeper than language, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of the language used. Some of the terms used are informal honorifics used out of respect; other terms are indicators of seniority in monastic systems; other terms are titles of authorization bestowed upon particular students by their teacher, or credentials earned by completing a program of training. Different lineages use terms and titles differently, and the meaning of terms has evolved over time.

The wide variation in how teachers are trained and authorized makes it difficult for a student to judge the legitimacy of a teacher. Perhaps the first step is to have a basic undestanding of the terms used in different Buddhist traditions. Here is a preliminary lists for the Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan traditions:


From the Japanese tradition unless noted otherwise. Various Zen lineages use these terms in different ways.

Daishi: great master; posthumous title.
: Great Priest.
Denkai: ceremony recognizing a someone who has completed priest training.
Dharma Heir: hassu; one who has been given Dharma transmission by a teacher.
Dojo/Zendo: training hall.
Hassu: Dharma successor.
Hoshi: Dharma holder; recognition as an apprentice instructor with sanction to give practice interviews, public talks, and short retreats; is not equivalent to Dharma transmission (shiho).
Inka shomei: legitimate seal of clearly furnished proof of a having completed training to the teacher's satisfaction. If the teacher is also confident that the student has the skills to teach and lead others, the student may be named a Dharma successor (hassu) and thus attains status as a master (roshi).
Jisha: roshi's attendant.

Jukai: lay ordination ceremony for taking or renewing precepts.
Kyuge betsuden: special transmission outside the teaching; transmission from mind to mind.
Osho: priest.
Roshi: old teacher; Zen master; some claim roshi status or are respectfully referred to as roshi without having received official recognition by a teacher.
Sekko: Zen master.
Sensei: one who has been recognized as a teacher in a Dharma transmission (denbo) ceremony. Higher than an instructor (Dharma holder or hoshi) but not yet a master (roshi).
Shamon: variously a novice, wanderer, monk or priest.
Shomon: One who hears: disciple.
Shiho: Dharma transmission.
Shiso: teacher or tutor.
Shoshi: genuine master.
Shinsanshiki: installation as abbot of a temple.
Sunim (Korean): formal title for Korean monks and nuns.
Taiko: priest who has undergone at least five years of training.
Tekiden: authorised transmission.
Tokudo: leaving home; monk ordination ceremony. One becomes a novice priests. have ordained in a ceremony called "Tokudo."
Unsui: cloud water; novice.


Theravada terms may be from the languages of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and India.

Acharya (Skt): teacher or instructor of dhamma or doctrine. (Originally the acharya was distinguished from the upajjhaya instructor in moral precepts).
Ajahn (Achaan): Thai equivalent of acharya.
Anagarika: homeless one, not necessarily a monk.
Bhikkhu: fully ordained monk.
Bhikkhuni: fully ordained nun.
Dhammaduta: missionary work.
Luang Por: (Thai and Lao) Venerable grandfather monk.
Mahanayaka: patriarch or high-ranking thera.
Mahathera: bhikkhu of 20 years.
Phra: Thai equivalent of Thera.
Phramaha: monk who has completed a certain level of Pali studies.
Samanera: novice monk who follows the monastic precepts but is not yet a fully ordained bhikkhu.
Sayadaw: Burmese equivalent of mahathera.
Tan (Than): Thai equivalent of Venerable.
Thera (Sthavira): bhikkhu of ten years or more.
Tudong (Pali): Sanskrit dhutanga): wandering ascetic.
Upajjhaya: instructor in moral precepts (in distinction to an acharya instructor of doctrine).


There are four main Tibetan schools: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug, each with their own system of training and authorization.

Ani: Literally, aunt. Used as a title for nuns.
Chogyal: Dharma King.
Chuje: Lord of Dharma.
Drupon: Retreat Master qualified to teach, give empowerments, and lead 3-year retreats.
Gelong: monk; equivalent of the Sanskrit bhikshu.
Getsul: novice; equivalent of the Sanskrit samanera.
Geshe: title of academic achievement in the Gelug school.
Gyalwa: Conqueror.
Khenchen: Great Learned One, a higher order of Khenpo.
Khenpo: Learned One; a scholar in the Nyingma, Sakya, or Kagyu schools. usually a degree received after 9 years of study and some teaching experience.
Kyabje: Protector or Lord of Refuges.
Lama: Traditionally denotes someone who has completed a 3-year retreat and is therefore qualified to teach (and most strictly to grant empowerments), but is also used as a more general gesture of respect. Not necessarily a monk. Equivalent to the Sanskrit guru.
Lharampa: recipient of top honors in a geshe degree.
Lopon: final degree from a monastic college (shedra). As a master of meditation and study, an official position in Tibetan monasteries. Equivalent to the Sanskrit acarya.
Ngakpa: practitioner of mantras in the Nyingma school.
Rinpoche: Precious One; title of respect.
Terton: discoverer of hidden texts.
Tulku: incarnate lama.

Questions to Ask
When Considering Involvement
with a Teacher or Group

Since the teacher training and certification of the different Buddhist schools and lineages vary so greatly, and in the absence of an agreed registry of qualified teachers, the sudent is left on their own to decide who to study with. Fortunately, there are numerous articles, books, and other resources that offer guidelines and guidance for choosing a teacher and for differentiating legitimate spiritual groups from cults.

 You are responsible for yourself as a student of a particular Buddhist teacher or as a participant of a Buddhist group. Observing a teacher and their students before getting too involved with them is the ideal, but even if you have been involved for a while, and feel something is not quite right, ask yourself, the teacher, and their students some questions.

  • Has the teacher been trained and authorized to teach by a recognized Buddhist lineage?

  • Does the teacher refuse to discuss his background and training?

  • Is the group open about its methods and activities?

  • Does the group make unreasonable or manipulative demands on the students' time or money?

  • Is there sexual, financial, or other abuse of power going on?

  • Is the group isolated from the community and from the students' families and friends? Does the group allow outside relationships?

For a discussion of these questions, see Do You Need a Teacher? and The Teacher-Student Relationship by Ken McLeod.

Is This A Cult?

Not every unqualified teacher, or even every charlatan, is operating a cult. But the consequences of getting involved in a cult can be so serious, and the psychic and emotional damages so difficult to repair, that the cult phenomena deserves close consideration.

We donít need to get lost in the various criteria for whether a group is a cult, and an organization doesn't have to be seen as a cult by everyone to be experienced as a cult by an individual. Michael Langone, editor of Cultic Studies Journal, has compiled a Checklist of Cult Characteristics that covers includes these danger signs:

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as absolute. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or punished. The leader is not accountable to any authority.

  • The group is elitist, claiming special status for its leaders and members. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality

  • Mind-altering techniques are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

  • The leadership dictates how members should think, act, and feel. The group teaches or implies that its exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary, resulting in members participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

  • The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion. Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

  • The group is preoccupied with making money.

  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members. The most loyal members (the "true believers") feel there can be no life outside the context of the group, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

Other observers have observed similar behaviors by cults. Arthur Deikman identifies four basic cult behaviors:

  • coercive compliance

  • dependence on a leader

  • avoiding dissent, and

  • devaluing the outsider.

As Deikan explains, it is not necessarily easy to identify a cult, and many organizations that would not typically be identified as cults exhibit some of the same manipulative and coercive traits (see Arthur Deikman's website and his book The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society). The bottom line is that it is the student's responsibility to decide when an organization has crossed a line with which the student is not comfortable.

Robert J. Lifton's eight criteria for thought manipulation include:

  • the control of information and communication

  • manipulation of "mystical" experiences

  • demand for purity in a world that is viewed as black and white

  • the induction of guilt and/or shame, and confession either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group

  • insistence that the group's doctrine or ideology is the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute

  • use of jargon such as thought-terminating cliches

  • denying or reinterpreting members' personal experiences to fit the ideology of the group, and

  • rejecting those outside the group as unenlightened.

These are discussed in Lifton's book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. See an excerpt at the REVEAL website.

Tobias and Janja Lalich define a cult as "a group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility or subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency upon the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community" (from Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Other Abusive Relationships, by Madeleine Landau Tobias, Janja Lalich, and Michael Langone).

Nor does a group have to satisfy all of the criteria of any one of the systems proposed. What if it satisfies half, but does so really strongly? Again, the student's judgement is the ultimate criterion.

Additional Resources

 Finding and Relating to a Teacher

Spiritual Bypassing by Robert Augustus Masters

Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path by Mariana Caplan

Halfway Up the Mountain by Mariana Caplan

At Personal Risk by Marilyn Peterson

The Zen Master in America: Dressing the Donkey with Bells and Scarves
by Stuart Lachs

Do You Need a Teacher? and The Teacher-Student Relationship
by Ken McLeod

Finding a Teacher in the Real World
by Leland Shields

Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Safe Harbor: Guidelines, Process and Resources for Ethics and Right Conduct in Buddhist Communities.

Sex and the Spiritual Teacher by Scott Edelstein.

Wise Student, Wise Teacher (previously published as Relating to a Spiritual Teacher), by Alex Berzin (also online).

Establishing Healthy Relationships with Spiritual Teachers by Alex Berzin.

Avoiding Confusion in the Spiritual Student-Teacher Relationship by Alex Berzin.


Resources on Abuse of Power

Faith Trust Institute


Resources on Cults

Cultic Studies Journal

Orange Papers Cult Test

Ex-Cult Resource Center


Definition of a Destructive Cult
by Allen Tate Wood

Them and Us by Arthur J. Deikman


Buddhist Ethical Statements & Standards

Against the Stream Teacher Code of Ethics

Berkeley Zen Center - Ethical Guidelines 

Boundless Way Zen Sangha Ethics Code

Chobo-ji Sangha Ethics Policy

Clouds in Water Zen Center Ethical Guidelines

Comunity of Mindful Living Conflict Policy 

Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji Ethical Guidelines

Dharma Rain Zen Center Precepts and Ethics in Sangha Relationships

Diamond Sangha Teachers Ethics Agreement

Kwan Um School of Zen Statement of Ethics

Minnesota Zen Meditation Center Statement Of Ethical Conduct and Precepts

Order of Interbeing - Conflict Resolution Guide

San Francisco Zen Center Ethics and Ethics & Reconciliation Council

Shambhala Care and Conduct

Shao Shan Ethical Guidelines

Soto Zen Buddhist Association Ethics Statement

Spirit Rock Ethics & Reconciliation Council and Teacher Code of Ethics

Victoria Zen Centre Ethics Policy


Organizations Developing Teacher Registries

American Zen Teachers Association
Peer-group of ordained and lay Zen Buddhist teachers. Membership is based on an application process based on specific criteria to determine prospective members' eligibility. AZTA is not an authorizing or credentialing body.

Soto Zen Teachers Association