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Finding a Teacher in the Real World

by Leland Shields

copyright 2005

Leland Shields has a private psychotherapy practice in Seattle.
You can contact him by telephone 206-568-0062 or

As a community resource, Northwest Dharma Association (NWDA) provides a list of teachers, Buddhist groups and local practice events without attempting, or being able to effectively screen for unhealthy communities or cults. George Draffan, the NWDA president, and I met over tea to discuss tools NWDA might provide those of us in the local Dharma community so we can guide ourselves as we choose our paths. I understand that NWDA will separately provide information about the characteristics of cults. I was approached as well because George knew that I work as a therapist with people healing from cults and experiences in unhealthy spiritual groups. In honor of the request by NWDA, I offer these stories, thoughts, and considerations to you, as you journey along the way. If they mean nothing to you, leave them behind.

In the Zen story of Hyakujo and the Fox, teacher Hyakujo (Pai-Chang in Chinese) observed an unknown old man present for his periodic talks. After one talk, the old man stayed and approached Hyakujo. The man told Hyakujo that he had been a teacher on the mountain long ago. According to the old man, "…a monk asked me, ‘Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect or not?’ I replied, ‘Such a person does not fall under the law of cause and effect.’ ‘With this I was reborn five hundred times as a fox. Please say a turning word for me and release me from the body of a fox.’…". Hyakujo told the man, ‘Such a person does not evade the law of cause and effect’…". [1] With this, the old man was enlightened and released from his fox body.

This mythic story awakens questions of the fallibility of teaching, the seriousness of wrong teaching, and limitations of enlightenment. It is used as a koan in Zen tradition, calling for the student to express his or her experience of the issue, as opposed to supplying the correct intellectual answer. In the present context, I reference it not for its koan points, but as a folk story, providing an underlying message that has lasted over a thousand years.

The seriousness of the consequence (to the old man) of the wrong answer implies the profound influence of the role of teacher. Hyakujo’s response to the old man implies limitations – humanization- of the enlightened person. It is also interesting that the story does not depict the old man as evil or malicious, but rather as just wrong. Yet, he was reborn as a fox for generations. As in western culture, the fox in Asian folklore is seen as tricky and dishonest and more – like the black cat associated with witches. [1] Whatever the intent of the fox/man, the story makes clear that even our esteemed teachers can be wrong, and thus the responsibility for our practice remains firmly in our hands.

In another Zen story from ancient China, a hermit is visited by a traveling monk. The monk knocks, the door opens sharply, and the hermit grabs the monk by the collar. The hermit demanded, "Speak! Speak!" When the monk, taken aback by surprise, stammered meaninglessly, the hermit threw him back from the door and slammed it. After some time, the monk tried again, with the same result. On the third time, the monk thrust his foot out to prevent the closing of the door. The hermit, not seeing the foot, slammed the door on it, causing the monk to shout, "Owwww..." Hearing this, the hermit invited him in.

Leaving aside the cultural differences in the adamant manner of encouragement, we have a teacher fervently challenging a student to find his or her own voice, his or her own expression of self in the moment. I don’t imagine the hermit accepting as an answer something the monk thought the hermit wanted to hear. In this story, we see a true teacher with deep concern for the student’s own understanding and expression. The hermit does not appear to be doing so for his or her own monetary, worldly or sexual gratification, but in the service of the student. I find here another reminder of what we seek in our paths, support for our own deepest selves. Paths that demand of us that we subjugate ourselves to the will or beliefs of another are not in keeping with the Buddhist way of personal experience.

My friend Eileen Kiera told me of an encounter she had with one of her teachers, Robert Aitken. Eileen studied for years with Aitken Roshi, and with Thich Nhat Hanh, and has since become a teacher in the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition. At one time in her training with Aitken Roshi, she had a leadership role in the dojo and was responsible for lighting incense and handing it to him when he entered to give a talk. If Eileen gently offered the incense to Aitken Roshi, he would thrust it back, modeling the dynamism he encouraged in all practice activities. One day, when this was played out once again, Aitken Roshi thrust the incense back to Eileen, who took it from him. This time, she felt certain that her practice was otherwise. Rather than accepting the instruction, she purposefully, gently, offered it back to Aitken Roshi. He must have recognized and respected the change, because he took it. Never again did he demand of her to offer him the incense with dynamism.

I don’t recall receiving a lengthy explanation when I heard the story from Eileen, so let me tell you the part I fill in with my imagination. I imagine that Eileen took back the incense and offered it to Aitken Roshi more sharply and energetically many times before this change, and that she did so out of respect for Aitken and all that he taught her. I imagine on this day a voice within her that had been there before was more clear now that she had played it out his way for some time, and she was ready to listen to it. This time she knew; her own way was more like that of her mindfulness practice, gentle. She had the courage to act and Aitken Roshi had the wisdom to pick it up. If it had been Aitken’s intent to create students like him, he would have demanded she act like him. Instead he accepted a student who acted in like spirit, a student expressing her own way. Just as the hermit demanded, "Speak, speak!" Aitken demanded Eileen express herself with the passing of the incense. In this I see teaching in keeping with the spirit of the words of Rinzai (Lin-Chi in Chinese):

"Followers of the Way, if you want insight into Dharma as is, just don’t be taken in by the deluded views of others. Whatever you encounter, either within or without, slay it at once: on meeting the Buddha, slay the Buddha, on meeting a patriarch, slay the patriarch…"

Please don’t misunderstand my intent, and recognize I am emphasizing our responsibility as students to appropriately seek and accept teaching. I do not disparage teaching or teachers in general, nor their need to charge for services and make a living. I also respect and honor traditions of surrender. Respect for teaching is emphasized in the vast majority of our practices. Here I humbly offer that we must also bring caution with our surrender, because surrender has been abused in the real world. One of my teachers often said, "We can be simple without being simple minded."

Now, let me digress with a few words about my own background, so you’ll have a context to understand what I say and to bring a personal aspect to the discussion. I also wanted to bring in another aspect of the question about choosing appropriate teaching and community, that of ethical behavior. Many years ago, when deep questions arose in my heart and I began to seek answers in various spiritual traditions; I visited temples and churches and met with teachers. I found my home in Zen; and I found a teacher who spoke to me and whom I trusted.[2] His words still come to me sometimes, providing a wisdom for which I will always be grateful.

There were grumblings around the monastery I joined, as I expect there are in any group. But no one would speak plainly, just in veiled references. I knew there had been a breach in the community. I knew many long-time students had left en-masse not long before. Even when I asked a direct question; the undercurrents remained. I still remember the exchange I heard at a social gathering immediately following a seven-day retreat. My teacher said something shockingly cruel to a woman in the Sangha, a comment that seemed completely out of place for the setting and conversation. I could see the pain cross her face; she rose and walked out of the room. In her distress, she was willing to tell me some of the secrets.

Starting that night, I learned of the women my teacher had slept with, and continued to sleep with. But more so, I learned of the great pain brought to individual women, and the community as a whole. I saw first hand the pain it brought to the one woman I had just met. Even though I intellectually believed I held no concepts of perfection for our practice, I was still devastated; a crisis of faith had begun for me.

Years later, I have no regrets about the path I’ve taken, or how it has led to the person I am now. After these events I moved and joined a group in the Seattle area, so I have not lost faith in the practice, or in all teachers. And I don’t speak now to disparage anyone or to pretend to provide one answer to the question of finding a teacher or practice group. Rather, I’d say there is plenty of room for thoughtful consideration of the many facets involved. I still love my first teacher, but also ascribe to him responsibility for his actions that were painful to many others. His insight was real, his teaching to me was valuable, and at the same time, he did not act in a moral or compassionate manner. His moral and ethical lapse could only have arisen, in part, from a lack of awareness and compassion for others. To stay in such an environment would then raise question as to how or if one could do so without being complicit in harm to others.

I will leave this discussion firmly embedded in the non-dualistic, messy gray area of life. Choosing a teacher or a practice group can involve consideration of the sound or unsound character of the group or person, consideration of the teaching as being appropriate or inappropriate, or any combination of these. It would almost be easy if one could count on insight and character automatically coming together, but the world does not seem to bear that out, which is all the more reason to attend to our own practice, making it truly our own, taking guidance AND taking responsibility. Much more could be said, but (bowing,) I will leave it now in your hands and hearts.

I also bow in gratitude to the many teachers who give of themselves to carry the Dharma to another generation.

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Leland Shields has a private psychotherapy practice in Seattle You can contact him by telephone 206-568-0062 or email.

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[1] Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-Men Kuan (North Point Press, 1990).

[2] I’ve told my story without using the names of the teachers or communities, because I don’t have current knowledge of the groups. I wouldn’t want to disparage someone for things that have long since changed.

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