‘Guideposts on the Path’ (1991)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

Two years before the meeting between the Dalai Lama and Western teachers in Dharamsala in 1993, Stephan Bodian published ‘Guideposts on the Path’ in Yoga Journal (January-February 1991). The full text is available here.

Based in part on his master’s thesis on the teacher-student relationship in Zen Buddhism, Bodian lists ten guidelines and a “Teacher Checklist” that should help “seekers” navigate the spiritual path.

Bodian’s second guideline, ‘Feel free to question and doubt’ paraphrases the Dalai Lama as saying

“that Westerners are too quick to surrender. In the Tibetan tradition, he says, students spend years with a teacher observing his behavior, questioning others about him, noting whether he lives the principles he teaches, before deciding to take him on asa guru. Indeed, in the early years of practice, students are encouraged to doubt both teachers and teachings.’ (p. 18)

The fifth guideline, ‘Take your time,’ likewise, paraphrases the Dalai Lama’s advice:

“Don’t rush into a spiritual involvement, any more than you’d rush into a marriage. In the first throes of love, even the most conservative among us will throw caution to the winds and make impulsive promises we later regret. Listen to the resistant, skeptical parts of yourself—they may hold insights the rest of you ignores.” (p. 20)

Curiously, Bodian’s sixth guideline references Chögyam Trungpa’s quote “Situations are the best teachers,” while his tenth guideline refers to a young Tibetan Lama telling him:

“‘The true guru is here,’ as he touched my heart with his hand. I was blissed out for days. As it happened, he too was taking advantage of his students, but I got the message: The guru out there is just a projection of all the wonderful virtues we possess as our birthright and only need actualize. And the ultimate authority, the master, the source, abides nowhere but in our own hearts. The outer guru’s role is not to give us something new, but to quicken and ripen the wisdom we already have.” (p. 20)

In closing, Bodian presents a checklist, saying that the closer spiritual teachers come to approximating these qualities, the better. The checklist contains the following seven qualities:

Humility. Do they seem inflated or arrogant? Do they expect those around them to be constantly deferring to their wishes? In the Zen monastery, the head monk cleans the toilets. I can still remember many years ago having lunch with a group of Tibetan monks. Among them was the great Tibetan master Kalu Rinpoche. Before he was pointed out to me, I had been unable to distinguish him from the others. He dressed like them, ate like them, and had none of the airs of an exalted potentate.
Encourage autonomy and open inquiry in their students.. Do you find yourself looking more and more to a source of authority and power outside yourself? Are you encouraged to ask questions, to inquire, to think for yourself?
Not attached to a particular dogma or ideology.. Mature teachers realize that the teaching is only a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself, and that true wisdom arises spontaneously from the enlightened heart/mind, not from ancient texts. Beware of teachers who force their students to conform to rigid doctrine, rather than adapting the doctrine to the students’ needs.
Primarily concerned with the spiritual development of their students. True teachers derive their greatest satisfaction not from fame, power, influence, or the size of their organization, but from the spiritual maturation of their students. Beware of the empire builders with their multimillion-dollar ashrams.
Direct, honest, straightforward, clear. Like sex with the teacher, game-playing and head-tripping are almost never in the student’s best interests. As people mature spiritually, they become increasingly free of psychological baggage. Expect such freedom in your teacher.
Practice what they preach. Teachers should not be excused from following the precepts, but should embody them. When Chogyam Trungpa’s successor, Osel Tendzin, developed AIDS, he continued to have sex with his students because he believed he could somehow avoid transmitting the disease. Aside from the issue of sexual exploitation, his appalling denial had disastrous consequences for himself and his organization. No teacher, no matter how enlightened, can ignore the law of cause and effect.
Wise and compassionate. Although a teacher’s wisdom may be difficult to fathom, the fruits of his compassion are visible to all. Do you feel love, kindness, warmth, and openness in this person’s presence? Or does he seem rigid, gruff, haughty, withdrawn? Check out the close disciples; they are often revealing mirrors of the guru’s inner life. (p. 88)

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.