One of the things I appreciate most about Buddhism is the emphasis on becoming your own teacher. In one of the last teachings the Buddha gave, he said, “Be a light unto yourselves.” In other words, be your own guide. “Don’t look for anyone for guidance”. In this episode, I will discuss the idea of finding the teacher within.
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Transcription of the podcast episode:
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Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 44. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today I’m talking about Finding the Teacher Within.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been watching a series on Netflix called Buddha. It’s a 55-part series about the historical Buddha, and it’s inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Old Path, White Clouds, which happens to be one of my two favorite books on the topic of the historical Buddha, the other book being Buddha by Karen Armstrong. If you’re interested in learning any of the historical account of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, those are two books that I would certainly recommend. Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddha by Karen Armstrong.
What’s been great about watching the Netflix series is that it’s really fun to finally add a visual image to the stories that I’ve read in several books and in the discourses of early Buddhist texts. It’s not the best quality. I like to think of it as a Spanish soap opera produced by a Bollywood production company because that’s the style. There are several moments where I would just laugh because it’s quite entertaining in a comical way.
In general, with the production quality being low and the acting being subpar, I still enjoyed it quite a bit because, like I said, it’s fun to have a visual representation of some of these stories that I’ve listened to and that I’ve really enjoyed in my own studies of Buddhism. But something that really stood out to me while watching the story of the transformation of Prince Siddhartha Gautama turning into … The ascetic Siddhartha Gautama ultimately into the Buddha, the role of the Awakened One, the Buddha, was that he had various teachers along the way.
Historically, in the Pali Canon, it’s taught that he had two main teachers. Once he became an ascetic in the forest, he studied with an ascetic named Alara Kalama. He taught him how to meditate and studied with him. Ultimately, Kalama said, “Hey, I’ve taught you all that I know. There’s really nothing else I can teach you. Why don’t you stay here and you take over the school,” because he was older, getting old. Siddhartha’s like, “No, I’m not interested in that,” because he didn’t feel satisfied. He didn’t have the answers to his questions yet.
Kalama taught him as much as he could, and then he went on from there and found another teacher named Udaka. He worked with him, and ultimately the same thing happened. He reached the point where Udaka’s like, “Well, I’ve taught you all that I can. You know everything I know. There’s nothing left for me to teach you.”
At this point in the story, Siddhartha decides … He’s frustrated. He’s like, “Well, I guess I’ll have to figure this out on my own,” and he continues his journey. Ultimately, that’s exactly what happens. He attains enlightenment or awakening all on his own.
I cover this concept of the Buddha attaining enlightenment in a previous podcast, Episode 39: What is Enlightenment? If you’re interested in navigating that topic a little bit more, go back and listen to that episode.
In the story of the Buddha, he ultimately discovers that the teacher he’s been looking for was him. It was himself. This is finding the teacher within. That’s the topic of this podcast. The profound implication of this discovery is that it’s similar for us. We, too, can learn as much as possible from all the teachers out there, but, in the end, the greatest discovery is the discovery that the teacher that you’re looking for is you, the teacher within. That’s what I want to discuss in this podcast episode.
Before I jump into this topic, I do want to remind you again of a couple of things. First, my commonly shared quote that the Dalai Lama says: “Do not try to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are. Regardless of which path you’re on or how far along that path you may be, mindfulness can help you to become a better whatever-you-already-are.”
Second is the reminder that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. If you get any value out of this episode and if you’re in a position to be able to, please consider becoming a monthly contributor. Even $2 can make a big difference. Of course, one-time donations are appreciated as well. You can do that by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the ‘donate’ button at the top of the page. Now let’s jump back into this week’s topic.
The reason I wanted to discuss this podcast episode, this topic for this episode, is because often I’m asked by people who started listening to the podcast or they started reading the book or just navigating Buddhism in general, it’s inevitable that someone will ask, “Well, which is the best Buddhist path? Which is the right path? Which one teaches more accurately?” or something along those lines. I think that’s a very natural thought for us to have.
What I like about the example that we have from the historical account of the Buddha is, like I mentioned before, he had multiple teachers. The way it’s portrayed in the series, there’s the guru that he worked with as a child to study the Vedas, like his first teacher that you would have, I guess, as a prince. Then that relationship goes on in his life with having different teachers that he works with. Like I mentioned earlier, the two more well-known teachers in the story are the ones that I mentioned at the beginning.
The point of all of that is just the realization that working with teachers is a common thing, but working with a teacher can only get you so far. This is what happens to him in his life. His ultimate teacher ended up being himself.
Now I think what happens with a lot of people who study Buddhism is you encounter that and you realize, “Wow! Okay. He became awakened. Okay, then he’s the ultimate guru, he’s the ultimate teacher I want to work with.” We make the same mistake that we’ve been making all along, which is we’re looking outside of ourselves for something that can only be found internally. It can only be found inside. That’s the great realization that the Buddha had. His awakening or his enlightenment was that understanding that he was the ultimate teacher.
Now what that means for us is that we can learn from him, we can learn from these stories, you can learn from a Buddhist teacher or a monk or whoever, but you can only learn so much. You’re going to reach the point where it’s going to be a lot like what he encountered, which is, “Hey, I’ve taught you everything that I know. There’s nothing left for you to learn.” Now it’s back on you. The ball is back in your court.
I think we make a mistake when we think of the Buddha as the ultimate teacher in the sense of, “Okay, that’s who I need to learn from.” Now, certainly, following his example, I think, is a good idea, studying the things that he taught, I think, is a good idea, but if we’re going to get anything out of what he taught, let’s understand the main thing that he taught.
The very last thing that he taught in his last discourse was this teaching about becoming your own light, like be your own light, be your own guide. He was essentially inviting people to do exactly what I’m trying to explain in this podcast, which is to realize that we are the ultimate teacher. In other words, you are your ultimate teacher, I am my ultimate teacher.
In Buddhism, it’s common to take refuge. In fact, the act of becoming a Buddhist, and I discussed this in a previous podcast episode, but the act of becoming a Buddhist is when you take refuge in the Three Jewels, and the three are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. I talked about these three in detail in Episode 41: Life on the Buddhist Path. You can go back and listen to that one, if you haven’t, to get a better understanding of what it means to take refuge in the Buddha and the Dharma and the Sangha.
The first one of those, taking refuge in the Buddha, is it’s about wisdom, it’s about anchoring myself in the possibility of becoming awake in the same way that the Buddha became awake. It’s not necessarily anchoring myself in, “Okay, I’m going to learn from the Buddha as if he were my teacher and try to match … ” I guess you could think of it that way, where you’re going to match his wisdom, but I think the profound implication of this is that to take refuge in the Buddha is to say, “I’m going to do what the Buddha did and discover that I’m my greatest teacher. I’m not going to rely on someone else to be my guide or to be my spiritual authority for me. I’m going to be my own.”
Like the Buddha said, “Be a light unto yourselves.” This is a way of awakening the Buddha within, the Buddha that … We talk about Buddha nature in Buddhism. This is the essential understanding that you’ve got everything that it takes already there inside of you right now. It’s just a matter of discovering it.
In fact, in that same final discourse before the Buddha passed away, he was asked by one of his monks, “What if we meet you on the path?” and he replied, “Don’t accept anyone that you meet on the path as your authority towards liberation, even if you meet me.” Some of you may have heard the expression, “Kill the Buddha if you see the Buddha on the road.” I think that teaching comes from this, from the sentiment.
The Buddha goes on and says, “Even if it’s your father, it doesn’t matter who it is, don’t take someone as your authority because you are the only one who can awaken yourself.” The power of awakening oneself is the term Buddha. That’s what the word ‘Buddha’ means, Awakened One. Nobody can awaken you, nobody can force you to wake up. People can help along the way, but just like with the Buddha’s story, they’ll help you get so far and then that’s it. Then you’ve got to go on your own. Someone else may help you get a little bit further, but at some point you have to figure it out on your own. You have to awaken yourself.
This is the Buddha’s famous last teaching, to, “Be a light unto yourselves.” In other words, be your own guide. While Buddhism may offer us a natural understanding of reality that things are interdependent, things are interconnected, all things are impermanent, you can observe this natural understanding on your own. You can figure this out through observation and through meditation. This is all part of that process of awakening yourself.
The Buddha said, “Don’t look for anyone for guidance.” Now it doesn’t mean, “Okay, I’m not going to learn from anyone anymore. I don’t need to read books,” or listen to this podcast, if this helps in any way. What he’s implying here is don’t rely on someone as if they are the key for you to awaken because they’re not. They can be part of the path in the same way that the Buddha had teachers, but ultimately he was his own teacher.
Think about this just from another perspective real quick, completely outside of ideology or religion or spirituality. Let’s just think about math. When you go to school and you start learning math, you start from the bottom up and you learn the basics. You learn how to add two numbers. It’s usually single-digit numbers and then it becomes double-digit numbers. Then later you learn to subtract and then you learn to multiply and you learn to divide, but you start from the bottom.
When you’re learning math, you don’t reach fifth grade and then say suddenly, “Oh, with that first grade teacher, they were pointless for me because they only taught me two plus two is four. Now I know how to multiply three-digit numbers or something. Yeah, that was dumb.” We don’t do that because we recognize that that was a foundation. What we learned … Because I know that, now I know this.
Now this could go on. With math, the more proficient you become with math, the more beneficial it is to you to interact in the world of numbers. Now it’s not vital for you as a mathematician to be like, “Well, in what style did Pythagoras teach?” or, “What did he say about this or that?” because the math speaks for itself.
I think Buddhism is the same. The teachings are much more important than the teacher. We don’t want to get hung up on the guru part of all of this. We want to understand the concepts and know how to apply these things in our lives. That’s what matters most, not the teacher.
When was the last time you had a discussion or a debate about algebra, thinking, “Who’s the legitimate founder of algebra? Was it Diophantus or was it al-Khwarizmi?” because some people say it’s one and most people say it’s the other, but it’s irrelevant because even though we live in a world where algebra plays a significant part in our day-to-day lives, you may not even know how … Google it. You’ll find a lot of modern society functions off of principles that work through the discovery of algebra, and most of us don’t know anything about the founder of algebra because it’s not that important.
What if we could start to view spirituality, at least Buddhism, in the same way? Now I’m not saying that that means we don’t need to have any respect or appreciation for the Buddha, a lot of people do, and I think that’s a part of their practice, but especially in the secular approach, we recognize that what matters here is the algebra itself, not the founder of algebra. What matters here is mindfulness as a tool, as an exercise.
These concepts, they all stand on their own two feet. It doesn’t have to be that, “Well, mindfulness works if I can prove that the Buddha was who he said he was.” Buddhism doesn’t have that like other religions do, that maybe the validity of the present day message is contingent on the truthfulness or the validity of the story of the founder, or anything from that point on to the present.
Buddhism isn’t like that. Buddhism is just you can observe it, practice it, and realize on your own, “Hey, yeah, things are interdependent, things are impermanent. What are the implications of that?” You may be able to put all this into practice without ever having been told that this is coming from Buddhism, that there’s a guy named Siddhartha who was later called the Buddha. None of that would matter, and all of this would still be relevant and beneficial to you in your own life. You could still achieve your own form of enlightenment or awakening without knowing any of that. That matters a lot to me, especially on the secular Buddhist path.
Ultimately, what that all means to me when someone asked that question, “Which is the right path? Who’s the right teacher? Which is the right form of Buddhism?” the answer is none of them and the answer is all of them. It’s whichever approach or message resonates with you that helps you to understand and really apply these concepts. That’s the one that matters.
For some people, it’s going to be a very secular approach. They don’t want to hear about anything that even hints of being supernatural or that is unknowable through science. That’s fine, that’s the path I like, but that doesn’t mean that this path is any better than another path. There may be forms of Buddhist schools of thought that include cosmologies, realms, and demons and angels and things like that. Does that really matter? Is it fair for us to say, “Oh, no. That one’s less accurate than this one”? How would we know? That’s not the point.
See, in Buddhism the point isn’t to arrive at truth, which one’s true, which one’s more true. None of that is relevant. The whole point of it, as the Buddha always taught, is, “I teach one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” That’s the goal of all of this. How do we learn to minimize suffering by understanding the causes of suffering and then tackling the causes of suffering? That’s one of the things that makes Buddhism so unique.
Now it’s unfortunate that you do have internal struggles that go on between the various schools of Buddhism, between classical Buddhism versus secular Buddhism. Among the various classical forms, you have the same thing: Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Shin Buddhism. Then you have schisms that take place in each of these. That’s fine, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Ultimately, it gives us a whole bunch of different flavors that we get to pick.
It’s like the essence of all of this is like the water, that things are impermanent, things are interdependent. That’s common, but then the actual flavor that goes in the water, like tea, that’s less important, but you may have a preference, that you like this flavor over that flavor, so you’re a Zen Buddhist, or you like that other flavor more than this flavor, so you practice Theravada or Tibetan or secular or whatever.
I think it’s important to respect each other’s paths, to recognize that the difference of path, because there’s not one true path … There can certainly be a correct path, the path that you’re on always feels like it’s the correct path, but just because you’re on the right path doesn’t mean it’s the right path for everyone, or just because it feels like it’s the true path, it doesn’t mean it’s the only true path.
I think that’s important to understand with any spiritual practice because, again, going back to the story of the Buddha, you could say, “Well, at one point, he was studying under a Vedic teacher, and that person is not at all like what we know Buddhism to be.” Well, that’s fine. It was still a stepping stone on the path that led to ultimate awakening or to awareness. Now what that implies for me, thinking about this personally, it’s like that means I’ve never been on the wrong path. I’ve always been on the right path.
When I was a Mormon missionary in Ecuador, teaching, well, I was on the right path. That’s where I was at that time. Being where I was then is an integral part of being where I am now. If I feel that where I am now is exactly where I want to be or where I should be, then everything that’s led up to being right here would be correct, it would be right.
But we make the mistake of thinking, “Oh, back then I was in the wrong place. Now I’m in the right place.” It’s like, well, we always think we’re in the right place, but what did it take for you to get to the right place? It took everything else being in all the wrong places. That’s because wrong and right is an illusion. It’s a perspective.
I addressed that quite a bit in the podcast, so I won’t get into the dichotomy of good and bad, right and wrong, but what I really want to emphasize with this podcast episode is that we can find the teacher within. That’s the ultimate realization that the Buddha had. That’s the ultimate teaching of Buddhism, is that, “Hey, you are your own teacher,” and you can learn a lot from a teacher, someone like me who does a podcast, or you could go to a Buddhist temple. You’re going to learn a lot from the teacher there, or the monk, or a nun. There are a lot of sources out there. You can read a book. You can learn it all on your own.
But the ultimate knowledge that you’re going to gain when it comes to awakening is that aha moment that you’re going to have when you realize all things are interdependent, all things are impermanent, and you start to understand the implications of that realization. All that happens on your own. Nobody can do that for you.
I think it is very important to highlight this and to say that at the end of all of this, you’re your greatest teacher. It’s you, it’s all about you. Be very careful about putting your authority on someone else. See, whoever you give authority to, they have power over you. Now it doesn’t mean that they have power over you inherently, it means they have power over you because you gave them power over you.
Imagine being able to do that to yourself. Make yourself your greatest teacher, because any teacher can show you any path, but ultimately you’re the one that walks it. It’s like the Chinese proverb that a teacher can show you the door, but you’re the one that has to walk through it. That is a very profound form of wisdom, to understand it.
All of these things that you’ll learn, whether it’d be on this podcast or through books or through listening to any Buddhist teacher, those are all just tools, and some tools are really helpful; some are more helpful than others, some are more efficient than others, some work better for certain people over other tools. That’s all great. That makes it so that all of it’s good.
Everything that’s out there can be beneficial, but at the end of the day, this is about finding the teacher within. This is about you discovering that everything you’ve been looking for outside of yourself is not going to help. What you’re looking for is to be found inside of yourself internally. This is the concept of finding that teacher within.
I remember a point in my life where I was looking at my jobs or relationships or family, and it wasn’t until I finally learned to look into myself that, of course, is where the answer was all along. At that point, what do you long for? Everything that you want, you’ve already got it. It’s there inside of you.
That’s the deep understanding that comes from studying Buddhism. That’s the deep realization that the Buddha had. From that moment on, he was able to live with peace and joy and contentment. Now it doesn’t mean that you won’t experience anger or frustration or resentment. We’re going to experience emotions, that’s part of life, but we won’t get caught up in those emotions. We won’t be mad about being mad. We don’t have to be anxious about being anxious. We can already just be anxious. That’s the enlightened, that’s the awakened life the way I like to think of it.
That’s what I wanted to address, all based on that question, “Which is the right path?” Well, your path is the right path. You’d get that when you realize your path is the right path because you are your teacher and you’re also your student, and that can be a really profound shift for you while you’re on this spiritual path.
I hope that was a helpful topic. I have several topics that I’ve been wanting to record this week. I’m excited to hopefully knock out the next several episodes. It’s kind of one after another after another.
That’s all I have for Finding the Teacher Within. As always, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, or if you’re new to Buddhism and you’re interested in learning more, you can always listen to the first five episodes of this podcast in order. They serve as a summary of all the key concepts taught in Buddhism.
You can also check out my book, Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds, available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, and Audible. For more information on those, you can visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.