In a time where people are confused by the pain and suffering they see around them mixed with their own suffering and confusion, many are seeking answers -- or at least, guidance in a spiritual path. With endless amounts of information available via the internet, how does a spiritual seeker know where to begin? Thubten Samten, a monastic at Sravasti Abbey shares her story.
“In my case, from a worldly point of view, I got lucky. (From a Buddhist point of view, this fortunate meeting came about due to making extensive prayers and dedications in previous lives to meet authentic spiritual teachers.) I could have met anyone. And you know this happens to all of us, we go with friends to a Dharma talk and we may assume, if this is my friend’s teacher, well it must be my teacher; or we meet someone who is very charismatic, saying things that sound like the dharma but not behaving in an ethical way. We need to proceed with care and seek to become a well-informed spiritual aspirant.”
Not everyone immediately stumbles upon a teacher with whom they feel a deep connection. In that case, Thubten Samten says it is appropriate to go and listen to many different teachers, observe their students, check in with long-time practitioners about who they recommend and keep a respectful distance from people who are controversial.
After meeting Venerable Chodron for the first time in 1996, Samten made every effort to attend her teachings in person. At that time, she was living in Alberta, Canada and Venerable Chodron was living in Seattle, Washington. Venerable Chodron was the resident teacher at Dharma Friendship Foundation and Thubten Samten was an elementary school teacher, so her time off was limited to the summer months.
“Despite that, I arranged to take time once each school year by trading classes with other teachers to enable me to attend a ten-day retreat when the retreat was not scheduled during the summer months. Over a number of years, these retreats gave me a foundation in the lamrim teachings. Lamrim can be translated in various ways: ‘stages of the path,’ ‘steps on the path,’ or ‘gradual path.’ ‘Gradual path’ reminds us that the process of transforming the mind, unlike so many other things in our hurry-up society, is a slow a thoughtful one.” says Thubten Samten.
She continues, “It is critical to know what to look for when choosing a spiritual teacher because this is the most important relationship we will ever have and this will determine how we progress on the path. All commentaries on the Lamrim Chenmo address the topic of what we should be looking for in a spiritual teacher. In the Foundation of Buddhist Practice, Volume Two in the Library of Wisdom and Compassion series authored by HH Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron a beautiful explanation of what spiritual seekers should look for in a spiritual mentor is described.”
The list includes the following:
- Is disciplined and subdued in his or her behavior (higher training in ethical conduct).
- Has serenity and meditative experience (higher training in concentration).
- Is pacified through developing wisdom (higher training in wisdom).
- Has more qualities than the student.
- Is enthusiastic to practice Dharma and benefit others.
- Is learned in the scriptures.
- Has realized the emptiness of all phenomena, not just the emptiness of the person. This refers to having the correct view of selflessness.28
- Is skillful in giving teachings, articulate, and able to explain the Dharma clearly.
- Is compassionate, always wishing to benefit others.
- Does not easily become tired or discouraged by expounding the Dharma to others
"We must investigate and examine a teacher thoroughly before deciding that he or she will be one of our teachers. Immediately accepting some- one as our teacher without proper investigation is unwise. I recommend that people attend Dharma teachings and get to know the person first. At this time, do not regard him or her as your teacher, let alone as a buddha. Consider the person as a Dharma friend who shares information with you. Observe his or her conduct in daily life, and assess his understanding of the teachings as best as you can. Ask other students about the teacher’s qualities, and look at the qualities of those students to see if you want to become like them by following the same teacher. Check if the teacher has a good relationship with his or her teachers. In addition, read Dharma books so that you have a general knowledge of Buddhist tenets and can assess if this person’s teachings are correct. After some time, if you see that this person teaches in accord with the Buddhadharma, is reliable, knowledgeable, ethical, kind, and a good practitioner, then form a mentor-disciple relationship with him or her. "
Thubten Samten explains that it’s a privilege to be part of the monastic community and witness Venerable Thubten Chodron in her many roles, which include being the founder and Abbess of Sravasti Abbey, training monastics, teaching monastics and lay people, writing dharma books, and traveling the globe to give Dharma teachings.
So, whether you’re searching for a spiritual teacher or not, Sravasti Abbey is a home for all sentient beings to explore the Buddha’s teachings and transform the mind. They will welcome you with open arms. Blessings on your path.
Thubten Samten heard Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron give a dharma talk in 1996. The talk on the kindness of others had a significant impact. After some years Samten left Canada to ordain in 2010 and receive full ordination in 2012. Her gratitude for the precious opportunity to live and train under the guidance of Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron at Sravasti Abbey is immeasurable. Visit Sravasti Abbey's Retreat Guru center page.