Just as in any other religion or spiritual practice, Buddhism has its share of questionable teachers and leaders. Following such a person can be very dangerous. People have been exploited and abused financially, sexually and otherwise.
The first clue in spotting a questionable teacher is this: An enlightened person will never tell you that they are enlightened. As soon as you hear someone claim to be enlightened, or that they have attained a high level of realization, or you suspect that they believe themselves to be enlightened, run for the hills.
Someone who is “enlightened” understands that there is no end game, only the Endless Further. There is no enlightenment, only enlightening – the continuing process of becoming awakened. There is no state of being that one arrives at and can say, “This is it. I’ve arrived. I’ve got it.” In this sense there is no such thing as an enlightened person, only individuals who are further along than the rest of us.
An “enlightened” person understands that it doesn’t matter if you think they are enlightened or not. You are either going to get what they are teaching or you won’t. It has more to do with your progress along the path, than theirs.
An “enlightened” person understands holding the belief that he or she is enlightened may be an impediment to grasping the teachings. When you look upon teachers in that way it is very easy to put them on a pedestal, to idolize or worship them. You might be tempted to want to build monuments to them or name places after them. “Enlightened” people do not care about stuff like that.
Enlightened people have no ego. Or, perhaps it’s better to say that their ego is in check. They don’t have to tell how great they are because they don’t see themselves as great.
It is very easy to be led astray by a charismatic teacher. They usually have an agenda. They believe that the end justifies the means. Since they are a living Buddha, they may expect you to ignore your own sense of ethics and integrity in order to help promote them and their teachings. It’s okay if you engage in unethical behavior, you’re serving a greater cause – them.
The Dalai Lama was once asked about the difficulty of maintaining faith when so many teachers misbehave. He answered by saying,
It is very important when you relate to someone who is a dharma-teacher to use your critical faculty to subject that person to close scrutiny, so that you are aware that if not all the qualifications that are commented on in the scriptures are not found in that person, at least most of them are found in that individual.
Sometimes people select a dharma-teacher or choose a particular tradition during a very low period in their personal life. When that happens, when someone chooses a person or a tradition because they have a need to lean on someone or they lack confidence or self-esteem, then there is a real vulnerability for abuse and when that dependence is placed on someone, given that you are not really able to use the critical facility, then there is scope for abuse and disappointment.
Often when it comes to choosing a spiritual path or a teacher, our tendency is to be hasty and take on anything that comes near you, like a dog who will eat any food that comes its way and that is not how we should approach the question of choosing the dharma or a teacher.
As I say to members of the media, that they should have as long noses as possible, sort of sniffing around and also this is true for the students-you should be able to sniff around so that you can see from both the front and the back. Sometimes what happens is that things may look very impressive from the front, but from the back they may be sort of empty, just hollow.
If a teacher is able to maintain a good kind of integrity, then, of course, that person is worthy of your admiration and trust.
Judging the integrity of a teacher should be approached in the context of the three higher trainings on morality, meditation and wisdom or insight. That is what the Buddha taught in the Tripitaka, the Three Spiritual Collections . . . So, this means that since I am also a teacher, you should subject me to such investigation as well.
Never suspend your own good judgment. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, it very likely is. Don’t follow people who claim to be enlightened, or who seem enamored of their own achievements. They are phonies. Fakes. Charlatans. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that the end justifies the means. It doesn’t. The Buddha never taught such a thing and it has no place in Buddhism.