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Seeking a Teacher - Contemporary Buddhist Masters

Imagine that you are in a city, somewhat lost. On your initial wanderings through the city, you get to hear a marvellous story of a diamond needle, the most precious gem that can be found. What's more there are rumours that the needle does exist, and it can be found! Naturally, you hearken to this promise, but where and how to look?

On consulting the municipal library, you discover texts that elaborate in extraordinary detail on how the needle was once found, and what purports to be a map. However, the instructions appear indecipherable and on trying to follow them by yourself, you feel you are groping in the dark. Somewhat disconsolate, you retreat from that archival palace and are about to forget the idea ... when one day you learn of others searching also.

In fact, it turns out that there are many seekers in the city, but they appear different from each other. You are drawn to some who appear with purpose, bright and intelligent. You are impressed by their noble countenance and their natural self discipline. You decide to dwell awhile with a few groups, and notice that each has a distinct flavour. Where does it come from? Whether or not it is spoken in words, it becomes clear: there is always one who stands out, who influences the direction of the group. This is the teacher. If the group knows the route, then it will because the teacher knows the route; if the teacher does not know the route, then it is unlikely that the group will know the route.

You decide to seek a teacher!

To follow in the Buddhas' footsteps to nirvana requires that one be shown the way, specifically how to tread the Eightfold Noble Path. It is said that it is harder to attain the goal than it is to overcome an army of 1000 bare handed! Yet, you alone are responsible for treading the path - no-one else can make the steps for you. However, unless you are really exceptional in your abilities, you won't make it unless you have an expert to provide assistance, ready to point you in the right direction at each step. A 'good' teacher is not good enough! You may attain heavenly mental states - but that is still Samsara, and as you revel in the bliss of creative imaginings or bask in the oneness you may gradually lose focus on the Middle Way...

The Buddha's teachings are very subtle - unfortunately language is a distant echo of what Buddha Gotama would have conveyed, so it is not enough to have complete intellectual knowledge of the Tipitaka (the 3 baskets of scriptures: Vinaya, Sutta, Abhidhamma). This is where an expert teacher is needed, one who really knows the heart of the Buddha Dhamma and can guide you in practice! Although it is true that an open mind can appreciate truth in each moment, from whatever source, the consistency and depth of messages is likely to increase in the company of one who knows the Middle Way.

My feeling is that if you really want to realise what the Buddha realised, then finding a teacher, who knows you 'inside out', is very important. It might only be a moment's encounter, but still it can be essential. It is not sufficient to just have instructors to give you good general advice - much better is someone who will give a tiny prod in just the perfect spot!

I recall my late mother giving an account of her search for the Buddha Dhamma. At about the age of 20 she went from temple to temple in Bangkok, searching for the right teacher. She tried one Ajahn who taught a certain meditation method, but after a while she knew that it wasn't effective. After much searching, she eventually found her destination, stopped in her tracks by another Ajahn who saw right through her with a penetrating gaze and then announced "You have a big Buddha inside of you!"

There are accounts of some of the great teachers of this century, though not all of them will have allowed themselves to be put in the public eye;-) My knowledge of key figures relates predominantly to Theravadins, so I apologize for omitting many distinguished Masters from other schools - perhaps a second issue of this column can be produced with your suggestions? For the time being, I append a section with further links.

Below, I shall provide very brief descriptions of each person, with some links. I use as one reference source, 'Living Buddhist Masters' (Shambala), which was produced in the 1970's by Jack Kornfield. Actually, most of the following have passed on, but their legacy survives very strongly - as is reflected in a new edition of that book, 'Living Dharma'.

  • Ven. Ajahn Sodh Candasaro [Thailand] (Oct 11 1885 - Feb 3 1959) The recent completion of a hall to seat 100,000 meditators at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, a few miles North of Bangkok, is witness to the unstinting efforts of this Thai monk, who was determined that the heart of the Buddha's teachings be available for all. He is reverently and affectionately known as 'Luang Phor Wat Paknam'. A brief biography forms part of a site devoted to Dhammakaya meditation which he taught. More recently, a complete book about his life has been made available called The Life and Times of Luang Phaw Wat Paknam (2nd edition, 1998), part of a substantial repository of books called Repository Zero, a site overflowing with eTexts, kindly provided by the Dhammakaya International Society of Belgium.

  • Ven. Ajahn Mun [Thailand] (Jan 20 1870 - ?1949) I have read some of a biography of this extraordinary Thai monk and what rests in my mind is the Ajahn's ferocious determination and perseverence. His biographer and disciple, Phra Maha Boowa, also a distinguished teacher in his own right, relates over and over how Ajahn Mun "pounded the defilements" without relent until they were completely extinguished and Arhatship was attained! Just a touch of his ability is provided as a source of inspirationNew! A transcription of his biography translated into English from Thai has just been completed and is available from the index to books.  A site devoted to this Ajahn and the Thai Forest tradition used to be located here, but there no longer appears to be any files in this directory...

  • Sunlun Sayadaw [Burma] (1878 - 1952) Whilst tending his plot of land in Sunlun Village (so-called after the cave monasteries), he was disturbed by a prediction which he interpreted as meaning his imminent death. Through a chain of good intentions he was introduced to meditation practice and stuck at it assiduously, blasting through discomfort until reaching Arhatship.

Other Buddhist Masters

I let you discover about others through a selection of links:

Some present day teachers, some of whom may already be Buddhist masters, may be found on the following:

Dharma Teachers Page provided by Dharmanet.

Gaia House Teachers Situated in Devon in the UK, Gaia House opens its arms wide to teachers from many different backgrounds.

Further Links

Lineage is like a tree The importance of lineage is well understood by Buddhists in the Vajrayana tradition and here Ani Lama Lhadon describes how such lineage can be a great source of blessing.

Dharma Teachings A list of many eminent teachers of the Tibetan schools, together with some of their teachings, also courtesy of Ani Lama Lhadon.

Once we've found a teacher, we must be ever mindful that we alone are responsible for our actions - in the end must let go of the teacher and see for ourselves!


This article was originally one of a series of contributions I made as a 'Buddhist Guide' for the Mining Company.

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- Paul Trafford

Last modified: 3 April 2002