We want our teachers to practice what they preach, but when we look closely, they can seem just as flawed as the rest of us. Sumi Loundon Kim discovers for herself what’s so special—and so ordinary—about being the teacher.
A few years a go, I attended a talk by a well-known Western Buddhist teacher. As always, her talk was wonderful, full of insight and wisdom and delivered with humor, kindness, and a breadth of knowledge. It’s no wonder she’s so famous. Later that weekend, I was standing nearby as she spoke with two senior students. In the course of the conversation, she expressed worries about an upcoming event, revealing notable self-consciousness and perhaps even an insecure side. The difference between the person I saw giving a public talk—articulate, confident, and reassuring—and this anxious person was striking.
I can think of dozens of other times when I’ve seen how a Buddhist teacher onstage, delivering a talk or guiding meditation, was not the same as the human being behind the curtains. Both Western and Asian teachers have moments of irritability, frustration, anger, insensitivity, occasional egotism, attachment, greed, and so on—just like the rest of us.
Though most of the teachers I’ve known are, from what I can see, above average in their ability to respond to life’s ups and downs with wisdom and compassion, it always surprised me to see moments in which they did not live up to the high standards they implicitly set in their teaching. For many years, I concluded that some Buddhist teachers were at least a little bit hypocritical, teaching one thing but doing another.
In my early twenties, I found this disparity vexing, and at times I lost confidence in Buddhism. As I witnessed one frailty after another, then heard stories from others about scandals that severely broke trust, I started to believe there were no truly enlightened teachers in the world. And if that were true, I mused, then there was no one to learn from. “If so-and-so teacher did that,” I thought scornfully, “then that completely invalidates all that he has taught.”
Fortunately, all the other religions have skeletons in their closets too, and I was not so naive as to think that another religion offered more enlightened teachers than Buddhism did. So I have stuck with Buddhism, through my own perceived thick and thin.
Excerpted from the Spring 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.