Teachers, lessons, truth

One should first establish oneself in what is proper; then only should one instruct others. Thus the wise man will not be reproached.

One should do what one teaches others to do; if one would train others, one should be well controlled oneself. Difficult, indeed, is self-control.

– Dhammapada 158-159

I have had several relationships in my life, all of which have eventually ended. Everything in life is perishable, so are relationships, and when they do not function anymore it is time to move on or let go, even if it may seem selfish or wrong in the beginning. When my last relationship recently ended, I did feel pain in my heart, which is perfectly normal, but in the end I am very grateful for the lessons it taught me. Making such decisions is never pleasant, but in a relationship, both persons which are committed to it are teachers for each other, even if things go wrong there are lessons to be learnt. I felt bad when it happened, so I decided to head out into town to be among the people (which is also a form of learning actually). I ended up in one of my favourite book-stores, housed in an old Dominican church, where I often like to sit high up in the quiet rafters of the building, where the second hand books on Buddhism and spirituality are housed. In my current emotional state, my eye was drawn to a book by Sharon Salzberg  titled “Loving Kindness, the Revolutionary art of happiness.” I started pageing through it and saw some interesting things, but then I stumbled upon a quote that supposedly was ascribed to the Buddha. It said: “In a battle, the winners and the losers both lose.” I think this is a free translation of some part of the Dharma. I checked Fakebuddhaquotes.com but I didn’t find a similar entry anywhere. wp-1461055071934.jpg

I am educated as a scientist and therefore I am fairly secptical and I read critically. I also encountered a chapter in which Salzberg referred to the Dalai Lama, who has stated that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder does not exist among the Tibetan people, since they see things from a Buddhist perspective. They don’t acknowledge traumatising experiences, since they show compassion for those who torture them. So basically, he says that PTSD cannot exist because the people suffering from it do not accept it. That one just hit me square in the face. You do not choose to acknowledge PTSD, it is a mental illness that is sparked by traumatising factors. No matter how you try to deal with them, it is not a choice to have PTSD or not. If it was a choice, I would gladly choose not to acknowledge my own PTSD and many others with me,. If that truly was the magical cure, we would all be healed instantly.

Too bad, this was one of the many quotes and actions of the Dalai Lama I do not agree with.  Many people think that as a Buddhist, you should follow the Dalai Lama. They believe he is some kind of Buddhist Pope/ God on earth and the leader of all Buddhists. He is not, he is the God-King of Tibet, a worldly and religious leader. Those are aspects which are quite a-buddhist. Therefore, I have refrained from the Dalai Lama and his words a long time ago, although I do still heed his lessons which are compatible with Buddhism in my own experience, there is always a middle way! In that respect, he was and is a teacher for me. He taught me to be critical, he taught me what I should not do, but he also provides me with valuable lessons from his own insight at the same time. Let me explain further about Buddhism an religion first.

Buddhism in essence is not a religion, it is a philosophical way of life. In their book ‘Boeddhisme voor denkers (Buddhism for thinkers), the authors call Buddhism a ‘life-art.’In many countries, Buddhism has developed on the basis of and longside with local religious traditions. In those countries, Buddhism has become a religion with a monastic tradition and the reverence of the Buddha. Yet, Buddhism is non-theïst. There is no God that is worshipped. The Buddha was no god, but a mere man who reached spiritual freedom (Nirwana) through insight from experience. I will not elaborate on the subject of God or religion here at this time.  Let’s just keep it at the fact that Buddhism acknowledges the Universe and an all-present life-force and accepts the freedom of the concept of God, but it does not focus on the existence of God. Instead, Buddhism focuses on the individual, who just like the Buddha can learn through his own experiences and insights.In the Dhammapada, the Dharma clearly states that  “By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another“(Dhammapada 165).

Buddhism, in essence, exists without religious tradition. Therefore, it may seem contradictory that in some countries, especially in Asia, Buddhism follows the line of religious tradition, in which the Buddha, aspects of Buddha or even Buddhist teachers are almost deified. The cause of this is that Buddhism has developed alongside ancient religions that already existed in those countries. Buddhism is perfectly compatible with religions, since it is only a philosophical way of life that encompasses compassion, acceptance and loving kindness, the latter being a universal aspect of all religions. Allright, that is quite an explanation and believe me, I could go into more detail. But let’s keep it at this point: “Buddhism does not focus on God or a concept of a higher and omnipotent being, the Buddha being a mere man who has reached Enlightenment.”

Three Jewels

One of the central concepts in Buddhism are the ‘Three Jewels‘, the three key elements of Buddhist tradition: The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

The Buddha here refers to the Buddha himself, Siddharta Gautama Shakyamuni. It also refers to the ideal of becoming like Buddha, by reaching enlightenment through insight and mastery of the mind, drawn from experience. Enlightenment can be understood as the ability to see the true nature of life and all things in it, free of concepts or universalia (the idea of what things are and how they should be collectively called). In order to do so, the Dharma is the main tool. The Dharma is the entire collective of the Buddha’s teachings, guidelines which help you to understand your own ability to use and understand the mind. Then there is the sangha, the people.

We cannot learn from the Dharma alone, since it is only a body of text and teachings. The Dharma becomes valuable only when it is practiced, when it is embodied into the minds and actions of people. The Buddha states that “Much though he recites the sacred texts, but acts not accordingly, that heedless man is like a cowherd who only counts the cows of others”(Dhammapada 19). Without sharing the Dharma with others, testing its validity and reflecting upon its lessons, it is useless. The Sangha refers to all people with whom you share spiritual experiences, all people who teach you along the way.

When I took my first steps on the Noble Eightfold Path as a Buddhist, I immediately embraced the Theravada tradition and the Pali-canon texts, the texts and tradition that stand closest to the historical Buddha oral tradition passed down by his followers. I take lessons from all others Buddhist traditions, as well as religious and spiritual movements that fit in with my experiences, there are many lessons to be learned from all aspects of life, never forget that. I grew up as a Catholic and when I started my archaeology studies, I also dove into the world of religion studies and theology. I came to accept my Christian roots even more, but I was also fascinated by nature-based religious systems, Norse mythology, Iron Age rituals traditions, demonology etcetera. During my studies I encountered other faiths in depth, I lived in the Middle East for a while for internships and encountered Islam and Judaism there, but also the Coptic and other Christian traditions as well as the religions of Ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, the Hittites and prehistoric communities. Later, during a trip with a dear friend, who was seeking the tradition that was most compatible to his views, introduced me to the Bahá’i traditions. The Baháí ultimately believe that we all share the same vision or concept of God and follow the path of universal compassion and peace.


In 2013, I found my way to Buddhism, on the 22nd of October of that year I decided that Buddhism was a tradition that connected with me as a person, after a few weeks of in depth-reasding. I went to visit a Buddhist temple not too far from my house, which follows the New Kadampa Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. I use the temple for meditation and reflection by talking to other Buddhists. I learnt quite a lot there and I was able to share insights and ask questions, which further affirmed my choice. However, there is a whole lot of controversy going on between the Dalai Lama and followers of this New Kadampa tradition and both sides  throw dirt at each other. I was no big fan of the Dalai Lama, as I have made clear before and this certainly didn’t help. I never felt the urge to follow one teacher or one specific tradition and this event taught me to steer clear from leadership and religious authoritarianism. I follow my own mind, no one else’s.

Members of the Western Shugden Society p
(Photo credit should read SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images)

There are many lama’s and other spiritual teachers in Buddhism. They are often called  ‘leaders’. ‘Teachers’ is a bit more valid, but this term still breathes authority. Just like ‘Grand Masters’ in martial arts. Thich Nhat Hanh once said that they should be regarded as ‘spiritual friends,’ people who help you reflect along the path by providing you with insights from their own experience.  Thich Nhat Hanh is one fo those people himself. He writes books beautifully, very clear dn simple in style, his words honeyed with loving kindness and universal wisdom. But even Thich Nhat Hanh sometimes says things that do not agree with my experience. Since I do not see him as a leader of some sort, he is just another spiritual friend, teaching me lessons about life, also by saying things I don’t agree with (since I learn not to agree and overthink and reflect upon why I don’t agree!). Thich Nhat Hanh stresses the importance of the sangha in his books and therefore also refers to reflection by reflection.

I turned to the world wide web in search of a sangha near me and I was astonished to see that a sangha-group devoted to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh regularly met only six kilometres from my house! I went there one evening and found myself surrounded by all kinds of older people (I am 28 years old when writing this). There was a very positive atmosphere, not really ‘floaty’ or ‘lofty’ as I had expected. We meditated in silence together for a long time, a really strong experience. But eventually we got to a reflection and discussion round and although there was a small Buddha statue standing in the middle of our circle, I felt that those gathered here were focused on a sort of ‘cult of the individual.’ They were only focused on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh himself, but they had no remarkable experience with the wider aspects of Buddhism. They did not understand some of its basics principles. This saddened me and I henceforth decided to not visit these meetings again.

There is no spoon

Ajahn Chah, who is sees as another Buddhist spiritual teacher says in the book ‘Being Dharma’ that Buddhist spiritual teachers belong to a  long line of teachers who are trained by experience and who pass down their collective wisdom onto the next generation of teachers. But he also warns us to be wary, since these are personal experiences and personal flaws and faulty insights may also be passed down along those lines. Therefore it is important to remain critical and to examine everything out of your own experience while examining if these teachings apply to you. He also tells us to not follow people who think that age equals experience, since some young people have already gained more insights in life than others may have gathered in a lifetime. Keep in mind, I am a spiritual friend myself, I do not claim to be a teacher and I do not have a full insight of the inner workings of Buddhism, I am merely a travelling companion on the eightfold path. I only seek to share my experiences and the lessons I have learned!

I can greatly elaborate on this theme, but I’ll save it for another time. Buddhism can be a tool for you to understand life better, but even when certain parts of the Dharma do not apply to you or you cannot fit them into your life, you should let them go.Being a Buddhist is not about following teachers, rules or dogma. It is about following your mind throughout your life, trying to see everything for what it is without conceptual thinking. Reflection through living and living through reflection. The teaching I want to share with you is that your own experiences and your mind are your greatest teachers, the only ones you should truly follow. Life, in all its colours and aspects is your greatest lesson, an ever ongoing journey to which there is no end or goal.The key to understanding is actually quite simple: live and learn! Keep that in mind: I am my own teacher, I learn from trying to see the truth: everything is inteconnected and without conceptual label, or as the little boy in the Matrix says: “Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realise the truth. There is no spoon.”



One thought on “Teachers, lessons, truth

  1. In addition to your introduction: yes the role of the Dalai Lama is often misunderstood. I’m not an expert, but I do remember from my courses, that the Dalai Lama is actually the spiritual leader of a very specific lineage -or group of combined lineages – in Tibetan Buddhism. Other groups have different leaders, which are ‘formally’ same level as the Dalai Lama, but are completely unknown in the west. Its the West that bombards him in being the utter Tibetan leader -I don’t think he would ever dare to say that himself. He would be butchered by his fellows 😉

    Furthermore Tibetan Buddhism is -of course- just a much split up and divided as all religion. The Hinayana branches were (in time) followed up by Mahayana branches, who differ in view in essential points that are so deep that I have given up my attempts to understand them. As a result formal Hinayana teachers (in for example Theravada schools) will stress that those Mahayana blokes are complete shit. 😉 Not to mention Vayraya buddhism which is probably looked upon with great disgust by followers of BOTH the previously mentioned schools….. (I am guessing, I’ve never asked)

    From my viewpoint I would like to stress the importance of culture here. You say “Being a Buddhist is not about following teachers, rules or dogma.”I would guess that really depends on who you ask. In traditional schools following the rules and teachers is most likely the largest part of everything that students do and what Buddhism is about to them. Their monastic Tibetan system is based very much on feudal systems in which authority is absolute and a matter of status and descent. Abbots are often followed up by their sons in Buddhist monastries! It’s a matter of power in society, just like in our country people used to do everything the catholic priest ordered until only 35 years ago. Rules and ethics are deontological in this feudal hierarchy, and therefore absolute! I agree, with your statement from my western perspective, but that one should let go of rules of Dharma that “do not apply to you or you cannot fit them into your life”, is something they would probably strongly disagree with, which is part cultural background in which their Buddhism is inbedded.

    Personally, I have recently given up on formal Buddhist training. I found the teacher instructions and especially the textbook of the lineage I followed too inapplicable to my own life and insights, which brought to the conclusion that -for now- I have better things to do, and need the reading-time for other texts…like reading into the equally incomprehensible Actor Network Theory 😉 . I do miss it though…


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