How to choose a Lama? People advocate different criteria. Here I’ll give some analogies that are a bit silly, but help explain how I chose my Lamas. I hope they may be helpful if you think you might want to find a Lama and are unsure how to go about it.
As with almost everything in Tibetan Buddhism, how to find a Lama depends radically on the yana you apply. In fact, each yana could almost be defined in terms of the relationship one has with a teacher in that yana. I’ll talk about Lamas as school teachers, as surgeons, and as spouses.
I’ll talk also about how we know Lamas are qualified. “Qualified for the job” is interestingly ambiguous in English. It can refer to formal qualifications—such as a university degree, training courses taken, or number of years of work experience at a certain level. It can also refer to capabilities such as skills and personality traits. Both may be relevant to selecting a Lama.
For Sutrayana (meaning non-Vajrayana), one’s relationship with a teacher is much the same as with a high school teacher. The teacher’s job is to impart information and maybe conceptual understanding. A good teacher knows the subject thoroughly, is kind, explains clearly, and might inspire one to go further in the field. The choice of teacher is not critical; any reasonably competent teacher can do the job.
highly technical, exacting, and critical to spiritual health
For Outer Tantra, a Lama is like a heart surgeon. I think this generally isn’t understood very well. In Outer Tantra, the Lama’s job is to perform esoteric procedures (rituals) which the student mostly does not attempt to understand. These procedures are highly technical, exacting, and critical to one’s spiritual health. One doesn’t have a personal relationship with the Lama. He or she is an higher being whom one holds in awe and visits once or twice a year for a follow-up procedure. This is the way almost all Tibetans relate to Lamas. It’s the way Westerners relate to heart surgeons. It’s also the way many Westerners relate to Lamas, even when they practice Inner Tantra.
In Outer Tantra, what is critical is that the Lama have the right formal qualifications. Unless one is a heart surgeon oneself, one is not in a position to evaluate whether a doctor is properly trained. One must rely absolutely on the approval of the board of certification. Similarly, in Outer Tantra, it is critical to check that the Lama has the right credentials.
In Inner Tantra, particularly Dzogchen, the Lama teaches you how to live, in part by example. What matters is that you be inspired by the way the Lama lives, and that he or she is able to convey that to you. This “conveyance” is not primarily a matter of giving information or intellectual understanding; ways of living are not primarily conceptual. This mode requires a long-term, intimate relationship with the Lama as a unique individual. When I say “intimate” I do not mean that the Lama will take you to bed, any more than in Outer Tantra the Lama will cut open your chest. I mean that you and the Lama need to get to know each other well, and you must find it delightful to spend time together.
I need to get married—can we arrange an appointment?
Searching for a Lama for Inner Tantra is, therefore, like searching for a spouse, not a surgeon. Board certification is irrelevant. That would be like phoning someone you had never met and saying, “Hi! Do you have an ‘Adequate’ or better rating from the New Jersey Spousal Approval Authority? Yes? Good! I need to get married—can we arrange an appointment for sometime this month?” An authority can only say that someone is qualified to perform a generic technical task; an authority cannot say whether you and another person will be a good fit. Your friends might be able to introduce you to someone suitable, based on their knowledge of who you are; but ultimately only you can say whether another person is qualified to marry you.
Aro teachers explain that apparent contradictions in Buddhism are always due to confusions about which yana a teaching belongs to. For instance, if you practice Outer Tantra, separating the sacred and the profane is critical, and you may be horrified by the Dzogchen doctrine that anything can be sacred or profane depending only on how you perceive it. There is no inherent purity or impurity, and no need for ritual cleanliness.
Likewise, for Outer Tantra, the thought that someone might be practicing Vajrayana without a license is anathema. If a clever con man could get away with claiming to be a heart surgeon, collected huge fees, and cut hearts open without knowing what he was doing, it would be a catastrophe. Lots of patients would be taken in—how are they to know if someone is qualified?—and lots would die.
This seems to be the basis for some nervousness, expressed on the web, about the Aro tradition and the Aro Lamas. “Has this been approved in writing by the Dala’i Lama?” they ask. “Is it really true that his Lamas gave Ngak’chang Rinpoche permission to teach?” “How can we be sure the Aro gTér wasn’t just made up? In what text was it prophesied by Padmasambhava?”
From a Dzogchen perspective, some such questions are totally irrelevant, and the others are mostly beside the point—like a certificate from the Spousal Approval Authority. What matters is “am I inspired to practice by this Lama?” and “does the Lama give me radical, non-conceptual insights into existence that I could never get from a book?” and “do I find time with this Lama exquisitely enjoyable?”
A lineage of transmission is critical; the capacity to teach Vajrayana accurately is acquired only from a vajra master. But it is that ability that matters, not than the certification of a governing authority. As it happens, the Aro Lamas have both formal qualifications and capacity. I personally care only about the latter—because I don’t have great faith in the Tibetan certification process. Reasonable people may have a different opinion about that.
we risk being swindled
Without a certification, we risk being swindled. For those prone to alarm, that might be alarming. Reality never gives guarantees, though. A Lama with an unquestioned certificate might be safe—and dull—and never inspire you to anything. A famous, universally approved Lama might be the perfect teacher for someone else—but his or her way of explaining things just doesn’t get through to you. An impeccably official Lama may be a con man who fooled the licensing board. Tibetan history is full of Lamas with excellent credentials and execrable behavior.
Ultimately, no one can decide for you. For Inner Tantra, all you can do is to approach a prospective Lama, like a prospective spouse, with a mixture of openness and caution. Read books and articles from many perspectives, attend teachings with many Lamas, and form your own intelligent opinion based on what you observe.