How can I assess the quality of a local Buddhist group?

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I'm located in the West, and, in my local area, there are several Buddhist groups. I would like to join one of them to be more formal in my commitment to learn about Buddhism. My question is, how do I assess the quality of a local Buddhist group in terms of how close they are to the original teachings of the Buddha? How can I assess if a local Buddhist group, or school, has or hasn't deviated from the original spirit of Buddhism?

Jose B

Posted 2014-06-21T11:48:00.207

Reputation: 509

There are so many good answers to this question; so I have chosen the one that resonated the most with me, but the right answer will be different for each person. Thanks for all your answers!Jose B 2014-07-11T08:08:49.760

Answers

7

Just in case you are more of a beginner:

I would think that all of the sects that make up Buddhism consider their own teachings to be original and genuine, regardless of what others think. So if you don't yet have a working understanding of the various sects within Buddhism, that would be a great place to start to see if there is one that you are drawn to.

You didn't mention if these are lay groups or temple groups, but either way, trust your gut if something doesn't seem right such as someone being too interested in receiving a donation or membership fee from you too early on.

And even if everyone is super kind and wonderful, your own growing understanding of the Buddha's teachings may prompt you to change groups/sects in the future; so maybe don't get too attached. Good luck. :)

Robin111

Posted 2014-06-21T11:48:00.207

Reputation: 6 824

1I like your advice of trusting your gut feeling and I also think that nothing can replace cultivating your own understanding of the Buddha's teaching so you can gauge it against what you are being taught.Jose B 2014-06-21T21:39:12.427

The Buddha said, "Be lamps unto yourselves."no comprende 2017-04-23T17:44:58.717

Good choice of answer :)David M. Perlman 2017-04-24T20:00:33.690

13

This is a tough and important question with no easy answers. If there were some guaranteed system for definitively determining whether some group or teacher is going to lead people to liberation that would make life a lot easier!

One thing to look for in a group is, do the longtime members seem kind? Don't get distracted by whether they seem smart or businesslike or polished or well organized; none of those things necessarily matter. In America we want everything to be slick and new and polished but that attitude won't get you far with the dharma. But do look for senior students who are kind and generous.

Another trap to watch out for is, don't judge a sangha based on their adherence to contemporary liberal political correctness. While I personally think it's good to do things like recycle and drive a Prius and eat vegetarian and so on, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni did not do any of those things so it's not a valid basis for judgement of a sangha or set of teachings. In fact, I would say that anyone who is nasty and judgmental about such things is not very far along in dharma practice, because they are putting abstract principles ahead of actual kindness. And a sangha primarily composed of such people may have a poor quality of instruction overall.

Remember kindness, that's the short version of my answer.

David M. Perlman

Posted 2014-06-21T11:48:00.207

Reputation: 502

The Dalai Lama famously said, "My religion is kindness."no comprende 2017-04-23T17:43:28.510

6

When meeting other practitioners or teachers, always ask yourself - do I want to become like them? Do I want to look and behave like them in 5 years' time?

If they represent qualities you would like to master, stay with them. If you think you can trust them and learn something useful from them, stay with them until you feel you can't learn anything else. If they seem too stiff or wild to you, keep searching.

Rabbit

Posted 2014-06-21T11:48:00.207

Reputation: 2 467

4

Take your time. Usually you can stay with a Buddhist group for a long time without any commitment: Go to the meditation and teaching sessions, see what kind of people there are and what they are doing, even for months and years, until you come to a conclusion.

(That is what I did. I stayed with one group for about four months, then with another one for three years, until finally taking refuge. It can be a slow process, and that is no problem.)

rem

Posted 2014-06-21T11:48:00.207

Reputation: 163

2

Study the Tipitaka, the Commentaries and see if what they teach is consistent with the books. Usually if someone is criticizing Abhidhamma in order to accommodate his/her views, it's a good indication that they have deviated from the original spirit of Buddhism. Regarding the Commentaries, a teacher might say "This is what the commentary says regarding this incident, but this is my personal view". That is reasonable. But if he degrades venerable Buddhagosa or other authors of the commentaries, that's a good indication to look for a new teacher.

Sankha Kulathantille

Posted 2014-06-21T11:48:00.207

Reputation: 19 618

Do you suggest that a beginner should read lots of complicated and thick books and then somehow understand them to be able to assess the quality of a group?Rabbit 2014-06-21T15:04:14.927

1Well, you can start with the sutta pitaka and read one sutta at a time. The more you read, the better equipped you'd be to identify the true teachings.Sankha Kulathantille 2014-06-21T15:12:57.573

I guess there is no easy answer and a personal commitment to growing your own understanding of the teachings plus a regular involvement with the group in question would help oneself to make a better judgement of whether it is the appropriate group for one's needs or not; what works for one person might not work for another.Jose B 2014-06-21T21:42:05.730

Right, a teacher cannot tell you what to learn, they can only offer something. All responsibility for one's own learning falls to oneself.no comprende 2017-04-23T17:41:00.737

Another suggestion is to read the dhammapada.Colin Tan 2014-06-22T14:26:25.667

Yea, read as much as you can.Sankha Kulathantille 2014-06-22T16:07:47.833

2

how do I assess the quality of a local Buddhist group

See if they adhere to the principles of teaching the Dhamma:

(1) One should teach the Dharma to others, thinking, “I will talk on the progressive teaching.”

(2) One should teach the Dharma to others, thinking, “I will teach understanding the context.”

(3) One should teach the Dharma to others, thinking, “I will teach the Dharma out of compassion.”

(4) One should teach the Dharma to others, thinking, “I will teach the Dharma not for the sake of material gain.”

(5) One should teach the Dharma to others, thinking, “I will teach the Dharma without hurting myself or others.”

Source: (Dhamma,desaka) Udāyī Sutta

Also for you to progress the teacher in the community should be good. Qualities of a good teacher is:

(1) He is a listener sotā.

(2) He is able to make others listen sāvetā.

(3) He is a learner uggahetā.

(4) He is a memorizer [has a good memory] dhāretā.

(5) He is a knower [has a good understanding] viññātā.

(6) He is an instructor [able to makes others understand] viññāpetā.

(7) He is skilled regarding what is beneficial and what is not kusala sahitâhitassa.

(8) He is not quarrelsome no kalaha,kārako.

Source: Piya Tan's summary of Dūta Sutta

how close they are to the original teachings of the Buddha?

See if the teaching fits the essence of what the Buddha has taught.

The Buddha teaches the ridding of lustful desires.

The ridding of lustful desires towards the 5 aggregates.

Seeing the disadvantage (ādīnava) of the 5 aggregates, namely, suffering arises from lustfully desiring any of the 5 aggregates.

Seeing the advantage (ānisaṁsa) of letting go of the 5 aggregates, namely, being free of suffering.

The unwholesome (akusala) brings suffering here and hereafter.

The wholesome (kusala) brings happiness here and hereafter.

Source: Piya Tan's Summary of (Pacchā,bhūma,gāmikā) Deva,daha Sutta

The teachings should encompass cultivating and promoting which is the true purpose of teaching the Dhamma:

(1) the 3 good truths (saddhamma);

(2) the 12 links of dependent arising (paṭicca,samuppāda); and

(3) the “revulsion” (nibbidā) formula.

Source: Piya Tan's summary of (Nibbidā) Dhamma,kathika Sutta

Also see if the teachings promote Dhamma and Vinaya as in (Dhamma,vinaya) Gotamī Sutta. It should promote good of oneself and good of others (which is discussed in detail in (Aṭṭhaka) Alaṁ Sutta).

If the teaching is for gain, honour and praise then this is not in tune with the true teachings. [Bhindi Sutta]

Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena

Posted 2014-06-21T11:48:00.207

Reputation: 28 635

Lovely, comprehensive answer!no comprende 2017-04-23T17:37:30.140

1Many of the most famous Buddhist teachers in many different traditions have been famously combative when it was necessary to teach something to a student. Better to evaluate a teacher on the results than on the method. If you knew how the method was supposed to work, then aren't you the teacher? I think that to evaluate a teacher you really should focus more attention on the characters of the students. It doesn't matter how many checklist items the teacher has, if the students don't seem to be turning out too well, then there's probably something wrong.David M. Perlman 2017-04-24T19:57:24.490

1...for example, one teacher (admittedly not buddhist) whose books are still very popular, his students engaged in acts of bioterrorism in the USA when he was at the height of his popularity. If you were to read the books, there's nothing in them that seems wrong; but if you evaluate him by the character of his students, then you get a very different story.David M. Perlman 2017-04-24T19:59:25.350

Great information. Perhaps you can add this as well to your answer.Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena 2017-04-25T02:51:08.303