I am often asked how one can select a good teacher. How is one to know if somebody is genuine or not? This seems to be a big worry for some people. They are wary of being tricked. For Western people to give up even a smidgen of their independence is such a big thing they may want cast iron guarantees in advance. Unfortunately there are none. Of course, some wariness is wise, as not all who present themselves as spiritual guides are up to the job and not everything wrapped in a fancy robe is the genuine article.
Some teachers are erudite, some are illiterate. Some teachers have many disciples, some have only one or two. Some are monks or nuns and some are not. None of these features tell you whether the person has got the Dharma or not. We can think of historical examples. Hui Neng, one of the greatest Ch’an teachers in history was illiterate. Honen and Dogen were both extremely erudite. Bodhidharma, of great fame, is said to have only had four disciples and Jesus Christ only had twelves - and one of those no good.
Some things can give you some clues. If the teacher only really regurgitates the teachings of others, then one might wonder. There is much to be said for loyalty to one’s own teacher, and it may well be that one’s teacher often says, “Well my teacher would have said…” and there is nothing wrong with that, but it is important that the person you choose as a teacher does actually inhabit the teaching, not merely deliver it. The same applies in the case of people who deliver the teaching in a highly intellectual or philosophical way - doing so is not wrong in itself and might be brilliant, but one needs to be able to see how the teacher could answer the question, “And how does this apply to you?” There are plenty of people around who can speak endlessly about rarefied spiritual states that they actually have no first hand experience of and such a person does not make a good teacher in the spiritual sense of the term. A Spiritual guide is not like a school teacher or university lecturer.
A good question for finding a good teacher is, “Please tell me, master, what did you have to go through in order to obtain the Dharma?” This is not an absolutely perfect way of separating the sheep from the goats, but it is quite a good rule of thumb. When we think of the great exemplars nearly all had to go through great hardships, either that brought them to realise that they needed to find the Dharma or on the way to finding it. Thus Dogen was orphaned of both parents, went to the boarding school monastery of Enrakuji, left there for the stricter Kenninji, then made the dangerous crossing to China, met setbacks on arrival, finally gained admission to the monastery only just in time to see his two masters die. Honen was also an orphan who watched his father die from an arrow wound. He also took up his few possessions and made his way to Enrakuji and eventually found the nembutsu, left the monastery and matured his understanding in retreat in the mountains. The travails of Milarepa are legendary, but even his teacher, Marpa, had had to make several difficult journeys to India and deal with the eccentric teacher Naropa, while Naropa had had to cope with the even more eccentric Tilopa, who, to outside appearances, was more of a wandering beggar than spiritual exemplar. The path to the Dharma is often not easy and the hardships people experience along the way often drive the teaching deeper.
In the modern West some of the challenges these ancestral figures surmounted no longer exist, but in general, those who were involved in the early days of a new spiritual organisation are likely to have had a much more challenging time than those who come later after the pathways to advancement have been mapped and smoothed. There is always some tendency toward the regularisation and even bureaucratisation of organisations, and spiritual sanghas are not exempt. This makes for smoother functioning and bigger congregations, but it does not necessarily provide a better seedbed for the germination of bodhisattvas.
So one cannot necessarily judge by outward appearance. Nor is it really any good trying to decide which is the right school of Buddhism first. There are good and bad teachers across all schools. If you find a good teacher stick with them, even if they are not in the school you preferred. All branches of Buddhism derive from Shakyamuni and the Buddha Dao has been transmitted through the genuine adepts in each. In the modern world we have a tendency to think that if we understand the theory we have got the real thing. This is not the case with Buddhadharma. Unless a person has the Dharma in his or her bones, it does not really matter how much theory they can spout. It is often interesting to listen to theory and one can benefit from clever ideas, but something more is needed if one is to touch the real faith.