A True Spiritual Friend

The American yogi, journalist and performer Alan Clements had an interview1 with Sayadaw U Pandita in 1996 which follows below, after my short introduction. From 1978 to 1984 Clements was a monk with Mahasi Sayadaw and Sayadaw U Pandita. In 1984 he invited U Pandita to the USA for the first time, where he conducted a 3 month retreat, which from then on he would do about every two or three years. In 1996, when U Pandita is in the USA again, Clements states that Western Dhamma-teachers do practice and teach too much ‘their own way’. He asks U Pandita for an advise. U Pandita answers in detail how a good teacher can be recognised.

Alan Clements’ question

I’d like to ask your advice about an important issue. The other day when we were walking through the monastery you turned and said: ‘You were the one responsible for first bringing me to the West2.

’You then asked if I thought Theravada had really taken root in America? In all honesty I said, I wasn’t sure. Something is taking root but I’m not sure it could be called Theravada.

You then asked me, what was it? I replied: ‘I think it’s fair to say that everyone who teaches does so as best as they can from their personal experience. Which brings me to the question.

What advice would you give to Western Dhamma teachers and to those who may come to them for guidance as they continue in their own ways to spread the Dhamma in the West?

U Pandita’s answer

The most important thing to know are the true qualities of a spiritual friend3 — a kalyana mitta.

Eloquence, humor or intensity of speech isn’t what I mean. Those are only superficial qualities. The main quality of a kalyana mitta is his or her depth — the twin qualities of wisdom and compassion. They should be well developed.

Next, one must approach this spiritual friend and practice Dhamma. Only after you practice and achieve good results then you can take that method as beneficial and correct.

A teacher’s personality can be like honey but unless it’s free and not sticky the fly will die. So the method of freedom should exceed attraction to personalities.

Another aspect of a strong spiritual teacher is that they do not criticize others. Anyone who understands the true Dhamma, especially after they have reached the stage of ariya4, there will be no such thing as uplifting oneself or denigrating others. The Buddha made it clear that the objective of Dhamma was to end dukkha, to extinguish the internal fires of greed, hatred and ignorance. In so doing the goal of practice may be the same yet the approach may be different.

For example, all know there are many different schools of medicine. The point is to know medicine, to help others, be of great value to others. But first one needs training.

They approach a good school with competent teachers. Through persistence and great dedication one gets a preliminary degree in both theory and a bit of practice. Then if one wants to specialize, become highly proficient, one goes on, or goes further in their training. Nevertheless, no matter how well trained someone becomes, medicine is a complex area of study and as the saying goes, nothing can fully prepare you for the test of application once you are outside of school. But without training you’re a quack, and a danger to society. You’’e dealing with people in life and death circumstances and you better know what you’re doing.

However, as I said, when one goes outside into the real practice of medicine one may encounter certain diseases never before known or come across. So instead of treating them in the usual way, or the traditional way, the doctor may invent a personal approach to the treatment of that disease. But in so doing, a doctor may treat just the symptoms and the symptoms may subside in the patient. The patient may temporarily even feel good again and the doctor may shout success. This isn’t the Dhamma. This is nothing more than smothering a fire with a blanket, thus forcing the fire to go underground where it resurfaces someplace else at a later time. All the while it smolders in the soil of their spirit.

Kilesas5 are a complex issue and treating them is equally complex. So when a doctor treats a patient with his or her own method, providing it actual works, such a person may take pride in that cure and might denigrate others. In fact, this is common. How do you say? It often comes with the territory. But there really is no need for pride or conceit. Arrogance is a rather lame response. Nevertheless, it is quite common.

Sometimes the arrogant rooster gets his head cut off before the hens. So one must be watchful of roostering so to speak On the other hand, there are teachers who are quite intelligent but cunning. This is a type of fear.

These teachers and we have them in Burma, often like their popularity as dhamma teachers more than the Dhamma itself. Of course, they would never admit to this but we see it even in Burma. It’s quite common.

Since the wind blows in many directions, and since some teachers may be like a flag, in other words, they enjoy being at the top of the pole, so they behave like a good flag, and flap in the right direction. But sadly, they are controlled by the wind. The wind is the need for popularity and they’re controlled by it. But because they’re presently the flag — and often a mere symbol for their followers — tied up high at the top of the pole, they do their duty as a good flag does, and just keep blowing in the direction of the wind.

This is spineless. Flags take no stand. Rather flags are attached to poles, not the other way around. A pole might stand but flags come and go and no matter what with so much wind flapping the flag eventually becomes tattered and ripped. People like this wear out in time. It’s natural.

A true spiritual friend isn’t concerned with being a symbol for people. They’re courageous, fearless and willing to stand alone if need be. The Dhamma needs no support, it’s free.

A final example and we’ll end. Say, you want to pay your respects to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Now there are four main gates in which you can approach the pagoda. So one person goes up from one particular gate, another person goes up yet another gate and so on. Isn’t it silly to criticize others for going up another gate other than the one you went up? Really, this is unnecessary and foolish.

What’s important is to see and to visit the pagoda, to be inspired by its splendor, and not how you come to the pagoda. That’s missing the point. But now the times have changed, we have elevators at the Shwedagon, so it’s much easier for you to get to the top. You can’t say that it is wrong or incorrect. The purpose is the main criteria. To reach the pagoda, pay your respects and carry that inspiration with you when you leave is what is important.

Nevertheless, if you take the wrong way up you will end up in the wrong place. Now one who teaches the wrong way to the pagoda must indeed be criticized. Not in a negative sense but with encouragement and with love in the heart. This is the correct type of criticism. It brings unity of purpose.


1. Part of: ‘Interview with Ven. Sayadaw U Pandita, (p. 10 – 12), Panditarama Meditation Center, Rangoon, Burma.’ In: Alan Clements, Instinct for Freedom. A book about Everyday Revolution – Finding Liberation Through Living. 1996.

2. In 1984 Sayadaw U Pandita conducted a 3 months retreat in IMS, Barre, Massachusetts. The transcriptions of his teachings resulted in the boek In This Very Life, 1992. Since 1984 U Pandita visited the USA until 2013 about every two years for a longer retreat. After 2005 no longer at IMS, but in Tathagata Meditation Center in San José, California.

3. In Anguttara Nikaya (AN VII, 37) seven qualities are being mentioned. A teacher or good spiritual friend (m/f) must be endowed with seven things:

1. To be of genial disposition and dearly loved (piyo), because of his/her moral character;
2. (S)he commands respect and reverence (garu);
3. (S)he is worthy of being pervaded with loving-kindness;
4. Seeing the yogi’s flaws, having loving-kindness, compassion and mercy, (s)he will not hesitate to speak out, openly and unreservedly, whenever it is something (s)he believes to be for the yogi’s benefit;
5. (S)he should be humble enough to stand criticism by others, however low they may be;
6. (S)he is able to teach the profound knowledge, combining theory and practice; the yogi can find out by listening if the teacher knows what (s)he is saying.
7. (S)he will not urge the disciple in an unjustified or improper manner to serve his/her interest .

4. ariya: a noble one, someone who has attained the stream; the first of the four stages of holiness.

5. There are 10 kilesa’s (defilements or taints): greed, hatred, delusion, pride, (wrong) views, sceptical doubt, laziness, restlessness, shamelessness and fearlessness of blame.