Rabbi David Zeller on What Makes a Good Spiritual Teacher

Rabbi David Zeller

Ray Hemachandra: Rabbi, what makes a rabbi, priest, or guru a good teacher or guide to God? And what are the warning signs for followers or flock that someone is off the mark?

Rabbi David Zeller: Sense of humor is important. Humility is also very important, but real humility. There is a tremendous amount of phony humility.

I think that the sexuality issue is a major red flag. I’ve seen rabbis and swamis and Zen masters all take the fall. They all think they know what they’re doing, and they all think it’s different in this case or whatever, and they’re all wrong.

The ego takes over and says, “I know what I’m doing,” and it doesn’t have the faintest idea.

In my book The Soul of the Story, I write about Kennett Roshi, a Zen master. She used to say that the most important mantra that she taught her Zen priests in training was the mantra, “I could be wrong.”

I could be wrong? I could be wrong. I could be wrong. I could be wrong? And so on, with all the subtleties and variations.

For teachers, if you can’t say “I could be wrong,” you’re in the wrong business.

When I would teach teachers, even just in regular public school systems, I’d say, “If a student asks a question, and you don’t know the answer, say: That is a great question! I don’t know. I’m going to have to do some research on that. Thank you! Don’t say: That has nothing to do with our subject! or, You didn’t raise your hand. Just say: Wow. I don’t know.

A good teacher can say “I could be wrong” or “I don’t know.” A good teacher knows how to stay within herself or himself and not cross all those boundaries in the very delicate relations between a student and a teacher.

And I think every teacher has to be — continually — a student themselves, and if they give that up, it’s a serious problem. Just like any good therapist really has to be in therapy. You can’t say, “Oh, I’ve done that.”

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