You can definitely start your practice without a teacher—many people do—although later on it can be invaluable to have one, as well as a community to practice with. A wealth of meditation and Buddhist resources are available online (you’re on one now!) as well as in books and journals. So there’s no shortage of accessible instructions and teachings to get you started.
Of course, in the Buddha’s time the only way to learn to meditate or hear the dharma was through person-to-person contact—and that’s what the Buddha recommended. Indeed, the Buddha’s teachings have been transmitted across the generations from teacher to student, face-to-face, for 2,600 years. There is no substitute for a relationship in which you can ask questions when you come up against obstacles in your meditation, someone you can look to for inspiration and guidance. The same goes for being in the company of other like-minded practitioners: the experience of having friends on the path is precious.
The Buddha gave very explicit instructions for gauging whom you should take as your teacher. He said a spiritual seeker should work with someone they judge to have integrity, wisdom, and meditative skill enough to help the student cut through their own delusions and develop their own meditative skill, integrity, and wisdom in turn. Beginning a meditation practice and following the precepts is a great way to start cultivating the roots of such qualities.
You also don’t have to commit to someone right away and, according to the teachings, you shouldn’t. You need to observe someone for a while before you can discern whether they have the qualities of a reliable teacher (and by the way, expecting them to solve all your problems or fulfill the cravings of your ego is not what they’re there for). Practice in a group for a while before making up your mind whether it’s the right setting for you, and whether the teacher fulfills those common-sense benchmarks the Buddha provided.
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