This came up in reflecting on the Treeleaf Sangha thread:viewtopic.php?f=69&t=11691
Historically, if you were interested in hearing and practicing the Dharma, you'd have to convince your family to let you leave the farm or the village, find a temple that would take a chance on you, and then learn and practice whatever was presented to you. This last bit is not such a bad approach: if the teachings are medicine given to alleviate the particular afflictions of the student, then it follows that the teacher is in a better position to diagnose and prescribe appropriate forms of practice for the student than the student who chooses to self-medicate.
I've noticed that in recent years people get interested in practice through reading or poking around online, convince themselves that a particular approach is the one for them (maybe it "resonates" for them), and then actively seek out a teacher who will give that particular kind of teaching on the student's terms. It's not unlike shopping: you identify with a particular kind of brand, and then you go out and get it. In this sense, the teachings have become to such students just another consumer good. I like This Zen brand meditation, not That Zen brand.
What gets lost in the process? The opportunity for the teacher to turn the student's world rightside-up. Why? Because the teacher is put in the position of giving the student what he or she wants, and not necessarily what he or she needs. What else gets lost in the process? It may be that some teachers commit to a race to the bottom in publicly crafting a brand for their school that emphasizes desirability (that is, promoting the idea that we give people what they want). Branding, after all, is competitive; Our School is not Your School. What emerges from this? Sectarian arrogance, perhaps, but also a feeling that others have a sinister view of your own school... how could they not, if they choose to practice with Them instead of Us?
I'd like to know what others think of this.
(I have some other ideas on teachers who willingly participate in such an arrangement, but I'm still thinking them through.)
Having been a long term shopper, I think there are benefits in it.
I understand that in Tibet, you would simply follow the tradition of your particular village and/or family. This reinforces sectarianism. It also happens in the west. I've come across people in different centres who, apart from the Dalai Lama, are completely ignorant of different traditions even within Tibetan buddhism. Shopping, at least to some extent, overcomes this.
Ultimately what you need, as Johnny has said, is a teacher who challenges you. Given the lack of pedagogical traditions within our culture, it seems more likely that the challenging will occur if a student is really committed to a teacher and, in my experience, this commitment is more likely to come after undertaking the shopping.