This is a really big question, something that I think has persisted in the minds of Buddhists, both in the East and the West. The goal of the teaching is of course nirvana, and we are instructed to get teachings from those who have realized them. But how do we know? How can we tell whether those who are giving us the teachings and explanations of the Words of the Buddha have actually internalized them and made them part of their lives?
There is a story (and just as almost everything I know, this one is also from Deshung Rinpoche). A very learned monk was on his way to receive an honorary position at a temple. He was deeply read in all the sutras and could expound the teachings really well. However, he had not fully realized the teachings; that is, he had not become identical with the subject matter of what he was teaching. While he was traveling he met a poor peasant, and, out of kindness, he gave the peasant a tidbit of the Buddha’s teaching and told him always to keep it in mind and to practice it well. Then he left the peasant and continued his journey. He got to the temple which was his destination and stayed there as a respected abbot for many, many years. Meanwhile the poor peasant became deeply faithful in the teaching he got from the learned monk and became a monk himself.
Years passed. One day while he was at the temple the monk who used to be the poor peasant whom he had taught for a short while came to see him. From the look and the understandings shown through the outlook of the visiting monk, the learned abbot knew that he had really attained the Goal. He became surprised when he learned that the visiting monk was in fact the poor peasant whom he had given a short teaching while he was on the way to accept the position here. The learned monk said to himself, “I had studied all the texts. I had memorized a huge amount of the Buddha’s teachings and had taught countless number of students. Yet I had not attained the result myself. This monk who got just a short teaching from me instead had achieved it.”
So he became really subdued and asked the visiting monk for a teaching. Thus the teacher became student and vice versa. The visiting monk told him to be mindful and to practice the teaching well with no distractions. The learned abbot then followed that instruction and finally obtained Realization.
The message of the story is that it does not quite matter whom you get the teachings from. You could even get teachings from a radio or, in today’s age, from the Net, but if it is a genuine teaching and if you are persistent in practicing it, you will eventually be Realized. The point is not the actual identity of your teacher. The point is that you have unwavering faith in the teaching and in your belief that you are getting the teaching from an Enlightened One. What really matters is your mind.
So how does this story answer the topical question of this post? Maybe the story is not directly to the point. But perhaps that is the point. Sometimes we don’t really need to know that the one we are studying with is Realized or not. That would distract us from really practicing and being really mindful. It does not quite matter whether our flesh and blood teacher is Realized or not, that is in fact a matter for the teacher himself or herself to practice on his or her own. But for us students we need to look inside our own minds and practice from the insides of our hearts.