illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was very critical of the Danish Church towards the end of his life. He had various reasons for this, and he certainly considered 'standards' of Christianity so high that it would be hard for any church to realise them.
One of the valuable insights of Kierkegaard was about hindsight.
Once the Church is well-established and Christ is perceived as 'undoubtedly' a manifestation of God, believing in Christ is easy (in hindsight).
It would also have been easy during the life of Jesus if he had been the most powerful man on Earth for example, leaving little doubt about the support he benefitted from God.
But this was hardly the case. He appeared humble, criticised and persecuted. While he performed a few miracles, he wasn't the only one to do so (the rising on the third day after crucifixion is the one miracle that distinguishes Jesus from the other miracle-doers), there just wasn't any warranty for his early followers: they had to actually take a leap of faith.
To believe in Christ when most of society is already doing so is to embody the status quo. The most prominent 'followers', the clergy, might even make a (bourgeois) living out of claiming their dedication to Christ, but this is very much the opposite of the early believers who risked their lives when they took a path upsetting the status quo of their time.
So, in Kierkegaard 's view (assuming I'm not betraying him), if you are to be a Christian, you should reconnect with the doubt rather than the certainty, and reconnect with the paradox that the established mores of the time might be challenged but that God cannot be called to the rescue to justify your act, that you —and no one else, let alone God— have to bear the price.
The reference for this is Abraham, who was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac and thus to become a murderer (strongly condemned by the status quo and conventional morality) but was silent about it… because God couldn't be used as a legitimate 'conventional' argument! You cannot communicate your faith to another, you cannot show it on a platter and subject it to examination… The ultimate is beyond the conventional, so you do what you need to do, and you then face the —conventional— consequences… without copout, without excuses, without putting the blame on God!
If one is to be a Christian, one should reconnect with the willingness to die rather than the preconceived, socially-approved, prejudiced rationalisations and accepted narratives of the status quo.
That's a tall order, of course, and the controversy that Søren Kierkegaard triggered by his late writings was so wide-ranging and made the bourgeoisie so uncomfortable that, for many years to come, no philosopher in Denmark would dare mention his name or his works, for fear of being associated to Kierkegaard 's reputation and the threat his ideas constituted against the cosy consensus of Copenhagen's Golden Age.
Does this apply only about Christ?
I don't really need to answer this, do I? It's pretty straight-forward it doesn't.
Once it is admitted that the Buddha attained nirvāṇa, or once Buddhism —in one form or another— is a major religion or spiritual movement, 'following' Buddhism is rarely an act of faith or of trust. It's simply the status quo, possibly even the accepted "default option" for a particular predicament: for example, if you struggle with the idea of God as defined by the religions of the Book, but you're still interested in spirituality, Buddhism and '(Mc)Mindfulness' might well be the "default options" to explore next, according to your culture.
Once it is admitted that the Buddha attained nirvāṇa, or once Buddhism is a major spiritual movement, 'following' Buddhism isn't so controversial, and it's more likely the argumentum ad populum fallacy (appeal to widespread belief) or the argumentum ad antiquitam fallacy (appeal to tradition). If you refer to a particular school, it might be the argumentum ab auctoritate fallacy (appeal to authority). In any case, you adopt a widely-accepted, socially-endorsed dogma… rather than you face the paradox of existence!
Just like following Jesus was without warranty, following the Buddha (or some of the next Buddhist teachers, including Bodhidharma or Milarepa who hardly were fitting the status quo of their time and place) was without warranty. The certificate of "reformer with a long-term legacy" is given only decades or even centuries down the line. In hindsight, it's easy to marvel at the profundity or superiority of the teachings. At the time, the reformer was rather perceived as an eccentric departing from the long-established recipes for success.
Just like there were other miracle-workers at the time of Jesus, there were many other spiritual teachers at the time of the Buddha (and some, in particular from Jainism, certainly proved influential in the long-term).
The kalama sutta rejected the logical fallacies in relation to following a teacher (gplus.wallez.name/PUQ2AeReGEM).
The Dalai Lama once noted « In the past, teachers were not appointed. Rather, through diligent training a person became a good practitioner. If others came and asked that person to teach, he or she taught those few students. As those students practiced and developed good qualities, others gained respect for their teacher, and gradually that person became known as a great teacher. Because this is a natural process, there is less danger of a corrupted person becoming a well-known teacher. In the monastic system, the process of becoming a teacher was organized to some extent. But in modern times the word “teacher” reminds us of someone in an academic field who, after completing certain requirements, is appointed as a teacher by an organization, whether or not that person has any students. » That is, the Dalai Lama himself, head of some very large 'establishment', talked of the fallacy of assuming the establishment is valid: what makes a 'teacher' is having students (who 'came' to the teacher, and benefit enough to stay in contact with the teacher), not an appointment from the top (having students 'inherited' simply by taking over a local temple).
In a sense, what makes a teacher is the risk the students take in following someone they perceive as genuine… not the certainties associated to preconceived labels or to assurances that the teacher has been thoroughly assessed "for you".
And, of course, the genuineness might be a projection, and students might later realise this and leave… or the genuineness was real but impermanent, and students might realise the change and leave… but it remains that there's more honesty in taking the risk of being wrong (and of having to then respond accordingly) than in seeking the reassurance of certainties.
'Genuineness' might look very feeble compared to 'Truth' (with a capital 'T'), but this is just another bourgeois attempt at reassuring oneself with widely-accepted certainties.
Whatever the spiritual tradition you follow, it asserts the existence of an individual potential for awakening to the truth, for seeing God, etc. A genuine teacher is thus 'moulded' by his/her individual students as much as the other way round: what a teacher focuses on and shares is a response to the students' specific needs. The 'teachings' are dependent on the students, not on some generic 'truth' but on the particular defilements and veils the students have to let go of. The Buddha responded to the concerns and struggles of his students, so did Jesus: they wouldn't have wasted time teaching about mettā or Love, about generosity or about morality beyond merely sticking to rituals, if their students had earlier realised by themselves the spiritual value of these. So genuineness and true desire to help are more relevant than some pre-conceived notion of 'Truth': the 'truths' arise in response to the wrongs that need correcting.
So, like Kierkegaard 's view on Christians, if you are to be 'Buddhist', you should reconnect with the doubt rather than the certainty, and reconnect with the paradox that the established mores of the time might be challenged but that the Buddha cannot be called to the rescue to justify your act, that you —and no one else— have to bear the price. [Then you start thinking about how causality unfolds… and this enquiry is a key Dharma gate!]
A classic advice in meditation is that the attention should be neither too tight nor too loose. Similarly, it's a reasonable idea to aim for enough 'safety' to trust (if it doesn't even remotely sound like Dharma, maybe it isn't?), but not enough to fall into complacency.
Relate to a teacher —'establishment' or not— at your own risk
If you follow an established, 'official' school with monks or priests in their traditional robes and their well-defined certainties about the meaning of life and how to attain Liberation… you can still relate to this school —or this teacher— is a way by which you question the certainties, you enquire into the nature of realities, you don't accept statements just because they come from an 'authority'!
You can still relate to the school in a way where you take the risk of being wrong, accept so and are ready to respond as required! You can still take responsibility for having picked this school.
This sort of relationship is healthy, as it prevents an establishment from becoming abusive and from covering the abuse by peer-pressures, vows, concerns of reputation, etc. There are enough documented cases (in all traditions) not to blindly fall for the fallacies of 'respectability' and 'authority'.
If you take the risk of being wrong, if you choose to take a risk and own this choice, there's a lot less difficulty to leave, should you realise you were indeed wrong! You can then find yourself a teacher better fitting your circumstances.
It's also less difficult to stay, should the public opinion sway (Hakuin is now a reputed Zen master, but the public opinion had hiccups, e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hakuin_Ekaku#Is_that_so.3F). This is useful if you're following guruyana (and rely on a strong guru-disciple relationship, devotion and surrendering), but this is also useful simply because not all accusers are free from ignorance (as per Hakuin 's story) and you don't want mere rumours to affect your practice.
You're simply not so tied to the opinion of others, you can enquire for yourself, make your own mind and draw your own lessons.
If you take risks and own them, there's also more chances to actually attain Liberation, rather than merely an 'improved' status quo (based on the so-convenient, so-self-serving "if you're a nicely obedient lay person, very generous with the monastery, you might be reborn a monk in your next life… and from there maybe you could even have a chance to attain nirvāṇa" narrative).
Yes, risks involve mistakes and failures, but that's how we learn… Parroting doesn't really equate appropriation of the buddha-mind, or learning to respond in relation to circumstances and conditions with responsibility and without safety net (other than the possibility to stay present and continue to engage and influence as events unfold).
For, at the end of the day, this is about your learning (or un-learning), neither about the teacher nor the group you impermanently associate with.
You don't need to reinvent the wheel; having teachers is helpful (and, no, supporting them so they stay around rather than die of hunger isn't similar to funding gold-plated doors and rooftops…) and some institutional teachers may perfectly be genuine… Just be mindful that the bourgeois teachers —e.g. in 'official' associations and other large hierarchies, in relation to which their students might even rejoice when the teacher is promoted!— might be a bit too 'safe' and 'conventional' to be free from samsaric society.
Enough 'safety' to trust, but not enough to fall into complacency; that's the genuineness of the student.
Image: Niguma (one of the most important and highly regarded tantric yoginis or Vajrayana Buddhist female teachers… "most important and highly regarded" in hindsight! So few people would have initially agreed with such an assessment that we have extremely little historical data about her).