When the student is ready…

As we all know, this Buddhist saying ends with “the master (or teacher) appears.” I am not a Buddhist, nor do I play one on the blogs, but this saying has grounded me for years. I think I’d substitute “learning” for “master” in the quote though, so it would read “When the student is ready, the learning appears.”

(My Helper by Bill Rabbit)

Here’s how Jean-Claude Gerard Koven describes it:

It is said that when the student is ready, the master appears. This adage is usually associated with going to India to sit at the feet of some swami-ji who speaks in parables. And certainly, I’ve met countless disciples who waft through life inhaling the intoxicating wisdom of their manifested master. I’ve always been left wondering when I would find my one great sage.

Looking back over my wanderings through the metaphysical maze, however, I see that innumerable teachers have guided my journey. Unfortunately, I was so married to a certain model of what a master was that I failed to recognize mine along the way. The fact is we all have gurus; it’s just that most of them aren’t obvious. They don’t have Sanskrit names, speak with a subcontinental lilt, or wear flowing robes. They appear ordinary in every way, yet turn out to be great teachers.

Yes, the teachers and learnings can come in the unlikeliest of forms, and that’s why the first part of the saying is what is critical. If we’re so busy looking for our guru, we miss getting “ready.” So, what does it mean to be ready? That’s probably a bigger question than I am capable of answering, but I can look at my own life and try to pull bits and pieces of the puzzle together, at least for what it has meant to me.

The three words that come to mind when I think about this are curiosity, dissonance and trust. Those might sound like a strange combination, so I’ll explain what they’ve meant to me.

I think curiosity is the most obvious in laying the groundwork for being ready. If we feel we already know the answer, no learning can take place. What we need is not just an open mind, but one that has a drive to challenge the status quo, dig deeper and ask the hard questions. Complacency and certainty that we have the answers are often the biggest barriers to any kind of learning.

Perhaps dissonance is the pre-cursor to curiosity. Unless something doesn’t jive or is not working, we tend to not notice. I know that when I began to challenge what I had been taught as a child, it was because that teaching didn’t “square” with what I was experiencing in the world. It was uncomfortable and so I started asking questions. Many people fear that feeling and try to deny or avoid it. Others look for a guru to make it all go away. What I’ve learned to do is to try and just rest in it,  knowing that a teacher or a learning is about to appear.

Sometimes that takes awhile and I get impatient. I want the “answers” to that feeling of dissonance to be handed to me all nicely packaged and ready to rescue me from the discomfort. And that’s where trust comes in.  Ultimately its not trust in a guru (although most of my learnings have come when I listen to very wise people). It is trust in me and my ability to meld my intellect and instincts together to find what it is I need to learn or to see the new path that I need to take.

We are experiencing a time of great dissonance in our country these days. I know you join me in often feeling overwhelmed with the fact that we can’t always see clear answers on how to fix things. But what grounds me is the assurance that if we have the courage to ask ourselves the tough questions, embrace the dissonance, and trust our instincts…the teacher (or learning) is appearing.


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  1. about what you think it means to be ready.

    And, in the meantime, here’s Dar Williams with “Mercy of the Fallen.”

    • kj on May 18, 2008 at 5:27 pm

    excitement? a sense of impending adventure?  🙂

    for example, i’ve been sitting here with the sun streaming through the windows, waiting for 10:00 am.  jumped up and brewed a fresh cuppa coffee, sat down again (kitty is settled in too) just in time for NL’s Sunday essay.  i was ready. lol  

    • kj on May 18, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    of the state of needing teaching, of course, is so crucial, it almost goes without saying.

  2. Yesterday and later this evening I am going to see the Karmapa in Manhattan.  He is the head of the Kagyu lineage (Tibetan Buddhism).

    This is the first time (in this incarnation!) that he has been allowed to leave India, and NYC is the first place he is visiting.

    I think it depends on what you want to learn.  And maybe it depends on coincidence (in Buddhism, meeting one’s teacher is called an “auspicious coincidence”).

    I’ve also had many teachers in my life and often from unlikely places.

    One can choose to study under a teacher as well.  I am a Buddhist.  I chose that after studying many different spiritual paths throughout my life.  It suits me.

    In this particular study one does need a teacher.  I’m happy with the teacher I have.  But the learning is up to me.

    As usual, a thought provoking essay.

    • RiaD on May 18, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    but i’ve got to rush off 🙁

    back later this evening


    • kj on May 18, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    and old saw, but one i fall back on (sighing all the way) most of the time, when, as Bruce sings in “Human Touch”: “When all the answers, they don’t amount to much”

    i was born impatient, the youngest in a group of siblings that set the bar high, married a man who bar is higher than i can see or comprehend, and i’m easily frustrated. the process of becoming ‘ready’ is a good one for me, because of all the above. 🙂 so part of becoming ready involve me taking an action and with that action, giving up any pretense of knowing what’s going to happen next.  probably best described as:

    Show Up

    Pay Attention

    Tell the Truth

    Let Go of the Results

    i’ll hang in there for quite awhile, but if ultimately i decide i’ve learned all that is possible for me at that time, i’ll go in another direction.  sometimes burning the bridge back, sometimes not. sometimes i burn a bridge because i don’t want to be tempted to go back. some teachers are attractive, but not for the areas i want to develop.

    • kj on May 18, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    was a moment of Ready or Not, Here I Come!”

    the words that became my teacher in that moment, and since, are these:

    “If each day falls

    inside each night,

    there exists a well

    where clarity is imprisoned.

    We need to sit on the rim

    of the well of darkness

    and fish for fallen light

    with patience.”

    From: “The Sea and the Bells”

    By: Pablo Neruda

    • Robyn on May 18, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    the way is the dust of the way.

    The world is what the world is.  We are what are willing to let ourselves be.

    If we are unwilling to change, no Sage can bring change to us.  New days will continue to end before the “new” part arrives.

  3. The bad news is….there is no key to the universe.

    The good news is….it has been left unlocked.

  4. the artist of the picture is Bill Rabbit.

    I know of him because I have a limited edition of one of his paintings hanging in my living room that gives me no end of inspiration. I looked online for a copy of it, but to no avail. Then just now I realized that I could take a picture of it and post it…duh. So, here it is.

    The only problem is the distortion as a result of the flash. But, you can get the idea.

  5. An excellent essay.  And look at the comments!

    I play a buddhist on the blogs in real life, and this has made my Sunday afternoon.  Thanks to all.

    • geomoo on May 18, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    I’m throwing these rich words on the heap to let them compost a while.

    • RiaD on May 19, 2008 at 2:47 am

    being open…ready to learn..allows you to accept the lessons being taught/proffered

    being open… allows you to ‘see’ someone as wise because you’re ready to hear what they show you…

    classic example is how your parents became so much smarter in the years between when you were 14 or15 and when you were 22-25!

    and allows you to see lessons that otherwise would go unnoticed… the same way as when you get a certain model/colour car and suddenly you see them everywhere…you become attuned to the lesson…

    everyone you meet can teach you something~ your job, finding the lesson!

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