I’ve read or heard two different meanings attributed to the Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready the master will appear.” The first suggests the universe is ordered in such a way that things happen when they are supposed to: knowledge will be offered by events in the universe (or God) at the right time. If I am allowed to amplify the meaning slightly, the saying would also refer to the idea that when you are ready, the right person for you might also appear, not just a teacher, but your future love.
I prefer, however, another, more psychological way of thinking about this aphorism: there are always available “masters” or other persons who might be important in your life, but the “student” doesn’t notice the presence of those persons until he is ready. Or, to look at a different aspect of this notion, important knowledge is always or almost always available to us, if only we are open to it, prepared by experience or mind-set to receive it.
In other words, we must be ready to learn, to think and feel differently than we have before in order to recognize there is something important to be learned.
Those in life who have all the answers — certain of everything — will never learn anything new. Those afraid to do new things are unlikely to learn, since in order for the “master to appear” one must have one’s eyes open and actually get out of the house — the master being unlikely to call you to make an appointment, unsolicited.
But if you are humble about what you know, humble in the knowledge there is always more to learn, you might just learn something. Branch Rickey, the baseball executive, said “luck is the residue of design.” I’d add to that, so is learning the residue of design. And part of the “design” or preparation is to put yourself into situations where it is possible to be enlightened, whether by people or events or your actions; by books or theater, music or child-rearing or romance.
A good therapist is enlightened by his patients. He experiences a whole world, the world of the patient, seen through the patient’s eyes. His patients also inform him, directly or by their response to him and to the therapy, what works and what doesn’t.
People in less formal relationships than therapist and client teach us too, and enrich our lives. For example, some people believe there is only one person who represents our romantic destiny. When the person comes along they might say, by the first definition I gave you at the top of this essay, the universe or God put this person in our lives at just the right time. There is a Yiddish word that captures this notion nicely: “bashert” or “beshert.” In other words, to be “fated.” It is used when someone tries to say an event was “meant to be,” and is often employed with respect to a reference in the Jewish Talmud that God has chosen your soul mate.
My own opinion, however, is that most of us might have met, fallen in love with, and married any number of good people and had equally good lives as we have with the person whom we did marry; different, certainly, but just as good, more or less. That we didn’t marry someone else might have been due to a lack of maturity when the “other” person appeared, poor judgment about the value of the qualities in a person, or fear of rejection and heartbreak, to name just a few possible reasons.
If you protect your heart against the poisonous arrows that can harm it, you also might prevent Cupid’s arrow from reaching it.
One must be open, then, for the right person, for the master, for whatever knowledge or experience might enrich us. Vincent Van Gogh wrote the following to his brother Theo in 1880:
Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. The passers-by notice only a little smoke from the chimney, and go their way… I am drawn more and more to the conclusion that to love much is the best means of approaching God. Love a friend, anyone, or anything you like, and I tell you, you will be on the right road to learn more. You must love with a high and intense determination, with your will and your intellect, and seek always to deepen, expand, and improve your knowledge. …”
Which makes me think of my late friend, Mel Nudelman. Mel was an old friend in both senses of the phrase — I’d known him since the ’70s and at age 87 he lost his wife of 50 years and was devastated. But, to his credit he fought through and grieved his broken heart to the point of making a new girlfriend! (A lovely woman, by the way). And so, Mel lived as he always did, learning, taking classes, counseling others, being with his children and grandchildren, making friends young and old; ever curious about politics, music, sports, medicine, and the world. All this until near the end of his days in his 90s.
Put differently, Mel was open to life and whatever it would reveal to him.
My advice then, to you and to myself, is to keep learning and keep being open to “possibility,” including the possibility there are things yet unseen, unexpected, or unacknowledged to enlighten us if only we keep our eyes open and look.
We are all students of the greatest teacher of all: life.
The photo above shows Mel and Sally Nudelman.