Fake Lao Tzu Quote
"When the student..."
This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:
"When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready the teacher will disappear."
This is a complex one. To cut the story short, this is not a Lao Tzu quote. The only thing he had to say about students is in chapter 41 (my version):
The superior student listens to the Way
And follows it closely.
The average student listens to the Way
And follows some and some not.
The lesser student listens to the Way
And laughs out loud.
If there were no laughter it would not be the Way.
There is no certainty that he had any students at all, at least not in a formal way. If he did, he probably would not regard their meeting as some mechanism of destiny. Furthermore, as chapter 41 indicates, the student's only real teacher is Tao, the Way - and that never disappears, since it is the very fabric of the world, as Lao Tzu saw it. No mere human can replace that teacher, so we can only hope to be its students and learn.
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That said, it is interesting to cut the saying in half to trace its background. The first part, "When the student is ready the teacher will appear," has a long history, being accredited to Buddhism, Zen Buddhism in particular, European occultism, and so on.
In 2013, this saying and its history was treated extensively on the blog Fake Buddha Quotes by Bodhipaksa (his Buddhist name). His conclusion was that the quote stemmed from the 1885 book Light on the Path, by Mabel Collins (1851-1927), though with a slightly different wording:
For when the disciple is ready the Master is ready also.
As Bodhipaksa points out in his text, there are alternative wordings of the saying. The student is sometimes called pupil, disciple, or seeker, and the teacher is sometimes called master. That is hardly significant. But there is indeed a difference between "is ready also" and "will appear." The latter suggests that fate is involved, a mystical link between student and teacher bringing them together. The version written by Mabel Collins merely says that when the student is ready the teacher is, too, like when a class starts at school.
Bodhipaksa found versions of the saying in texts of Theosophy, the movement founded by Madame Blavatsky and others in 1875. A Theosophical publication, The Herald of the Star, had this version in 1914:
When the pupil is ready, the Master will appear.
Similar versions appeared within Theosophy the following years. Still I wonder if this quote is of Theosophical invention. It has an ancient ring to it that suggests previous spiritual sources, in Europe or elsewhere. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find them.
To my knowledge, the earliest book with the wording "the teacher appears" is Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism from 1905, by Yogi Ramacharaka, pseudonym for William Walker Atkinson (1862-1932). He wrote (page 270f):
Remember this - it is a great occult truth - when the student is ready the teacher appears - the way will be opened to you step by step, and as each new spiritual need comes into existence, the means to satisfy it will be on the way.
Atkinson was also involved in the publishing of The Kybalion: a Study of the Hermetic Philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece from 1908, written by "Three Initiates" whereof he was surely one or maybe all. It is supposed to transmit the teaching of the legendary figure Hermes Trismegistus, a favorite among occultists for many centuries. It contains a saying close to what is discussed here (pages 12 and 23):
When the ears of the student are ready to hear, then cometh the lips to fill them with wisdom.
The book of poems and quotes Continuation II from 1990, by Louis Dudek (1918-2001), accredits Hermes Trismegistus with the quote "When the student is ready the teacher appears" (page 103), which may be a mix-up between the quote from The Kybalion and some other source. Dawn of the New Day from 1947, by Vitvan, gives the same quote followed by a comment on Hermes Trismegistus, which may have given the impression of the quote being from him (page 12). There are several web pages that seem to have made the same mistake.
The second part of the quote examined here, with the teacher disappearing, makes no sense without the first part. But the whole saying has a flare of Zen to it. The paradox of the teacher appearing when needed, and disappearing when the student is truly ready to be taught, has sort of a koan quality, a riddle that brings a great realization when solved. It means that students who have progressed enough can be their own teachers. Still, the quote has mainly been accredited to Lao Tzu.
The idea of the student becoming complete, and thereby ceasing to be a student, is expressed in Confucian Analects, Book XIX, where disciples of Confucius are speaking (James Legge, The Chinese Classics, volume 1, 1893, page 344):
Tsze-hsi‚ said, 'The officer, having discharged all his duties, should devote his leisure to learning. The student, having completed his learning, should apply himself to be an officer.'
There is a saying taking the concept even farther, suggesting that there might be no need for a teacher at all, if the student is apt:
A diligent student needs no teacher.
It is often accredited to Confucius or his disciples, since it was discussed in the ancient texts what teacher he himself might have had - or if he at all ever needed one. On the website Quora, the signature Lycke Li goes through several Confucian texts where the subject has been discussed, though nowhere exactly with the wording of the saying.
As for the student and teacher quote examined here, the earliest example of the complete quote on the web with an asserted date is on Goodreads, where it got its first like on August 27, 2014. It is ascribed to Lao Tzu. The earliest books with the whole quote are from 2016, also ascribing it to Lao Tzu, without giving a source.
On Facebook, the earliest example of the first half of the quote is from July 21, 2007, calling it a Buddhist proverb. The following years, a number of Facebook posts of the half quote ascribed it to Buddha. The earliest Facebook post I have found with the complete quote examined here is from December 9, 2015, accrediting it to Lao Tzu. It wrote "appears" instead for "will appear," and so did several persons repeating the quote.
I have no idea how the quote got ascribed to Lao Tzu, or for that matter how it appeared at all. Its second half is a clever comment on the first part, so it is likely to stem from the same tradition, which is Theosophy and other occult teachings, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries - maybe under some influence from speculations about Zen, which grew in the Western world during the 20th century.
There is a more recent source to the second half quote, which might be its origin: Shadows of the sacred: Seeing through Spiritual Illusions from 1995, by the transpersonal psychologist Frances E. Vaughan (1935-2017). Discussing the necessity of reaching independence of a teacher, she wrote (page 248):
Leaving a teacher can be just as important as finding a teacher at the appropriate time. We might say that when the student is ready, the teacher disappears.
Earlier in the book, discussing how a spiritual teacher is found, she wrote (page 188):
When the student is ready, a teacher appears.
In both cases she did not mark these words as quotes. She may have come up with them herself, or regarded these kinds of thoughts so generic it was not necessary to point out a source. Still, as far as I have found, her book is the first one with the part about the teacher disappearing.
September 22, 2020.
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