top of page


When does the Teacher appear?

There is an old Chinese, wrongly attributed to the Buddha that says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” It is actually much more recent, but nevertheless is an interesting one for people starting off on their spiritual path. Another saying from the Tao Te Ching says, “The more you know, the less you understand.” These seem to be opposing ideas but actually are closely related.

Let’s start with the first saying. It suggests that when we are ready to learn, then miraculously a suitable teacher appears in our life to guide us. This does happen, but more often, when we open ourselves up to the possibility of undertaking a different path to the one we have been used to, then we begin to see all sorts of people who can teach us something. Frequently, a teacher will be someone who we might least expect. There is a difference between allowing ourselves to be taught, as opposed to actively seeking to learn. One of the things we learn very early in Zen practice is that the more we strive to learn, the less we get it - hence, the saying from the Tao Te Ching.

Who are our teachers?

Many people and events can be our teachers; there are the obvious ones of course. At school and college our teachers offer specific teachings and guidance to enable us to learn content and information i.e. brain food. Yet when we find a Zen teacher [and sometimes it takes a while to find the right teacher] we learn it isn’t about learning more stuff, it is about letting go of information so that the mind can be clear and calm. What we learn through the Zen teacher is how to unlearn, to make room for peace and tranquillity. It can take students a while to get this; it can be very mystifying for beginners to sit in front of a teacher who says, “I can’t teach you anything. I can offer guidance, but you can only experience meditation”. The learning comes from settling the mind. I always say to my students that meditation practice is not an intellectual exercise [another beginner’s misconception], but a practice that happens from the neck downwards. We feel our practice, we just know when we are meditating, it has no mind, no thought. This is the Zen teacher’s job, to help students to realise this.

Once we begin to become open to our own life, then these other teachers appear. Some of them are actual people, and some of them push our buttons, infuriate us, upset us, or bring up strong feelings of guilt. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, these are our best teachers. These people often don’t realise that they have this effect on us, but as part of our practice we need to look at why they have this powerful effect on us. The eventual realisation of course is that we allow them to, and that we take all of these emotions upon ourselves. Knowing and really understanding that, we can start to let go of these feelings, so that we don’t let these people disturb our tranquillity, and we come to see these people for what they are – just people, like us, trying to get through life the best they can.

Being open to our own lives

The more we become open, the more we see and experience; the smile of a tiny baby, the feel of a cat rubbing itself against our legs, the new buds on a rosebush, the smell of fresh basil, the taste of a fresh cup of coffee. There are so many experiences, and all of these can teach us a very important lesson – the absolute joy of being alive to the present moment. This of course is mindfulness, the essence of all meditation practice. There is nothing intellectual about this; it is just about being open to the experience. That is why when the Tao Te Ching says “The more you know, the less you understand”, that trying to intellectualise our practice is the wrong approach. Beginner students often ask me is there a book on meditation practice they can read? Yes, of course, I reply, there are hundreds, but the only way to learn practice is to just do it and experience it. We learn by doing, not by filling our minds full of more information.

When we approach life openly, without judgement clouding our mind, without the distraction of thinking, we can just accept that what is – is. People, events, sights, smells, sound; all of these things are an opportunity to learn, to awaken. Let these things in and let life be our teacher.

bottom of page