I was surprised when someone wrote and asked about this one, saying that he doubted it was a genuine quote from the Buddha. It had never occurred to me that anyone would think this was a Buddhist quote and I’d never heard this described as Buddhist. And yet, seek, and ye shall find (also not one of the Buddha’s). It turns out that it’s all over the internet, including on at least one quotes site, although as a “Buddhist proverb” rather than directly attributed to the Buddha. But the quote is also ascribed to the Buddha, not just on websites, but in several books.
When I first began investigating this quote it quickly became clear that it likely had a Theosophical origin. If you’re not familiar with Theosophy (which was still popular in certain circles into the mid-20th century, and is still around), Wikipedia tell us,
In 1875 Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, and William Quan Judge co-founded The Theosophical Society. Blavatsky combined Eastern religious traditions with Western esoteric teachings to create a synthesis she called the Perennial Religion. She developed this in Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), her major works and exposition of her Theosophy.
For example in a 1914 periodical, The Herald of the Star (a publication of a Theosophical organization, “The Order of the Star in the East”), we’re told that “in the various occult Orders which seem always to have existed throughout the world, it has been expressed in the words, ‘When the pupil is ready, the Master will appear.’”
And in Theosophy magazine of 1918, we have “When the disciple is ready, the Master will appear.”
In a Masonic publication from 1922, The New Age magazine, we also read “It is said, in what is called Occultism, that when the pupil is ready the Master will appear.” “Occultism” here is another term for Theosophy.
And in a 1927 publication, Steps to Self-Mastery, S. R. Parchment says:
“When the pupil is ready, the Master appears” is an old Theosophical statement, and I have been able on several occasions to prove its truthfulness.
Other forms are “When the Seeker is ready, the Master will appear.” “the Master will appear when the disciple is ready” “When the student is ready, the master will appear.”
“An old Theosophical statement” is as close as I got until the magnificent Barry Popik came to the rescue, with his awe-inspiring research skills. Mr. Popik, according to his website,
is a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary of American Regional English, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Yale Book of Quotations and Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. Since 1990 he has also been a regular contributor to Gerald Cohen’s Comments on Etymology. He is recognized as an expert on the origins of the terms Big Apple, Windy City, hot dog, and many other food terms, and he is an editor of the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.
I bow deeply!
Mr. Popik traced the quote further back, to Light on the Path, by Mabel Collins. The third edition, which is on Google Books, is dated 1886, although presumably the first edition was published at least a year earlier.
Light on the Path is an odd work, describing itself as “A treatise written for the personal use of those who are ignorant of the Eastern wisdom, and who desire to enter within its influence.” The title page of the book is inscribed “Written down by M.C., Fellow of the Theosophical Society.” Why “written down by” rather than “written by”? The Theosophists claimed to be in contact with “Masters” or “mahatmas” in the East who dictated works to them. Therefore, M. C (Mabel Collins) presents herself not as an author, but as the Stenographer to the Awakened.
And on page 48 we find, “For when the disciple is ready the Master is ready also.”
Incidentally, the Enlightened Masters with whom the Theosophists were in mystical communion (some of the contact appears to have been telepathic) seem to have been influenced by the King James version of the Bible, for Light on the Path is full of passages like this:
If thou look not for him, if thou pass him by, then there is no safeguard for thee. Thy brain will reel, thy heart grow uncertain, and in the dust of the battle-field thy sight and senses will fail, and thou wilt not know thy friends from thy enemies. (p. 16)
Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophical Society, was widely accused of faking teachings, and of plagiarism. A New York Times review of K. Paul Johnson’s The Masters Revealed, a book exposing Blavatsky says:
In 1884, Richard Hodgson of the British Society for Psychical Research went to India to investigate Blavatsky and called her “one of the most accomplished, ingenious and interesting impostors in history.”
William Emmette Coleman, in The Sources of Madame Blavatsky’s Writings, points out that in one Blavatsy’s Isis Unveiled there were “2000 passages copied from other books without proper credit” and that one work she claimed was a translation of a Tibetan teaching, was in fact “a compilation of ideas and terminology from various nineteenth-century books.”
Faking an entire Sutra takes Fake Buddha Quotes to a whole new level! Madame Blavatksy, Fake Buddha Quoter Extraordinaire, I salute you!
Mabel Collins later regretted having claimed that the book was dictated to her by the Mahatmas. In a letter of April 18, 1889, she wrote:
So far as I can remember I wrote you that I had received “Light on the Path” from one of the Masters who guide Madame Blavatsky. I wish to ease my conscience now by saying that I wrote this from no knowledge of my own, and merely to please her [Blavatsky]; and that I now see I was very wrong in doing so.
Blavatsky herself maintained her cover story to the bitter end.