How To Be A Successful Student

(Zazen music plays in the background, and Rama speaks to the beat of the music.)

Zen Master Rama here. Our topic today is how to be a successful student. So for the next 45 minutes, let’s all become students—students of life, students of death, students of eternity, students of our minds, students of all the beauty and horror that passes before our eyes, students of the eyes, students of that which is real, students of that which is unreal, students in college, in graduate school, professional school, computer school, students of Zen Buddhism, music students, architectural students, law students, medical students, elementary school students, students of life. Yes.

(Zazen music ends.)

I’ve been a student really all my life. We all start as students. We come into a world naked, knowing nothing save that we came, and we look around at the landscape, at the terrain. We feel a body, we breathe, we experience heat and cold, pleasure and pain, love and anger, solitude, the company of others. And we learn. We learn customs, languages. We’re given a sense of right and wrong, which may be right or wrong. And we watch everyone; everyone is a model for behavior. We begin to make judgments. We choose and select a personality. Most of it is really picked up from others.

We’re conditioned. We’re told, “This is a beautiful thing. This is not beautiful. This is a happy thing. This is a sad thing.” As little children we are conditioned. We’re taught, we’re sent to school, shipped on yellow buses or we walk miles, and just the journey, if you remember correctly, is quite educational. Suddenly we’re away from the family and we’re around our friends. Each one is different, and yet they’re all the same.

There are girls and boys and books, and raincoats when it rains, and we sit in classes. We spend years and years and years sitting in classes every day. Monday through Friday we’re in a class, all day long, being taught. And of course, most of what we’re learning has very little to do with what the teacher says. Because actually we could absorb what the teacher says in a much shorter period of time, just in a couple of hours, I would say, without any problem whatsoever, [perhaps] a day. But this is an opportunity or a chance for us to learn something else, something different.

We learn how to be, how to interact with others, and we decide who we are. Are we reclusive? Are we outgoing? Are we successful? Are we going to be a failure? Exactly what is it that we want to be? We cast a role for ourselves and we step into it. And most people will play out that role that they start way back there in those first few years of life and school for the rest of their stay on this earth.

We’re taught how to live. We’re given tasks, but no one ever really teaches us how to be a successful student. Oh, occasionally there are courses at some universities where they teach you a little speed-reading. They talk about how to do research, how to look up a bibliography, things like that. But no one ever teaches us how to be a successful student. Some people just pick it up; some imitate others who have been successful students—perhaps their parents or someone around them. Or maybe they had a teacher who they watched very closely, and they keyed to the teacher’s awareness, the consciousness of the teacher, and they gained a sense from that of how to be a successful student. But it’s really, by and large, something that we’re not taught.

I’ve been a student for a long, long time. I was a student through this life, in elementary school, high school and college. I graduated from college with high honors. I’m a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the National Honorary Society. I received an outstanding fellowship, competitive fellowship, to graduate school where I got a master’s and a doctorate. I taught in a few universities for a while, until I decided to do something else with my life, to teach something else. I’ve studied the arts of self-discovery for a long, long time in this life for many, many years, meditating for thousands and thousands of hours, studying with different teachers before my own enlightenment returned from other lives or wherever it comes from. And I’ve always loved being a student. It’s my absolutely—it’s my favorite thing. Being a student—it’s the happiest of all things to be a student.

Some people, when they grow up, look back with fond memories upon the happy years they had as a student, now that they’re out in the work world, which I always think is pretty absurd. I’ve never stopped being a student. Going out and working and not being in a school environment has little or nothing to do with being a student. Now, of course most people think of that time of their life as being a student because that’s all they did. That was their job title, “student.” You had the books and the paraphernalia and a lot of free time to screw it up, (Rama laughs) which is what most people did, except for a few of us who just worked all the time, and we really got a charge out of it. But then again, you had the opportunity to learn something else—how to party (Rama laughs), or whatever it was. But as a professional educator, as a former university professor and as one who now teaches a slightly different subject—and that’s enlightenment—I’d like to talk with you for a while about how to be a successful student in anything.

Success as a student is completely dependent upon a certain attitude that you gain in living. I’ve learned a few tricks, I suppose you might call them, along the way, which have enabled me to be a highly successful student. I had basically straight A’s all through college and graduate school. I won a number of outstanding, as I said, competitive fellowships and scholarships, and all that sort of thing. But the real success, of course, was enlightenment. I mean, how many people out of millions and millions become enlightened? In this case, for me it was a return. I’d been enlightened in other lifetimes. I’ve been an enlightened teacher. But still, there was a time when it happened for the first time, and I remember it quite well. So I know a little bit about being a student and I’m still a student.

I’m fascinated by everything—shopping malls, nature, human beings and their strange idiosyncrasies, the latest daily newspaper, the powers and forces that live in the deserts and mountains, the endless far-flung worlds, poetry, music, art, computer science, medicine, law, architecture, on and on. I’m fascinated by life, and I learn constantly.

Enlightenment does not mean that you stop being a student. Being a student is a state of mind, like everything. Enlightenment simply means that you no longer have a fixed personality form. You are everything and everywhere. And yet you’re still walking around, paying taxes (Rama laughs), being in a body, dealing with all the hassle that everybody deals with. The only difference is you’re not limited to any structural world or dimensional plane. Your inner form has been dissolved in the clear light of reality so many times that there isn’t any difference anymore, and yet you’re still here—if you’re still here. Not that you’re here, But it doesn’t preclude being a student. You don’t have to be one; you can be anything at that point, but I personally like being a student.

What is it to be a student, albeit a successful student? A student is someone who looks at life with curiosity. There’s a sense of eagerness and particularly, I might add, a sense of newness. You see, when you’re a student you’re always learning something. Therefore, you have to be new at it. There’s always something new to learn. You’re learning a new language, you’re learning a new type of mathematics, you’re learning a new way to meditate. You’re learning how to ski for the first time. You’re learning martial arts. You’re learning how to sail, how to dance, whatever it might be.

You’re a student of an art. There has to be a sense of anticipation, coupled with newness, hope, confidence. There’s always a degree of a—or a lack of—surety. You’re not exactly sure what it’s going to be like. That’s what makes it fun. But what makes it most interesting is not simply what you’re learning, but how well you do with it. Now this is a secret, if you’re a very successful student, that you learn—otherwise I couldn’t say that you were a very successful student.

For example, when I was in college, I remember, I had a lot of classes with professors I liked very much. But there were a couple that I suppose everybody gets, where the teacher obviously was not very excited about what they were doing and they would literally read from the book to us or from notes that were 15 years old, and everybody would fall asleep. There was always a subject or two that wasn’t your favorite. The real trick was how to get an A in that particular class—how to ace it. The ones that you like are easier.

But when there’s an area that you’re not crazy about, what do you do? Well, there are different approaches. One thing that always got me through was just the pure fun of learning how to do my best and succeed in the situation. In other words, the subject that I got a kick out of wasn’t necessarily medieval history. The subject that I got a kick out of was how I could do well in medieval history. That’s what I studied. Needless to say, as a consequence, I would learn a great deal of medieval history. It would be inevitable.

So in order to be a successful student, you cannot really be dependent upon subject material. Because some of the things that you study in life, you like, and some you don’t. And if you only do well in the things that you like and you don’t do well in the things that you don’t enjoy, you’ll never be successful. Your success will come and go depending upon like and dislike.

I was a yoga teacher for many years. I taught hatha yoga, pranayama breathing, how to stand on your head, how to do all those exercises. Before I became a yoga teacher, of course, I was a student of yoga and there were some positions that came very, very easily; some were very hard. There were some people in the class who the first or second time they came in, gosh, they were standing on their head, and it took me six months. Finally I just kept trying and trying on my own, and one day managed to do it when I got very determined. Whereas all of these other very seemingly naturally gifted people only practiced for a short time and gave up. Nor did they become teachers. In other words, people who excel at a subject don’t necessarily have a natural inclination for it – sometimes [they do]. People who excel at something have a natural inclination for being a student. The particular subject doesn’t matter.

I could study anything and be successful at it because I enjoy the process of studying, of being a student. That’s why I get a kick out of whatever happens to me in life. Whether they write good articles about me or bad articles about me, whether people love me or hate me, whether they understand me or misunderstand me, it doesn’t really matter, essentially, because my life is not totally wrapped up in those matters. My life is wrapped up in being a student of this world.

Of course, now I’m a teacher and as a teacher you not only have to be a student of the things that you teach, you have to be a student of how you teach, and naturally you also have to be a student of those you teach because you have to understand them and study them in order to impart information and other things that they need to learn. So you have to study others, you have to study various methods and ways of transmitting information—just the art of teaching, plus the subject itself.

So boy, you’re an endless student as a teacher, if you’re a good teacher. You’re always learning more about your own field. Because if you’re not excited about what you’re teaching, if you’re not a student perpetually of the subject you teach, then no one’s going to benefit. No one’s going to be charmed by what you’re doing. Because you’re not on fire, you’re not excited about it.

If I wasn’t more excited about sitting down and meditating today and doing zazen than I ever have been, then I shouldn’t be teaching it. If I’m not more excited about the seminar that I’m going to be doing next, then I shouldn’t do it. There needs to be, in other words, a sense of challenge. You need to challenge your mind, challenge your body, challenge your psyche, your spirit, to be a successful student.

As a student of yoga, when I would hit those exercises that were particularly difficult, I would just keep trying and eventually will would prevail. Or, I remember one exercise—it was very difficult for me to do. It’s actually very difficult for most people. The natural attitude that I would have evolved would have been, “OK, here’s this really hard exercise, it is absolutely a monster to do. I don’t like this exercise because it’s so hard.”

I found myself thinking that one day as I was lying on the floor on a blanket, up in the mountains in Southern California, when I was around 19 years old. I was doing this yoga exercise and I was trying really hard, thinking how much I didn’t like this exercise, when it dawned on me that of course I should decide to like this exercise more than any of the others. I decided that from that day forward, the exercise that was giving me such difficulty, which is what they call a full locust, would become my absolute favorite exercise. And every day when I did it, I said to myself, “This is my favorite exercise,” and I began to like it. I began to like how hard it was to do, how hard I had to struggle to perform this exercise. I learned to enjoy the feeling of struggle, of using all of my energy and all of my willpower—just to enjoy that feeling.

Most people enjoy the feeling of complacency. They’ve learned to like the feeling of sitting down in front of the television set, of lying on the beach in the sunshine, of driving around in their car without anything to do, of talking endlessly for hours with others about trivial subjects—in other words, no demand. A successful student decides that they enjoy the world of demand, the world of willpower, the world of work, more than the world of trivial pursuit. If you’re out there playing Trivial Pursuit, it means that you’ve got nothing going on in your life. And Trivial Pursuit is more than a board game (Rama laughs). It’s the way that most people live. Their lives are trivial pursuits.

Go to the dry cleaners, pick up the laundry, run down to the store, do some shopping, figure out who you want to spend time with. Or if you’re married, figure out how to get away from somebody. Watch your kids grow up, watch yourself get older, work at the job that you’re not really enthusiastic about, get wrapped up in the world of money, and on and on and on. The human condition. Get angry when it doesn’t work out the way you want it to. Take it out on somebody else; you know, all the usual nonsense. What a dull way to live. Trivial pursuits.

Students don’t have the liberty of time. As a student you’re always busy. There’s absolutely no way on earth that you can be bored. Because there’s no end to the amount of studying that you can do. You can never really have enough time to prepare for your classes. If you’re studying Zen Buddhism, you never really have enough time because you’re going to die. You wish to become enlightened in this life, and you may do it. And if you don’t become fully enlightened, if your enlightenment is not completely integrated, certainly, if you practice, you can reach very high, enlightened states of mind.

Becoming enlightened is—it’s not special, but it’s unusual. I try to make this clear at seminars, but I don’t know if it always comes through. Sometimes I tease about, you know, “Don’t hold your breath until you become enlightened,” which of course is a pun because when you’re enlightened, very often you don’t breathe for long periods of time (Rama laughs), when you’re in deep meditation.

Very few people become enlightened in any given lifetime. By that I mean that, of the four or five billion people on the planet Earth, there might be, what, a few dozen who are enlightened, maybe a dozen who are fully enlightened, maybe a hundred who are partially enlightened and then maybe thousands and thousands, several thousand anyway, maybe ten thousand, who live in enlightened states of mind.

Now, as a student of Zen working with an enlightened teacher, of course, the probability of your becoming one of those, say, ten thousand persons who live in enlightened states of mind out of the five or so billion on Earth, is very good. That in itself is remarkable, since there are very few enlightened teachers, and if you happen to work with one, and if you do a good job, if you really apply yourself over the years as a student, it is more likely than unlikely that you will be one of those few people, one of those ten thousand who lives in enlightened states of mind, just purely on a numerical basis. And then, there’s a step beyond that. I would say it’s a kind of a partial enlightenment, and you may be one of those who goes forward to that.

Then of course, there will be some people who will reach a full enlightenment and you could even be one of them. You never know. It’s not really a big issue. You see, being a student is not all about graduating and becoming something and getting a title. We’re with the Wizard of Oz and he’s handing the Scarecrow a diploma. That is about the size of it, when they give you your diplomas, right? The piece of paper does represent something, though—it represents that you won’t be in school anymore, and you’ve got to go get a job. So—it represents more than that, certainly. It represents a lot of hard work, (Rama laughs) which is all gone (Rama laughs). Everything is transitory here.

As a student of enlightenment, your attitude should not be to become enlightened. But it should be to learn. In other words, when you are studying for a Ph.D., let’s say there are a number of areas that you have to study and become very competent in, and then you’ll take comprehensive examinations and perhaps do a dissertation or an experiment or whatever it is that your program has. You have to learn about these different areas. You have to become an expert. Now, needless to say, you won’t be an expert just to get a doctorate. You learn enough to teach these things on a basic level, and then after you complete your doctorate, that’s when you really begin. The doctorate just gives you exposure to the subject and then you have to continue beyond that. There’s no end to what you can learn about anything.

So, in the school of enlightenment there’s a lot to learn. But the proper attitude, if you want to be a successful student, is not to be concerned about graduating, not to be concerned about becoming enlightened. Obviously, one is doing it for that reason. You go to school to get a degree, but that shouldn’t be the only reason because otherwise you’ll be miserable for many years until the day comes when they hand you the piece of paper.

Optimally, you hope that you will go—this is the right attitude according to Rama—optimally you hope to go as far as you possibly can and do not put a limitation on that, since you don’t even know what the word enlightenment means. It’s just a word, until you’ve experienced it. You really don’t know what it is. You may have had some enlightening experiences, but most people’s enlightening experiences, from the point of view of someone who’s truly enlightened, are just basic beyond belief.

So if you enjoy experiences in enlightened consciousness, if you enjoy meditating and learning to stop your thoughts, which is the hardest thing, that’s why you need to enjoy meditation the most. It’s like my yoga exercise—you learn to like it because it’s the hardest thing, the struggle. If you like learning about being selfless, being kind, being dedicated, being honest, not being a virtuoso performer but learning how to work with some concordance in a group, at times being separate, sole, alone in eternity, in the beauties of eternity—that’s the right attitude. People who are too concerned about graduating would be better off to keep their mind on their work and not on their graduation day. They’re much more apt to graduate more quickly.

I think a healthy attitude is this—you never know. You never know if you will be one of those ten thousand people who enter into enlightened states of mind. You never know whether you’ll be one of those hundred or thousand or whatever persons. The number really doesn’t matter, but let’s say there are less who become partially enlightened, and to become partially enlightened, to experience that much of the totality of yourself, is amazing. I speak of it as partial, but it’s a very deep absorption in samadhi, a very high level of realization.

It could be your destiny in this lifetime, or perhaps in a future life, to become fully enlightened. If that is to happen, it will happen. But the only way any of it occurs is if you enjoy the study and if you’re happy just to learn, just to progress, because every time you step up to a higher level of consciousness, every time you unlearn some type of conditioning, every time you meditate more perfectly, every time you are able to will things in your life to become things, to get unstuck from the personality that you are now and just merge with life, [then] you feel better. You’ve progressed.

Being a successful student then is an attitude, and the right attitude is enjoying the study. That’s the first step. You have to have a sense of commitment. You are going to undertake something. You’ve decided to go to college or to computer school. You thought about it and what ultimately made you do it was a feeling. That’s why we do anything. We can say, “Well, I decided I wanted to make more money,” or “I didn’t like the job I had,” or “I wanted to get out of the house and get away to school.” Well, all these things may or may not be true, but the real reason we do anything, of course, is not what most people would call a rational decision.

We all think things out, but then we follow a feeling. If the feeling coincides with the rational decision, then we can say we made a rational decision. But as we all know, very often the more important things we do in life have nothing to do with the rational. The rational is a very limited way to look at things. That’s just an equation and equations are fine on paper, but they don’t always work in daily life or living in the school of experience, in the bardo of existence.

What is necessary then is to have fun, to have a good time with your life, and you do that by following feelings, and some feelings cause you misery and some cause you to feel good. Some bind you and some bring you to freedom. So the student selects freedom and they select happiness. It’s a choice that you make. You reflect and decide, yes, I want to study computer science. I want to study Zen and meditation. I want to study mysticism and the powers of the deserts and the mountains, whatever it might be. I want to study law or medicine or become a musician or a dancer. I want to study martial arts, skiing, sailing, scuba diving, whatever it might be—sky diving, flying a plane, flying through the astral planes.

You follow a feeling and you need to meditate on that feeling and feel it and walk around with it for a while before you do it. Once you’ve decided, once you have decided, “Yes, I’m going to study a particular subject,” great. Then the next step is to find a teacher, unless it’s a self-taught subject, in which case you’re the teacher or your books are the teachers, or whatever it is you’re working with. The teacher is the all-important component, and one of the things that you learn early on as a successful student is that you don’t take classes, you take teachers.

In other words, three people, ten people, a thousand people can teach the same thing, and very few will do it well. There are lots of dentists and only a few good ones. Most are average, some are terrible, and that’s how it is with everything. It’s how it is with carpenters, sculptors, with students, the vast majority are mediocre. There are some who are just downright awful, and a few who are superb, who excel. It is the same with teachers.

As a college student and a student in graduate school, I never took a class because of the title. There were certain classes, of course, that were required, but I would go individually, before signing up for a class at the end of the semester when you would sign up for classes for the next semester. I would make it a point to meet every teacher, and just come in and spend a minute or two with them during their office hours and say, “Hi, I’m thinking about taking your class next semester. I wanted to meet you and ask you what’s it all about. What books will we be reading?” I would find out in that minute or two enough to tell me whether I wanted to work with the teacher or not.

Now most students won’t do this. They just sign up from the list in the book, and yet then they will sit with that teacher month after month experiencing that teacher’s consciousness, their vibration, listening to them and ultimately being bound by the teacher’s grade.

One doesn’t pick easy teachers. Easy teachers can be disastrous because they’re so easy, you’re so bored that you don’t do well. You pick good teachers. Some of the teachers I picked were hard; they had reputations for never giving anyone an A, which I found to be untrue. Those were obviously the people who didn’t get A’s who spread those rumors, who didn’t work too hard.

Selecting a teacher is a very important thing, and the more time you spend with a teacher, the more important it is. If it’s a teacher you’re going to have in a classroom for one semester, it’s important. Once in a while there’s nothing you can do. Only one teacher is teaching a section of a particular course and there’s no way around it and you have to take it that semester. Then, you have to take it. It’s still worthwhile going in and making an initial contact, I think, with a teacher.

If it’s a subject you’re going to be spending much more time in, if the subject is enlightenment, if the subject is martial arts or something where you’re working with a master of the art, a mentor, someone who you will be involved with, not just for a month or two but for a long period of time, who will really oversee your study for many years—then you have to be very selective.

As I said—most teachers are mediocre. Most people who profess to teach about enlightenment are terrible, in my opinion. They’re mediocre. They’re not terrible, but that’s how I view them because my standards are different. Then there are some who are even worse and there are a few who are very good. I found the same thing as a college professor. Most of my colleagues were boring, so their students thought anyway. They were great scholars, but that’s a little different.

To become a college professor, you don’t have to be a good teacher. Your Ph.D. indicates that you’re a scholar and you enjoy libraries and writing papers. You may be very good at doing all that, but that doesn’t mean you’re a good teacher. No one ever asks you if you’re a teacher.

High school teachers take some courses about teaching; that doesn’t ensure that they’re good teachers. It ensures that they passed courses in teaching. Being a good teacher is another matter, as is being a good student. Put a good student and a good teacher together and you’ve got an unbeatable combination because the teacher likes teaching and the student likes learning, and they lived happily ever after, right? Well, I don’t know about that, but you need to be very careful in selecting a teacher.

If it’s a basic meditation course, it doesn’t much matter. But if you are working on your enlightenment, then you will work with someone for years and years and years. And you need to feel, one, obviously that the person is qualified or the most qualified of all the people you’ve met, and [two] you need to respect them. You don’t have to like them, but you need to respect the way they teach. If you don’t respect a teacher, you can’t possibly gain anything from it. Some teachers are funny, some are not. Some are strict, some are more liberal, but you can respect any of them if you understand what they’re doing, that is to say, if they’re worthy of respect—if they’re masters of their art.

A master of an art is someone, I suppose, who’s been mastered by the art. They’ve become so one with what they teach that you can’t tell the teacher from the subject. The teacher is the subject; that’s what their whole life is about. They’re so wrapped up in it. I had college professors like that. They were so wrapped up in their subject that that’s all they could talk about. I would say such a person is a master of their subject, or that they’ve been mastered by it. Their life and their subject are one. That’s how I define a master. A Zen master is someone whose life is so one with enlightenment and self-discovery that they can never be separated from that. They’ve been essentially mastered by Zen. No one ever masters a subject; I mean, that’s a strange concept. The subject masters you.

So you need to selectively pick a teacher, one that you respect, and also, of course, one who’s capable, one who can do what they say. In the world of enlightenment it’s not just someone who can talk with wonderful poetic figures about enlightenment, but someone who has the personal power to bring you into altered states of awareness, someone who has an advanced knowledge of other planes of consciousness, who can see beyond the physical world.

Now, there are people who profess to do that, but very few actually can. Someone who can literally perform miracles, not just outwardly but inwardly, who can shift your awareness around like you would move a child’s toy. Just by moving one finger, they can change the way you feel, just as a good martial arts teacher can take one finger and put you on the floor, if they’re a real master. So the master of the study of attention can just move one finger and shift the way you feel, or they can do much more.

Now, no teacher does it for you and unfortunately, some people have this idea that teachers of enlightenment or other subjects are supposed to watch over you and make sure that you do the work, or somehow magically make it happen. In Zen, and in other forms of self-discovery, we do have a transference that occurs where psychically, information—blocks of attention—are transferred to the student, which is a little different than in some other subjects. But that transference can only take place with the student who spends hours and hours working on their daily life as their teacher suggests – [working] on their meditation with a very enthusiastic, positive, hopeful, optimistic and fun attitude. Such students prepare themselves, and then you can transfer something to them.

We call it the transmission of the lamp in Zen. That’s when we take enlightened states of mind, and literally you can transfer—just like you can hand somebody flowers—enlightened attention to someone. But you can only hand them, so to speak, as much as they can hold. If a person has a little glass, you can only fill it with a certain amount of water. If they have a swimming pool, you can fill it up. Someday you’ll become endless, and then what’s to fill up? (Rama laughs.)

Enlightenment is something that’s inside you; it’s not outside. This is a hard concept, I realize, but it’s in your mind, not your brain—but it’s in you. There’s a place inside you. Let’s say there are thousands and thousands of roads inside you. But there’s one particular road—it’s really there, this is not a figure of speech—and if you walk down that road, bam! Enlightenment is there. But we have to walk down thousands and thousands of roads, sometimes over and over again because we forget that we were on them a while ago, in order to find the road that is enlightenment. All things are part of enlightenment, it’s true, yet there’s one particular road. There’s one particular pair of shoes that will fit Cinderella better than any others, and it’s inside you.

The teacher shows you and aids you, both externally and internally, to get a sense of how to find that road and how to eliminate the roads that are not useful. But in order to be a successful student, you have to have a good teacher. Once you find the teacher, you have to really apply yourself and if you’re very basic, you just sit there and learn and listen. As you become more advanced, you help the teacher to a certain extent in their work because there’s a level of commitment, not so much to the teacher, but to the subject. You’re in love with the subject, obviously even more so is the teacher. So the two of you just enjoy it.

There was a time in my life when I was going to become a botanist because I love the world of plants. I used to go out foraging with some of my botany teachers and we’d walk in the woods and things like that, and we just enjoyed so much being out in the woods. We shared something. I admired and respected my teachers, and one teacher I was walking around the woods with was a great teacher, not only a scholar but also a teacher and a gentleman. We would tromp around the woods, and he’d show me some weird fern or some strange vine, and we had a great old time. I also admired the way the teacher taught in the classroom. But what inspired me the most was the subject itself. There was a sense of shared camaraderie about the subject.

If you study with a teacher of enlightenment, if you enjoy enlightenment, if you enjoy meditating and the way you feel after you meditate; if you like learning about yourself, learning to utilize your mind in millions of new ways, overcoming fear, sorrow, anger, hatred, all of the things that make you unhappy; if you like transcending the limited self and merging with eternity, finding that there are tens of thousands of selves that you can be, countless worlds to explore; if you like all that stuff, the study of consciousness, then, if you find a good teacher, you’ve found someone who likes it even more than you do. So you share a common interest.

As a beginning student, you’ll just sit there and listen and practice what the teacher says. If you don’t do your homework, there’s no progress—if you don’t meditate on a daily basis and if you don’t really look forward to that time. You make it the best time of your day, and then you have to be mindful all day long and practice thought control and all of the different things that are part of the subject of enlightenment.

If you do that enthusiastically and you feel good about it, then you will respect yourself because you’re applying yourself properly, and you’ll feel good. You’re doing a good job. You’re trying your best, and then you try a little harder. You’ll respect your student—as a teacher—because they’re doing a good job, and of course, you respect your teacher because you’re so lucky to have one who’s actually any good when there are so few who are. If you’ve found somebody like that, then do a good job for them.

This is the attitude of success, in other words. There are no technical secrets to being a good student other than hard work, working cleverly—meaning not working on things that waste your time, not spending your time with people who don’t work well. If you hang around with a lot of bad students, you just pick up their habits. If you hang around with good students, then you do well.

When I was an undergraduate, I used to spend my time with other students who really liked the subject. We would sit next to each other in class. It was easy to figure out who was doing well, who really liked it, and I would sit with them sometimes. Sometimes I enjoyed sitting by myself, but most of the time we’d sit together and listen and take notes or do whatever. And then we would sometimes study together, not necessarily talking together.

At the university I went to, they had an honor society for people who were in the honor’s program, and we would all spend our time studying together. Everyone else was partying and running around and having a wonderful time. We were partying and sitting still and having a wonderful time studying on Saturday night, Friday night. Oh, once in a while we’d go to a dance or have a great time, but we spent an inordinate amount of time studying—a lot more than your average student because that’s what we got a kick out of. It reinforced tremendously that sense of scholarship to be with other people who were doing the same thing. Sometimes—I spent most of my time actually—studying alone in my little apartment because I always found I could assimilate more that way.

It was fun sometimes to work with other students who were doing well. Certainly I didn’t spend time with people who weren’t good students. Oh, I had friends and associates who I would go to a movie with, for whom studying was not the keystone of their life—not many, but a few. In other words, one is not an effete snob about the matter. That’s just how it worked out. Our common interest was studying, so naturally I didn’t want to spend time with people who were just running out to bars and partying all the time because I wouldn’t have seen them very much. We wouldn’t have something in common. What we [the study group] had in common was we really liked to work and excel at being students. It was fun. Everyone had figured that out.

Naturally, when you get to graduate school, the only people who are there are people like that. If it’s a good graduate program, you’re just dealing with the top ten percent of the class. There’s an attitude of professionalism, sometimes boredom as far as I’m concerned, from a lot of graduate students. They’re much too enamored of themselves and their study. It’s one thing to work hard, it’s another thing to take it all too seriously.

So as a student of enlightenment, it’s good to find some people who really like their teacher and really like the study and spend time together. You don’t form an exclusive club—how boring, how self-defeating. Rather, you enjoy spending time with each other because you’re really excited about your meditations, what the teacher has to say. The subject itself, in other words, is exciting you. That’s the trick, whether you’re out in the woods with your botany teacher and looking at a fern, whether you’re out in the desert with your enlightenment teacher looking at astral beings, whether you’re sitting in the class, working on your own—you need to love learning. That’s the secret of being a successful student.

You need to create a stillness in your life, otherwise you can never know if you love learning or not. You really need to separate yourself from the mainstream of humanity. Most successful students live alone or if they can’t afford to live alone, they have their own room in a house they share with other successful students, and there’s a sense of quietness to your life, a tremendous order, an overall cleanliness in everything that you do. Because without that stillness, the mind cannot turn inward or outward in a directed way.

A lot of people aren’t successful students because they don’t know how to study. Studying involves quiet. Your mind can’t be running all over the place. You need a quiet place that feels good to study.

I remember in college there were so many people who used to study in the library, and I could never understand it because the library is the worst place to study—better a room in a noisy dorm, where at least you can put on some earplugs. The library was just filled with people who were goofing off, who were falling asleep. There was such a sleepy energy there that you wouldn’t get anything done. The best thing to do was go in, get your books and go off by yourself someplace where the energy is clean. You need a place to meditate, to study, where the energy is clean.

So it’s very important to choose an apartment, a house, a dormitory room, a rented room. The size doesn’t matter. What matters is that you took the time to pick a proper room to do your working in and then you cleaned it up and you decorated it in a fastidious way that inspired you. If you don’t have a clean working environment, you won’t do well in most cases. There’s the occasional bumbling genius who does well in a very cluttered environment; but they’re few, to be honest. And of course, in the study of Zen, we feel the outer environment is simply a reflection of our inner state of consciousness. If your environment is a mess, probably your consciousness is a mess. By cleaning up our environment, it helps one clean up the mind.

So you select a good place where you like the energy, to study and work. Of those places that are available, you fix it up, you get all excited. This is the place you’re going to meditate; this is the place you’re going to study. You fix it up and you make it special. You get excited about it. You find the best teacher you can find and you begin and you learn, and you don’t worry about graduating.

You don’t worry about becoming enlightened. You share a common interest with those who study. Anyone who studies, if they just study a little bit or if they are great scholars, they’re all the same, they’re all students.

Sometimes you have the opportunity to help a student. You can’t really do anyone’s work for them, but sometimes you can get them excited about the subject. Excitement can be catching; that’s what a teacher does. But you don’t want to spend so much time doing that, that you neglect your own studies.

In the world of enlightenment, we see a lot of people who decide to go out and teach meditation, and they become so wrapped up in it that they stop progressing themselves and they really don’t have that much new to teach. The most important thing is that you yourself should be progressing. There should be a greater level of accomplishment in your discipline, constantly. Without that level of accomplishment, what is there to teach? What is there to learn from a person who doesn’t have that? Of course, there are people who put out they have that, but they don’t. So the student must discriminate. You know yourself what your level of accomplishment is, unless of course you’re completely insane and deluded, which happens sometimes.

People enter into those states of consciousness where they think they’ve become enlightened or this or that or the other thing, and in fact they have not. The best thing to do, if you’ve gone through one of those phases, is to be sensible, laugh at yourself for how foolish you were, realize that you’re a beginner. Because even enlightened people think of themselves—and great teachers and scholars think of themselves—as beginners. They probably think of themselves as beginners more than others do—perpetual beginners who begin again each moment because their subject is endless.

The study of enlightenment in life is an endless subject. No one knows it all. An enlightened person doesn’t know it all. They’ve just gone beyond knowledge into another realm that we can’t even describe in words. But no one knows it all. Enlightenment simply means walking beyond this and all worlds into nirvana, which is beyond knowledge and ignorance. It’s something else. But there’s always more to learn. There’s always more to become. That’s what makes life so exciting.

Being a successful student is an attitude. Oh, I could talk for hours about study methods and this’s and that’s. But we don’t really have hours on this particular tape. So I’ve hopefully transmitted that which is most important with a couple of little anecdotes and some feelings. And that’s that success in studying has a lot to do, everything to do, with your attitude. It’s a feeling that you don’t necessarily have but you walk into—you make it happen. That feeling is love for being a successful student—not successful in the sense that other people think that you’re successful, only in your own eye. It’s a state of mind, in other words, which exists inside you, that you need to find.

Successful means that you work hard and do well and enjoy it. I’m not talking about success as a reputation that others hear. Who cares what others think? If they’re successful, then they understand that what you’re doing is no big deal—it’s what you do when you work hard. If they’re not successful, then do you want the admiration of those who don’t understand anyway? It’s kind of pointless.

Success is a personal matter. It means that you enjoy working very hard. You like the feeling of progressing. You like the feeling of expanding. You like the feeling of learning. It’s a nice world to live in. It’s very hopeful because there is always something new in it. You’re never bored. There’s no trivial pursuit. There’s too much to learn, there’s too much to be, there’s too much to become.

(Zazen music begins in the background.)

A little bit of Urban Destruction in the background, from Zazen.

Being a successful student means having an attitude of success, which is—you need to like what you’re doing, not just the accomplishment, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but the rainbow itself.