“Great” is a word I use sparingly, like “God” or “love.” I think certain words are like sponges, that can soak up only so many meanings before they become shredded and smelly and have to be thrown away.
But the first time I read something by Krishnamurti, about fifteen years ago, I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Here was a profound thinker, whose goal was to set humanity “absolutely, unconditionally free.” This he sought to accomplish not with chanting or prayer or anything remotely religious but by insisting that we question our most fundamental ideas about ourselves, that we become acutely aware of the psychological conditioning that keeps us from seeing what is real.
His lectures were forceful and rigorous; he could be impatient with uncomprehending listeners and — ironically for someone so dedicated to humankind — he sometimes seemed to lack compassion. I was never comfortable with his disdain for any path to truth but the “pathless” path he walked, yet his own uncompromising quest for wisdom was more singularly inspiring to me than almost any other contemporary figure. How odd that so many people have never heard of him — or, because of his Indian name, think he was one of those gurus he himself despised, believing as he did that they stood in the way of genuine spiritual freedom.
When Krishnamurti died earlier this year at the age of ninety, I wanted to pay homage to him in The Sun. The publication this fall of Renée Weber’s Dialogues With Scientists And Sages: The Search For Unity (Routledge & Kegan Paul, New York, $14.95, paper) gave me the opportunity.
We’ve reprinted a chapter from her book — an unusual and poignant “non-interview” with Krishnamurti. Following it are excerpts from Krishnamurti’s own writings, especially from Think On These Things and Krishnamurti’s Notebook.
Weber’s essay on Krishnamurti is an ironic inclusion in a book that attempts to build bridges between science and mysticism, since Krishnamurti dismisses science. “Why,” Weber writes, “must Krishnamurti be in this book at all? Can it be that he represents the absolute mystic, the essence of what is unique to the position of all mystics through the ages? There is certainly an absolute stance here that I have come across only rarely.”
Weber’s provocative, wide-ranging book also includes interviews with quantum physicist David Bohm, His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet, biologist Rupert Sheldrake, Cambridge astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, and Christian mystic Father Bede Griffiths. In her conversations with these rare thinkers, she skillfully attempts to reconcile the “spiritual” and the “physical.”
“A parallel principle,” Weber writes, “drives both science and mysticism — the assumption that unity lies at the heart of our world and that it can be discovered and experienced by man.”
@ Copyright Renée Weber
Reprinted with permission
It was the third interview with Krishnamurti that I had done in the last decade, and it turned out to be the most interesting. This was due in part to a most unexpected and indeed maddening turn of events that greeted me when I arrived at Krishnamurti’s chalet in Rougemont, Switzerland, in a fine, drizzling rain in mid-July 1985. It was, in fact, no interview at all because despite our agreement months earlier, Krishnamurti would not let me tape. Whether he was playing the Zen master or whether — as I suspect — there were other reasons, I cannot say.
It is well-nigh impossible to condense Krishnamurti’s life into a short background article. An Indian philosopher-sage, he is known throughout the world through his lectures, books, and tapes. Now ninety, he has been lecturing in the west for more than fifty years, travelling widely, dividing his time mainly between England, India, California, and Switzerland. He has attracted enormous audiences worldwide, and influenced such writers as Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, and many artists, among them the French sculptor Bourdelle, who has done a bust of him.
Born in 1895 into a poor south Indian family in Madras, there is a story that Krishnamurti — to all outward appearances an ordinary child — was walking on the beach as a boy of only fourteen when he was noticed by C.W. Leadbeater, a clairvoyant, who later said he was startled by the fact that the boy’s aura revealed a completely selfless human being, a most rare phenomenon. Raised and educated by Dr. Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society (and to some extent by Leadbeater), Krishnamurti was groomed for some years for a major spiritual role. He was to become a worldwide teacher, around whom a large international organization formed itself. But in 1927, Krishnamurti dissolved this group, proclaiming that truth could not be organized and that organizations were inimical to spiritual life. He has insisted ever since that “truth is a pathless land” and has opposed all traditional teachings, religions, authorities, systems and writings. For the past sixty years, he has spent his time lecturing and holding discussions with people around the world. Under the auspices of various Krishnamurti Foundations in India, England, America, and Canada, he has established schools ranging from elementary to high schools.
Krishnamurti’s fundamental teaching can be summarized in a few sentences: truth is within, and it can and must be discovered by each person alone. No book and no authority can help us to find it, but unrelenting, single-minded, constant awareness of who we are and how we operate will bring the truth to the surface. To do this, we must begin with observation and fact, not theory, fantasy, or preconceived images. To live in truth is to live in the moment, to be dynamically in step with it without gathering in the residue which he calls time — thought, memory, the past — and equates with falsehood. Living fully in the present fuses the observer and the observed, and in this lies a state “for which the whole world is seeking and longing,” as Krishnamurti once referred to it. Although he is reluctant to name that state, at times he calls it love, beauty, order, the timeless — a state of being which he claims lies beyond death. Many of these ideas are discussed at length in Krishnamurti’s books, most of which have been gathered from his taped talks. There are twenty-one books out by now: The Urgency of Change, The Awakening of Intelligence, Freedom from the Known, Truth and Actuality, The Wholeness of Life, and (with David Bohm) The Ending of Time, to cite some samples.
As I set out on that afternoon in July 1985 from Saanen toward Rougemont, where Krishnamurti is expecting me, I cannot foresee the complications that await me. For several days, hiking around the trails near Saanen and Gstaad, with their spectacular views of the Alps and the beautiful valleys of the Bernese Oberland, shimmering with flowers, I have been preparing for the encounter, thinking of ways in which I can engage Krishnamurti on the theme of nature and science, hoping for his willingness to focus on this topic. Hoping, but not expecting it, for I know from our earlier interviews that Krishnamurti cares nothing about prearranged scripts and that he, not I, will strike the direction on which we embark. Still, nothing in our past interactions has prepared me for the turn of events that is about to unfold.
A steady, gentle rain has been descending over the Saanen valley on this cool July day, enveloping the mountains in a mist so opaque that only the valley remains visible, adding an atmosphere of mystery to its already romantic scenery.
It is my first visit to Saanen, and already I have succumbed to its grand panoramas and peaceful atmosphere. In summer, of course, its major attraction is the Krishnamurti talks, held in a huge tent; they draw thousands of people from all over the world. Krishnamurti is a household word here; every bookshop prominently displays his books in German, French, English and other languages. Despite the fact that I have arrived after the six-week-long talks have concluded, on my walks I still meet people who have come here expressly for the Krishnamurti talks. As I set out from my hotel above Saanen for Krishnamurti’s chalet in Rougemont, I find questions floating across my mind: “Krishnaji [an Indian term of respect], some people say that you are not interested in science and may even be against it — is that true?” “Are the scientist and the sage looking for the same thing in their different ways?” “How do you perceive nature?”
By the time I reach Rougemont a scant quarter of an hour later, these have receded into the background of my consciousness, which is now absorbed in registering the impressions of the chalet and its surroundings. Rougemont, far smaller and simpler than Saanen or nearby fashionable Gstaad, is if anything even more picturesque. It is really a small Alpine village in the midst of dairy farming country which in winter turns into a ski resort, dominated by Videmanette, its 2200-meter peak. There is a tiny main street with shops, a village fountain and some tidy, wood-carved, flower-bedecked houses scattered about the town, in the valley, and clinging to the mountainside. It is a village out of earlier centuries, rustic, earthy, simple, and beautiful.
Krishnamurti lives in a first-floor chalet apartment off the little main street. I am met by Mary Zimbalist, his long-time friend and companion who looks after him and through whom requests for interviews generally must go. Poised and courteous as she ushers me in, she chats with me on this as on other occasions, as we await Krishnamurti’s arrival. But unlike other times in Ojai, California, where I taped Krishnamurti, I soon become aware that there is to be a problem today, for Mrs. Zimbalist is beginning to prepare me.
Despite the fact that I have long since had written permission from the Krishnamurti Foundation of England to include my 1978 interview in this book and to tape a new one, and that Mrs. Zimbalist herself has seen my table of contents and helped arrange for today’s taping, she questions me closely about the entire project. Above all, she wants to know who the other figures in the book are to be. I explain, but she is not reassured, saying that Krishnamurti is not used to being in a book along with others — the issue that begins to emerge as the stumbling block. Although I try to marshal some persuasive arguments, she still looks dubious and suggests that I place all this before Krishnamurti.
Though I begin to have a foreboding, still, settled into a deep armchair, I install my recorder on the coffee table, the fine directional mike poised near where I assume Krishnamurti is to sit, a chair very close to my own. When he enters the room, Krishnamurti is warm and hospitable, greeting me with outstretched hands.
He looks remarkably well. Although he has just passed his ninetieth birthday, his body is slim and straight. His face — once famous for its almost preternatural beauty (George Bernard Shaw called him “the most beautiful human being” he had ever seen) — shows age but it is compelling still and even beautiful, with its subtle planes, intelligent eyes, aristocratic nose, silky silver hair, and sculptured head. The hands, now reposing in his lap, are slender and smooth, and might belong to a man of forty. As always, Krishnamurti looks impeccable. Today he is informally dressed: navy blue jeans, a navy sports shirt, and a tan wool cardigan sweater.
Settling himself in the chair close by, he returns to the theme Mary Zimbalist has pursued. “What is this book? Who else is in it? Why do you want to do it?” My attempts to answer are unsuccessful, for Krishnamurti cuts me off. It soon becomes clear to me that he is already resolved that there will be no interview. Seeing this suspicion on my crushed face, he tries to soften my disappointment, gently touching my hand from time to time as he explains his objections. He says that “it would have been difficult to put all this into a letter,” and asks me to look at the matter from his point of view. Condensed, his objections run as follows. Krishnamurti does not want to be in a book with other people, with ideas different from his own. It is not conceit, he says. I may even be wrong, he says. What I have to say may all be “rot,” he urges. “But you must realize that what I’m saying is sacred to me.” I attempt to reassure him that the book will be dignified, that there will be nothing sensational or cheap to embarrass him, but he is impatient with these attempts.
For the next forty-five minutes, as I helplessly watch my tape recorder sit unused — for which I have by now given Krishnamurti my word — he talks to me. The subjects are varied: incidents from his life that make some special point. Many of these are fascinating and will — I think with pleasure — make marvelous reading. They are autobiographical tales from his past and seem designed to buttress Krishnamurti’s refusal to be taped for this book. The theme of each story is the same: fame and worldly goods offered and refused.
Later I begin to set these down for my reader but a strange self-censorship overcomes me as I visualize the vulnerability and innocence of the man who is, at the same time, an impregnable wall of strength, even hardness at times. This, like everything about Krishnamurti, strikes me as ambiguous, but I have long since lived with the fact that these ambiguities cannot be resolved or even understood by an outsider. All the books and articles about Krishnamurti — even those written by his most ardent devotees — unwittingly add to this ambiguity. This perception of ambiguity must account for the surprising ambivalence which many of those who know and respect Krishnamurti seem to feel. Thus, as the urge to protect the enigmatic man I have left wins out, I resolve upon a selective recording of the anecdotes Krishnamurti has recounted.
I content myself with setting down only one such anecdote; unproblematic, it is the most colorful and charming of them in any case, and though Krishnamurti was unaware of it at the time, it fits mysteriously into the theme of this book.
He recounts that once when he was practicing yoga in a tiny hut high up in the Indian Himalayas, a large wild monkey with a huge curled tail graced by a puff at its end — a species reputed to be fierce and even dangerous — appeared at the open window and made as if to come in. As a first step, the animal held out its paw inside the open window. Taken aback, Krishnamurti took the monkey’s hand and held it for some time. It was, he tells me, a marvelous hand: smooth and pliable, very beautiful, the palm roughened in places to adapt it to climb trees. But after a while Krishnamurti told the interloper aloud, “Look old chap, you can see for yourself that this hut is far too small for us both, so you can’t come in;” whereupon the monkey, after a further trial and similar admonition, reluctantly left.
This anecdote, with minor variations, is followed by several others: the wild tiger that sat peacefully so near Krishnamurti that he could have stroked it; and the huge cobra who became aware of Krishnamurti’s presence behind him and which, having relinquished its prey, a bird, slithered silently out of sight.
Krishnamurti offers these stories without comment or conclusion, but I have been steeped in Eastern mysticism long enough to know their import, and draw the conclusion for him.
“You are saying that even wild animals sense the harmlessness in a genuinely peaceful person,” I offer.
“Yes, of course,” he assents, adding, “I could tell you many more stories like that.”
Krishnamurti observes that most people live for security and therefore wind up in constant insecurity — the fear of not holding on to what they have — but that he lives without any idea of security at all and that, consequently, he has real security, “the only security there is.” It fits a favorite theme of his public talks, one which always sends a ripple of recognition through his audiences and which can be predicted to make everyone uneasy.
When all the cobwebs have been cleared away — the book, recording versus not recording — Krishnamurti shifts into content. He brings in numerous examples of people he knows who are suffering, and his eyes sadden as he relates these painful stories. For millions of years, he says, mankind has suffered, people have been killing one another, there have been few interludes without wars, people have cried. “Have you heard them cry?” he wants to know. “Have you seen people back from the Vietnam war without legs?”
Several times, he shifts from the theme of suffering back to the book and its contents. I had, in connection with the Stephen Hawking interview [on the origin of the universe], brought up the Big Bang, and it is on this that Krishnamurti now pounces. What’s the point of talking about the Big Bang, he asks me, when the world is in flames, when people are crying, when man is indescribably cruel to his fellows? These things are facts, he says repeatedly, the other is a luxury.
I have risked one more protest, telling him that I have come all this distance to talk about nature and science with him, but he is adamant. Yet the more firmly he puts his foot down, the more gentle — even tender — does his bearing become. As he hammers the point home again and again, he takes my hand as if to soften the blow.
Even in my frustration, I find myself responding to his iron-willed exhortation to get our priorities straight. Is he not right, after all? Is he not one of the few sane people who — seeing the tidal wave of destruction that we are preparing for ourselves — refuses to allow himself to be diverted? Have we, the others, become like Faust, seduced by knowledge at any price, heedless — though aware — of the fact that the price will be global annihilation? Is Krishnamurti the pessimistic, narrow-minded alarmist or is he the visionary prophet sounding the alarm in the face of our inertia and Faustian bargain?
My resolve begins to weaken as I find myself remembering that the Buddha, too, refused to discuss metaphysics — the science of the sixth century B.C. — until, he said, we have solved the problem of suffering. On sheer practical grounds, the Buddha termed all other pursuits vain and misguided.
Even when I attempt to shift the connotation of “science” toward its pure rather than applied meaning, Krishnamurti refuses to hear me out. I utter the word “Einstein,” but he waves it aside, repeating that until the basic human problem is resolved, nothing else matters. Again I ponder whether Krishnamurti’s position is really different from the Buddha’s, who justified his priorities with his famous metaphor of the arrow. Buddha likened the human condition to that of a man with a poisoned arrow stuck in his back and argued that the fundamental human task was to pull the arrow out and help others do the same. I have always admired the boldness and discernment of the Buddha’s stand. Why, when Krishnamurti is taking a similar clear-sighted and unyielding position, am I fighting him?
Until this moment, I have been the interviewer, fixed single-mindedly on the needs of my book. Now as he evokes the vision of a species bending its talents to probe its stellar origins in the remote past while its very continuity in the present and future lie in doubt, I grow silent. There is only the sound of the rain, falling in a steady, fine downpour. Krishnamurti again takes my hand, and proposes a metaphor that will run like a recurrent refrain through the rest of our conversation.
He suggests that we drop “all our roles,” mine as a professor, his as a “sage or whatever role you’ve cast me in,” and that we “talk together about the basic human problem as two people who have come together by accident to take shelter in the rain.” For the rest of the afternoon, science will be abandoned except as the symbol of dubious human priorities.
Krishnamurti’s objection to it is twofold. First, it is the siren-song which tempts us away from the world of suffering whose resolution will require our total commitment and intelligence. (I know from past experience that it will not do to point to the medical and technological contributions which have alleviated human suffering, for Krishnamurti feels these are outweighed by the dangers that science has unleashed.) Investigating the Big Bang or the inner structure of the atom, he says, have done nothing to change us fundamentally, neither the scientist himself nor our root problem. This, he repeats, can be simply stated: all human beings suffer, all have similar fears and anxieties, all want to be free from suffering. In this struggle, humanity is as one. This is the fact, he says again with great weight.
He also holds scientists responsible for fuelling the war machine. If they would all stop cooperating with governments, he reminds me, much of the harm could be defused, even though he grants my point that most of the damage is done, our available stockpiles being more than enough to do the job of abolishing ourselves. He offers a joke whose import is that even if we blow ourselves up, leaving only one couple to replenish the species, before long they will have reinvented weapons. This presses home his insistence — prominent in all his talks — that unless mankind dismantles its violence from within through radical personal change, outer strategies are doomed to fail.
Over and over Krishnamurti uses the analogy of cancer to describe the human plight. What is the point of exploring the Big Bang, he wants to know, when I am suffering from a life-threatening cancer? I object that this is too absolute a position, but Krishnamurti will have none of it. “You cannot cut out just half a cancer,” he counters. “Is it the right analogy?” I venture, but he holds to it. The scourge of mankind is suffering. “If my son or my brother has just died,” he continues, “I am not going to want to discuss the Big Bang with you. I might say, give me a few days, old chap, but right now I’m crying, I’m in pain, and I’m interested in this, not in that.”
Maybe later, he adds, leaving the door open after all. I come back to my script, nature. He is not against nature, Krishnamurti insists, adding that in his talks he often refers to nature. “Nature is order,” he tells me. “And beauty?” I add. “Order, order,” he repeats with emphasis, but allows that “there is also great beauty in nature, and where there is beauty, there is love. Love and compassion,” he adds. Asked to define these, he answers that when sensation, attachment, and possession are not, then love and compassion come into being.
I observe that it seems easier to love nature — a tree or a mountain or an animal — in that way and much harder to love a human being so unselfishly. He suggests that the answer is very simple: nature does not judge us, threaten us with withdrawal of affection, demand things from us, or lord its power over us as human beings do.
By this time there is almost a dialogue between us. Compared with an hour ago, when Krishnamurti scarcely let me get my sentences finished, things are flowing. He has become more and more gentle, holding my hand whenever he — bluntly and sternly — disagrees about some issue. Each time he wants to underline the point that the far-away glamour of the Big Bang — by now the bête noire of the conversation — deflects us from the cancer of human cruelty and ignorance, he says, “I’m interested in this right now,” as he points to the earth, “not that,” pointing upward again.
“It’s your responsibility,” he says sternly, as his eyes fix mine. “What are you going to do about it?”
We seem to have left behind Krishnamurti’s first objection to science, for he now shifts into a second one. I have often heard him pose it during small seminars with scientists and philosophers. It is a far more fundamental and far-reaching objection, for it impugns the power of the human mind ever to penetrate reality. It is this absolute challenge that Krishnamurti now flings at me.
He is not interested in discussing science, he says, because science is knowledge, knowledge is put together by thought, and thought is trapped in the past. Although he does not spell out the rest of the connection for me, he does not need to. Anyone who has heard or read him is quite familiar with his argument. Truth lies in the living present, in this moment, and must be discovered afresh in the present, in the eternal now. All forms of its accumulation or accretion — thought, memory, knowledge, time — destroy truth. Therefore science, which is cumulative, which is knowledge (a negative term in Krishnamurti’s context), is too far removed from reality to pierce to its secrets.
This position is familiar to me through Eastern philosophy. It reveals a basic affinity, if not virtual identity, with Advaita Vedanta, a development within Hinduism that is best expressed in the writings of the seventh-century sage Shankara. Although Shankara uses classical Hindu terms which Krishnamurti rejects, both teach that truth cannot be found in the world of nature, but only in the reality that lies behind or beyond nature. The transcendent, not the immanent, face of reality is what interests them. All else is dismissed as illusion and distraction, the insignificant mask of the real.
This holds despite Krishnamurti’s teaching that reality can be found in the daily, if we know how to look for it. But his teaching — and that of Advaita — differs greatly from the spirit of those early religious scientists whose motto was “God is in the details.” On balance, both Shankara and Krishnamurti seem to me to devalue the world of nature. Everything — science, philosophy, history — is undercut in favor of the background source that transcends these. At best, the worldly thing is perceived as a representative of “that.” Immanence matters only in so far as it reveals what is transcendent.
Our discussion has lasted for close to two hours. Now I throw a longing glance at the tape recorder, and reproach Krishnamurti once again with, “Krishnaji, all of this is not on tape!”
“No,” he replies, “but it’s in your head and your heart.”
I am resigned by now not to be permitted to use any of this material for my book but — against all expectations — Krishnamurti offers, “You can use it in any way you like. You can write about it, you can put it in the book, you don’t have to it to show it to me, you can do whatever you want with it. I don’t need to see it,” he reiterates, “as long as it really comes from within you, from here” (he points to my head) “and here” (motioning to my heart).
The switch is so surprising that I am thrown off center, and to regain it I rehearse Krishnamurti’s probable reasons aloud. “You don’t want me to lean on the tape recorder because it’s vicarious, you feel it’s taking a borrowed reality instead of my own reality, that it will be cheating, that it’s depending on something passive rather than actively having it become part of me.” For the first time that afternoon, his eyes light up. “That’s just it,” he says, obviously pleased. He points to my tape recorder, still idle before us. “What a horror it is, all such rubbish,” he muses.
The image of the endless taping at all of Krishnamurti’s lectures, seminars, and conferences over all these years flicks across my mind, and of the long and growing list of his tapes offered in the catalogue by the Krishnamurti Foundation of America that my mail brings each autumn. But politeness forbids my raising the question that is forming about consistency. It is also possible, I speculate, that this is a new reaction of his, leading to new policies in the future. Still, I find myself happy for the time he has spent with me, and for letting me use this material as I choose. Unknowingly, I have been part of an historic event, as I learn a few months later, for the 1985 talks are the last that Krishnamurti will give here at Saanen, ending a twenty-five-year-old tradition.
The afternoon has obviously taxed him, for he now asks me what time it is. When I reply “six o’clock,” he appears surprised and, rising, tells me that “the stranger who has taken shelter in the rain with you has to go now, to catch his train.” He smiles, still relishing the metaphor that has shaped our afternoon. I again offer to send him my chapter for approval, but he declines, repeating, “It is yours now, it is in you now,” then adds, “but it has taken me two hours to convince you of this.”
“Until we meet next time at another station to take shelter in the rain,” he says, and sees me to the door.