I just finished reading a book about Krishnamurti’s last years called The Open Door, and I think this intimate portrayal of the final years of a spiritual teacher illustrates some of the problems involved in spiritual transmission and why we humans have such difficulty following the advice of enlightened teachers. In religion you always see a paradox in the teaching – the problem of being trapped in egoism and needing to let this go, yet we cannot see beyond ego to choose differently because every concept, every action is the product of ego. To act is to be conditioned, to sin, and yet we must act: this is expressed in Christianity by the sense that we are doomed by original sin and, though we must choose the right, are really powerless to do so without the intervention of Christ. But this way of seeing the problem may not be the most useful one: I have long suspected that the double bind posited by most religions is really a misinterpretation of the religious impulse framed by a system built on power: it’s certainly a way of thinking which gives enormous authority to religious teachers and institutions.

Early Buddhism (I say “Buddhism” rather than “the Buddha” because the core texts of Bhuddism were not written down until generations after his death and are believed to contain many elements aside from his teaching) was careful not to allow priests and nuns to preside at weddings in order to avoid the formation of a powerful priesthood, but seems not to have worried too much about placing its priests above ordinary people by describing a Buddhist teacher as a “field of merit,” benefits to whom were seen as especially good for one’s karma. If you want to avoid creating a powerful hierarchy, I would say that this is far more problematic than having clergy preside at weddings. Krishnamurti’s biography is very frank about the details of his last years, and I think gives some clues as to how power creeps into the equation. Krishnamurti also made considerable efforts to avoid creating an authoritarian institution based on his teachings after his death – but I suspect the cat was already out of the bag based on the very style of his teaching. Two issues strike me here: the first is that Krishnamurti often takes the role of critic, suggesting that his audience, even his closest students, don’t understand him, are mired in habit, and so on – but, based on his belief that you can’t quantify the enlightened state by giving instructions on how to reach it; that in fact all action as such is the product of an illusory self – offers solutions that are at best vague and possibly not really accessible to ordinary people. His only advice is to think about the issue creatively and in great depth, and to constantly observe the action of ego and instantly let go of anything negative. But this is a lot harder than it sounds, because our illusions are at once interdependent and buttressed by intense negative emotion: without extensive experience of meditation in some form, you could not even begin to do what he suggests: most of us just end up staring at the unscalable cliff face in front of us. He is in the know; his listeners are not – and they have no way to get there.

My second observation is that he often does not follow his own advice: at one point, for example, his chides his listeners at his last talk at Saanen that if they are sad to be leaving, they certainly have nothing more to do there – meaning that they are trapped in a silly attachment – yet, he needed on one visit to a new residence to be driven daily back to an old garden where he used to take his walks. Surely there were other places to walk: this is not the action of a man who lets go of his past with every breath. At another point, one of his close confidants asked why he was being unusually rough with her, and he responded that he was always aware of what he was doing, and that he was concerned that she understand what he is trying to teach her because time was short. Two weeks later he spontaneously stated that the problem was either that he was getting old, or that he had gotten into the habit of treating her a bit abusively – an honest response, to be sure, but one that obviously contradicts his first statement. Near his death, he was very uncomfortable about several situations that arose due to his illness, among them his physical limitations and his weeping repeatedly during a meeting with his close confidants – he commented that it is unpleasant to watch a man cry: I guess I would ask why a man more than a woman. To me this concern shows exactly the kind of cultural bias and self-involvement that he asks others to let go of in the most radical terms.

Well, no one’s perfect, and Mary Lutyens suggests that his anomalies made him all the more engaging as a person – but I think there is another implication here which bears on the issue of power in religion. The world was a much more hierarchical place 100 years ago: Krishnamuriti was born in 1896, long before anyone heard much about it being OK for men to cry in public. He reminds me in some ways of a wonderful piano teacher I worked with in my twenties named Fernande Kaeser. She was certainly a good hearted and even very spiritual woman, but pretty authoritarian for all of that: and although much younger than Krishnamurti, her teaching style was similar to his in placing the emphasis on the student’s effort to understand something essentially inexpressible – in her case related to the nature of focus and commitment in piano playing: and she had similar difficulties conveying this understanding to others. Her approach – and perhaps Krishnamurti’s as well – essentially assumes that the speaker is important because of his knowledge or attainment, and it’s the student’s job to climb the mountain on which the speaker stands. And he needs to make that climb with relatively little assistance – the teacher’s job is not primarily to smooth the way; it is to correct the student and manifest the goal: if the teaching doesn’t work, it’s basically the student’s fault. This way of thinking seems very hierarchical to me, and I’m sure it seemed quite natural to many people 100, or even 50 years ago. But the world is changing and this is not the only way to look at the issue: I believe it is possible for a teacher to lead the student to answers without forcing him to climb a proverbial mountain unroped – to help him find a solution without necessarily imposing a hierarchical relationship.

When I was a graduate assistant at Boston University, one of my jobs was to get a group of tone-deaf undergraduates to pass an ear training test at the end of the semester; the faculty was willing to go easy because they were non-musicians, but was not willing to totally drop the ear training requirement. I could legitimately have done what Krishnamurti and a host of less well-intentioned people have done with spirituality: I could have told them in no uncertain terms that unless they acquired a set of skills that they did not begin to understand, they were going to fail the course. Had I done so, probably half of these kids would have dropped the class, and the terrified few remaining would have had trouble learning anything. I didn’t drop a bomb on my students, however: instead, I told them to lie on the floor and try singing on their backs, because I noticed their singing – such as it was – was very tense, and I had heard that lying on your back could help you relax and breathe from the diaphragm. Surprise! – they could all sing. But could they sing on pitch? What I began to do was to alternate simple pitch-matching exercises with relaxation exercises such as listening to chords, and gradually increased the difficulty until they could pass the requirement, which every one of them eventually did. It turns out the problem we call “tone-deafness” is probably mis-characterized: it’s not that most tone-deaf people can’t hear pitch; rather that they can’t reproduce it because they breathe in a tense way and use their vocal apparatus incorrectly. This inability naturally minimizes their interaction with that part of their perceptual apparatus as well, so they may appear “tone-deaf.” The problem with Krishnamurti’s approach is that he more or less eschews all methods save a rather broadly defined investigation into the nature of the problem in his advice about the mess people find themselves in. Imagine what would have happened if I had used the same method with my tone-deaf undergraduates: “let us deeply discuss why you cannot distinguish pitch.” To directly investigate the source of his obstacles through awareness may not have posed a difficulty for Krishnamurti, but most people haven’t a clue where to begin such an investigation.

The view that the teacher stands at the top of a mountain based on his own knowledge and wisdom, when applied to spiritual matters, means that he must be strong, even infallible – he must be self-sufficient, calm and so on – he is the teaching. Krishnamurti was the head of a worldwide organization and said as much in the weeks before his death – perhaps this is why he was so uncomfortable with the weaknesses imposed by his illness. What I want to point out is that this is the relationship we humans adore – we love to follow the powerful, the wise; but to me, you need very little power to help people spiritually: if you can get them to listen long enough to show them something that benefits them, they’ll be thrilled and eager for more – you don’t need to be perfect, not even physically independent, you can cry in public; you don’t need a worldwide organization – and you don’t need to be the reincarnation of the Buddha Maitraya, as Krishnamurti’s followers speculated about him. The very assumption of the wise teacher and stupid student conditions the interaction, especially when you then deny that all this is happening – we’re just having a conversation: it just happens that I do most of the talking and that I completely understand what is happening and you don’t. This kind of denial is also a feature of hierarchy: in the 1890’s, marital infidelity was rare and homosexuality nonexistent: or at least that was how things appeared if you didn’t look too carefully. But of course this was not the whole truth: and that dualism – public and private, is a distinct feature of Krishnamurti’s teaching in general: you must instantly let go of attachment, even though he himself is clearly not always able to do that; there is no teaching; but the teachings must be preserved; the teacher is not important, but he is the head of a worldwide organization; there is no effort you can make, but you should study the teachings – there is a very authoritarian quality to all of this. I myself would question the absoluteness of some of these statements – perhaps it would be better if we could seek balance rather than the absolute rejection of ego: because it appears that not even a Krishnamurti can avoid contradicting himself when he comes from that viewpoint. Although Krishnamurti’s intentions were probably quite good and although he in fact did doubtless benefit many people, including me, he exemplifies a fundamental problem in spirituality. Religions and teachers are presented with a dangerous choice: the path of one or another kind of personal and institutional power – which will get your message out there, but which will change that message in the process; or to do as Christ implied when he said: “if anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” – to teach as someone with no power and no special authority, which gives you a fighting chance of being a truly effective teacher and hopefully continuing to learn yourself – but no one will invite you to speak at the UN as they did Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Finally, I would like to make the point that aside from the cultural context and political process that seems to trap many spiritually wise people into mistakes that greatly limit their effectiveness, we ourselves tend unconsciously to hear their words in absolute terms: if they’re the real thing, they must have all the answers. My own experience, and reading a biography like The Open Door, suggests something else – very spiritual people are able to open themselves in a way rarely if ever accessible to the rest of us, and this does indeed give them special insights and even abilities that are unimaginable to most people. But they are also human beings and have their own contradictions: it pays to listen to Krishnamurti when he tells you to question every word. By analogy, it is certainly true that Einstein was a genius, and that not only did he come up with several major and very revolutionary theories in physics, he probably also understood other issues in the physical sciences better than all but a few peers in the world. However, it is also worth noting that he rejected quantum mechanics, now a central part of modern physics, famously saying “God does not play dice with the world.” But the great majority of physicists today think he was mistaken about that; not that he wasn’t one of the greatest minds in history – just that he was wrong on this issue. This is perhaps something we should remember in relation to spiritual teachers.

©2013 Stephen James – All Rights Reserved

The Open Door

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