Reluctant Guru and Spiritual Anarchist - How “Zen” was Krishnamurti?
Over two weeks we had the opportunity to discuss the very influential 20th century spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti in the Zeninlondon Wednesday evening discussion group. One of our regulars has even listened to Krishnamurti in person when he was still alive in the 1980s. Kirshnamurti’s legacy now lives on through several books and many videos on YouTube, a number of which we looked at during our sessions. As Westerners, we tend to see more or less the same type of wisdom in all kinds of oriental spiritual teachings. It is therefore not surprising to spot several real or apparent similarities between Krishnamurti’s books and lectures and the tradition of Zen Buddhism. Looking at kindred and yet different schools of thought allows us to deepen our understanding of Zen Buddhism by recognising similarities, but also differences.
Jiddu Krishnamurti has an amazing biography (Wikipedia, Butler-Bowdon, p. 153). He was born around 1895 in Madras to Brahmin parents. At the age of 15, Krishnamurti was spotted by the Theosophical Society – a cult that combined elements of Western esotericism with Hinduism and Buddhism – as a “vehicle” for a new “World Teacher”. He was adopted by members of the Society and then received an elite education in the British Raj and in Europe in preparation of his role as future saviour of the World. In 1929, Krishnamurti spectacularly broke with the Theosophy movement and renounced his status as messiah and guru. He spent the rest of his life as a travelling independent teacher and educationalist until is death in 1986.
Krishnamurti’s teachings are best approached from the things that he rejects. Given his background as poster boy of the Theosophical Society, it is not surprising that he was a radical critical of any type of institutionalised religious or spiritual tradition, including Buddhism, Zen, Hinduism, Yoga and Western contemplative movements. These schools have in common according to Krishnamurti that they are not based on authentic experience but only related to somebody else's enlightenment, that of the original founder. Their ossified methods and routines – ceremonies, prayers, formal meditations, etc. – only serve to “make the mind dull”. In these traditions, the truth is always somewhere else, “over there”, and never immediately accessible (J. Krishnamurti – Official Channel, 1974). Krishnamurti sees an occupation of the mind with questions of individuality, social status, personal security, etc. as humanities fundamental problem. Thought, understood as discriminative or deliberate cognition, frames our experience and locks us into a prison of “knowledge”. This stored “knowledge” is not just our own, but the shared memory of our civilisation, the fossilised collective experience of generations. Our minds are therefore full of other people’s “knowledge”. When we follow blindly the rules of this alien library we become what Krishnamurti calls “second-hand people” (J. Krishnamurti – Official Channel, 1981). To escape the mental prison, we need to give our mind “space” by abandoning all of our “occupations”. We can escape our obsession with thinking and knowledge, Krishnamurti suggests, by accepting a mind that does not know. When we allow ourselves to admit “I don’t know”, then our brain becomes unoccupied, our discriminative thinking stops, and we create the conditions for a deeper and more natural existence. This newly won “space” of the unoccupied mind helps us to abandon our self-centredness. In true space, says Krishnamurti, there is no centre. Deeply attending to a situation means to be attentive from the space of the uncentred – unlimited – mind (J. Krishnamurti – Official Channel, 1979).
Similarities between these teachings of Krishnamurti and Zen Buddhism are not difficult to see. A criticism of self-centredness has been at the heart of Buddhism since its beginnings. The Buddha himself taught that human beings and everything else that exists has no independent reality or “self” – Sanskrit ātman. His doctrine of “non-self” – or anātman – is one of the three fundamental marks of existence of classical Buddhism – trilakṣaṇa –, the other two being “suffering” – duḥkha – and “impermanence” – antiya. The idea of anātman was later elaborated into the idea of “emptiness” – śūnyatā - in the Prajnaparamita or “perfection of wisdom” sutras. Still later the idea of anātman evolved into the doctrine of interdependence in the mature Mahayana Buddhism in China. The notion of of the absence of selfhood in interdependent origination is famously expressed in Ehei Dōgen’s Genjokoan:
Driving ourselves to practice and experience the myriad dharmas [realities] is delusion. When the myriad dharmas actively practice and experience ourselves, that is the state of realization. (Genjokoan, p. 33)
Krishnamurti's idea of “not knowing” equally forms part of the doctrinal bedrock of Zen Buddhism. In the brilliant simile of the poisoned arrow Gautama Buddha warns his disciples against the lure of useless knowledge. In this story a man who has been struck by a poisonous arrow refuses to be treated by a surgeon before he knows exactly who has shot the arrow at him, what his or her skin colour is, if the weapon used was a longbow or a crossbow, what kind of feathers have been used to fashion the arrow, and many other pointless details (Cūḷamālunkya Sutta, 5). This is only one example of many where the the historical Buddha rejects all kinds of speculative knowledge that are not useful for liberation and leading to the end of suffering. More then 1500 years later, Ehei Dōgen picked up this idea of “not-knowing” as fu-e, 不会 – “not understanding” – and turned it into an important aspect of his own teaching. Just like Krishnamurti, Dōgen tells us that we cannot use knowledge based on discriminative thinking if we want to live according to our true nature. (Okumura, loc. 667). Dōgen expresses this idea in another one of his essays, Sansuikyo, where ‘being in the mountains’ stands for living fully immersed in the reality of absolute interdependence:
Although the walking of the blue mountains is faster than ‘swift as the wind’, those in the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. To be ‘in the mountains’ is ‘a flower opening within the world’. Those outside the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. (Okumura, loc. 452.)
The parallels of Krishnamurti’s thinking and the Zen Buddhist tradition also extent to the more anarchic traits of the reluctant guru. Scepticism of Buddhist religious institutions is again almost as old as Buddhism itself. This may seem surprising as the Buddha himself established the order of bhikṣu and bhikṣuṇī, the community or sangha of monks and nuns which has dominated the life of the Buddhist religion since the days of the founder. Richly endowed with land and state patronage, monastic Buddhist orders became influential social and political forces in many of the countries where the religion established itself in its history of 2500 years. And yet, from Gautama Buddha’s teachings it is obvious that he saw the individual and her personal striving at the heart of his path to liberation. Towards the end of his life, when asked who should lead the sangha after his death, he famously declared that there should be no leader and that the bhikṣu and bhikṣuṇī should be like their own “islands”, not following anybody but the Dharma - his own memorised teachings (Satipaṭṭhānasaṃyutta, 9). As the power of the Buddhist monasteries grew, so did the number of those who were willing to challenge the institution from within. Several hundred years following Gautama Buddha’s death, the unknown authors of the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa sutra ridiculed the Buddhist establishment through the sutra’s text's main character, the lay prodigy Vimalakirti. In this satirical text, Vimalakirti, a rich and influential townsman with a large family, repeatedly outsmarts the representatives of the Buddhist order, depicted as the historical great disciples of the Buddha like Shariputra and Maudgalyāyana. I have written previously about this highly entertaining sutra in this blog. The Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa became very popular in China. And it is this country that gave rise to the probably most famous Buddhist critic and idol smasher of all times: Master Linji Yixuan, the founder of the Rinzai school of Zen. In one famous quote he demands of his followers to kill the Buddha if they meet him:
Followers of the Way, if you want insight into Dharma as is, just don’t be taken in by the deluded views of others. Whatever you encounter, either within or without, slay it at once: on meeting a Buddha slay the Buddha, on meeting a patriarch [spiritual leader of the Buddhist community] slay the patriarch, on meeting an arhat [Buddhist saint] slay the arhat, on meeting your parents slay your parents, on meeting your kinsman slay your kinsman, and you attain emancipation. By not cleaving to things you freely pass through. (Dumoulin, p. 196)
Naturally, Linji does not encourage his followers to commit murder literally. Rather, he uses this strong language to warn them against any type of authority which is not based within themselves. I suspect Krishnamurti would have agreed.
From just looking at a small fragment of Krishnamurti’s teachings it becomes obvious that there is a lot of overlap between his views and those expressed within Zen and Buddhism. This is not surprising, given that Krishnamurti’s early training with the Theosophical Society would have included a lot of elements of Buddhism and Hinduism. It is in my view one of the weaknesses of Krishnamurti that he fails to acknowledge this heritage. Another point of criticism is that he refuses to offer any methods, leaving his followers at a loss on how to put into practice what he teaches. His radical rejection of all kinds of institutions and traditions did not allow him to adopt any methods from other schools or develop new ones. To the contrary, Zen Buddhism acknowledges that some forms and methods are necessary to support those who decide to follow a spiritual way. Zen Buddhism also acknowledges that we need a trusted advisor or teacher to guide us. A true teacher will not try to turn a seeker into a disciple for the sake of their own prestige, but will do what they can to develop the student into a mature and whole person. I somehow feel that Krishnamurti, who admirably dedicated his later life to compulsion-free education of young people, would also have agreed if had he taken a closer look.
Butler-Bowdon, Tom (2005): 50 Spiritual Classics: Timeless wisdom from 50 great books of inner discovery, enlightenment, and purpose. London, Boston: Nicholas Brealy Publishing
Cūḷamālunkya Sutta: The Shorter Discourse to Mālunkyāputta. Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bikkhu Bodhi (translators). (2005). The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya [Kindle]. Sommerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. Available from Amazon.co.uk.
Dumoulin, Heinrich (2005). Zen Buddhism: A History. Volume 1: India and China. Bloomington (Indiana): World Wisdom.
Genjo-Koan: The Ralized Universe (1998). Gudo Nishijima, Chodo Cross (translators). Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Book 1. Woods Hole (MA): Windbell Publications.
J. Krishnamurti – Official Channel. (1979). Meditation, attention and silence. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iqZta5Jx5A
J. Krishnamurti – Official Channel. (1981). QUESTION #8: From Question & Answer Meeting #1. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZlkYPlS5s0
J. Krishnamurti – Official Channel. (1974). Start meditation not knowing. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QeVG4SMha8
Jiddu Krishnamurti (2021). Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiddu_Krishnamurti
Okumura, Shohaku (2018). The Mountains and Waters Sutra: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s Sansuikyo [Kindle]. Sommerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. Available from Amazon.co.uk.
Satipaṭṭhānasaṃyutta: Connected Discourses on the Establishment of Mindfulness. (2000). Bikkhu Bodhi (translator). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya [Kindle]. Sommerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. Available from Amazon.co.uk.
Skilton, Andrew (2013). A Concise History of Buddhism. Electronic edition. Windhorse Publications.