Two things that are very important in the Krishnamurti movement are the ‘Sacred’ and the ‘Teachings’ (how to get to the sacred). I don’t mean just the sacred as God or Reality, nor am I referring to specific teachings. What I would like to explore here are the general notions of the sacred—as background for Krishnamurti’s work, as philosophical assumption in all of the Indian religious tradition (including Krishnamurti)—and of the Teachings: the insights that Krishnamurti (K) ‘discovered’ but which are nevertheless aspects of everyone’s reality.
Many of us struck by the truth and significance of K’s insights fail to take the necessary next steps of examining his assumptions and of placing his teachings in a more general context of truth—both steps toward questioning K’s authority and toward exploring our own conditioning. As a matter of fact, K’s authority is part of our conditioning.
The sacred/profane distinction seems even older than belief in gods or God. Some anthropologists see its beginnings in ancient animism, the feeling that ‘life’ permeates the world as a force in itself. This worldview is so old, we can’t pretend to know why it came about: perhaps when the life force was separated out from the body—to distinguish between living organism and corpse, to account for the miracle of birth, to explain animation or movement, to identify the link between humans and nature.
As civilizations arose and religious traditions formed and evolved, the sacred/ profane distinction became more formal, more philosophical, more ontological, more incomprehensible. The ‘sacred’ becomes otherworldly, radically ‘other’, The Absolute has to be so special, so unique, so important, so real—that it is finally placed in a sphere completely incommensurate with the worldly realm.
This would be absurd enough as a logically impossible move—a whole universe cannot reasonably contain two logically unrelatable parts—but it ends up a double travesty when one of those realms is considered more important or more real than the other. As Jesus (and Hegel) said, man (sic) cannot serve two masters at once; so we serve the sacred and denigrate or ignore the profane. We all know where this denigration, profanation, has ended up: vilification of the body, oppression of fellow creatures, and pollution of the planet.
In this way we all act as Gnostics: we think of ourselves as spirit ‘trapped’ in a material body, seeking liberation from our earthly prison. And in this way we are using the sacred to escape from the world, from what is. And this is exactly what K has warned us not to do—not to escape fromwhat is and not to make any idea our security.
The sacred has become a refuge, our final hope, an end point to our enquiry. Unexamined assumptions are always an end to enquiry, and the ‘sacred’ is no exception. Is K’s message to the world a ‘spiritual’ one because we have assumed the sacred/ profane split, because it will deliver us to a realm beyond suffering, beyond death, beyond the profane? Or are K’s insights religious because they help clarify the deepest of human concerns? Many of us in the West tend to see K’s work as an answer to the universal human condition of alienation and suffering. Coming to grips with K’s work will require all of us, however, to explore the religious contexts and assumptions of his message and of our own traditions.
Seeing K’s teachings as spiritual or psychological is in fact placing them in some larger truth context. Indeed, how are the teachings true? By what authority are the teachings true or relevant to the soteriological or therapeutic quests? Because the teachings make philosophical sense, i.e., make sense out of human experience? Or are the teachings true only if we explore them deeply and see directly the same phenomena K points to?
K focused on several insights over his long career: that truth is a pathless land, that the observer is the observed, that you are the world, that one must be free from the known, that will is a function of self, etc. Though he continually repeated these themes, he also articulated them differently from time to time. These differences help us explore these insights from different angles, allowing us to gain access to them through words that speak to us in particular. When we articulate the way we understand these insights, this deepens our exploration (if only by exposing our confusion).
If truth is a whole — if the various levels of truth cohere with each other and correspond with the world out there — then the psychological success of K’s insights must be supported by sound philosophical meaning. Liberating insight is one level of truth; philosophically clear knowledge is another—and they must cohere or support each other. Let’s take “the observer is the observed” not only as an articulated insight of K’s, but also as a piece of philosophical truth. In articulating this insight, K would sometimes say that this would not apply, for example, to observing a tree: we obviously wouldn’t identify with or ‘become’ the tree. Or he might say the gap between the tree and us as observer disappears. Or more generally, the content of consciousness is consciousness; there is nothing behind the contents of consciousness. Or when you observe the contents of your mind (your feelings, thoughts, images of things), you see the contents are you also.
What can we conclude from these remarks? One, that there is no psychological self behind our thoughts, feelings, observations. Two, there is no consciousness behind the contents of consciousness (including a ‘witness’ or Atman or psychological ego). Three, there is no natural psychological separation between observer and observed—just the constructed gap of tradition and thought. Is all this totally clear? Clear enough to stimulate direct insight?
For some perhaps, but I have questions. For instance, what is it then that has thoughts and feelings if not the psychological self? If there is no underlying consciousness, exactly what are the contents of consciousness? Mental states? And are these mental states really me?
K says that awareness of thoughts, feelings, things just is—in other places, that self is just one set of thoughts looking at another set. I still have questions about where awareness takes place, or how one set of thoughts can seem so real as the nexus of experience. It doesn’t make sense to me to leave it here. It’s still opaque; I can’t penetrate it. But if I reflect hard on my own experience, try to make sense of this teaching in my world, new directions come up for exploration. For example, if I bring in the body as the center of experience, as the self that creates thoughts, then thoughts don’t seem like illusive pieces of a floating mind, and awareness becomes an activity of the brain. Then there is no need for a ‘witness’ other than the body—senses and brain—(why would something else, psychological self or cosmic Self, need to look through the body at the world?) or for thoughts competing with other thoughts. Thoughts and feelings become states of the organism and cannot be projected as ‘other’ or judged as ‘alien.’
The psychological space between observer and observed must be eliminated through insight, but the philosophical gap must be bridged through meaningful explanation. It seems to me that both must be consistent with each other, that truth must cohere on all its levels. I would even venture to say—wholist that I am—that psychological insight will only be as successful as its conceptualization is accurateor true. How could it be otherwise?
The world is a whole. It is our knowledge structure, our thoughts about the world, that is fragmented and contradictory. Our present world is in crisis, not just because we have egos and act selfishly, but also because we are content to live with philosophically absurd views, traditions, conditionings—beliefs that go back thousands of years to a world that bears little resemblance to ours today. Historically, every significant religious founder planted the seed for a completely new worldview. We have yet to implement K’s, or for that matter, the insights of modern biology or modern philosophy. Indeed, K’s dialogue with David Bohm can be seen as an attempt— however incomplete or right or wrong it may be—to articulate a worldview that would be consistent with K’s insights—a wholistic view of reality where the insights of science and psychology and spirituality are consistent with one another, a worldview rising beyond the emptiness of our unquestioned assumptions and our unexplored conditioning.
It is a traditional insight, which merits more attention than it receives, that teaching should not be compared to filling a bottle with water but rather to helping a flower in its own way. As any good teacher knows, the methods of instruction and the range of material covered are matters of small importance as compared with the success in arousing the natural curiosity of the students and stimulating their interest in exploring on their own.
Part of teaching is helping students learn how to tolerate ambiguity, consider possibilities, and ask questions that are unanswerable.
[Sara Lawrence Lightfoot]