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The Buddha and J. Krishnamurti: Reflections

The following is my principle response, slightly revised, to a gentleman named Martin, based in the UK, concerning the definition of enlightenment as well as possible relationships between the teachings of J. Krishnamurti and the historical Buddha.


Hi Martin,

It seems your issues boil down to the following:

  1. What is enlightenment?
  2. How does the arahant change on account of becoming an arahant?  (The person’s “secular nature” as you put it.)  How does he/she not change?
  3. How do K and the Buddha compare, in terms of their attainments, teachings, effects?
  4. How might one coming from K’s “slant” (such as you) make sense of the teachings in the Pali Canon (i.e., the historical Buddha)?


Question #1: What is enlightenment?

Oddly, the first question is probably the easiest to answer.  Here goes:

Enlightenment is the cessation of subjectivity.

Anything else you say about enlightenment (or “awakening”—which is the more accurate term) is a cultural add-on, an expectation borrowed from somebody’s tradition, and is, by that fact, unnecessary or gratuitous, though this is not to say undesirable.

As for an explanation…

As long as your normal waking state of mind is self-referential, intuitively perceiving that “there is someone” over and against other “someones” or nature itself, or if your experience is characterized by a discrete (even if ultimately indefinable) center that interacts with phenomena—be they in the body or in consciousness or “exterior” in the sense of people and events—you are not enlightened.  A person in this state (99.999% of humanity) “suffers” because regardless of their emotional-cognitive state (happy, sad, successful, comfortable, etc), he or she is always limited in power and scope and subject to ending at any time.  These facts are the source and cause of anxiety; this anxiety is dukkha.  All popular religion (including religious Buddhism) is an effort to overcome this anxiety, though the solutions offered are invariably contrived and ultimately futile.  (K made this point again and again, and it was one of the best things he did in the course of his career.  You can also learn this from the existential philosophers—Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, Nietzsche, etc.)

The word for this state of affairs is subjectivity, and for all intents and purposes, anxiety is the operationalization of subjectivity.  If subjectivity is a state of being, anxiety is its expression.  This way of existing is subjective because it always exists in relation to (or, as often as not, in conflict with) an object—something or someone else.  Or, alternatively, the presence of objects (in consciousness) gives the lie that a subject must exist.  This is the experience of the putthujjana—the “worldling,” as he/she is called in the Pali Suttas.  (Note: Subjectivity is not identical with consciousness.  This is a common mistake, made by, among others, J-P Sartre and horror author Thomas Ligotti in his mostly excellent book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.  Failure to understand this distinction leads to many problems….)

In the Buddha’s teaching the experience of waking up (bodhi) is nirvana (nibbana in Pali).  Nirvana is the disruption or cessation of the lie of subjectivity.  It is a discontinuity in (subjective) consciousness.  That is why even the stream enterer (sotapanna)—lowest in the echelon of awakened beings—knows intuitively that the self is a mirage; he/she has seen the cessation of the subject, though has not yet permanently done away with it; the arahant has.  Note that the Buddha never said there is no self.  Anatta means “not self,” the point being that if you look for a self or subject you will not find it, simply because it is always something (mis)construed from experience; there is no self/subject inherent in experience.  You could say the self is the “solid” form of the subjective, a hypostatization of an ever-present characteristic of the worldling’s experience.  But again, one cannot discover a self in the actual datum of experience.

So: awakening is the cessation of this contradictory and unsatisfactory state of affairs.

(I should point out that the ego, as the personality complex or expression of a particular person’s being-in-the-world, is totally different from the phenomenon of subjectivity.  The ego exists as an activity or expression, not an entity.  It is not in the least subjective, though an unenlightened person will necessarily conflate his/her ego with the “experience” of subjectivity.  Unfortunately, the English language is insufficiently nuanced in this regard; both in common parlance and scholarly circles “self,” “subject,” and “ego” are terms often used—mistakenly—as if they were interchangeable.  This is a particularly difficult issue I could write about at length, though it would take us a bit off track.)

Enlightenment typically happens by one of two means: the gradual or developmental path (as in the Buddha’s teaching in the Pali Suttas) or the “sudden” or “nondual” path, as in some Mahayana schools and Advaita.  (Tibetan Vajrayana—and tantrism in general—shows characteristics of both.)  The developmental path progresses through a gradual unfolding in which the goal (nonduality or non-subjectivity) steadily comes more and more into focus, culminating in the mind of the arahant.  The sudden or nondual path is, per its name, immediate and without apparent stages or states; the end state simply materializes, though usually after a period of striving.  Now while it is common for people in the latter camp to assume their path is superior to the former, the results are the same, and I suspect the way in which any individual attains the goal is more a matter of his/her particular practice and innate hardwiring rather than one path being better than the other.  Interestingly, the Buddha, though his teaching in the Pali Suttas is developmental in nature, seems to have gone from unenlightened to fully enlightened in one night (after six years of hard work, of course), which is a feat more characteristic of what you’d see in the nondual tradition (think Ramana Maharshi).  Whether or not his state subsequently underwent modification can’t be told from what’s recorded in the Canon.

Then you have what I refer to as “naturals”—people who without even trying just seem to wake up.  Their experiences are usually characterized by intense kundalini phenomena and appear almost biological in nature (UG Krishnamurti was quite emphatic that this is indeed the case).  The end states for these people are invariably nondual in nature—subjectless, I-less—and they are typically less effective as teachers helping regular sorts because they themselves did not go through the trials and tribulations of “getting enlightened.”  People in this camp would be both Krishnamurtis, Ramana Maharshi, Franklin Jones (aka Adi Da) to an extent, and some others.


Question #2: The changing/unchanging arahant

There are many indications from the suttas that the basic character of a person is not altered by awakening.  Since enlightenment as I have defined it is “merely” the cessation of subjectivity, it stands to reason that if you’re a science geek and bookworm before your awakening, you will assuredly be the same after.  Similarly, if you’re naturally a gregarious, fun-loving kind of guy, this will probably not stop being the case after your transformation.  This shouldn’t surprise us too much, really.  After all, “character” (ego, if you will)—that is someone’s particular complex of mental and behavioral traits—is peripheral to “being a self”; it is simply an aggregate of patterns, not a core process or fact of experience, like subjectivity, which is ipso facto the putthujjana’s experience regardless of what kind of person s/he is.  And so we find in the suttas that Ananda continued being the highly social, charismatic guy he clearly was both before and after his enlightenment (all stages of it).  And Mahakassapa, who appears to have been a somewhat surly, rough edged sort inclined toward solitude, was this way before and after.  And Sariputta, clearly the Sangha’s chief intellectual after the Buddha, did not somehow stop being an intellectual after he became an arahant.

What does tend to change as one spiritually evolves is a reduction in unskillful (i.e. unethical) behaviors.  These would subside during the course of practice and as practice bears fruit.  However, it is possible in some circumstances to come to deep states of awakening and yet still stand on very shaky grounds ethically.  This was the case with Adi Da as well as J. Krishnamurti.  Notice though that both these men were what I call “naturals,” and their spiritual careers were dominated by spontaneous kundalini phenomena.  Both shunned—even boohooed—the traditional external trappings or practices of asceticism, of self-abnegation, of ethical rules.  So while Adi Da was an athlete of extreme shakti experiences, my wife, upon seeing a photo of him, immediately said “He looks corrupt,” correctly diagnosing him as a moral failure.

Despite examples such as these, what seems clear from the suttas and from most every other body of contemplative literature is that advanced spiritual states are hindered, not facilitated, by immoral behavior.  The reason should be obvious: unethical practices create more conflicts, more problems, more headaches, than ethical practices.  They are destructive of mental calm, not to mention community.  And so the Buddha’s path as proclaimed in the Pali Suttas is arguably the most rigorous and explicitly ethical training found in any religious literature anywhere.  Moreover, that literature tells some very illuminating stories—Agulimala is the most famous—about people being morally transformed by their enlightenments—or, more accurately, by their assiduously following and practicing the path that led to their enlightenments.

Do you see the difference?  Spontaneous awakening versus following a path to awakening (whether nondual or developmental).  The former may yield totally benign results—as in UG Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi—or dangerous results—like Sai Baba and Franklin Jones (Adi Da)—or mostly benign results with serious lapses—such as J. Krishnamurti.  However, following a structured path, especially one with an ethically coherent and comprehensive system such as that of the Pali Canon, offers a higher likelihood of success in terms of producing morally benevolent, enlightened men and women than does anything else.

So to get back to the original question: What really changes for the arahant and what doesn’t change?  I think I’ve answered the latter part pretty clearly.  As for the former: what ends is anxiety, frustration, suffering, dukkha.  Moreover, the tendency to engage in unskillful behaviors that might aggravate or perpetuate suffering is greatly ameliorated.  Why?  Because once the subject-object dilemma no longer troubles one, if subjectivity has ceased, who is there to suffer?  Why engage in, why practice, suffering?  (An interesting notion that—unethical behavior as the “practice” of suffering.)  Mere phenomena arise, but nobody is home.  When the house burns down (as it inevitably does), nobody is there to get burned.


Question #3: K vs the Buddha

How was K like the Buddha? 

Several ways:

Spiritual presence: K clearly had the ability to awaken altered states of attentiveness and quietness in his listeners.  This was attested to over and over again.  I myself encountered this phenomenon in the person of Ven. Nyanavimala, an 80+ year old German Theravadan monk, easily the most remarkable man I ever encountered.  It is a palpably real phenomenon.  The Buddha, even assuming exaggerations in the texts, had this ability or power to an extreme degree: spontaneous enlightenments occurred around him quite frequently, often at the conclusion of short, emphatic lectures or personal interviews.  The most remarkable such instance was the stunning and complete transformation of the wanderer Bahiya, to whom the Buddha delivered a pregnant and powerful sermon (a few lines, really) and the guy became an arahant just like that.  (The Buddha pronounced him the “fastest to attain the goal” among all his disciples.  See the sutta here.)

Charismatic speakers: Reading K, looking at his pictures, reading about responses people had to him, one cannot help but sense the enormous dignity and charisma of the man.  He was not simply good looking in the ordinary sense, he was special looking.  Not to mention the fact that he was devastating in argument or retort when challenged.  Again, the Buddha possessed these attributes to an exceptional degree, so much so that the leaders of rival schools would try to dissuade their disciples from going to talk to him or hear his sermons because they almost invariably ended up becoming his followers.  (They accused him of being a “magician” on account of this!)  In this sense the Buddha was, I think, perhaps the most persuasive man on record, in any literature I’ve ever read (fictional, historical, religious, contemporary).

Born psychologists: Both men were psychologists par excellence, and both laid out their analyses of the human condition in startlingly original, non-authoritarian, non-ideological terms.  In both cases there was no recourse to belief—one was merely invited to listen and do the experiment oneself, to watch oneself and see what happened.  This is perhaps the place where it is most natural and easy to compare them, and the comparison is appropriate.

Mindfulness: If you boil K’s teaching down to one word, I would say “mindfulness”.  He’s constantly encouraging his listeners to observe, to watch, to pay attention.  This is the “right mindfulness” (samma sati) of the eightfold path.  Since this particular tool lies at the heart of both men’s teachings it is not surprising they would, to a great extent, end up sounding alike.

How are the two men different? 

The problem, as you pointed out, was that K seemed to expect a spontaneous alteration upon hearing him speak, provided one listened with “right attention.”  (Clearly he was an advocate of “sudden enlightenment.”)  This may have happened on occasion, but I doubt there were many such cases.  As a “method” it leaves much to be desired—it is too narrow and assumes everyone can instantly gain such insight.  And, even if they do, what do they then do with that insight?  How do they develop it?  These kinds of questions K would not or could not answer.  By contrast, the Buddha offered a complete program of ethical and meditative training.  It was explicitly “gradual,” with the expectation being that people would apply themselves over time and change accordingly.  K, on the other hand, seemed positively annoyed when people asked him how to do what he was talking about.  The result was that K can claim few if any people who transformed and became like him—the Buddha, even granting exaggerations in the texts, clearly helped awaken thousands of people during the course of his ministry.

A few points stand out pertaining to the above: 1) The role of concentration: K actually disdained the development of concentration, making fun of mantras, breath counting and the like.  The Buddha, on the other hand, recognized that concentration was a necessary tool of mental training and that a concentrated mind would more likely attain the goal.  2) The role of effort: Since K hesitated to tell people what to do, the role of effort was sidelined in his “program”.  The Buddha, on the other hand, said strong, goal oriented effort was the single most important key to success.  In this sense the Buddha was talking to the average Joe, the person who wants to change, wants to know how to change, and then needs a kick in the butt to get going.  K’s method almost guaranteed that a great many people would get lost in intellectualizing because they were given very little to hang onto in a practical sense.  3) Conventional religious practice: K, of course, was the great iconoclast.  He disdained pretty much everything about organized religion.  In the process, though, he threw out a lot that is actually helpful.  I think the Buddha was more discriminating in this sense: he knew what to criticize and chuck out (sacrifices, hierarchy based on birth or profession, etc) and what to keep (useful terminology, practices that could be redirected to his ends, prevailing mythologies that spurred effort, etc).

Use of organizations: The Buddha made much more effective use of human organizations, both in terms of how he played local politics (influencing leaders) and in terms of building a sangha.  As a result, he had a much bigger impact in his day, and his impact will assuredly be far more durable.  (Well, it’s already lasted 2,400 years plus….)

Teaching of meditation: Relating to my first point—the Buddha offered many methods of mental cultivation, different types of concentration practices, insight practices, and heart practices (for example the Brahma Viharas, which can also be used for insight).  He was a much broader, more eclectic and adaptive teacher than K.

Attainments: It is difficult, even silly, to compare attainments of various teachers—kind of like comparing superheroes.  (“Batman could kick Spiderman’s ass!”)  Nonetheless, if you look at the literatures (the Suttas versus other contemplative writings) with consideration for the degree of mastery over mental states—development of powers (siddhis), concentration states, fruitions, nondual states, etc—the Buddha appears to me unsurpassed in this regard.  I haven’t encountered any other literature detailing such a wide degree of effective mental mastery as I see in the Pali Canon—at least not as it applies to one particular individual.  Krishnamurti, on the other hand, seems simply to have been the beneficiary of good genes; I would hardly call him a “master of consciousness.”

Finally, as regards the ethical sphere: Because K’s teaching was in fact quite narrow in terms of being a vehicle of training, he did not touch upon or emphasize the ethical sphere so much.  This is not surprising, given that he was humping his business manager’s wife for a couple decades.  (Oh the cognitive dissonance!!)  The Buddha’s side of this hardly needs any comment; you can learn more about ethical integrity from Warren Buffett than you can from J. Krishnamurti.


An after-note on the above: I came across a quote (don’t know the source) of a dialogue between K and a student.  Here it is:

Question: After having us shown the goal and emphasized the necessity for destruction, can you make somewhat clearer the means by which we may reach that goal? Much stress has been laid on the destructive side of the work. Why is the constructive one so vaguely spoken of?

Krishnamurti: “The necessity for destruction” – I do not know of what! …. “After having shown us the goal… ” – I have not shown you the goal. I want to awaken the desire in you to see the goal, and you will see it. If I showed you the goal, the absolute truth without finality, it would not be the truth for you; and if I establish for you the way towards the truth, it will not be the way for you. It is easy to establish a way, to lay down certain ethical moral laws which will bind you, but that is not my purpose… “Can you make somewhat clearer the means by which we shall reach the goal?” – But surely that is what I have been trying to do! That is what I have been trying to explain. But you must understand, you must create the goal, the path, not I. You would like me to say: “Get up in the morning at such and such a time, meditate for so many hours. Do not eat this but eat that. Think this but do not think that.” You would like me to circumscribe, limit your life and your understanding. You will then think that that is showing you the way. Life points the way to him who is desirous of understanding the truth.

No doubt this will sound very familiar to you—K evades any specific prescriptions, to the point where it leaves his listener in the dark, so to speak.  The Buddha, on the other hand, had a knack for diagnosing where people were and then giving them the teaching they needed while at the same time indicating that the listener/student had to do the work.  K also says this but is vague about what “the work” is!  The difference between these two approaches—in terms of substantive, life-altering changes—is night and day.  Compare, for example, K’s response to his interlocutor to the Buddha’s with Bahiya.  These two examples well illustrate the respective approaches of—and results obtained by—the two men.


Question #4: What should someone from the Krishnamurti camp make of the Buddha’s teaching?

For someone such as you to come to meaningful and positive terms with the Buddha’s teaching is not so hard.  The point is to focus on what K did right: his descriptions of where people are (the mind of the “worldling”), where they want to go (the mind of clarity and nonduality), and one of the principle tools to use to accomplish that transformation—mindfulness.  All you really have to do is notice that the Buddha’s eightfold path includes mindfulness. (It is part of the threefold training—sila “morality”, samadhi “concentration”, paññā “wisdom”.)  So you do not have to “throw K out of the ring.”  He’s in the ring for a reason and has something to say.  He has expressed some very deep insights quite eloquently, in ways that modern people can easily approach.  I would suggest viewing what he has taught as part of a larger enterprise that can engage your whole person.  This should be quite clear if you really consider the eightfold path of the Buddha.  So much of what K talked about can be used to describe parts of that path, with the added benefit that the B’s teachings give you more practical tools by which to work with what K said.

I remember one instance I read about where K really did get practical.  It was a question put to him in some school.  He was dealing with kids and so couldn’t take the lofty, intellectual approach he’s best known for.  He had to get down to their level.  He told them to close their eyes and start watching their thoughts.  Watch them arise, watch them persist, watch them go. Well, there’s a name for this: dhammanupassana—“mindfulness of mental objects.”  You can find descriptions of this scattered throughout the suttas, but especially in the Satipatthana Sutta, which is the single densest meditation instruction in the Pali Canon.  (See especially parts C & D.)  So….it’s all there.  But, this doesn’t work for some people.  Some need the breath (anapanasati) (part A1), or mindfulness of the body (kayanupassana) (part A 2-3), or something else—maybe loving kindness (mettabhavana) or work with a kasina.

So my biggest critique of K would be to say that, contrary to his assertions, there is a “how”.  And asking “how” is perfectly legit.  If you’re lost, simply being told you’re lost is not helpful; you need instructions.  I would recommend any of the Buddhist traditions, as well as the Hindu yogic and Advaita traditions, as excellent resources for learning how to get to where you want to go.

One final note: There are many clues in print about K’s own attitude and beliefs as regards the historical Buddha.  See, for example, the following web page, which details some of them:


Apparently K believed he had been a monk in the Sangha during the time of the Buddha.  Regardless of one’s take on the ideas of reincarnation and rebirth, this says quite a lot!

Hope some of this helps, though I’m guessing I’ve raised as many questions as answered.  Let me know what you think.




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