Krishnamurti and the Pathless Land

One hundred twenty-one years ago today, the Indian speaker and writer Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986) was born.  He was only 11 when he met a leader of the Theosophical Society who tried to groom him as the next “World Teacher,” their concept of a super-guru from tomorrowland based loosely on Maitreya, the so-called future Buddha.

In 1929, Krishnamurti, then 34, rebelled against the World Teacher gig, disbanded the organization created to support him (Order of the Star in the East), gave all the donated money back, and headed into the endless further.

He became like a roving iconoclast, unaffiliated with any religion, espousing no specific philosophy, rejecting methods and techniques.  He offered a kind of un-teaching.  He wrote books, traveled the world speaking to audiences large and small, punching holes in many a cherished notion.

On the day he dissolved the Order, Krishnamurti said,

I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally.  Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized . . .”

Krishnamurti was the ultimate skeptic.  He felt that if one wasn’t questioning, one wasn’t thinking.  But in a public talk given in 1949, he cautioned,

Skepticism is not cynicism or denial; it is the state of mind that does not agree quickly, that does not accept or take things for granted.  A mind that accepts is seeking, not enlightenment or wisdom, but refuge.”  *

We should not be looking for sanctuaries or safe harbors, but rather keep our minds set upon enlightenment.  Of course, Krishnamurti, being Krishnamurti, the ultimate questioner, might ask, as he did in another talk, “To be enlightened about what? Please let us be rational.” **

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* Sayings of J. Krishnamurti, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Susunaga Weeraperuma, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1996

** Public talk, Saanen, 1980

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Reverence for Life

He may not be so well known today, but at one time in the not too distant past, Albert Schweitzer was one of the most famous individuals in the world and his name was practically synonymous with the word “humanitarian.” He was a German-born theologian, philosopher, physician, musician, and medical missionary in Africa, who is also remembered for his work that challenged both the secular and traditional Christian views of the historical Jesus. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for the philosophy of ethics he called “reverence for life, and he was born on this day in 1875.

According to Dr. David L. Dungan, who teaches in the department of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, “Schweitzer read the great Asian religious texts not as a historian only, but as one whose profound sense of the failure of Christianity led him into a genuine religious quest. In fact, the concept of “reverence for life” occurred to him at a moment when, as he later told a friend, he was meditating not upon Jesus Christ but upon the Buddha.”

Regarding Buddha, Schweitzer is rather famously quoted as saying,

He gave expression to truths of everlasting value and advanced the ethics not of India alone but of humanity. Buddha was one of the greatest ethical men of genius ever bestowed upon the world.”

Yousuf Karsh portrait of Schweitzer
Yousuf Karsh portrait of Schweitzer

When I was very young and Schweitzer was still alive, he was perhaps best known for his role as a medical missionary. But early in his life, Schweitzer enjoyed a somewhat distinguished musical career and also studied theology, planning to become a pastor. In 1905, at age thirty, he changed his mind and decided to go to Africa instead. He began to study medicine at the University of Strasbourg, and in 1913, obtained his M.D. degree. Soon afterward, he founded his hospital at Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa. In 1917 he and his wife became prisoners of war and spent a year in a French internment camp. In 1918, Schweitzer returned to Europe where he spent the next six years, preaching, giving lectures, musical concerts, and writing essays. He did not return to Lambaréné until 1924, and except for a few short periods of time, spent the remainder of his life there. Schweitzer died in 1965.

In a 1936 article, The Ethics of Reverence for Life, Schweitzer wrote,

If I am a thinking being, I must regard other life than my own with equal reverence. For I shall know that it longs for fulness and development as deeply as I do myself. Therefore, I see that evil is what annihilates, hampers, or hinders life. And this holds good whether I regard it physically or spiritually. Goodness, by the same token, is the saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its highest development.”

The idea of “reverence for life” had occurred to Schweitzer as early as 1915. The basic thrust of his philosophy can be summed in a few words that are often used in Buddhism, “do no harm.” Schweitzer was deeply influenced by Indian philosophy and in particular the concept of ahimsa or non-violence, which he acknowledged in his book Indian Thought and Its Development. In the chapter of that book devoted to the teaching of Buddha, he demonstrates that he had grasped the spirit of Buddha’s teachings, commenting on an aspect often misunderstood:

Thus in the world and life negation to which he was devoted, the Buddha kept some measure of naturalness. This is what was great in him. Whilst he mitigated the severity of world renunciation, he made a fresh and great concession to world and life affirmation.”

Although today is the 140th anniversary of Albert Schweitzer’s birth, any day is a good day to recall the lives of those who have contributed to the greater good of humankind by demonstrating a profound reverence for life.

Learn more about Albert Schweitzer at Schweitzerfellowship.org

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Einstein and the Mysterians

Today is the 135th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birth. He is, as they like to say in show business, a man who needs no introduction. It’s thought that Einstein was generally sympathetic to Buddhism, and you may be familiar with this popular quote attributed to him:

Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.  If there is any religion that could respond to the needs of modern science, it would be Buddhism.”

However, as far as I know, these words cannot be traced to a legitimate source, suggesting that it is probably not a genuine Einstein quote.

There are conflicting views about Einstein’s position on religion and spirituality. For instance, another quote attributed to him, “God does not play dice with the universe,” is used to bolster the notion that Einstein believed in a personal God, or at the very least a creator god. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Atheists like to claim him as one of them, but he quite often described himself as agnostic. On one occasion, he said he was a believer in “Spinoza’s God.” Spinoza maintained that God is the only substance of the universe: God is the universe, is nature, is everything.  But I feel Einstein thought of God as a metaphor, and perhaps Spinoza did as well, I am not an expert in his philosophy.

In a speech he gave in Berlin during the 1920’s, Einstein said,

The most beautiful and deepest that man can experience is the feeling of the mysterious. It is the foundation of religion as well as of all deeper striving of art and science.

Who never experienced that seems to me if not a dead person but then a blind person.

To feel that behind the experience of things there is something hidden and unreachable for our spirit, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirect and as a weak reflection, that is religiousness.

In this sense, I am religious. It is sufficient for me to have a presentiment in amazement of these mysteries, and to try with humility to comprehend intellectually a weak reflection of this sublime structure of being.”

It does seem that late in life, according to a recently discovered 1954 letter, Einstein had concluded that God was an expression of human weakness and that religion was childish.

Now, when I think of Albert Einstein these subjects do not usually come to mind, but rather his theory of relativity (e=mc2), and of course, Bob Dylan’s take on the great physicist in “Desolation Row”:

Einstein on Desolation RowEinstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row

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Ubuntu: “I am, because of you.”

Over the past week, during all the tributes and discussion of Nelson Mandela’s life, there was a word I kept hearing. Not surprisingly, during his eulogy at Mandela’s Memorial President Obama also mentioned it:

There is a word in South Africa — Ubuntu, a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: His recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us . . . He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.”

Literally, Ubuntu means “human-ness”, the quality of being human, and it also takes on the connotation of “human kindness.” Ubuntu stems from the African phrase “Ubuntu ngumtu ngabanye abantu” or “A person is a person through other people.” A popular rephrasing is “I am, because of you.”

This sounds similar to the phrase associated with the Buddhist concept of pratitya-samutpada, “because this is, that is.” Ubuntu and pratitya-samutpada are similar. Both concepts communicate the idea of interconnectedness.

We are one race, one people, and as John Donne wrote each of us “is a part of the main,” so the hardships and struggles of one individual, or a few, become those of the many, they become our hardships, our struggles. This seems so simple, and obvious, that it is difficult to think of what else needs saying.

And yet, because there are those who do not recognize our common bonds, who thrive on fragmentation, and because we ourselves can get caught up in our selves and disremember, there is a constant need to keep up a constant reminder.

Now here is something very interesting that I did not know, and perhaps you didn’t either: David Kaczynski, brother of Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber” is Buddhist. As a matter of fact, he is Executive director of the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Buddhist Monastery in Woodstock, New York. From 2001 until his recent retirement, he was also executive director of New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

In an interview earlier this year, Kaczynski talked about the emotions he felt as he suspected his older brother might be a serial bomber, and said,

There is a Buddhist belief that everything is interconnected. The only way to negotiate this situation was to understand that no life is more valuable than another . . . Buddhism is really about human beings finding common ground at the core of their humanity. It’s going to take a deeper approach to solve our most human problems . . .”

So, as David Kaczynski, Nelson Mandela, and so many others, remind us, interconnectedness or Ubuntu is not merely a concept, a philosophy, it is a solution, like Gandhi’s satyagraha (“soul-truth”) and ahimsa (non-violence). It is a Way, a path, a practice.

Since the 1980s Ubuntu has evolved into Ubuntuism, but it is really based on ages-long African practices, and an key element of Ubuntu practice is reconciliation, which needs to be exercised globally, and is something each of us can integrate into our daily lives.

I think there are very few individuals in history who have stepped upon the world stage and shown us the real power of Ubuntu and reconciliation than the man called Madiba:

A traveller through our country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but Ubuntu has various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve?”

– Nelson Mandela

 

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The Never-Ending Battle

Like most American kids growing up anytime during the past 75 years, I was an avid reader of comic books. One of my first heroes was Superman, and not long afterward, I got into Batman, Green Lantern, Flash and all the other DC Comics crusaders. That was an era when superheroes were pretty much one-dimensional. Comics didn’t get really interesting until Marvel Comics came along and brought us superheroes who had angst. The Fantastic Four and Spiderman battled not only evil villains, but personal problems. It was a subtle shift in the way superheroes were presented but it changed comics forever.

Over the weekend, I watched great documentary on PBS called Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle, hosted and narrated by Liev Schreiber. It traced the history of superhero comics from the birth of Superman in 1939 to the present, and it kind of made me regret giving up comics so many years ago. It was a purely economic decision on my part. My meager allowance did not provide me enough money to buy comics and records, and since I was no longer an adolescent but a teenager, rock and roll seemed much cooler.

But I’ve never lost my love for superheroes. I’ve seen most of the new movies and while I find the plots redundant, I can’t help but appreciate the special effects.

In any case, I highly recommend the documentary, especially if you ever loved comics. Among other things, it shines a light on how Marvel’s Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko both revolutionized comic art, and takes a hard look at how comics dealt with issues such as racism and feminism.

chopra-superman2013
Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superguru!

Now, this is a clumsy segue but today is Deepak Chopra’s birthday (he’s 66). One reason I mention both Chopra and superheroes is to give me an excuse to repost the image on the left that I Photoshopped and used in a 2011 post.

I like to call Chopra the Rodney Dangerfield of spirituality/alternative medicine, because he don’t get no respect. As Time magazine noted in a 2008 article, he’s “a magnet for criticism”, but because he is popular (and yes, a bit of a huckster), he’s sometimes used as a TV “talking head” on religious matters, and I think he offers an alternative to the view provided by the adherents of Abrahamic religions that seems to dominate the media.

Another reason I bring Deepak Chopra up is so I can quote from his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes*. Chopra talks about the Law of Transformation. He suggests that what makes superheroes both super and heroes is that they are able to “live without false boundaries between the personal and the universal”:

Transformation is the true nature of every being and of the universe itself. Superheroes are able to recognize their transformational selves and all the various forces at work within them and perceive the world from an infinite number of perspectives. In doing so, superheroes never face a conflict or adversary they are intimidated by or unable to empathize with.”

This may seem to be just more of the sort of easily digestible self-help pabulum Chopra is often taken to task for, but guess what? We can find essentially the same message in the Heart Sutra when it says,

Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita, the most excellent wisdom, and with no hindrance of mind, no fears and no illusions, they enter into Nirvana.”

This world of suffering we inhabit is not different from Nirvana or peace, and when we base ourselves on the law of transformation, which the sutra calls Transcendent Wisdom, we open our lives to the infinite number of perspectives Chopra mentions above.

It’s said that the five skandhas or aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness) are sources of suffering. Actually, we do not suffer from the five skandhas. Suffering comes from the value our mind attaches to them. Tantha (craving) is based on value judgments. If we can change our tendency to cling, to form attachments – in other words, if we change our perspective, then there is a real possibility for transforming our suffering into peace, happiness, Nirvana.

trio-4Superheroes have spiritual laws and they have wisdom, too. Here are some wise bits from my three all-time favorite superheroes.

‘What happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?’ They surrender.”
– Superman (All-Star Superman #3)

 

With great power, there must also come great responsibility.”
– Spiderman (Amazing Fantasy #15)

 

The world must never again mistake compassion for weakness! And while I live — it had better not!”
– Captain America (Avengers, vol.1 #6)

‘Nuff said!

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The above drawings are by the original artists for the three superheroes: Joe Schuster (Superman), Steve Ditko (Spiderman), and Jack Kirby (Captain America).

* Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes, HarperCollins, 2011

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