In the mid-1970s an obscure book, The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects by Alexandra David-Neel and Lama Yongden, landed in my lap, and so too did a paper bag with cassettes — eight talks given by J. Krishnamurti at the University of California San Diego. Both were compelling, challenging, yet completely different and strangely resonant in ways I did not understand. Some forty years later, Always Awakening is my answer to this riddle.
By 1977 I discovered that Krishnamurti was living and speaking part of the year in Ojai, California, two hours from my tiny beach apartment. By 1979 I had attended a number of talks, been invited to lunch at Krishnamurti’s vintage ranch-style home, begun videotaping his annual talks in the Oak Grove, and was filming his major speaking engagements for the first of many productions in Canada, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and India, a process that continued until his death in 1986.
At the very end of Krishnamurti’s remarkable and equally mysterious life, those closest to him gathered to say goodbye, thus beginning a new chapter: documenting how people around the world had been touched by his presence and insights. Evelyne Blau, a trustee of the Krishnamurti Foundation of America and producer of the many projects we would eventually develop, appreciated that the oral histories of those close to or influenced by Krishnamurti were historical and critical if future generations were to have an undistorted record of the man and the message he so passionately shared.
Over one-hundred personal oral histories have been recorded, including that of Samdhong Rinpoche, the highest-ranking Tibetan Buddhist scholar, first elected Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister) of the Central Tibetan Administration in Exile, and close advisor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who had spent time in direct and personal dialogue with Krishnamurti over many years. It has been said that perhaps there is no other person, apart from Rinpoche Samdhong, who understands and implements the profound thoughts of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
I knew none of this when we met for our first interview in 1987 near Deer Park, where 2,500 years earlier the Indian prince Gautama Siddhartha began his ministry. At that time Rinpoche Samdhong was serving as the Principal/Director of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies (Postgraduate Teachings and Research), Sarnath, Varanasi. From our first interview:
The Buddha and Krishnaji both tried to communicate the reality they perceived. But it is very difficult to describe the similarities or dissimilarities between these two personalities. They lived in different times, in different environments, and had different listeners. One thing we can say in definite terms is that the Buddha and Krishnamurti approached this challenge very differently.
When Buddha teaches people, he comes down to the level of the listener, whereas Krishnaji doesn’t come down to the level of the listener; he always speaks from his level. The Buddha deals with two levels: namely, the relative and the absolute. When Buddha speaks of the absolute, I personally do not find any difference with Krishnaji’s teachings or the Buddha’s teachings of Prajnaparamita or the absolute truth.
When Buddha speaks of relative truth, he always compromises with the acceptance and notions and thoughts of people with whom he is speaking, but Krishnaji never compromises or accepts the conditions or the levels of his listeners. The other difference between them has to do with the preparation of the listeners. Krishnamurti is silent or doesn’t speak about preparation, whereas the Buddha dealt a great deal with preparation of the person to reach the level of transformation. Both share a similar position that the moment of transformation or transmutation does not involve time, no graduation. It must be spontaneous and immediate. The perception is perception. There is no growing slowly, no graduation or becoming, anything like that. But Buddha dealt with the preparation of the person to reach up to that level with certain graduations and methods. Krishnaji never accepted these things.
I admit being stunned then and now by the statement, “When Buddha speaks of the absolute, I personally do not find any difference with Krishnaji’s teachings or the Buddha’s teachings of Prajnaparamita or the absolute truth.” To find no difference implies, at least to me, that the two teachers experienced the same absolute reality and quite naturally were using different words and metaphors to describe their shared insight with completely different audiences, worlds apart and separated by 2,500 years. Did Krishnamurti experience and share what is called the Buddha Nature? Always Awakening explores this question. From our interview in Dharamsala, India:
One thing no one can deny. Krishnamurti appeared in this world. He talked for sixty to seventy years and no one will be able to contradict his statements through logic or in any other way anything he has said. We may understand. We may not understand. But no one can prove them wrong. This fact is undeniable. This is the history. He was with us as one of the ordinary human beings. He walked around. He had happiness and sorrow. He had relationships, some good relationships, sometimes strained relationships. All the things that happen to ordinary human beings happened to him. His reactions may have been different but everything that happens to ordinary human beings happened to him. No one can stop what he has said. Not only said, but his words were recorded. A thousand years in the future people will witness the publications, and not only the publications but the visuals also. This is for the entire world. That is most important. No other teacher in human history has been so accurately documented.
Over these many years, the notion that “we are not who or what we think we are” provided a strange bridge between Krishnamurti’s so-called teachings and the very little I knew of Tibetan Buddhism. The whole question of enlightenment, self-realization, seeing the truth or the nature of illusion, along with the hundreds of hours of talks and dialogues I had experienced of Krishnamurti, seemed to focus on the images and beliefs we have of ourselves and others; in a word, identity.
If we are not who or what we think we are and this collection of images and beliefs creates our reality, the world and all our relationships as we know them are built on a relatively false foundation. The relative reality the learned Rinpoche spoke about years earlier is relatively not true, relatively not sane, and this relatively insane reality is the source of our affairs and why our affairs, even with the best of intentions, so often appear like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
The Buddha’s teachings describing the absolute and Krishnamurti’s description of a silent mind point to a state of perception and implicit identity and therefore a relationship that is true, accurate, sane, and clear. I had collected a number of interviews exploring this in 2008 when Rinpoche Samdhong was invited to lecture at the University of California Santa Barbara. I asked if we could meet at Krishnamurti’s home in Ojai for an interview. He graciously agreed. Always Awakening begins with this interview.
In 2012 Rinpoche and I were together for a week at the Krishnamurti Educational Center in the United Kingdom and we squeezed in three interviews. In 2014 I traveled to Dharamsala, India for a week, home of the Dalai Lama, Rinpoche, and the Tibet government in exile, where we deepened and expanded our exploration together, now representing over sixteen hours.
The art and craft of film, drama or documentary is one of creating relationships. Having recorded well over three-hundred interviews, one-hundred plus with or about Krishnamurti, my approach begins with a theme that deepens, twists, and expands, given the flow of unfolding meaning. Preparation is key. Having traveled with Krishnamurti, filmed, recorded, and edited his talks and interviews for thirty-five years, the ground for our inquiry was well prepared. Missing, at least for me, was a basic understanding of Buddhism. I turned primarily to the writings of the Dalai Lama starting with his first major publication for the West, The Opening of the Wisdom-Eye, published in 1966. I followed this with six other books by the Dalai Lama, several dense academic works that were admittedly very difficult, books on Tibet, and generally anything that might seem to enrich the experience. I arrived in India with three one-inch binders overflowing with notes, questions, and references.
I share this to provide a context for both the meandering flow of the conversations on the right-hand pages, and the synergistic power of the quotes found on the left. In many cases the quotes on the left are the sources for the explorations on the right. I find the juxtapositions often generate an exponential effect in depth, context, and understanding.
Always Awakening is a collection of related themes: The self as we know it; Emptiness; What is it that reincarnates?; Different realms, dimensions and realities; Relative and absolute realities; With or without methods; The coming of the future Buddha; If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him; Why do you remain a Buddhist?; What is consciousness?; Maya and the power of self-deception; No psychological becoming; Samsara is the result of ignorance; Ignorance is the ego; Mediums, oracles, and celestial realms; Ignorance cannot be removed by ignorance; Krishnamurti’s legacy: Constant Challenging; Exploitation of the ego by the ego; To understand the real teaching, you need to transform yourself; and more. All are metaphors pointing to something that cannot be put into words.
Always Awakening points to this unnamable. If I can be so presumptuous, the experience the book creates is not an accumulation of more information or a clever banter of comparisons; rather it is, hopefully, a catalyst for a penetrating insight into the simple but elusive common perception, source or essence of both Krishnamurti’s and Buddhist teachings. Rinpoche Samdhong refers to this unnamable as our Buddha Nature. So does Sogyal Rinpoche, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:
So whatever our lives are like, our Buddha Nature is always there. And it is always perfect. We say that not even the Buddhas can improve it in their infinite wisdom, nor can sentient beings spoil it in their seemingly infinite confusion. Our true nature could be compared to the sky, and the confusion of the ordinary mind to clouds. Some days the sky is completely obscured by clouds.
We should always try and remember: the clouds are not the sky, and do not belong to it. They only hang there and pass by in their slightly ridiculous and non-dependent fashion. And they can never stain or mark the sky in any way. So where exactly is this Buddha Nature? It is in the sky-like nature of our mind. Utterly open, free, and limitless, it is fun, so simple and so natural that it can never be complicated, corrupted, or stained, so pure that it is beyond even the concept of purity and impurity. To talk of this nature of mind as sky-like, of course, is only a metaphor that helps us to begin to imagine its all-embracing boundlessness; for the Buddha Nature has a quality the sky cannot have — that of the radiant clarity of awareness. As it is said: “It is simply your flawless, present awareness, cognizant and empty, naked and awake.”
Renowned physicist David Bohm summarized our challenge: “We are faced with a breakdown of general social order and human values that threatens stability throughout the world. Existing knowledge cannot meet this challenge. Something much deeper is needed, a completely new approach. I am suggesting that the very means by which we try to solve our problems is the problem. The source of our problems is within the structure of thought itself.”
An operating system that has preferences, likes and dislikes, anxiety, phobias, is judgmental, paranoid, that conforms to the opinions of others, that is subject to fits of anger and rage, is greedy and narcissistic, how reliable is that, how sane? Quoting Krishnamurti, “how can you live a truly religious life when you are blind?” Or compassionate or even clear, truthful, intelligent, accurate and therefore reliable? Perhaps more kindly, Buddhists begin by saying we are ignorant of our own true nature. Bohm noted that part of this ignorance is the way the operating system defends itself by pretending, concealing and then trying to convince others that it is not ignorant, a symptom of the blindness Krishnamurti refers to. Krishnamurti and Buddhism address the nature of this blindness head on.
Consciousness as we know it is the thought realm David is referring to. He, like Krishnamurti’s and Buddha’s teachings, realizes that a problem cannot be solved at the level of the problem. Something outside, something other, the unnamable must intervene, like a bolt of lightning that illuminates, revealing that the imagined snake in the corner is only a coiled bit of rope. We are the snake and don’t know it.
Alexandra David-Neel and Lama Yongden begin The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects:
It is a long time since the idea of writing this book occurred to me. One fine summer afternoon I had explained my plan to a learned Tibetan who led a life of contemplation in a little house on the rocky side of a mountain. He was not encouraging.
“Waste of time,” he said. “The great majority of readers and hearers are the same all over the world. I have no doubt that the people in your country are like those I have met in China and India, and these later were just like Tibetans. If you speak to them of profound Truths they yawn, and, if they dare, they leave you, but if you tell the absurd fables they are all eyes and ears. They wish the doctrines preached to them, whether religious, philosophical, ore social to be agreeable, to be consistent with their conceptions, to satisfy their inclinations, in fact that they find themselves in them, and that they feel themselves approved by them...”
…What, then, was that something that wanted to be agreeably caressed, satisfied – It was the collection of false notions, of unreasonable propensities, of feelings of a rudimentary sensuality which is distinguished under the puppet named “I”...
…”One may proclaim on the high road the Teachings considered secret, they will remain ‘secret’ for the individuals with dull minds who will hear what is said to them and will grasp nothing of it but the sound.”…
You have heard them. Do with them as you think fit. They are very simple, but, like a powerful battering-ram, they run counter to the wall of false ideas rooted in the mind of man and the emotions which delight him casting him into suffering… Try!”
One fine summer afternoon sitting across the table Krishnamurti leaned forward and asked about the documentary in progress: “Sir, I have only said one thing my entire life but I have said it a thousand ways,” implying his revolutionary declaration in 1929 that there is ‘no path to Truth’, that no concept, idea or thought can hold or contain life, creation, which is spontaneously moving, changing and transforming moment by moment.
Alan Watts, an early translator of Eastern thought, paraphrased this seminal insight by saying simply; ‘you can’t catch the wind in a paper sack.’ I prefer, ‘with a sack over our head.’ To be aware, without choice, and therefore to be influenced by what Krishnamurti and other traditions called Truth, which is what we actually are, our identification with language, thought, concepts, memory and their implicit conditioning must end. The most distilled description of this choiceless state is Always Awakening.
When asked, “but sir, what is your teaching?’ Krishnamurti turned and said, `There is no teaching. It's very simple. Where the ‘I’ is, that is not.” The ‘I’ in this case represents our identification with memory, language thought in all its various forms. Then Krishnamurti questioned, like the learned Tibetan a century earlier: “Do you really think this will make any difference?” Without hesitation I replied, “Sir, I have no idea, but we need to try.”
Krishnamurti often used “the perfume of the teachings” to redirect our attention to the unnamable dimension his thousand metaphors point to. The word, the concept is not the perfume. With any luck you will catch wind of this perfume as you turn each page, slipping through the space, the silence between one thought and the next, Always Awakening.
August 7, 2015