Meeting Krishnamurti by Larry Rosenberg and Madeline Drexler | November 2011
An Interview with Larry Rosenberg, founder of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center (interviewer: Madeline Drexler)
Larry Rosenberg met Krishnamurti in the late 1960s and continued the conversation until K's death in 1986.
Rosenberg earned a doctorate degree in social psychology from the University of Chicago, and has taught at Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and Brandeis University. He is a senior teacher at Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts, and founder of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rosenberg is the author of "Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation and Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Fully Alive". He was interviewed by Madeline Drexler, a Boston-based science journalist and author, and editor of the Harvard Public Health Review. The interview took place on August 24, 2009.
Q: Let's talk about the influence of Krishnamurti on your life and on your teaching.
A: To begin with, although he died in 1986, he is still very much alive in me. He's in my bones. Of all the teachers that I've had, he had the most powerful effect – far and away.
Q: Because of what he was teaching or how he was teaching?
A: I can't make a separation – it was both. Who he was, and the content of his teachings, were like music to my ears.
Larry Rosenberg Some background information might be helpful. I met him in the late '60s – '67, '68. I was teaching social psychology at Brandeis University at the time. My colleague, Professor Morrie Schwartz – the key figure in the book Tuesdays with Morrie – started insisting that I meet K. He said, "Larry, I was in New York for the last few weeks, and I heard this Indian gentleman at the New School for Social Research. I didn't understand a word he was saying, but I know it's exactly what you're looking for. And he's coming to Brandeis."
I said, "Morrie, it's OK, it's OK." I wasn't drawn to what Morrie was telling me in the least. He said, "No, no, no, you really have to listen to him. It's what you've been looking for." I said, "Well, what was he talking about?" He answered, "I haven't got a clue. But I know it's for you. I really do." I said, "OK, what's his name?" "J. Krishnamurti." I said, "Why is he going to be on the Brandeis campus?" He said that Professor James Klee, in the psychology department, had arranged it. Every year, they had a distinguished person come to Brandeis as a guest of the film department. Krishnamurti was invited to be in residence for a week; his talks were to be filmed. I had never heard of him but decided to at least turn up and hear what he had to say.
I was in Harvard Square about a week before K was due to arrive, browsing at a highly intellectual, academic bookstore. I asked the owner if he had any books by someone called Krishnamurti. I was fairly confident that he would not be included in this gathering of profound thinkers. To my surprise, he directed me to the one book of K's on the shelf – Think on These Things.
I had never read anything that responded with such simplicity and depth to the fundamental challenges facing us all
I started leafing through it. How could such a book make its way into this bookstore? Krishnamurti was speaking to children about the challenges they faced growing up and meeting life. His language was simple, ordinary, concrete, and direct. I had never read anything that responded with such simplicity and depth to the fundamental challenges facing us all – ostensibly for children, while at the same time going straight to my heart, an educated professor in his mid-thirties. I was very moved. Any hesitation about attending his week of teaching was gone.
So Krishnamurti shows up. Now, one more contextual factor, which was a significant part of why this had such a powerful impact on me. At the time, a feeling of separation from academic life was emerging in me. I had been in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, which I mistakenly blamed for this problem. I left after only two years, returning to teach at the University of Chicago, where I had spent many happy years. However, it turned out that it wasn't what I wanted, either, so I left after a year to accept an offer from Brandeis University.
What I learned at Harvard was very painful. I was all "puffed up" about teaching social psychology and doing research at Harvard. The honeymoon lasted about six months. I started to meet real people and see it's just life, just human beings full of vanity and neurosis and unfulfillment, though some were fulfilled. All my hopes were dashed.
For the first time in my life, I had money – for me. Women were much more interested in me now. I often wore a Harvard sweatshirt, had Harvard stationary, and was in many ways quite pleased with myself. I had my own apartment very close to Harvard Square, rather than always needing roommates, as in graduate school, in order to pay the rent. It was one version of the American dream, intensified by very proud family appreciation of such accomplishments. My father was a taxi cab driver from Russia with a fourth grade education, and here I am in academic paradise!
But as time unfolded, I saw that I was still conflict-ridden and under self-imposed pressure to prove myself – to myself. There was a really outstanding resume. A book and many research articles had already been published while still a graduate student, mainly due to immense drive and hard work.
Then a certain disillusionment set in, as I mentioned – first finding fault with Harvard, then Chicago and finally with Brandeis. Gradually I realized that there was nothing wrong with these great centers of academic learning. The problem was me! I was looking in the wrong place for the kind of inner peace and happiness that I so longed for. I had to start looking at myself. How do you do that? To begin with, squandering so much psychic energy blaming "the university" for failing to fulfill my deluded thinking started to drop away. There was a period of grief and sadness at the loss of what was, at one time, such a wonderful source of identity and security.
I hope that these few biographical remembrances can, to some degree, help the reader grasp why the meeting with Krishnamurti had such an immense impact on me. I was one very ripe banana!
Q: This disillusionment is what Morrie Schwartz was alluding to?
A: Probably. I was always groping after New Age things and asking about psychedelic drugs, meditation, yoga and diet. It was very early in my search – just scratching around. I really didn't know much.
When Krishnamurti arrived, there was already a decline in the passion I once had for academic study. I had been extremely enthusiastic about being a professor. I was really on fire about study, research and the teaching of academic social psychology. But for a few embers, the flame had all but gone out. I knew so much about the mind – mostly other people's. What about my own?
So in comes Krishnamurti. The first day was informal. I was in a room with him. They gave him quarters, as I recall, in the faculty club, where guest professors stayed. Morrie Schwartz set it up so that I could meet with him. Krishnaji – as he was called – and I sat down and began to chat. He was dressed beautifully: a British gentleman. As an aside, I recall smiling to myself and thinking that this is what the two Jewish senior professors must have meant with their advice to me as a young, nervous and new teacher at Harvard: "The secret of success here is to think Yiddish but dress British."
K wore exquisite clothing and shoes. His manner was courtly, warm and very friendly. But early in our conversation, I started to feel extremely uncomfortable. Why? We were just sitting there, and he had no agenda, seemed relaxed and at ease. Was it because he was world famous? No. Krishnaji was making fun of himself, being invited to come to a university to be the Man of the Year for this filming. With a full laugh, he said he had not read much and had never even been to college. After an hour or so we parted. I realized that I was so uncomfortable because he was extraordinarily attentive to me, yet at the same time quite relaxed.
Now I had already known people who were very attentive to me – for example, my mother and father. But there was tension in it : "What is this lunatic up to now? Up to no good in school again?" It was a loving, caring interest, but also tense and worried. I wasn't used to that quality of attention without tension. This was new to me. The first of many valuable lessons to be learned from Mr. J. Krishnamurti.
Q: How was his attentiveness conveyed? Did he sit forward and look at you?
A: No, no, that's the whole point. It was all quite natural.
Q: He met your gaze? He asked you questions?
A: Yes, but mainly he was completely relaxed and appeared to be listening fully. It was not like, "Now I'm going to be attentive because here is a person coming in for an interview" or anything like that. He was comfortable, easygoing and relaxed. The main thing I remember about it was my discomfort. I liked him very much – he was very gentle, extremely warm and friendly. I told him that I read his book Think on These Things, was very moved by it and intended to participate in as much of his program as I could during the week. He did not follow up on this verbally. Just held both my hands, looked at me eye-to-eye and as I recall simply said "Fine." He wasn't trying to get me to come, there was no encouragement – nothing.
The next thing I remember was a series of talks and Q-and-A periods with the faculty and students, which were all filmed. The talks were not particularly well-attended. I was there at every one of his presentations. The more I heard, the more I realized that Morrie Schwartz was correct. It's not that I understood everything, but I could grasp enough of his way of putting things – regarding the limitations of thought and knowledge, an emphasis on direct observation and inquiry, encouragement to question and doubt – to be inspired to learn more of this approach to self-discovery.
He started to remind me of my father, only much more at ease. My father also gave me tremendous license to question anything. So I was strangely at home with this beautifully dressed Indian gentleman. I remember his skin impressed me, it was so unlined and youthful. This was 1968, you could figure out his age, he died in 1986.
Q: He was about 72, 73.
A: At the talks, there was a great deal of restlessness in the audience. A few people seemed interested, but there were a lot of long-winded intellectual questions. He answered them thoroughly. I could see that most of us, certainly including myself, didn't really understand what he was talking about. I was enthralled nonetheless.
In addition to the talks, what perhaps had an even greater impact on me was the opportunity each day to spend time with him alone. This was possible because so few people were really interested. I got to take walks with him. At the time, there were a lot of woods around the campus. I was very drawn to this word "meditation," though I didn't really know what it meant. I asked Krishnamurti many times to teach me meditation, but he simply smiled and remained silent.
The first time we took a walk, he said, "Would you mind if we just walked in silence, if we don't speak?" I thought that was a strange request. I was certainly accustomed to taking walks with others, but it always included talking as well. K and I would walk for half an hour, 45 minutes, an hour – around the campus, in the woods. After the initial awkwardness, I started to actually like it. He was comfortable walking in silence, so I became comfortable as well. It was new to me.
I had walked silently by myself and with close friends before, for example, along the Atlantic ocean and lake Michigan. However, I barely knew this man.
Q: What was that experience like? Were you walking along paths? Was he looking up at leaves, walking up to trees? Was he looking up at the sky? Did he stop?
Mostly we just walked and enjoyed moving in silence. Sometimes it was in thickly wooded areas, sometimes it was a path. He seemed very happy.
A: He'd pause sometimes. Sometimes the birds would chirp and he'd stop and say, "Let's listen for a few minutes." So we did. Or he would stop and smile. But he didn't make it a project, like, "Let's stop now, I'm about to teach you meditation the natural way" – he didn't do that. Mostly we just walked and enjoyed moving in silence. Sometimes it was in thickly wooded areas, sometimes it was a path. He seemed very happy. He saw that I enjoyed it and kept returning, so we took such walks every day.
About a day or two before it was time for him to leave Brandeis, on one of the walks, he stopped and said, "Pick out anything. A plant, a leaf, a flower, part of a tree. See if you can look at it for a few minutes without labeling it, naming it or thinking about it. Simply, with innocence, as if for the first time, just take a look at it. Let's do that for a while." He didn't say how long.
I'm not sure what I picked. I think it was a leaf or a few leaves. At first, my mind got very busy and didn't like doing this, didn't want to simply sustain attention. There was clearly resistance to just looking. I would sneak a peak at Krishnamurti, looking for some sign that we had done this long enough and could start walking again. After a while, though, my mind settled down a bit. I was just watching when, suddenly, the leaf became interesting. I was incredibly moved emotionally, which was totally unanticipated. I started to really see, in a new and vivid way, ordinary aspects of the leaf. Its shape, color, veins, and stem really held my interest. It was all so alive. Green was now really green! There was a whole little world going.
Then he said, "Well, how was it?" So I said, "It was fascinating. It was just beautiful." And I went on and on about it. I told him how moved I was and how much I saw and how much I learned, that I never was so interested in detail – I had just kind of glossed over nature. Here I got in really close and it was fascinating and moving and it held my interest.
He said, "OK. Now, when you want to meditate, just sit down and do the same thing with your mind." And that was it. [laughs] Period. And we resumed the walk.
The other memory I have is every day, there were some professors who went to his talks and discussions – it was a time when professors would meet for cocktails in the faculty club. K always dressed well. When the gathering was informal, he dressed beautifully but informally. When it was cocktail time, it was as if he were in England; he had on a tie, vest and jacket, like a character who just stepped out of a "Masterpiece Theatre" production.
At the end of the first afternoon talk I recall him saying, "It is four o'clock, isn't it time for your cocktails?" He had a very upper-class English accent, which I found rather pleasing. I was told he didn't smoke or drink and had been vegetarian his entire life. At the time I knew nothing of his extraordinary life story.
So we went to the faculty club, and the first thing I noticed was how gracefully he fit in. He had some kind of punch – I don't know what he was drinking, but it wasn't alcohol – and he just spoke to different faculty members, most of whom were not there to meet him. Some of the people asked him questions. They had come to a few of the talks. And he would answer, very comfortable and at home with his drink and they with theirs. I do not believe that most or even any of us knew what he was really talking about, but no one seemed to mind.
I was amazed at how he initiated, "Let's go to the faculty club." And then once there, was totally at home. He was completely different than everyone there. Not only was he Indian, but he didn't drink, etc. Of course, he was also not a professor; had virtually no formal education.
He had a good sense of humor. Very funny. Very warm. Extraordinarily polite. Really polite! He was a very British gentleman. I've never forgotten.
Q: Many people who have only a glancing knowledge of Krishnamurti think of him as severe, abstract. Those qualities come across if you just read his talks.
A: I never found him severe. What I did find, at times, was that he was austere, which I appreciated. When he gave talks – all without notes – he was on fire. There was tremendous energy coming through him. He was very, very passionate. And some people interpreted this as being cold. Some as harsh, severe. I would say austere, in the sense of spare, simple, direct – right to the point, and certainly not "diplomatic."
As for abstract, I've never felt him to be abstract. But again, I know his teaching too well. It may seem abstract to some of us, because certain statements that were obvious to him came right out of a great silence, not corresponding with what we know of our inner life just yet. He seemed to be able to infuse ordinary life with that energy, at least in my case, without making me feel distant or uncomfortable.
Once he came down from giving a formal talk, he would sometimes hold my hand, like a loving grandparent; very warm, affectionate, playful, and with a great sense of humor.
Once he came down from giving a formal talk, he would sometimes hold my hand, like a loving grandparent; very warm, affectionate, playful, and with a great sense of humor. As I mentioned, he listened carefully. Encouraged you to question anything he said – and he meant it. It wasn't just rhetorical. He wasn't trying to turn me into anything or create a cult.
Despite this, some of the professors behind his back would say, "All right, another one of these Indian gurus." In hindsight, this is understandable. Although he often demolished the guru-student relationship, the few of us who connected with him as the week unfolded did start to look at him with awe. Though he kept mocking such adulation, we were definitely starting to relate to him as a Guru. We were inexperienced and starved for a kind of nourishment that the conceptual mind simply was unable to provide for us. I do believe that after a few years he did finally get through to me. There is no doubt in my mind that he sincerely wanted each one of us to be a "light unto ourselves." I developed immense respect and gratitude for this slender elderly man, while at the same time clearly seeing that he was quite human, with his share of rough edges.
Later on, once when I saw him at the Oak Grove in Ojai California, he was walking towards where he would give the talk and was dressed in a simple, elegant, sporty outfit – like a Californian. I felt there was something poignant about it. Perhaps in the past, somebody with such profound depth would rarely leave the Himalayas or an ashram or a monastery; instead, the world would come to him, or he'd wander through India. But here was this guy, immaculately dressed, perfect English, traveling all over the world, endlessly teaching, meeting with anyone who would show up and listen.
He always dressed in culturally appropriate ways. When he was in India, he'd wear a kurta and vest. When he was here, he'd wear sports clothes. He had a running suit, a jogging outfit later on with sneakers. He didn't run, he'd walk a lot. He was apparently very athletic as a youth.
Krishnamurti was open to everyone and anyone. I noticed that he was very friendly, even affectionate, with the cleaning people as he was with the professors and students. He seemed to make no distinction.
I just felt moved by what he was trying to do. It could not have been easy, having to listen to our uninformed, mostly intellectual questions. Normally there's much more of a filtering process going on. You don't go to India and go through all the heat, illness and cultural adjustment unless you're already pretty far along and/or very romantic about the "wisdom of the East." Krishnamurti was open to everyone and anyone. I noticed that he was very friendly, even affectionate, with the cleaning people as he was with the professors and students. He seemed to make no distinction.
He kept telling us how we could do what he was suggesting: "Don't listen to these gurus, you don't need any help, you can do it, it's all in you." His energy was staggering.
Q: You talk about his sense of humor. Can you remember it?
A: A lot of his humor was anti-religious stories. Maybe most. There would be jokes. But he also could also be funny – for me – in conversation or dialogue with others. Often a teaching tucked inside a somewhat sarcastic remark.
Once an Indian gentleman asked him, perhaps at Brandeis University, "Krishnaji, I understand you do yoga every day. Pranayama and yoga every day." Krishnamurti didn't answer, he just listened. And the man said, "This is very good, isn't it? It gives you plenty of energy." Krishnamurti looked up and said, "Yes. More energy, more mischief!" He would often debunk things. Once you settled on anything, he'd pull the rug out from under you. That was a trait that I experienced and valued throughout.
Q: I remember you mentioning that he once advised you, in a metaphorical way, to put your house in order.
A: That was when he was leaving and he was packing in his room at the Brandeis Faculty Club.
It was very close to the end of his stay there. He gave a talk which was by invitation only to faculty of the greater Boston area. There were a lot of professors from all over. My memory is quite vivid of this, because it was the last talk he gave before going home, leaving the university. There was a large coffee table, and they set it up so that he could sit cross-legged in his Saville Row suit. Saville Row is custom-tailored, high-class, London. He told me that he had the same clothes for many years, because of never gaining weight.
He was sitting there cross-legged, and they wanted him to talk about education. They gave his talk a title: "The Future of Higher Education." He gave his basic ideas on education: the urgency of self-discovery and understanding to accompany academic learning. Finally, at the end of it, the Brandeis dean of faculty asked a question in a slightly belligerent way: "Mr. Krishnamurti, if what you've said so far is true, how do you see the future of higher education?"
"Frankly, sir, I don't see any future for higher education."
Krishnamurti got very quiet. This I can remember quite vividly, it's as if it is in front of me right now. He got very quiet and said hesitantly, very softly – as if he hated to have to say it – "Frankly, sir, I don't see any future for higher education."
The room of about 40 or 50 professors seemed to sink into massive depression – except for myself and possibly a few other teachers. I was dancing with happiness inside; it was vindication of an attitude that was growing within me, presented by Krishnaji with obvious depth and intelligence.
Then I went to his room to say goodbye. He was packing. He let me in on the whole process. I said, "Where do you live, Krishnaji?" By then I was calling him "Krishnaji." He said, "My official home is Ojai, California. But I'm all over the world." He pointed to the suitcase: "This is my home."
He saw how carefully I was watching him pack and he said, "Because I have to pack so much, I've become very, very good at it." He said, "I used to be very scattered about ordinary life things. I had to take that on as a special project. But now, this goes here, that goes there. You fold them neatly. And packing becomes much easier."
I told him my reaction to his talk on university education to the professors. I told a little bit about what I mentioned earlier on – that it's no fault of the university, but I was looking to it to deliver certain things that it couldn't for me. And I now knew that any outer success would be limited in its ability to satisfy me, and that's why I was going in this direction. I told him that when he articulated very clearly what I already had intimations of, it had the effect of enlarging the gulf between the truth of my present condition and the hard-earned and long-held romantic view of "Professor Larry." I was really happy to hear his view of education, because no one in my circle of university friends and colleagues could validate such a conclusion.
Apparently I needed support from someone like Krishnaji, because I lacked confidence. It helped me understand that there was some merit in what experience was teaching me. It was not just an immature, rebellious reaction.
Krishnamurti became very quiet and said, "OK. Look, you are a professor. Do you have any other means of employment?" I said, "Absolutely none." He said, "How about your family?" I said, "No, no. They have no money." So he said, "Do not get into a war with them. They'll win." He said, "There are more of them than you. They're more powerful. It's not going to change right now. Just mind your own business. Work on yourself, but be a professor. Do a good job. Whatever it is you teach, do a good job at that. Do not waste time taking them on, trying to convince them, because it won't work." And then he said, "Put your own house in order. Put your house in order first."
At the time, I had a bachelor's way of life: Throw clothes up in the air and they would remain for awhile were they landed. I was very sloppy in my apartment. I said, "Oh, you mean take a look at my apartment, clean it up and put things in order and make sure the dishes get washed, things like that?" He seemed a little bit taken aback. "OK, OK, yes. Of course, you can start there. I'm talking about something else." He just pointed to his heart: inside. I said, "Oh, OK."
Then it was time to go, and I said, "Do you have any parting instructions?" He was going his way, I was going my way. He said, "Just one thing. Pay attention as to how you actually live." Actually. He emphasized this "actually." How do you actually live? Not how you think you live. Not how you should live. But how do you actually live from moment to moment? He said, "The key is in relationship: to people, to nature, to objects, to money. Most of all, to yourself." He said, "People might call that self-knowledge or self-knowing. But pay attention to how you actually live." The word "actually" was just burned into my skull when I left. I didn't truly know what it meant until I started to try to do it.
I remember one time in New York. It was, if I recall, at Town Hall. I dragged a whole bunch of my friends to New York to hear him give a series of talks. His message was more familiar to me by then. There was one talk where he came out and sat down on a simple wooden chair waiting for everyone to quiet down. Well, they did not. There was coughing , sneezing, clearing of throats, blowing of noses, and shuffling of feet. Krishnamurti waited and finally responded: "Sirs, could you all please do what you are doing in unison and get it over with!" They did – the hall became quiet and he gave a fine talk. I roared with laughter, but some thought he was too blunt and rude.
Many years have gone by since that first meeting, which gave my life a new direction. Two years later, I left the university life to wander and learn, mainly from Asian meditation and yoga teachers. Ten years in Zen – Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese styles. Thirty years in Vipassana with Thai, Burmese, Sri Lankan, Cambodian, and Indian teachers. For many years now, I have been teaching Buddhist meditation. I even started a center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
During this time, I saw or met with "K" as often as I could, mainly in New York and at Ojai. I have also lived intimately with his books, videos and tape recordings. He helped me change my life for the better and I am reminded of this every day. He continues to help keep me honest from the grave!
What I'm remembering are the lessons learned from personal contact which have stayed with me. His words can be read in a book. I read something of his almost every day and value this kind of learning. But some lessons learned in his presence have been especially transformative – you could say life-changing.
Q: In his writings, "what is" is always italicized. There's something very special about that phrase.
A: The tension between what is and what should be is crucial to understanding him. So much of what he says is an attempt to wean us from our powerful preference for what was or what will or should be, so that we can be intimate with our actual experience of what is happening right now. I do my very best to actually live this, and of course it is the core of what I teach. What keeps my life and teaching fresh and alive is this gateway into wisdom.
So now let's go to New York, the last time I saw him alive. He gave talks at the UN, and someone rented a conference-sized room across the street from the UN. It was by invitation. There were about eight of us – a small group, he didn't want new people. Just people who already had a very strong foundation, familiar with his teachings.
We spent a week together. The theme was fear. Two hours every morning, two hours every afternoon, for five days. First, remember, I hadn't seen him in a while. I wasn't at the UN talks. I couldn't get there – I was still a professor. I think I was, I'm not sure about that.
So I hadn't seen him in a year or two, and he walked in and he still had the very beautiful skin and a warm handshake. But I was shocked at how frail and fragile he seemed. He sat down at the end of a conference table, and we went at it on this one theme, exploring it from all directions. Once he started, his body still seemed fragile, but a very powerful energy was clearly there. His stamina for dialogue was always present. He was alert and clear in all our exchanges. It was a superb week.
Finally it was Friday afternoon. The week together was over. There were about ten minutes left before we would all go our separate ways. He was at this point about 88, perhaps 89, and he started talking about something that seemed totally off our theme of the week. I remember thinking that perhaps he was suddenly very confused and distracted.
This is a rough paraphrase of what he said: "At lunchtime today, some friends took me to the shop of a world-famous jeweler. I had a very precious jewel in my hand and it was exquisitely beautiful. The color, texture, cut, and the way it reflected light was extraordinary. I held it in my hands for some time, carefully observed and penetrated into – and beyond – it!"
"Fear is that jewel!"
He was holding his hands cupped together. Quickly, with his left hand, he made a gesture as if to throw the jewel out. Then, with his right hand, he made as if to replace the jewel and said, dramatically, "Fear is that jewel!" I was stunned, exhilarated and inspired. He had just demonstrated an absolutely central theme in his teaching. And that's the last time I saw him alive.
Q: What did he mean? What was he saying?
A: What do you think it means? Go into it. Find out! I think Krishnaji would be very happy if I ended our chat this way.
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