J. Krishnamurti (1895-1986) was thought by many to be a modern-day equivalent of the Buddha. In fact, he was once even considered to be the second coming of Christ. While many think it wonderful to live and work in close proximity with such a person, it’s difficult to understand the depth of what this means and how challenging this might be.
In Knocking at the Open Door, author R.E. Mark Lee provides an ordinary person view of what being close-up and working together with such a man means, how it challenges one at every turn, and how it causes one to question ceaselessly, even more deeply than one ordinarily would. Lee offers an insightful, candid, and heartfelt narrative that reveals various unknown facets of the eminent world teacher J. Krishnamurti and highlights his distinctive vision for education worldwide.
This comprehensive volume brings alive the practical and everyday interactions Lee had with Krishnamurti during a twenty-year period in India and the United Sates. Knocking at the Open Door shares a clear and honest account that demonstrates the challenges of working with Krishnamurti in running a school that is true to the teaching and yet able to function in the reality of modern parental, student, and educational establishment expectations.
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Knocking at the Open Door
My Years with J. Krishnamurti
By R.E. Mark Lee
Balboa PressCopyright © 2016 R. E. Mark Lee
All rights reserved.
The Early Awakening
For centuries, the beaches at Ventura and Santa Barbara, California, have been quiet and safe harbors on the long Pacific coast. The surf is normally calm, because that coast is protected from the west by the five Channel Islands. At all hours, one can see pelicans coursing across the horizon in odd-numbered formations. Well after sunset, long-legged sea birds endlessly farm the receding waves for small crustaceans to eat.
The ocean is an irresistible magnet for young people in Santa Barbara. I had a solid, wooden, eight-foot surfboard that was difficult to maneuver and even harder to ride. The ocean culture of surfing and beach life provides a deep conditioning that never leaves you, even when the water of many oceans and the always-new breezes flowing over and through you end. A hundred oil platforms later marred the view of the Channel Islands and left tar-ball deposits on the beautiful beaches, but in our day, the coast was worthy of an Andrew Wyeth painting.
* * *
Life in Santa Barbara in the 1950s was slow, and we lived outdoors ten months out of the year. Studies were rigorous at my college preparatory school, Laguna Blanca, and they occupied most of my life — except on weekends, when the lure of the ocean couldn't be resisted. It isn't a contradiction to say that life was seriously happy for my generation and me.
Eugene "Bud" Burdick, a maternal cousin, wrote The Ninth Wave in 1956, referring to the largest in the category of waves. It captured so much of the culture of the decade. Television, drugs, big sports events, and alcohol as entertainment and escapes were not yet prevalent in the youth culture. The government wanted us to be preoccupied with its hyped threat of communism — in the Joseph McCarthy era — but most of us didn't buy it. We had few social battlefields, but that would change in the next decade.
* * *
Questions about life and living arose in my mind and occupied me regardless of where I was. Spiritual questions were about the process of daily living. I considered each thought and asked myself, "Where did that come from?" and "There is something hidden in that situation. What is it?" Self-doubt took root, and more and more, I wanted to understand who I was and why I behaved as I did.
When our parakeet died in 1952, Grandfather Charles Lee cautioned me, "Don't believe everything you think." His advice had the strong quality of a different kind of thinking, where beliefs and ideas are suspect and in need of closer examination. Church and its many beliefs, which had never been a strong influence anyway, suddenly took on a whole new significance as I saw that Christianity didn't foster or encourage understanding the self or even allow doubt or self-reflection. In her youth, my mother, Alrena Lee, had been a follower of Amy Semple McPherson, but later went back and forth between the Methodists and the Presbyterians. Theirs was, for her, relatively safe religion with few ceremonies and beliefs.
When the local minister dropped "Christ was not a Christian" in his sermon one Sunday in 1952, I went to him in adolescent defiance and asked that my name be struck from the church roll and records. It was apparent that organized religion had only a partial story to tell, and I wanted no more of it. My brother Charles and I were indifferent toward religion. Protestants were generally mild-mannered and only placidly interesting because they rarely ask the big questions of life, and their worship and ceremonies were all designed to create comfort and peace, thereby dulling the mind. Catholics had broader views but were often crippled by the fears that ritual, belief, and religious hierarchy tend to produce. Few of our friends were seriously religious. In the United States in those days, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims were almost completely unknown, so a latent but benign agnosticism prevailed among young people.
Paradoxically, classical church and temple architecture fascinated me then and still does. I regularly look out for religious architecture that allows me to appreciate the skill of artisans who have created it for a high calling and rarely signed their work. Anonymity is a rare virtue. What other buildings in the world have such vast and soaring spaces devoted to being quiet, listening to music, and holding light and shadow so respectfully? There must have been some deep spiritual insight that permitted early builders to capture the ineffable qualities of nature and the beyond and to put them so purely in stone and glass. The difference between the sacred and the profane is so clearly manifested in spiritual architecture, where resonance and golden symmetry provide for silence.
* * *
What had stirred in me was an awareness that there is a very great and unexplainable and forceful otherworld presence in life that is ever present, just here — close and intimate — but seldom manifest. What I saw was that it was available when "I" was not there — that is, when I was not "I" or when there was no consciousness of "me" but the presence only of something vast and beyond words. It was a living energy.
Seeing all this was tentative, and I was shy to even acknowledge it, let alone share it with others. But it was growing and taking root in me. The wonder is that one can be an observer of thought — that there is a faculty that can explore itself, or at least its own thoughtful creations, a faculty that can ask where thoughts come from and what prompts them, and observe those that are loaded with emotion or fear. All this came freely and easily and set me on a course that was to last a lifetime.
Without knowing what I was doing, meditation became a regular occurrence in my life. But I had no word for it. I began to watch — to look rather than react. I began to question and was dissatisfied with almost everything that seemed immutable. I thought everyone did this. I thought it was a function of awareness and thinking. Slowly, I woke up to thought as a process and that there is a world beyond thought. A sense of oneness with the natural world emerged as the nonintellectual experience of reality in moments of heightened aliveness grew. Spiritual experiences came to me, but they were ineffable, incapable of being adequately expressed in words or concepts.
* * *
Lady Luia Forbes, a South African, was a large woman in her seventies when I first met her in 1957. In fact, she was larger than life because her life had been so dramatic and lived with such intensity that she made a career out of herself as a character through storytelling. She carried her weight on a delicate frame as if she were loaded with contraband stuffed in pockets under her florid frocks and floppy but elegant designer hats. The contrast was extreme: aristocratic and highly cultured, but dramatically antiapartheid. She seemed to revel in counterpoints and in the avant-garde attitudes of cultural and racial pluralism as an actress would play a part for which she was strangely suited, as she did not look the part.
Luia was on a tour of America at the time, speaking at women's clubs, English-Speaking Union (ESU) events, and cultural centers. She spoke wherever there was an audience eager to hear her tell stories about Africa, South America, and British culture. By then I was president of the English-Speaking Union Youth Association of Santa Barbara, and with Colonel Frank Noyes's help, I booked her for a speaking engagement at the Music Academy of the West in Montecito, a township south of Santa Barbara.
Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had pinned a medal on Luia for her efforts to bring the Eastern mind to the West. The mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, had given her a Silver Cross for humanitarian and peace efforts. Luia was trained as an opera singer and had grown up with the likes of General Jan Christiaan Smuts (prime minister of South Africa), Rudyard Kipling (the renowned British writer, poet, and a Nobel Laureate), Cecil Rhodes (a mining magnate and a politician in South Africa of British origin), and Sir Robert Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts). She could regale audiences with stories of pre-apartheid South Africa and her exploits with the Peruvian people on Machu Picchu, an old Inca site high in the Andes Mountains.
Luia carried with her multiple solid silver-sun ornaments given to her by the Peruvians. At her talks, she demonstrated how the silver-sun face — when held in the palm of a hand — emitted real heat when you held your other hand slightly above the upturned face. She explained that this was because it had been on an Inca temple wall, absorbing sunlight for over one thousand years. These and other equally mysterious relics had been given to her in recognition of her humanitarian efforts to help the Peruvian people as British ambassadress to Peru in the 1940s.
Most astounding was her claim that the stones of Machu Picchu were hewn with the human voice and that the last ancient Inca voice was in that of the Peruvian opera singer Yma Sumac. Luia's claim has gained credibility only in recent years as more and more has become known about the power of sound waves. Perhaps soon there will be more evidence of the extraordinary power of the Inca culture. Luia claimed herself patroness for Yma Sumac, and I met her along with pianist Claudio Arrau Léon (from Chile) in London several years later.
* * *
One story I especially appreciate involved her and British author D. H. Lawrence. As she told it, she and Lawrence were taking a gondola ride in the Venice Grand Canal sometime in 1925, and he asked her to sing some Brahms. (Johannes Brahms was a nineteenth-century German composer.) She wasn't in the mood and told him it was an insensitive request: the canal and the sounds of a maritime Venice were music enough. Lawrence was incensed and asked to be put ashore at the nearest palace dock.
Luia felt vindicated, however, when his wife, Frieda, told her that Lawrence, on his deathbed, had sighed, "I only wish that Luia were here to sing to me." It was what her story did not tell that was evocative. Good stories suggest details and hint at a larger picture. If we capture the feeling of a tale, we fill in the detail as we would with a poem. If imagination interferes, a poor story is a failure within itself. Feeling is the element that defines a good story as we sense the degree of refinement or subtlety.
Luia and I bonded immediately, and we spent happy and insightful days together in Ojai, Montecito, London, and Los Angeles over a twenty-one-year friendship from 1957 to 1978. I watched and observed that some people collect other people rather like art objects or antiques. Luia had the ability of connecting disparate people with each other, and she did it through counseling and skill building. She was a powerful presence at Aiglon College in Switzerland, where she lived and taught elocution and English to overprivileged adolescents for the rest of her life. She died there in 1978.
* * *
In the summer of 1957, Rosalind Edith Williams Rajagopa invited Luia to take care of her house, called Arya Vihara (Abode of the Noble Ones) in the Ojai valley while she toured Europe with her husband, Desikachar Rajagopal, and Krishnamurti. Luia invited me for a weekend to see the historic home and to spend time with her among the orange, avocado, and lemon groves in the east end of the valley. The name Krishnamurti was familiar to me, because I had heard stories of him from other Ojai residents.
I arrived on a Friday afternoon, expecting to stay for one night. The Greyhound bus had dropped me in Ventura, and the local bus went only to the center of the village of Ojai. From there I walked about five miles to the east end, where I found Arya Vihara at 1130 McAndrew Road, just south of the Thacher School. I had no luggage, and there was no traffic. The valley immediately drew me into it because it was undeveloped, arid, and apparently attracted unusual people who secreted themselves down long lanes among the vast citrus groves.
The long, low California ranch house, of a 1900 vintage, stretched out among the orange trees punctuated by lofty Italian cypress, bare-limbed eucalyptus, and old pine. Inside, the pickled redwood-paneled walls and dull hardwood floors gave the sprawling home a dark and heavy feeling of an Arts and Crafts house. (The Arts and Crafts Movement originated in Great Britain and was popular from 1860 to 1910.) In one corner was a large red Tibetan drum, and above the fireplace a five-foot framed Tibetan thangka (painting) hung, dark and forbidding.
I learned that the Spanish double pedestal table in the dining room had been the scene of many poker games between Krishnamurti and Aldous Huxley, the renowned British writer. Under the large picture window was a baby grand piano that belonged to the Hungary-born concert pianist Lili Kraus, a frequent houseguest. Luia told me later that British philosopher Bertrand Russell had also been a houseguest, and for a few summers, D. H. Lawrence and Frieda were visitors as well when they were staying in a river-stone cottage down near the dip on Grand Avenue. One could easily walk east from there up to Arya Vihara.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Krishnamurti had mixed with a crowd of celebrities that included Charley Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Hume Cronyn, Charles Laughton, famed Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille, and author Christopher Isherwood. The house and gardens carried strong vibrations of the slow and leisurely pace of early California life — a time when people wrote long letters to each other, when visits to friends were special occasions, and when no one locked their house or car doors.
Luia greeted me with a late lunch of avocado salad and sugarless Meyer lemonade. Immediately afterward, we sat in the living room and talked about what it meant to lead a spiritual life. She called it "having a rich inner life" and allowing subtle "awakenings." It was all mysterious, and something was slowly being revealed: for Luia, the outer and the inner were indistinguishable. When the conversation turned to me, I was astonished at how transparent I was with someone I knew only slightly. She said, "Your outer life is a mirror of the inner life. The way you look and behave and carry yourself is a clear reflection of what is going on inwardly. You can't hide with clothes or affectations what you think, feel, and perceive. There really is no difference between leading a spiritual life and who you are projecting every day."
These were more than just new ideas; they had a physical impact on my mind. I could sense new mental pathways opening up, one into another, and doors leading to other doors that opened easily to the touch. Hers was a practical picture of life that had arcane and subtle connotations. She talked of things of which I had only had glimmers. She spoke about Honoré de Balzac (the reputed French writer), Leo Tolstoy (the eminent Russian author), Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (the French diplomat known for his cynical attitude), e. e. cummings (an American painter, author, playwright, and poet, who spelled his name in lowercase letters), and the Buddha.
I was amazed to hear that worlds of experiences and ideas lay close at hand and can be received only if the mind is quiet and allows it. This was mature, adult talk of a different level than I was used to. As a teenager, I had read such things only in books, but Luia spoke of them as naturally and as casually as one would of local news reports or of friends in the neighborhood. The overlapping tiles of ideas created a mosaic with depth and colorful shading.
It was the subtlety of the shades that most fascinated me: how the mind of a Buddha had brought about Emperor Asoka's change of heart (he gave up warfare and adopted nonviolence); why worship of the full moon had antecedents in prehistory; how hate differs from anger; how the balance of male and female attributes could be affected by parental divorce; and most revealing of all, that the irrational thinking of rulers and leaders like Alexander, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and President Harry S. Truman affected the karma of millions of innocents.
The old ranch house held secrets: subtle movements of energy and light embedded tightly in its many rooms and passageways. In three large bookcases was a fine collection of old books some of which were signed by their authors; Robinson Jeffers, Upton Sinclair, D.H. Lawrence, and George Bernard Shaw. I commented on the recurring name of an author of titles in English, French, and Italian: Jiddu Krishnamurti. Luia explained that the house belonged to Krishnamurti and the Rajagopals: Desikachar Rajagopal, Rosalind, and their daughter, Radha, who lived there with their two dogs, one black and one white. The Rajagopals served as caretakers of Krishnamurtis work and assets: his talks, property, and publications.
The house and property was like a freeze-frame shot from the early decades of twentieth-century California. Its natural wood furniture, cotton drapes, and upholstery contributed to the soft atmosphere. There was nothing of plastic or metal to mar the artistic unity. A fine Gandhara Buddha head sat on the bookcase, its hooded gaze taking in everything. Outside were row upon row of navel and Valencia orange trees and Hass and Fuerte avocados.
Excerpted from Knocking at the Open Door by R.E. Mark Lee. Copyright © 2016 R. E. Mark Lee. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Early Awakening, 1,
Chapter 2 The First Meeting with Krishnamurti, and Beyond, 17,
Chapter 3 Going Home to India, 33,
Chapter 4 Fire Them!, 42,
Chapter 5 Interacting with the Dalai Lama, 62,
Chapter 6 Teaching Arts, 74,
Chapter 7 Do You Love Her?, 88,
Chapter 8 "You Saw It. There Is No Other Explanation", 99,
Chapter 9 Our Lives Change Forever, 109,
Chapter 10 What Is Religious Education?, 116,
Chapter 11 The Opening of the Oak Grove School, 149,
Chapter 12 "What's Wrong with You?", 170,
Chapter 13 The School: Architectural and Cultural Structures, 183,
Chapter 14 The Man from Seattle, 212,
Chapter 15 "Don't Let Anything Become a Habit", 222,
Chapter 16 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi Visits the Rishi Valley School, 234,
Chapter 17 The Final Phase, 243,
Chapter 18 Changes at the Oak Grove School, 264,
About the Author, 281,