What drew me to Krishnamurti? I picked up The Krishnamurti Reader in Gatwick Airport bookshop thirty years ago. I remember thinking: this is strange stuff. I was puzzled but attracted. The words seemed simple enough, certainly after Sartre, but the meaning remained elusive. So back in Paris, when not going out in the evening, I would go to my local restaurant, and after what was then a usual half bottle of Beaujolais and an Armagnac, I read my Krishnamurti book. Perhaps not surprisingly, I remained puzzled. Then the rocket programme of the European Launcher Development Organisation [ELDO] where I was working failed [it was later successfully superseded by ESA’S Ariane] and I like everyone else there was out of a job. I also found myself out of a relationship, my partner having decamped. Before doing so she had convinced me of my total ignorance of Eastern culture, and persuaded me to send a modest donation to Tibetan refugees in India. So when asked one evening at an ELDO cocktail party by the French General in charge of the place what my future plans were, I said I was thinking of visiting Tibetan refugees in India to explore the wisdom of the East. He urged, almost ordered, me to do so, adding rather wanly that in his view the West mass-produced unhappiness.
Before India I took a break on the Costa del Sol and on the drive down from Paris stopped at the Alhambra and spent some time in its great gardens reading Krishnamurti’s Freedom from the Known. Something may have seeped in at this time. Then for a few months in India and for some years after returning to Paris I explored Tibetan Buddhism and will always be deeply grateful for the teaching and explanations given.
I suppose like most of us there was an ideological background to all this: routine, low-key, conformist indoctrination in Christianity at school, and in Paris a flirtation with Marxist existentialism— ‘does it hurt all the time or only occasionally?’ a waggish friend once asked—plus ten years or so of dedicated pursuit of pleasure, which, well, got very wearing, and for some of my friends ended tragically.
What drew me to K in the end was the sense of being totally free to take or leave what he was saying. There was no dogma, no belief, no set of principles requiring assent. Instead there were only testable statements about the way human consciousness works. These could be checked out in everyday life for their validity. Like most of us I felt there was a problem with undue self-centredness in myself—and others—and was drawn for a time to the belief that supporting political and social reform would somehow transcend that [tragically this belief was what drew many of us to communism and fascism]. But Sartre hit a nail firmly on the head: ‘People believe what they believe not because it is true but because they have an emotional need to believe it.’ This seemed to me to apply equally to political ideology and faith-based religion. Krishnamurti was offering something else.
We certainly live in a time when humanity is under more threats than ever before—climate change, increased rivalry over natural resources, the risk of pandemics, new kinds of terrorism and war. And politicians talk of the need for unprecedented international cooperation to solve these problems. But the old faiths, the old political ideologies, the old national loyalties seem starkly out of sync with anything one might call a planetary mentality. On the other hand, neuroscience has discovered in the last two decades that the human brain is far more capable of change, of adapting, even of redesigning itself, than previously thought possible. So is Krishnamurti’s case for a radical shift in human consciousness not utopian but what life now demands? Good question. One to plant like a seed.