Freedom in Krishnamurti


Alan Gullette


University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Spring 1976

Honors 1138: Studies in Consciousness

Dr. Kathy Emmett



I will discuss the problem of freedom and its solution in the thought of Jiddu Krishnamurti.

We first recognize that we are not free in the sense that we are almost completely conditioned in our action, thought, and feeling by past experiences, by authority, systems of believe, accumulated knowledge, learned responses, habits and patterns, instincts, etc.  Being almost entirely a product of our environment and its conditioning, perhaps we are no more than this very conditioning.  The question that arises is, "Is it possible to be free from this conditioning, to act purely and spontaneously, to think 'freely' (i.e., to have 'free thought'), to feel truly and act responsively to what is perceived – and is it possible, furthermore, even to perceive what actually is?  This question is an important one to ask because it must precede both the question as to what is true or what can be known and the arrival at any moral or ethical position.  (How do we know that this or that is true?  Do we know anything at all? What is right and wrong?  Why do we think that this or that is right or wrong?)

Krishnamurti thinks that there is freedom from conditioning, the past, the known, and that this freedom puts one in a "space" from which one acts and interacts spontaneously and creatively with the world.  This freedom also involves the end of thought, the awakening of clear perception, and the understanding of all things.  Exactly what doe these words mean – what does freedom really involve, and how can it be attained?

First of all, Krishnamurti points out that to ask "how" "implies somebody is going to give you a method, a recipe, which, if you practice it, will bring you understanding."[1]  The "how," he says, "is the great mistake.  It is the separating factor. . . If we never used that word we would be really enquiring and not seeking a method to achieve a determined result" (86).  The mistake is that we are creating an ideal state (that of freedom) and already define ourselves as being almost hopelessly far away from this idea.  As well, "if you can divine a result you already know it and therefore it is conditioned and not free" (86).  But most importantly, an essential part of Krishnamurti's thought is that one must think for oneself, enquire on one's own, observe oneself: there is no path, no method, no practice, no guru.  "What is important is to be a light unto yourself, to be your own Master and disciple, to be both the teacher and the pupil,"[2] since obeisance to any authority is a matter of conditioning.

Still, we can ask, what is freedom?

In terms of resistance, freedom "is the state of mind in which there is no form of resistance whatsoever" (95).  This resistance is the same as attachment and possessiveness, for one resists the encroachment of others on that which is possessed, that to which one is attached.  For the sake of example, attachment to a particular type of metal ore might lead one to fight and/or kill to attain and/or maintain passion of this ore.  Herein lies attachment and resistance.  From attachment springs dependence (best seen in the example of attachment to the attention of another human being), and "being attached we try to cultivate a state of independence – which is another form of resistance" (94). For "freedom is not a state of non-dependence; it is a positive state in which there isn't any dependence," and consequently no resistance (94).  Likewise, "freedom does not lie in detachment.  In the process of understanding attachment there is freedom, not in running away from attachment" (95).  In speaking later about freedom as positive, Krishnamurti talks about negation.  "Total negation is that freedom" from conditioning.  It is

to negate everything we consider to be positive, to negate all inward acceptance of authority, to negate the total social morality, to negate everything one has said or concluded about reality, to negate all tradition, all teaching, all knowledge except technical knowledge, to negate all experience, to negate all commitments to act in a particular way, to negate all ideas, all principles, all theories.  Such negation is the most positive action, therefore it is freedom." (116-7)

This negation is necessary.  If the mind cannot "negate everything it has known, the total content of its own conscious and unconscious self, which is the very essence of yourself," then "there is no freedom."  For "freedom is not freedom from something – that is only a reaction; freedom comes in total denial" (118).

The known – what is that?  It is everything – insofar as we know it.  It is the past.  "The past is all our accumulated memories.  These memories act in the present and create our hopes and fears of the future" (41).  The past is not real, nor is the future, only the present that we are not free to witness in a genuine fashion because of the imposition of preconceptions and beliefs, the illusion of recognition, the involuntary responses of memory.  "Freedom from the past means living in the now which is not of time" and "in which there is only this movement of freedom, untouched by the past, by the known" (41).  The known, the past, is no more than the self, the "me" that is created by thought.  Freedom is "from the 'me' which depends on environment and is the product of environment – the 'me' which is put together by society and thought" (134).  Yet it is "me" that wants to be free: "The very factor of conditioning in the past, in the present and in the future, is the 'me' which thinks in terms of time, the 'me' which exerts; and now it exerts itself in the demand to be free; so the root of all conditioning is the thought which is the 'me,'" and "if there is no 'me' you are unconditioned, which means you are nothing" (113-4).  So the desire to be free, the desire to negate and deny the known, must itself be negated.  When there is only the unknown, when there is no recognition, when you are absent, there is nothing.  Freedom from conditioning and from the conditioned is "clarity, the light that is not lit from the past" (134).  With this clarity, we see what is and act in completely harmonious accord.

Let me quote from a rather curious source in order to move toward a better understanding of the known and the unknown, clarity, the imposition from the past of preconceptions and beliefs, and thus of freedom:

We were speaking of belief, beliefs and conditioning.  All belief possibly could be said to be the result of some conditioning.  Thus the study of history is simply the study of one system of beliefs deposing another and so on and so on and so on. 

A psychologically tested belief of our time is, that the central nervous system, which feeds its impulses directly to the brain (the conscious and unconscious) is unable to discern between the real and the vividly imaginary experience ­­-- if there is a difference, and most of us believe there is.

Am i being clear?  For to examine these concepts requires tremendous energy and discipline.  To experience the NOW without preconception or belief, for the unknown to occur and to occur requires clarity; for where there is clarity there is no choice, and where there is choice, there is misery.  But why should anyone listen to me, or should i speak, since i know nothing![3]

To experience nothing, to know it, is very important in Zen Buddhism as well as in Western mysticism (Heidegger's concept of das Nichts and Sartre's le Nιant are somewhat different), as it is in Krishnamurti – see above, where the absence of 'me' is being nothing.  In another sense, not to know (to know nothing) has equal significance in Krishnamurti.  He distinguishes between knowledge and learning, between knowing and understanding.  "Knowing is always related to he past and therefore it binds you to the past.  Unlike knowing, understanding is not a conclusion, not accumulation" (101).  Again, "knowledge is accumulation, conclusions, formulas, but learning is a constant movement, a movement without a centre, without a beginning or an end" (61).  Here, the center is the self, "me."  Understanding is "attention" and "when you attend completely you understand" (101).  When there is no knowing, there is no known and no knower, only the unknown, the real.

Krishnamurti introduces love into his terminology, though of course what he is saying is more than just worlds.  "Where there is freedom there is love.  This freedom and love show you when to co-operate and when not to co-operate.  This is not an act of choice, because choice is the result of confusion" (72).  Recall that where there is choice, there is misery, and choice is not when clarity is.  Freedom, love, clarity allow choiceless action – action without an actor, a center, which chooses based on conditioning.  Krishnamurti also speaks of "sensitivity, choiceless awareness, intelligence" (80), and of the self-knowledge which is to "know yourself without accumulation, in relationship, from moment to moment," which means "that one must be aware, without any choice, of what is actually taking place."  He goes on to say that this is "to see oneself as one is, without the opposite, the ideal, without the knowledge of what one has been. . .  The shedding of the past all the time you see yourself is the freedom from the past."  This self-knowledge is, strictly speaking, not knowledge but self-understanding, and "this understanding is lighting itself all the time" (84).  To act without choice, to act freely, this is correct action.  To act from the state of "intelligence, innocence, love," from understanding, is "to have inside you that light that has no beginning and no ending, that is not lit by your desire, that is not yours or someone else's. . . When there is this inward light, whatever you do will always be right and true" (136).  This light "is intelligence and love.  It is the negation of the disorder of the morality in which we have been brought up."  The light can be had only "when you really die to the past completely" (136), and "when the 'me' is not. The 'me' comes to an end when it sees for itself that it must end; the seeing is the light of understanding" (137).

Right action, correct action, is of course an important point to go into.  The unconditioned act is spontaneous, pure, and must come from a state or "space" of understanding or "clarity."  You see clearly that this or that is the correct action, the only action.  In fat, there is no "you" in this state, nor is there any seeing of the action as good or bad, correct or incorrect – there is no seeing of the action before it is undertaken, either, for there is no choice; there is only the action, and there is consciousness of the action.  When the actor, the observer, has ceased, only the actor remains, and the state of awareness one is in is quite remarkably different from normal states of consciousness.  The mind that has emptied itself of the past, of "me," which has negated all "traps" (such as conditioned response), "this mind has a different quality, a different dimension of awareness.  This awareness is not aware that it is aware."  This is very important.  "This new quality of awareness is attention, and in this attention there is no frontier made by the 'me'" (7).  Without a self, there is no self-awareness. There is only the consciousness that exists seemingly as a quality of what exists, of what is (here we are close to Sartre).  The parallels to Zen are most remarkable.  "Your mind is the mind of man; your consciousness is the whole of man" (105).  "Consciousness is the whole of man and does not belong to a particular man" (106).  This higher mind is close to the idea of Mind or Buddha-nature in Zen.  Wu-hsin is no-mind and wu-nien is no-thought, and both mind (in the sense of individual mind) and thought (as we shall see) cease in Krishnamurti.  Elsewhere, Krishnamurti talks about "clear perception, seeing things as they are unemotionally, not sentimentally" (21), and of "a seeing of things exactly as they are" (141), seeing "the world actually as it is" (23), which is nothing more than the Zen concept of Prajna (wisdom) as the ability to see tathata (suchness), things as they are.  Recall also, the earlier mention of emptiness and nothing, though the roles of these are somewhat different in Zen.  And although my thesis is not a demonstration of parallels between Krishnamurti and Zen, my aim is to arrive at understanding of freedom in Krishnamurti, and this involves, in part, comparison to other systems of thought.

Let us clarify intelligence and attention, since this attentive awareness that is not self-reflective is (needless to say) important to any understanding of the nature of consciousness and thus is important to an understanding of the nature of reality.  What is the mind that is attentive?  It is no-mind, as these lines from the Zenrin indicate:

The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection;

The water has no mind to accept their image.

Krishnamurti speaks of a "quiet" mind.  "Perception can only be out of silence, not of a chattering mind. . . it is only a quiet mind that sees" (80).  When the mind is silent, "perception, which is intelligence, is then operating, not the assumption that you must be silent to see. . . Seeing is attention" (80).  When the mind ceases to have a "center" then its activity is not self-centered (or centered at all) but is free: "the mind functions in freedom" (97).  The mind must change, must lose its center, if there is to be seeing.  "A mind clouded by fear or belief is incapable of any kind of understanding, any realization of what truth is" (101).  Belief "comes from fear and is the most destructive thing.  One must be free of fear and of belief" (100).  "Understanding is attention," and "to understand that which is there must be freedom, not only from the known but also from the fear of the known and from the fear of the unknown" (101).  Since the normal functioning of the mind is from the "me," there is belief and the known and the fear of ceasing to be, so that the mind must be silent for there to be freedom and there must be freedom for there to be understanding.  For the mind, as we normally understand it, "is thought" and "all the activity of thought is separation, fragmentation" (87).  "The mind is fragmentation" (31).  As long as we use this mind we "live in symbols" rather than in the real world: "we are incapable of direct and immediate perception without the symbols, the words, the prejudices and conclusions" for this incomplete perception "is part of the self-centered activity with its defences, resistances, escapes and fears" (103).  Thought is by its nature divisive (74) in that it creates the "I", "me," as a center, as accumulation of knowledge, from which to act.  This "I" is "the very essence of the past and the past impinges on the present and so into the future," as we have seen.  And it is thus that division takes place (144).  Where there is a center there is an actor and an act.  Thought creates the thinker.  In this division there arises conflict, which wastes energy, so that when there is awareness (no-reflective) there is no conflict because there is no division because there is no center (141), therefore there is an energy which "can wipe away the pat" in a silence that is "infinite" and full (111).  Action from the center is not choiceless, for there is will, "which is violence" (62).  The center is not intelligence, being fragmentary, and "fragmentary understanding is the most dangerous and destructive thing" because of its fragmenting activity (78).

Learning is only possible without the center: "this learning is observation – to observe without accumulation, to observe in freedom" (124).  For, remember, accumulation is what produces the center.  Learning is only possible when there is freedom – complete and total freedom (146).  To learn "is to be sensitive to yourself and to the world outside you, for the world outside you is you. . .  This sensitivity is the highest form of intelligence" (62).  To learn is to be sensitive, intelligence, and one must be free to learn.  Freedom is from the known, from the past, from the center formed by thought.  The center breeds division and is division, and division is conflict, and conflict is pain and unhappiness and suffering.  "A life of conflict is not a religious life.  A religious life is only possible when we deeply understand conflict.  This understanding is intelligence" (40).  To end conflict is to lose the center, to have freedom.  But "to end conflict is one of the most complex things.  It needs self-observation and the sensitivity of awareness of the outer as well as the inner.  Conflict ca only end when there is the understanding of the contradiction in oneself.  This contradiction will always exist if there is no freedom from the known, which is the past" (40-1).  To be aware of "the movement of the past," the mind, is to be free of it; but the awareness must be choiceless "because choice again is more of this same movement of the past" – to "observe without the image of thought is action in which the past has ended" (41).  Being sensitive, aware, self-less, intelligent, thoughtless, we are religious.  "To be religious is to be choicelessly aware that there is freedom from the known even whilst the know acts wherever it has to" (41).  This means going beyond thought and mind and still being able to act in a sane fashion, to live in the world that is created by mind.  This is understanding of thought and mind:  true religion is "gathering together all energy to find out what is the place of thought, where its limitations are, and to go beyond it."[4]  The mind is thought, and the problem is thus with the mind.  "To come to this point not theoretically but to see it actually is the highest form of intelligence."  To quiet the mind, the brain, is to be fully awake, and "when the brain is completely awake there is no fragmentation, no separation, no duality. . .   This quietness is the highest form of intelligence" (87).  And intelligence belongs to no one, "is whole and immaculate," "defies description" and "has no quality." "This is awareness, this is attention, this is love, this is the highest" (88).

Intelligence allows us to act rightly.  As "we" are not, only intelligence acts (40).  "This action of seeing choicelessly is the action of love.  The religious life is the action, and all living is this action, and the religious mind is this action.  So religion, and the mind, and life, and love, are one" (42).  This kind of equation across the board is inevitable in a non-dualistic view of life.  Everything, then, is action, movement.  Learning, Krishnamurti says, "is its own action."  "There can be action in the very movement of learning: that is, learning is doing" (144).  This action is pure action, is true, right, skillful action.  True action "is not action according to an idea."[5]  "If it is imaginary, personal, according to an idea or concept, it ceases to be correct action."[6]  This is only action from the center which, created by fragmentary thought, is a fragment, as is everything created by thought – religion, belief, ideology, even the "world."  "If you see this at once, very clearly, then we will be able to find out what is correct, accurate action in which there is no imagination, no pretension, nothing but the actual."[7]  Action with idea is striving, struggling, becoming, which creates an actor and an end result.  When there is no end, no purpose – just action, purely acting – there is no actor, no center to which action is bound.  This new state of action is a state of experiencing "without the experience and the experience."[8]  This is attentive action, without self-awareness, without self.  It is experience because there is awareness (though it is not reflective) of the movement of life, which is action.  The centerless activity is the actor ceasing to be and merely flowing with what is.  Only when there is love do ideas cease, and then there is true action.[9]

And what is love? "Thought is not love" (75).  "Freedom is love," and freedom "comes in the understanding of the whole structure and nature of the centre" (75).  Love comes only when there is abandonment – "the sense of not being held, of no restraint, no defence, no resistance,"[10] which is merely freedom.  "Only he has love who abandons himself, forgets himself completely, and thereby brings about the state of creative beauty."[11]  Yet austerity is needed to prevent this freedom from being chaotic.  Austerity is being simple, being satisfied with little, is "when the mind is capable of infinite experience – when it has experience, and yet remains very simple," when it is not becoming anything but merely is.[12]  This uncaused action is unconditioned action.  "Love is the only ting that is causeless, that is free; it is beauty, it is skill, it is art.  Without love there is no art. . .  Art is the absence of the 'me'" just as "skill in action is the absence of the 'me.'"  "The absence of the 'me ' in living is love and beauty, which beings its own skill.  This is the greatest art: living skillfully in the whole field of life" (92).

Love is freedom, freedom from self or "me," and living freely is beautiful living.  Still, how are we to be free from ourselves, our conditioning, our past, our memory, our thought – realizing that "how" is the wrong way to phrase this question?  This is very simple: to understand that the "me" is "the action of the human heart and mind, " is "both the collective and the individual," – to be aware of this and to understand it is "the ending of it" (139).  "The 'me' comes to an end when it sees for itself that it must end" (137).  "In seeing the truth of the nature of thought and its activities, thought becomes quiet" (33).  "Going beyond thought is knowing what thought is" (150).  Understanding comes from attention, and when one attends to one's "one," one's seeming one-ness, one's "self" or "me," then this "me" slips away.  The "me" is only the creation of thought: you only think "you" are.  Observing is learning, learning which "demands intelligence and sensitivity," learning which is its own action and discipline, which is freedom (61).  Discipline is necessary, thought not he discipline of practicing formal exercise, which only stifle and dull.  To observe the mind silently "really demands tremendous alertness and discipline, the watching that brings its own discipline" (149).  This watching, attentiveness, sensitivity, is intelligence which frees us from our artificial centers, beings love, beauty, and oneness, and allows action to be pure and perception, seeing, to be direct.

This all sounds very good, doesn't it?  The question, "Is this freedom and the rest possible?" is a natural one, and the response would seem to be, "You must experience this freedom for yourself to know the answer."  But "you" and "yourself" cannot experience what we have talked about.  There is no such experience, insofar as experience has an experiencer – insofar as experience is "as we know it."  Everything must cease, leaving noting to be experienced.  For what we think is "everything" is really nothing at all, and what we think is "nothing" that is left is really everything.  Insofar as "we" can know and insofar as "we" do know, there is no reality.  This is precisely why the experience of complete freedom – this negation of everything, including the experiencer – is so terribly difficult.  To quote from the Zen master Huang-po:

Men are afraid to forget their own minds, fearing to fall through the void with nothing onto which they can cling.  They do not know that the void is not really the void but the realm of the Dharma."[13]

Dharma is Truth.






[1] The Urgency of Change (New York, Harper & Row, 1970), 21.  Further cites are by page number.

[2] Think on These Things (New York, Harper & Row, 1964), 38.

[3] The discourse of a swami in the motion picture Head by The Monkees (Columbia, 1968). The monolog is from "Swami – Plus Strings."

[4] From a talk at Brockwood Park, September 6, 1975. Krishnamurti Foundation Bulletin 27 (Winter 1975), 2.

[5] Think on These Things, 73.

[6] Bulletin, 3.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] The First and Last Freedom (New York, Harper & Row, 1954), 51.

[9] Ibid., 55.

[10] Think on These Things, 89.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 90.

[13] Quoted in Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Pantheon, 1957), 141.



Alan Gullette > Essays