Krishnamurti’s Parable


The interfaith brunch had gone well, with lively discussions of a number of thought-provoking questions – and far too little time to pursue most of the discussions in depth, but warm agreement that the event was stimulating. Now Paul, an OR/MS analyst, was chatting with Radha, an articulate, charming South Asian lady. “We Reform Jews believe strongly in individual freedom and responsibility,” he noted, “but Buddhism, as you describe the way it’s practiced, seems to take up where we leave off. But Buddhists do join organizations and follow authorities. What’s the balance?”

“If you want to live in modern society – or any society, for that matter,” Radha replied, “you adopt many of the customs of that society, at least outwardly. And Buddhists do have customs and traditions in addition to what Buddha taught. But there’s a difference between following customs and tradition to get along and being virtually enslaved by them. You don’t lose your independence of thought unless you surrender it. Buddha had these disagreements with Hindu priests all the time: how do you know, he would ask, that what you teach is correct? If you do things simply because that’s what your teachers did, and they do those things because that’s what their teachers did, you are like a line of blind men, each clinging to the hem of the coat of the one in front of him, and none of you knowing where you are going or why.”

“That sounds like what a lot of people from different traditions believe,” Paul affirmed. “But there does seem to be more of a difference in what people practice.”

“What do you mean?” Radha inquired.

“Let me give you a recent example,” Paul said. “I have a staff member on my team, a very bright guy, but he keeps getting into seemingly avoidable arguments with me and other team members. I think he comes from an upper-class background in a culture where the upper class think they’re always right, then a good engineering school, and then several years in a large, hierarchical company that really insists on people following established processes and producing tool-based answers. They want to sell solutions as products, not sell advice and counsel as a service. It’s a business approach that has worked very well for some large, well-known companies, even though it can get in the way of innovative problem-solving – and just basic consultant-client cooperation.

“So he believes very strongly that we have to give the client what we think is our best technical solution to whatever problem we work on, and fight to get that solution accepted if there’s any resistance. ‘We owe the client our best technical solution as a matter of ethical duty,’ he insists. And as honorable as that might seem, superficially, it doesn’t work.

“The problem is,” Paul went on, “we can’t usually be all that sure that we’ve understood the problem completely, and even if we have, we may not realize what it will take to implement our solution. Often there are additional aspects that the client neglected to tell us about. Or the client we’re working with has to deal, in turn, with other people and organizations with different objectives and different priorities. I think what we owe the client is not the technical solution we think is best, but the best solution they can and will implement. And that can be a very big difference.”

“I see,” Radha nodded. “Have you ever studied any of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s teachings?”

“I’ve heard the name,” Paul shrugged, “but that’s about all.”

“He was from India,” Radha explained, “and started out looking as if he might be accepted worldwide as a Great Teacher, almost what Jews and Christians would call a messiah. But he ended up rejecting the whole idea that people should follow teachers. He urged people to seek enlightenment on their own, based on their own knowledge – a very Buddhist idea, up to a point.

“This caused some friction right away, since he was raised as a Hindu – a Brahmin, at that, so he had lots of social expectations loaded onto him,” Radha continued. “But his movement to independence resonated with a lot of universalist western thinkers, and a movement grew around him. The trouble was, he ended up insisting that even his closest adherents had never understood what he was telling them – so when he died, there was no one in line to succeed him and keep a movement going, and no way to select such a person.

“One of his closest friends,” Radha added, “put it very succinctly: ‘If I have never understood you, then you have never communicated clearly to me. And if you can’t communicate your vision, what value does it have to anyone?’ ”

“That sounds as if it didn’t help the friendship,” Paul remarked dryly.

“It didn’t,” Radha agreed. “But it does shed some light on your problem, doesn’t it? Isn’t a technical solution a form of enlightenment, and doesn’t it turn out to be useless if you can’t turn it into recommendations that people will be willing and able to follow?”

“I’d say that’s pretty much what I’ve been thinking,” Paul acknowledged.

“So,” Radha said, “doesn’t it follow that it is the responsibility of the leader, or teacher, or guru, whatever, as part of his leadership role, not only to figure out what should be done, but also to learn and adapt to what will be acceptable to the people who will have to carry out the recommendations and live with the consequences?”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va., and a principal decision scientist with Great-Circle Technologies, Inc., in Chantilly, Va.