My college roommate Danny had a summer job as an orderly in a mental hospital, and he came back the next fall with stories to tell. It seems there was a fenced-in area on the hospital grounds where the patients were allowed to spend time outdoors. Danny noticed a narrow circular path that had been worn in the grass, and he asked about it. "See for yourself," another orderly said, as one of the patients began circling the path and talking to himself. "I don't know," the patient said, shaking his head. "I just...don't...know!" Round and around he went, as long as he was allowed to remain outside, always furiously muttering the same thing: "I don't know, I just...don't...know!"
It occurs to me that this patient's dilemma, whatever it was, also aptly describes a spiritual quest. We begin with the notion that we are embarking on a sacred journey that, after much care and exertion, eventually brings us back to our starting point, knowing no more than when we left. I am referring only to those fortunate few who manage to come full circle, not the many who fall by the wayside or worse, who persist in the delusion that they are getting somewhere. The Buddha, at least, had the good sense to say put, sitting for years under a bodhi tree until he achieved enlightenment. And what exactly happened to him under the bodhi tree? "Nothing," he said.
When we were in college, Danny and I visited some girls at Brandeis University and had an opportunity to hear a talk there by J. Krishnamurti, a spiritual teacher who was by then already in his 70s. While still a boy in India, Krishnamurti had been identified by leaders of the Theosophical Society as the next incarnation of Christ. They founded a religious organization called the Order of the Star and anointed him as its leader. Following a spiritual crisis brought on by the untimely death of his younger brother, Krishnamurti turned away from the whole idea of organized belief, religious authority and spiritual masters, himself included. He disbanded the Order of the Star and told his followers that if they wanted to find enlightenment, they should look to themselves.
Krishnamurti's message was essentially the same as Buddha's final words to his own followers: Be a lamp unto yourselves. Krishnamurti understood that there is no path to enlightenment, or at least none that lies outside ourselves. We would much prefer to look in someone else's lighted window, rather than grope around in the dark. But as Krishnamurti taught, you don't have to be Thomas Edison to find illumination; you just have to turn on the light.