Extraordinary Sense of Spaciousness: Nisargadatta Maharaj

Jack Kornfield“The essential point of his teaching is that we already are absolutely free and that there is nothing that we have to do or make or become or change ourselves into; we simply have to see the truth of life which is that we are not this body nor this mind, but they are plays of the elements as your will and that, when one understands this,
there comes extraordinary happiness and freedom.”

—Jack Kornfield

I first heard of Nisargadatta Maharaj in 1970 while staying at a Buddhist (forest) monastery in Thailand. I had been writing to one of my best friends from high school saying, “You must come visit me; you must try this monastery and this practice of awakening.” He made it as far as Bombay, India, when he wrote to me stating that he met someone on the street who took him to meet an old Indian man, and that this man really blew away his whole idea of who he thought he was. So, he no longer felt the need to travel to Thailand. I wrote him a letter back saying not to trust every person you meet on the street, and that who knows what this guru is really like. I thought he was kind of naive and told him that this is a really good Buddhist monastery and you should come. He wrote back and said: “No, I have found what I was looking for.” He also sent along a bit of the teachings, which were quite wonderful. So this was my first, somewhat sideways, encounter with Nisargadatta Maharaj. I subsequently visited Maharaj over several years—about three or four in succession, and for a number of weeks at a time.

Nisargadatta had an emptiness more extraordinary than anyone I had ever been with. There was an extraordinary sense of spaciousness, while at the same time he was very intense. When you came in the room you would sit in front of him and he’d look at you and ask where you are coming from. You could answer that question on whatever level you dared. You could give some great spiritual answer, or you could answer as I did, stating that “I flew from New York,” knowing what he was asking but not wanting to get into that discussion. Then, he would engage you in a dialogue as if his only passion was for you to see what he lived in. It was fantastic. He continued the dialogue: “Well, if you are from New York, does that mean that your body—which traveled on the airplane to come—is who you are?” And so the dialogue went from there.

Part of what made it so extraordinary to be with Nisargadatta was being with someone who wanted nothing from you. I have almost never been with another person who wanted less from me—or anybody—and in that “not wanting anything” there was a sense of tremendous freedom and tremendous love. Sometimes he would look at people and would say, “I don’t understand you (as if to pull his hair out); you never want what’s true. You want what you don’t have and don’t want what you already have, and so you suffer. It’s so perplexing! Why not simply reverse it: why not want what you have, and not want what you don’t have?” He said it’s so simple! You can be happy; it’s here for the taking. You want little things when you could have the entire universe and eternity.

Maharaj was a natural mystic and sage, with the innate capacity to trust. He said, “When my guru told me that I can awaken and be free, I believed him, I trusted him. He said all that I must do is to be earnest, and I was earnest.” There was an uncompromising naturalness to him. He did not care in the slightest what anyone said or thought of him, because it had nothing to do with him. People would say certain things about him and he would put his hands up and say, “You are talking about someone else. I have never been.” And the conversation would stop all of a sudden and shift to an entirely different level. He simply knew that he was never born, and he invited everyone who was there to realize the truth of their nature—that they too were never born and need not care because they will never die. It is only the food/body that comes and goes and that’s the recycling of the plant material of the world.

In the second year that I went to see Maharaj, I was on my way to do my own retreat in the mountains of Sri Lanka. I flew to India after leading a three-month meditation in Massachusetts. I spent about a week or ten days with Maharaj, and with a small group of people who sat around him. I then went off to the mountains and did two months of very intensive meditation for eighteen hours each day while living in a little hut. I tried, with each breath, to expand my consciousness as far as I could to the ends of space, then bring it back to the point in the center of the heart, then let go of it. I did this for two months, and when I returned to see Maharaj, I really wasn’t there, but completely empty—as empty as I have ever been. And in this wonderful state I greeted Maharaj, bowed, and paid my respects. And he said, “You are back!” or something like that. I replied that, “I am not back.” What do you mean you are “not back?” he said looking at me. “Where did you come from?” I said “There is no coming; there is no going, that’s just an appearance, an illusion. I went nowhere and I came from nowhere,” and everyone in the room became quiet because one didn’t do this so easily with Maharaj. He then tested me in various ways to make sure I wasn’t just telling him a story. But I really wasn’t there, being so very empty. After checking me further he looked at me; there was a beautiful space, and he said: “So, from this point on, never again will there be a moment of fear in you, right?” And the minute he said that, this little place inside that’s really afraid came out, and I realized “Oh, who I think I am is still buried in there.” He saw the movement of my eyes and the hesitation, and he said “There, that’s the place where you make yourself. If you understand that, it will make everything complete.” It was a moment unlike almost any other in my life.

When people came to see Maharaj, there was a ground of understanding that he insisted upon. And that ground was to know that you are not the body. He would say that if you still think that this is who you are—this food/body as he called it —then go away for a year to some monastery, do  meditation, or just reflect on birth and death until you have a basic understanding.

Sometimes, Maharaj was asked how one would know that he is realized, and couldn’t a realized being be mistaken. He said that if anyone thought they were realized they had completely missed the boat. He was simply what everyone else was, which is beyond the body and the mind. Sometimes he would talk about God and how people said that they “wrestled with God.” Maharaj said, “I wrestled with God long ago and beat him hands down on his own turf, because God only arises with the form of the Universe. What I am—which is what you are, what everyone else is—is beyond this body, beyond this mind, beyond all form and all things.”

When Maharaj spoke of the “I am” or the “I amness,” he spoke of it as the bridge between the temporal and the eternal. This means to recognize that all forms, all of the senses, and all thinking is always changing, and to step outside that as the witness, as the “I amness.” When we rest in witnessing, in that “I amness,” it becomes possible to turn that witnessing back upon itself and see that there is no-one who witnesses. Witnessing appears like the sun in the morning, then disappears at night, and beyond the witnessing is space and emptiness—what he called love and wisdom. Maharaj puts it this way: “When I see I am nothing that is wisdom, and when I see I am everything that is love, and between those two my life moves.”

Maharaj spoke of the irony of life this way: “You identify yourself with so many things—with your thoughts, with your plans, with your history and your birth. This identification limits and binds you; it creates separation and inevitable pain and suffering. If you understand in a moment who you are, you see you are not any of those things, and then your identity expands immediately to be one with all things. This is not just some philosophy, some Eastern talk, or some metaphysics; it is a direct and palpable experience. And what this experience does for you is it brings happiness, it brings freedom, it brings a state of tremendous rest and also great aliveness.

People sometimes think that awakening will lead them to become a passive witness to the world, but the opposite is true. Maharaj was intensely alive, Krishnamurti was intensely alive, all of the sages and saints that I have known are eccentric, alive, and remarkably full of the energy of the world, yet also free from it. I believe that when Maharaj speaks of acting without the sense of doership, it is just a shift of identification from taking this body or mind to be oneself, and realizing that there is a grace that moves all of life which we participate in, but do not own and cannot possess. People fear that by letting go, their world will fall apart and they won’t know what to do, that life just won’t work. It’s quite the opposite. When one lets go of this self-centered point of reference, of identification, then that which is true grace moves through you—the Tao, the Eternal—whatever you may call it. Then, one’s actions become naturally responsible, affectionate, kindhearted, detached, and yet tremendously caring at the same time.

Maharaj used to say that life was painful for many of us, that life was fragile, and yet we are unwilling to see that we are, in a way, on a sinking ship as we grow older. He said that if you would only take heart, look and see the true condition of your life, and your limited sense of identification, it might give you that earnestness, it might give you that courage of heart, that strength of heart to ask the true questions. He encouraged us in whatever way he could to make us want to really look, to make us earnest about knowing “who we are” and “what is this life.”

To ask the question “Who am I?” is the beginning of a journey in which every answer to that question shows itself, upon examination, to be limited. We are all of this and none of this. This is the place that Maharaj directly pointed to.


Adapted from the DVD Awaken to the Eternal, Nisargadatta Maharaj: A Journey of Self-Discovery. Copyright 2006 by Inner Directions Fdn. All rights reserved.



F r o m   “J e a n ‘ s   J o u r n a l s”
The Unpublished Diaries of Jean Dunn
September 10, 1980

Maharaj to G: Whatever you have come here to get, you will not get. Whatever you are, you will get. Whatever experience I get comes to me naturally, spontaneously. I don’t have to work for experiences; they just happen, and whatever knowledge I acquire is experience only. This is what I understand; there is nothing of “mine” in that, as the sense of “I” has already gone.
G: Is there any preparation to the “instrument” itself?
There are 10,000 ways to prepare for it. Okay, you can take that answer and go home. But, you better leave now; this particular knowledge is of no use to you. If you already know your identity, you don’t have to do anything.
F: Is it a happy state?
M: There is no play of happiness or unhappiness in that state. You are not the body.

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