The following essay was written in the summer of 2013:
What are the common characteristics of a sage? The prototypical image of a saint or a sage is often an old man with a beard who speaks in a certain tone, uses specific “spiritual” words, and dresses a certain wardrobe—the “fashion show” as Jiddu Krishnamurti called it.
Yet an image of wisdom is not wisdom. These mentally constructed images are judgments wrapped in ideals and expectations—things we make up in our head, moving through the world as if they were true. So if we cannot rely on our images of wisdom, to whom or to what do we turn to find it? Where do we find the inspiring people who can help us remove clouds of judgment, expectations, and ideologies?
Many of us go to a bookstore or church, or imagine some guru or yogi or a monk. I found one of these gems of wisdom in the unlikely form of a fictional six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy. Hushpuppy’s wisdom, however, came without the pretentious words or demeanor found in the pseudo-sage who does little to change his mind and only changes outward appearances and words.
The late Indian sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj—the other subject of this essay—taught ideas similar to the story of Hushpuppy, though only slightly more formal. He showed the appearance of what one might ordinarily think of an enlightened person. He wore the robe, lived in spiritual Mecca that is India, and used many of the words of Indian spiritual followers. Though he had no formal training and little education, seekers from all over the world sought him for wisdom. He took on a more common form of a guru, yet his responses, like Hushpuppy’s responses to situations, were quite spontaneous. Neither Hushpuppy nor Maharaj sought happiness and wisdom. They lived it, moving through life with a relative ease and grace despite circumstances.
By most appearances, young Hushpuppy lived life like the rest of the residents in her small community in the Louisiana bayou they called “The Bathtub.” In spite of disaster, Hushpuppy took everything as it came without judgment or denial. She accepted situations or did something about them, insofar as a six-year-old can deal with such problems, like setting her home on fire and blowing up a levee to start rebuilding The Bathtub. She was not tainted with the conventional society wisdom to “be what she wants to be” or “shoot for the stars”. She saw herself as a tiny piece of a vast universe, and moved through her life with the grace of a slow stream, dispensing the timeless wisdom of a sage, spoken through the words of a six-year-old:
“All the time, everywhere, everything’s hearts
are beating and squirting, and talking to each
other the ways I can’t understand.
Most of the time they probably be saying:
I’m hungry, or I gotta poop.”
The non-intellectual Hushpuppy was aligned with the mode of the universe without books or gurus, and not tampering with it psychologically or fighting what is. She was, after all, “a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right,” as she put it.
Perhaps the finest example of taking what came to her without denial was when she faced her father’s death. Her father, Wink, told her that when most people get sick, doctors “plug them into walls,” which her father saw as a form of weakness. The sick Wink escaped the shelter where the doctors plugged him into a wall. Hushpuppy rushed to his side to be there for his death, but first she had to face the aurochs—an extinct species of cattle which her young imagination thought of as giant pot-bellied pigs with two long horns protruding from their foreheads.
On the way to her father, she faced the aurochs of her imagination in a moment of triumph. The aurochs conceded position and moved around her. She then went to her father on his deathbed and listened to his final heartbeat. She didn’t like the fact of her father’s condition, but it was still a fact. And after facing the beasts of her imagination, she faced the death of her father.
This denial—the denial of death—permeates our entire society, yet Hushpuppy faced it with less denial and fear than most adults. She didn’t fall back on any of the strange ideals or forms we use to cover up the fact of death: the decorated corpses, the funeral procession, the image of an afterlife in which we retain a living version of the corpse with all its ideals and desires.
Few would likely turn to Hushpuppy for timeless advice, but she could still give it. I was not looking for anything inspiring or enlightening when I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild, but I found it in Hushpuppy. And she did it without any claim to enlightenment. There are, however, those who have seen or claimed to see the fleeting nature of these mental boondoggles—judgments and ideologies—and released them. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, the central figure in the book I Am That, was one of those people.
In reading I Am That, I could see that Maharaj exemplified many of the characteristics of the prototypical sage (minus the beard). He grew up like many of his Indian counterparts in the late 19th to early 20th centuries in poverty. He claimed have followed the advice of his guru repeating a mantra to himself over and over: “I am…I am…” In some three years of meditation and the repetition of this mantra, “something exploded within him…giving birth to a cosmic consciousness, a sense of eternal life.”(xii) He didn’t claim that this method was a cure-all for any seeker, only that he did as his guru advised and it worked. His reputation as a guru grew, and people would visit him and ask him many of the typical questions of a spiritual seeker.
I Am That contains 101 of these translated conversations with Maharaj. One particular feature that stands out among the conversations is that Maharaj meets the seeker where he or she is psychologically without remaining attached to any specific words or methods. The seeker might have been in a place where they needed mantras or meditations to remain focused or to move along to their own path of self-realization.
Some, however, needed little or no specificity in action or even ideas. One questioner asked if “holy company”—the presence of holy people, however he or she defined holy—was enough for self realization. Maharaj responded, “It will take you to the river, but the crossing is your own.”(285) He responded to another, “Where is the need to change anything?”(311) Maharaj usually left the questioner to decide. Thus different seekers required different paths just as they required different shoe sizes. To Maharaj, the road to self-realization is not as important as the destination, which remained his focus.
The means by which we seek happiness or find the answer to “Who am I?” are debated and fought over from arguments to wars. A common method is to look in books. I once read about a New Yorker cartoon in which a perplexed man stood before two doors. One said “Heaven” and the other said “Books about Heaven.” Many of us have this strange psychological addiction which compels us to reach for the books. While books might be helpful, as the Buddhist koan says, the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. This is one characteristic Hushpuppy and Maharaj had in common: they had little or no education. The young and enlightening Hushpuppy needed no books. I saw little indication that she could even read.
Many spiritual seekers might gravitate toward such appearances. Maharaj had a few of the attributes of a common spiritual appearance, but this was trivial and unimportant. The importance lied in the ideas and teachings he imparted on his seekers. Yet many of his followers were still surprised by his answers. Maharaj told one questioner that the forms of events in the world were irrelevant, like ripples on the surface of the ocean. The questioner called him callous for seeing a suffering world as irrelevant, to which Maharaj responded “It is you who is callous, not me. If your world is so full of suffering, do something about it; don’t add to it through greed or indolence.”(485) Maharaj saw the same things everyone else saw, but to him it wasn’t so dreadful. The world was something to accept or to change, but not to fuss about.
Hushpuppy ran on a similar mode: accept it or do something about it, whatever it was. She could move through her life understanding how small and seemingly irrelevant she was: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the entire universe will get busted.” At the same time, she was not a harsh judge of the events of her life.
The residents of The Bathtub were not living up to any of society’s standards; they lived in poverty, as any government might define it. Yet she felt quite content with her situation, affirming her place in the universe. Her legacy was simple: “Once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” The Bathtub residents and Hushpuppy enjoyed their little lot. They weren’t drawn into the shiny things the world chased. Everything was an experience. “The Bathtub has more holidays than the rest of the whole world,” Hushpuppy said. And they ate and lived as if every day were a holiday and every meal was a feast—a blessing from the world.
While outward appearances did little to sell Hushpuppy’s sagely advice, her reactions and six-year-old thoughts were a pleasant surprise among unpleasant events in The Bathtub. I stumbled across little Hushpuppy seemingly by accident, not knowing what to look for or what exactly to listen to, yet she gave me the spontaneous answers I did seek when I read Maharaj—surprising, unexpected, and unlikely forms showing themselves as blessings of the world. Maharaj’s I Am That was a reliable book to which I could turn for sagely wisdom. Hushpuppy was an unexpected gift, but no less powerful—a reminder that I could find the timeless wisdom anywhere and in anyone.