I have always wanted a Hindu guru to call my own, a Jewish mother type with whom I could just hang out and laugh. He wouldn’t give me any difficult meditation exercises but would simply embody the great realization, transmitting it through his aura or by patting me on the head now and again. I turned down a chance to meet Neem Karoli Baba back in 1970 and have suffered a bit of guru envy ever since. So, after listening to glowing reports from various vipassana teachers and students about a profound Indian master living in Lucknow named Hari Lal Poonja, I decided to go to India to see for myself.
It seems that Hari Lal Poonja, or Poonja-ji, as he is affectionately known, was born with the deep passion for realization that resides in many an Indian breast. The story has it that when he was a little boy he became fascinated with a statue of the starving Buddha and went through a period in which he wouldn’t eat. Instead, he took his food into his bedroom and threw it out the window to the dogs. As a young man, Poonja-ji’s devotion to Krishna became so intense that he would dress up in women’s clothing as the goddess Radha, Lord Krishna’s consort, in the fervent hope that Krishna would appear to him and reveal his divine face. Poonja-ji later became a disciple of the venerated Indian master Ramana Maharshi, and in subsequent years came to the end of his spiritual search.
Poonja-ji’s realization and teachings come out of the Hindu Advaita Vedanta tradition, which features radical inquiry into the nature of self, carried out in individual dialogues with the teacher in the presence of the satsang, a Hindi word used for a group of disciples, literally translated as “the community of truth.” For a number of years now, Poonja-ji has freely offered his teachings to whomever seeks him out, and he has traveled worldwide giving talks and leading satsang sessions. Recently he has become quite well-known in Western spiritual circles, partially due to the fact that two of his disciples, Andrew Cohen and Ganga-ji (Tony Varner), have begun teaching in the West. Hundreds of Westerners are now traveling to Lucknow to be with Poonja-ji himself.
Before I began my interview with Poonja-ji, I gave him a copy of my book Crazy Wisdom. He picked it up, looked at the cover for a few minutes, and then turned to me and asked, “Who gave you your name?” I thought he was referring to “Scoop,” so I explained to him how I was given that nickname as a radio news commentator. “No, no,” he said, “who gave you the name Nis-ker?”
“That is my real last name,” I replied. “My father gave it to me.”
“Oh, this is a very good name,” Poonja-ji said. “In Sanskrit Nis-ker means ‘non-doer.’”
Poonja-ji gives out a lot of new names. During one satsang session I saw him give a women the name “Nirvana.” Later I saw this woman at my hotel and couldn’t help but ask her, “How’s Nirvana?” She laughed and said, “Wonderful!” I personally had no desire to get a new name from Poonja-ji, but I certainly do appreciate him telling me what my own name means.
And how appropriate, I thought. “Non-doer” is a name that I would gladly live up to, relax into, become one with. Non-doing is something I’d like to know more about. It turned out that I received an elementary lesson in the meaning of my name during this interview with Poonja-ji for Inquiring Mind.
I went in to see Poonja-ji with a list of what I thought were important questions. I was the journalist, desiring the “inside” story from this man. I wanted the “real scoop” about the differences, say, between Buddhism and Hindu-based Advaita Vedanta, and whether meditation practice is useful for certain psychological types, and if we are really all one with everything then who or what is it that awakens? However, rather than answer my questions, Poonja-ji went after my mind instead. I would ask him something and he would just turn to me and say, “Who is asking this question?” Try to do a decent, respectable interview when the interviewee is busy deconstructing your ego!
For a while I tried to get control of the conversation. I wanted to flip Poonja-ji into my frame of reference, the plane of relative reality, so that I could get something good for Inquiring Mind, and the vipassana community could learn why some of their teachers were going to hang out with this jolly Hindu guru. I wanted to say to him, “Poonja-ji, you know, journalists are supposed to ask five questions when they are out on a story, ‘who, what, where, when and why.’ Now, those are basically the same questions you are asking of your disciples. Journalists will ask those questions about a government or a car accident, and you ask those questions about the nature of the ‘self’ and the accident of the universe. Although I may be playing in relative reality, Poonja-ji, I am asking these questions as a journalist of the spiritual quest, for the sake of all sentient beings, and all that other good stuff. I know the rules and I accept the fact that we can’t really talk about any of this, but just for now let’s pretend that we can. My next question is . . .”
Eventually I had to let go of my attempts to direct things, and finally I just relaxed into the conversation with Poonja-ji. However, as I left his house I felt disappointed, thinking that this interview had not produced much that would be useful for Inquiring Mind readers. Later, when I listened closely to the tape I began to hear more and more. You can now judge for yourself.
Poonja-ji is an imposing man, not because he is especially large, but due to the quiet power one senses within him. Perhaps his deep conviction is tangible, as if his wisdom has infused his body and moved through his limbs. In spite of his self-assurance (perhaps “non-self” assurance is more accurate) in satsang sessions, Poonja-ji shows amazing patience with anyone who joins in dialogue with him. He gives full attention to each person—cajoling, questioning, probing—attempting to guide people one at a time out of their delusions and out of their suffering. After being around him for a while many people start calling him “Papa-ji,” as if he were the father they always wanted, a loving and playful man who always tells the truth and nothing but the truth.
The most charming and disarming aspect of Poonja-ji’s temperament is his irrepressible sense of humor. It is delightful to watch him ask someone a question and then await the answer with a big grin on his face, his expression seeming to ask, “Don’t you see how silly this all is?” And when someone finally “gets it” he or she usually ends up joining Poonja-ji in a bout of uproarious laughter.
I didn’t find my guru in Lucknow, at least not in any formal sense of the term, but I did learn a whole lot about nothing. I bow down to Poonja-ji’s profound realization, and especially to his great sense of humor about this dance we are all doing.
As for our interview, it began after Poonja-ji explained my name to me, and then looked back at the cover of my book and asked . . .
Poonja-ji: What is this thing you call “Crazy Wisdom”? Wisdom cannot be crazy. Maybe some other word should be used.
Inquiring Mind: Crazy wisdom is only crazy to the ordinary mind. It looks crazy, but it is actually true wisdom. That’s what the term means.
PJ: When mind is rooted in the ego, then it is crazy. When it is related to some object of the senses, then it is a crazy mind. But first of all we must know what the mind is. Mind is nothing but a thought. You can’t separate thought itself from the mind. So first you have to find out which is the first thought that arises from the mind. Which is the first thought?
PJ: Yes, “I” is the first thought. This “I” is ego. When we use the word “I,” then there is ego, then there is mind, then there is a body, and then there are senses, and then there are sense objects, and then all manifestation arises.
IM: And then there is suffering.
PJ: Of course. Where there is a separate being there is suffering. Where there is union, then there is no suffering.
So understand where this “I” arises from. The question is this: “Who am I?” Keep alert and then you will know. Pay full attention and then wait for the answer. Keep quiet and wait for the answer. It only takes one instant of time. Question where the “I” is arising from now. Previous notions and concepts will not help you. This is the question you have not yet asked yourself. You ask questions to others about something else, but not this question to your own self.
IM: I think that in fact I have asked this question.
PJ: “I think I have.” Who thinks that I have? Again, you will have to solve this in order to solve everything.
IM: I am using the term “I” in a relative sense, just to . . .
PJ: “I” am using. “I” am using. Here is the “I” again.
IM: You are telling me to ask “Who am I?” And that is exactly what I have been doing in my Buddhist meditation practice for the past twenty years. I have been investigating “Who am I?”
PJ: Yes. “I” have been investigating, “I” have been investigating. But you have not really investigated. Investigation means to go in.
IM: Now? You want me to do it now?
PJ: Yes now. Don’t run away from now. Just catch hold of this now. You can try to step out of this now, but it will follow you—behind, in front, this side, that side, up and down. So what do you see in this now?
IM: I see me.
PJ: I see me, I am me, I am now . . . what does it mean? Who is the seer, and who is the seeing? Tell me what you see? “I see me.” Is it an object, is it a subject? What is the form? What is the form of “I”?
IM: (Pause for some investigation) This “I” I am referring to doesn’t seem to have a solid form.
PJ: When a word has no solid form, then there is no more word. The previous “I” you were using is no longer there. Now you have come to the real I. Now you are working from now. This previous I was a fake I. That “I” represented the body and was the egoistic I. But just now, when it went and jumped into the beyond, it was finished. And now this “now” is finished. You have to start afresh all over again.
IM: Every moment I have to start over.
PJ: To see the real “I” means to see total consciousness, which in reality is representing emptiness. Before, the “I” you were using was from the body, ego, mind and senses. But when it is arising from emptiness, it is emptiness itself. And this is the fathomless I. When you see this I then you will see everything as I. Then there will be love, then there will be wisdom, then you will see your own reflection, in animals, in birds, in plants, in rocks. Now what about the twenty years of your practice of investigation? What have you been doing for these twenty years?
IM: I’ve been looking in. I feel like I have experienced emptiness, and have dissolved into emptiness during meditation. I have seen the emptiness of all phenomena . . . .
PJ: That emptiness you have been seeing was full of egoism. That was not emptiness. That was only a word, a concept. The emptiness which I am speaking about is not even emptiness. Emptiness has got nothing to do with where I am taking you, but I am using the word. I don’t allow you to use the word emptiness even. Where did you learn this word emptiness? You must have heard it from some sutras.
IM: Many Mahayana sutras talk about emptiness.
PJ: But that belongs to the past. It has nothing to do with this emptiness which I speak about. Now I tell you, don’t use the word emptiness either. This emptiness is the finger pointing to something else. You have to reject the finger to see the moon. Now reject this word emptiness if you want to go beyond!
IM: So, do you think my twenty years of vipassana meditation practice was wasted effort?
PJ: No. Those twenty years have brought you to me (laughs). And not only twenty years have you been doing this, but for thirty-five million years. But there’s no time wasted. In emptiness there is nothing existing at all. This is the ultimate experience. Emptiness is only a concept. To have this concept is just the pride of the mind. Once you touch the word I, simultaneously time will arise and you will have past, present and future.
When the I ceases, everything ceases. “Nothing ever existed” is the ultimate truth. It is something unspeakable and it will remain unspeakable. Buddha spent forty-nine years speaking, speaking, speaking. And I don’t think he touched the point. Why should he speak for fifty years after enlightenment?
IM: He said he taught in order to end suffering. To free people.
PJ: He was trying to express that which he could not.
IM: We all try to say it in order to pass it on. That is why the Buddha gave out various practices.
PJ: Yes, but this is all from ego. In all practices you are working from ego. You identify with the body and say “I am so and so,” and you separate yourself from the ultimate truth. The absolute is something else altogether, and in any kind of practice you miss it.
IM: Would you say that all sadhanas or practices are a hindrance? And is this true for all people?
PJ: Sadhana is not for freedom. It can remove some old habits, such as identification with the body. But sadhana is not for freedom, not for truth, not for the absolute. All the time you are doing sadhana the truth is standing in front of you, smiling at you. The barrier in practice is your past concepts, such as the idea that you are bound. You say to yourself, “I am bound, I am suffering.” And you are only doing sadhana to remove the suffering. Not for freedom. Freedom doesn’t want any practices. It is there as it is. And you are already free.
IM: Some Zen Buddhist master once said, “Now that I’m enlightened, I’m as miserable as ever.” In other words, you get the understanding, you get enlightenment, and still you have to live in the world.
PJ: Maybe the Zen master said that because he suddenly realized that he had suffered needlessly for thirty-five million years, when all that time he had actually been free (laughs).
IM: So then, how would you define enlightenment? I think a lot of people believe that they can achieve a steady state of realization, always living in “now,” always in emptiness. Is that how you would define enlightenment, or does it come and go?
PJ: Whatever you do and whatever you don’t do is all empty. Every day I am seeing people who have had many different teachers and have done all kinds of practices, and they say, “We are here seeing you because you don’t give us any teaching, and you don’t give us any practices. Now we don’t have anything to do. We just laugh.” (Poonja-ji laughs.)
IM: Maybe they laugh just from being around you. After all, some people say that realization comes through the grace of a teacher. Would you say that it depends on “the grace of the guru”?
PJ: It depends on the grace of grace. The teacher himself will draw you when you have a desire. First of all, you have to grace your own self.
IM: Are we free to do that?
PJ: Your next door neighbor did not come here and sit next to me to ask this question. So you do have grace.
IM: I may have grace, but did I choose to have that grace? Was I free to have grace?
PJ: Grace and freedom are the same thing. Where does grace come from? The grace comes from within. And you do not understand the language of that grace. The grace says, “I want to be free.” You said you have been doing meditation practice for twenty years. What was it that was driving you? Your neighbor did not feel this need. Why have you been picked up? Why have you been chosen? It is the grace from within. And this grace takes you to a person who will apprise you of the truth and speak to you with your own tongue, and he will only tell you that you are already free. Anybody who tells you to do this or that, should not be regarded as a teacher. He should rather be called a butcher. The teacher relieves you from all activity, from all concepts, all precepts. You have done enough. For thirty-five million years you have been doing, doing, doing. And when you come to a true teacher, he will not tell you to do anything more.
IM: You tell us to inquire within. Isn’t that doing something?
PJ: Going within means just listening to your own guru. And this guru is your own self. You don’t know him, you don’t recognize him, you don’t understand his language of silence. The real guru will introduce you to the guru within and ask “you” to keep quiet. This is your own grace. It comes from within you. No one else can give you this grace.
IM: Who gets this grace? Who is graced with this grace?
IM: Everybody has it?
PJ: Yes, everybody has it.
IM: Then why do so few people hear it? Why are so many people living in delusion?
PJ: Everybody is already free, but there is a wall hiding the truth from them, and that wall is desire.
IM: That’s exactly what the Buddha said. Desire is what clouds the eyes.
PJ: Yes. But you can very simply just throw away this desire. You don’t have to do anything. All desires belong to the past. When you don’t have any desires from the past, your eyes are open. Try now, yourself, and tell me. Don’t let desire stand between you and freedom. Remove this wall of any kind of desire just for one second and tell me.
PJ: Yes, now.
IM: (Pause for removal of desire) There’s nothing much here. . . .
PJ: Then you have seen. The wall was desire.
IM: When I came here I had a desire for a good interview.
PJ: Any desire is a wall. Even desire for freedom.
IM: Poonja-ji, many people seem to be in a devotional relationship to you, in the tradition of “bhakti.” Do some people arrive at truth more easily through devotion than through inquiry?
PJ: The most direct method—only meant for a very few, very sharp people—is inquiry. Nothing more is needed. Instantly you can be enlightened and you can be free. All practices will bring you ultimately to this. Maybe in this life, or maybe after several other lives, you will have to come to this place of absolute freedom. In devotion there is duality between the devotee and the guru, or the devotee and the divine. Ultimately, the devotee has to surrender completely, but very few actually do this. Too often devotion is only ritual.
IM: But if one surrenders totally to the guru?
PJ: If the devotee truly surrenders, then he is finished. No more karma will be accumulated. From then on the divine will look after him. It is a love, a romance which always continues, a romance you can’t forget. It is really a love affair with your own self. Inquiry means you have to investigate, “Who am I? Where is the ego arising from?” It’s really the same thing, surrender or inquiry. There are hundreds of other paths, such as yoga and tantra, but I don’t think they lead to the ultimate. Inquiry is the true practice. It is a short cut method.
IM: We all want a short cut.
PJ: The shortest. A real teacher can finish his students work with one word.
IM: You tell people to just be themselves. It sounds like the Zen masters who say, “Just be ordinary.”
PJ: Be ordinary. Yes, just remove the doubt that says you are not awake or not enlightened. Because you are, and it’s that simple.
IM: Why then do so many people live in delusion? Is this just the leila, the play of the gods?
IM: Unfortunately there is a lot of suffering in this play of the gods.
PJ: Because people take it as reality. Therefore they suffer.
IM: Poonja-ji, finally, would you give me some advice about how to open my heart and love the world more?
PJ: To love the world you have to first learn how to love your own self. If you love yourself then you love the whole world, because your self includes everything. Also, if you know your own self, you know everything there is to know. So know your own self. And this knowing is being. That’s all you need to know. Knowing is being.