When I noticed courses on Eastern religion being offered around town by Jehangir Chubb, a retired professor of philosophy from the University of Bombay in India, I was intrigued. Was he another dry intellectual or a genuine teacher, with something to say to us all?
We met and talked, and I was even more intrigued. He is an intellectual — he earned his doctorate at Oxford in 1937, headed the department of philosophy at Elpehinstone College at the University of Bombay from 1948 to 1965, wrote Assertion and Fact — The Categories of Self-Conscious Thinking and many papers on philosophical subjects — but in addition to being a philosopher’s philosopher he is steeped in the spiritual wisdom of ancient and modern India. His manner is formal, his words precise, his presence calm and spacious. Even when turning away a question (“What is the mantra?” “One doesn’t tell the mantra.”) he is gentle, respectful.
The collected works of Sri Aurobindo, one of India’s great mystics and philosophers (“the greatest,” Dr. Chubb says), line one wall of his modest apartment in Chapel Hill. He has been here since 1975, teaching courses through the extension division of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and more recently through the Community Wholistic Health Center. He has also been a visiting professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. He left India in 1969 to “continue my research work in a more vigorous intellectual climate.” He is 71 years old.
Safransky: There are many people who are not ostensibly interested in philosophy, but who are interested in whatever philosophy has to say about how to live a happy, full life. What has your study of philosophy taught you about that?
Chubb: The role of philosophy has been understood differently in India and the West. It basically stands for a theoretical understanding of, among other things, the nature of reality. That is how it has been understood in the Western tradition. But in India metaphysical philosophy has always been regarded as a transitional stage leading to spiritual realization. In that respect philosophy in India is practical. But the term practical again is a little ambiguous because one can be practical in two dimensions. One is the horizontal dimension, where you use philosophy to organize social institutions. Now there, the West hasn’t much, if anything, to learn from the East. The West is much more practical in that respect. But practical could also mean a movement in a vertical direction where philosophical theories are regarded merely as maps or guides, provisional formulations of the truth to be realized. So I distinguish two senses of the word practical: one in which the movement is horizontal — philosophy flowing out into the world and organizing human life — and the other in which it is vertical — philosophy transcending the intellect and its concepts and culminating in a direct realization of the truth.
Safransky: Is fulfillment possible on the horizontal level?
Chubb: This is usually denied in the religious outlook, though, following Sri Aurobindo, I would say that there has to be an integral fulfillment, first in the vertical dimension and then spreading out into the world of space and time. In traditional spirituality what I have called the horizontal dimension has been overlooked. The gaze is fixed on Heaven, Eternity or Nirvana and the world is regarded at best as a training ground or an antechamber to our eternal home. The idea that this collective, embodied existence may have its own mode of self-fulfillment is rarely given serious consideration. There are two major figures in the contemporary world who have had this wider vision and have spoken of and sought to bring about this collective realization. One is Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, who spoke of the Christification of the universe, and the other is Sri Aurobindo who believed that the goal of evolution is the establishment of a divine life in a divine body here on earth.
Safransky: For someone who looks to spiritual teachings for clues as to how to live a more satisfying life, are there truths that can be shared in so many words?
Chubb: I think the emphasis should not be on truths which are there to be accepted as creeds or dogmas but mainly on the change in one’s personal life and existence. If one is disturbed about the world in which one lives one is not going to change it by preaching another philosophy but by changing oneself. It is, undoubtedly, a very long process, but it’s the only way. To change the world one has to begin with oneself. And then from that center influences emanate and radiate outwards.
In the Buddhistic approach — I mean in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha — creeds are not important. What you believe is unimportant, because our beliefs are conditioned by past experiences, our environment, heredity, upbringing. So they have only a very limited value. What is important is a process of knowledge of oneself, without reliance on any beliefs or theories. And this process is described by the Buddha in his teachings concerning Mindfulness, where one is mindful of the entire process of the psycho-physical personality without any theorizing about it. And through this mindfulness there comes into being a radical change in consciousness, self-knowledge and the transformation of human personality. And this is not in accordance with a preconceived theory.
Safransky: What is the relevance of the teachings of the Buddha in the world today?
Chubb: In the world today there is a strong tendency towards agnosticism. Belief in God doesn’t have a very strong hold, except among the orthodox followers of a religion. But generally speaking, belief in God, theism and the religious way of life have lost their appeal. In such a world the Buddhist teachings would sound refreshing because the Buddha doesn’t ask you to believe in anything. For him there are no belief systems at all. He says: look at yourself, be mindful, be aware of everything that you do and say and think, and through this awareness there comes about knowledge of the self, and also, ultimately, the realization of Nirvana. Mindfulness is the only way, he said, for the purification of being, for the overcoming of torment and sorrow and for the attainment of Nirvana.
Safransky: What does the concept that we create our reality with our beliefs mean to you?
Chubb: I would say that we organize our belief systems, and therefore take things as real, in accordance with our past conditioning, so in that sense beliefs create “realities.” But when there is direct self-knowledge, once again quoting the Buddha, we see things as they are, and we see ourselves as we are.
Safransky: That suggests that there is an absolute reality behind the phenomenal world.
Chubb: The process of mindfulness does not start with that or any other assumption. That would be just another metaphysical theory. One may discover such an absolute reality through the process of mindfulness, but it will not be set up as an ideal which one has to realize. Buddhism bypasses all theories.
Safransky: The notion that we create our reality or realities — that we choose, because of past conditioning, those phenomena we are going to call more real than others — seems to be a potent tool for change.
Chubb: One does not choose. To understand what the Buddha said and to practice mindfulness does not imply that we must make a list of things that we have to hold on to or discard in order that we may begin the process of understanding. One doesn’t start by discriminating between things which one regards as good and those which one regards as evil, and eliminating the latter. One starts with what one is. And if we find that there is any relationship which is helpful, which brings about peace and harmony and satisfaction, that’s all to the good. Through the process of mindfulness one discovers that one’s life and thought processes and actions are frequently caught up in obscurity, confusion and internal contradiction. And then one can, if one becomes aware of that clearly and directly, straighten that out. It’s not a question of giving up anything, but straightening oneself out. And in that process there are certain goods which are permissible, we hold onto them, but after a while we may realize that these goods are not really worthwhile and we outgrow them.
For example, a person may find some satisfaction in going to the club every day to gossip or play cards. But after a time he may come to realize it’s not really worth it, that he can find a better use for his time. But it should come spontaneously, he doesn’t set out to eliminate something by using the surgeon’s knife. There is a constant self-fulfillment, where you become more and more integrated, and there is an inner guidance which you follow, in accordance with which you reorganize your life.
Safransky: Within yourself how does that inner guidance manifest?
Chubb: Inner guidance is really inner; you cannot ask for any external signs of it. If it manifests one knows that there is inner guidance. But if you look for an external sign then it’s no longer inner guidance.
Safransky: Are you saying that it ceases to be inner guidance if it’s described?
Chubb: It can be described in the most general way, but not in a way which would be helpful to anybody, which would make it possible for him to acquire this inner guidance. We can say that discrimination, the discriminative faculty, has developed. And so one discriminates between things without having recourse to rules and regulations. And without having the need to go to somebody else for guidance. That is the most general way in which one can describe this inner guidance.
Safransky: Without having someone else to go to. Does that suggest that those who go to gurus for guidance are not hearing their own inner messages?
Chubb: I would use the word perceptions rather than “messages.” But to answer your question, there are two reasons for going to a guru. One may be to get guidance. But that is not the deeper guru-disciple relationship. The importance of the guru is that from his personality there radiates an influence which enters into the disciple and helps him to grow and develop by himself. So I don’t think that these two — going to a guru and being guided from within — are inconsistent. More and more one relies on the inner guide, the Antaryamin or the dweller within the self; he takes over and guides from within. One goes to the guru not so much to ask him what to do or not to do, but to live in his presence and open oneself to his influence: The change in personality doesn’t come about by the application of rules. It is a process of being born, as it were, and there are many incalculable factors that enter into it.
Safransky: Do you consider Sri Aurobindo to be your guru?
Chubb: Yes, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
Safransky: Who is the Mother?
Chubb: Sri Aurobindo’s co-worker. Her father was a Turk, but she was brought up in Paris, so she was practically French. Independently she had the same realization as Sri Aurobindo and had the idea of “making heaven and earth equal and one,” to quote Sri Aurobindo. And when she met Sri Aurobindo, in the early part of this century, she realized that her place and life’s work were with him. After the First World War was over she came and settled in Pondicherry where Sri Aurobindo was, and they have been working together to bring about this new stage in human evolution.
Safransky: She is still alive?
Chubb: No, she passed away in 1973.
Safransky: And he died when?
Safransky: So she continued the work after he died. And did you meet either one of them when they were alive?
Chubb: Yes, but Sri Aurobindo had withdrawn in a sense. He did not want to get involved in meeting people and talking to them because that would have distracted him from his inner work, which was not really for himself but for bringing about this new order of existence. So one could only have his darshan four times a year. And I became acquainted with Sri Aurobindo’s teachings in 1946, just four years before his passing away. I was then employed in Bombay as a professor, so I could go only twice a year to Pondicherry.
Safransky: How did you become familiar with his teachings?
Chubb: I was in the army during the war until 1946 when I got demobilized and I had three months’ leave before joining my old post. And I wanted to go and spend some time in an ashram. A friend of mine who was familiar with the Sri Aurobindo ashram made arrangements for me to go and stay there. That was my first darshan of Sri Aurobindo. I then read his magnum opus, The Life Divine, and then I kept on going regularly. During those four years I had about six darshans of Sri Aurobindo. The Mother I met frequently and also privately. She used to give interviews and I met her several times. She helped me a great deal.
Safransky: How did she help you?
Chubb: I put some personal problems before her and she talked to me about them and she talked to Sri Aurobindo also about them. And both of them gave me their force, as it were, to deal with the problem. It wouldn’t be very different from the influence any teacher, who is really a teacher, exerts on his disciples. Something passes from the teacher to the disciple, a kind of force which helps the disciple to reorganize his life. These things I think are quite common, they’re not peculiar to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, this kind of silent force that emanates from an individual.
Safransky: Did you ever meet with them on levels other than ordinary waking reality?
Chubb: Not the Mother, but once I had a very vivid dream. It seemed to be more than a dream. During that period I was worried about death. There was also fear attached to these thoughts. In this dream I saw myself lying on the bed and Sri Aurobindo walked up to me. I didn’t get up from the bed, I didn’t think it was disrespectful, it all seemed natural. He came and sat beside me. And I asked him a number of questions about death which he answered. Later on I realized that these answers were the same as those given by him several times over in his letters and other writings. Then he suddenly put his hand on my lap and said, “But why are you afraid of death? You are living eternally in the heart of Sri Aurobindo.” That was the end of the fear of death.
Safransky: When was that dream, how long ago?
Chubb: Many years ago.
Safransky: So you have no fear of death now. [He nods.] How about dreams? What do you make of dreams?
Chubb: There are many theories about dreams and I’m not an expert in this subject. Some are merely reproductions of waking experiences. Some may be wish-fulfillment, as the Freudians say. Others may be prophetic or occult. There are different kinds of dreams. There’s not one single explanation which will account for all dreams.
Safransky: If we experience being somewhere in a dream, do you accept the explanation that our consciousness has in fact left our body and is in a . . . .
Chubb: It’s possible.
Safransky: A dream world that is as vivid and compelling on that plane as what we call reality on this plane?
Chubb: Yes, it’s possible. I know people who have had that experience vividly and continuously. But I’m not interested in this phenomenon, whether it is true or not true is not of much importance.
Safransky: Do you feel that way generally about what are called occult or psychic phenomena? Do you feel that they’re detours or distractions?
Chubb: Here one has to be a little careful. They can become distractions if one gets attached to them. And then the energy is diverted from the main purpose. Then the ego begins to function and you get a sense of power and importance. And in the Yoga system of India it is explicitly stated that these occult powers will arise but they should be ignored completely, otherwise you get sidetracked. On the other hand I’m not one of those who dismiss the whole occult field as having no significance. I would say, following Sri Aurobindo, that for the perfect and complete life, all the powers of human nature and the universe have to be mastered and fulfilled. And occult powers are part of the total energy of nature and they too have to be fulfilled. But it has to be on the basis of a spiritual equanimity. Otherwise, going into the occult would be an ego trip sometimes and it could be dangerous.
Safransky: Do you do any formal meditation?
Chubb: Largely the Buddhist, but it is not formal, because formal meditation would be in accordance with rules; you concentrate on an image, you do certain breathing exercises, or you try to control this or that thought or impulse of the mind. But in the teachings of the Buddha, meditation consists in becoming aware of the total process of the mind. It’s not exclusive concentration on any one part of the mind. And I think I should have said earlier that this type of meditation is to be found also in Hinduism in the Samkhya system. The Samkhya recommends adopting the witness attitude. One steps back from the processes of the mind and witnesses them. And so there comes about an inner detachment. But there’s nothing formal about it. You are either able to occupy that poise of witness consciousness where you become aware of the total process of the mind, without identifying with any particular movement, or you’re not. It’s not by following any rules of discipline that you can do it. It’s a process of waking up. And there are no formal rules for waking up.
Safransky: What does love mean to you, and how does and doesn’t it relate to romantic love?
Chubb: I think that spiritual love, which is a total self-giving without any thought of return, is the true nature of love. Then it may take a different form when, as it were, it enters into a restricted field of consciousness. There it may become romantic love. And it still retains its value in that particular expression. It is only when romantic love becomes possessive and thoughtless that there is degradation and distortion. So romantic love can be a very helpful thing, even in one’s spiritual life, if the two people help each other to grow. But that should not degenerate into possessive love, where you become all-important. Then love turns into a form of exploitation.
Safransky: From your observations, how many people in romantic relationships are able to manifest that more spiritual love?
Chubb: Well, it happens in India, we have that tradition there; if the two partners are both spiritually inclined, they help each other. Many of our sages have said the same thing, that such a relation can be very helpful indeed. But love in itself is its own eternity. It doesn’t require any response from anybody else to sustain itself.
Safransky: So the beloved is all existence; one doesn’t need a single object. In fact, in having a single object, love can turn into something other than love.
Chubb: Not other than love. I think that the qualities which we regard as values — love is one of them — exist in their absolute form in themselves or in the Divine and they can manifest under conditions of relative existence, where love, to take one quality, doesn’t cease to be love but becomes a lower and diminished form of the absolute quality. This is because there is an analogical resemblance between human qualities and their divine equivalents and this justifies us in using the same word: love, wisdom, knowledge, power. But the divine quality is qualitatively different from the human quality. It is not merely a higher degree of the corresponding human quality. When we pass from the human to the divine quality something new comes into being, something incomparable and ineffable. So romantic love is still love. We don’t need to use another word.
Safransky: If the romantic love we’re absorbed in is not the same as the deeper spiritual love we would like to feel, what do we do about that predicament?
Chubb: Why should it be a predicament? These things are permissible in the sense that they are helpful, in their own way. So why should it create a problem? The predicament would be artificial: I want to love in a spiritual way, but I don’t. Now that is an artificial demand.
Safransky: How is it artificial?
Chubb: Because you are setting up this ideal of spiritual love and saying this is what I must achieve. But according to the Buddha all growth should be spontaneous and natural. You don’t set up an ideal of what you want to be and try to become it. You become aware of what you are, and in that very process you become or realize the ideal.
Safransky: Doesn’t mindfulness itself become a goal?
Chubb: It is not a goal but a process, a purposive movement or mode of awareness that does not rest on a theory of the self — the ideal self, or any other theory. So it is free of all conditioning. It is not the Cartesian process of doubt but rather of detachment, which carries one beyond both belief and doubt. Further, it doesn’t posit any goal which one is trying to reach.
Safransky: Such as divine love?
Chubb: Yes, it is merely a process of being aware of oneself, being alert and watchful of all that goes on in the mind, not leading an existence which is half or three-quarters unconscious.
Safransky: Are you fully conscious?
Chubb: Not fully, no.
Safransky: How do you perceive the gap between where you are and what you imagine it is to be fully conscious?
Chubb: You are asking for a kind of spiritual confession?
Safransky: I am interested in anything that would illuminate that. Whether the details are personal or not doesn’t matter. They might be interesting.
Chubb: I would then answer by approaching the question from a different point of view. Indian sages talk about realization and they also talk about a settled realization. And realization is something that comes; you perceive — to talk again in Buddhistic terms — the total process of the mind and you’re detached and there’s integration or wholeness. But it may not be a settled experience. One would have to keep on practicing the process of mindfulness.In those terms I would describe my own condition. It is not a settled thing, but it is more or less constantly there.
Safransky: Was there a particular experience somewhere along the line, a singular dramatic experience for you?
Chubb: Did you say dramatic or traumatic?
Safransky: Either or both. An awakening that you can identify with a particular time and place?
Chubb: The first experience was after I had a talk with J. Krishnamurti. That was in the early ’30’s when I was working for my Master of Arts degree.
Safransky: And where was this, in India?
Chubb: Bombay, yes. I had some problems. I won’t go into that. And after talking to him, one day I went out for a walk and one sentence from Krishnamurti came back to my mind. “Don’t indulge in this desire, don’t control it either, but understand it.” Then suddenly all the mental processes stopped and I found myself in a state which is described as the silent mind. All mental conflicts and, indeed, the mind itself, came to a stop. I had achieved what the Samkhya calls the witness consciousness and I was abiding in that. That was my first experience of the silent mind.
Safransky: Was that an awareness which faded or has it remained?
Chubb: It went and came, went and came; it is now more in than out. That has been my story and I repeat what I said earlier that it is not yet a settled experience.
Safransky: So you regularly remind yourself?
Chubb: You mean practice mindfulness? Mindfulness is not a process of reminding oneself of anything. Yes, I meditate everyday, but it is not formal meditation. Besides, meditation need not be restricted to a particular time. Recently I discovered that the silent and continuous repetition of a mantra is also very helpful. The Mother had given me a mantra way back in the ’50’s but only now, in the last few months, it occurred to me to use it.
Safransky: What is the mantra?
Chubb: One doesn’t tell the mantra.
Safransky: What were your impressions of Krishnamurti?
Chubb: I came to understand Krishnamurti much better after I read Zen Buddhism. I find that he is in the Buddhist, particularly the Zen Buddhist, tradition, though he doesn’t follow that or any other tradition; he is an original. My only reservation about Krishnamurti is that his teachings are not sufficiently comprehensive or compassionate. Having discovered a path, which may be called the pathless path — if one can use that paradox — every other approach is for him a waste of time. That negative aspect of his teaching I do not accept. But otherwise his teachings are very original and profound.
Safransky: Why are you in America these days?
Chubb: In pursuit of another strong interest, and that is intellectual philosophy. I always wanted to return to the West because the intellectual climate here is more vigorous in the field of theoretical philosophy than in India. I have a great respect for the intellect and do not play it down because I see the truth in spiritual philosophy. According to me these two, intellectual and spiritual philosophy, can and should be integrated for a fuller development of human personality.
Safransky: Is there much suffering in your life?
Chubb: Yes, I think I have had my normal share, to put it mildly.
Safransky: But would you describe yourself as a happy man?
Chubb: There is no real happiness that is dependent on external circumstances, but there can be a discovery of a center within whose very nature is peace, self-existent peace, independent of all changing circumstances. I have touched that center.