Shunyata (Wuji, Alfred Sorensen)

Danish 'natural born mystic' who lived unknown in India for 40 years before being shipped to California to replace Alan Watts

This article is taken from The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions, by Andrew Rawlinson, Open Court, 1997, ISBN 0-8126-9310-8. Tells of the lives and teachings of nearly 200 influential Masters. Drawing a background for understanding these teachers as part of a phenomenon, Rawlinson presents his version of the story of the blooming of Western Teachers, and then looks at their meaning and significance in terms of comparative religion and spiritual psychology, all of which is presented in a separate section that may be left unread if one merely wishes to gain entrance into the life and work of any one Master/Teacher. Please purchase this encyclopedic work from a local bookstore or the Internet.

Shunyata (sometimes 'Sunyata' or 'Shunya') is one of the most unusual people in this book. He never advertised himself and always said that he was not a teacher. He came from no lineage and left no successor. Yet he affected many people (while making no effort to do so). One of them compared him to a Chinese landscape painting in that he implied so much more than he said.

Sorensen was born in northern Denmark in 1890, the son of a peasant farmer. He went to school but says that he escaped 'headucation'. He preferred nature, his own company and silence.

"In our experience, consciousness is there, is here, before ego-consciousness emerges and usurps. This integral consciousness is naturally not conscious of itself as such. There is no contrast to distinguish it, but it is there and here, and is later co-existing with ego-consciousness, unirked and unclashing."

In so far as he had a teaching-though it would be better to call it an experience or awareness-this is it. But how it emerged into the world is an interesting story. When he was 14 his father sold the farm. As a result, he was uprooted-his word-and left school. He trained as a horticulturist and then went abroad. He had jobs in France and Italy for a while but ended up in England where he worked as a gardener for 20 years. No record of this time exists. But in 1929 (I have also seen the date, 1931), he met Rabindranath Tagore when Tagore was visiting Dartington Hall, near Tones in Devon (where Shunyata was working). They got on well and Tagore invited Shunyata (still known as Alfred Sorensen) to visit him at Santiniketan, his centre near Calcutta. "Come to India to teach silence" (14). Shunyata says that he had no problem or question but went to India to see if the consciousness he was already aware of "was a living thing still".

He stayed in India for 18 months-travelling on his own after staying with Tagore for a while-and found that it suited him. So, having returned briefly to the West to tie up some loose ends, he went back to India and stayed there for the next 40-odd years. To begin with, he lived up a tree on a small island in the Ganges near Hardwar. Students from the college in the town would swim out to the island and he would climb down from the tree to talk to them. But eventually he ended up near Almora, about 7,000 feet up in the mountains near the borders of Nepal and Tibet. The Nehru family had a house in the area, Shunyata was their gardener for a time and remained a friend of the family for the rest of his life. After a few years, he was given a piece of land on the estate of an Anglo-Indian family and built himself a stone hut where he lived on his own.

He never had a job from that moment on. The Indians accepted him as a sadhu and he could live on what he was given to supplement what he grew in his garden. He never asked for anything; it was always given. He was once offered 20 rupees a month but would only accept five. After living in this way for 20 years, he was offered 100 rupees a month by the mega-wealthy Birla Foundation but accepted twenty. This was his only source of income until he was taken to California 25 years later. It is evident from what people say about him that he was fundamentally uninterested in money and could not understand why people wanted it. Even in California, the land of plenty, he never asked for a donation

Shunyata put up a sign outside his hut: NO VISITORS. SILENCE. But over the years he did meet quite a few well-known teachers of various persuasions (sometimes at his place, sometimes at theirs): Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Anirvan, Krishnamurti, Yashoda Mai (Sri Krishna Prem's guru; her ashram was also near Almora). He knew Krishna Prem as well but thought him rather earnest and "too mental" (2/23)-not qualities that Shunyata rated very highly. In fact, Almora attracted a number of Western pioneers who lived, quite indepen dently of each other, along what came to be called Crank's Ridge. W.Y. Evans- Wentz had a house there, which he lent to Lama Anagarika Govinda when he was away (which was often). Shunyata knew them both. Perhaps the best- known visitors to his tiny hut were Anandamayi Ma and Neem Karoli Baba (Ram Dass's guru). (I have no dates for any of these meetings.)

Yet easily the most significant spiritual encounter in Shunyata's eyes was the one with Ramana Maharshi. Shunyata first visited him at his ashram in Arunachala in 1935 or 1936 (both dates are given) and met Paul Brunton there. Afterwards, Brunton wrote to him to say that Ramana had said that Shunyata was 'a rare born mystic'. Shunyata was fond of telling this story, and also the one about his silent communion with Ramana. This happened a year after the first visit when Shunyata was sitting, along with other visitors, in front of Ramana. He had not asked a question nor made his presence known in any particular way.

"We awared (sic) a special effulgence specially radiated and directed towards our form . . .5 English words came suddenly upon us out of Silence. These were totally unsolicited but we took them as recognition, initiation, name and mantra: WE ARE ALWAYS AWARE, SUNYATA."

This was the origin of his name.

The Chinese term for sunyata (which Shunyata defined as 'a full emptiness') is Wu. This was a word that Shunyata was particularly fond of. His favourite dog was called 'Sri Wuji' and after his visits to Ramana Maharshi, he began to write (diaries and letters), creating his own vocabulary which he called 'scribble', 'Viking runes' and 'Wu language'.

Then, in 1973, some members of the Alan Watts Society arrived at his door, sent there by his neighbour, Lama Anagarika Govinda, and ended up asking him to come to California. "I have nothing to teach, nothing to sell," was his reply. When they got back to Sausalito, they found that Watts had died in their absence. So they renewed their invitation-one of them said later that they saw in him what Watts had been writing about all his life --and in 1974 Shunyata set out on a four-month, all-expenses-paid visit to California (during which he 'gave darshan' at Esalen and Palm Springs. amongst other places). Finally, in 1978, he moved to California for good--at the age of 88 and after spending nearly half a century leading a life of the utmost simplicity in a remote corner of India.

I think it is fair to say that most Westerners who met Shunyata in California (and elsewhere in North America) found him rather odd.

"For the newcomer it could he most confusing. Here is a man who looks to me like a woman, talking in an accent I cannot place, in a voice that is sometimes too soft to hear, about subjects which are both subtly and grossly removed from any view of life I am comfortable with, and who seems to be compulsive about uttering certain word formulas. The urge to see him as just another spiritual fruitcake could be over whelming."

The simple explanation of this confusion is that Shunyata did not think, and therefore did not communicate, in a linear fashion. Witness a letter he sent to someone while he was visiting Chicago.

"In Chicago we are Mr. Nobody and Sri No-thing-ness, and certainly Sri Wuji practices the Cult of Ur rather than the physical body-cult, sensuous pleasures or so-called happiness. Nor does he identify himSelf with tools and things, concepts, precepts or percepts. Yet he seems to be on good terms with all bodies and all things, body-minds, ego-souls and even with dust and death. He awares that our identifications with tools, concepts and percepts is a fatal bar--a hindrance to our freedom, enlightenment and salvation from ego-consciousness. Ego oblivion is Self awareness, Christ-conscious ess, Grace in the integral Ghostly Whole. Self awareness is pure Grace. 'To the pure all is pure' is gospel truth. Why harrass or kill egoji, when one can be free in its play as a needed, useful tool--free in the divine Swa Lila's graceful Self-interplay, ji ji muge. Awake maturely to aware and intuit the intuitive Light that never was on land or sea, but ever IS."

But for all that, he did occasionaly come up with a gnomic utterance:

"Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment."

"Don't give your love: Radiate it like the sun, and egojies may vanish like shadows in the Self Sun."

Still, it is easy to see that he was not really a teacher, as he said himself. Even so, there were people who were influenced by him and in a sense considered themselves his followers. "He settled into our house like a feather --We never saw him become impatient." Once, Shunyata appeared on a radio programme and evidently made a considerable impression on the host, who said, "I'm experiencing something non-verbal coming from you right now." "I'm not aware of it," was Shunyata's reply. "I don't try. No trying." And when the host said that Shunyata seemed to embody the quality of sunyata (which Shunyata had just defined as "full solid emptiness, no-thingness"), Shunyata simply said, "I speak Out of it in a way."

In 1984, he was hit by a car and died in hospital soon afterwards. He was 93.

In Shunyata's own terminology, he entered the 'invisible Real'. It was a reality that he himself showed forth. True to the sunyata principle, there is no big pay-off to be had, no great consequence, no world-shaking resonance no sagely conclusion; just a life that blossomed, captured a few people and was plucked from the bough.