[L. 9 | 15] 5 September 1961

Dear Dr. de Silva,

You told me that you had read Francis Story's 'The Case for Rebirth' (BPS Wheel 12/13[1]) and found that it helped you to accept rebirth as a fact. I have now just read this booklet myself, and perhaps a few observations might not be out of place.

To begin with, the examples of (what appear to be) rebirth are good, and there is no reason at all not to take them at their face value. Such cases, while not amounting to logical demonstration of the necessity of rebirth (which is not possible anyway, since, let alone re-birth, logic cannot even demonstrate the necessity of birth—is there any logical reason why you, Dr. de Silva, should have been born?), cannot easily be dismissed on some other hypothesis.[a]

The remainder of Mr. Story's booklet, however, sets out to explain rebirth, either in terms taken from the Suttas ('Dependent Origination,' paticcasamuppāda) or the exegetical literature ('Cognitive Series,' cittavīthi), or else in scientific or pseudo-scientific terms. This part of the booklet is worthless (or worse), and any acceptance of rebirth based on it is built on quicksand; for not only are the explanations bogus,[b] but they should never have been attempted in the first place. The Buddha does not explain how rebirth takes place; he states simply that, unless craving has ceased, rebirth does take place. It may be that a more detailed description of the phenomenon of rebirth than is found in the Suttas could be made, but (a) it would be irrelevant and unnecessary (because it is quite enough just to accept rebirth), and (b) it would not be in terms of 'cause and effect' (i.e. it would be strictly a description and not an explanation).

This distinction between description and explanation is of vital importance, and is really what I was talking about when I said that the Buddha's Teaching cannot be understood by one who (however unwittingly) adopts the scientific attitude (which is also the scholar's attitude). I suggested that a more fruitful approach to the Dhamma, at least for one accustomed to Western ideas, might be made by way of the existential or phenomenological philosophers, who have developed a more direct and fundamental approach to things than that of empirical science with its inductive and statistical methods. These methods give, at best, only probable results; whereas the phenomenologist, not going beyond description of present phenomena, enjoys certainty.

Unfortunately, as I told you, few of the more important writings of this school of thinkers are available in English; so I thought it might be of use to translate one or two passages and send them (prefaced by three quotations from a typical modern logician) for you to read at your leisure.[2] You may, perhaps, find them rather heavy going until you get more familiar with an unaccustomed manner of thinking. The long passage, which consists of most of the introduction to Sartre's short treatise on emotion, may also serve as an introduction to phenomenology in general. It must be emphasized that this is not in any way a substitute for the Buddha's Teaching—all these thinkers are still enmeshed in avijjā. We are not, in fact, interested in this or that particular result of the phenomenological method, but rather with the method itself—direct reflexion. And even when we succeed in adopting the attitude of direct reflexion (in place of the scientific attitude, which consists, precisely, in assuming that there is no such thing as an attitude at all), we still have to understand the Dhamma.

I have inserted a few notes where they seemed called for; I hope you will not find them distracting.


[9.a] I would strongly recommend G. N. M. Tyrrell's The Personality of Man (Pelican Books A165, published by Penguin Books). It gives an intelligent summary of various supernormal phenomena, and includes some solid evidence for rebirth. [Back to text]

[9.b] (i) 'Dependent Origination' has—in spite of a venerable tradition—nothing whatsoever to do with 'Kamma and Re-birth', (ii) the 'Cognitive Series' is rubbish anyway, and (iii) Science, since it excludes the scientist, has nothing to say about the scientist's—or anyone else's—rebirth. [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[9.1] BPS Wheel: The Buddhist Publication Society (P.O.B. 61, Kandy, Sri Lanka) publishes Buddhist tracts in two series—the Wheel and the Bodhi Leaf—as well as occasional books on Buddhism. For the most part their publications represent the strictly traditional Commentarial view which the Ven. Ñānavīra was concerned to undermine. Therefore he often used their publications as a foil for explicating his own views. [Back to text]

[9.2] one or two passages: There were twelve passages. The first three are from Stebbing, the next two from Sartre's L'Imagination. The sixth is from Ferm, the seventh from Sartre's Esquisse d'une Théorie des Émotions. The remainder are from Kierkegaard (CUP). See Acknowledgements for details. Here and elsewhere in his letters the Ven. Ñānavīra prepared his own translations from the French. Where published translations now exist they have been substituted. The Ven. Ñānavīra translated most of the Introduction, pp. 3-11, of Sartre's Esquisse.... Since an English translation is now available we give below only the Ven. Ñānavīra's nine interpolated comments, preceded by our bracketed indication of the topic alluded to.

i. The problem of the logical justification of induction is not one that need concern the scientist. (MIL, p. 495)[a]

ii. To justify scientific method it is necessary that we should be able to justify the assumption of the inductive hypothesis, which can alone permit us to conclude that the laws of nature are simple enough for us to discover them, so that we may regard nature as ultimately intelligible. Meanwhile the scientist continues to assume that the laws of nature are ultimately simple. (MIL, pp. 418-19)

iii. Every modern logician recognizes that the foundation of the theory of induction is to be found in the theory of probability. (MIL, p. 496)

iv. Perhaps, however, error does not creep into the reflective act itself. Perhaps error appears at the inductive level, when, on the basis of facts, one establishes laws. If so, would it be possible to create a psychology which would remain a psychology of experience, yet would not be an inductive science? Is there a kind of privileged experience which would put us directly in contact with the law? A great contemporary philosopher[b] thought so, and we shall now ask him to guide our first steps in this difficult science. (L'Imagination, p. 126)

v. ...but reflection must not be confused with introspection, which is a special mode of reflection aimed at grasping and establishing empirical facts. To convert the results of introspection into scientific laws there must ensue an inductive transition to generality. There is another type of reflection, utilized by the phenomenologist, which aims at the discovery of essences. That is to say, it begins by taking its stand from the outset on the terrain of the universal. Though proceeding in terms of examples, little importance is attached to whether the individual fact which serves as underpinning for the essence is real or imaginary. Should the 'exemplifying' datum be pure fiction, the very fact that it was imaginable means that it embodied the sought-for essence that is sought, for the essence is the very condition of its possibility.[c] (L'Imagination, p. 128)

vi. Our task is not that of deducing the rational but of describing the conceivable, or that which comes with Evidenz as incontrovertibly given.[d] (Ferm, p. 580)

vii. a. [On 'the associationists':] Sartre deals with them with excessive severity in L'Imagination.

     b. [On 'Dasein':] (i) The word Dasein, as used by Heidegger, means the mode of existence of the human being. This human mode of existence is Being-in-the-world; the human being is a self in the midst of a world of things and other beings, and is inseparably related to this world.
       (ii) The phrase attā ca loko ca, 'the self and the world', is quite often found in the Suttas, always in connexion with some wrong view—'the self and the world are eternal', 'the self and the world are not eternal', and so on --; and it is obvious that we shall not be able to discover why these views are wrong until we know what this phrase means. Clearly enough we shall do better to ask Heidegger, Sartre, et al. than the positive psychologists.

     c. [On Sartre's criticism of psychologists who believe that the facts of mental life somehow group themselves:] Cf. Thomas Huxley: 'Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever...nature leads.' Sartre would retort that, if you do this, nature won't lead anywhere at all—you will simply remain sitting down before fact, as a little child.

     d. [On Husserl's uses of 'transcendental and constitutive consciousness' and 'putting the world in brackets', alluded to by Sartre:] (i) The word 'transcendental' as used by Husserl has no connexion with the Sutta word lokuttara, which is sometimes so translated. Transcendental consciousness is consciousness that goes beyond or transcends normal immediate consciousness: this is a kind of non-deliberate reflexive consciousness (of which more below). This consciousness is constitutive since it presides over immediate consciousness, which is concerned only with the particular, and gives it general teleological significance: without it there can be no experience.
       (ii) 'Putting the world in brackets'. In our normal everyday activities we are totally absorbed in our experiences, in the world. It is possible, however, with practice, to take a step back (as it were) and, without ceasing to have experiences, to observe these experiences as they take place. In order to adopt this attitude of self-observation or deliberate reflexion we simply withdraw attention from the (variable) content of our experiences (which is 'the world') and direct it to the (invariable) structure of these same experiences: thus 'the world', though not altogether ceasing to exist, is 'put in brackets'.

     e. [On Sartre's discussion of Husserl's 'absolute proximity of consciousness with respect to itself' and the self-awareness of consciousness as existing:] (i) The phrase 'the absolute proximity of consciousness with respect to itself' refers to two adjacent layers of consciousness within one single complex experience. (This is probably a misinterpretation of Sartre's statement, but it is what he ought to have meant by it.) The bottom layer is immediate consciousness, and the layer above is reflexive consciousness. Since one can also reflect on reflexion, there is no limit to the number of layers that can be so employed. It is important to understand that these layers of consciousness are all contemporary with each other, though they all depend upon the lowest layer, consciousness of the world.
       (ii) 'All consciousness exists in the exact measure that it is consciousness of existing.' If this means whenever there is consciousness (of an object) there is at the same time the consciousness 'I am', then this statement is absolutely correct (Sartre would no doubt agree with this interpretation of his statement; but he would certainly disagree about how this interpretation should itself be interpreted)—with the vital qualification that it does not apply to the arahat. Sartre has within limits succeeded in describing his own state, which is that of a puthujjana, an ordinary person. But since he has not understood the Buddha's Teaching he cannot see any escape or way beyond his own state. The arahat, however, is rid of asmimāna, the notion 'I am'; but until the breaking up of his body there is still consciousness of objects and also reflexive consciousness. The arahat sees the puthujjana's state (and the arahat's state) with an arahat's eyes, Sartre sees the puthujjana's state with a puthujjana's eyes (and does not see the arahat's state at all): the view is not the same. This instance admirably illustrates both the importance and the limitations of Sartre's philosophy.

     f. [On Heidegger's notion that, as his own possibility, an existent can lose himself precisely by choosing to be himself and thus gain himself:] This awkward sentence probably means that a man can gain individual existence by choosing to be personally responsible for every decision he makes, or he can lose his individuality by regarding himself as one of a crowd and declining responsibility by doing as others do.

     g. [On the notion of Heidegger that in the being of the existent, the existent refers himself to his being:] See passage no. 11 below, where this same thing is said in different words by someone else.

     h. [On Heidegger's notion of the 'inauthentic' man:] The word 'inauthentic' is used by Heidegger to describe the ostrich-like attitude of the man who seeks to escape from his inescapable self-responsibility by becoming an anonymous member of a crowd. This is the normal attitude of nearly everybody. To be 'authentic' a man must be constantly and deliberately aware of his total responsibility for what he is. For example, a judge may disclaim personal responsibility for sentencing people to punishment. He will say that as a judge it is his duty to punish. In other words it is as an anonymous representative of the Judiciary that he punishes, and it is the Judiciary that must take the responsibility. This man is inauthentic. If he wishes to be authentic he must think to himself, whenever he sits on the Bench or draws his salary, 'Why do I punish? Because, as a judge, it is my duty to punish. Why am I a judge? Is it perhaps my duty to be a judge? No. I am a judge because I myself choose to be a judge. I choose to be one who punishes in the name of the Law. Can I, if I really wish, choose not to be a judge? Yes, I am absolutely free at any moment to stop being a judge, if I so choose. If this is so, when a guilty man comes up before me for sentence, do I have any alternative but to punish him? Yes, I can get up, walk out of the courtroom, and resign my job. Then if, instead, I punish him, am I responsible? I am totally responsible.'

     i. [On the absoluteness, according to both Heidegger and Husserl, of appearance of the phenomenon:] Appearance is the absolute because there is no reality concealed behind it. This is a matter of cardinal importance. Freud's celebrated 'unconscious' withers and dies before the blast of Sartre's criticism in L'Être et le Néant. Sartre gives us instead the notion of 'bad faith' or tacit self-deception, a far more delicate instrument. But the important point is this, that nothing of what I am at present can hide from reflexion; and I am thus totally open to self-criticism. Were this not so, meditation would be no more effective against our mental defilements than skin lotion is against smallpox.

viii. Let the enquiring scholar...his parrot-like echo. (CUP, pp. 23-4)[1]

ix. Precisely because the negative is present in existence, and present everywhere (for existence is a constant process of becoming), it is necessary to become aware of its presence continuously, as the only safeguard against it. In relying upon a positive security the subject is merely deceived. (CUP, p. 75)[e]

x. When the question of truth is raised in an objective manner, reflection is directed objectively to the truth, as an object to which the knower is related. Reflection is not focussed upon the relationship, however, but upon the question of whether it is the truth to which the knower is related. If only the object to which he is related is the truth, the subject is accounted to be in the truth. When the question of truth is raised subjectively, reflection is directed subjectively to the nature of the individual's relationship; if only the mode of this relationship is in the truth,[f] the individual is in the truth even if he should happen to be thus related to what is not true. (CUP, p. 178)

xi. Existence constitutes the highest interest of the existing individual, and his interest in his existence constitutes his reality. (CUP, p. 279)

xii. It is forbidden to an existing individual to forget that he exists. (CUP, p. 271)[2] [Back to text]



Footnotes to editorial notes:

[9.2.a] This advice to the scientist to shut his eyes may perhaps be to the advantage of science: it is certainly to the disadvantage of the scientist, who will plunge deeper and deeper in ignorance. [Back]

[9.2.b] This refers to Husserl. [Back]

[9.2.c] (i) This last sentence means that the experience of reality and the experience of images are in essence the same, i.e. that the characteristics of all experience as experience are invariable, whether its object is real or imaginary.
     (ii) Naturally, an image as image has its own particular essence or nature or character that distinguishes it from the real as real.
     (iii) The word 'essence' as used in this and other passages is the key to most of the important shades of meaning of the word 'dhamma' in the Suttas. A thing's essence or nature or dhamma is what differentiates it from some other thing. Indeed, dhamma sometimes simply means 'thing'. A table as table has a different essence from a chair as chair, though both as things have the same essence (or dhamma) of impermanence. Thus dhamma may also mean 'universal law'. And in some contexts dhamma means 'image' or 'idea', i.e. something imagined or thought. [Back]

[9.2.d] (i) The 'conceivable' is, of course, anything that can be imagined (not excluding the real). See the preceding passage.
     (ii) The 'evidence' of our senses (or of our imagination) is incontrovertible: when, for example, I feel a sharp pain in my finger there is absolutely no doubt about it, even if my sense of vision tells me (no less incontrovertibly) that my finger has been amputated. We are not concerned to reconcile or explain this disagreement—that task we leave to those who 'deduce the rational', in this case the neurologists. [Back]

[9.2.1] This passage is to be found in the Preface to Notes. (This letter was written before Notes on Dhamma was compiled.) [Back]

[9.2.e] The Postscript was written in 1846. Kierkegaard is the first of the modern existentialist thinkers. [Back]

[9.2.f] Heidegger would say '...is authentic'. [Back]

[9.2.2] Following the extracts from CUP, the Ven. Ñānavīra concluded his compilation with the complete text of Edmund Husserl's article 'Phenomenology', which appeared in Vol. 17 of the 1955 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Several passages from this article are to be found in CETANĀ.) He remarked: 'The article is well worth reading. But it is highly condensed and written in a Germanized English: it is thus not very easy to understand, particularly if one is new to the subject.' Within his own copy of the article (not the copy sent to Dr. de Silva) the Ven. Ñānavīra interpolated two comments:
     (i) [in Section II, §4, after 'being for us':] See PHASSA [d] & ATTĀ, §3.
    (ii) [in Section II, §7, after 'bare subjectivity of consciousness':] Viññānam attato samanupassati <M.138: iii,227-8> 'he regards consciousness as self'. [Back]