[L. 47 | 54] 4 May 1963

Thank you for your three letters of 1st., 1st., and 2nd., respectively. There does not seem to be anything in the first two calling for immediate comment (unless my letter of 28 April ranks as one of Huxley's 'marsupials of the mind' or one of the Ven. Ñānamoli Thera's 'midnight horrors'). So I shall reply only to your last kindly and distressed letter (hoping that the initial shock has worn off and that you have recovered some of your normal composure).

What I told you in my letter of the 28th about my ill health and suicidal intentions was 'for information only'. If it were not for the fact that you are at present engaged in having the Notes printed I should have kept quiet. In other words, I thought I ought to give you the opportunity of changing your mind (if you wished to do so) before you were committed in an enterprise that you might later regret—that is, in the event of my suicide. I wish to emphasize this fact, and to assure you that the risk still remains unchanged.

About all the various points that you raise, you will perhaps excuse me for not replying in detail. During the past year, naturally enough, I have had time to consider the situation from many angles, and the points that you have brought to my attention have not escaped me. But my situation is considerably more complex (and also more simple) than I think you are aware of, and there are certain aspects of it that I am not in a position to discuss with you.[1] This means that if we do attempt to discuss the situation (apart from such things as the purely medical aspect) with one another, we are almost certain to be at cross purposes, and it is for this reason that I do not wish to say more than I have said above, and would ask you to consider this as being the only point at issue.

Regarding the question of a bhikkhu's suicide, the view that it is better for him to disrobe rather than kill himself when he finds he can make no further progress is—if you will forgive me for saying so—a layman's view. There was at least one bhikkhu in the Buddha's day—the Ven. Channa Thera—who (in spite of what the Commentary says) killed himself as an arahat owing to incurable sickness; and there are many other examples in the Suttas of bhikkhus who—as ariyapuggalas—took their own life (and some became arahat in doing so—Ven. Godhika Thera, Ven. Vakkali Thera, for example).[2] One (who became arahat), the Ven. Sappadāsa Thera, could not get rid of lustful thoughts for twenty-five years, and took his razor to cut his throat, saying

sattham vā āharissāmi, ko attho jīvitena me
katham hi sikkham paccakkham kālam kubbetha mādiso  (Thag. 407)

I shall use the knife—what use is this life to me?
How can one such as I meet his death having put aside the training (i.e. disrobed)?

And the Buddha himself warns (in the Mahāsuññata Sutta—M. 122: iii,109-18) that one who becomes a layman after following a teacher may fall into the hells when he dies. There is no doubt at all that, whatever public opinion may think, a bhikkhu is probably worse advised to disrobe than to end his life—that is, of course, if he is genuinely practising the Buddha's Teaching. It is hard for laymen (and even, these days, for the majority of bhikkhus, I fear) to understand that when a bhikkhu devotes his entire life to one single aim, there may come a time when he can no longer turn back—lay life has become incomprehensible to him. If he cannot reach his goal there is only one thing for him to do—to die (perhaps you are not aware that the Buddha has said that 'death' for a bhikkhu means a return to lay life—Opamma Samy. 11: ii,271).

There is in my present situation (since the nervous disorder that I have had for the past year consists of an abnormal, persistent, sometimes fairly acute, erotic stimulation) a particularly strong temptation to return to the state of a layman; and I have not the slightest intention of giving in to it. This erotic stimulation can be overcome by successful samatha practice (mental concentration), but my chronic amoebiasis makes this particularly difficult for me. So for me it is simply a question of how long I can stand the strain. (I do not think you would think the better of me for disrobing under these conditions.)

I must thank you most sincerely for the offers of material help—visits to specialists, change of environment, and so on—and these we can discuss later. But here again there are complexities. For example, I am best able to deal with the situation described above in a dry climate and living alone (and I have found no better place than Bundala); so a change of environment will almost certainly be a change for the worse. And Dr. de Silva has already consulted specialists on my behalf, and the drugs prescribed are of some help. I may say that, though I am usually uncomfortable, I am certainly not in any kind of pain, and I am not in the least worried about my situation—worry I leave to other people (my doctor, I think, was worried to begin with, but he seems to be getting over it quite nicely; and now perhaps you are worried).

Because Bundala suits me better than anywhere else I am not anxious to leave here even for a few days. If, however, you are going ahead with the Notes and they reach the proof stage, it may be advisable for me to come for two or three days to see the printer personally. In the meantime, since I have a certain interest in seeing that the printing is properly done, it is perhaps unlikely that I shall attempt to abolish myself. But please do not be too disappointed if you find that I meet your constructive suggestions for improving matters with evasive answers—after all, neither this letter nor that of the 28th is, properly speaking, an appeal for help (though I am nonetheless appreciative of the offers of help so readily made). 

Editorial notes: 

[47.1] not in a position: Again, the reference is to the author's attainment of sotāpatti (L. 1), for it is an offence requiring confession to announce such an attainment to another who is not himself a bhikkhu (if, that is, the claim is true: if it is made knowing it to be false the offence is that of pārājika—see note for L. 45). [Back to text]

[47.2] suicide: Ven. Channa Thera: M. 144: iii,263-66 and Salāyatana Samy. 87: iv,55-60; Ven. Godhika Thera: Māra Samy. 23: i,121-22; Ven. Vakkali Thera: Khandha Samy. 87: iii,119-24. [Back to text]