[L. 42 | 49] 22 March 1963

There is a certain matter about which I am in doubt, and which you may be able to clarify. I have quoted various short passages from books that are copyrighted, and I do not know whether it is necessary to obtain permission if they are to be printed. I believe that a certain latitude in this matter is allowed (by the Berne Convention, is it not?), and that reasonably short quotations may be made under certain circumstances without infringing copyright; but I do not know whether the passages I have quoted go beyond this. It is perhaps unlikely that anyone would actually want to prosecute in this particular case (especially if the book is not to be sold), but I do not want to find myself in the position of having taken what I was not entitled to take. Would you be able to make sure that we are in order about this?

Perhaps you have seen the latest BPS publication, 'Knowledge and Conduct' (Wheel 50), by three university professors? In odd moments I have been browsing in Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, which is a sustained polemic against objective speculative philosophy, and the three professors could hardly have chosen a more unfortunate time to arrive here in print. It is perhaps a little ironical that these three professors writing of Buddhism, of whom two at least[1] would, I presume, profess to call themselves Buddhists,[a] should compare so unfavourably with the Christian Kierkegaard. But Kierkegaard at least existed as an individual human being (even though his Christianity makes him a distorted figure), whereas these professors seem to be under the impression that such a thing is not really necessary, and this puts them in a slightly ridiculous light as individuals and tends to stultify whatever there might be of value in their thinking and writing.

Prof. Wijesekera starts off by calling witnesses to testify to the Buddha's competence as an ethicist. This detestable practice (which nevertheless is remarkably common) of bringing forward unsolicited testimonials by distinguished personages to the Buddha's good character reveals not only a complete lack of sense of proportion, but also (as I suspect) something of an inferiority complex—rather as if one found it necessary to prove to the world at large that being a follower of the Buddha is not something to be ashamed of. But if one must do this sort of thing, it is as well not to mix up witnesses for the prosecution with those for the defence. Prof. Wijesekera quotes Albert Schweitzer in praise of the Buddha. But Schweitzer's philosophy is 'Reverence for Life', whereas the Buddha has said that just as even the smallest piece of excrement has a foul smell so even the smallest piece of existence is not to be commended. So if Schweitzer praises the Buddha he is labouring under a misapprehension. Schweitzer has certainly misunderstood the Buddha's Teaching, and possibly his own philosophy as well. (In the Buddha's day people thought twice before presuming to speak his praises, understanding very well that they lacked the qualifications to do so. See the opening to the Cūlahatthipadopama Sutta—Majjhima 27: i,175-8.[2])

Prof. Wijesekera then quotes Rhys Davids, who speaks of 'the historical perspective of ethical evolution' and declares that 'the only true method of ethical inquiry is surely the historical method'. What does Kierkegaard say?

For study of the ethical, every man is assigned to himself. His own self is as material for this study more than sufficient; aye, this is the only place where he can study it with any assurance of certainty. Even another human being with whom he lives can reveal himself to his observation only through the external; and in so far the interpretation is necessarily affected with ambiguities. But the more complicated the externality in which the ethical inwardness is reflected, the more difficult becomes the problem of observation, until it finally loses its way in something quite different, namely, in the aesthetic. The apprehension of the historical process therefore readily becomes a half poetic contemplative astonishment, rather than a sober ethical perspicuity.... The more simplified the ethical, the more perspicuous does it become. It is therefore not the case, as men deceitfully try to delude themselves into believing, that the ethical is more clearly evident in human history, where millions are involved, than in one's own poor little life. On the contrary, precisely the reverse is true, and it is more clearly apparent in one's own life, precisely because one does not here so easily mistake the meaning of the material and quantitative embodiment. The ethical is the inwardness of the spirit, and hence the smaller the circumstances in which it is apprehended, provided it really is apprehended in its infinitude, the more clearly is it perceived; while whoever needs the world-historical accessories in order, as he thinks, the better to see it, proves thereby precisely that he is ethically immature. (CUP, pp. 127-8)
In other words, Kierkegaard understands very well that the ethical is the answer to the question 'What should I do?', and that the more one becomes involved with history the more one loses sight of the ethical. History is accidental to ethics.

Rhys Davids, however, is not content even to look for the ethical in history; he seeks to examine history in order to see there the perspective of ethical evolution. Naturally this assumes that a certain pattern of ethical change is historically visible. But history is the record (limited and somewhat arbitrary) of the deeds man has done and the thoughts he has expressed; and the pattern of ethical change recorded by history must therefore be either the pattern (in space and time) of man's actual behaviour or the pattern (in space and time) of his thoughts about how he should behave. What it cannot be is the pattern (in space and time) of how man should have behaved (unless, of course, this is identical either with how he has behaved or with how he has thought he should behave—which, however, cannot be decided by history). In other words, if history is made the basis for the study of ethics, the emphasis is shifted from the question 'What should I do?' to the question, either 'What does man do?' or 'What does man think he should do?'.

The view that ethics are identical with man's actual behaviour is self-destructive (for if a man cannot help doing what he should do, the word ethics loses its meaning altogether); but it is certainly true (as Prof. Wijesekera himself says) that the majority of scientific and materialistic thinkers hold the view that ethics are relative—i.e. are concerned with the question 'What does man think he should do?', which receives different answers in different times and places.

And what about Prof. W. himself—does he remain faithful to the authority he has quoted and follow the historical method, which must lead him to ethical relativity, or does he call to mind that he is an existing human being and a Buddhist to boot, and arrive at the conclusion that ethics are absolute and the same for all beings at all times and in all places? The answer seems to be that he starts out historically ('...it is essential to discuss as briefly as possible the development of the moral consciousness during the pre-Buddhist Upanishads', etc. etc.) and then changes horses in mid-stream; for when he comes to Buddhist ethics he quietly drops the idea of ethical evolution and arrives unhistorically, as a thinly disguised Buddhist, at the quite correct conclusion that the Buddha's ethics are universally valid.

Perhaps it is too much to say that he actually arrives at this conclusion, but at least he gets as far as advocating it as worthy of serious consideration by an 'unbiased student of Buddhism'. Prof. W. does not seem to be quite clear what ethics are or what he himself is (the two problems are intimately related); and to the extent that he professes to be a Buddhist while at the same time regarding Buddhism objectively he becomes for Kierkegaard a figure of comedy:

If...he says that he bases his eternal happiness on his speculation, he contradicts himself and becomes comical, because philosophy in its objectivity is wholly indifferent to his and my and your eternal happiness. (CUP, p. 53)
Dr. Jayatilleke, in the second essay, represents logic. This is evident from the way he turns the Four Noble Truths into propositions, or statements of fact. That they are not facts but things (of a particular kind) can be seen from the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Vinaya Mahāvagga I: Vin. i,10; Sacca Samy. 11: v,421-24), where dukkha is pariññeyya, 'to be known absolutely', samudaya is pahātabba, 'to be abandoned', nirodha is sacchikātabba, 'to be realized', and magga, the fourth Truth, is bhāvetabba, 'to be developed'. A fact, however, is just a fact, and one cannot do anything to it, since as such it has no significance beyond itself (it does not imply any other fact not contained in itself)—it just is (and even whether it is is doubtful).

But things are significant; that is to say, they are imperatives, they call for action (like the bottle in Alice in Wonderland labelled 'Drink Me!'). Heidegger, and Sartre after him, describe the world as a world of tasks to be performed, and say that a man at every moment of his life is engaged in performing tasks (whether he specifically pays attention to them or not). Seen in this light the Four Noble Truths are the ultimate tasks for a man's performance—Suffering commands 'Know me absolutely!', Arising commands 'Abandon me!', Cessation commands 'Realize me!', and the Path commands 'Develop me!'.

But by transforming things into facts (and the Four Noble Truths, which are descriptions of things, into propositions) I automatically transform myself into logic—that is to say, I destroy my situation as an existing individual engaged in performing tasks in the world, I cease to be in concreto (in Kierkegaard's terminology) and become sub specie aeterni. (By regarding the Four Noble Truths as propositions, not as instructions, I automatically exempt myself from doing anything about them.) The world (if it can still be called a world) becomes a logician's world—quite static and totally uninhabited. (It is significant that Wittgenstein, in his celebrated Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which helped to establish modern logical positivism, starts off by declaring: '1. The world is everything that is the case. 1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.' Compare, in this connexion, the note in the Preface to Notes where it is said 'Things, not facts, make up my world'.)

Kierkegaard would be more severe on Dr. Jayatilleke than on Professor Wijesekera:

It is not denied that objective thought has validity; but in connection with all thinking where subjectivity must be accentuated, it is a misunderstanding. If a man occupied himself, all his life through, solely with logic, he would nevertheless not become logic; he must therefore himself exist in different categories. Now if he finds that this is not worth thinking about, the choice must be his responsibility. But it will scarcely be pleasant for him to learn, that existence itself mocks everyone who is engaged in becoming purely objective. (CUP, pp. 85-6)
Lastly we come to Prof. Burtt. He says that he thinks that the Buddha considered that 'philosophy...must start from where we are rather than from somewhere else'. Very good! This is excellently well said, and is precisely the point that the Preface to the Notes was seeking to establish. And not only does he say this, but he also urges it as a matter that philosophers should consider with the utmost seriousness. And what about Prof. Burtt? Surely, after all this, he will set the example by starting himself to philosophize from where he is and not from somewhere else—will he not start by considering his situation as an existing individual human being who eats and sleeps and blows his nose and lectures on Philosophy at Cornell University and draws his salary once a quarter? Oh no, not a bit of it! In order to philosophize he finds it necessary to
achieve a broad perspective on the history of thought, in the West and in the East, and...adequately assess the long-run significance of Buddhism with its various schools when viewed in such a perspective. (p. 42)
More historical perspectives!

This means that instead of starting from where he is, Prof. Burtt is proposing to become sub specie aeterni and start from everywhere at once, or, since this is the same as becoming so totally objective that he vanishes from himself and becomes identified with speculative philosophy in the abstract, from nowhere at all. This itself is comic enough, since, as Kierkegaard points out, he is in the process of forgetting, in a sort of world-historical absent-mindedness, what it means to be a human being. But he becomes doubly comic when, having performed this comical feat of forgetting that he is an existing individual, he solemnly issues a warning to philosophers against doing any such thing. For Prof. Burtt, Kierkegaard prescribes drastic treatment:

In this connection it will perhaps again appear how necessary it is to take special precautions before entering into discussion with a philosophy of this sort: first to separate the philosopher from the philosophy, and then, as in cases of black magic, witchcraft, and possession by the devil, to use a powerful formula of incantation to get the bewitched philosopher transformed into a particular existing human being, and thus restored back to his true state. (CUP, p. 324)
Perhaps there is, in all this, a certain amount of over-emphasis and caricature; I have no doubt that the worthy professors in question (whom I have never met) are really charming and delightful people when one knows them personally. Nonetheless, the objectivizing tendency that they represent so hopelessly emasculates people's understanding of the Buddha's Teaching that it is almost a duty to put them in the pillory when they venture to make a public appearance in print.

Incidentally, this business of 'starting from where we are' is really the theme of FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE, which you found puzzling. The point is that abstract or objective or scientific thought abolishes the distinction between 'here' and 'elsewhere', between 'this' and 'other things'—in short, the negative or the principle of contradiction—, and is consequently unable to start from anywhere in particular, and starts from everywhere (or, what is the same thing, from nowhere). But an existing individual is always somewhere in particular, here and not elsewhere; and what is needed is to show the structure of existence without losing sight of this fact—nay, understanding that the entire structure of existence rests upon this fact. Since nobody else, so far as I know, has undertaken this task, I have had to do it myself (in order to clarify my own thinking—to see how I can think existence without ceasing to exist,[b] i.e. to make plain the structure of reflexive thinking). But provided the principle of 'starting from where we are' presents no difficulty and is not forgotten, there is no need at all for anyone to attempt to follow the formal discussion of FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE. And in any case, as I have remarked elsewhere, this is only indirectly connected with the Buddha's Teaching proper. (You are the only person who has seen it, and I was a little curious to know what you would make of it. But perhaps it will not be readily comprehensible to anyone who does not have Kierkegaard's difficulty—see note (b)—, or some allied problem, on his mind. It has been of the greatest value to me.)

With regard to any of my past writings that you may come across (I do not think there is very much), I would ask you to treat with great reserve anything dated before 1960, about which time certain of my views underwent a modification. If this is forgotten you may be puzzled by inconsistencies between earlier and later writings. If, on the other hand, you should encounter inconsistencies in what I have written since 1960, I should be very glad if you would point them out to me, as I am not aware that my views have undergone any further modification and such inconsistencies are probably attributable to carelessness of expression or hasty thinking.


[42.a] The terms 'Buddhism' and 'Buddhist' have for me a slightly displeasing air about them—they are too much like labels that one sticks on the outside of packages regardless of what the packages happen to contain. I do not, for example, think of myself or yourself or anyone else to whom the Buddha's Teaching is a matter of personal concern as a 'Buddhist'; but I am quite content to allow the census authorities to speak of so many million 'Buddhists' in Ceylon, and to let disinterested ('unbiased') scholars take 'Buddhism' as their field of study. Prof. Malalasekera's Encyclopedia of Buddhism does in fact deal with 'Buddhism'; but whether it has very much connexion with the Buddha's Teaching is another question. [Back to text]


To think existence sub specie aeterni and in abstract terms is essentially to abrogate it, and the merit of the proceeding is like the much trumpeted merit of abrogating the principle of contradiction. It is impossible to conceive existence without movement, and movement cannot be conceived sub specie aeterni. To leave movement out is not precisely a distinguished achievement.... It might therefore seem to be the proper thing to say that there is something that cannot be thought, namely existence. But the difficulty persists, in that existence itself combines thinking and existence, in so far as the thinker exists. (CUP, pp. 273-4) [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[42.1] call themselves Buddhists: In fact, all three authors have called themselves Buddhists. [Back to text]

[42.2] Cūlahatthipadopama Sutta: The introductory section includes the following passage:
     'How does Master Vacchāyana conceive the monk Gotama's ability of understanding? He is wise, is he not?'
     'Sir, who am I to know the monk Gotama's ability of understanding? One would surely have to be his equal to know the monk Gotama's ability of understanding.'
     'Master Vacchāyana praises the monk Gotama with high praise indeed.'
     'Sir, who am I to praise the monk Gotama? The monk Gotama is praised by the praised—as best among gods and men.' (translation by the Ven. Ñānamoli) [Back to text]