[L. 27 | 34] 7 March 1963

You said something in your last letter about the laughter that you find behind the harsher tones in what I write to you. This is not unconnected with what I was saying earlier about the difference between positive and negative thinkers. At the risk of being tiresome I shall quote Kierkegaard on this subject at some length. (Fortunately, you are not in the least obliged to read it, so it is really no imposition.)

Negative thinkers therefore always have one advantage, in that they have something positive, being aware of the negative element in existence; the positive have nothing at all, since they are deceived. 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)

But the genuine subjective existing thinker is always as negative as he is positive, and vice versa. (CUP, p. 78)

That the subjective existing thinker...is immature. (CUP, p. 81)[1]

What lies at the root of both the comic and the tragic...is the discrepancy, the contradiction between the infinite and the finite, the eternal and that which becomes. A pathos which excludes the comic is therefore a misunderstanding, is not pathos at all. The subjective existing thinker is as bi-frontal as existence itself. When viewed from a direction looking toward the eternal[2] the apprehension of the discrepancy is pathos; when viewed with the eternal behind one the apprehension is comic. When the subjective existing thinker turns his face toward the eternal, his apprehension of the discrepancy is pathetic; when he turns his back to the eternal and lets this throw a light from behind over the same discrepancy, the apprehension is in terms of the comic. If I have not exhausted the comic to its entire depth, I do not have the pathos of the infinite; if I have the pathos of the infinite I have at once also the comic. (CUP, pp. 82-3)

Existence itself...involves a self-contradiction. (CUP, p. 84)[1]

And where does the Buddha's Teaching come in? If we understand the 'eternal' (which for Kierkegaard is ultimately God—i.e. the soul that is part of God) as the 'subject' or 'self', and 'that which becomes' as the quite evidently impermanent 'objects' in the world (which is also K.'s meaning), the position becomes clear. What we call the 'self' is a certain characteristic of all experience, that seems to be eternal. It is quite obvious that for all men the reality and permanence of their selves, 'I', is taken absolutely for granted; and the discrepancy that K. speaks of is simply that between my 'self' (which I automatically presume to be permanent) and the only too manifestly impermanent 'things' in the world that 'I' strive to possess. The eternal 'subject' strives to possess the temporal 'object', and the situation is at once both comic and tragic—comic, because something temporal cannot be possessed eternally, and tragic, because the eternal cannot desist from making the futile attempt to possess the temporal eternally. This tragi-comedy is suffering (dukkha) in its profoundest sense. And it is release from this that the Buddha teaches. How? By pointing out that, contrary to our natural assumption (which supposes that the subject 'I' would still continue to exist even if there were no objects at all), the existence of the subject depends upon the existence of the object; and since the object is manifestly impermanent, the subject must be no less so. And once the presumed-eternal subject is seen to be no less temporal than the object, the discrepancy between the eternal and the temporal disappears (in four stages—sotāpatti, sakadāgāmitā, anāgāmitā, and arahatta); and with the disappearance of the discrepancy the two categories of 'tragic' and 'comic' also disappear. The arahat neither laughs nor weeps; and that is the end of suffering (except, of course, for bodily pain, which only ceases when the body finally breaks up).

In this way you may see the progressive advance from the thoughtlessness of immediacy (either childish amusement, which refuses to take the tragic seriously, or pompous earnestness, which refuses to take the comic humourously) to the awareness of reflexion (where the tragic and the comic are seen to be reciprocal, and each is given its due), and from the awareness of reflexion (which is the limit of the puthujjana's philosophy) to full realization of the ariya dhamma (where both tragic and comic finally vanish, never again to return).


Editorial notes:

[27.1] CUP, pp. 81 and 84: These passages are quoted in full at L. 119. [Back to text]

[27.2] the eternal: So the Ven. Ñānavīra's letter; but the published translation reads 'Idea' rather than 'eternal' throughout this passage. [Back to text]