[L. 22 | 29] 15 January 1963

Thank you very much indeed for your long letter. To judge from its fluency and vigour you must have benefitted from your stay at the Hermitage. Letters from Colombo—anybody's letters—generally have a remarkable air of stuffiness about them. I have always found (and so did the Ven. Ñānamoli Thera[1]) that in Colombo one's head seems to be stuffed with cotton waste: thinking is an enormous effort, like one of those monstrous dreams where one's legs get heavier and heavier until one can hardly move at all. As soon as I return to the Hermitage (or better still here) my head clears and I become an intelligent human being again. Perhaps this is making too much of what may only be a personal impression; but, anyway, I found your letter refreshing.

Sydney Smith[2] on suicide sounds most educative—on the condition that he is approached not too hastily so as to avoid lack of reaction (objectivity) or inappropriate reaction (immediacy). One needs to be subjective enough to taste the horror of the human situation one's own situation—and reflexive enough to face it without panic.[a] And to think that human birth is accounted by the Buddha a good destiny, hard to come by!

You suggest that my amoebiasis may not be under control yet. Speaking as a patient, of course, I cannot be sure about this; but it seems to me that my symptoms are at present remaining more or less static, with neither improvement nor deterioration. Certainly they are appreciably worse than three years ago, but since then I have had three manifest re-infections (one perhaps a relapse) which might account for this. But I shall not say that you are wrong.

I should perhaps make it clear that the first idea (two years ago) of suicide as a tentative possibility was due quite as much to a decreased interest in living as it was to deterioration in my physical condition (the former factor, actually, was and is partly independent of the latter).[4] In other words, it would be a mistake to regard my change of attitude simply and solely as the cumulative effect of long-standing amoebiasis. Furthermore, I should not have attempted suicide, nor still be regarding it (intermittently) as an immediate possibility, were it not for the additional strain of the erotic stimul were it not for the additional strain of the erotic stimulation. The amoebic condition alone (unless it deteriorates) is probably not enough (though I cannot be quite sure) to provoke decisive action, though it does remain the predisposing condition. It might be likened to a wooden beam, eaten by white ants, still strong enough to support the present weight, but liable to collapse if an additional burden is placed upon it.

About discussing my situation with other people, please do as you think fit. I am independent enough of other people's opinions not to be disturbed if they know about it, but at the same time I am not particularly anxious to become an object of public curiosity.

I have not hitherto raised the question with you of what I may be or represent for other people, but since you have made some encouraging remarks on the subject, something might be said. To oneself, reflexively, one never presents a clear-cut rounded-out picture. One can never, as a matter of structural principle, see oneself as one sees another person. When Robert Burns asked the Good Lord for the gift of seeing ourselves 'as ithers see us' he was asking for the impossible (and Chestov, the Russian philosopher, would say that he had made the application in the proper quarter: 'One only turns to God to obtain the impossible—for the possible, men are enough'[b]). What I am in the eyes of another is a dimension of myself that is inherently hidden from me. When, therefore, people tell one what they think of one it always comes as something of a shock, pleasant or unpleasant as the case may be. To try to create an impression upon other people is extremely risky, since the effect of one's effort is absolutely beyond one's control; and if one bears this in mind one does not get unduly elated or depressed by what others say of one.

For my part, I have come to Ceylon and am doing what I am doing purely and simply for my own benefit, and for this reason my action appears to me as perfectly normal, neither a matter for approval nor for disapproval, the only possible point for criticism being whether or not my action will lead to the desired result. If, then, other people derive benefit from what I am doing that is all to the good, and I am not displeased; but it must necessarily remain a secondary consideration—though not for that reason entirely without weight.

People do support me remarkably well and I am more grateful to them than I can easily say, and it is only proper to consider their point of view before making final decisions. Of course, one sometimes meets with ambiguities. I heard that a person of consequence who once visited me here remarked afterwards that I was 'setting a good example for the others', but I notice that neither the person in question nor 'the others' show any signs of following my example. The Ven. Ñānamoli Thera was more direct—'You're a thorn in their side' he said. The situation, after all, is quite understandable. People born in Ceylon and other Buddhist countries have the Buddha's Teaching as their national heritage; they have been Buddhists since their birth, and no further action on their part is required. The idea that it is necessary to become a Buddhist is thus well-nigh incomprehensible—if you are a Buddhist already, what can it possibly mean to become one? The consequence of this situation is that when a non-Buddhist sets about becoming a Buddhist—by taking the Buddha at his word and actually trying to practise—the born-Buddhists are at a loss to understand quite what he can be doing, and they are uncertain whether to class him as a sage or simpleton.

You say that you are worried about 'the absolutely dispassionate and purely objective tone' in which I discuss my own probable suicide. I am glad that you are worried about this. In all my correspondence with you both now and earlier I have been hoping to be able to communicate the idea of what Heidegger calls 'authenticity'; and if you have felt a little uneasiness at a practical illustration of what I have been trying to convey that is not a bad sign. 'The very maximum of what one human being can do for another in relation to that wherein each man has to do solely with himself', said Kierkegaard 'is to inspire him with concern and unrest' (CUP, p. 346). And beyond preventing you from falling into complacency I do not think there is very much that anyone else can do for you in this particular department.

But the question of authenticity (which more or less corresponds to the subjectivity-reflexion pair of attitudes discussed earlier) is another matter. If this mode of thinking can be achieved, it is capable of making a great deal of difference to one's life. Once one recognizes that one is totally responsible for all one's decisions and actions, one can no longer hide behind convenient ready-made excuses; and this, though it makes life rather less comfortable by removing one's habitual blinkers, endows one with unexpected self-reliance and resilience in difficult situations.[c] And once it becomes habitual to think in this way the task of living is discovered to be a full-time job and not merely a drudge to be got through by killing time as best one can. In other words, it abolishes boredom.[d] Finally, as I think I mentioned some time ago, it is only in this authentic or responsible attitude that the Buddha's Teaching becomes intelligible.

You say that I am one who thinks not only of other people but also of himself as 'they'. I see what you mean and I will not deny it, but it needs stating differently. Two paragraphs back I pointed out that it is inherently impossible to see oneself (unless one is simply thinking of one's body) as one sees another person (at least, not authentically), so I cannot be 'they' to myself as others are 'they' to me. People, for the most part, live in the objective-immediate mode (discussed earlier). This means that they are totally absorbed in and identified with positive worldly interests and projects, of which there is an unending variety. That is to say, although they differ from one another in their individual natures, the contents of their respective positivities, they are all alike in being positive. Thus, although the fundamental relation between positives is conflict (on account of their individual differences), they apprehend one another as all being in the same boat of positivity, and they think of men generally in terms of human solidarity, and say 'we'.

But the person who lives in the subjective-reflexive mode is absorbed in and identified with, not the positive world, but himself. The world, of course, remains 'there' but he regards it as accidental (Husserl says that he 'puts it in parentheses, between brackets'), and this means that he dismisses whatever positive identification he may have as irrelevant. He is no longer 'a politician' or 'a fisherman', but 'a self'. But what we call a 'self', unless it receives positive identification from outside, remains a void, in other words a negative. A 'self', however, is positive in this respect—it seeks identification. So a person who identifies himself with himself finds that his positivity consists in negativity—not the confident 'I am this' or 'I am that' of the positive, but a puzzled, perplexed, or even anguished, 'What am I?'. (This is where we meet the full force of Kierkegaard's 'concern and unrest'.) Eternal repetition of this eternally unanswerable question is the beginning of wisdom (it is the beginning of philosophy); but the temptation to provide oneself with a definite answer is usually too strong, and one falls into a wrong view of one kind or another. (It takes a Buddha to show the way out of this impossible situation. For the sotāpanna, who has understood the Buddha's essential Teaching, the question still arises, but he sees that it is unanswerable and is not worried; for the arahat the question no longer arises at all, and this is final peace.)

This person, then, who has his centre of gravity in himself instead of in the world (a situation that, though usually found as a congenital feature, can be acquired by practice), far from seeing himself with the clear solid objective definition with which other people can be seen, hardly sees himself as anything definite at all: for himself he is, at best, a 'What, if anything?'. It is precisely this lack of assured self-identity that is the secret strength of his position—for him the question-mark is the essential and his positive identity in the world is accidental, and whatever happens to him in a positive sense the question-mark still remains, which is all he really cares about. He is distressed, certainly, when his familiar world begins to break up, as it inevitably does, but unlike the positive he is able to fall back on himself and avoid total despair. It is also this feature that worries the positives; for they naturally assume that everybody else is a positive and they are accustomed to grasp others by their positive content, and when they happen to meet a negative they find nothing to take hold of.

It quite often happens that a positive attributes to a negative various strange secret motives, supposing that he has failed to understand him (in a positive sense); but what he has failed to understand is that there is actually nothing there to be understood. But a negative, being (as you point out) a rare bird himself, is accustomed to positives, by whom he is surrounded, and he does not mistake them for fellow negatives. He understands (or at least senses) that the common factor of positivity that welds them together in the 'we' of human solidarity does not extend to him, and mankind for him is 'they'. When a negative meets another negative they tend to coalesce with a kind of easy mutual indifference. Unlike two positives, who have the differences in their respective positivities to keep them apart, two negatives have nothing to separate them, and one negative recognizes another by his peculiar transparency—whereas a positive is opaque.

Yes, I had my tongue in my cheek when I suggested mindfulness of death as a subject of meditation for you. But also, though you could hardly know this, I had a perfectly serious purpose at the back of my mind. It happens that, for Heidegger, contemplation of one's death throughout one's life is the key to authenticity. As Sartre has observed, Heidegger has not properly understood the nature of death, regarding it as my possibility, whereas in fact it is always accidental, even in suicide (I cannot kill myself directly, I can only cut my throat and wait for death to come). But death of one's body (which is always seen from outside, like other people's bodies) can be imagined and the implications envisaged. And this is really all that is necessary (though it must be added that there are other ways than contemplation of death of becoming authentic). Here, then, is a summary of Heidegger's views on this matter (from 6ET, pp. 96-7):

Death, then, is the clue to authentic living, the eventual and omnipresent possibility which binds together and stabilizes my existence.... I anticipate death...by living in the presence of death as always immediately possible and as undermining everything. This full-blooded acceptance...of death, lived out, is authentic personal existence. Everything is taken as contingent. Everything is devalued. Personal existence and everything encountered in personal existence is accepted as nothing, as meaningless, fallen under the blow of its possible impossibility. I see all my possibilities as already annihilated in death, as they will be, like those of others in their turn. In face of this capital possibility which devours all the others, there are only two alternatives: acceptance or distraction. Even this choice is a rare privilege, since few are awakened by dread to the recognition of the choice, most remain lost in the illusions of everyday life. To choose acceptance of death as the supreme and normative possibility of my existence is not to reject the world and refuse participation in its daily preoccupations, it is to refuse to be deceived and to refuse to be identified with the preoccupations in which I engage: it is to take them for what they are worth—nothing. From this detachment springs the power, the dignity, the tolerance, of authentic personal existence.
If you found mettā bhāvanā relatively easy, it is quite possible that you were doing it wrong (mettā bhāvanā is notoriously easy to misconceive), in which case you were quite right to prefer ānāpānasati, which, if you found difficult, you may have been doing properly. It is difficult, at least to begin with. The two main faults are (i) a tendency to follow the breath inside the body, whereas attention should be kept about the region of the gate of the nose, and (ii) a tendency to squint at the nose, which induces headache, the cure for which is to practise ānāpānasati while walking up and down (which obliges one to look where one is walking instead of at the nose). I have, myself, never formally practised mettā bhāvanā, but the Ven. Kassapa Thera has made a success of it.

Thank you for the verses, expressing, perhaps, a layman's view of monks. Here are two in exchange, expressing a (Japanese) monk's view of laymen:

She'd like to hear the sermon
But she also wants
To stay at home and bully her daughter-in-law.

Their faces all look
As if they thought
They're going to live for ever.[7]

An inauthentic lot, apparently.

Please excuse all these words, but, as you know, I find writing helpful, and besides, there is always the chance that you might find something here of use to you (though I know that some of it is not particularly easy stuff—even supposing that I am not talking nonsense).



[22.a] The relationship between these four attitudes—objectivity, immediacy, subjectivity, and reflexion—is worth consideration. At first sight it might seem that there is no difference between immediacy and subjectivity, or between objectivity and reflexion. Subjectivity and objectivity, certainly, are opposed; and so are immediacy and reflexion. But immediacy (which is naive acceptance of whatever is presented) is compatible with objectivity, as we see from Thomas Huxley's advice to the scientist: 'Sit down before fact as a little child'—; and reflexion is compatible with subjectivity (for subjectivity is 'being oneself', and reflexion, being 'self awareness', is within subjectivity). Thus:[3]

In emotional excitement objectivity and reflexion alike tend to vanish, and subjectivity then approximates to immediacy. It is this that gives subjectivity its bad name; for few people know of any subjectivity beyond emotional immediacy. Their escape from emotion is towards objectivity, in the form of distractions, rather than towards reflexion, which is the more difficult way of self control. Goethe once described the advice 'Know Thyself' (inscribed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi) as 'a singular requisition with which no man complies, or indeed ever will comply: man is by all his senses and efforts directed to externals—to the world about him'. [Back to text]

[22.b] In Ceylon this distinction is not always observed. Candidates for examination not only obtain advance copies of the papers, but take the added precaution of applying to Kataragama[5] to get them through. [Back to text]

[22.c] Let us keep things in their proper proportion. I am not anything very much out of the ordinary in this respect. My eminence, whatever there may be of it, is due—as Karl Marx said of John Stuart Mill's—to the flatness of the surrounding countryside. I am better at theorizing—at talking—than at practice. I do not wish to give you the impression that the next time I come to hospital for operation the anaesthetic can be dispensed with. [Back to text]

[22.d] The common view is that the remedy for boredom is variety or distraction, but this only aggravates the malady. The real remedy is repetition. Here is Kierkegaard again:

Whoever fails to understand that life is repetition, and that this is its beauty, has passed judgement upon himself; he deserves no better fate than that which will befall him, namely to be lost. Hope is an alluring fruit which does not satisfy, memory is a miserable pittance that does not satisfy, but repetition is life's daily bread, which satisfies and blesses. When a man has circumnavigated the globe it will appear whether he has the courage to understand that life is repetition, and the enthusiasm to find therein his happiness.... In repetition inheres the earnestness and reality of life. Whoever wills repetition proves himself to be in possession of a pathos that is serious and mature.[6]
Nietzsche, in his turn, has his doctrine of Eternal Recurrence which expresses the crass senselessness of things, the eternal lack of purpose in the universe; so that to will the eternal cycle with enthusiasm and without hope is the ultimate attainment of affirmation. And here is a dialogue from Dostoievsky's The Possessed:
—Old philosophical commonplaces, always the same from the beginning of time, murmured Stavrogin with an air of careless pity.
—Always the same! Always the same from the beginning of time and nothing else! echoed Kirilov, his eyes shining, as if his victory was contained in this idea.
This passage underlines the futility of the historical method of dealing with religions and philosophies. The Buddha's Teaching is not simply a reaction to the earlier Hinduism, as our modern scholars inform us ad nauseam. If it is, the scholars will have to explain why I am a follower of the Buddha without being a disgruntled Hindu. Modern scholarship is inauthenticity in its most virulent form. (Talking of suicide, it is perhaps noteworthy that both of Dostoievsky's characters kill themselves: Stavrogin out of indifference and self disgust; Kirilov, after years of planning the gesture, in order to demonstrate to mankind that there is no God and that men are free to do as they please. My suicide will be less didactic.) [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[22.1] the Ven. Ñānamoli Thera: It was the Ven. Ñānamoli who (then Osbert Moore) accompanied the Ven. Ñānavīra (then Harold Musson) to Ceylon in 1949, at which time they both took ordination, receiving the upasampadā in 1950. They carried on a prodigious correspondence from about 1954 (when the Ven. Ñānavīra left the Island Hermitage) until shortly before L. 1, at which time the correspondence was discontinued by the Ven. Ñānavīra [see L. 99, §6]. The Ven. Ñānamoli (who is remembered for his translations of the Majjhima Nikāya, the Visuddhimagga, and other Pali texts) died of a heart attack in 1960. (The view which Ven. Ñānavīra expresses here seems to reflect the nearly universal finding of forest monks who briefly visit any urban area.) [Back to text]

[22.2] Sir Sydney Smith (d. 1969) was the author of Mostly Murder. [Back to text]

[22.3] footnote a: A loose undated note found among the Ven. Ñānavīra's papers, not part of his letters but apparently written after this letter, included a more complex version of the diagram. The top line was labelled 'multiplies into COMPATIBLES'; the bottom line was labelled 'divides into COMPATIBLES'; and the diagonal line between OBJECTIVITY and REFLEXION was extended in both directions. To the upper left it was extended to the label 'Statistics'; to the lower right to the label 'Ontology'. [Back to text]

[22.4] decreased interest in living: Here as in so many places throughout these letters the Ven. Ñānavīra is making a veiled reference to his own attainment (L. 1) of sotāpatti. [Back to text]

[22.5] Kataragama: In Sinhalese mythology Kataragama (Hindi: Skandha) is the chief deity of the island. His residence is a mountain not far from Bundala and he is believed to be particularly useful as a support to students in their examination. (The Chestov quote is from p. 25 of Myth.) [Back to text]

[22.6] footnote d: The translation on pp. 5-6 of Repetition is somewhat different from this, which the Ven. Ñānavīra has taken from the Translator's Introduction (pp. xxii-xxxiii) to Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments. [Back to text]

[22.7] haiku: the source has not been identified. [Back to text]