[L. 21 | 28] 4 January 1963

I am really most grateful to you for your sympathetic letter. Certainly, I should not have written as I did had I thought that you were one of those unintelligent people whose well-meant advice is more likely to drive one to suicide than to save one from it. Doctors, of course, cannot afford to be shocked professionally at the strange antics of their patients, but they can sometimes be remarkably bigoted in private. I know, however, that you yourself have your own difficulties to contend with, and are not likely to be in a hurry to sit in judgement on other people; and it is for this reason that I did not write to you solely in your capacity as a doctor. I am also grateful to you for not at once attributing my 'morbid fancies'—some of which, after all, were added as literary embellishment—to a convenient abstract clinical entity.

It is curious, is it not, that whereas, since Freud, the most extravagant fancies in the realm of love are considered to be perfectly normal (a person without them is regarded as a case for treatment), in the realm of death (the other great pole of human life) any strange fancies are still classed as 'morbid'. The Suttas reverse the situation: sensual thoughts are the thoughts of a sick man (sick with ignorance and craving), and the way to health is through thoughts of foulness and the diseases of the body, and of its death and decomposition. And not in an abstract scientific fashion either—one sees or imagines a rotting corpse, for example, and then pictures one's very own body in such a state.

Our contemporaries are more squeamish. A few years ago a practising Harley Street psychiatrist, who was dabbling in Buddhism, came to see me. I opened the conversation by saying 'At some time in his life, every intelligent man questions himself about the purpose of his existence.' Immediately, and with the most manifest disapproval, the psychiatrist replied 'Anybody who thinks such thoughts is mentally diseased.' Thus with a single gesture, he swept half-a-dozen major philosophers (some of whom have held chairs in universities—which guarantees their respectability if not their philosophy) into the lunatic asylum—the criminal lunatic asylum, to judge from his tone. I have never seen a man in such a funk. But this is a digression.

No, I have not discussed the matter with anyone else. As far as Dhamma goes, I am quite well aware of the situation: I know that to kill oneself is an act of weakness, but also that, for me, it is better than disrobing; and I know what I risk and what I do not risk by such an act. I do not know of anyone who can add anything to this. As regards discussing it with a friend, not only do I have nobody by whom I can possibly make myself understood (and misunderstanding, in a case like this, has the effect of isolating one still more completely[a]) but, precisely, I do not feel the need to make myself understood (I am one of those people who think of other people as 'they', not as 'we'[1]).

If, in fact, I now appear to be trying to make myself understood, that is to be seen as a measure of self-defence rather than as an appeal for help (I do not speak, of course, of the medical aspect, where help is always welcome). To be more explicit: it is possible that you may understand this; and if so you may be able to translate it into terms that would be acceptable to other people who would certainly not understand me directly. (It is precisely the attempt to understand directly that creates the misunderstanding: you will have noticed that my last letter was not really a direct communication to you at all, but rather a discussion of my situation with myself, which I wrote down and posted to you. No wonder you found it difficult to reply!) You will see, then, that far from feeling the need to discuss the matter with somebody else (in a direct manner, in any case) I am actually seeking to put a buffer (in this case, your good self) between myself and other people, so that if it should come to the point I may in some measure be spared the exhausting task of explaining the unexplainable. (Naturally, I am not doing this as a matter of deliberate policy; but now that you have raised the question I see that it is so.) There are times when the idea of ceasing to take food from tomorrow onwards seems to be the most natural thing in the world (if food upsets one, why go on taking it?), and it is the thought that if I do I shall inevitably be asked to explain myself that makes me pause.

What, now, of the future? My present attitude is quite unchanged since my last letter, and I continue to live from day to day by force of habit, with Nietzsche's brinkmanship formula to help over the rough patches. How long this will go on I have no idea. I have long since abandoned all hope of an improvement in my amoebic condition; which means that I do not despair when it does not improve. But it also seems that I no longer have any very pressing reason for living. This makes the question of my death a matter of comparative indifference, and the prospect does not cause me great concern. I do not feel that discussion with other people will alter this.

But absence of a reason for living is not necessarily a reason for dying (though the visiting psychiatrist was assuming the contrary, hence his panic at the suggestion that the purpose of life might be questionable). Absence of a reason for living simply makes the decision to die easier. The reason for ending one's life is the discomfort and difficulty of one's situation, and this is why any medical help that can be given is welcome. It is perhaps possible that my secondary complaint might improve in the course of time, and the situation would then become easier. Well and good if it does. On the other hand, I might get re-infected with amoebiasis; and this possibility raises a question. If this should happen, would it be possible to treat the infection without again provoking the erotic stimulation? Can you answer this question for me? If the answer is negative, it at once becomes evident that I cannot afford to get the infection again; for I should have to choose between erotic stimulation and untreated amoebiasis, either of which would almost certainly upset the apple cart. And the question of avoiding re-infection raises further problems.

I am glad you have managed to find time to visit the Hermitage for a few days. You will be able to get instructions on how to develop maranasati or mindfulness of death (unscientifically, of course).



[21.a] It is extraordinarily depressing to be accredited with all sorts of motives—resentment, remorse, grief ('a secret sorrow'), despair, and so on—that are totally absent. [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[21.1] others as 'they': Among various loose papers found after the Ven. Ñānavīra's death was a copy of a quotation from Schopenhauer's The Wisdom of Life:

It is only the highest intellectual power, what we may call genius, that attains to this degree of intensity, making all time and existence its theme, and striving to express its peculiar conception of the world, whether it contemplates life as the subject of poetry or of philosophy. Hence undisturbed occupation with himself, his own thoughts and works, is a matter of urgent necessity to such a man; solitude is welcome, leisure is the highest good, and everything else is unnecessary, nay, even burdensome.
     This is the only type of man of whom it can be said that his centre of gravity is entirely in himself; which explains why it is that people of this sort—and they are very rare—, no matter how excellent their character may be, do not show that warm and unlimited interest in friends, family, and the community in general, of which others are so often capable; for if they have only themselves they are not inconsolable for the loss of everything else. This gives an isolation to their character, which is all the more effective since other people never really quite satisfy them, as being, on the whole, of a different nature: more, since this difference is constantly forcing itself upon their notice, they get accustomed to move about amongst mankind as alien beings, and in thinking of humanity in general, they say they instead of we.
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