[L. 75 | 82] 15 December 1963

The Sinhalese gentleman's comment can perhaps be taken as representative of educated interested Buddhist opinion in Ceylon—ready to listen to unfamiliar ideas, but lacking, for the most part, the intellectual equipment to make very much of them.

I have written to John Blofeld (a lecturer in Mahāyāna Buddhism) to tell him that though I was having a copy of the Notes sent to him, I rather thought, knowing his views, that they might not be quite his cup of tea. He wrote back in these terms: 'I am looking forward to receiving your Notes. All cups of Dhamma tea are welcome to me, the bitter and the sweet, since all combine to make the purest Soma, do they not? ...As you may know, I have for some years been following the Vajrayāna under various Tibetan and other teachers. I have come to feel that, whereas the Vajrayāna, Zen and Theravāda look as different as fish, flesh and fowl, they are in essence identical. The highest teaching in each is very, very close—the only difference is that some people (such as myself) need a lot of climbing equipment and others don't. All the gorgeous and glittering methods of the Vajrayāna aim at one thing—perfect mind control with a view to coming face to face with Reality; so you see how little my path differs from yours in essentials.'

But that is just the point—I don't see. It is notoriously difficult to talk to Hindus about the Buddhadhamma. Hindus assert that the Buddha was a Hindu (by birth, that is to say, which is the only way to be a Hindu),[a] and infer from this that whatever he taught must of necessity be a part of Hinduism. The consequence of this conveniently simplified view is that no Hindu will admit that you are telling him anything that he does not already know. And if this is the situation between Hindus and Buddhists, it is a hundred times worse between Mahāyāna Buddhists and Theravādins. Mahāyānists accept the Pali Suttas (at their own valuation) and then claim to go beyond them (rather as Hegelians claimed to have gone beyond Christianity, by mediation in a higher synthesis). The Mahāyānists interpret the Pali Suttas (with which they are usually not very well acquainted) to conform with their own ideas; and the trouble is that there is much in the current orthodox Theravādin interpretation of the Pali Suttas to support the Mahāyānist contention. (An English bhikkhu with Theravāda upasampadā uses these interpretations to ridicule the Theravādin claims to be different from Mahāyāna; and so long as these interpretations are allowed to be orthodox it is not easy to challenge his argument.)

I think I told you some time ago (in connexion with Huxley and chemical mysticism) that the Mahāyānist view can be summed up in two propositions, the first common to all mystics, and the second supposed to represent the Buddha's solution to the problem raised by the first.

(i) Behind the ordinary appearance of things there lies Reality, which it is the task of the Yogi to seek. Existentialist philosophers do not go as far as this: if they admit such a Reality—Jaspers, for example—they qualify it by saying that it is necessarily out of reach. See Preface (m).

(ii) Reality is the non-existence of things. In other words, things do not really exist, they only appear to do so on account of our ignorance (avijjā). (George Borrow[1] tells of a Spanish gypsy in the last century whose grandfather held this view, so it hardly needs a Buddha to declare it. It seems to be closely allied to the Hindu notion of māyā—that all is illusion.)

Now the Pali texts say that the Buddha taught anicca/dukkha/anattā, and the average Theravādin, monk or layman, seems to take for granted that aniccatā, or impermanence, means that things are perpetually changing, that they do not remain the same for two consecutive moments. Failing to make the necessary distinctions (see PATICCASAMUPPĀDA [c]), they understand this as implying perpetual flux of everything all the time. This, of course, destroys the principle of self-identity, 'A is A'; for unless something endures unchanged for at least a certain interval of time you cannot even make the assertion 'this is A' since the word 'is' has lost its meaning. Bypassing dukkha as something we all know about, they arrive at anattā as meaning 'without self-identity'. (This is Mr. Wettimuny's theme,[2] following Dahlke. I do not think he is aware that he is putting himself among the Mahāyānists.) Granted the premise that anicca means 'in continuous flux', this conclusion is impeccable. Unfortunately, in doing away with the principle of self-identity, you do away with things—including change, which is also a thing. This means that for the puthujjana, who does not see aniccatā, things exist, and for the arahat, who has seen aniccatā, things do not exist. Thus the Mahāyānist contention is proved.

The difficulty arises when we deal with the sekha, who is in between the two; are we to say for him that 'things partly exist and partly do not exist', or that for him 'some things exist and some do not' (in which case we seem to have Eddington and the quantum theory)? The former, no doubt, would be preferable, but what is one to make of a partly non-existent thing? And in any case we have the curious state of affairs that there is change (or impermanence) only so long as it is not seen; for in the very instant that it is seen it vanishes. (This is certainly true of avijjā—see A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §24—but the vanishing of avijjā, as I understand it, leaves impermanence intact and does not interfere with the three Laws of Thought.) I still don't think the Notes are Mr. Blofeld's cup of tea, but I shall be interested to see whether he is able to absorb them into Mahāyāna—if one has a mystical outlook, based on the principle that A is not A, there is nothing that cannot be reconciled with anything else.

I have been writing all this rather at random, and it may perhaps lack coherence, or at least shape. However, since the train of thought still has steam up I shall let it take me where it will. The final sentence of the last paragraph leads me to the reflection that any proposed solution to the problem that disregards the three Laws of Thought[b] is, in the profoundest sense, frivolous. I think, perhaps, that you are one of the rather few people who will feel that this must be true, that all thinking in defiance of these Laws is essentially irresponsible.

At this point the rationalist will stand up and say that all his thinking is already in conformity with these Laws, and that consequently for him there is no problem to be solved. But the situation is not quite so simple. The present state of scientific thinking (which claims to be rational thinking par excellence) shows only too clearly that rationalism can only be maintained at the cost of introducing the most extraordinary absurdities into its premises. In a recent letter I spoke of Eddington's assumption that 'exactly as many things exist as do not exist' and showed that this is good currency in quantum theory; and I now find that I have another example ready to hand. The 'partly non-existent thing' that turned up in the last paragraph also finds its place in quantum theory.

Dirac says: 'The important things in the world appear as the invariants (or more generally the nearly invariants...) of these transformations' (PQM, p. vii). A thing as an 'invariant' is quite in order—it is the Law of Identity, 'A is A'. But a 'nearly invariant' is only a quasi-identity, 'A is nearly A'—a 'nearly invariant' is 'almost a thing'. Only things can be said to exist ('to be a thing' is 'to be conceivable', which is 'to be able to exist'),[c] and consequently we can only say of 'almost a thing' that it 'almost exists', which is the same as saying that it is a 'partly non-existent thing'. And Dirac, mark you, is Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in the University of Cambridge. It is reported that a distinguished physicist (I don't know who) recently remarked that no theory that does not look completely crazy stands a chance of being true.[3] The rationalist no doubt does not see any problem to be solved, but this is certainly not because his thinking is in conformity with the Laws of Thought: on the contrary, it is because he successfully turns a blind eye to the fact that his thinking is based on violations of the Laws of Thought. No, the problem certainly is there (for the puthujjana, that is to say), and it is brought to light by persistent refusal to disregard the Laws of Thought.

It is the merit of the existentialist philosophers that they do in fact bring the problem to light in this way. What happens is this: the thinker examines and describes his own thinking in an act of reflexion, obstinately refusing to tolerate non-identities, contradictions, and excluded middles; at a certain point he comes up against a contradiction that he cannot resolve and that appears to be inherent in his very act of thinking. This contradiction is the existence of the thinker himself (as subject).

You will find this contradiction illustrated in the passage from Camus in NIBBĀNA [a], but it is more concisely presented in the later part of the Mahā Nidāna Suttanta (D. 15: ii,66-8), where the Buddha says that a man who identifies his 'self' with feeling should be asked which kind of feeling, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, he regards as his 'self'. The man cannot identify his 'self' with all three kinds of feeling at once, since only one of the three kinds is present at a time: if he does make this identification, therefore, he must do it with the three different kinds of feeling in succession. His 'self', of course, he takes for granted as self-identical—'A is A'—that is to say as the same 'self' on each occasion. This he proceeds to identify in turn with the three different feelings: B, C, and D. A is therefore both B and C (not to mention D); and C, being different from B, is not B: so A is both B and not B—a violation of the Law of Contradiction. But whether or not it is with feeling that the puthujjana is identifying his 'self', he is always identifying it with something—and it is a different something on each occasion. The puthujjana takes his existence for granted—cogito ergo sum (which, as Sartre says, is apodictic reflexive evidence of the thinker's existence)—and is in a perpetual state of contradiction.

So we have the following situation. Assuming the validity of the Laws of Thought, the thinker discovers that the whole of his thinking depends upon an irreducible violation of the Laws of Thought, namely the contradictory existence of the thinker. And this itself is a contradiction. If he tolerates this contradiction he denies the validity of the Laws of Thought whose validity he assumed when he established the contradiction in the first place; there is therefore no contradiction for him to tolerate, and consequently he is not denying the Laws of Thought; the contradiction therefore exists and he tolerates it.... Or he may refuse to tolerate the contradiction; but if he does so, it is in the name of the Law of Contradiction that he does so, and refusal to tolerate the contradiction requires him to deny the validity of the Laws of Thought by which the contradiction was originally established; he has therefore no reason to refuse to tolerate the contradiction, which, if the Laws of Thought are invalid, is inoffensive; he therefore does not deny the validity of the Laws of Thought, and the contradiction is offensive and he refuses to tolerate it.... Or perhaps he neither tolerates the contradiction nor refuses to tolerate it, in which case he violates the Law of Excluded Middle.... Most certainly the problem exists!

How is it dealt with? (i) The rationalist, by remaining on the level of reason and refusing to look at his premises, asserts the validity of the Laws of Thought, and successfully blinds himself to the standing violation of the Laws of Thought—his own existence. (ii) The mystic endorses the standing violation of the Laws of Thought by asserting their invalidity on principle. This obliges him to attribute their apparent validity to blindness or ignorance and to assert a Reality behind appearances that is to be reached by developing a mode of thinking based on the three Laws: 'A is not A'; 'A is both B and not B'; 'A is neither B nor not B'. (iii) The existentialist says: 'Contradiction is the truth, which is a contradiction, and therefore the truth. This is the situation, and I don't like it; but I can see no way out of it'. To maintain this equivocal attitude for a long time is exhausting, and existentialists tend to seek relief in either rationalism or mysticism; but since they find it easier to endorse their personal existence than to ignore it they are more inclined to be mystical than rational.

Obviously, of these three attitudes, the first two evade the problem either by arbitrarily denying its existence or by arbitrarily denying the Laws of Thought upon which it depends. Only the third attitude asserts the Laws of Thought and asserts the existence of the problem. Though the puthujjana does not see the solution of the problem, he ought at least to see that to evade the problem (either by denying its existence or by denying the Laws of Thought on which it depends) is not to solve it. He will therefore choose to endure the discomfort of the third attitude until help comes from outside in the form of the Buddha's Teaching, or he himself finds the way out by becoming a Buddha.

I regard addresses in Germany and Austria as having high priority, for the reason that in Germany alone as many as 20,000 people call themselves Buddhists of one kind or another, and also that there is a strong idealist and existentialist philosophical tradition in Germany that may make the Notes more easily intelligible than elsewhere. In England, for example, there are few Buddhists—and mostly Zen—, and the prevailing philosophy is rationalist, à la Russell; and America is very much worse—hardly any Americans can think at all. After Germany perhaps France. There are few French Buddhists, and what interest there is is mostly in Sanskrit (Mahāyāna) Buddhism—French scholarship pioneered the study of Sanskrit Buddhism, leaving it to the English, who were occupying Ceylon and Burma, to study the Pali texts. But the French have the habit of thinking (though they sometimes overdo it—they proved to themselves by argument that they had lost the war, and then regarded the English as muddleheaded and illogical in deciding to go on with it), and they have fairly recently been initiated into the secrets of existentialism (themselves contributing one pope—Sartre—and one cardinal—Marcel—besides a number of lesser priests and deacons).[4]

You are quite right—I do not have in mind a detailed book (a thousand pages?) based on the Notes. I do not have the necessary weight of reading behind me, nor do I have Sartre's remarkable power of description and lucid development of a theme for pages on end which is quite indispensable for such an undertaking. My talent, such as it is, is for sweating down an idea, not for fattening it up. And as for a plan, I do not have even the ghost of such a thing.

The Notes, as it seems to me, are like so many beads inter-connected with numbers of threads, in a kind of three-dimensional network, if you get the idea. Starting from any one bead, you can follow a thread to any of three or four connected beads, and from that bead you can go to any one of a number of others, and so on. Provided all the beads are included, and all the threads indicated (where necessary), it matters not in the least in which order they are presented. Actually, the NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA is the result of putting together a number of separate notes, but the unity of that essay is due rather to the chain-like unity of the usual detailed paticcasamuppāda formulation, which imposes a certain order on the discussion. And, really, the loose structure (or absence of any structure) of the Notes suits my style and my purpose, and if ever a big book should result from the Notes it would still be in the form of notes: I never know what I am going to write about next, and I must always be free to insert something new at any place.

Besides, the Suttas themselves are, in a sense, in the form of notes: this can be seen from the entirely arbitrary way in which they have been collected together in Nikāyas. There is no connexion between one Sutta and the next, and if you change the order it makes not the slightest difference. There is certainly nothing in the way of the development of a theme from the beginning to the end of a Nikāya.

I once asked 'Are the Suttas, as we now have them, complete?' If, by complete, is meant 'do they contain all that the Buddha ever said?', the answer is certainly No. If it means 'has anything been lost since the First Council?' (which I think was what I intended by the question), the answer is quite probably that they are complete, that little or nothing has been lost.[5] But all this is quite beside the point. The Suttas are complete for me if there is enough to enable me to reach the goal; if not, not. Obviously this is going to be different for each person. One man may need only one Sutta, and then all the rest will be extra. For another man, a lot of Suttas will be required before they are complete for him. And for the vast majority the Suttas would not be complete if there were a hundred times as many of them as there are.

On a very much reduced scale the same is true of the Notes. The aim is single—to indicate (what for purposes of argument may be called) the proper interpretation of the Suttas. As soon as they have performed that service for any given individual, and not before, they are, for him, complete. Nothing that I add really says anything fresh—it is simply the same thing in different words, and is already implied in the rest of the notes.


[75.a] 'Can anybody deny that the Buddha was a Hindu? Can anybody deny that he was the tallest Hindu?'—impassioned Hindu writing in (I think) the Maha Bodhi Journal. [Back to text]

[75.b] Identity—'A is A'; Contradiction—'A is not both B and not B'; Excluded Middle—'A is either B or not B'. [Back to text]

[75.c] Cf. Parmenides (quoted by Russell in M&L, p. 15): 'It needs must be that what can be thought and spoken of is; for it is possible for it to be, and it is not possible for what is nothing [no thing] to be.' This is classed by Russell as 'mystical', which it certainly is not (though Parmenides may have misunderstood himself in the conclusions that he drew from this principle). The point is that the existence of images, and imagination generally, has no place in Russell's philosophy as a logician. It is therefore 'mystical', or, at best, 'psychological'. ('Psychology' is a convenient dumping ground for things for which rationalism has no use but which are too well established to be 'superstition'.) [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[75.1] George Borrow (1803-81) travelled in Spain as an agent for the Bible Society. He wrote The Bible in Spain as well as several novels, all published in the Everyman series. [Back to text]

[75.2] Mr. Wettimuny: L. 35, 36, 37, 38. Mr. Wettimuny, of course, subsequently relinquished this view. [Back to text]

[75.3] I don't know who: As long ago as 1927 the British biologist, J. B. S. Haldane, said that '...my suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.' But the Ven. Ñānavīra may have had someone else in mind. [Back to text]

[75.4] French existentialism: The Ven. Ñānavīra seems not to have read Merleau-Ponty, whose reputation as an existentialist philosopher has grown enormously in the last few decades. The author's assessment of European Buddhism was valid for the 1960s: some 25 years on there is a considerably stronger Theravādin tradition in England, and roots have been established in America. [Back to text]

[75.5] Are the Suttas complete?: For a brief account of the origins of the Pali Suttas and of their probable development as far as the Third Council see 'Beginnings: The Pali Suttas' (BPS Wheel 313/315). [Back to text]