[L. 64 | 71] 7 September 1963

Feelings of fear and helplessness at times of sickness or danger are very unpleasant, but they can also be very instructive. At such times one may get an almost pure view of bhavatanhā, craving for existence. The fear is not fear of anything in particular (though there may also be that), but rather of ceasing to exist, and the helplessness is an absolute helplessness in the face of impending annihilation. I think that it is very probable that these feelings will put in an appearance at any time that one thinks one is going to die (whether one actually dies or not), and it is perhaps half the battle to be prepared for this sort of thing. Once one knows that such feelings are to be expected one can take the appropriate action quickly when they actually occur, instead of dying in a state of bewilderment and terror.

What is the appropriate action? The answer is, Mindfulness. One cannot prevent these feelings (except by becoming arahat), but one can look them in the face instead of fleeing in panic. Let them come, and try to watch them: once they know themselves to be observed they tend to wither and fade away, and can only reassert themselves when you become heedless and off your guard. But continued mindfulness is not easy, and that is why it is best to try and practise it as much as possible while one is still living. Experiences such as yours are valuable reminders of what one has to expect and of the necessity for rehearsing one's death before one is faced with it.

The passage from the Satipatthāna Sutta that you quote gives an example of the existentialist (i.e. reflexive or phenomenological) attitude, but I hesitate before saying how far it is an explicit reference to it. The trouble is that it is not a particularly easy passage to translate. The usual translation, which is different in important respects from the one you have sent me, runs something like this:

'There is the body', thus mindfulness is established in him, to the extent necessary for knowledge and (adequate) mindfulness. And he dwells unattached and clings to nothing in the world.[a]—M. 10: i,57-8
But I must admit that, though I accept this translation for lack of a better, I am not altogether satisfied that it is correct. (I once had a quite different translation to either this one or the one you have sent me but I later abandoned it.) On the other hand, I am even less satisfied that the Pali text as it stands will bear the translation of your letter. (Does patissati mean more than sati? I don't know.)

The whole question of relying on translations of the Suttas is a troublesome one. Some people may disagree with what I have to say about it at the beginning of the Preface to the Notes, and will consider that I am too severe; nevertheless, I stick to it—I am prepared to argue the point, me Lud. If there have to be translations let them at least be literal and let translators not add things of their own in the attempt to make things easier for the reader—it doesn't. But sometimes one is misled by the modern editor of texts themselves, when he too definitely fixes the punctuation or fails to give alternative readings. (There is a neat example of this, which you will find in a footnote towards the end of A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA. It is a matter of deciding whether cetam should be c'etam, 'and this', or ce tam, 'if that'. If you choose the first you put a full stop in one place: if you choose the second you must put the full stop in another place. Although it makes no difference to the general meaning of the passage, the second alternative makes the passage read much more smoothly. But the editor has chosen c'etam and has placed his full stop accordingly. If he had left cetam and omitted the full stop altogether he would not have wasted so much of my time.) I sometimes feel that the original texts should be given without any punctuation at all, leaving it to the reader to decide. ('I said that the honourable member was a liar it is true and I am sorry for it.')


[64.a] The 'extent necessary' means the extent necessary to attain arahattā. There is no further necessity for the practice of mindfulness after one has attained this. [Back to text]