[L. 59 | 66] 23 July 1963

I have just taken more than a day to rewrite an inadequate passage in the NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA. The rewritten passage is a particularly tough one, and will take you weeks to unravel; but I hope that, when you succeed in doing so, it will afford you some pleasure. The whole note, however, is difficult, and you might perhaps wonder if it is really necessary to get such an intellectual grasp of paticcasamuppāda in order to attain the path. The answer is, by no means. But what is necessary for a puthujjana in order to attain is that he should not imagine that he understands what in fact he does not understand. He should understand that he does not understand. If the Notes, by their difficulty, succeed in bringing about this negative understanding but nothing more, they will not have been in vain.

I am fortunately endowed with a considerable capacity for remembering the context of passages, even upon a single reading. This was of use to me during the war when, as an interrogator, I was obliged to have an up-to-date card-index memory for keeping my subjects on the straight and narrow path of truthfulness.[1] It is of infinitely more use to me now, since it enables me to turn up remote Sutta passages with a minimum of delay. I have occasionally found myself being used as an index to the Suttas by my fellow bhikkhus. On the other hand I find it very difficult to memorize a passage literally. I doubt whether I know more than three or four Suttas by heart. I simply cannot comprehend the Venerable Ānanda Thera, who memorized the whole of the Suttas and recited them at the First Council. I am essentially a man of libraries.

Kafka is an ethical, not an aesthetic, writer. There is no conclusion to his books. The Castle was actually unfinished, but what ending could there be to it? And there is some doubt about the proper order of the chapters in The Trial—it does not really seem to matter very much in which order you read them, since the book as a whole does not get you anywhere. (An uncharitable reader might disagree, and say that it throws fresh light on the Judiciary.) In this it is faithful to life as we actually experience it. There is no 'happy ending' or 'tragic ending' or 'comic ending' to life, only a 'dead ending'—and then we start again.

We suffer, because we refuse to be reconciled with this lamentable fact; and even though we may say that life is meaningless we continue to think and act as if it had a meaning. Kafka's heroes (or hero, 'K.'—himself and not himself) obstinately persist in making efforts that they understand perfectly well are quite pointless—and this with the most natural air in the world. And, after all, what else can one do? Notice, in The Trial, how the notion of guilt is taken for granted. K. does not question the fact that he is guilty, even though he does not know of what he is guilty—he makes no attempt to discover the charge against him, but only to arrange for his defence. For both Kierkegaard and Heidegger, guilt is fundamental in human existence. (And it is only the Buddha who tells us the charge against us—avijjā.) I should be glad to re-read The Castle when you have finished it (that is, if 'finished' is a word that can be used in connexion with Kafka).

You may have difficulty in getting a copy of Ulysses locally. The book is grossly obscene, and not in the least pornographic. Customs officials, however, confuse these two things, and Ulysses has suffered at their hands. Of one early edition of five hundred copies, 499 were burnt by the Customs at Folkestone.

As for suggesting further books for reading, all I can think of at the moment is a recent Penguin called Exile and the Kingdom. It is a translation of six short stories by Albert Camus. I don't know anything about the book, but I know quite a lot about the author (he is the Camus that I have quoted in the Notes). Nearly everything that he has written is stimulating, and it might be worth while getting this book. (Besides, I should like to read it myself.)

Editorial note:

[59.1] During the war Musson served primarily in Algiers, in varying capacities including work in the Prisoner of War Interrogation Section. For nearly the whole of 1945 he was in hospital, first in North Africa and then in Sorento, for reasons unknown. At the time of his release, in 1946, he held the rank of Temporary Captain. On his Release Certificate he was noted as a holder of the Military Cross. He queried this: 'I am not aware of having won the MC nor of ever having been in the position of being able to do so.' The entry was found to be an error. [Back to text