[L. 56 | 63] 6 July 1963

About the Vietnam affair. You speak of a monk who poured petrol over the intending suicide, and also of others who took part in the procession. A Theravādin bhikkhu doing these things might find himself in an equivocal position, since it is a pārājika offence ('defeat') to encourage a person to suicide, if as a result of that encouragement he actually kills himself. To pour petrol and (to a lesser extent) to follow in the procession might almost be interpreted in this sense. But these monks were (I presume) Mahāyāna monks, and their ordination is not, strictly speaking, recognized by us as valid. For us, they are upāsakas and not bound by our Vinaya rules.

As for gruesome (asubha, 'foul') objects, these are specifically recommended in the Suttas as objects of meditation for getting rid of sensual desire. In Ceylon, unfortunately, rotting human corpses are hard things to find (the police and the health authorities disapprove of such things), but in India, so I am told, one may still come across them quite easily.

The difficulty of understanding aniccatā may be realized from the fact that it is seen, in the full sense of ñānadassana, 'knowledge and seeing', only by the ariya and not by the puthujjana. Similarly with dukkha and anattā. For this reason I can by no means agree with the following statement (from the late Ven. Ñānamoli Thera's 'Three Cardinal Discourses of the Buddha', BPS Wheel 17, p. 28): 'The two characteristics of Impermanence and Suffering in the world were well recognized in ancient Indian philosophies and have never been peculiar to Buddhism.'

Now for the Huxley. The preliminary indication that I gave in my last letter has been fully confirmed by a reading of the entire book.[1] The book demonstrates Huxley's prodigious wealth of culture, his great talent as a writer (the passage on draperies, for example, is delightful), and his hopelessly muddled thinking. He speaks (on p. 12) of 'such ancient, unsolved riddles as the place of mind in nature and the relationship between brain and consciousness', but his book does not contribute anything towards their solution. And it has nothing, nothing whatsoever, to do with the Buddha's Teaching.

Actually, these 'ancient, unsolved riddles' have remained unsolved for the good reason that they are insoluble; and they are insoluble because they are illegitimate. The first one comes of making a gratuitous division of things into 'mind' and 'matter' (see NĀMA [b]), and the second comes of assuming that a study of the body will lead to an understanding of consciousness (see my letter to Dr. de Silva about Prof. Jefferson's article). But Huxley's confused thinking seems to be incapable of making even the simplest of philosophical distinctions.

For example, on p. 37 he says 'Meanwhile I had turned...to what was going on, inside my head, when I shut my eyes'; and on the next page, 'What it [the mescalin] had allowed me to perceive, inside, was...my own mind.' For Huxley, then, one's mind is inside one's head. But what is inside one's head is one's brain. So, without any further qualification, we are led to suppose that 'mind' and 'brain' are the same thing. But (quite apart from considerations raised in the Jefferson letter) this needs a great deal of qualification, as you will see if you will read MANO, particularly (b). As it stands, in Huxley's context, it is patently false.

And again, Huxley speaks both of the 'subconscious' and of the 'unconscious'. But the 'subconscious' is Jung's notion, whereas the 'unconscious' is Freud's. Jung, at one time, was a disciple of Freud; but later he broke away and set up his own doctrine in opposition—partly, at least—to that of Freud. Are we to suppose, then, that Huxley has succeeded in harmonizing these two doctrines? Not in the least; the words are used without any attempt at definition. And, in any case, what is the relationship, if any, of either of these doctrines to the other concepts that he introduces? He does not tell us. But I do not propose to undertake an analysis of Huxley's inconsistencies—for a reason that I shall allow Kierkegaard to explain.

Very often the care and trouble taken in such matters proves to have been wasted; for after taking great pains to set forth an objection sharply, one is apt to learn from a philosopher's reply that the misunderstanding was not rooted in any inability to understand the divine philosophy, but in having persuaded oneself to think that it really meant something—instead of merely being loose thinking concealed behind pretentious expressions. (CUP, p. 101)
For this reason, too, it is very difficult to underline passages—as you asked me to do—that are either 'right' or 'very wrong'.

The meditation that is spoken of by Huxley has no connexion at all with that taught by the Buddha. Huxley's meditation is essentially visionary or, at its limits, mystical: and the characteristic of all such meditation is that you have to wait for something to happen (for visions to appear, for revelations to be vouchsafed, and so on). What chemicals can do is to hasten this process, which formerly required fasting and self-mortification. And even when the visions do condescend to appear (or God condescends to reveal himself), the length of time they last is out of the meditator's control.

In the practices taught in the Suttas, on the other hand, this is by no means the case. In the first place, it is not a matter of visions or revelations, but of the focusing of attention (citt'ekaggatā, 'one-pointedness of mind'). [If you want to know what is present in jhāna see the Anupada Sutta, M. 111: iii,25-7. No mention is made there of 'heroic figures' or 'Gothic palaces' or 'transparent clusters of gems'.] In the second place, once these attainments (I refer here particularly to the jhānas) have been thoroughly mastered, the meditator can enter upon them and leave them at will—just as one can switch on the electric light and then switch it off again as one pleases. And if he has several at his command, he can choose which one he will enter upon. He can even skip intermediate attainments if he so desires—he can leave first jhāna, skip second jhāna, and enter upon third jhāna. And he can stay in these attainments (if he is really well practised) for as much as a week at a time[2] without emerging at all. Furthermore, when he sees things in his meditations they are quite unlike the things that Huxley describes. To take a single example, on p. 98 we read

The more than human personages of visionary experience never 'do anything'. (Similarly the blessed never 'do anything' in heaven.) They are content merely to exist.... But action, as we have seen, does not come naturally to the inhabitants of the mind's antipodes. To be busy is the law of our being. The law of theirs is to do nothing.
But the devas, from the Sutta accounts, are extremely busy (let me refer you, for example, to the Cūlatanhāsankhaya Sutta, M. 37: i,251-56, where Sakka, the king of the gods, actually says he is very busy); and the commentaries (for what they are worth) tell us that the devas spend much of their time in litigation—to decide which young nymph belongs to whom. (As a judge, you should find yourself very advantageously placed when you go to heaven, if this account can be relied on.)

Moreover, the revelations and insights of visionary and mystical experiences have nothing to do with the insight, the ñānadassana, of the ariya. All these things remain strictly within the kingdom of avijjā: these celebrated mystics that Huxley speaks of are just as much puthujjanas for all their mystical experiences, their 'Infused Contemplations'—perhaps even more so, indeed, since they become even more deeply embedded in micchāditthi ('wrong view'), which the Buddha speaks of (in A. I,ii,8: i,33) as being the most blameworthy of all blameworthy things. That this is so—i.e. that the mystical view is 'wrong view'—can be seen from the way Huxley himself firmly rejects the Teaching of the Pali Suttas and embraces Mahāyāna.

Mahāyāna is based (I am speaking only of the philosophical aspect) on two wrong views. (i) That all our normal experience is merely appearance, behind which there lurks Reality (which it is the business of the yogin to seek out), and (ii) that what the Buddha taught was that this Reality behind appearance is the non-existence of things. We can sum this up by saying that Mahāyānists (generally speaking—and also many Theravādins) hold that the Buddha taught that things do not really exist, but only appear to, that this apparent existence is due to avijjā or ignorance. Huxley is not concerned with the second of these two views (to which, perhaps, he might not subscribe), but only with the first, which is common to all mystics at all times and in all places. It is Huxley's theme that mescalin gives admittance, or partial admittance, for a limited period, to the Reality behind appearance.

Let us consider the question of reality. In my writings I use the word 'real' from time to time, and almost always in opposition to the word 'imaginary', and not in opposition to 'apparent'. Reference to NĀMA [b] will show you that, for me, 'real' = 'present' whereas 'imaginary' = 'absent'.

A simple illustration. When you are at Balapitiya, at that time and for you Balapitiya is 'real' since it is present, whereas Colombo is 'imaginary' since it is absent. At Balapitiya you can see Balapitiya but you can only imagine Colombo. When you go to Colombo the position is reversed: Colombo is then 'real' or 'present' and Balapitiya is 'imaginary' or 'absent'. In a similar way, when someone is seeing his ordinary work-a-day world, the objects in that world are 'real' or 'present', and the objects at the 'antipodes of his mind'—the begemmed Gothic palaces, and so on—are 'imaginary' or 'absent' (note that absence admits of degrees—things may be more absent or less absent). But if, by means of flagellation or mescalin, or in any other way, he visits the antipodes of his mind, the objects there become 'real' or 'present' and those in the ordinary world 'imaginary' or 'absent'.

But now, if such a person declares, whether in his normal state or not, that the objects at the antipodes of his mind are 'more real' than those in his ordinary world, then he is using the word 'real' in a different sense. What he should say, if he is to avoid ambiguity, is that these 'more real' objects are simply 'more vivid' or 'more significant' than the everyday objects. But the word 'real' has an emotive power that the other words lack, and he sticks to it. In this way, the more vivid, more significant, objects of his visionary experience become 'Reality' (with a capital 'R', naturally) and the objects of his ordinary life, merely 'appearance'. If he is a full-blooded mystic he will speak not merely of 'Reality', but of 'Ultimate Reality', which is equated with the 'Dharma-Body', the 'Godhead', the 'Void', the 'All', the 'One', the 'Order of Things', the 'Ground', and so on—such expressions are sprinkled liberally throughout Huxley's book.[a]

The fact is, however, that the notion of Reality concealed behind appearances is quite false. At different times there is consciousness either of different things or of the same thing seen differently—i.e. with different determinations or significances. And this is true even of the arahat (while still living) as compared with the puthujjana: he does not retreat 'from appearances into an entirely transcendental Nirvana' (Huxley, p. 36), he simply sees the same thing as the puthujjana but without the significance due to rāga, dosa, and moha ('lust', 'hate', and 'delusion').

I will not deny that the tendency to seek transcendental meaning (to 'invent God', in other words) is inherent in the puthujjana's situation.[b] It is an attempt to find a solution to the existential ambiguity of which I speak (quoting Blackham) in the Preface to the Notes. On the philosophical level, it is perhaps most clearly evident in the case of Jaspers (see Blackham); but the merit of the existential philosophers is that they recognize the self-contradiction involved in their efforts to find God. (Some of them, of course, prefer to remain in the existential ambiguity—Nietzsche and Sartre, for example.) The mystics, on the other hand, entirely fail to recognize this inherent self-contradiction, and are quite convinced that they are achieving Union with the Divine, or the Beatific Vision (which for Huxley is Enlightenment—p. 60).

But, as I point out in the Preface, the Buddha transcends the existential ambiguity, not by answering the unanswerable (which is what the mystics seek to do—whence the name 'mystic', for an unanswerable question, clearly enough, can only receive a mysterious answer), but by discovering the source of the ambiguity and removing it. The arahat is sītabhūta, 'become cold',[3] and for him there is nothing to seek, since there is no longer any 'seeker'.

In brief, then, the answer to your implied question 'Can chemical devices such as mescalin, or electrical proddings of the brain, in any way replace or abbreviate the long and perhaps tedious journey on the path of meditation as taught in the Pali Suttas?',—the answer to this question is an unqualified NO. Visionary experiences are without significance in the Buddha's Teaching.

About the brain as a reducing valve. Huxley quotes (p. 21) Prof. C. D. Broad.

We should do well to consider much more seriously than we have hitherto been inclined to do the type of theory which Bergson puts forward in connection with memory and sense perception. The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us...by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment...
This passage may throw light for you on FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE, particularly the first two footnotes, ending 'And if anything exists, everything else does'. But introduction of the brain and the nervous system and the sense organs to explain the selectiveness of our perception is both illegitimate (see once more the Jefferson letter) and unnecessary. In FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE I have tried to indicate the inherent structure governing the selectivity of consciousness (i.e. the fact that not everything is equally present at once), and I have nowhere been obliged to mention the brain and so on. I would refer you also to RŪPA and to the remarks on manasikāra ('attention') in NĀMA. The notion of 'Mind at Large', though it contains some truth, is really not very different from 'a general consciousness common to all' (see RŪPA, about half way through), and does not correspond to anything that actually exists. And when the brain is introduced as a kind of mechanical valve—and a leaky valve to boot—we find ourselves in an impossible tangle.


[56.a] I once read a statement by a distinguished Hindu that 'Siva is Ultimate Reality and Parvati is his wife'. It must come as a bit of a shock to a mystic when at last he reaches Ultimate Reality to find that it is married. Mr. and Mrs. Ultimate Reality. Mescalin does not seem to take one as far as this. [Back to text]

[56.b] Kierkegaard: 'It is then not so much that God is a postulate, as that the existing individual's postulation of God is a necessity.' (CUP, p. 179) Dostoievsky: 'All that man has done is to invent God in order not to kill himself. This is the summary of universal history up to this moment.' (Kirilov, in The Possessed) [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[56.1] Huxley's book: Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. [Back to text]

[56.2] week at a time: See e.g. Thig. 44: 'For seven days I sat in one cross-legged posture enveloped by happiness; then on the eighth I stretched forth my feet, having sundered the mass of darkness.' [Back to text]

[56.3] become cold: e.g. Brahma Samy. 3: i,141; Brāhmana Samy. 15: i,178; A. X,29: v,65; Sn. 542, 642, etc. [Back to text]