[L. 53 | 60] 22 June 1963

I wish to repeat what I said earlier, namely, that I do not want you to think that you are under any obligation whatsoever to publish the Notes or to get them published. If you find it distasteful to enlist the aid of other people in this matter, I have no desire to press you to do so. In particular, please do not interpret my having told you of my possible suicidal intentions (which remain unchanged) as an attempt to force you to take action. What I am asking of you is not that you should publish the Notes—which is your affair—, but that you should undertake the responsibility of ensuring that if they are published at all they are published properly and without any alterations. No doubt you already understand all this, but there is no harm in my saying it again.

Compared with the senāsana or resting place of bhikkhus in former days, this kuti is a well-appointed and luxurious bungalow, and the conditions of life here easy and soft. As regards solitude, however, this place seems to accord with the Buddha's recommendations (A. X,11: v,15-16) that it should be neither too near nor too far from a village, that it should not be crowded by day and should be silent at night, that it should be easily approachable (though the road was, in fact, made after the kuti was built), and that it should be free from mosquitos and snakes and other such creatures. I do not think it would be easy to find a better place for practice of the Buddhadhamma—but for that, alas! it also needs good health. Though places like this are probably rare in Ceylon, I believe they are more frequently found in Burma, where meditation—I do not mean the officially sponsored belly-meditation—is perhaps more practised than it is here.

I have found that, living as a bhikkhu at the Island Hermitage, one's attitude towards snakes undergoes a gradual change. There are (or were before the mongoose came) plenty of snakes there, and they are never killed. The Ven. Ñānāloka Mahāthera[1] is an adept at catching them and putting them in glass jars for export to the mainland (he must have caught hundreds). After a while I myself managed to catch one or two small ones and found that they are much less ferocious than one thinks. (The late Ven. Ñānamoli Thera developed a sympathy for cobras and a corresponding antipathy for mongooses.) The Mahāthera, at one time, so I believe, used to catch polongas simply by grasping them suddenly by the neck and the tail; but he was eventually dissuaded by other bhikkhus from this rather cavalier method of dealing with them.

Here, I have had several encounters with polongas, and they have always behaved in exemplary fashion. Once I was about to tread on one coiled on the path in front of me, but before I put my foot down it quietly uncoiled, moved a couple of yards, and coiled up again behind a small bush. On another occasion I inadvertently touched one under some leaves, and it remained perfectly motionless. But usually they slither away when I get too close. I have always regretted pointing out a snake to laymen, or asking them to remove one, since they invariably kill it or throw stones at it or otherwise maltreat it. (At the Hermitage I was once bitten by a ratsnake that was chasing a rat. The rat got away, and the snake bit my big toe instead. I am told that, now that I have been bitten by such a low caste fellow as a ratsnake, no other snake will deign to touch me.)

You ask whether aniccatā (or impermanence) in the Dhamma does not refer to things regarded objectively rather than subjectively. Certainly, aniccatā does not not refer to things regarded objectively (note the double negative); and there are, no doubt, passages in the Suttas where this meaning is intended (or at least not excluded). It is clear enough that a person regarding any thing as objectively permanent (as the Christians, for example, regard God or heaven or hell) cannot even begin to understand the Buddha's Teaching. An aspiring Buddhist must first of all understand that there is no single thing (objectively speaking) that lasts for ever.

But if aniccatā means no more than this, we soon run into difficulties; for modern physical science, which is as objective as can be, says the same thing—indeed, it goes further and says that everything is constantly changing. And this is precisely the point of view of our modern commentators. The Buddha, as you may know, has said, Yad aniccam tam dukkham; yam dukkham tad anattā ('What is impermanent is suffering; what is suffering is not-self'); and I was told that one gentleman several years ago argued from this that since a stone is impermanent it must therefore experience suffering. And not only he, but also most of the Buddhist world agree that since a stone is impermanent—i.e. in perpetual flux (according to the scientific concept)—it has no lasting self-identity; that is to say, it is anattā or not-self. The notion that a stone feels pain will probably find few supporters outside Jain circles; but this objective interpretation of the Buddha's Teaching of anattā is firmly established.

'But what' perhaps you may ask 'is wrong with this?' In the first place, it implies that modern science has caught up with the Buddha's Teaching (which, presumably, we can now afford to throw overboard, since science is bound to make further progress)—see, in this connexion, note (j) in the Preface of Notes, beginning 'It is all the fashion...'. In the second place, it involves the self-contradictory notion of universal flux—remember the disciple of Heraclitus, who said that one cannot cross the same river even once (meaning that if everything is in movement there is no movement at all).[a] In the third place, if aniccatā refers only to things regarded objectively and not subjectively (as you suggest), the subject is ipso facto left out of account, and the only meaning that is left for attā or 'self' is the self-identity of the object. But—as I point out in the admittedly very difficult article ATTĀ—the Dhamma is concerned purely and simply with 'self' as subject ('I', 'mine'), which is the very thing that you propose to omit by being objective. The fact is, that the triad, anicca/dukkha/anattā has no intelligible application if applied objectively to things. The objective application of aniccatā is valid in the exact measure that objectivity is valid—that is to say, on a very coarse and limited level only. Objectivity is an abstraction or rationalization from subjectivity—even the scientist when he is engaged on his experiments is at that time subjective, but when he has finished his series of experiments he eliminates the subjectivity (himself) and is left with the objective result. This means that though there can be no objectivity without an underlying subjectivity, there can quite possibly be subjectivity without objectivity; and the objective aniccatā is only distantly related to the much finer and more subtle subjective aniccatā. It must be remembered that it is only the ariya, and not the puthujjana, who perceives pure subjective aniccatā (it is in seeing subjective aniccatā that the puthujjana becomes ariya; and at that time he is wholly subjective—the coarse objective perception of aniccatā has been left far behind)—see, in this connexion, PARAMATTHA SACCA §4 (I think). Objective aniccatā can be found outside the Buddha's Teaching, but not subjective aniccatā.[b]

Let us, however, consider your particular example—a person of whom you are fond. Suppose it is your son; and suppose (as indeed we may hope) that he has a long life ahead of him and that he arrives at death (which he cannot avoid) as an old man, many years after your own death. Subjectively speaking from your point of view, he is impermanent on account of the fact that you yourself die before him and thereby your experience of him is cut off. More strictly speaking, he is impermanent for you on account of the fact that even in this life your experience of him is not continuous—you only see him from time to time. Objectively speaking, according to your suggestion, he is impermanent because he himself will die in due course, and you will not survive to witness his death. But if this is to be completely objective (as far as complete objectivity is possible) the last part of this statement is irrelevant. To be completely objective we must say:

All men are mortal.
Lionel Samaratunga's son is a man.
Therefore Lionel Samaratunga's son is mortal.
So stated, it is quite generally true, and is the concern of no-one in particular. It is so generally true that it would serve in a textbook of logic as an example of a syllogism in Barbara[2] (though usually, instead of Lionel Samaratunga's son, it is Socrates whose mortality is logically demonstrated).[c]

But how many students of logic are going to shed tears when they read that Lionel Samaratunga's son is destined to die? How many have so much as heard of Lionel Samaratunga, let alone of his son? (And anyway, how many students of logic shed a tear even over the death of Socrates, of whom they may perhaps have heard?) But if you were to come across this syllogism unexpectedly, it is not impossible that you might feel emotionally moved (as perhaps at this very moment you may be feeling a little uncomfortable at my having chosen an example so near home). And why should this be so? Because you are fond of Lionel Samaratunga's son and cannot regard this syllogism in Barbara, which speaks of his mortality, quite so objectively as a student of logic. In other words, as soon as feeling comes in at the door objectivity flies out the window. Feeling, being private and not public, is subjective and not objective (see my letter to Dr. de Silva discussing Prof. Jefferson's article[3]). And the Buddha has said (A. III,61: i,176) that it is 'to one who feels' that he teaches the Four Noble Truths. So, then, the Dhamma must essentially refer to a subjective aniccatā—i.e. one that entails dukkha—and not, in any fundamental sense, to an objective aniccatā, which we can leave to students of logic and their professors. (Feeling is not a logical category at all.)

'But how' you might be wondering 'can the death of my son be a subjective matter for me, supposing (as is likely) that I die first?' At this point I am glad to be able to quote the late Venerable Ñānamoli Thera (Pathways, p. 36):

Consciousness without an object is impossible—not conceivable—and objects without consciousness, when talked about, are only a verbal abstraction; one cannot talk or think about objects that have no relation to consciousness. The two are inseparable and it is only a verbal abstraction to talk about them separately (legitimate of course in a limited sphere).
The very fact that you are able to think the death of your son makes it an object of consciousness (and therefore subjective)—it is an image or a series of images, and images are the objects of mind-consciousness (manoviññāna). So however objectively you think you are thinking your son's death, the whole thought is within subjectivity. Even though it may be highly improbable that you will actually be present at your son's death, you are nevertheless present in imagination whenever you think it—you imagine your son an old man lying sick on his deathbed, and you yourself are watching the scene (still in imagination) from some definite point of view (standing at the foot of the bed, for example). At once the perception of your son's impermanence is there (an imaginary perception, of course); but if your imagination is vivid, and you are strongly attached to your son, and you are perhaps fatigued after a trying day's work, this may be enough to bring real tears to your eyes, even though the entire scene is enacted in the realm of the imaginary. (I know, for my own part, that I am far more strongly moved by episodes in books than by those in real life, which usually leave me cold. This, of course, is what the author of the book is aiming at when he uses what Kierkegaard calls 'the foreshortened perspective of the aesthetic', which leaves out unromantic details—the hero's interview with his bank manager about his overdraft; the heroine's visit to the dentist to have two decayed teeth stopped—in order to heighten the reader's emotional tension. My emotional reaction is entirely in the sphere of the imaginary; for what is the real in this case?—a number of marks in black printer's ink on a few white sheets of paper.[d])

To sum up. The Dhamma does indeed permit you to regard the material object before you as something that will perish at some future time; but this is not so purely objective a matter as you might think (the purer the objectivity, the more meagre the real content; and, vice versa, the reality of the material object before you imposes a limit on the degree of objectivity with which you can regard it). The fact that the mere thought of somebody's or something's eventual decay (about which you will perhaps know nothing when it actually takes place) is capable of arousing feelings of one sort or another is evidence for this.[e] But in any case, as one progresses in meditation one advances from the coarser to the finer, and the objective (speculative or rational) aniccatā is the first thing to be eliminated. After that, one gradually reduces mixed subjective-and-objective thoughts or imaginings or memories about past and future aniccatā. And finally, one is wholly concentrated on perception of aniccatā in the present experience; and this is purely subjective. Only when this has been achieved is it possible to extend the same pure subjectivity to past and future (this is called dhammanvaye ñānam, to which I make references in NA CA SO and PATICCASAMUPPĀDA [a]; this, properly speaking, is beyond the range of the puthujjana.)

No, I had not heard about the Vietnamese monk who set himself alight. One can admire unreservedly the fortitude of such people, who allow themselves to be burned to death while maintaining a perfect calm. At once one thinks 'Should I be able to do the same?'. If it should happen to me accidentally now, the answer would certainly be no. I should certainly allow myself a grimace and a groan or two (to say the very least). But the comparison is not really just. This monk was evidently already fired internally with enthusiasm or resentment, and from there it may be no very great step to fire oneself externally with petrol and flames. But I feel neither enthusiasm nor resentment at the present time, and rarely even at other times. Besides, the monk evidently had a large and appreciative audience, and this must help a lot. Before an interested and, I think, slightly hostile crowd, one might put up quite a good performance. But these acts of heroism are not uncommon in the world's history. In the editor's notes to my Kierkegaard I find the following:

Mucius Scaevola is said to have thrust his right hand into the fire and let it burn up before the Etruscan king, Porfinnas, without altering the expression on his face. (CUP, p. 568)
But perhaps the most celebrated of these auto-incendiaries is Kalanos. You will remember, no doubt, that Kalanos (the Greek version of the Sanskrit Kalyāna) was an Indian ascetic—though not a Buddhist—who accompanied Alexander's army on its withdrawal from India. At a certain moment he announced that his time had come to die, and arranged for a funeral pyre to be constructed. He mounted the pyre, had it set alight, and, sitting cross-legged, remained motionless until his body was consumed by the flames.

What an occasion! With the entire Greek army, and probably Alexander the Great himself, watching him; with each one of those hardened and undefeated veterans, themselves no stranger to pain and mutilations, wondering if he himself would be capable of such cold-blooded endurance: with the eyes of posterity upon him (his peculiar fame has come down for more than twenty centuries); and with the honour of Indian asceticism at stake (and Indian asceticism is India);—how could he fail? For a moment one could almost wish to have been Kalanos. And yet, from the point of view of Dhamma, all this is foolishness—a childish escapade. The Christian 'Witness for the Faith' is the martyr, singing hymns in the midst of the flames; the Buddhist 'Witness for the Faith' is the ariya, peaceably giving instruction in the Dhamma and leading others to his own attainment.[4]

A man may take his own life for many reasons, and it is impossible to make a general statement; but whenever suicide is a gesture—done, that is, to impress or influence or embarrass others—it is always, so it seems to me, a sign of immaturity and muddled thinking. However much we may admire the fortitude of this Vietnamese monk, the wisdom of his action remains very much in doubt. I do not know the details of the provocation offered by the Catholic Head of State, but the monk appears to have killed himself 'fighting for the cause of Buddhism'. Certainly this action is infinitely more honourable than the setting fire to churches and the crowning of statues that seem to be the favoured methods of giving battle in this country; but it does not follow that it is any the less misguided.

It might, perhaps, be as well if you did not destroy my letters to you—those, at least, containing discussion of Dhamma points—in the first place because I may wish to refer you to them, which is easier than writing them afresh each time; and in the second place because they are, in a sense, something of a commentary on the Notes, and may be found useful later on. Of course, they are not written with the same care as the Notes, and some looseness of thought or expression may be found in them. If you should feel the temptation to destroy them (it has happened before now, and my letters actually were once committed to the flames[5]), I would ask you to return them to me instead; but so long as you are not so tempted, please keep them—for, after all, they belong to you.


[53.a] I have made a point, in the Notes, of objecting to this notion; and one of the reasons why I am anxious that the note on fundamental structure should not be excluded is that it offers a quite different, and essentially subjective (or reflexive) approach to the philosophical problem of change and time. If, as you said, you have managed to gather something from the second part of FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE, you will perhaps be aware that the objective notion of universal flux is hardly adequate—that the problem of impermanence cannot be dealt with objectively. [Back to text]

[53.b] Two points. (i) The word 'subjective' has the same ambiguity as the word 'self': it is used both for the reflexive attitude (or, at the minimum, assertion of the individual point of view) and for the subject ('I', 'myself'). As pointed out in ATTĀ, the puthujjana is not able to dissociate these two things, but the sekha sees that in the arahat the latter (the conceit 'I am') has come to an end while the former (the individual point of view, with the possibility of reflexion) still remains. (Kierkegaard actually identifies reflexion with selfhood.)
     (ii) The Notes are concerned only with the essential application of the Buddha's Teaching, and consequently there is no mention of objective aniccatā (or of other things on the same level). This is by design, not by accident. Most people, as soon as they arrive at the objective perception of aniccatā, are quite satisfied that they have now understood the Buddha's Teaching, and they do not see that there is anything further to be done. The Notes are intended to be difficult—to challenge the complacency of these people and make them really think for themselves (instead of simply agreeing with what they have read in some book or other and imagining that this constitutes thought). It is hardly to be expected at this rate that the Notes will ever be popular. [Back to text]

[53.c] Actually, to have a syllogism in Barbara, we must be still more general and say: 'All men are mortal. All Lionel Samaratunga's sons are men. Therefore all Lionel Samaratunga's sons are mortal'. In this way it is not assumed that Lionel Samaratunga necessarily has any sons: all that is asserted is that if he has any sons, they are mortal. We could even go further and leave out all mention of Lionel Samaratunga, but the syllogism then becomes so general as to have very little content. Every increase in objectivity takes us further from reality. [Back to text]

[53.d] Incidentally, when an apparently aesthetic writer does not use the foreshortened perspective he at once becomes an ethical or moral writer. James Joyce's Ulysses is an outstanding example. Though the book was once banned for obscenity, it is nevertheless profoundly moral. The Ven. Soma Thera, when he read it, was inspired with a strong disgust with life and desire for solitude. The book is about seven hundred pages, and takes about as long to read as the total period of time covered by the action of the book—eighteen hours. [Back to text]

[53.e] Does a judge feel nothing at the thought of the impending dissolution (which he will not witness) of the material object before him, if that object happens to be a guilty murderer he has just sentenced to death? Justice Amory, I believe, used to treat himself to muffins for tea on such occasions. Did he eat them objectively, I wonder. (The fact that one can feel pleasure at the perception of the impermanence of something one dislikes shows that the Buddha's yad aniccam tam dukkham is a very much more subtle affair.) [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[53.1] The Ven. Ñānāloka Mahāthera was the second abbot of the Island Hermitage, from 1957 (when the founder, the Ven. Nyānatiloka Mahāthera, died) until his own death in 1976. The Ven. Ñānavīra's kuti was constructed on the same pattern as many of the kutis at the Hermitage: a ten foot by fifteen foot room with an attached and covered ambulatory, thirty feet by three, for walking meditation. Construction was of brick and tile. [Back to text]

[53.2] Barbara: A mnemonic term designating the first mood of the first syllogistic figure, in which both premisses and the conclusion are universal affirmatives. [Back to text]

[53.3] my letter: L. 12. [Back to text]

[53.4] 'witness for the faith': In a commonplace book the author kept in his early years as a monk is the entry:
Q. Why the Buddha rather than Jesus?
A. Jesus wept.
[Back to text]

[53.5] committed to the flames: See L. 99 , 100 , 101 , 146 , 147 , 148 , 149 and newly found letter. [Back to text]