[L. 109 | 116] 30 December 1964

I am glad to see that you have found some passages of interest in Those Barren Leaves. I myself started thinking about the unpleasant business of dying, perhaps three or four years ago. Up to then, like most people, I had not given it much thought. But I was struck by the statements of two doctors on the subject. The first said that if we overeat we tend to die earlier than if we take less; and that since death is more painful when one is still young (because the body has stronger resistance) than when one is old and decrepit, it is advisable to eat less and live as long as possible. The other doctor was commenting (in a medical journal) on a proposal to institute voluntary euthanasia for people who had reached the age of sixty. He was in favour of the proposal because, he said, as a doctor he was well aware of the horrible diseases that are liable to attack us in the seventh and eighth decades of our lives. So there you are; if you die young you probably have a difficult death because your body is strong and if you keep alive into old age you run the risk of dying unpleasantly from some frightful affliction. And, after that, I was struck by the obsessive thought of death that runs right through Dr. Axel Munthe's book, The Story of San Michele. In the Suttas, whenever the Buddha speaks of severe pain, it is always 'pain like that of dying'.

The question of the 'lovely young temptation' is, of course, the difficult one. But one has to make up one's mind about it if one is to live as a recluse. The Buddha is reported to have said (though I have never come across the passage) that if there were another thing such as sex (kāma)—i.e. if there were two such things—then it would not be possible to live the brahmacariya and put an end to suffering.

Although the Suttas give several ways of dealing with the 'lovely young temptation' when she comes toddling down the road, there is one (a kind of pincer movement) that I have sometimes found very useful. It is based on the episode of the Buddha and the Ven. Nanda Thera (which you can read at Udāna iii,2: 20-4). When the 'lovely young temptation' comes in sight, you say to yourself: 'Well, if I really must have sex, and cannot do without it altogether, the best plan is to restrain myself now and thereby to gain merit that, in my next life, will bring me much bigger and better sex than I can get here.' By the time you have considered this aspect of the question, the temptation has perhaps gone past and is out of sight round the next corner, and it is now too late to do anything about it. But you still have this unsatisfactory desire for sex. In order to get rid of this, you set to work to see that sex never lasts; that, in the long run, the misery involved outweighs the pleasure; and that final peace can only be obtained when all thought of sex has vanished. This procedure is often quite enough to put the question out of one's mind—until, of course, the next temptation comes along balancing her haunches! But, each time, there is a little progress, and it gradually becomes easier to keep one's peace of mind, even when a temptation actually appears.

Mr. Brady has contacted L'Alliance Française (the French British Council, if you will allow me to be Irish), and has obtained for me a number of French books on loan (nearly all on existentialism). One of these is Camus's long novel La Peste ('The Plague'). This has a character who declares 'The only concrete problem that I know of today is whether it is possible to be a saint without God'. In the Christian tradition, of course, one is good, one becomes a saint, in order to please God or to fulfil his will. But when (as is largely the case in Europe today) people no longer believe in the existence of God, is there any reason (apart from the police) for continuing to behave well or for aspiring to sainthood? This character in La Peste has seen human suffering, and has seen that much of this suffering is due to the cruelty or thoughtlessness of human beings themselves; and the question that he asks himself is whether a belief in God is necessary before one can live a good life, or whether a concern for other people's welfare is enough, and whether this will give a man final peace.

Actually, in one of the Suttas, the Buddha more or less answers this question by saying (in effect) that so long as one believes in God it is not possible to become a saint. And the reason is quite simple: if God exists, he is responsible—since he created us—for all our actions, good or bad; and so, if I believe in God, I shall not myself feel responsible for my actions, and so I shall have no motive for behaving well rather than badly. (The question of God's responsibility for evil is one that perpetually torments Christian theologians, and they have never found an adequate answer.)

One of the conclusions that this character of Camus's arrives at is that if one is going to live well, one can never afford to be distracted. In other words, one must always be mindful. And one of the striking things in the book is the contrast between the deaths of the ordinary victims of the plague, who are indeed no more than, in Huxley's expression, 'moaning animals', tossing about on their beds 'with no more thoughts, but only pain and vomiting and stupor',—between these and the death of this one character who aspires to sainthood and practises mindfulness. Like the others, he dies of plague; but the whole time he is dying (according to Camus's description) he gives the impression of being intelligent and retaining his lucidity right up to the last. He knows that he is dying, and he is determined to have 'a good death'. Naturally, this is only a death in a novel, and we can't take it as necessarily true of real life (did Camus, I wonder, ever see a man trying to die mindfully?); but I myself am rather of the opinion that, if one is really determined to make an effort, a great deal can be done towards remaining intelligent at the time of one's death. But I do not suppose that it is very easy unless one has already made a long habit of mindfulness.