[L. 94 | 101] 1 May 1964

Since what you so delicately refer to as a 'painful subject' has raised its ugly head again, perhaps this will be a good opportunity for reviewing the situation. To begin with, my condition (physical and mental) is no worse than it has been, and I find myself able to make engagements for a month ahead with comparative equanimity (though further ahead than that will not bear thinking about). But with variations in the state of the weather, and of my guts, so the idea of suicide approaches and recedes; and the situation remains precarious, though not (as I think at the moment) critical.

Now, the reason for the present state of alarm in Colombo is simply this. A week or two ago, the Colombo Thera wrote to me saying that he would like to hear how I was, since he had been told that I was not well. So (perhaps injudiciously) I sent him a fairly detailed account of my condition. One reason that led me to do so was the nature of my disorder—satyriasis. If I had kept silent about it, my silence might have been construed (later) as a desire to conceal matters that (in accordance with Vinaya) should be declared. And, having decided to speak of this, I could scarcely leave out all mention of suicide.

It seems that the Colombo Thera was much worried about the contents of my letter, and without reference to me (I had not actually asked him to treat it as confidential), he showed it to Ananda Pereira; for a few days ago I had from him a letter of big-brotherly advice, which was quite beside the point and rather difficult to answer. (He says, 'If you chuck it, who knows what sort of a body you will get in your next life?' If this means anything, it means that I am likely to get a worse body than my present one. And this implies that my fifteen years' practice of the Dhamma would leave me worse off than before I started, in which case it follows that the best thing for me to do is, precisely, to 'chuck it' as soon as possible before I sink any further. He is thus advocating just the opposite course of action to the one that (presumably) he intends to advocate. I am by no means ungrateful to him for past benefits (which have been generous), but what am I to make of such an equivocal advisor at the present time? And again, he tells me that my body is 'good for many years yet'. I am quite aware of this depressing fact, but it is small comfort to be reminded of it when one is wondering how to get through the next few days. If I were sure that it would not last much longer I might be reconciled to putting up with it; but the thought of another twenty or thirty years makes me reach for the razor.)

I think it is possible that you may be aware that the situation is not quite as simple as it seems, and that bluff common sense is scarcely adequate to deal with it. Both my doctor and yourself, by exercising restraint in the matter of giving advice, have been far more helpful—and I am duly grateful. I know the Colombo Thera is not well, so it is quite natural that he should have shifted the burden of a difficult situation on to somebody else's shoulders. I asked neither for advice nor for help, but people are not to be put off by a little thing like that.

As to medical treatment, my doctor has detailed accounts of my disorder. I have several times asked him if the condition can be treated, saying that I am prepared to go to Colombo if it can. But he has at no time suggested that there might be a treatment, even after consulting other doctors. Now, if he, or any other competent doctor who has seen my accounts, is prepared to assure me that there is at least a reasonable chance of improvement after treatment, then I am at least prepared to consider going to Colombo and, if necessary, entering hospital. But what I am not prepared to do is to go to Colombo simply on somebody's confident assurance that the trouble can be put right. The reason is quite simple: if I accept this assurance and submit to examination and treatment, and then after all the trouble and discomfort involved I find there is no improvement, it is quite possible that I shall be even less inclined to go on living than I am now. As I have said, the situation is precarious but, at the moment, apparently not critical; so before risking a disturbance of the present equilibrium, it would be just as well to find out if there is really any chance of improvement.

Now the question of Colombo. It is clear from Ananda's letter that he thoroughly disapproves my living in solitude: 'I think you are taking life, and yourself, a little too seriously. This talk of suicide also is significant. Maybe you have been alone too much. Solitude is good, but a man needs friends, needs contacts with equals. Otherwise he loses his sense of proportion.' I want to make clear to you my own view of this matter, so I shall discuss it at some length.

When this kuti was first built, some people from Colombo came and visited me. Soon after, my dāyaka came to me in tears and said that he had received a letter from my visitors strongly criticizing him for having built the kuti in such a remote place. This, of course, was quite unfair, since it was I myself who had chosen the site. But I have found, right from the beginning, that there has been strong resentment by people living in Colombo about my living in solitude. I mentioned this fact once to the late Ven. Ñānamoli Thera, and he simply said 'Are you surprised?' It is not that Colombo-dwelling monks feel that I am an example that puts them to shame (since this would not account for the laymen's resentment), but rather that people find it scandalous (though they cannot say so openly) that anyone should take the Buddha's Teaching so seriously as actually to be willing to 'lose his sense of proportion' by living in solitude, and perhaps also to lose his life. People want their Dhamma on easier terms, and they dislike it when they are shown that they must pay a heavier price—and they are frightened, too, when they see something they don't understand: they regard it as morbid, and their one concern (unconscious, no doubt) is to bring things back to healthy, reassuring, normality. So they want to bring me back to Colombo to set their own minds at rest.

And now, of course, when there is the risk of a really public scandal (a suicide), this anxiety is multiplied a hundredfold. But, as I told you before, suicides—with the attainment of arahattā, too—were fairly common amongst bhikkhus in the Buddha's day. Now, however, things have come to such a pass that, though a suicide for the sake of the Buddha's Teaching would be bad enough, the real scandal would be if it became known that some person or other still living had reached one of the stages. People do not, in their heart of hearts, like to think it possible—the shock to their comfortable conventional ideas would be intolerable (I am not thinking here of the village people, who do not, after all, have so many comfortable ideas).

All this, perhaps you will say, may or may not be true; but what has it to do with the advisability or not of my spending some months in Colombo (I mean apart from medical treatment)? It has this to do with it: that I am obliged to ask why there is all this insistence on my staying in Colombo—do people say I should because it would really be to my benefit? or for the sake of their own peace of mind?

One thing is quite likely: if I were to stay in Colombo, there would be less risk of my deciding on suicide (at least while I was there). In this matter, Ananda's instinct is not mistaken—if I have contacts and company, the thought of suicide recedes—; and it might be concluded that, in this way, both I should be benefitted, and other people's minds would be set at rest. But the trouble is this: the more I get into company, and the closer I get to Colombo, the more insistent become my lustful thoughts. I stated this quite clearly in my letter to the Colombo Thera, saying that even at the Hermitage I have little peace from such thoughts, and that it is only here, where I am quite cut off from all disturbing contacts and I do sometimes manage to concentrate my mind (as in the last few days, oddly enough), that I have periods of freedom in which I can, to some extent at least, practise the Dhamma.

But Ananda has chosen to ignore this part of my letter completely, no doubt because it is inconvenient. The fact is, then, that thoughts of suicide can be reduced at the cost of increasing lustful thoughts (and I know from experience that even before this trouble when I had simply the intestinal disorder, most of my time in Colombo was devoted to lustful thoughts[1]—what it would be like now, I hesitate to think). In other words, as the risk of suicide decreases so the risk of disrobing increases. I wish to emphasize this point, since as things are at present this consideration must take first place. And whatever anybody else may think about it, if I have to choose between the two evils, I choose suicide rather than disrobing.

The fact that suicide would create a scandal and that disrobing would not, cannot under any circumstances whatsoever be made a reason (in my case, at least) for preferring the latter course. So, if I fear disrobing more than I fear suicide, then I fear Colombo more than I fear Bundala. (I make no mention of the misery of living in Colombo even at the best of times.) Possibly this obstinacy will meet with your disapproval, possibly not; but at least I want you to know that I shall not easily be dislodged from this position. (I do not think that you will press the matter, but you may meet people who are more determined upon it, and you will be able to make my position—whether it is right or wrong—clear to them.) So much for that.

I was a little puzzled about your S.O.S. I do not see that an alarm could arise until I had actually killed myself or else botched the job and was in need of medical attention. If ever I do again decide on suicide I shall certainly not tell anyone in advance—they would only come and interfere with the business. If I was actually contemplating it I should never have mentioned it in my letter to the Colombo Thera.

What am I to make of a young village boy who brings me dāna, worships me respectfully, and then, as he leaves, says 'Cheerio!'? Is there any suitable reply to this?

Editorial notes:

[94.1] lustful thoughts: This need not be understood as 'sexual thoughts'—one can lust after the succulent foods offered by Colombo dāyakas, the diversionary books of the temple libraries, and so on. [Back to text]