[L. 135 | 145] 8 December 1964

You speak of 'feeling the incarnating of God in ourselves so that we realize that we are of the very stuff of God', and then you go on to say 'Oh, I know how you will react to any such statement....' Well, how do I react? I say that to take what we call 'experience of God' as evidence of the existence of God is a mistake. But there are mistakes and mistakes, and it is perhaps worth looking a little more closely.

Observe, to begin with, that I do not deny that we may have 'experience of God'. It is a fashionable blunder (as I remark in the Notes) to hail modern science as vindicating the Buddha's Teaching. The assumption is, that the Buddha solved the whole question of transcendence (self) or Transcendence (God) by anticipating the impersonal attitude of the scientist. But this is rubbish, and it simply makes the Dhamma a kind of logical positivism and myself a kind of Bertrand Russell in Robes. No—numinous experience is just as real as sex or romantic love or aesthetic experience; and the question that must be answered is whether these things are to be taken at their face value as evidence of some kind of transcendent reality or whether the eternity they point to is a delusion.

Certainly in sexual love we do seem to experience eternity; and this is often taken as religiously significant (by the Hindus, for example, with their Shivalingam, not to mention their temple eroticism). But what a derisory eternity it is that lasts for a few seconds or minutes and then leaves us wondering what all the fuss was about! As the rude rhyme puts it bluntly:

Cold as the hair on a polar bear's bum,
Cold as the love of a man when he's come.
As an advertisement for eternity, sex is a joke. In romantic love, true, we manage to live in a kind of eternity for months and perhaps years: every love-affair lasts forever—while it lasts. But, all the same, when Jouhandeau (quoted by Palinurus in The Unquiet Grave) asks 'Quand l'univers considére avec indifférence l'être que nous aimons, qui est dans la vérité?',[1] we have to answer 'l'univers'. Our past loves can be absolutely dead, even when we meet the loved one again (Darley and Justine in Clea, for example), and it is usually only in favour of the present beloved (if any) that we dissent from the universe's verdict. And so with aesthetic enjoyment. The transcendental sense of Mozart's G Minor Quintet, his Adagio and Fugue, the late Beethoven, Bartok's quartets, Stravinsky's Octet for Wind Instruments, so evident to me before I joined the army—where was it when I got back home after the war?

When we come to more specifically numinous experience the situation is more delicate. In its grosser forms, certainly—awe in a cathedral, panic fear in a thunderstorm—it can come and go, and we oscillate between eternity and transience; and even if transience can be eternal, eternity cannot possibly be transient. Palinurus is doubtful and suggests a compromise:

Man exudes a sense of reverence like a secretion. He smears it over everything, and so renders places like Stonehenge or the lake of Nemi (Diana's mirror) particularly sacred,—yet the one can become a petrol-station, and the other be drained by a megalomaniac; no grove is too holy to be cut down. When we are tired or ill, our capacity for reverence, like our capacity for seeing the difficulty of things, increases till it becomes a kind of compulsion-neurosis or superstition; therefore it would seem that the mythoclasts are always right,—until we know what these mother-haters, these savagers of the breast, will worship in their turn. Lenin, the father figure mummified, replaces the Byzantine Christ. Reverence and destruction alternate; therefore the wise two-faced man will reverence destructively, like Alaric or Akbar, and, like Gibbon, Renan, Gide, reverently destroy. (p. 87)
But a more subtle approach is possible. For Karl Jaspers the world has a three-fold aspect. There is 'being-there', 'being-oneself', and 'being-in-itself'. The first is everything that can be an object for me, thoughts as well as things. The second is personal existence, or myself. This transcends the first, and can be apprehended, though not wholly, in an act of self-reflexion. The third transcends the second as the second transcends the first, and is Transcendental Being. This is the ultimate sense or meaning of the other two, but it can never be directly apprehended. All we can do is to approach it. And Jaspers here develops his doctrine of 'ciphers': a cipher (which is quite unintelligible to abstract reason) is an experience that is apprehended as incomplete—but only as pointing to a reality that is 'present but hidden'.

Although Jaspers distinguishes various kinds of ciphers, the important point is that anything can be read as a cipher if we care to make the effort of 'existential contemplation'. Since anything can indicate Transcendental Being, there is at least the theoretical possibility that one might pass the whole of one's life reading one's every experience as a cipher, and in such a case we should perpetually be approaching Eternity. This attitude is less easy to dismiss, and Jaspers has taken care to tie up all the loose ends with an ultimate cipher. Although we can perpetually approach Being, we can never actually reach it, and this inevitable failure and frustration of our efforts may be a temptation to despair. This temptation to despair, says Jaspers, should spur us on to 'assume' the cipher of frustration. 'The non-being which appears in the frustration of all our efforts to achieve a direct understanding of Being is now seen to be an indirect revelation of the presence of Transcendence' (I quote from Grimsley's book, p. 188). But it must be emphasized that the assumption of this cipher is an act of faith in Transcendence and without such faith we can never make the necessary jump—indeed, they are really one and the same thing.

So, then, Jaspers leads us to the point where everything indicates Transcendence and nothing reveals it, and thence to despair; and despair is an invitation to jump to the conclusion that Transcendence (or Eternity, or God) exists. But different attitudes are possible in the face of this invitation. The theists, of course, accept the invitation with many thanks. Jaspers himself is inclined to accept it in spite of the difficulties involved. Lessing declined the invitation, perhaps regretfully ('Das, das ist der garstige breite Graben, über den ich nicht kommen kann, so oft und ernstlich ich auch den Sprung versucht habe.'[2]) Sartre explains away the invitation, too easily dismissing what is a real problem. Camus accepts the invitation to Transcendence in a contrary sense—as evidence of the non-existence of God. For him it is a matter of 'la protestation lucide de l'homme jeté sur une terre dont la splendeur et la lumière lui parlent sans relâche d'un dieu qui n'existe pas'.[3]

And what, then, about the Buddha's Teaching—how does it tell us to deal with the question whether or not God exists? The first thing is to refuse to be bullied into giving a categorical answer, yes or no, to such a treacherous question. The second thing is to see that the answer to this question will depend on the answer to a more immediate question: 'Do I myself exist? Is my self in fact eternal, or is it something that perishes with the body?' And it is here that the difficulties begin. The Buddha says that the world is divided, for the most part, between the Yeas and the Nays, between the eternalists and the annihilationists, and that they are forever at each other's throats. But these are two extremes, and the Buddha's Teaching goes in between.

So long as we have experience of our selves, the question 'Does my self exist?' will thrust itself upon us: if we answer in the affirmative we shall tend to affirm the existence of God, and if we answer in the negative we shall deny the existence of God. But what if we have ceased to have experience of ourselves? (I do not mean reflexive experience as such, but experience of our selves as an ego or a person. This is a hard distinction to see, but I must refer you to the Notes for further discussion.) If this were to happen—and it is the specific aim of the Buddha's Teaching (and of no other teaching) to arrange for it to happen—then not only should we stop questioning about our existence and the existence of God, but the whole of Jaspers' system, and with it the doctrine of ciphers, would collapse.[a] And what room, then, for despair? 'For the arahat' (I quote from the Notes) 'all sense of personality or selfhood has subsided, and with it has gone all possibility of numinous experience; and a fortiori the mystical intuition of a trans-personal Spirit or Absolute Self—of a Purpose or an Essence or a Oneness or what have you—can no longer arise.'


[135.a] Jaspers' scheme, as I said before, consists of the world of objects (thoughts and things), which is 'being-there', and, transcending that, the world of self, which is 'being-oneself', and, transcending that, the world of Being, which is 'being-in-itself'. You will see that when, as is the case with the arahat, all transcendence (in this sense) has ceased, all that is left is the world of objects (so long, at least, as the arahat continues to live). For the Buddha, in other words, reality—in the sense of what is left after ignorance (avijjā) has been removed—consists, precisely, of thoughts and things. This is diametrically opposed to the Hindu teaching of māyā, which holds that the world of thoughts and things is what is unreal or illusory and that the task is to transcend this and attain the ultimate reality of pure Being (or pure objectless Consciousness). See, on this question, an earlier letter of mine (containing a Pali verse starting Sankapparāgo purisassa kāmo). Does this make it clearer why the empirical world is more real and substantial in the Buddha's Teaching than in the Hindu? The Buddha says (approximately) that the self is illusory and the empirical world is real, whereas with the Vedantists it is the other way round. [Back to text]


Editorial notes:

[135.1] Jouhandeau: 'When the universe considers with indifference the being whom we love, who is in truth?' [Back to text]

[135.2] Lessing: Gotthild Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), German critic and dramatist. 'That, that is the hideous wide gulf, across which I can never get, no matter how earnestly and often I have tried to make the jump.' The passage is quoted (in German) at CUP, p. 90. [Back to text]

[135.3] Camus: 'the lucid protestation of men cast into a land whose splendour and light speak ceaselessly to them of a non-existent God.' Selected Essays... 'The Desert', p. 93 (originally published in Noces [Charlot, 1939]). [Back to text]