[L. 128 | 138] 26 July 1964

Part of me is thoroughly jealous of Jimmy Porter's generous fury—how satisfying to get one's own back so articulately on the wearisome hypocrisy of those who appoint themselves our elders and betters! (I have all my life been miserably tongue-tied at just those moments when a vigorous protest seemed what was most needed. But I have never been able to believe in my own anger, and the only thing I can do is to turn my back on the whole affair and walk away.) Part of me, I say, is green with envy of Jimmy Porter's extraordinary vitality—his anger is justified (so I almost feel) by his existence. But has Jimmy Porter ever asked himself whether his existence is justified?

The other part of me sees that my existence is purely gratuitous and that, without any logical inconsistency at all, I could perfectly well not be. My presence in the world and therefore a fortiori also my anger (or my lack of it) are de trop. So long as I exist there will be occasion for anger (or for restraint); but why exist? The immediate answer, of course, is that we can't help it. We do exist, and that's an end of the matter: let us rage furiously together or turn our backs in silence, au choix; it is all the same in the end (that is, if there were an end). But no—there is a way out, there is a way to put a stop to existence, if only we have the courage to let go of our cherished humanity.

And so, too, the question of sex (about which, as you know, I feel rather strongly these days). How much I wish I could enter into the fun of the game with Durrell's unquestioning enthusiasm! What a fascinating experience to have been a sculptor of one of those incredible erotic groups on the outside of the Indian temples (why not on the outside of our English cathedrals to take the place of the figures destroyed by the Puritans?)—to recapture and perpetuate publicly in stone, by day, the intimate and fleeting carnal extasies of the night! But suppose one sees also the other side of the picture, what then? I don't mean death (whose presence, in any case, may only sharpen one's living desire) but the understanding that love (all brands) must be without significance (however passionately we may wish to believe otherwise) if life is pointless. The Buddha, at any rate, tells us that the only purpose of existence is to put an end to it. And how do we put an end to it?

Hitvā icchañ ca lobhañ ca,      
yattha satto puthujjano,
cakkhumā patipajjeyya
tareyya narakam imam.

Forsaking desire and lust
where the commoner is stuck
Let the man with eyes proceed
and get across this hell.

(Sn. 706: 137) And there is no way of compromise, in spite of Huxley and the mystics. Huxley wants the best of both worlds, maithuna and mescalin; and where the Hindus say, not altogether without reason, that the self is in the yoni, Huxley quotes a Tantric Buddhist text to the effect that Buddhahood is in the yoni, which is mere wishful thinking—how quickly we should all become Buddhas! And the mystics, what little I have read of them, seem to describe their union with the Divine in terms of copulation.

Augustine certainly knows that chambering and wantonness must be given up if any sort of mental calm is to be obtained, but the poor fellow sadly deceived himself when he imagined that, once given up, these things would never be with him again for all eternity. No doubt they were given up for his lifetime, and perhaps for some time after (where is he now?), but the root of sex is not dug up finally until the third stage of attainment on the Path to Awakening. Both the sotāpanna (stream-attainer, whose future human births are limited in number) and the sakadāgāmī (once-returner [scil. to human existence]) have, or may have, sexual appetite (and corresponding performance; for there is no question of impotence), and it is only the anāgāmī (non-returner) who is free of sensual cravings. Augustine, then, though temporarily victorious over the Bed, still had the root of desire within him, and his mystical experience was only possible because of this. No one who had attained any of the stages on the Buddha's Path could think of regarding sex or its mystical sublimations as something of value.

I am enclosing two passages, from Grenier and from Tennent, that might be of interest. You will see that Tennent seems to confirm Grenier's main contention, that the idea of a (beginningless) transmigration is no less acceptable to the natural understanding of the average ignorant Oriental than the idea of a single unique existence is to that of the average ignorant Occidental. But Tennent, who is using a more powerful microscope, sees that the idea of cessation of existence through extinction of desire is not such a popular notion, such a croyance biologique, as Grenier perhaps likes to think. We may suspect that Grenier has less firmly grasped than Tennent that there is a radical distinction between the Hindu and the Buddhist teachings of nirvāna. (The situation is complicated by the fact that the Mahāyāna Buddhists adopt, without due acknowledgement, the Hindu notion of māyā—that all is illusory, that nothing really exists—and in consequence that their ideas of nirvāna are closer to the Hindu concept than to the Teaching of the Pali Suttas. The French, through historical accident, are more familiar with Mahāyāna than with Theravāda.)

Of course, Tennent himself has not said the last word on the subject (though as far as it goes his account is surprisingly accurate—how often do we not find that hostile evangelizing Christians take more trouble to understand what the Buddha taught than disinterested scholars!), and if we turn on Tennent a still more powerful microscope we shall see that 'the nature of Nirwana' is not quite so obvious from his account as he assumes. But here I must refer you to NA CA SO of my Notes on Dhamma.

I wonder if you are put off by the rather didactic tone of my letters? I should prefer, really, to be wholly a pupil amongst other pupils—or better still, not at school in any capacity at all. But if there is something to be said that someone else has perhaps not heard before, and wants to hear, then in the nature of things there must be a speaker as well as a listener. I only hope that didacticism has not invaded my ordinary conversation—living alone one gets out of the habit of conversing with people.


Are we entitled to reject the testimony of Hindu thought? On whose behalf? Are these not, for millions of minds, truths of common sense as stable as the so-called universal principles of the Greco-Europeans? Do not Hindus and Chinese, for instance, when religious common sense is involved, have postulates inverse to ours? We have the fear of death. Lucretius asserts that all religions originate from this fear, that in any case the aim of all of them is the healing of it. But we see that entire peoples in the Orient start from the opposite idea and look for an opposite aim: the universe follows an eternal change (while the Europeans are particularly sensitive to its permanence) and a future life, far from being desirable in any specific form, is the most dreadful thing in the world. It is necessary to observe that these are not only philosophical theories reserved for an elite, nor even just religious dogmas imposed by education or by the clergy, but common popular concepts, beliefs, which are, so to say, biological. An illiterate Hindu, an illiterate Chinese Buddhist, believes in transmigration with the same spontaneity as an illiterate French or German believes in a unique and personal life. Where the Occidental fears the cessation of life, the Oriental fears the continuation of survival. Thus one understands that 'salvation' is sought in opposite directions; by Europeans in the 'eternal life' and by Indians in the extinction of desire and consequently of all life.

'Buddhist Doctrine of the Transmigration of Souls
and Nature of Nirwana'[2]

The general mass of the Buddhists in Ceylon are not orthodox in their view of transmigration, as they believe that the same soul migrates into different bodies. But this is contrary to the teaching of Buddhu, and of this the learned priests are fully aware; but they do not attempt to correct the error, regarding the subject as too difficult to be understood by the unlearned. His doctrine is that of a series of existences, which he illustrates by the metaphors of a tree and a lamp. A tree produces fruit, from which fruit another tree is produced, and so the series continues. The last tree is not the identical tree with the first, but it is a result, so that if the first tree had not been, the last tree could not have existed. Man is the tree, his conduct is the fruit, the vivifying energy of the fruit is desire. While this continues, the series will proceed: the good or evil actions performed give the quality of the fruit, so that the existence springing from these actions will be happy or miserable as the quality of the fruit affects the tree produced from it. According to this doctrine the present body and soul of man never had a previous existence, but a previously existing being under the influence of desire performed virtuous or vicious actions, and in consequence of these upon the death of that individual a new body and soul is produced. The metaphor of the lamp is similar. One lamp is lighted from another; the two lamps are distinct, but the one could not have been lighted had not the other existed. The nature of Nirwana, or cessation of being, is obvious from this. It is not the destruction of an existent being, but the cessation of his existence. It is not an absorption into a superior being, as the Brahmans teach; it is not a retreat into a place of eternal repose, free from further transmigration; it is not a violent destruction of being, but a complete and final cessation of existence.

Editorial notes:

[128.1] Grenier: p. 23. All translations from Grenier are by the editors. [Back to text]

[128.2] Tennent: p. 241. Tennent, Colonial Secretary during the mid-Nineteenth Century, was influential as an administrator who held decidedly anti-Buddhist views. [Back to text]