The principal aim of these Notes on Dhamma is to point out certain current misinterpretations, mostly traditional, of the Pali Suttas, and to offer in their place something certainly less easy but perhaps also less inadequate. These Notes assume, therefore, that the reader is (or is prepared to become) familiar with the original texts, and in Pali (for even the most competent translations sacrifice some essential accuracy to style, and the rest are seriously misleading).[a] They assume, also, that the reader's sole interest in the Pali Suttas is a concern for his own welfare. The reader is presumed to be subjectively engaged with an anxious problem, the problem of his existence, which is also the problem of his suffering. There is therefore nothing in these pages to interest the professional scholar, for whom the question of personal existence does not arise; for the scholar's whole concern is to eliminate or ignore the individual point of view in an effort to establish the objective truth -- a would-be impersonal synthesis of public facts. The scholar's essentially horizontal view of things, seeking connexions in space and time, and his historical approach to the texts,[b] disqualify him from any possibility of understanding a Dhamma that the Buddha himself has called akālika, 'timeless'.[c] Only in a vertical view, straight down into the abyss of his own personal existence, is a man capable of apprehending the perilous insecurity of his situation; and only a man who does apprehend this is prepared to listen to the Buddha's Teaching. But human kind, it seems, cannot bear very much reality: men, for the most part, draw back in alarm and dismay from this vertiginous direct view of being and seek refuge in distractions.

There have always been a few, however, who have not drawn back, and some of them have described what they saw. Amongst these, today, are the people known as existentialist philosophers, and an acquaintance with their mode of thinking, far from being a disadvantage, may well serve to restore the individual point of view, without which nothing can be understood. Here is a passage from an expositor of their philosophies.

The main jet of Marcel's thinking, like all existentialism, is forced from the conclusion that the type of thought which dominates or encloses or sees through its object is necessarily inapplicable to the total situation in which the thinker himself as existing individual is enclosed, and therefore every system (since in principle a system of thought is outside the thinker and transparent to him) is a mere invention and the most misleading of false analogies. The thinker is concerned with the interior of the situation in which he is enclosed: with his own internal reality, rather than with the collection of qualities by which he is defined or the external relations by which his position is plotted; and with his own participation in the situation, rather than with the inaccessible view of its externality. His thought refers to a self which can only be pre-supposed and not thought and to a situation in which he is involved and which he therefore cannot fully envisage; so that in the nature of the case philosophic thought cannot have the complete clarity and mastery of scientific thought which deals with an object in general for a subject in general. To look for this type of thinking in philosophy is to overlook the necessary conditions of human thinking on ultimate questions; for philosophers to produce it at this time of day is sheer paralysis induced by superstitious regard for the prestige of contemporary science or of the classical philosophies.[d]
 'The essence of man is to be in a situation' say these philosophers, and this is their common starting -point, whatever various conclusions -- or lack of conclusions -- they may eventually arrive at. Every man, at every moment of his life, is engaged in a perfectly definite concrete situation in a world that he normally takes for granted. But it occasionally happens that he starts to think. He becomes aware, obscurely, that he is in perpetual contradiction with himself and with the world in which he exists. 'I am, am I not? -- but what am I? What is this elusive self that is always elsewhere whenever I try to grasp it? And this familiar world -- why is it silent when I ask the reason for my presence here? ' These insidious doubts about the assurance of his personal identity and the purpose of his existence in a world that has suddenly become indifferent to him begin to undermine his simple faith in the established order of things (whatever it may happen to be), whose function it is to relieve him of anxiety. And the great service performed by the existential philosophies is to prevent a return to complacency.
The peculiarity of existentialism, then, is that it deals with the separation of man from himself and from the world, which raises the questions of philosophy, not by attempting to establish some universal form of justification which will enable man to readjust himself but by permanently enlarging and lining the separation itself as primordial and constitutive for personal existence. The main business of this philosophy therefore is not to answer the questions which are raised but to drive home the questions themselves until they engage the whole man and are made personal, urgent, and anguished. Such questions cannot be merely the traditional questions of the schools nor merely disinterested questions of curiosity concerning the conditions of knowledge or of moral or aesthetic judgements, for what is put in question by the separation of man from himself and from the world is his own being and the being of the objective world. ...These questions are not theoretical but existential, the scission which makes the existing individual aware of himself and of the world in which he is makes him a question to himself and life a question to him. ...Existential philosophies insist that any plain and positive answer is false, because the truth is in the insurmountable ambiguity which is at the heart of man and of the world.[e]
Existential philosophies, then, insist upon asking questions about self and the world, taking care at the same time to insist that they are unanswerable.[f] Beyond this point of frustration these philosophies cannot go. The Buddha, too, insists that questions about self and the world are unanswerable, either by refusing to answer them[g] or by indicating that no statement about self and the world can be justified.[h] But -- and here is the vital difference -- the Buddha can and does go beyond this point: not, to be sure, by answering the unanswerable, but by showing the way leading to the final cessation of all questions about self and the world.[i][j] Let there be no mistake in the matter: the existential philosophies are not a substitute for the Buddha's Teaching -- for which, indeed, there can be no substitute.[k] The questions that they persist in asking are the questions of a puthujjana, of a 'commoner',[l] and though they see that they are unanswerable they have no alternative but to go on asking them; for the tacit assumption upon which all these philosophies rest is that the questions are valid. They are faced with an ambiguity that they cannot resolve.[m] The Buddha, on the other hand, sees that the questions are not valid and that to ask them is to make the mistake of assuming that they are. One who has understood the Buddha's Teaching no longer asks these questions; he is ariya, 'noble', and no more a puthujjana, and he is beyond the range of the existential philosophies; but he would never have reached the point of listening to the Buddha's Teaching had he not first been disquieted by existential questions about himself and the world. There is no suggestion, of course, that it is necessary to become an existentialist philosopher before one can understand the Buddha: every intelligent man questions himself quite naturally about the nature and significance of his own existence, and provided he refuses to be satisfied with the first ready-made answer that he is offered he is as well placed as anyone to grasp the Buddha's Teaching when he hears it. None the less many people, on first coming across the Suttas, are puzzled to know what their relevance is in the elaborate context of modern thought; and for them an indication that the existential philosophies (in their general methods, that is to say, rather than their individual conclusions) afford a way of approach to the Suttas may be helpful.

The Note on Fundamental Structure perhaps needs a remark. It is offered as an instrument of thought[n] to those who are looking for something on these lines, and such people will probably find it self-explanatory. The fact that it is unfinished is of no great consequence, since anyone who succeeds in following what there is of it will be able to continue it for himself as far as he pleases. Those who are unable to understand what it is all about would be best advised to ignore it altogether: not everybody needs this kind of apparatus in order to think effectively. The Figure in §I/13 was first suggested (though not in that form) by a chapter of Eddington's, [o] but neither its application nor the manner of arriving at it, as described in this Note, seems to have anything very much in common with Eddington's conception.[p]

A Pali-English Glossary together with English Translations of all quoted Pali passages will be found at the end of the book. These are provided in order to make the book more accessible to those who do not know Pali, in the hope that they will think it worth their while to acquire this not very difficult language. Some additional texts, referred to in the Notes but not quoted there, are also provided.

All textual references are given (i) by Vagga and Sutta number, and in the case of Samyutta and Anguttara references also by the title of the Samyutta and the number of the Nipāta respectively, and (ii) by Volume and Page of the P.T.S. editions. The P.T.S. reference is given within brackets after the Vagga and Sutta reference.

The views expressed in this book will perhaps be regarded in one quarter or another either as doubtful or as definitely wrong. To prevent misunderstandings, therefore, I should make it clear that I alone, as the author, am responsible for these views, and that they are not put forward as representing the opinion of any other person or of any body of people.


14th September 1964



[a] These books of the Pali Canon correctly represent the Buddha's Teaching, and can be regarded as trustworthy throughout. (Vinayapitaka:) Suttavibhanga, Mahāvagga, Cūlavagga; (Suttapitaka:) Dīghanikāya, Majjhimanikāya, Samyuttanikāya, Anguttaranikāya, Suttanipāta, Dhammapada, Udāna, Itivuttaka, Theratherīgāthā. (The Jātaka verses may be authentic, but they do not come within the scope of these Notes.) No other Pali books whatsoever should be taken as authoritative; and ignorance of them (and particularly of the traditional Commentaries) may be counted a positive advantage, as leaving less to be unlearned. [Back to text]

[b] The P.T.S. (London Pali Text Society) Dictionary, for example, supposes that the word attā in the Suttas refers either to a phenomenon of purely historical interest (of the Seventh and Sixth Centuries B.C.) known as a 'soul', or else to the reflexive 'self', apparently of purely grammatical interest. All suggestion that there might be some connexion (of purely vital interest) between 'soul' and 'self' is prudently avoided. [Back to text]

[c] The scholar's sterile situation has been admirably summed up by Kierkegaard.

Let the enquiring scholar labour with incessant zeal, even to the extent of shortening his life in the enthusiastic service of science; let the speculative philosopher be sparing neither of time nor of diligence; they are none the less not interested infinitely, personally, and passionately, nor could they wish to be. On the contrary, they will seek to cultivate an attitude of objectivity and disinterestedness. And as for the relationship of the subject to the truth when he comes to know it, the assumption is that if only the truth is brought to light, its appropriation is a relatively unimportant matter, something that follows as a matter of course. And in any case, what happens to the individual is in the last analysis a matter of indifference. Herein lies the lofty equanimity of the scholar and the comic thoughtlessness of his parrot-like echo. --- S. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, tr. D. F. Swenson, Princeton 1941 & Oxford 1945, pp. 23-24.

And here is Nietzsche.
The diligence of our best scholars, their senseless industry, their burning the candle of their brain at both ends -- their very mastery of their handiwork -- how often is the real meaning of all that to prevent themselves continuing to see a certain thing? Science as self-anaesthetic: do you know that? --- F. Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay.
And so, in the scholarly article on Tāvatimsa in the P.T.S. Dictionary, we are informed that 'Good Buddhists, after death in this world, are reborn in heaven' -- but we are not told where good scholars are reborn. We do not, naturally, forget what we owe to scholars -- careful and accurate editions, grammars, dictionaries, concordances, all things that wonderfully lighten the task of reading the texts -- and we are duly grateful; but all the science of the scholar does not lead to a comprehensionof the texts -- witness Stcherbatsky's lament:
Although a hundred years have elapsed since the scientific study of Buddhism has been initiated in Europe, we are nevertheless still in the dark about the fundamental teachings of this religion and its philosophy. Certainly no other religion has proved so refractory to clear formulation. --- T. Stcherbatsky, The Conception of Buddhist Nirvāna, Leningrad 1927, p. 1. [Back to text]

[d] H. J. Blackham, Six Existentialist Thinkers, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1952, p. 83. This is a useful summary. (See also, for greater detail and further references, R. Grimsley, Existentialist Thought, University of Wales Press, Cardiff 1955). [Back to text]

[e] H. J. Blackham, op. cit., pp. 151-3. [Back to text]

[f] The scholar or scientist, with his objective method, cannot even ask such questions, since on principle he knows and wishes to know nothing of self, and nothing, therefore, of its inseparable correlative, the world. (The world, we must understand, is determined as such only with reference to self; for it is essentially 'what belongs to self', being that in which self is situated and implicated. My world, as Heidegger notes, is the world of my preoccupations and concerns, that is to say an organized perspective of things all significant to me and signifying me. The collection of independent public facts produced by the scientific method is inherently incapable of constituting a world, since it altogether lacks any unifying personal determinant -- which, indeed, it is the business of science to eliminate. Things, not facts, pace Wittgenstein, make up my world.) [Back to text]

[g] Ekam antam nisinno kho Vacchagotto paribbājako Bhagavantam etad avoca. Kin nu kho bho Gotama, atth'attā ti. Evam vutte Bhagavā tunhī ahosi. Kim pana bho Gotama, n'atth'attā ti. Dutiyam pi kho Bhagavā tunhī ahosi. Atha kho Vacchagotto paribbājako utthāyāsanā pakkāmi. ('Being seated at one side, the wanderer Vacchagotta said to the Auspicious One, -- How is it, master Gotama, does self exist? When this was said the Auspicious One was silent. -- How then, master Gotama, does self not exist? A second time, too, the Auspicious One was silent. Then the wanderer Vacchagotta got up from his seat and went away.') Avyākata Samy. 10 <S.iv,400> [Back to text]

[h] Tatra bhikkhave ye te samanabrāhmanā evamvādino evamditthino, Sassato attā ca loko ca [Asassato attā ca loko ca (and so on)], idam eva saccam mogham aññan ti, tesam vata aññatr'eva saddhāya aññatra ruciyā aññatra anussavā aññatra ākāraparivitakkā aññatra ditthinijjhānakkhantiyā paccattam yeva ñānam bhavissati parisuddham pariyodātan ti n'etam thānam vijjati. ('Therein, monks, those recluses and divines whose belief and view is thus, 'Self and the world are eternal [Self and the world are non-eternal (and so on)], just this is truth and all else foolishness', -- that other merely than faith, other than preference, other than tradition, other than excogitation, other than acquiescent meditation of a (wrong) view, they should have private knowledge, purified and cleansed, such a thing is not possible.') Majjhima xi,2 <M.ii,234> [Back to text]

[i] Tayidam sankhatam olārikam, atthi kho pana sankhārānam nirodho, Atth'etan ti. Iti viditvā tassa nissaranadassāvī Tathāgato tad upātivatto.  Ibid. ('This is determined and coarse; but there is such a thing as cessation of determinations -- that there is. Knowing thus, and seeing the escape, the Tathāgata passes beyond.It is for this reason that the Ariya Dhamma is called lokuttara, 'beyond the world'.') [Back to text]

[j] It is all the fashion nowadays to hail modern science as the vindication of the Buddha's anattā doctrine. Here is an example from a recent book: 'This voidness of selfhood, which forms the distinguishing feature of the Buddhist analysis of being, is a view that is fully in accord with the conclusions drawn by modern scientific thinkers who have arrived at it independently.'[k] The supposition is that the Buddha solved the question of self and the world simply by anticipating and adopting the impersonal attitude of scientific objectivity. The seasoned thinker is not likely to be delayed by this sort of thing, but the beginner is easily misled. [Back to text]

[k] To arrive at the Buddha's Teaching independently is to become a Buddha oneself. N'atthi kho ito bahiddhā añño samano vā brāhmano vā yo evam bhūtam taccham tatham dhammam deseti yathā Bhagavā. ('Outside here there is no other recluse or divine who sets forth as the Auspicious One does so real and factual and justified a Teaching.') Indriya Samy. vi,3 <S.v,230> [Back to text]

[l] See, for example, the Sabbāsavasutta, Majjhima i,2 <M.i,8>: Ahan nu kho'smi, no nu kho'smi, kin nu kho'smi, kathan nu kho'smi, ('Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I?' [See M.i,2 at PARAMATTHA SACCA §2.]) and so on. [Back to text]

[m] Several of these philosophies, in their conclusions, point to a mystical solution of the existential ambiguity, seeking to justify it in some form of Transcendental Being. But they do not deny the ambiguity. Practising mystics, however, who have seen the Beatific Vision, who have realized union with the Divine Ground, are fully satisfied, so it seems, that during their mystical experience the ambiguity no longer exists. But they are agreed, one and all, that the nature of the Divine Ground (or Ultimate Reality, or whatever else they may call it) is inexpressible. In other words, they succeed, momentarily at least, in eliminating the mystery of the individual by raising it to a Higher Power: they envelop the mystery within the Mystery, so that it is no longer visible. ('By not thinking on self transcend self' --- Augustine.) But a paradox is not resolved by wrapping it up inside a bigger one; on the contrary, the task is to unwrap it. Mahāyāna and Zen Buddhism have a strong mystical flavouring, but there is nothing of this in the Pali Suttas. Mystically inclined readers of these Notes will find them little to their taste. [Back to text]

[n] It is for negative thinking. 'Precisely because the negative is present in existence, and present everywhere (for existence is a constant process of becoming), it is necessary to become aware of its presence continuously, as the only safeguard against it.' ---  S. Kierkegaard, op. cit., p. 75. Positive or abstract thinking abstracts from existence and is thus incapable of thinking it continuously. The difficulty that arises for the positive thinker is expressed by Kierkegaard in these terms.

To think existence sub specie aeterni and in abstract terms is essentially to abrogate it.... It is impossible to conceive existence without movement, and movement cannot be conceived sub specie aeterni. To leave movement out is not precisely a distinguished achievement.... But inasmuch as all thought is eternal, there is here created a difficulty for the existing individual. Existence, like movement, is a difficult category to deal with; for if I think it, I abrogate it, and then I do not think it. It might therefore seem to be the proper thing to say that there is something that cannot be thought, namely, existence. But the difficulty persists, in that existence itself combines thinking with existing, in so far as the thinker exists. Op. cit., pp. 273-4. [Back to text]

[o] A. S. Eddington, New Pathways in Science, Cambridge 1935, Ch. XII. [Back to text]

[p] A. S. Eddington, The Philosophy of Physical Science, Cambridge 1939, Chh. IX & X. The equivocal posture of the quantum physicist, who adopts simultaneously the reflexive attitude of phenomenology (which requires the observer) and the objective attitude of science (which eliminates the observer), expressing his results in equations whose terms depend on the principle that black is white, makes him singularly unfitted to produce intelligible philosophy. (Camus, in L'Homme Révolté [Gallimard, Paris 1951, p. 126], remarks on Breton's surrealist thought as offering the curious spectacle of a Western mode of thinking where the principle of analogy is persistently favoured to the detriment of the principles of identity and contradiction. And yet, in The Principles of Quantum Mechanics [Oxford <1930> 1958], Dirac introduces us, without turning a hair, to certain abstract quantities, fundamental to the theory, that [p. 53] can be replaced by 'sets of numbers with analogous mathematical properties'. These abstract quantities, as one reads the early chapters, do indeed have a surrealist air about them.) [Back to text]