The fist number of L. refer to the standard CtP edition published in 1987. The following number shows correspondence between letters in the new 2010 edition. Note that on this website CtP is available only 1987 edition with minor additions.

[L. 20 | 27] 21 December 1962


I expect that the medicines will provide relief, at least for the time being. The misery of existence is that things are only temporary. If only we could, say, take a single dose of a drug that would ensure us an unlimited and unfailing supply of libido (with, of course, appropriate means of gratifying it) for all eternity, we should be happy. (The Muslims, I believe, are told that in Paradise a single embrace lasts for a thousand years. This is clearly an improvement on our terrestrial arrangements, but it is not the answer. A thousand years, eventually, come to an end. And then what?) Or again, if by a single dose of some other drug we could be absolutely cured of libido for all eternity (which is, in fact, nibbāna or extinction), then too we should be happy. But no. We have libido when we cannot satisfy it (when, of course, we should be better off without it[a]), and when we want it it fails.[b] Then comes death, painfully, and the comedy begins again.

I am sure that you are already well aware that the problems confronting me at the present time arise from my past amoebiasis and not from this more recent complaint of satyriasis (which has only aggravated the situation). The ravages of amoebiasis play havoc with the practice of mental concentration, and if I cannot practise mental concentration I have no further use for this life. The idea of suicide first occurred to me nearly two years ago, and since then I have watched it becoming more definite and more frequent. Against this background it was more or less inevitable that my present complaint, when it appeared, should offer itself as a suitable occasion and excuse for putting the idea of suicide into practice. Although I wrote to you in my last letter that I was oscillating between the extremes of disrobing and suicide, there is no doubt at all (barring accidents) which I should choose. For me at least, the more intelligent of these two courses of action is suicide; a return to lay life would be pure weakness, and in any case I should be miserable. (How should I get my living? I should have to marry a rich and no doubt hideous widow in order to keep going. Quite unthinkable. Or perhaps I should take up with some lady of easy virtue who would earn enough to support us both. But I believe that this sort of arrangement is not considered very respectable.)

But how is one to kill oneself? Early last month I did in fact attempt it, but failed through a miscalculation. I had read that two elderly ladies in England had succeeded in asphyxiating themselves, and I thought to myself that what two old ladies can do I can do. Rash assumption! These old ladies are much tougher than our masculine pride is willing to admit, and I have to give them full credit for accomplishing a very difficult feat. I found it quite impossible, when the lack of oxygen began to make itself felt, to resist the impulse to get fresh air. One lives and learns (a particularly suitable motto for the unsuccessful suicide, don't you think?). Perhaps it needs practice to reach the critical point —one more breath each day, until finally one is able to arrive at unconsciousness. In any case, I do not feel tempted to try this again.

What about the knife? In theory this seems quick and simple, provided one slices in the right place and does not try sawing through the windpipe. But in practice it is extremely difficult to cut one's throat in cold blood (even if there is hot blood to follow). It needs desperation, or at least a strong sense of urgency (or a course of reserpine perhaps?) to screw one up to the necessary pitch. The thought of living even one more day has to be intolerable. I tried this about ten days ago, but even if I had not been interrupted by a heavy thunderstorm, which flooded the place and brought me back to ground level, it is very doubtful whether I should have gone through with it. My attitude is far too reflexive, and the necessary sense of urgency and despair is lacking.[c]

Poison? Expert knowledge is wanted here; otherwise one may easily make things very unpleasant for oneself without producing the desired effect. Hysterical women drink oxalic acid to revenge themselves on their callous lovers by the spectacle of their agony, but this is obviously not my cup of tea. Besides, how is a bhikkhu to obtain a suitable poison? Eyebrows may be raised if he asks a dāyaka for, say, a small bottle of iodine, twenty soda-mint tablets, and a quarter-ounce of potassium cyanide. And certain types of poison are unsuitable. It is best to die mindful and aware, and overdoses of opiates, hypnotics, or anaesthetics are therefore to be avoided.

Hanging seems to be unnecessarily painful unless done skilfully; and this district has no suitable precipices for throwing oneself over. A surprising number of bhikkhus seem to possess pistols these days, but I am not one of them, so shooting is out. I can swim, so drowning is difficult. To be decapitated by a train I should need to go to Matara; and pouring kerosene oil over one's clothes and setting oneself alight, though certainly spectacular (especially at night), must be a frightful experience (but I believe it is sometimes done).[2]

There remains a form of suicide that one hears surprisingly little about—starvation. Why is this? Is it not perhaps because, as Albert Camus remarks,[3] one rarely commits suicide as a result of reflexion? Most suicides mature unawares in the innermost recesses of a man's being, until one day the crisis is precipitated by some trivial occurrence and the man ends his life with a sudden gesture. He may shoot or plunge, but he will hardly think of starving to death.

Those, on the other hand, whose decision to kill themselves is not emotional but deliberate, those that is to say who wish to kill themselves (or at least give that impression) for some particular reason, nearly always favour starvation. Here you find, for example, the hunger-striker who aims at political or other ends, the 'faster unto death' who is protesting against some injury, real or imagined, personal or public. But these people are usually not called 'suicides', partly, perhaps, because they rarely go the whole way, but principally, I fancy, because the term 'suicide' has emotional overtones associated with the act of killing oneself for no better reason than that one has had enough of this life.

Such a gesture threatens to undermine the precarious security of Society, which is based on the convention that 'life is worth living'. Suicide puts in question this unquestionable axiom, and Society inevitably regards it with fear and suspicion as an act of treachery.[d] If the victim should fail in his attempt, Society takes its revenge upon his temerity by putting him in prison (where, presumably, he is expected to learn that, actually, life really is worth living). Those, on the other hand, who can show good reason for ending their lives (the man, for example, with a political grievance) do not by their act put this convention in question, and they are therefore regarded as safe and perfectly respectable. Thus they escape the opprobrious name. Starvation and suicide, then, are rarely associated with each other.

From my point of view, however, I see that they might well be associated. I shall not stop here to discuss suicide in the light of the Dhamma, except to remark that though it is never encouraged it is not the heinous offense it is sometimes popularly thought to be, and that the consequences of the act will vary according to circumstances—for the puthujjana they can be disastrous, but for the arahat (the Venerable Channa Thera—S. XXXV,87: iv,55-60—for example) they are nil. I want, rather, to consider the evident advantages that starvation can offer to someone who decides upon suicide as a result of reflexion.

(i) One's action is less likely to be misconstrued as the effect of a sudden mental aberration. Though this may be a matter of unimportance for oneself, it may not be so for other people. In certain cases it can be of importance to understand why a person chose to kill himself.

(ii) One has ample time (a fortnight? a month? or longer?) in which to reconsider one's decision and reverse it if necessary.

(iii) I have heard it said that in starvation the first thing to disappear is the sexual urge. If true, this has obvious advantages for me in my present condition, since a death accompanied by sensual desire is most unfortunate.

(iv) Since the principal obstacle, in my case, to mental concentration is the discomfort and malaise resulting from the ingestion of food, it seems possible that mental concentration might actually benefit from starvation.

(v) One has the opportunity for contemplating the approach of death at one's leisure, and for ridding oneself of any remaining worries or concerns connected with this life.

(vi) One can watch the progressive emaciation of one's body. This is asubhasaññā, wherein the body appears as an object of disgust.

(vii) One can directly observe the dependence of the body on food. This is idappaccayatā, which leads to aniccasaññā or perception of impermanence.

(viii) It is said that in starvation the mind becomes progressively clearer (though more dissociated) as the body gets weaker.

(ix) Starvation seems to offer a good chance for a conscious and lucid death, which is most desirable.

(x) The discomforts of starvation, though no doubt unpleasant, are apparently quite endurable (that is, if one can judge from the astonishingly large number of people who undertake voluntary fasts for trivial reasons). I imagine it is more uncomfortable to starve slowly on inadequate food than to do without food altogether. Without food one might even forget about it, but not with regular small reminders of its existence.

(xi) I imagine that, as deaths go, death by starvation is not excessively painful. Presumably the body gets progressively more feeble, but no one particular organ tends to give out before the others. I am not well informed on this matter, and should welcome enlightenment.

The great disadvantage of suicide by starvation is that it is not the sort of thing (unless one knows of a solitary cave with a good water supply) that one can do on the sly. Questions are bound to be asked. Public opinion will have to be flouted. Perhaps the best course is to announce one's intention beforehand and be prepared to put up with visits from kindly people, perhaps more well meaning than well informed, who come to save one from one's own rash folly. If they get too importunate one can always indulge the malicious pleasure of asking them if they are coming to the funeral.

And do I actually propose to do this? Nietzsche once said, 'The thought of suicide gets one through many a bad night.'[4] This is quite true; but one cannot think suicide in this way unless one regards it as a course of action that one might actually adopt. And when I consider my present situation I am forced to admit that I do intend to adopt it (though I cannot say when): my present horizon is bounded by this idea. Even if the sexual trouble settles (which it does not seem to be in any hurry about), there remains the digestive disorder (which, of course, won't improve). It is this latter complaint that raises the problem; the other only makes it more pressing.

I think I once told you that I had always been extraordinarily fortunate in my life with the things that had happened to me. Perhaps you might think that I now need to revise this view. But that is not so. Although, certainly, this recent complaint has no redeeming feature, and may perhaps push me to my death, it is actually an affair of relatively minor importance and inspires me more with disgust than with despair. And whether my life ends now or later is also, ultimately, a matter of indifference to me.

P.S. There is no need at all to answer this letter (unless you wish). Its purpose is already achieved. Writing of suicide has got me through several bad days.


[20.a] But na kho pan'etam icchāya pattabbam—that is not obtained simply by wishing.[1] <D. 22: ii,307; M. 141: iii,250> [Back to text]

[20.b] I never had it like this when I was a layman, when I could gladly have used it; and now, when I do have it, I have come to see that it is a treacherous and lethal possession, and that I use it at my peril. [Back to text]

[20.c] During those attempts a disagreeable feeling in the belly (more exactly, the accentuation of my normal discomfort) made itself felt, no doubt due to the nervous strain. Also, on one occasion, slight incontinence of urine, which I remember having had once before: at school, whilst waiting my turn to go on the stage and sing. School is hell. [Back to text]

[20.d] It is customary, in England at least, for Coroners' courts to give the verdict 'Suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed'. This insult automatically puts the victim in the wrong and reassures Society that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Have you ever noticed that Socialist governments have a particular horror of the individual's suicide? It is a direct criticism of their basic tenets. [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[20.1] simply by wishing: See L. 131. [Back to text]

[20.2] setting oneself alight: This letter was written a half-year before the self-immolations of the Vietnamese monks. See L. 53. [Had he chosen to disrobe the Ven. Ñānavīra would have had neither to marry a rich widow nor to take up with a 'woman of easy virtue': his family was quite well-to-do. The school referred to in footnote c would have been either St Edmund's School, Hindhead, or Wellington College. At Cambridge he attended Magdalene College. [Back to text]

[20.3] Camus: Myth, pp. 4f. [Back to text]

[20.4] Nietzsche: 'The thought of suicide is a powerful comfort: it helps one through many a dreadful night.' Beyond Good and Evil, p. 91. [Back to text]