The Foundation of Ethics

The ethical paradox—What should I do?—is beyond the province of the natural sciences; for the natural sciences, based as they are upon the principle of public knowledge, are inherently incapable of comprehending the idea of personal choice. What about the sciences of man—history, anthropology, sociology—can they help us? These certainly tell us how man has behaved in the past, and how in fact he now behaves. And when we ask them whether man ought to behave in the way he has and does, they are able to point to the manifest consequences in this world of man's various kinds of behaviour, and if we press them further to indicate which of these consequences are good and which bad, they can often tell us which have been most generally approved by man and which disapproved.

But if we ask them whether the majority of mankind has been right in approving what in fact it has approved and in disapproving what it has disapproved, they are silent. The answer of course is simply that if I, personally, approve what the majority of mankind has approved I shall say that the majority is right, but if I disapprove I shall say that it is wrong. But the scientific method eliminates the individual on principle, and for the humanist sciences man is essentially a collective or social phenomenon. For them, in consequence, I as an individual do not exist at all; at best I am conceded a part-share in the general consensus of opinion. The individual's view as an absolute ethical choice is systematically swallowed up in the view of mankind as a whole; and if the ethical question is raised at all, the sciences of man can only reply that the opinion of the majority represents the ultimate truth (a view that the defeated candidates in any election, who are themselves always in the majority, know to be false).

Furthermore, the only consequences of man's behaviour that these sciences are in a position to consider are the social consequences; what effects an individual's behaviour has upon himself or upon some other individual is not a comprehensible question. This means that a person seeking ethical enlightenment from the sciences of man is likely to conclude that only social values are moral values, and that a man can do as he pleases in private. It is hardly necessary to remark that with the growth of these sciences this view has already become extremely fashionable, and no great wonder: it puffs up the politician into an arbiter and legislator of morals—a function hitherto restricted to Divine Personages or their Representatives—and it allows the private citizen to enjoy his personal pleasures with a clear conscience. Eventually, we meet with political systems that have been raised to the status of religions. It is evident that the question of ethics, of the personal choice, does not come within the competence of the sciences either of nature or of man to answer.

It may happen, of course, that a man who clearly understands this may nevertheless decide that the service of man is the highest good. But if we press him to say why he has decided that concern with human society is the aim and purpose of his life, he will perhaps explain since he himself is a human being his personal happiness is bound up with human societies, and in promoting the welfare of mankind in general he is advancing his own welfare.

We may or may not agree with him, but that is not the point. The point is that, in the last analysis, a man chooses what he does choose in order to obtain happiness, whether it is the immediate satisfaction of an urgent desire or a remote future happiness bought perhaps with present acceptance of suffering. This means that the questions 'What is the purpose of existence?' and 'How is happiness to be obtained?' are synonymous; for they are both the ethical question, 'What should I do?' But there is happiness and happiness, and the intelligent man will prefer the permanent to the temporary.

The question, then, is 'How is permanent happiness, if such a thing exists, to be obtained?' This question in the West, with its Christian tradition, has always been associated with that of the existence of God, conceived as the ultimate source of all values, union with whom (or the admittance to whose presence) constitutes eternal happiness. The traditional Western Ethic is thus 'Obey the Laws of God'. But with the decline of Christianity before the triumphal progress of science God was pronounced dead and the question of the possibility of permanent happiness was thrown open. 'Has existence then any significance at all?...the question,' Nietzsche declared, 'that will require a couple of centuries even to be completely heard in all its profundity.'

Suttas & Sartre

§1. Just so, monks, for a monk engaged in higher mentality there are coarse defilements: bad body-conduct, bad speech-conduct, bad mind-conduct. A conscientious and able monk puts them away, drives them out, gets rid of them, brings them to naught. When these are put away and got rid of, then for a monk engaged in higher mentality there are medium defilements: sensual thoughts, angry thoughts, cruel thoughts. A conscientious and able monk puts them away, drives them out, gets rid of them, brings these to naught. When these are put away and got rid of, then for a monk engaged in higher mentality there are fine defilements: thoughts of birth, thoughts of country, thoughts connected with reputation. A conscientious and able monk puts them away, drives them out, gets rid of them, brings them to naught. When these are put away and got rid of, then there remain thoughts about the Nature of Things. There is concentration that is neither peaceful nor exalted nor tranquil nor arrived at unification, that is together with determinations,[1] constrained, obstructed, confined. There comes a time, monks, when that mind is internally steadied, settled, unified, and concentrated. There is concentration that is peaceful, exalted, tranquil, and arrived at unification, that is without determinations, unconstrained, unobstructed, unconfined.
A. III,100 (i, 254-5)

§2.His mind being thus concentrated, purified, cleansed, unblemished, with defilements gone, supple, workable, steady, and unshakeable, he directs it and turns it to the knowledge of recollection of former abodes. He recalls manifold former abodes: that is to say, one birth, two births, three births, four births, five births, ten births, twenty births, thirty births, forty births, fifty births, one hundred births, one thousand births, one hundred thousand births, manifold involutions of aeons; manifold evolutions of aeons, manifold involutions-and-evolutions of aeons: 'There, thus was my name, thus was may clan, thus my appearance (colour), thus my food, thus the pleasure and unpleasure experienced, thus the ending of my life; having fallen away thence, I re-arose here'. Thus he recalls manifold former abodes together with their features and indications.

Just as, Mahārāja, a man might go from his own village to another village, and from that village might go to yet another village, and from that village might come back to his own village; and it might occur to him, 'Indeed, I went from my own village to that village, and there I stood thus, I sat thus, I spoke thus, I was silent thus; and from that village I went to that other village, and there too I stood thus, I sat thus, I spoke thus, I was silent thus; and then I came back to my own village' – just so, Mahārāja, a monk, his mind being thus concentrated, purified, cleansed, unblemished, with defilements gone, supple, workable, steady, and unshakeable, directs it and turns it to the knowledge of recollection of former abodes.[2]

His mind being thus concentrated, purified, cleansed, unblemished, with defilements gone, supple, workable, steady, and unshakeable, he directs it and turns it to the knowledge of falling away and re-arising of creatures. With a purified divine eye, surpassing that of man, he sees creatures falling away and re-arising; he understands the going of creatures according to their actions, debased and exalted, of good colour and of bad colour, well-destined and ill-destined: 'These folk, indeed, are creatures possessed of bad body-conduct, of bad speech-conduct, of bad-mind-conduct, they are revilers of the noble ones, holders of wrong views and performers of actions in accordance with wrong views. They, on the breaking up of the body, after death, have re-arisen in perdition, the ill destiny, the realms of misery, hell. But these folk, indeed, are creatures possessed of good body-conduct, of good speech-conduct, of good mind-conduct, they are non-revilers of the noble ones, holders of right views, and performers of actions in accordance with right views. They, on the breaking up of the body, after death, have re-arisen in the good destiny, in the heavenly world'. Thus with a purified divine eye, surpassing that of man, he sees creatures falling away and re-arising; he understands the going of creatures according to their actions, debased and exalted, of good colour and of bad colour, well-destined and ill-destined.

Just as, Mahārāja, there might be a terrace in the middle of a square, and a man with eyes might stand there and see people entering and leaving houses and wandering about the roads and streets and sitting in the middle of the square; and it might occur to him, 'These people are entering and leaving houses, these are wandering about the roads and streets, these are sitting in the middle of the square' – just so, Mahārāja, a monk, his mind being thus concentrated, purified, cleansed, unblemished, with defilements gone, supple, workable, steady, and unshakeable, he directs it and turns it to the knowledge of falling away and re-arising of creatures.
D. 2 (i, 81-3)

§3. Beginningless, monks, is this running on of existence; a starting point of creatures who are coursing and running on constrained by nescience and attached by craving is not manifest.

How do you conceive this, monks: which is more, the blood that has flowed and streamed from your severed heads in this long stretch of coursing and running on, or the water in the four great oceans?

– According, Lord, to our comprehension of the Teaching (dhamma) set forth by the Auspicious One, the blood that has flowed and streamed from our severed heads in this long coursing and running on is indeed more than the water in the four great oceans.

– Well said, well said, monks: well have you thus comprehended the Teaching set forth by me. The blood that has flowed and streamed from your severed heads in this long coursing and running on is indeed more than the water in the four great oceans. A long time, monks, has the blood flowed and streamed from your severed heads when you were oxen: more than the water in the four great oceans. ...when you were buffaloes ... sheep ... goats ... deer ... chickens ... pigs ... when you were taken as village robbers ... when you were taken as highway robbers ... when you were taken as adulterers.... Why is this? Beginningless, monks, is this running on of existence: a starting point of creatures who are coursing and running on constrained by nescience and attached by craving is not manifest. For so long, monks, have you enjoyed (éprouvé) suffering (dukkha), agony, and misfortune, and swelled the charnel grounds: long enough, monks, for disgust for all determinations, for the fading out of lust for them, for release from them.
Anamatagga Samy. 13 (ii,187-9)

§4. Beginningless, monks, is this running on: a first point of creatures coursing and running on hindered by nescience and attached by craving is not evident. It is not easy, monks, to find that creature who has not formerly been your mother in this long stretch ... your father ... your brother, sister, son, daughter.... Why is this? Beginningless, monks, is this running on: a first point of creatures coursing and running on hindered by nescience and attached by craving is not evident. For so long, monks, have you enjoyed suffering, agony, and misfortune, and swelled the charnal grounds: long enough, monks, for disgust for all determinations, for the fading out of lust for them, for release from them.
Anamatagga Samy. 14-19 (ii, 189-90)

§5.It is through non-discernment and non-penetration of four noble truths that there has been this long stretch of coursing and running on, both for me and for you. Of which four?

It is through non-discernment and non-penetration of the noble truth of suffering (dukkha) that there has been this long stretch of coursing and running on, both for me and for you. It is through non-discernment and non-penetration of the noble truth of the arising of suffering ... the noble truth of the ceasing of suffering ... the noble truth of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering that there has been this long stretch of coursing and running on, both for me and for you.

When, monks, this noble truth of suffering is discerned and penetrated, when this noble truth of arising of suffering is discerned and penetrated, when this noble truth of ceasing of suffering is discerned and penetrated, when this noble truth of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering is discerned and penetrated, craving for being is cut off, what leads to being is exhausted, there is then no more being.
D. 16 (ii, 90)

§6. This indeed, monks, is the noble truth of suffering. Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, union with what is disliked is suffering, separation from what is liked is suffering, not to get what one wants, that too is suffering; in brief, the five holding aggregates [3] are suffering. This indeed, monks, is the noble truth of arising of suffering. This craving leading to more being, conjoined with desire and lust, taking delight here and there, that is to say: sensual craving, craving for being, craving for non-being, This indeed, monks, is the noble truth of ceasing of suffering. The entire fading out and cessation, the giving up, the relinquishment of that same craving, release from it, its abandonment. This indeed, monks, is the noble truth of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering. This noble eightfold path, that is to say, right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
Sacca Samy. 11 (v, 421-2)

§7. The noble truth of suffering is to be known absolutely. The noble truth of arising of suffering is to be abandoned. The noble truth of ceasing of suffering is to be realized. The noble truth of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering is to be developed.
Sacca Samy. 29 (v, 436)

§8. Because of six elements,[4] monks, there is descent of the embryo; when there is descent there is name-&-matter; with name-&-matter as condition, six bases; with six bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; to one who feels, monks, I make known 'This is suffering', I make known 'This is arising of suffering', I make known 'This is ceasing of suffering', I make known 'This is the way that leads to ceasing of suffering'. And which, monks, is the noble truth of suffering? Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow, lamentation, pain (dukkha), grief, and despair are suffering; not to get what one wants, that too is suffering; in brief, the five holding aggregates are suffering. This, monks, is called the noble truth of suffering.

And which, monks, is the noble truth of arising of suffering? With nescience as condition, determinations; with determinations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-&-matter; with name-&-matter as condition, six bases; with six bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, holding; with holding as condition, being; with being as condition, birth; with birth as condition, ageing-&-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, come into being; thus is the arising of this whole mass of unpleasure (suffering). This, monks, is called the noble truth of arising of suffering.

And which, monks, is the noble truth of ceasing of suffering? With entire fading out and cessation of nescience, ceasing of determinations; with cessation of determinations, ceasing of consciousness; with cessation of consciousness, ceasing of name-&-matter; with cessation of name-&-matter, ceasing of six bases; with cessation of six bases, ceasing of contact; with cessation of contact, ceasing of feeling; with cessation of feeling, ceasing of craving; with cessation of craving, ceasing of holding; with cessation of holding, ceasing of being; with cessation of being, ceasing of birth; with cessation of birth, ageing-&-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, cease; thus is the ceasing of this whole mass of unpleasure (suffering). This, monks, is called the noble truth of ceasing of suffering.

And which, monks, is the noble truth of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering? This noble eightfold path, that is to say, right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, monks, is called the noble truth of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering.
A. III,61 (i, 176-7)

§9.And which, monks, is ageing-&-death? The decay, the ageing, the brokenness, the greying, the wrinkledness, the dwindling of life, the decrepitude of the faculties of creatures of various orders: this is called ageing. The falling away, the breaking up, the disappearance, the death, the coming of the time, the breaking up of the aggregates, the laying down of the corpse of creatures of various orders: this is called death. This is ageing and this is death. This, monks, is called ageing-&-death.

And which, monks, is birth? The birth, the coming to birth, the descent, the appearance, the becoming manifest of the aggregates, the obtaining of the bases, of creatures of various orders: This, monks, is called birth.

And which, monks, is being? There are, monks, these three beings: sensual being, material being, immaterial being. This, monks, is called being.[5]

And which, monks, is holding? There are, monks, these four holdings: sensual holding, holding to view, holding to virtue and duty, holding to belief in self. This, monks, is called holding.[6]

And which, monks, is craving? There are, monks, these six bodies of craving: craving for visible form, craving for sounds craving for smells, craving for tastes, craving for touches, craving for images/ideas (dhammá). This, monks, is called craving.[7]

And which, monks, is feeling? There are, monks, these six bodies of feeling: feeling born of eye-contact, feeling born of ear-contact, feeling born of nose-contact, feeling born of tongue-contact, feeling born of body-contact, feeling born of mind-contact. This, monks, is called feeling.[8]

And which, monks, is contact? There are, wonks, these six bodies of contact: eye-contact, ear-contact, nose-contact, tongue-contact, body-contact, mind-contact. This, monks, is called contact.[9]

And which, monks, are the six bases? The eye-base, the ear-base, the nose-base, the tongue-base, the body-base, the mind-base. These, monks, are called the six bases.[10]

And which, monks, is name-&-matter? Feeling, perception, intention, contact, attention: this is called name. The four great entities and matter held (i.e. taken up by craving) from the four great entities: this is called matter. Thus, this is name and this is matter. This, monks, is called name-&-matter.[11]

And which, monks, is consciousness? There are, monks, these six bodies of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, mind-consciousness. This, monks, is called consciousness.[12]

And which, monks, are determinations? There are, monks, three determinations; body-determination, speech-determination, mind-determination. These, monks, are called determinations.[13]

And which, monks, is nescience? Non-knowledge of suffering, non-knowledge of arising of suffering, non-knowledge of ceasing of suffering, non-knowledge of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering. This, monks, is called nescience.[14]
Nidāna Samy. 12 (ii, 2-4)

§10. An earliest point of nescience, monks, is not manifest: 'Before this, nescience was not; then afterwards it came into being'. Even if that is said thus, monks, nevertheless it is manifest: 'With this as condition, nescience'. I say, monks, that nescience, too, is with sustenance, not without sustenance.[15]
A. X,61 (v, 113)

§11. An earliest point of craving-for-being, monks, is not manifest: 'Before this, craving-for-being was not; then afterwards it came into being'. Even if that is said thus, monks, nevertheless it is manifest: 'With this as condition, craving-for-being'. I say, monks, that craving-for-being, too, is with sustenance, not without sustenance. And what is the sustenance of craving-for-being? 'Nescience' would be the reply.[16]
A. X,62 (v, 116)

§12.Thus I heard. Once the Auspicious One was dwelling among the Kurus: the name of the Kurus' town was Kammasadamma. Then the Venerable Ānanda, approaching the Auspicious One, paying the Auspicious One homage and sitting down at one side, said this to the Auspicious One. – Wonderful it is, Lord, marvellous it is, Lord, how deep is this dependent arising and how deep, Lord, it seems. But to me it appears quite plain.– Say not so, Ānanda, say not so, Ānanda. This dependent arising is deep and deep, Ānanda, it seems. It is, Ānanda, through non-discernment and non-penetration of this Teaching that this generation is as a matted skein, a tangled thread, a heap of grass, and has not overcome perdition, the ill destiny, the realm of misery, the course. Being asked, Ānanda, 'Is there that with which as condition, there is ageing-&-death?', 'There is' would be the reply. If it were asked, 'With what as condition, ageing-&-death?', 'With birth as condition, ageing-&-death' would be the reply. Being asked, Ānanda, 'Is there that with which as condition, there is birth ... being ... holding ... craving ... feeling ... contact ... six bases ... name-&-matter ... consciousness?', 'There is' would be the reply. If it were asked, 'With what as condition, consciousness?', 'With name-&-matter as condition, consciousness' would be the reply.[17] Thus, Ānanda, with name-&-matter as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-&-matter; with name-&-matter as condition, contact ... feeling ... craving ... holding ... being ... birth; with birth as condition, ageing-&-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, come into being; thus is the arising of this whole mass of unpleasure (suffering).

'With birth as condition, ageing-&-death'. Thus it was said; how it is, Ānanda, that with birth as condition, ageing-&-death, should be seen in this manner. Were there, Ānanda, no birth at all in any way whatsoever of anything anywhere, that is to say, of deities as deities, of fairies as fairies, of spirits as spirits, of entities as entities, of men as men, of animals as animals, of birds as birds, of reptiles as reptiles, – were there no birth, Ānanda, of any of these creatures as such –, were birth altogether absent, with cessation of birth, would ageing-&-death be manifest?

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, just this is the reason, this is the occasion, this is the arising, this is the condition of ageing-&-death, that is to say, birth.

'With being as condition, birth'. Thus it was said; how it is Ānanda, that with being as condition, birth, should be seen in this manner. Were there, Ānanda, no being at all in any way whatsoever of anything anywhere, that is to say, sensual being, material being, or immaterial being, were being altogether absent, with cessation of being, would birth be manifest?

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, just this is the reason, this is the occasion, this is the arising, this is the condition of birth, that is to say, being.

'With holding as condition, being'. Thus it was said; how it is, Ānanda, that with holding as condition, being, should be seen in this manner. Were there, Ānanda, no holding at all in any way whatsoever of anything anywhere, that is to say, sensual holding, holding to view, holding to virtue and duty, holding to belief in self, were holding altogether absent, with cessation of holding, would being be manifest?

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, just this is the reason, this is the occasion, this is the arising, this is the condition of being, that is to say, holding.

'With craving as condition, holding'. Thus it was said; how it is, Ānanda, that with craving as condition, holding, should be seen in this manner. Were there, Ānanda, no craving at all in any way whatsoever of anything anywhere, that is to say, craving for visible forms, craving for sounds, craving for smells, craving for tastes, craving for touches, craving for images/ideas, were craving altogether absent, with cessation of craving, would holding be manifest?

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, just this is the reason, this is the occasion, this is the arising, this is the condition of holding, that is to say, craving.

'With feeling as condition, craving'. Thus it was said; how it is, Ānanda, that with feeling as condition, craving, should be seen in this manner. Were there, Ānanda, no feeling at all in any way whatsoever of anything anywhere, that is to say, feeling born of eye-contact, feeling born of ear-contact, feeling born of nose-contact, feeling born of tongue-contact, feelingg born of body-contact, feeling born of mind-contact, were feeling altogether absent, with cessation of feeling would craving be manifest?

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, just this is the reason, this is the occasion, this is the arising, this is the condition of craving, that is to say, feeling.

But, Ānanda, dependent upon this feeling, craving; dependent upon craving, seeking, dependent upon seeking, gain; dependent upon gain, anticipation; dependent upon anticipation, desire-&-lust; dependent upon desire-&-lust, attachment; dependent upon attachment, possession; dependent upon possession, jealousy; dependent upon jealousy, guarding; dependent upon guarding, taking up of clubs and knives, fights, disputes, quarrels, contention, slander, lying, and various evil unprofitable things come to be.

'Because of guarding, taking up of clubs and knives, fights, disputes, quarrels, contention, slander, lying, and various evil unprofitable things come to be'. Thus it was said; how it is, Ānanda, that with guarding, taking up of clubs and knives, fights, disputes, quarrels, contention, slander, lying, and various evil unprofitable things come to be should be seen in this manner. Were there no guarding at all in any way whatsoever of anything anywhere, guarding being altogether absent, with cessation of guarding, would taking up of clubs and knives, fights, disputes, quarrels, contention, slander, lying, and various evil unprofitable things come to be?

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, just this is the reason, this is the occasion, this is the arising, this is the condition of taking up of clubs and knives, fights, disputes, quarrels, contention, slander, lying, and various evil unprofitable things, that is to say, guarding.

'Dependent upon jealousy, guarding'. Thus it was said; how it is, Ānanda, that with jealousy, guarding, should be seen in this manner. Were there, Ānanda, no jealousy at all in any way whatsoever of anything anywhere, would guarding be manifest?

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, just this is the reason, this is the occasion, this is the arising, this is the condition of guarding, that is to say, jealousy.

'Dependent upon possession ... attachment ... desire-&-lust ... anticipation ... gain ... seeking ... craving, seeking'. Thus it was said; how it is, Ānanda, that with craving as condition, seeking, should be seen in this manner. Were there, Ānanda, no craving at all in any way whatsoever of anything anywhere, that is to say, craving for visible forms, craving for sounds, craving for smells, craving for tastes, craving for touches, craving for images/ideas, were craving altogether absent, with cessation of craving, would seeking be manifest?

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, just this is the reason, this is the occasion, this is the arising, this is the condition of seeking, that is to say, craving,

Thus, Ānanda, these two things, as a dyad, have a meeting place in feeling.

'With contact as condition, feeling'. Thus it was said: how it is, Ānanda, that with contact as condition" feeling, should be seen in this manner. Were there, Ānanda, no contact at all in any way whatsoever of anything anywhere, that is to say, eye-contact, ear-contact, nose-contact, tongue-contact, body-contact, mind-contact, were contact altogether absent, with cessation of contact, would feeling be manifest?

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, just this is the reason, this is the occasion, this is the arising, this is the condition of feeling, that is to say, contact.

'With name-&-matter as condition, contact'. Thus it was said; how it is, Ānanda, that with name-&-matter as condition, contact, should be seen in this manner. Those tokens, Ānanda, those marks, those signs, those indications by which the name-body is described, – they being absent, would designation-contact be manifest in the matter-body?

– No indeed, Lord.[18]

– Those tokens, Ānanda, those marks, those signs, those indications by which the matter-body is described, – they being absent, would resistance-contact be manifest in the name-body?

– No indeed, Lord.[19]

– Those tokens, Ānanda, those marks, those signs, those indications by which the name-body and the matter-body are described, – they being absent, would either designation-contact or resistance-contact be manifest?

– No indeed, Lord.

– Those tokens, Ānanda, those marks, those signs, those indications by which name-&-matter is described, – they being absent, would contact be manifest?

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, just this is the reason, this is the occasion, this is the arising, this is the condition of contact, that is to say name-&-matter.

'With consciousness as condition, name-&-matter'. Thus it was said; how it is, Ānanda, that with consciousness as condition, name-&-matter, should be seen in this manner. If, Ānanda, consciousness were not to descend into the mother's womb, would name-&-matter be consolidated in the mother's womb?[20]

– No indeed, Lord.

– If, Ānanda, having descended into the mother's womb, consciousness were to turn aside, would name-&-matter be delivered into this situation?

– No indeed, Lord.

– If, Ānanda, consciousness were cut off from one still young, from a boy or a girl, would name-&-matter come to increase, growth, and fullness?

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, just this is the reason, this is the occasion, this is the arising, this is the condition of name-&-matter, that is to say, consciousness.

'With name-&-matter as condition, consciousness'. Thus it was said; how it is, Ānanda, that with name-&-matter as condition, consciousness, should be seen in this manner. If, Ānanda, consciousness were not to obtain a stay in name-&-matter, would future arising and coming-into-being of birth, ageing, death, and unpleasure (suffering), be manifest?[21]

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, just this is the reason, this is the occasion, this is the arising, this is the condition of consciousness, that is to say, name-&-matter.

Thus far, Ānanda, may one be born or age or die or fall or arise, thus far is there a way of designation, thus far is there a way of language, thus far is there a way of description, thus far is there a sphere of understanding, thus far the round proceeds as manifestation in a situation, – so far, that is to say, as there is name-&-matter together with consciousness.[22]

How far, Ānanda, does one consider self? One considers self, Ānanda, in regard to feeling: 'My self is feeling. My self is not in fact feeling, my self is devoid of feeling.[23] My self is not in fact feeling but neither is my self devoid of feeling, my self feels, it is the nature of my self to feel'.[24]

Herein, Ānanda, to one who says 'My self is feeling' this would be the reply: 'There are, friend, these three feelings, pleasant feeling, unpleasant feeling, neither-unpleasant-nor-pleasant feeling: which of these three feelings do you consider to be self?' Whenever, Ānanda, one feels a pleasant feeling, at that time one neither feels an unpleasant feeling, nor does one feel neither-unpleasant-nor-pleasant feeling; at that time one feels only a pleasant feeling. Whenever, Ānanda, one feels an unpleasant feeling, at that time one neither feels a pleasant feeling nor does one feel neither-unpleasant-nor-pleasant feeling. Whenever, Ānanda, one feels neither-unpleasant-nor-pleasant feeling, at that time one neither feels a pleasant feeling, nor does one feel an unpleasant feeling.

A pleasant feeling, Ānanda, is impermanent, determined, dependently arisen, it has the nature of exhaustion, of dissolution, of fading out, of cessation. An unpleasant feeling, Ānanda, is impermanent, determined, dependently arisen, it has the nature of exhaustion, of dissolution, of fading out, of cessation. A neither-unpleasant-nor-pleasant feeling, Ānanda, is impermanent, determined, dependently arisen. It has the nature of exhaustion, of dissolution, of fading out, of cessation.

In one to whom it occurs, when feeling a pleasant (unpleasant, neither-unpleasant-nor-pleasant) feeling, 'This is my self', it will also occur, when that same pleasant (unpleasant, neither-unpleasant-nor-pleasant) feeling ceases, 'My self has dissolved'.

Thus, one who says 'My self is feeling' is considering self to be something that is here and now impermanent, a mixture of pleasure and unpleasure, and that has the nature of rising and falling. Therefore, Ānanda, it will not do to consider 'My self is feeling'.

Herein, Ānanda, to one who says 'My self indeed is not feeling; my self is devoid of feeling', this would be the reply: 'But where, friend, there is no feeling at all, would there be any saying "I am"?'

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, it will not do to consider 'My self indeed is not feeling, my self is devoid of feeling'.

Herein, Ānanda, to one who says 'My self, indeed, is not feeling, nor yet is my self devoid of feeling; my self feels; to feel is the nature of my self', this would be the reply: 'Were all feeling, friend, in every way whatsoever to cease without remainder, were feeling altogether absent, with cessation of feeling would there be any saying "It is this that I am"?'

– No indeed, Lord.

– Therefore, Ānanda, it will not do to consider 'My self, indeed, is not feeling, nor yet is my self devoid of feeling; my self feels; to feel is the nature of my self'.

When, Ānanda, a monk does not consider self to be feeling, nor considers self to be void of feeling, nor considers 'My self feels, to feel is the nature of my self', he, not so considering, holds to nothing in the world; not holding, he is not anxious; not being anxious, he individually becomes extinct; 'Birth is exhausted, the life of purity is fulfilled, what was to be done is done, there is no more of this existence to come', so he understands.

For one, Ānanda, to say of a monk whose mind is thus released that his view is 'After death the Tathāgata is (the Tathāgata is not; the Tathāgata both is and is not; the Tathāgata neither is nor is not)' – that would not be proper. Why is this? In however far, Ānanda, there is designation, in however far there is mode of designation, in however far there is expression, in however far there is mode of expression, in however far the is description, in however far there is mode of description, in however far there is understanding, in however far there is the sphere of understanding, in however far there is the round, in however far there is the coursing on – it is by directly knowing this that a monk is released. To say of a monk released by directly knowing this, that he does not know, that he does not see, that his views are thus – that would not be proper.
D. 15 (ii, 55-68)

§13. This consciousness turns back from name-&-matter; it does not go further; thus far one may be born or age or die or fall away or arise; that is to say, with name-&-matter as condition, consciousness. With consciousness as condition, name-&-matter. With name-&-matter as condition six bases... thus is the arising of this whole mass of unpleasure (suffering).[25]
Nidāna Samy. 65 (ii, 104)

§14.– What the Venerable Sāriputta said just now we comprehend thus: Not, friend Kotthita, 'Name-&-matter is made by oneself'. Not, friend Kotthita, 'Name-&-matter is made by another'. Not, friend Kotthita, 'Name-&-matter is made both by oneself and by another'. Not, friend Kotthita, 'Name-&-matter is made neither by oneself nor by another but arises by chance'; but with consciousness as condition, name-&-matter.

But also what the Venerable Sāriputta said just now we comprehend thus: Not, friend Kotthita, 'Consciousness is made by oneself'. Not, friend Kotthita, 'Consciousness is made by another'. Not, friend Kotthita, 'Consciousness is made both by oneself and by another'. Not, friend Kotthita, 'Consciousness is made neither by oneself nor by another but arises by chance'; but with name-&-matter as condition, consciousness.

How, friend Sāriputta, should the meaning of these sayings be seen?

– Then, friend, I shall give you a simile; for through a simile some intelligent men comprehend the meaning of a saying. Suppose, friend, there were two bundles of reeds standing leaning against each other; just so, friend, with name-&-matter as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-&-matter; with name-&-matter as condition, six bases... thus is the arising of this whole mass of unpleasure (suffering).
Nidāna Samy. 67 (ii, 114)

§15. What, monks, one intends and what one projects and what one tends to, that is the support for the standing of consciousness; when there is increase of consciousness supported thereby, there is descent of name-&-matter; with name-&-matter as condition, six bases... this whole mass of unpleasure (suffering).
Nidāna Samy. 39 (ii, 66)

§16. What, monks, one intends and what one projects and what one tends to, that is the support for the standing of consciousness; when there is increase of consciousness supported thereby, there is inclination; when there is inclination there is coming and going; when there is coming and going there is falling away and arising; when there is falling away and arising, further birth, ageing-&-death... this whole mass of unpleasure (suffering).
Nidāna Samy, 40 (ii, 67) [26]

§17. By means of matter, monks, consciousness will stand; supported by matter, established in matter, pursuing delight, it will come to increase, growth, and fullness. Supported by feeling... Supported by perception... Supported by determinations, established in determinations, pursuing delight, it will come to increase, growth, and fullness.

That anyone should (truly) say 'Apart from matter, apart from feeling, apart from perception, apart from determinations, I shall show the coming or the going or the falling away or the arising or the increase or the growth or the fullness of consciousness' – that is not possible.[27]
Khandha Samy. 53 (iii, 53)

§18. Action, monks, I say is intention; intending one does action by body, by speech, by mind.[28]
A. VI,59 (iii, 415)

§19. And which, monks, is matter? ...And which, monks, is feeling? ...And which, monks, is perception? There are, monks, these six bodies of perception: perception of visible forms, perception of sounds, perception of smells, perception of tastes, perception of tangibles, perception of images/ideas. This, monks, is called perception. And which, monks, are determinations? ...And which, monks, is consciousness?
Khandha Samy. 56 (iii, 59-61)

§20. And what, monks, do you say is matter?... And what, monks, do you say is feeling?... And what, monks, do you say is perception?... And what, monks, do you say are determinations? 'They determine the determined': that, monks, is why they are called 'determinations'. And what is the determined that they determine? Matter as matter is the determined that they determine, feeling as feeling is the determined that they determine, perception as perception is the determined that they determine, determinations as determinations are the determined that they determine, consciousness as consciousness is the determined that they determine. 'They determine the determined': that indeed, monks, is why they are called 'determinations'. And what, monks, do you say is consciousness?...[29]
Khandha Samy. 79 (iii, 87)

§21. Matter, monks, is impermanent, feeling is impermanent, perception is impermanent, determinations are impermanent, consciousness is impermanent; matter, monks, is not-self, feeling is not-self, perception is not-self, determinations are not-self, consciousness is not-self; all determinations are impermanent, all things are not-self. (dhammá: ideas (of things) –> (ideas of) things)
M. 44 (i, 301)

§22. That, friend, which is feeling, that which is perception, that which is consciousness, – these things are associated, not dissociated, and it is not possible to show the distinction between these things having separated them one from another. For what, friend, one feels that one perceives, what one perceives that one cognizes, – that is why these things are associated, not dissociated, and it is not possible to show the distinction between these things having separated them one from another.
M. 43 (i, 293)

§23. A stupid/intelligent man, monks, constrained by nescience and attached by craving, has thus acquired this body. So there is just this body and name-&-matter externally: in that way there is a dyad. Dependent upon this dyad, contact – just six bases, contacted by which, or by one of which, the stupid/intelligent man experiences pleasure and unpleasure.[30]
Nidāna Samy. 19 (ii, 24)

§24.'Not by going, monks, do I say that the end of the world is to be known or seen or reached; but neither, monks, do I say that without reaching the end of the world there is a making an end of suffering.' The expanded meaning, friends, of this brief indication and outline of the Auspicious One's, whose expanded meaning he did not explain, I comprehend thus.

That by which, friend, in the world, one is a perceiver and conceiver of the world, that, in the Noble discipline, is called the world. And by what, friends, in the world, is one a perceiver and conceiver of the world? By the eye (ear, nose, tongue, body, mind), friends, in the world, is one a perceiver and conceiver of the world. That by which, friends, one is a perceiver and conceiver of the world, that, in the Noble discipline, is called the world.[31]
Salāyatana Samy. 116 (iv, 95)

§25. 'With entire fading out and cessation, friend, of the six contact-bases, there is something else' – saying thus, one diversifies non-diversification. 'With entire fading out and cessation, friend, of the six contact-bases, there is not something else ... there both is and is not something else ... there neither is nor is not something else' – saying thus, one diversifies non-diversification. So long, friend, as the six contact-bases continue, so long diversification continues; so long as diversification continues, so long the six contact-bases continue. With entire fading out and cessation of the six contact-bases, ceasing and subsidence of diversification.[32]
A. IV,174 (ii, 161-2)

§26. Dependent upon eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises; the coming together of the three is contact; with contact as condition, feeling... this whole mass of unpleasure (suffering). This is the arising of the world. Dependent upon ear and sounds... Dependent upon nose and smells.... Dependent upon tongue and tastes... Dependent upon mind and images/ideas... the arising of the world.[33]
Salāyatana Samy. 107 (iv, 87)

§27. There are, friend, these five faculties with various provinces and various pastures, and they do not enjoy (éprouver) one another's pasture and province; that is to say, eye-faculty, ear-faculty, nose-faculty, tongue-faculty, body-faculty. These five faculties with various provinces and pastures, that do not enjoy one another's pasture and province, mind is the association, mind enjoys their pasture and province.[34]
M. 43 (i, 295)

§28. What is impermanent is suffering; what is suffering is not-self.
Salāyatana Samy. 4 (iv, 3)

§29. All determinations are impermanent. All determinations are unpleasurable (suffering). All things are not-self.[35]
Dhammapada xx,5-7 (Dh. 277-9)

§30.There are, monks, these three determined-characteristics of what is determined, Which are the three? Arising (appearance) is manifest; disappearance is manifest; change while standing is manifest. These, monks, are the three determined-characteristics of what is determined.

There are, monks, these three undetermined-characteristics of what is undetermined, Which are the three? Arising (appearance) is not manifest; disappearance is not manifest; change while standing is not manifest. These, monks, are the three undetermined-characteristics of what is undetermined.[36]
A. III,47 (i, 152)

§31. Attention to the foul should be developed to put away lust; amity should be developed to put away anger; mindfulness of breathing should be developed for the cutting off of thoughts; perception of impermanence should be developed to remove the conceit 'I am'. In one who perceives impermanence, Meghiya, perception of not-self becomes steady (santháti); one who perceives not-self reaches removal of the conceit 'I am' and extinction (nibbāna) here and now.
Udāna 31 (Ud. 37)

§32. But when 'I am' is not done away with, then there is descent of the five faculties: of the eye-faculty, of the ear-faculty, of the nose-faculty, of the tongue-faculty, of the body-faculty. There is mind, monks, there are images/ideas, there is the nescience element. To the uninstructed commoner, monks, contacted by feeling born of nescience-contact, it occurs '(I) am', it occurs 'It is this that I am', it occurs 'I shall be', it occurs 'I shall not be'....[37]
Khandha Samy. 45 (iii, 46)

§33.Suppose, friends, there was a fragrant lotus, blue or red or white. Were one to say 'The fragrance belongs to the petals or the colour or the filaments', would one be speaking rightly?

– No indeed, friend.

– But how, friends, would one be speaking rightly?

– 'The fragrance belongs to the flower', thus indeed, friend, would one be speaking rightly.

– Just so, friends, I do not say 'I am matter (feeling, perception, determinations, consciousness)', nor do I say 'I am other than matter (feeling, perception, determinations, consciousness)'. And yet, friends, with regard to the five holding aggregates, 'I am' occurs to me, but I do not consider 'This am I'. Although, friends, the five lower fetters may be put away in a noble disciple, yet there is still a remnant for him, regarding the five holding aggregates, of the desire 'I am', of the aroma 'I am', that is not removed. At a later time he dwells contemplating arising and dissolution of the five holding aggregates: 'Thus matter (feeling, perception, determinations, consciousness), thus arising of matter (...consciousness), thus passing away of matter (...consciousness). For him, contemplating arising and dissolution of these five holding aggregates, the remnant regarding the five holding aggregates, of the desire 'I am', of the aroma 'I am', that was not removed, comes to be removed.[38]
Khandha Samy. 89 (iii, 130-1)

§34. At present, indeed, I am devoured by matter (...consciousness); in the past too I was devoured by matter (...consciousness), just as I am at present devoured by presently arisen matter (...consciousness); and indeed, if I were to delight in future matter (...consciousness), in the future too I should be devoured by matter (...consciousness), just as I am at present devoured by presently arisen matter (...consciousness).[39]
Khandha Samy. 79 (iii, 87-8)

§35. Matter (...consciousness), monks, is not-self. For if, monks, matter (...consciousness) were self, then matter (...consciousness) would not lead to affliction, and one would obtain of matter (...consciousness) 'Let my matter be thus, let my matter not be thus'. As indeed, monks, matter (...consciousness) is not-self, so matter (...consciousness) leads to affliction, and it is not obtained of matter (...consciousness) 'Let my matter be thus, let my matter not be thus'.[40]
Khandha Samy. 59 (iii, 66)

§36.Might there be anxiety about subjective absence, lord?

– There might be, monk, the Auspicious One said. Here, monk, someone holds this view: 'The world is self; and when I have departed I shall be permanent, enduring, eternal, not having the nature of change; and like this shall I remain for ever and ever'. He listens to the Tathāgata or his disciple setting forth the Teaching for the destroying of all tendencies to views, assertions, obsessions, and insistencies, for the calming of all determinations, for the relinquishing of all foundations, for the destroying of craving, for fading out, for ceasing, for extinction. It occurs to him 'I shall surely be annihilated! I shall surely perish! I shall surely be no more!' He sorrows, is distressed, and laments, and, beating his breast and bewailing, he falls into confusion. Thus indeed, monks, there is anxiety about subjective absence.[41]
M. 22 (i, 136-7)

§37. There is, monks, a non-born, non-become, non-made, non-determined; for if, monks, there were not that non-born, non-become, non-made, non-determined, an escape here from the born, become, made, determined, would not be manifest.
Udāna viii,3 (Ud. 80)

§38. There is, morks, that base where there is neither earth nor water nor fire nor air nor the base of endless space nor the base of endless consciousness nor the base of nothingness nor the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception nor this world nor another world, neither sun nor moon; there, monks, I say that there is neither coming nor going nor standing nor falling away nor arising; that is without establishment, without procedure, without basis; that is just the ending of unpleasure (suffering).
Udāna viii,1 (Ud. 80)

§39. Since herein for you (i.e, as, within, or without any or all of the five aggregates), friend Yamaka, here and now the Tathāgata actually and in truth is not to be found, is that explanation of yours proper: 'As I comprehend the Teaching set forth by the Tathāgata, at the breaking up of the body of a monk whose cankers are destroyed, he is annihilated, he perishes, after death he is not'?[42]
Khandha Samy. 85 (iii, 112)


[1] In mental concentration there is progressive subsidence of speech-determination (second jhāna), body-determination (fourth jhāna), and mind-determination (attainment of cessation of perception and feeling). Majjhima 44. See footnote 21.[Back to text]

[2] 'For finally the foetus was me; it represents the factual limit of my memory but not the theoretical limit of my past. There is a metaphysical problem concerning birth in that I can be anxious to know how I happen to have been born from that particular embryo; and this problem is perhaps insoluble.' Being and Nothingness [B&N], p. 139. [Back to text]

[3] The five holding aggregates: matter (or substance), feeling, perception, determinations, consciousness. [Back to text]

[4] Six elements: earth, water, fire, air, space, consciousness. [Back to text]

[5] Being: être. [Back to text]

[6] Holding: maniere d'être. 'The desire of being is always realized as the desire of a mode of being.' B&N, p. 567. [Back to text]

[7] Craving: manque d'être. 'Freedom is precisely the being which makes itself a lack of being. But since desire, as we have established, is identical with lack of being, freedom can arise only as being which makes itself a desire of being...' B&N, p. 567. [Back to text]

[8] Feeling: appectivité. 'It is this original relation which subsequently allows the empirical establishment of particular lacks as lacks suffered or endured.' B&N, p. 199. [Back to text]

[9] Contact: liberté en situation. [Back to text]

[10] The six bases: le corps pour soi. [Back to text]

[11] Name-&-matter: signification-et-existent-brut/l'objet transcendant/l'être-en-soi/la chose-ustensile/ceci. 'There is an unchangeable element in the past... and an element which is eminently variable. But since, on the other hand, the meaning of the past fact penetrates it through and through... it is finally impossible for me to distinguish the unchangeable brute existence from the variable meaning which it includes.' B&N, p. 497-8. [Back to text]

[12] Consciousness: conscience/l'être-pour-soi, etc. [Back to text]

[13] Determinations: néatisation. [Back to text]

[14] Nescience can perhaps be regarded as the tacit assumption (Project) that there is permanance, failing which there can be no néatisation. See footnote 31. 'The first potentiality of the object as the correlate of the engagement, an ontological structure of the negation, is permanence...' B&N, p. 193 [Back to text]

[15] 'There cannot be "nothingness of consciousness" before consciousness.' B&N, p. lv. Cf. A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §§24 & 25. 'Consequently it is impossible at any particular moment when we consider a For-itself, to apprehend it as not-yet-having a Past.' B&N, p. 138. '...there can be no consciousness without a past.' B&N, p. 138. [Back to text]

[16] 'Fundamentally man is the desire to be, and the existence of this desire is not to be established by an empirical induction; it is the result of an a priori description of the being of the for-itself, since desire is a lack and since the for-itself is the being which is to itself its own lack of being.' B&N, p. 565. [Back to text]

[17] 'The for-itself arises as the nihilation of the in-itself and this nihilation is defined as the project towards the in-itself. Between the nihilated in-itself and the projected in-itself the for-itself is nothingness.' B&N, p. 565. [Back to text]

[18] 'It is by its very surpassing of the given towards its end that freedom causes the given to exist as this given here (previously there was neither this nor that nor here) and the given thus designated is not formed in any way whatsoever; it is a brute existence, assumed in order to be surpassed.' B&N, p. 508. The fact that designation-contact affects matter – i.e. adaptation of the body or senses, appearance of a/the future state of the world, defining the present state, but whose presumed effects (always 'magical') are manifest objectively as bodily disturbances after emotion, for example, or as bodily movement or as psychokinetic phenomena etc. – would seem to account for the various supernormal accomplishments (iddhi) obtainable by the practice of mental concentration (Dīgha 2), and also for obtaining a fresh body after death. This text and 27 appear to require that ideas (dhammā) – 'What are cognized by the mind' – be regarded as 'matter' (or existence brut) along with visible forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. In other words, ideas are images. See footnote 33. [Back to text]

[19] 'The In-itself is what the For-itself was before.' B&N, p. 139. '...since the for-itself is the being which always lays claim to an "after" there is no place for death in the being which is for-itself.' B&N, p. 540. See 17. [Back to text]

[20] 'Thus at the end of this account sensation and action are rejoined and become one.' B&N, p. 325. [Back to text]

[21] 'The result is that the psychic form contains two coexisting contradictory modalities of being, since it is already made and appears in the cohesive unity of an organism and since at the same time it can exist only through a succession of "nows", each one of which tends to be isolated in an in-itself.' B&N, pp. 165-6. [Back to text]

[22] This double 'movement', name –> matter, matter –> name, calls to mind the 'feedback' characteristic of end-seeking machines. Cf. also B&N, pp. 126-7. Cf. also A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §19, NĀMA, PHASSA (a), SANKHĀRA. [Back to text]

[23] 'It is precisely my being-for-others, this being which is divided between two negations with opposed origins and opposite meanings.' B&N, p. 286. [Back to text]

[24] 'Pleasure is the being of self-consciousness and this self-consciousness is the law of being of pleasure.' B&N, p. 286 [Back to text]

[25] ' is the very nature of consciousness to exist "in a circle".' B&N, p. liii, Cf. also A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §17. [Back to text]

[26] 'The project of being or desire of being or drive towards being ... in fact ... is not distinguished from the being of the for-itself.' B&N, pp. 564-5. [Back to text]

[27] Thus it seems that the first four aggregates – matter, feeling, perception, determinations – are equivalent to name-&-matter, though the Suttas never say so specifically – a fact that is unusually significant. See 12. [Back to text]

[28] 'Besides, if the act is not pure movement, it must be defined by an intention.' B&N, p. 477. Cf. A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §4. [Back to text]

[29] Note that in this passage the description of matter, feeling, perception, and consciousness are not as in 9 and 19: 'Matter' is afflicted by heat, cold, hunger, thirst, insects, etc.; 'feeling' is pleasant, unpleasant, and neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant; 'perception' is of blue, yellow, red, etc.; 'consciousness' is of sour, bitter, etc. Cf. A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §14, 14. [Back to text]

[30] 'All that there is of intention in my actual consciousness is directed toward the outside, toward the table; all my judgments or practical activities, all my present inclinations transcend themselves; they aim at the table and are absorbed in it.' B&N, pp. li-lii. 'What the world makes known to me is only "worldly".' B&N, p. 200. 'It is the instrumental-things which in their original appearance indicate our body to us. The body is not a secret between things and ourselves; it manifests only the individuality and the contingency in our original relation to instrumental-things.' B&N, p. 325. 'It would be useless to look there (in the body for-me) for traces of a physiological organ, of an anatomical and spatial constitution. Either it is the center of reference indicated emptily by the instrumental-objects of the world or else it is the contingency which the for-itself exists. More exactly, these two modes of being are complementary.' B&N, p. 339. Cf. NĀMA. [Back to text]

[31] 'Thus it is the upsurge of the for-itself in the world by which the same stroke causes the world to exist as the totality of things and causes senses to exist as the objective mode in which the qualities of things are presented.' B&N, p. 319. 'In this sense we defined the senses and the sense organs in general as our being-in-the-world in so far as we have to be it in the form of being-in-the-midst-of-the-world.' B&N, p. 325. Cf. MANO. [Back to text]

[32] 'It is through human reality that multiplicity comes into the world...' B&N, p. 137. [Back to text]

[33] 'If the situation is neither subjective nor objective, this is because it does not constitute a knowledge nor even an affective comprehension of the state of the world by a subject. The situation is a relation of being between a for-itself and the in-itself which the for-itself nihilates. The situation is the whole subject (he is nothing but his situation) and it is also the whole "thing"...' B&N, p. 549. 'Six internal/external (subjective/objective) bases' are sometimes spoken of (e.g. Dīgha 22 (ii, 292-304)). The external bases – visible forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, images/ideas – are existence brut and appear to correspond to the 'matter' of name-&-matter or rather, the 'matter' of name-&-matter is (at any level) the discrepancy between the external bases and the internal bases as (bodily) adaptation ('...the glass-drunk-from haunts the full glass as its possible and constitutes it as a glass to be drunk from' B&N, p. 104). The internal bases – eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind – have name-&-matter as condition; and they may perhaps be thought of as a field (in the mathematical sense) defined by name-&-matter (cf. 'The "this" always appears on a ground; that is, on the undifferentiated totality of being inasmuch as the For-itself is the radical and syncretic negation of it.' B&N, p. 182). But since every name-&-matter, every ceci, that is to say, is itself a project to change a ceci of lower order ('But at the same time that freedom is a surpassing of this given, it chooses itself as this surpassing of the given. Freedom is not just any kind of surpassing of any kind of given. By assuming the brute given and by conferring meaning on it, freedom has suddenly chosen itself; its end is exactly to change this given, just as the given appears as this given in the light of the end chosen.' B&N, p. 508), every field (of whatever order) is a field of field-changes. It is perhaps significant that there is a Sutta passage (A. IV,171 (ii, 158) where 'field (khetta) and 'ground' (vatthu) are synonyms for 'base'(āyatana). [Back to text]

[34] 'In fact the lemon is extended throughout its qualities and each of its qualities is extended throughout each of the others.' B&N, p. 186. ' is this total inter-penetration which we call the this.' B&N, p. 186. The word 'faculty' (indriya) aprears to be used when the senses are spoken of without reference to the situation, and may refer either to one's own senses (as here) or to the sensee d'autrui, sometimes in the same passage. The word 'six bases' (salāyataná) is never, it seems, used of other' senses. [Back to text]

[35] 'The revelation of the table as table requires a permanence of table which comes to it from the future and which is not a purely established given, but a potentiality.' B&N, p. 193. 'The being of human reality is suffering because it rises in being as perpetually haunted by a totality which it is without being able to be it; precisely because it could not attain the in-itself without losing itself as for-itself.' B&N, p. 90. Why is this of necessity a condition for suffering? 'The possible is that which a For-itself lacks in order to be itself or, if you prefer, the appearance of what I am – at a distance.' B&N, p. 125. 'The eternity which man is seeking is not the infinity of duration, of that vain pursuit after the self for which I am myself responsible; man seeks a repose in self, the atemporality of the absolute coincidence with himself.' B&N, p. 141-2. Cf. A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §12 et seq. [Back to text]

[36] 'The "thing" exists straightway as a "form"; that is, a whole which is not affected by any of the superficial parasitic variations which we can see on it. Each this is revealed with a law of being which determines its threshold, its level of change where it will cease to be what it is in order simply not to be.' B&N, pp. 205-6. [Back to text]

[37] 'In order for value to become the object of a thesis, the for-itself which it haunts must also appear before the regard of reflection.' B&N, p. 95. Cf. DHAMMA (b). [Back to text]

[38] 'Pure reflection is never anything but a quasi-knowledge....' B&N, p. 162. '...everywhere and in whatever manner it affects itself, the for-itself is condemned to be-for-itself. In fact, it is here that pure reflection is discovered.' B&N, p. 160. [Back to text]

[39] 'My attitude ... is ... a pure mode ... of causing myself to be drunk in by things as ink is by a blotter...' B&N, p. 259. [Back to text]

[40] '...a being which would be its own foundation could not suffer the slightest discrepancy between what it is and what it conceives, for it would produce itself in conformance with its comprehension of being and could conceive only of what it is.' B&N, p. 80. Cf. PARAMATTHA SACCA §6, DHAMMA. [Back to text]

[41] 'Yet at each moment I apprehend this initial choice as contingent and unjustifiable; at each moment therefore I am on the site suddenly to consider it objectively and consequently to surpass it and to make-it-past by causing the liberating instant to arise. Hence my anguish, the fear which I have of being suddenly exorcized (i.e., of becoming radically other); but hence also the frequent upsurge of "conversions" which cause me totally to metamorphose my original project.' B&N, p. 475. Cf. SAÑÑĀ. [Back to text]

[42] 'It is impossible to conceive of a consciousness which would not exist in these three dimensions.' B&N, p. 137. It is clear from the Suttas that extinction is attained in this very lifetime and that this does not entail immediate death. The question might be asked how it is that an arahat (the Buddha himself, for example) while he still lives can walk and talk and eat and drink, even though consciousness (Pour-soi) has ceased. But since a living arahat cannot actually and in truth be said to exist, except by another who is not himself an arahat, it seems hardly reasonable to look to ontology for an answer. The question, however, is invalid, since it assumes the arahat's existence: where name-&-matter and consciousness have ceased, what conceivable mode of designation, expression, or description can there be? In 37 and 38 the Buddha asserts that release is possible. I see no way of showing that assertion to be false, but without individually attaining release, I see no way of showing it to be true. Cf. PARAMATTHA SACCA §4. [Back to text]

The Tragic, the Comic and the Personal

Selected Letters of Ñánavíra Thera

Edited, with Foreword and Notes,
by Sāmanera Bodhesako


Selected Letters of Ñānavīra Thera.

1. Good action — 6 August 1958 
2. Mettā in meditation and in life  — 10 October 1958 
3. Addiction    25 May 1962
4. Love and death  4 January 1963 
5. Positives and negatives 15 January 1963 
6. Towards realization of the Dhamma 7 March 1963 
7. The phenomenological method 15 May 1963 
8. Reflexive and immediate experience 18 May 1963 
9. Fear of death7 September 1963 
10. The Laws of Thought and the problem of existence  — 15 December 1963 
11. Conceptual thought and reflexion — 1 January 1964 
12. Revolt with intelligence —  4 March 1964 
13. Western thought; impermanence— 15 March 1964 
14. Three kinds of trainees — 4 April 1964 
15. The Suttas and outside philosophies — 12 April 1964 
16. The Law of Identity 14 July 1964 
17. Mindfulness; Huxley’s Island 6 August 1964 
18. Meditation a non-mystical practice — 18 May 1964
19. Ignorance and reality — 2 August 1964 
20. Desire to end desire  — 31 August 1964 
21. Sending good wishes — 20 September 1964
22. Dhamma and socialism 23 November 1964 
23. Interpreting the canon — 29 November 1964
24. Numinous experience —8 December 1964 
25. A good life and a good death — 30 December 1964 
26. The autonomous mood —1 January 1965 
27. Ulysses: a glimpse of futility —7 April 1965 
28. Humour —18 May 1965 
29. Laughter and fear — 24 May 1965
30 (a). Investigation of laughter — 2 June 1965 
Existentialist Idiom and Sutta idiom —2 June 1965 (contd.)
31. Who judges? And with what as standard? — 2 July 1965 

Pali-English Glossary.
Editorial Notes.



When Osbert Moore and Harold Musson arrived on the shores of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1949, they brought with them a shared attitude of open-minded thoughtful­ness and a firm determination to devote the remainder of their lives to seeking understanding by means of the Buddha’s Teaching; and this they proceeded to do. Since they had first met during World War II, when they were British officers, they had found a commonality of view about the futility of life, and when Musson happened upon an Italian book on Buddhism and (in order to brush up on his Italian he was an interrogator in Intelli­gence) decided to translate it,[1] they discovered a mu­tual attraction towards and sympathy for that Teaching.

Moore, who at his ordination was given the name the Venerable Ñānamoli Bhikkhu, is well-known to readers of the Wheel series and other BPS publications as an essayist and skillful translator of the Pali Suttas and commentaries. Musson, who became known as the Vener­able Ñānavīra Bhikkhu, was more solitary. Apart from a few early essays, he has shared his learning and wisdom with a general audience only in his small book, Notes on Dhamma, published privately in 1983. But until his death in 1965 (five years after the Ven. Ñānamoli’s) he also carried on a correspondence with a few laypeople who wished to benefit from his learning.

Now these letters have been collected and edited and, together with the final text of Notes on Dhamma (revised somewhat in the last two years of the author’s life), they are being issued in a single volume.[2] It is from this volume that the present selection has been made, except for the first two letters, which appear here for the first time.[3] The recipients of the letters include his doctor (with whom the Ven. Ñānavīra also discussed the ailments that eventually led to his death), a judge (who became the publisher of Notes on Dhamma), a provincial businessman, a barrister, and two British citizens.

Having been born in England in 1920 and educated at Cambridge University, the Ven. Ñānavīra Thera[4] natural­ly sought an approach to the Buddha’s Teaching via Western thought (see letter 23). After acquainting themselves thoroughly with the Pali Suttas the two friends explored many modes of Western thought—even quantum mechanics!–through reading and discussion. When the Ven. Ñānavīra moved to a remote section of Ceylon, where he lived alone for the rest of his life, their discussions continued through voluminous corre­spondence which lasted until 1960, the year of the Ven. Ñānamoli’s death. Increasingly they found that the Western thinkers most relevant to their interests were those belonging to the closely allied schools of phenomenology and existentialism, to whom they found themselves indebted for clearing away a lot of mis­taken notions with which they had burdened themselves. These letters make clear the nature of that debt; they also make clear the limitations which the Ven. Ñānavīra saw in those thinkers. He is insistent that al­though for certain individuals their value may be great, yet eventually one must go beyond them if one is to arrive at the essence of the Buddha’s Teaching. Existentialism, then, is in his view an approach to the Buddha’s Teaching and not a substitute for it.

These letters are concerned in part with an approach to the Teaching; but the approach is not the Teaching, and other letters discuss the Teaching itself. Here wherever possible the Ven. Ñānavīra offers Sutta ref­erences to support his statements; and the careful reader of these letters will easily perceive that their author had a profound veneration for those texts. It is this veneration for the Suttas, and for their profound mes­sage, that he tries to communicate.

In this presentation the letters are arranged in a purely chronological order. To indicate the subject­ matter of each letter they are preceded by a title pro­vided by the editor. Within the letters a few asterisks will be found, referring the reader to editorial notes located at the end of the compilation. Following the editorial notes is a Pali-English Glossary, provided for the benefit of those who may not be familiar with some of the Pali words used in the text. The English equivalents given are those preferred by the Ven. Ñānavīra Thera.

Sāmanera Bodhesako









The BPS is an approved charity dedicated to making known the Teaching of the Buddha, which has a vital message for all people.


Founded in 1958, the BPS has published a wide variety of books and booklets covering a great range of topics. Its publications include accurate annotated translations of the Buddha’s discourses, standard reference works, as well as original contemporary expositions of Buddhist thought and practice. Thesse works present Buddhism as it truly is—a dynamic force which has influenced receptive minds for the past 2500 years and is still as relevant today as it was when it first arose.


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Selected Letters of Ñānavīra Thera


1. Good action                                                                                    
6 August

It is difficult to live a good life, and the benefits may not be apparent here and now; but if we believe what the Buddha has told us then it is very well worth the effort that it costs even if it kills us. Not for the sake of life will a sotāpanna break the five precepts. The depressing effects of bad kamma done in the past may last for many lives, not just for one; but do not forget that good kamma also has its effect for a long time—sometimes for longer than bad kamma. And this is important: if we do good kamma now we shall be reborn in a position to go on doing good kamma, for a man who is rich because of past good kamma has the opportunity of doing more good kamma now than a poor man who has not done good kamma in the past. And remember also that, although your past kamma is not good enough to make you rich and successful now, it is none the less very good kamma indeed, for you have been born a hu­man being during the time of a Buddha’s Sāsana. The next time you see a sick dog or a cow dying of thirst, think, “I might have been born as that; and if I do wrong now it is probable that I shall be born as that.” It is always better to bear up when misfortune assails us, but there is nothing else we can do:we inherit our past deeds.

2. Mettā in meditation and in life                                                  
10 October 1958

I have just received your letter. It may be said, perhaps, that mettā is recommended by the Buddha for getting rid of anger, and that anger normally arises in our dealings with other people, and that it is therefore in our dealings with other people that mettā is best practised. It is most certainly true that we have need of mettā in our dealings with other people; but the trouble is this: before we can be in a posi­tion to have mettā we have first to know what mettā is, and second to have it at our command. Now, just as it is possible to practise ānāpānasati in the presence of other people when one has already become skilled in it by oneself, so it is possible to practise mettā in the presence of others only when one has practised it a great deal when alone. And just as the worst condi­tions for practising ānāpānasati are the noise and bustle of other people, so it is with mettā. Until you are able to practise either ānāpānasati or mettā in solitude you will never succeed in company—the ob­stacles are far too great.

For example, suppose there is someone you dis­like, and in whose presence you become angry: unless you are already able to prevent anger from arising when you think of him in his absence (which needs much practice), you will have no chance at all of getting rid of the anger that arises when you actually meet him. Once anger takes possession of you there is very little you can do except to stop it from finding ex­pression in words or deeds, and to allow it to sub­side; it is far too late to start practising mettā. But if you thoroughly practise mettā before you meet such a person, then it is possible that anger will not arise when you do meet him. Having mettā in your dealings with other people consists in having mettā before you deal with them, that is, in solitude—once you start dealing with them you will have little opportunity of attending to mettā (or if you do attend to mettā it will interfere in your dealings just as attending to your in-and out-breaths takes your mind away from the matter in hand).

You might, however, be thinking that, whereas ānāpānasati concerns only myself since it is a matter of watching my own breaths and not somebody else’s, mettā on the contrary concerns other people, since it is a question of my relationship with other people and of my attitude towards them. And you might think that it fol­lows from this that the presence of other people is either an advantage or even absolutely necessary for the practice of mettā. In a certain sense this is true: you cannot practise mettā towards other people unless they are in some way present—but the presence of other people does not imply that their bodies must be pre­sent. I do not mean that their “spirit” is present while their body is absent (which is a mystical confu­sion of thought), but simply that “other people” is a fundamental structure of our conscious constitution.

Let me give an illustration. It happens to all of us that upon some occasion when we are doing something perhaps rather shameful (it might be simply when we are urinating or excreting, or it might be when we are peeping through a keyhole or something like that) and we believe we are alone and unobserved, we suddenly hear a slight sound behind us and we immediately have the unpleasant idea “I am being watched.” We turn round and look and find nobody there at all. It was only our own guilty conscience. Now this is an indication that in order to have a relationship with other people we do not need other peoples’ bodies: we are conscious of other people (at least implicitly) all the time, and it is this consciousness that we have to attend to when we practice mettā.

When we practise mettā we are developing and grad­ually changing our attitude towards other people; and we always have an attitude towards other people wheth­er their bodies are present or not. The only thing a (living) body does when we meet one is to be the occa­sion for the consciousness, “This is another person.” And if we have already been practising mettā and have acquired an un-angry attitude towards other people, then when we actually meet another person our attitude towards him will be correct right at the beginning, and no anger will arise. It is only when we are already disposed to anger that we get angry when we meet someone; and if we are disposed to mettā (through long practise in solitude, on our consciousness of other people whose actual bodies are absent) we have mettā in our dealings with them.

3. Addiction                           
25 May 1962

I have finished the Beverley Nichols.[i] I think that one question is raised that calls for a detailed reply. B. N. describes how a certain morphine addict became “changed” and, as a result, lost all interest in the drug; and he points out that to give up a drug addic­tion is one of the hardest things in the world (with which we may agree). The question, then, is this: What has the Buddha’s Teaching to offer a drug addict?

In the first place the Buddha requires intelligence of a man, else nothing can be done. In the second place the Buddha tells us that the taking of intoxicants (which of course will include morphine and so on) leads to the decline of intelligence. Putting two and two together, we find that to give up drugs a man must un­derstand that unless he gives them up he will not be able to give them up, or in other words, to give up drugs one must understand the way to give up drugs, which is to give them up. At first glance this does not seem to be very helpful—“A glimpse of the obvious,” perhaps you will say; “of course the addict understands that the way to give up drugs is to give them up: the whole trouble is that he can’t give them up.” But is this just a glimpse of the obvious?

Let me recall my own experience when I gave up cigarettes. I had been smoking forty or more a day for several years when I decided to give them up. Not being able to do things in half-measures I stopped smoking all at once. I remember walking in the park not long after I had finished my last cigarette, and feeling pleased with myself that I had actually taken the de­cision. (I also felt rather light-headed, which was no doubt a deprivation symptom—this continued for some days.) But the principal thought that assailed me was this: though I had no doubt that I could stick to my resolution, there was one thing that I really needed to confirm it and to fortify me in my determination not to have another cigarette, and that one thing was… a cigarette. Far from its being obvious to me that in order to give up cigarettes I should give up ciga­rettes, I had the greatest of trouble to resist the pressing suggestion that in order to give up cigarettes I should take a cigarette.

Let me also tell you of the researches of Dr. Klar[ii] when he was in Persia shortly after the war. Dr. Klar, besides being a physician, is also interested in psychology; and he had with him in Persia an ingenious device for reading a person’s character and state of mind. (This consists of a number of cards each with about eight pairs of coloured squares pasted on them. The subject is simply required to indicate which colour in each pair he prefers. He “read” us all at the Her­mitage,[iii] with devastatingly accurate results that did not really please all of us. But this is a digression.) He told us that eighty percent of all Persians over the age of thirty-five (I think he said) take opium (and also that all Persians tell lies on principle—but this is another digression), and with such a wealth of ma­terial to hand[5] he was able to do some research. He would give each addict two readings, one before taking opium and one after. The readings all said the same thing: before the opium the mental state of the addict was abnormal and disorganized; after the opium the mental state was normal and organized. The effect of the opium on the addict was not, as one might think, to disintegrate the personality; on the contrary, the ef­fect was to integrate a disintegrated personality. The opium was necessary to restore the addict to normal. (I have heard similar observations from another doctor who was for many years a medical missionary in China: if you want to do business with an opium addict, drive your bargain when the effect of his last dose is wear­ing off.)

What can we conclude from all this? We conclude that, unlike a “normal” person who may take a drug once in a while for the novelty or pleasure of the ef­fect, and who at that time becomes “abnormal,” the confirmed addict is “normal” only when he has taken the drug, and becomes “abnormal” when he is deprived of it. The addict reverses the usual situation and is de­pendent upon the drug to keep him in his normal inte­grated state. (This does not mean, of course, that the addict derives pleasure from occasional deprivation as the abstainer does from occasional intoxication; quite the contrary: in both cases the drugged state is more pleasant, but for the one it is normal and for the other it is abnormal.) The addict can only do his work efficiently and perform his normal functions if he takes the drug, and it is in this condition that he will make plans for the future. (If he cannot take the drug the only plan he makes is to obtain another dose as quickly as possible.) If he decides that he must give up his addiction to the drug (it is too expensive; it is ruining his reputation or his career; it is un­dermining his health; and so on) he will make the de­cision only when he is in a fit state to consider the matter, that is to say when he is drugged; and it is from this (for him, normal) point of view that he will envisage the future. (Thus, it was as a smoker that I, decided to give up smoking.) But as soon as the addict puts his decisions into effect and stops taking the drug he ceases to be normal, and decisions taken when he was normal now appear in quite a different light—and this will include his decision to stop taking the drug. Either, then, he abandons the decision as invalid (“How could I possibly have decided to do such a thing? I must have been off my head”) and returns to his drug ­taking, or (though he approves the decision) he feels it urgently necessary to return to the state in which he originally took the decision (which was when he was drugged) in order to make the decision seem valid again. (And so it was that I felt the urgent need of a cigarette to confirm my decision to give them up.) In both cases the result is the same—a return to the drug. And so long as the addict takes his “normal” drugged state for granted at its face value—i.e. as normal—the same thing will happen whenever he tries to give up his addiction.

Not only is the drug addict in a vicious circle—the more he takes the more he wants, the more he wants the more he takes—but, until he learns to take an out­side view of his situation and is able to see the nature of drug addiction, he will find that all his attempts to force a way out of the vicious circle simply lead him back in again. (A vicious circle is thus a closed sys­tem in stable equilibrium.) It is only when the addict understands addiction, and holds fast to the right view that—in spite of all appearances, in spite of all temptations to think otherwise—his “normal” drugged state is not normal, that he will be able to put up with the temporary discomfort of deprivation and eventually get free from his addiction. In brief, then, an addict decides to give up drugs, and he supposes that in order to do so all that is necessary is to give them up (which would certainly be a glimpse of the obvious were it not that he is profoundly deceiving himself, as he very soon finds out). No sooner does he start giving them up than he discovers (if he is very unintelligent) that he is mistaken and has made the wrong decision, or (if he is less unintelligent) that, though the decision is right, he is wrong about the method, and that in order to give up drugs it is necessary to take them. It is only the intelligent man who understands (against all appearances) that both the decision and the method are right; and it is only he that succeeds. For the intel­ligent man, then, the instruction “to give up drugs it is necessary to give them up,” far from being a glimpse of the obvious, is a profound truth revealing the na­ture of addiction and leading to escape from it.

I would ask you to pause before dismissing this account as fanciful; this same theme—the vicious cir­cle and the escape from it by way of understanding and in spite of appearances—is the very essence of the Buddha’s Teaching. The example discussed above—drug addiction—is on a coarse level, but you will find the theme repeated again and again right down to the finest level, that of the four noble truths. It will, I think, be worthwhile to illustrate this from the Suttas.

In the 75th Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (M I 506-8) the Buddha shows the vicious circle of sensual desire and its gratification in the simile of a man with a skin disease (kutthi—a leper?). Imagine a man with a fiercely itching skin disease who, to relieve the itching, scratches himself with his nails and roasts himself near a brazier. The more he does this the worse becomes his condition, but this scratching and roasting give him a certain satisfaction. In the same way, a man with finely itching sensual desire seeks relief from it in sensual gratification. The more he gratifies it the stronger becomes his desire, but in the gratification of his desire he finds a certain pleasure. Suppose, now, that the skin disease were cured; would that man continue to find satisfaction in scratching and roast­ing himself ? By no means. So, too, a man who is cured of sensual desire (an arahat) will find no more plea­sure in sensual gratification.

Let us extend the simile a little. You, as a doc­tor, know very well that to cure an itching skin dis­ease the first thing to do is to prevent the patient from scratching and making it worse. Unless this can be done there is no hope of successfully treating the condition. But the patient will not forego the satis­faction of scratching unless he is made to understand that scratching aggravates the condition, and that there can be no cure unless he voluntarily restrains his desire to scratch, and puts up with the temporarily increased discomfort of unrelieved itching. And simi­larly, a person who desires a permanent cure from the torment of sensual desire must first be made to under­stand that he must put up with the temporarily increased discomfort of celibacy (as a bhikkhu) if the Buddha’s treatment is to be successful. Here, again, the way out of the vicious circle is through an understanding of it and through disregard of the apparent worsening of the condition consequent upon self-restraint:

Consider, now, the four noble truths. The fourth of these truths is, “This is the way leading to the ces­sation of suffering, that is to say, the noble eight­ factored path”; and the first factor of this path is right view, which is defined as knowledge of the four noble truths. But, as before, the fourth truth is the way leading to cessation of suffering. So we come to the proposition, “The way leading to cessation of suf­fering is knowledge of the way leading to the cessation of suffering,” or “To put an end to suffering one must understand the way to put an end to suffering.” And what is this but a repetition, at the most fundamental level, of our original theme, “To give up drugs one must understand the way to give up drugs”?[6]

Not everybody is addicted to morphine, but most people are addicted to sensual gratification, and all except the ariyasāvakas are addicted to their own per­sonality (sakkāyaditthi)[7]and even the ariyasāvakas, with the exception of the arahat, still have a subtle addiction, the conceit “I am” (asmimāna). The arahat has put an end to all addiction whatsoever. There is thus no form of addiction that the Buddha’s Teaching will not cure, provided the addict is intelligent and willing to make the necessary effort.

4. Love and death                                                                                      
4 January 1963

It is curious, is it not, that whereas, since Freud, the most extravagant fancies in the realm of love are considered to be perfectly normal (a person without them is regarded as a case for treatment), in the realm of death (the other great pole of human life) any strange fancies are still classed as “morbid.” The Suttas reverse the situation: sensual thoughts are the thoughts of a sick man (sick with ignorance and craving), and the way to health is through thoughts of foulness and the diseases of the body, and of its death and decomposition. And not in an abstract scientific fashion either—one sees or imagines a rotting corpse, for example, and then pictures one’s very own body in such a state. Our con­temporaries are more squeamish.

5. Positives and negatives                                                                         
15 January 1963

Once one recognizes that one is totally responsible for all one’s decisions and actions, one can no longer hide behind convenient ready-made excuses; and this, though it makes life rather less comfortable by remov­ing one’s habitual blinkers, endows one with unexpected self-reliance and resilience in difficult situations. And once it becomes habitual to think in this way, the task of living is discovered to be a full-time job and not merely a drudge to be got through by killing time as best one can. In other words, it abolishes boredom. And, as I mentioned some time ago, it is only in this authentic or responsible attitude that the Buddha’s Teaching becomes intelligible.

But people, for the most part, are totally absorbed in and identified with positive worldly interests and projects, of which there is an unending variety. That is to say, although they differ from one another in their individual natures, the contents of their re­spective positivities, they are all alike in being positive. Thus, although the fundamental relation be­tween positives is conflict (on account of their indi­vidual differences), they apprehend one another as all being in the same boat of positively, and they think of men generally in terms of human solidarity, and say “we.”

But the person who lives in the subjective-reflex­ive mode is absorbed in and identified with, not the positive world, but himself. The world, of course, remains “there” but he regards it as accidental (Husserl[iv] says that he “puts it in parenthesis, between brackets”), and this means that he dismisses whatever positive identification he may have as irrelevant. He is no longer “a politician” or “a fisherman,” but “a self.” But what we call a “self,” unless it receives positive identification from outside, remains a void, in other words, a negative. A “self,” however, is pos­itive in this respect—it seeks identification. So a person who identifies himself with himself finds that his positively consists in negativity—not the confident “I am this” or “I am that” of the positive, but a puz­zled, perplexed, or even anguished, “What am I?” Eternal repetition of this eternally unanswerable question is the beginning of wisdom (it is the beginning of philo­sophy); but the temptation to provide oneself with a definite answer is usually too strong, and one falls into a wrong view of one kind or another. (It takes a Buddha to show the way out of this impossible situa­tion. For the sotāpanna, who has understood the Bud­dha’s essential Teaching, the question still arises, but he sees that it is unanswerable and is not worried; for the arahat the question no longer arises at all, and this is final peace.) This person, then, who has his centre of gravity in himself instead of in the world (a situation that, though usually found as a congenital feature, can be acquired by practice), far from seeing himself with the clear solid objective de­finition with which other people can be seen, hardly sees himself as anything definite at all: for himself he is, at best, a “What, if anything?”

It is precisely this lack of assured self-identity that is the secret strength of his position—for him the question-mark is the essential and his positive iden­tity in the world is accidental, and whatever happens to him in a positive sense the question-mark still re­mains, which is all he really cares about. He is dis­tressed, certainly, when his familiar world begins to break up, as it inevitably does, but unlike the posi­tive he is able to fall back on himself and avoid total despair. It is also this feature that worries the pos­itives; for they naturally assume that everybody else is a positive and they are accustomed to grasp others by their positive content, and when they happen to meet a negative they find nothing to take hold of. It quite often happens that a positive attributes to a negative various strange secret motives, supposing that he has failed to understand him (in a positive sense); but what he has failed to understand is that there is ac­tually nothing there to be understood. But a negative, being a rare bird himself, is accustomed to positives, by whom he is surrounded, and he does not mistake them for fellow negatives. He understands (or at least senses) that the common factor of positivity that welds them together in the “we” of human solidarity does not extend to him, and mankind for him is “they.” When a negative meets another negative they tend to coalesce with a kind of easy mutual indifference. Unlike two positives, who have the differences in their respective positivities to keep them apart, two negatives have nothing to separate them, and one negative recognizes another by his peculiar transparency—whereas a posi­tive is opaque.

It happens that, for Heidegger,[v] contemplation of one’s death throughout one’s life is the key to authenticity. As Sartre has observed, Heidegger has not properly understood the nature of death, regarding it as my possibility, whereas in fact it is always accidental, even in suicide (I cannot kill myself directly, I can only cut my throat and wait for death to come). But death of one’s body (which is always seen from outside, like other people’s bodies) can be imag­ined and the implications envisaged. And this is really all that is necessary (though it must be added that there are other ways than contemplation of death of becoming authentic).

6. Towards realization of the Dhamma                                                   
7 March 1963

What we call the “self” is a certain characteristic of all experience that seems to be eternal. It is quite obvious that for all men the reality and permanence of their selves, “I,” is taken absolutely for granted; and the eternal “subject” strives to possess the temporal “object,” and the situation is at once both comic and tragic—comic, because something temporal cannot be possessed eternally, and tragic, because the eternal cannot desist from making the futile attempt to possess the temporal eternally. This tragicomedy is suffering (dukkha) in its profoundest sense. And it is release from this that the Buddha teaches. How? By pointing out that, contrary to our natural assumption (which sup­poses that the subject “I” would still continue to exist even if there were no objects at all), the exis­tence of the subject depends upon the existence of the object; and since the object is manifestly impermanent, the subject must be no less so. And once the presumed­ eternal subject is seen to be no less temporal than the object, the discrepancy between the eternal and the temporal disappears (in four stages—sotāpatti, sakadāgāmitā, anāgāmitā, and arahatta); and with the dis­appearance of the discrepancy the two categories of “tragic” and “comic” also disappear. The arahat neither laughs nor weeps; and that is the end of suffering (except, of course, for bodily pain, which only ceases when the body finally breaks up).

In this way you may see the progressive advance from the thoughtlessness of immediacy (either childish amusement, which refuses to take the tragic seriously, or pompous earnestness, which refuses to take the comic humourously) to the awareness of reflexion (where the tragic and the comic are seen to be reciprocal, and each is given its due), and from the awareness of reflexion (which is the limit of the puthujjana’s philo­sophy) to full realization of the Noble Dhamma (where both tragic and comic finally vanish, never again to return).

7. The phenomenological method                                                                
15 May 1963

About Huxley’s strange creatures of the mind, though few such experiences have come my way, I have no doubt at all that these curious (and perhaps terrifying) things are to be met with in certain mental circum­stances.[vi] That weird and fantastic creatures do actu­ally exist, though normally invisible to us, we may gather from the reports (in the Suttas, for example; see the Lakkhana Samy./S II 254-62) of people who have practised meditation and developed the dibbacakkhu or “divine eye.” (I am occasionally asked by visitors whether in my meditations I have “had any experiences”—quite an improper question to put to a bhikkhu—and by this they usually mean, “have I seen any devas or other unusual objects?” Fortunately, I am able to as­sure them that I have not seen any at all, not a single one.) But all these various creatures, whether they exist in their own right—i.e. are independently conscious—or not (and this distinction is not always easy to make simply by looking at them), are of inter­est only to the lover of variety, to the collector of strange objects. To suppose, as Huxley does (and it is this fidelity of his to the scientific method that con­demns him never to be more than a second-rate thinker), that by collecting and examining the various objects of the mind one can learn something essential about the nature of mind is much the same as supposing that one can learn something about the structure of the tele­scope by making a list of the great variety of objects one can see through it.

The phenomenological method (of existential think­ers) is not in the least concerned with the peculiari­ties (however peculiar they may be) of the individual specimen; what it is concerned with is the universal nature of experience as such. Thus, if a phenomenolo­gist sees a duck-billed platypus, he does not exclaim with rapture, “What a strange creature! What a magni­ficent addition to the sum of human knowledge (and also to my collection of stuffed curiosities)!”; he says, instead, “This is an example of a living being,” thus putting the platypus with all its duck-billed peculi­arities “in brackets” and considering only the univer­sal characteristics of his experience of the platypus. But a dog would have done just as well; for a dog, too, is “an example of a living being”; and besides, there is no need to go all the way to Australia to see one. The phenomenologist does not seek variety, he seeks repetition—repetition, that is to say, of experience (what it is experience of does not interest him in the least), so that he may eventually come to understand the nature of experience (for experience and existence are one and the same). And this is just as true of imaginary (mental) experience as of real experience. The Venerable Sāriputta Thera, for all his pro­ficiency in the practice of jhāna, had not developed the dibbacakkhu (Th 996). And even so he was the leading disciple of the Buddha, and the foremost in pattā, or understanding. After the Buddha himself there was nobody who understood the Dhamma as well as he—and yet, on his own admission, he was unable to see “even a goblin” (Udāna IV.4/Ud 40). Evidently, then, the seeing of strange creatures, in normal or abnormal states of mind, does not advance one in wisdom.

8. Reflexive and immediate experience                                                     
19 May 1963

Your question about satisampajatta. Observing the particular “doing” or “feeling” is reflexive experi­ence. The “doing” or “feeling” itself (whether it is observed or not) is immediate experience. But since one obviously cannot observe a “doing” or a “feeling” unless that “doing” or “feeling” is at the same time present, there is no reflexive experience (at least in the strict sense used here) that does not contain or involve immediate experience. Reflexive experience is a complex structure of which immediate experience is a less complex part (it is possible that I use the term “reflexive consciousness” a little ambiguously—i.e. either to denote reflexive experience as a whole or to distinguish the purely reflexive part of reflexive ex­perience from the immediate part).

Yes: observing the “general nature” of an experi­ence is reflexion (though there are also other kinds of reflexion). No: in reflexively observing the “general nature” of an experience you have not “left out the immediate experience”; you have merely “put the imme­diate experience in brackets”—that is to say, by an effort of will you have disregarded the individual pe­culiarities of the experience and paid attention to the general characteristics (just as you might disregard a witness’s stammer when he is giving evidence and pay attention to the words he is uttering). You simply con­sider the immediate experience as “an example of expe­rience in general”; but this does not in any way abolish the immediate experience (any more than your disregard­ing the stammer of the witness stops his stammering).

9. Fear of death                                                                          
7 September 1963

Feelings of fear and helplessness at times of sickness or danger are very unpleasant, but they can also be very instructive. At such times one may get an almost pure view of bhavatanhā, craving for existence. The fear is not fear of anything in particular (though there may also be that), but rather of ceasing to exist, and the helplessness is an absolute helplessness in the face of impending annihilation. I think that it is very probable that these feelings will put in an ap­pearance at any time that one thinks one is going to die (whether one actually dies or not), and it is per­haps half the battle to be prepared for this sort of thing. Once one knows that such feelings are to be ex­pected one can take the appropriate action quickly when they actually occur, instead of dying in a state of bewilderment and terror. What is the appropriate ac­tion? The answer is, Mindfulness. One cannot prevent these feelings (except by becoming an arahat), but one can look them in the face instead of fleeing in panic. Let them come, and try to watch them: once they know themselves to be observed they tend to wither and fade away, and can only reassert themselves when you become heedless and off your guard. But continued mindfulness is not easy, and that is why it is best to try and practise it as much as possible while one is still liv­ing. Experiences such as yours are valuable reminders of what one has to expect and of the necessity for re­hearsing one’s death before one is faced with it.

10. The Laws of Thought and the problem of existence                   
15 December 1963

Any proposed solution to the problem of existence that disregards the three Laws of Thought[8] is, in the profoundest sense, frivolous. For the puthujjana the problem is brought to light by persistent refusal to disregard these laws. It is the merit of the existen­tialist philosophers that they do in fact bring the problem to light in this way. What happens is this: the thinker examines and describes his own thinking in an act of reflexion, obstinately refusing to tolerate non ­identities, contradictions, and excluded middles; at a certain point he comes up against a contradiction that he cannot resolve and that appears to be inherent in his very act of thinking. This contradiction is the existence of the thinker himself (as subject). This is concisely present in the later part of the Mahānidāna Suttanta (DN 15/D II 66-8), where the Buddha says that a man who identifies his “self” with feeling should be asked which kind of feeling, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, he regards as his “self.” The man cannot iden­tify his “self” with all three kinds of feeling at once, since only one of the three kinds is present at a time: if he does make this identification, therefore, he must do it with the three different kinds of feeling in succession. His “self,” of course, he takes for granted—as self-identical—“A is A”—that is to say as the same “self” on each occasion. This he proceeds to identify in turn with the three different feelings: B, C, and D. A is therefore both B and C (not to mention D); and C, being different from B, is not B: so A is both B and not B—a violation of the Law of Contradic­tion. But whether or not it is with feeling that the puthujjana is identifying his “self,” he is always identifying it with something—and it is a different something on each occasion. The puthujjana takes his existence for granted—cogito ergo sum— (which, as Sartre says, is apodictic reflexive evidence of the thinker’s existence)—and is in a perpetual state of contradiction.

So we have the following situation. Assuming the validity of the Laws of Thought, the thinker discovers that the whole of his thinking depends upon an irreducible violation of the Laws of Thought, namely the contradictory existence of the thinker. And this itself is a contradiction. If he tolerates this contra­diction he denies the validity of the Laws of Thought whose validity he assumed when he established the con­tradiction in the first place; there is therefore no contradiction for him to tolerate, and consequently he is not denying the Laws of Thought; the contradiction therefore exists and he tolerates it … Or he may re­fuse to tolerate the contradiction; but if he does so, it is in the name of the Law of Contradiction that he does so, and refusal to tolerate the contradiction re­quires him to deny the validity of the Laws of Thought by which the contradiction was originally established; he has therefore no reason to refuse to tolerate the contradiction, which, if the Laws of Thought are in­valid, is inoffensive; he therefore does not deny the validity of the Laws of Thought, and the contradiction is offensive and he refuses to tolerate it… Or per­haps he neither tolerates the contradiction nor refuses to tolerate it, in which ease he violates the Law of Excluded Middle… Most certainly the problem exists!

How is it dealt with? (i) The rationalist, by remaining on the level of reason and refusing to look at his premises, asserts the validity of the Laws of Thought, and successfully blinds himself to the stand­ing violation of the Laws of Thought—his own exis­tence. (ii) The mystic endorses the standing violation of the Laws of Thought by asserting their invalidity on principle. This obliges him to attribute their apparent validity to blindness or ignorance and to assert a Re­ality behind appearances that is to be reached by de­veloping a mode of thinking based on the three laws: “A is not A”; “A is both B and not B”; “A is neither B nor not B.” (iii) The existentialist says: “Contradiction is the truth, which is a contradiction, and therefore the truth. This is the situation, and I don’t like it; but I can see no way out of it.” To maintain this equi­vocal attitude for a long time is exhausting, and exis­tentialists tend to seek relief in either rationalism or mysticism; but since they find it easier to endorse their personal existence than to ignore it they are more inclined to be mystical than rational.

Obviously, of these three attitudes, the first two evade the problem either by arbitrarily denying its existence or by arbitrarily denying the Laws of Thought upon which it depends. Only the third attitude asserts the Laws of Thought and asserts the existence of the problem. Though the puthujjana does not see the solu­tion of the problem, he ought at least to see that to evade the problem (either by denying its existence or by denying the Laws of Thought on which it depends) is not to solve it. He will therefore choose to endure the discomfort of the third attitude until help comes from outside in the form of the Buddha’s Teaching, or he himself finds the way out by becoming a Buddha.

11. Conceptual thought and reflexion                                                         
1 January 1964

Thank you for Huxley’s article.[vii] Generally speak­ing, a concept, an idea, and a thought, are much the same thing, and can be described as an imaginary pic­ture representing some real state of affairs. But this “representation” is not simply a photographic repro­duction (in the mind) of the real state of affairs in question. In a very simple case, if I now imagine or think of some absent object, the image that I have bears some sort of resemblance to the absent object. But suppose I want to think about something like “the British Constitution.” I cannot simply produce an imaginary picture “looking like” the British Constitu­tion, because the B. C. does not “look like” anything. What happens is that, over the years, I have built up a complex image, partly visual, partly verbal, and per­haps also with elements from other senses; and this complex image has an internal structure that corre­sponds to that of the B. C., at least in so far as I have correctly understood it. If, in my studies of the British Constitution, I have consulted faulty authori­ties, or omitted part of it, these faults or omissions will be represented in this complex image. Whenever I wish to think about the B. C. (or even whenever anybody mentions it) this complex image comes to my mind, and it is with reference to it that I (for example) answer questions about the B. C. This complex image is a con­cept—it is my concept of the B. C.  With luck, it may correspond fairly closely with the original thing, but most probably it is a very misleading representation. (Note that, since the essence of the concept is in the structure of the complex image, and not in the indi­vidual images that make up the complex image, it is quite possible to have a number of different complex images, but all with the same structure, to represent the real state of affairs in question. Here, the con­cept remains the same, though the image is different. Thus, in the world of art, it is possible to express the same idea either in music or in painting.)

Now all conceptual thinking is abstract; that is to say, the thought or concept is entirely divorced from reality, it is removed from existence and is (in Kierkegaard’s phrase) sub specie aeterni. Concrete thinking, on the other hand, thinks the object while the object is present, and this, in the strict sense of the words, is reflection or mindfulness. One is mindful of what one is doing, of what one is seeing, while one is actually doing (or seeing) it. This, naturally, is very much more difficult than abstract thinking; but it has a very obvious advantage: if one is thinking (or being mindful) of something while it is actually pre­sent, no mistake is possible, and one is directly in touch with reality; but in abstract thinking there is every chance of a mistake, since the concepts with which we think are composite affairs, built up of an arbitrary lot of individual experiences (books, conver­sations, past observations, and so on).

What Huxley is getting at, then, is simply this. As a result of our education, our books, radios, cine­mas, televisions, and so on, we tend to build up arti­ficial concepts of what life is, and these concepts are grossly misleading and are no satisfactory guide at all to real life. (How many people, especially in the West, derive all their ideas about love from the cinema or T.V.—no wonder they run into difficulties when they begin to meet it as it is in reality!) Huxley is advo­cating a training in mindfulness (or awareness), satisampajatta—in thinking about life as it is actually taking place—instead of (or, at least, as well as) the present training in purely abstract thinking. In this way, so he maintains—and of course he is quite right—people will be better fitted for dealing with life as it really is.

12. Revolt with intelligence                                                                
4 March 1964

The attitude you speak of, that of cursing the world and oneself, is, in a sense, the beginning of wisdom. Revolt is the first reaction of an intelligent man when he begins to understand the desperate nature of his situation in the world; and it is probably true to say that nothing great has ever been achieved except by a man in revolt against his situation. But revolt alone is not enough—it eventually contradicts itself. A man in blind revolt is like someone in a railway compartment trying to stop the train by pushing against the opposite seat with his feet: he may be strong enough to damage the compartment, but the damaged compartment will nevertheless continue to move with the train. Except for the arahat, we are all in this train of samsāra, and the problem is to stop the train whilst still travelling in it. Direct action, direct revolt won’t do; but something, certainly, must be done. That it is, in fact, possible to stop the train from within we know from the Buddha, who has himself done it:

I, monks, being myself subject to birth, de­cay, and death, having seen the misery of sub­jection to birth, decay, and death, went in search of the unborn, undecaying, undying, ut­termost quietus of extinction (nibbāna), and I reached the unborn, undecaying, undying, ut­termost quietus of extinction.              

(MN 26/M I 167)

Revolt by all means, but let the weapons be intelli­gence and patience, not disorder and violence; and the first thing to do is to find out exactly what it is that you are revolting against. Perhaps you will come to see that what you are revolting against is ignorance (avijjā).

13. Western thought; impermanence                                                           
15 March 1964

The passage on Western philosophy that you quote from Lin Yutang is partly justified, but it must be remarked that it refers only to speculative (or ab­stract) philosophy, in other words the classical West­ern philosophies. Existential philosophy, as its name implies, is concerned with existence, and Lin Yutang could hardly complain that Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Marcel—to name only three—did (or do) not live in accordance with their philosophies (even though he would scarcely agree with them—they do not regard life as a “poem”). Certainly it is futile to look to specu­lative philosophy for guidance on how to live; and to follow such a philosophy is to be like one of the blind men of the Sutta in the Udāna (V I,4: 68-9) who were shown an elephant and told to describe it—one grasps a small fragment of the truth abstracted from the whole, and fondly imagines that one knows all. On the other hand, a study of such philosophies, in certain circum­stances, may not be a waste of time. Shortly before his Parinibbāna, the Buddha told Māra that he would not pass away before there were disciples who were capable of correctly refuting any outside views that might spring up, and this argues that for those who had them­selves reached right view a study of wrong view would be an advantage rather than a disadvantage—that is, when dealing with people who did not accept the Buddha’s Teaching. But here, it will be understood, these various speculative philosophies would be studied against a background of right view, with the effect that they would be fitted into their proper place—just as the king, who could see the whole of the ele­phant, was able to reconcile the widely divergent de­scriptions of the blind men and put them in the proper perspective. It may also not be a disadvantage to have a fairly wide knowledge of various philosophies when one is in the position of having to understand the Sut­tas when no trustworthy (i.e. non-puthujjana) living teacher is available. If one has to find out for oneself what the texts mean, such a background may—at least for certain people—be a help rather than a hindrance. And finally the development of a lucid understanding of these philosophies—of their virtues and their limita­tions—may become a real pleasure to the mind.

As a solution to impermanence you suggest that we might forego “an impermanent use of what is imperma­nent.” Impossible! We are making impermanent use of what is impermanent all the time—and this is as true for the arahat as it is for the puthujjana. So long as there is consciousness at all there is the passage of time, and the passage of time consists in the use of things, whether we like it or not. The eating of food, the breathing of breaths, the thinking of thoughts, the dreaming of dreams—all are impermanent use of what is impermanent. Only in nirodhasamāpatti does this lapse for any living being. In the last Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (MN 152/M III 298-9) the desperate expedient is suggested of “not seeing forms with the eye, not hear­ing sounds with the ear,” but the Buddha ridicules this, saying that this is already achieved by a blind and deaf man. He goes on to indicate upekkhā, indif­ference, as the proper way. The fault does not lie in the impermanence (which is inevitable), but in attach­ment to (and repulsion from) the impermanent. Get rid of attachment (and repulsion) and you get rid of the suffering of impermanence. The arahat makes imperma­nent use of the impermanent, but with indifference, and the only suffering he has is bodily pain or dis­comfort when it arises (and that, too, finally ceases when his body breaks up).

14. Three kinds of trainees                                                                                  
4 April 1964

Bradley makes a distinction that seems to have a certain (limited) application to the Dhamma. He speaks of the metaphysicians, on the one hand, who speculate on first principles and the ultimate nature of things; and on the other, of hose who are not prepared for metaphysical enquiry, who feel no call towards thankless hours of fruitless labour, who do not care to risk a waste of their lives on what the world for the most part regards as lunacy, and they themselves but half believe in.

(Principles of Logic, p. 340)

(What a cry from Bradley’s heart!) This second category contains those who take principles as working hypothe­ses to explain the facts, without enquiry into the ul­timate validity of those principles (this is the normal practice with those who study special subjects—physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and so on—and who are metaphysicians, if at all, in their own conceit). In brief: those who look for first principles, and those who take things on trust because they work in practice. In the Suttas, too, we find something of this distinction between those sekhas who are dittthipatta (“attained-through-view”) and those who are saddhāvimutta (“released-through-faith”). The former have heard the Buddha’s Teaching, reflected on it, and ac­cepted it after considering the ultimate principles on which it is based. The latter have heard the Teaching and reflected on it (as before), but instead of seeking its first principles, have accepted it because it in­spires them with trust and confidence. Both of them have practised the Teaching, and both have attained to sotāpatti or beyond, but one puts pattā foremost, and the other saddhā. But there is also a third kind of sekha, the kāyasakkhi (“body-witness”), who is quite without any corresponding, category in Western philoso­phy: he is one who puts samādhi foremost—he develops mental concentration and gets all the jhānas, and needs not so much pattā or saddhā. In AN 3:21/A I 118-20 the Buddha is asked which of these three is the best, but he declines to discriminate between them, saying that any one of them may outdistance the other two and ar­rive first at the final goal.

It is actually on this question of samādhi that Eastern thought is at its greatest distance from West­ern; and the latter can certainly be charged with ste­rility on this score (and this will include the exis­tentialists). The trouble seems to be this. Western thought has a Christian background (its individual thinkers can almost all be classed as pro-or anti­-Christian, and rarely, if ever, as neutral), and, since the practice of meditation is normally connected with religious beliefs (in a wide sense), all states at­tained through such practices are automatically classed as Christian (or at least as Theist or Deist), and therefore as essentially mystical. Now, no philosopher who respects the Laws of Thought can possibly find a place for the mystical in his scheme of things, since mysticism is an act of faith in the principle of non­contradiction (i.e. that the Law of Contradiction does not hold)—in other words, God (who is, one might say, self-contradiction personified, and, being the Ultimate Truth, is therefore no contradiction).[9] So samatha practice (ānāpānasati, for example), even were it known in the West (which it is not), would first be mis­understood as mystical, and then, on the strength of this, would be banished from the philosopher’s system (except, of course, on Sundays).

15. The Suttas and outside philosophies                                                   
12 April 1964

I am always pleased when I find a connection be­tween the Suttas and outside philosophies: it is not, to be sure, that the former can be reduced to the lat­ter—the Dhamma is not just one way of thinking amongst others—but rather that the Buddha has seen all that these philosophers have seen, and he has also seen what they could not see; and to discover this is ex­traordinarily exhilarating. Nobody can say to the Buddha, “There is this or that that you have not taken into account”[viii]: it is all taken into account, and still more. The Suttas give not the slightest pretext for the famous “sacrifice of the intellect”—Ignatius Loyola and Bodhidharma are strange bedfellows, indeed. Certainly there is more to the Dhamma than intellect (and this is sometimes hard for Europeans to under­stand), but there is nothing to justify the wilful abandonment of the Principle of Identity.

16. The Law of Identity                                                                              
14 July 1964

The Principle (or Law) of Identity is usually stated as “A is A” which can be understood as “Every­thing is what it is.” Bradley (Principles of Logic, p. 141) remarks that, in this form, it is a tautology and says nothing at all:

It does not even assert identity. For identi­ty without difference is nothing at all. It takes two to make the same, and the least we can have is some change of event in a self­same thing, or the return to that thing from some suggested difference. For, otherwise, to say “It is the same as itself” would be quite unmeaning.

In referring to Loyola and Bodhidharma in my last letter, I had in mind two “wilful abandonments of the Principle of Identity.” (i) Loyola: “In order never to go astray, we must always be ready to believe that what I, personally, see as white is black, if the hierarchi­cal Church defines it so.” (ii) Bodhidharma (or, ra­ther, a modern disciple of his, in an article in The Middle Way[ix]): “The basic principle of Zen is ‘A is not A’.” A great deal of modern thinking, including mathe­matics, is based on a deliberate rejection of one or another of the Laws of Thought, of which Identity is the first. This may be all very well in poetry or phys­ics, but it won’t do in philosophy—I mean as a fun­damental principle. Every ambiguity, for a philosopher, should be a sign that he has further to go.)

17. Mindfulness; Huxley’s Island                                                 
6 August 1964

Sati, in a loose sense, can certainly be trans­lated as “memory” but memory is normally memory of the past, whereas in the eight-factored path sati is more particularly concerned with the present. In so far as one can speak of memory of the present, this transla­tion will do, but memory of the present—i.e. calling to mind the present—is less confusingly translated as “mindfulness.” Here are two Sutta passages illustrating these two meanings of sati: in the first passage sati is “memory,” and in the second it is “mindfulness.” The passages can be translated as follows:

(i) The noble disciple is mindful, he is en­dowed with the highest mindfulness (memory) and prudence, he remembers and recalls what was done and what was said long ago. (SN 48:50/S V 275)

(ii) Here, monks, a monk dwells contemplating the body in the body… feelings in feel­ings… the mind in the mind… ideas in ideas, ardent, aware, mindful, having put away worldly covetousness and grief. Thus, monks, is a monk mindful. (SN 36:7/S IV 211)

I have been sent Huxley’s last novel—Island. It is a most unsatisfactory book. Since Huxley had visited Ceylon shortly before writing the book, and since the inhabitants of the Island are Buddhists, it has been thought that the Island is Ceylon. But this is clearly a mistake. The Island is undoubtedly Bali (Huxley calls it Pala), from its geographical and political environ­ment. Besides, the people are Mahāyāna Buddhists (Tan­tric to boot) with a strong admixture of Shiva worship. The book is a kind of Brave New World turned inside out—it describes a Utopia of which he approves. It is based almost entirely on maithuna (sex) and mescalin (one of the characters quotes a Tantric Buddhist saying that Buddhahood is in the yoni—a very convenient doc­trine!), which in combination (so it seems) are capable of producing the Earthly Paradise. The awkward fact of rebirth is eliminated with the statement that the Bud­dha discouraged speculation on such questions (whereas, in fact, the Buddha said quite bluntly throughout the Suttas that there is rebirth: the speculation that the Buddha discouraged was whether the Tathāgata [or ara­hat] exists after death, which is quite another ques­tion). And precisely the worst feature of the book is the persistent misinterpretation (or even perversion) of the Buddha’s Teaching.

It is probable that Huxley picked up a certain amount of information on the Dhamma while he was in Ceylon but, being antipathetic to Theravāda (this is evident in his earlier books), he has not scrupled to interpret his information to suit his own ideas. We find, for example, that according to Freudian doctrine Mucalinda Nāgarāja (Udāna II 10) is a phallic symbol, being a serpent. So “meditating under the Mucalinda tree” means sexual intercourse. And this in complete defiance of the verses at the end of the Sutta:

Dispassion for worldly pleasure,
getting beyond sensuality,
putting away the conceit “I am,”
—this indeed is the highest pleasure.

In short, the book is a complete misrepresentation of the Buddha’s Teaching in a popular form that is likely to be widely read. Huxley, of course, is sincere in his views and no doubt means well; but that does not make the book any the less unfortunate.

18. Meditations a non-mystical practice                                                          
18 May 1964

R. C. Zaehner (in his Mysticism: Sacred and Pro­fane) admits he doesn’t know much about Pali Buddhism, but what he does say is wrong in two respects. (i) In the first place, he more or less identifies the anattā (“not-self”) doctrine with Advaita Vedānta, and he does this with more than a suspicion that neither Buddhists nor even the Buddha himself would allow this.[10] Though this identification is quite gratuitous,[11] there is some excuse for it in view of certain books published in Europe which hold this view (Coomaraswamy in England, Georg Grimm in Germany). No doubt you will gather that I certainly do not hold the view that the object of the exercise is to get rid of my temporal “self” in order to attain the permanent “Self” behind it. (ii) In the second place, Zaehner appears to assume that all ex­perience attained in the practice of meditation (I use the word here in the widest sense) is of the mescalin/manic-depressive type, or at least that one has to pass through this state to reach the “Beatific Vision.”

Now, whatever the case may be with the Christian mystics, or with the Mohammedan Sufis, or with the Hin­dus—or even with Mahāyāna and Zen Buddhists—about none of whom am I well informed (and, still less, practised in their disciplines), I can quite definitely assert that (to speak only of the practice of concentration—samādhi ) the effect of practice according to the Theravāda tradition (details in the VisuddhimaggaPath of Purification) is quite different from any­thing Zaehner has described. I am quite familiar with the low-level results of this practice. There is a gradual and increasing experience of calm and tran­quillity as the object of meditation (in my case, the in- and out-breaths) becomes clearer and more definite, and at the same time distracting thoughts about other matters become less. Of one does turn one’s attention to such matters, they are seen much more clearly and steadily than at normal times.) As one proceeds, one’s capacity for practice increases, and one may be able to continue (with interruptions for meals, etc.) for many hours;[12] and also one positively dislikes any outside interruption, and necessary breaks are most unwelcome. In all this there is, right from the start, no sign at all of elation and depression (or expansion and con­traction—Zaehner, pp. 85ff.), and no experience of “one-ness” (with nature, with Self, with God, or with anything else). There is nothing one could possibly call “ecstatic” about it—it is pleasurable, and the more so the more one does it, but that is all. To begin with, certainly, one may be attacked either by sleepi­ness or by mental agitation (i.e. about other matters), but with persistence, and particularly when the object of meditation begins to appear clearly, these things no longer arise; but sleepiness is not depression and men­tal distraction is not manic exultation. About the higher states (called jhānas), in the descriptions of these attainments in the Suttas there is, once again, nothing that corresponds to what Zaehner describes; and, in particular, these practices alone do not lead to “liberation” in the highest sense—nibbāna—though Zaehner seems to assume that they do (pp. 155-6). Moreover, it is by no means necessary to reach the highest stages of concentration in order to attain nibbāna—first jhāna (minimum) is sufficient.

I have wearied you with all this only because it seems possible that, in denying that there was anything “mystical” about the Buddhism of the Pali Texts, I might have given you the impression that there was (in my opinion, at least) no practice of meditation. This, however, would be a mistake. In denying that Pali Bud­dhism was mystical, all I intended to convey was that (i) the practice of meditation (or, more specifically, concentration—samādhi) that it teaches cannot in any way be described as mystical (though certainly its ef­fects are, to begin with, unusual—because few people practise—and eventually, supernormal—they can lead to mastery of iddhi powers: levitation, clairvoyance, memory of past lives, and so on); and (ii) that even­tual liberation—nibbāna, extinction, is not a mystical union with the Deity, nor even absorption in a Higher Self (both of which cover up and intensify the funda­mental ambiguity of the subject [”I”, “myself”, etc.] ), but rather the attainment of the clear understanding and comprehension (pattā, attā) about the nature of this ambiguity (which, when combined with suitable samādhi actually causes—or, rather, allows—the ambi­guity to subside once for all).

There are many world-views against which as a background the Buddha’s Teaching is wholly incompre­hensible—indeed, the Buddha himself, upon occasion, when asked about his teaching, would answer, “It is hard for you, having (as you do) other teachers, other persuasions, other views, to understand these matters.” Zaehner’s Weltanschauung, for example, is hopeless.

19. Ignorance and reality                                                                              
2 August 1964

The world’s relativity (or variety) stubbornly resists all our efforts to reduce it to a single Whole. “The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia” (Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 11). Three quotations will perhaps illustrate this. Here, first, is Jean Grenier (Absolu et Choix)[x] on the Hindu māyā:

The world may be the product of a sort of dream, not the dream of a spirit but the dream of a power inherent in the world. That would be the case of this illusion that the Vedantists call māyā. For Indians; māyā is shakti, which is to say a power from (and of) Brahma, through which the latter takes a perceptible appearance… The Vedic hypoth­esis of māyā, a hypothesis that would better be called a postulate, because of its gener­ality and indemonstrability, consists in sup­posing that the world is the product of a cosmic illusion, a modification of Brahma. This modification would be apparent only, like the rope one thinks to be a snake but which nevertheless remains a rope. The absolute would not be more easily reached through it than the desert through the mirage.

Second, here is a passage from the Prajtāpāramitā on the Mahāyānist avidyā:

Objects exist only insofar as they do not exist in reality. Insofar as they do not ex­ist they are called avidyā, which means “non-­knowledge.” Common and ignorant people are attached to these things because they do not receive guidance (teaching) on this subject. They picture to themselves all these objects as existing, whereas in reality no one (no thing) exists.

Finally, a verse from the Pali Suttas:

Thought and lust are a man’s sensuality,
Not the various things in the world;
Thought and lust are a man’s sensuality,
The various things just stand there in the world;
But the wise get rid of desire therein.

(AN 6:63/A III 411)

For the Hindu, then, the variety of the world is il­lusion, and for the Mahāyānist it is ignorance; and in both cases the aim is to overcome the world, either by union with Brahma or by attainment of knowledge. Unlike the Hindus and the Mahāyānists, the Pali Suttas teach that the variety of the world is neither illusion (māyā) nor delusion (avidyā) but perfectly real. The attainment of nibbāna is certainly cessation of avijjā, but this leaves the variety of the world intact, except that affectively the variety is now uniformly indif­ferent. Avidyā, clearly enough, does not mean to the Mahāyānist what avijjā does in the Pali Suttas.

20. Desire to end desire                                                                              
31 August 1964

As to that Sutta you mention (AN 4:159/A II 144-7): a bhikkhunī sends for the Ven. Ānanda Thera, being in­fatuated with him and hoping perhaps for sexual inter­course. The Ven. Ānanda understands the situation and gives her a suitable Dhamma-talk. He tells her (i) that this body is a product of food and that, depending on food, food is to be given up (a bhikkhu’s body is made of food, but he must go on taking food to keep alive and practise the Dhamma if he wishes to give up food in the future by not being reborn); (ii) that this body is a product of craving and that, depending on craving, craving is to be given up (a bhikkhu, having been born on account of craving in his previous life, hears that so-and-so has become an arahat and, craving that for himself, sets to work to get it; and in course of time he succeeds, his success being, precisely, the giving up of all craving); (iii) the same with māna or conceit (the bhikkhu, hearing that so-and-so has become an ara­hat, thinks “I’m as good as he is, and if he can do it, so can I,” and sets to work; and in due course, promp­ted by conceit, he puts an end to conceit); (iv) that this body is a product of copulation, and that the Buddha has said that (for monks) copulation is abso­lutely not to be practiced. In (ii), the bhikkhu craves for arahatship since he thinks in terms of “I” or “self” (“When shall I attain that?”), and all such thoughts contain bhavatanhā, though of course here there is no sensual craving (kāmatanhā). But anyone who thinks “When shall I become an arahat?” is ipso facto failing to understand what it means to be an arahat (since being an arahat means not thinking in terms of “I”). So, on account of his craving for arahatship, he sets out to get it. But, since he does not understand what arahatship is, he does not know what it is that he is seeking; and when, in due course, he does come to know what it is he is seeking, he has ipso facto found it (or at least the first instalment of it). It is by making use of bhavatanhā that he gives up bhavatanhā (and a fortiori all other kinds of tanhā). It is be­cause of bhavatanhā that, with the Buddha’s help, we make an attempt to recognize bhavatanhā and succeed in doing so, thereby bringing bhavatanhā to an end.

21. Sending good wishes                                                               
20 September 1964

Your question about the propriety of sending good wishes (“Is not wishing desire, and so to be shunned?”) can be answered, though not in one word. There is de­sire and desire, and there is also desire to end desire. There is desire that involves self-assertion (love, hate) and desire that does not (the arahat’s desire to eat when hungry, for example), and the former can be either self-perpetuating (unrestrained passion) or self-destructive (restrained passion). Self-destructive desire is bad in so far as it is passionate, and there­fore good in so far as, translated into action, it brings itself to an end. (By “translated into action” I mean that the desire for restraint does not remain ab­stractly in evidence only when one is not giving way to passion, but is concretely operative when there is ac­tually occasion for it, when one is actually in a rage. To begin with, of course, it is not easy to bring them together, but with practice desire for restraint arises at the same time as the passion, and the combination is self-destructive. The Suttas say clearly that craving is to be eliminated by means of craving; and you your­self are already quite well aware that nothing can be done in this world, either good or bad, without pas­sion—and the achievement of dispassion is no excep­tion. But passion must be intelligently directed.) Since an arahat is capable of desiring the welfare of others, good wishes are evidently not essentially con­nected with self-assertion, and so are quite comme il faut.

I hope that your leave is passing pleasantly for you—that is, I do not hope that it is passing, but that it is pleasant in its passing: whether I hope or do not hope, it will pass, alas! like all good things, save one. But that one thing—again alas!—is not to be had simply by wishing.

In creatures subject to birth, ageing, and death, friends, there arises such a wish as “O that we were not subject to birth, ageing, and death! O that birth, ageing, and death might not come nigh us!” But that is not to be attained by wishing; and in this, too, not to get what one wishes is to suffer.                      (DN 22/D II 307)

With all best wishes, including this (that is, if you would wish it for yourself).

22. Dhamma and socialism                                                             
23 November 1964

I enclose a press cutting about Sartre.[xi] The view that he is expounding here (“A writer has to take sides …”) finds no justification at all in his philosophy. If, therefore, he holds this view, he does so simply be­cause he finds it emotionally satisfactory. This view, of course, is quite familiar to us—it is the socialist argument we sometimes hear, that since one cannot practise the Dhamma if one is starving, therefore food comes first; and therefore food is more important than the Damma; and therefore it is more important to pro­duce food than it is to behave well; and therefore any of violence or deceit is justified if it helps to increase food production.

As Sartre puts it, it seems plausible—it is bet­ter to feed the poor than to entertain the rich. But when we look at it more closely we see that certain difficulties arise. To begin with, it assumes (as all socialists, Sartre included, do assume) that this life is the only one, that we did not exist before we were born, and shall not exist after we die. On this assump­tion it is fairly easy to divide mankind into two groups: the rich oppressors, and the poor oppressed, and the choice which to support seems easy. But if this is not the only life, how can we be sure that a man who is now poor and oppressed is not suffering the unpleasant effects of having been a rich oppressor in his past life? And, if we take the principle to its logical con­clusion, should we not choose to be on the side of the “oppressed” inhabitants of the hells, suffering retribution for their evil ways, and to condemn the fortunate ones in the heavens, a privileged class enjoying the reward of virtue, as the “idle rich”? And then this view ignores the fact that our destiny at death depends on how we behave in this life. If bad behaviour in this life leads to poverty and hunger in the next, can we be sure that bread is more important than books? What use is it providing the hungry with bread if you don’t tell them the difference between right and wrong? Is meta­physics so unimportant if it leads men—rich and poor, no matter—to adopt right view and to behave accord­ingly?

Of course, the very fact that Sartre’s philosophy does not have anything to say about the hungry and op­pressed is a blemish on his philosophy; and it might be argued that Sartre is therefore better occupied standing up for the hungry and oppressed than in propagating his metaphysical views; but that still does not justify the principle. And, in the last analysis, the Buddha’s Teaching is for a privileged class—those who are for­tunate enough to have the intelligence to grasp it (the Dhamma is paccattam veditabbo vittuuhi (MN 38/M I 265)—“to be known by the wise, each for himself”), and they are most certainly not the majority! But Sartre’s at­titude is symptomatic of a general inadequacy in modern European thought the growing view that the majority must be right, that truth is to be decided by appeal to the ballot-box. (I read somewhere that, in one of the Western Communist countries, it was decided by a show of hands that angels do not exist.)

23. Interpreting the Canon                                                                  
29 November 1964

Mr. X remarks that I explain too inductively, that I tend to look for my ideas in the Canon instead of deducing from the passages what they mean. This criti­cism, however, supposes that we are, in fact, able to approach the Canon with a perfectly virgin mind, equip­ped only with a knowledge of Pali and a sound training in logic. But this is precisely what we cannot do. Each of us, at every moment, has the whole of his past be­hind him; and it is in the light of his past (or his background or his presuppositions) that he interprets what is now presented to him and gives it its meaning. Without such a background nothing would ever appear to us with any meaning at all—a spoken or written word would remain a pure presentation, a bare sound or mark without significance. But, unfortunately, each of us has a different past; and, in consequence, each of us approaches the Canon with a set of presuppositions that is different in various ways from everybody else’s. And the further consequence is that each of us understands the Canon in a different sense. We try to discover our personal ideas in the Canon because there is nothing else we can do. It is the only way we have, in the first place, of understanding the Canon. Later, of course, our understanding of the Canon comes to modify our ideas; and thus, by a circular process, our later understanding of the Canon is better than, or at least different from, our earlier understanding, and there is the possibility of eventually arriving at the right understanding of the ariyapuggala. Certainly we can, to some extent, deduce from the Canon its meaning; but unless we first introduced our own ideas we should nev­er find that the Canon had any meaning to be deduced.

For each person, then, the Canon means something different according to his different background. And this applies not only to our understanding of particu­lar passages, but also to what we understand by the Buddhadhamma as a whole. (I) We may all agree that certain passages were spoken by the Buddha himself and that they represent the true Teaching. But when we come to ask one another what we understand by these passages and by the words they contain we often find a profound disagreement that is by no means settled sim­ply by reference to other Sutta passages. (ii) Since everybody already has his own ideas (vague or precise) of what constitutes happiness, he will naturally look to the Buddha (that is, if he has placed his saddhā in the Buddha) to supply that happiness, and he will inter­pret the Dhamma as a whole in just that sense. Later, of course, he may find that the Dhamma cannot be taken in the sense that he wishes, and he will then either change his ideas or else abandon the Dhamma for some other teaching. But, in any case, there is no reason at all for supposing that two people (unless they have both ceased to be puthujjanas) will be agreed on what it is, precisely, that the Buddha teaches.

So, in the present case, I do not find that Mr. X’s view of the Dhamma—so far as I can grasp it—has any very great resemblance to mine; and that difference evidently reflects the difference in our respective backgrounds against which we interpret the Dhamma. He may (perhaps) say that he reads and understands the Suttas without any reference to a background, and (if so) I have no wish to argue the point; but I know that, for my part, I never come without a background (in a sense I am my background) when I consider the texts, even though that background is now very different from what it was when I first looked at a Sutta. And if he disagrees with what I am saying, that disagreement will itself be reflected in the way each of us understands the nature of the Dhamma.

24. Numinous experience                                                                 
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.” Numinous experience is just as real as 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 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. Our past loves can be absolutely dead, even when we meet the loved one again. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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.) 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. And what room, then, for despair? For the arahat 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.

25. A good life and a good death                                                              
30 December 1964

I myself started thinking about the unpleasant business of dying, perhaps three or four years ago. Up to then, like most people, I had not given it much thought. But I was struck by the statements of two doctors on the subject. The first said that if we over­eat we tend to die earlier than if we take less; and that since death is more painful when one is still young (because the body has stronger resistance) than when one is old and decrepit, it is advisable to eat less and live as long as possible. The other doctor was commenting (in a medical journal) on a proposal to in­stitute voluntary euthanasia for people who had reached the age of sixty. He was in favour of the proposal be­cause, he said, as a doctor he was well aware of the horrible diseases that are liable to attack us in the seventh and eighth decades of our lives. So there you are you die young you probably have a difficult death because your body is strong and if you keep alive into old age you run the risk of dying unpleasantly from some frightful affliction. And, after that, I was struck by the obsessive thought of death that runs right through Dr. Axel Munthe’s book The Story of San Michele. In the Suttas, whenever the Buddha speaks of severe pain, it is always “pain like that of dying.”

In Camus’ long novel La Peste (“The Plague”) a character declares, “The only concrete problem that I know of today is whether it is possible to be a saint without God.” In the Christian tradition, of course, one is good, one becomes a saint, in order to please God or to fulfil his will. But when (as is largely the case in Europe today) people no longer believe in the existence of God, is there any reason (apart from the police) for continuing to behave well or for aspiring to sainthood? This character in La Peste has seen human suffering, and has seen that much of this suffering is due to the cruelty or thoughtlessness of human beings themselves; and the question that he asks himself is whether a belief in God is necessary before one can live a good life, or whether a concern for other peo­ple’s welfare is enough, and whether this will give a man final peace. Actually, in one of the Suttas, the Buddha more or less answers this question by saying (in effect) that so long as one believes in God it is not possible to become a saint. And the reason is quite simple if God exists, he is responsible—since he created us—for all our actions, good or bad; and so, if I believe in God, I shall not myself feel responsi­ble for my actions, and so I shall have no motive for behaving well rather than badly. (The question of God’s responsibility for evil is one that perpetually tor­ments Christian theologians, and they have never found an adequate answer.)

One of the conclusions that this character of Camus arrives at is that if one is going to live well, one can never afford to be distracted. In other words, one must always be mindful. And one of the striking things in the book is the contrast between the deaths of the ordinary victims of the plague, who are indeed no more than, in Huxley’s expression, “moaning animals,” tossing about on their beds “with no more thoughts, but only pain and vomiting and stupor” be­tween these and the death of this one character who aspires to sainthood and practises mindfulness. Like the others, he dies of plague; but the whole time he is dying (according to Camus’ description) he gives the impression of being intelligent and retaining his lu­cidity right up to the last. He knows that he is dying, and he is determined to have “a good death.” Naturally, this is only a death in a novel, and we can’t take it as necessarily true of real life (did Camus, I wonder, ever see a man trying to die mindfully?); but I myself am rather of the opinion that, if one is really deter­mined to make an effort, a great deal can be done to­wards remaining intelligent at the time of one’s death. But I don’t suppose that it is very easy unless one has already made a long habit of mindfulness.

26. The autonomous mood                                                                          
1 January 1965

A pleasant surprise to get your letter! But how hard it is to communicate! Kierkegaard held that direct communication was impossible, and said (with Dostoievsky) that the surest way of being silent is to talk. I have been reading your letter and trying to grasp its meaning (the words and sentences, of course, are quite clear)—trying, in other words, to get the feel of it, to seize upon its Archimidean point.

Your reference to the autonomous mood in the Irish grammar can perhaps be turned to account, particularly since you yourself go on to suggest that a linguistic approach to the deeper questions of life might be re­warding. There is, in fact, a Sutta in which all the five aggregates (the factors present in all experience) are defined in this very way.

Matter is what matters;[14] feeling is what feels; perception is what perceives; determinations (or intentions) are what determine (or intend); consciousness is what cognizes.   (SN 22:79/S III 86-7)

The ordinary person (the puthujjana or “commoner”) thinks, “I feel; I perceive; I determine; I cognize,” and he takes this “I” to refer to some kind of timeless and changeless ego or “self.” But the arahat has com­pletely got rid of the ego-illusion (the conceit or concept “I am”), and, when he reflects, thinks quite simply, “Feeling feels; perception perceives; deter­minations determine; consciousness cognizes.” Perhaps this may help you to see how it is that when desire (craving) ceases altogether “the various things just stand there in the world.”[xii] Obviously they cannot “just stand there in the world” unless they are felt, per­ceived, determined and cognized (Berkeley’s esse est percipi is, in principle, quite correct); but for the living arahat the question “Who feels, perceives, de­termines, cognizes, the various things?” no longer arises—the various things are felt by feeling, per­ceived by perception, determined by determinations, and cognized by consciousness; in other words, they are “there in the world” autonomously (actually they always were, but the puthujjana does not see this since he takes himself for granted). With the breaking up of the arahat’s body (his death) all this ceases. (For other people, of course, these things continue unless and un­til they in their turn, having become arahats, arrive at the end of their final existence.)

A further point. When an arahat is talking to people he will normally follow linguistic usage and speak of “I” and “me” and “mine” and so on; but he no longer (mis)understands these words as does the puthujjana. There is a Sutta (in verse) which I translate (prosaically) as follows:

—A monk who is a worthy one (arahat), his task done,
His cankers destroyed, wearing his last body—
Is it because this monk has arrived at conceit
That he might say “I say,”
And that he might say “They say to me”?

—For one who is rid of conceit there are no ties,
All his ties of conceit are dissolved;
This wise man, having got beyond conceiving,
Might say “I say,”
And he might say, “They say to me”:
Skilled in worldly expressions, knowing about them,
He might use them within the limits of usage.           

(SN 1:25/S I 14)

It would be unfair on my part to allow myself to sug­gest, even by implication, that the Buddha’s Teaching is easier to understand than it is; and still more un­fair to lead you to suppose that I consider myself capable of benefiting you in any decisive manner. All I can do is to plant a few signposts in your way, in the hope, perhaps, of giving a certain orientation to your thinking that might stand you in good stead later on.

27. Ulysses: a glimpse of futility                                                             
7 April 1965

Your reaction to Ulysses (a feeling of sadness) is appropriate and shows that you have not misread the book; but surely the sympathy you feel for the ageing Molly Bloom should be extended to Mr. Bloom himself (and, in a lesser degree, to most of the other charac­ters)? Actually, when I first read the book it was not so much the ageing of the characters that affected me as the ultimate meaninglessness and futility of all their actions and aspirations. They are busy, all of them, seeking their immediate satisfactions, and avoiding their immediate discomforts; and everything that they do—whether it is making money, making music, making love, or simply making water—is quite pointless —in terms, that is to say, of an ultimate purpose or meaning in life. At the time I read it—when I was about twenty—I had already suspected (from my reading of Huxley and others) that there is no point in life, but this was still all rather abstract and theoretical. But Ulysses gets down to details, and I found I recog­nized myself, mutatis mutandis, in the futile occupa­tions that fill the days of Joyce’s characters. And so I came to understand that all our actions, from the most deliberate to the most thoughtless, and without exception, are determined by present pleasure and pres­ent pain. Even what we pompously call our “duty” is included in this law—if we do our duty, that is only because we should feel uncomfortable if we neglected it, and we seek to avoid discomfort. Even the wise man, who renounces a present pleasure for the sake of a greater pleasure in the future, obeys this law—he en­joys the present pleasure of knowing (or believing) that he is providing for his future pleasure, whereas the foolish man, preferring the present pleasure to his future pleasure, is perpetually gnawed with apprehen­sion about his future. And when I had understood this, the Buddha’s statement, “Both now and formerly, monks, it is just suffering that I make known and the cessa­tion of suffering,” (MN 22/M I 140) came to seem (when eventually I heard it) the most obvious thing in the world—“What else,” I exclaimed, “could the Buddha possibly teach?”

28. Humour                                                                                                    
18 May 1965

Yes, this existence of ours is no laughing matter, and yet we laugh. And the great laughers are not those who least see the grimness. Perhaps, then, laughter is something less simple than the sigh of pure innocent bliss. When do we laugh most spontaneously, with the least affectation? Is it not, possibly, when we have been threatened by some horrible menace and have just escaped by the skin of our teeth? The experience is familiar enough, and we may well take it as a starting point. It seems to suggest that laughter is in some way connected with fear. We are threatened; we fear; the threat passes; we laugh. Let us pursue this idea.

A few weeks ago, at the Hermitage, an unwanted young dog was dumped on the island from the mainland. I watched it, lying on its belly in front of one of the long-resident old curs there, whining and laughing (baring its teeth as dogs do when they are pleased) for all it was worth. Why? Because it actually was pleased? Because it was delighted to meet a new acquaintance? Far from it. There was every probability that it was extremely nervous and apprehensive about its reception by the other dogs, and was doing its utmost to placate them. But why should it laugh? In order, simply, to show the others and to persuade itself that no danger was threatening. Its laughter was a mode of conduct, a kind of charm, to keep danger at a distance. Since we laugh when danger passes, danger passes when we laugh —or that, at least, is the idea. The ingratiating grin that some people wear on their face (perhaps we all do at times) is simply to prove to themselves that they are not nervous—when, of course, they are shak­ing in their boots. So far, so good.

But why do we laugh at jokes? Let us ask, rather, why we tell one another jokes. Might it not be so that we can enjoy the pleasure of escaping from imaginary dangers? Most of our jokes, surely, are about somebody else’s misfortune, are they not? So-and-so has some un­fortunate, humiliating or ridiculous experience, an ex­perience that might have happened to us but actually happened to somebody else; and the relief we feel that the discomfort was his, not ours, takes the form of laughter. (Compassion, of course, may inhibit laughter; but some of our jokes are pretty heartless.)

We laugh, then, when fear passes; we laugh as a charm to make fear pass; and we entertain imaginary fears to make ourselves laugh. Now, according to Kierkegaard we laugh when we apprehend a contradiction. Might it not be that a contradiction is something to be feared—that it is, in some way, a threat?

Heidegger tells us that we normally exist in a state of “fallenness.” By this he means that most men hide from themselves by identifying themselves with the anonymous “one” or “they” or “the Others” and people in general. This kind of existence Heidegger calls “in-authenticity”; and it is what Sartre calls “serious-mindedness”. It is the inauthentic, the serious-minded, the solemn, who are your non-laughers. Or rather, they do laugh—but only at what the “they” have decided is funny. (Look at a copy of Punch of a hundred, or even fifty, years ago; you will see how completely the fashion in humour has changed. The “sick joke” was quite unthinkable in Victoria’s days—“one” simply did not laugh at that sort of thing, it was “not done.”) The inauthentic, absorbed by the world like ink by a blotter,[15] accept their views and values ready made, and go about their daily business doing whatever “is done.” And this includes their relaxations. To be “serious-minded” is to go to see comic films and laugh at whomever “one laughs at,” and see tragedies and have one’s emotions purged by the currently approved emotional purgative—the latest version, perhaps, of Romeo and Juliet.

Now if we agree with Kierkegaard that both comedy and tragedy are ways of apprehending contradictions, and if we also consider how much importance people at­tach to these things, we shall perhaps suspect that contradiction is a factor to be reckoned with in every­day life. But all this is on the inauthentic level, and to get more light on the question we must consider what Heidegger means by “authenticity.”

Our existence, says Heidegger, is care: we are concerned positively or negatively for ourselves and for others. This care can be described but it cannot be accounted for—it is primordial and we just have to accept it as it is. (Compare here the Buddha’s state­ment [AN 10:62/A V 116] that there is no first point to bhavatanhā, “craving for being.” The difference is that whereas Heidegger sees no way of getting rid of it, the Buddha does see the way and has followed it.) Care, says Heidegger, can be “lived” in either of two modes: authentic or inauthentic. The authentic man faces him­self reflexively and sees himself in his existential solitude—he sees that he is alone in the world—whereas the inauthentic man takes refuge from this disquiet­ing reflexion of himself in the anonymous security of people-in-general, of the “they.” The inauthentic man is fleeing from authenticity—from angst, that is to say, or “anxiety”; for anxiety is the state of the authentic man (remember that Heidegger is describing the puthujjana, and he sees no way out of anxiety, which, for him, is the mark of the lucid man facing up to himself). But the normally smooth surface of the public world of the “they” sometimes shows cracks, and the inauthentic man is pierced by pangs of anxiety, recalling him for a moment or two to the state of authenticity. Chief amongst these is the apprehension of the possibility of death, which the inauthentic man suddenly realizes is his possibility (death, of course, is certain: but this simply means that at any moment it is possible). He is torn from his complacent anonymity and brought up against the hard fact that he is an in­dividual, that he himself is totally responsible for everything that he does, and that he is sure to die. The hitherto friendly and sheltering world suddenly becomes indifferent to him and meaningless in its totality. But this shattering experience is usually fleeting, and the habitually inauthentic man returns quickly enough to his anonymity.

At this point let us see what the Suttas have to say about angst or anxiety (paritassanā). In the Ala­gaddupama Sutta (MN 22/M I 136–7) a monk asks the Bud­dha, “Can there be anxiety, lord, about objective absence?” The Buddha says that there can be such anxi­ety, and describes a man grieving about the way his possessions slip away from him. Then the monk asks, “Can there be anxiety, lord, about subjective absence?,” and again the Buddha says that there can. In this case we have a sassatavādin, holding himself and the world to be eternal, who hears about extinction (nibbāna) and apprehends it as annihilation. These two aspects, ob­jective and subjective, are combined in the Uddesa­vibhanga Sutta (MN 138/M III 227–8), a passage from which I translate as follows:

And how, friends, is there anxiety at not holding? Here, friends, an uninstructed commoner, unseeing of the nobles, ignorant of the noble Teaching, undisciplined in the noble Teaching, unseeing of good men, igno­rant of the good men’s Teaching, undisciplined in the good men’s Teaching, regards matter (feeling, perception, determinations, consciousness) as self, or self as endowed with matter (… consciousness), or matter (… consciousness) as belonging to self, or self as in matter (… consciousness). That matter (… consciousness) of his changes and becomes otherwise; as that matter (…con­sciousness) changes and becomes otherwise, so his consciousness follows around (keeps track of) that change of matter (… consciousness); anxious ideas that arise born of following around that change of matter (… consciousness) seize upon his mind and become estab­lished; with that mental seizure, he is per­turbed and disquieted and concerned, and from not holding he is anxious. Thus, friends, there is anxiety at not holding.

This, you will see, fairly well confirms Heidegger’s view of anxiety; and the more so when he makes the distinction that, whereas fear is shrinking in the face of something, anxiety is shrinking in the face of—nothing. Precisely. We experience anxiety when we find that the solid foundation upon which our precious and familiar self rests—upon which it must rest—is not there. Anxiety is shrinking in the face of a con­tradiction—or rather, not a contradiction, but the contradiction. This is the contradiction that we fear; this is the contradiction that threatens us in our in­nermost being—the agonizing possibility that, after all, we have no being, and that we are not. And now we can see why all the seemingly little contradictions at which we laugh (or weep) in our everyday life are really veiled threats, sources of danger. These are the little cracks and fissures in our complacent serious-minded existence, and the reason why we laugh at them is to keep them at a distance, to charm them, to exorcise them, to neutralize them—just as the young dog at the Hermitage laughed at the older one to ward off danger.

Anxiety—shrinking before nothing—is the father of all particular fears—shrinking before this or that. (Heidegger emphasizes that the prior condition to all fear is anxiety. We can fear only because we are flee­ing from anxiety.) And the contradiction between our eternal self and its temporal foundation is the father of all particular contradictions between this and that. Whether we laugh because we have just crawled out un­scathed from a car smash, or wear a sheepish grin when the boss summons us to his office, or split our sides when we hear how Jones had his wife seduced by Smith, or smile when we see a benevolent tourist giving a few cents out of compassion to an ill-dressed but extremely wealthy mudhalali—it can all be traced back to our inherent desire to fly from anxiety, from the agonized recognition that our very being is perpetually in ques­tion. And when we laugh at a comedy or weep at a trag­edy what we are really doing is busying ourselves re­pairing all the little crevices that have appeared in our familiar world in the course of the day or the week, which, if neglected, might become wider and deeper, and eventually bring our world crashing down in ruins about us. Of course, we don’t actually admit to ourselves that this is what we are doing; and the rea­son is that inauthentic existence is a degraded mode of existence, where the true nature of things is con­cealed—or rather, where we conceal the true nature of things from ourselves. Obviously, the more serious­ minded one is, the less one will be willing to admit the existence of these cracks and crevices in the sur­face of the world, and consequently one will take good care not to look too closely—and, of course, since laughter is already a tacit admission of the existence of such things, one will regard all kinds of levity as positively immoral.

Without leaving the sphere of the puthujjana, let us turn to the habitually authentic man—one who is anxious, and lucid in his anxiety, who keeps perpetu­ally before him (though without being able to resolve it) the essential contradiction in human existence. Once one has accepted anxiety as one’s normal and pro­per state, then one faces the contradiction, and this, granted the anxiety, neither as plain tragic nor as plain comic, but as tragi-comic. This, of course, can be put in several ways (you can do it yourself). This is perhaps as good as any: it is tragic that we should take as meaningful a world that is actually meaning­less, but comic that the world we take as meaningful should actually be meaningless.

Man is a discrepant combination of the infinite and the finite. Man, as he looks at himself, sees him­self as pathetic (“pathos” in the sense of “passion,” as in “so-and-so is passionately interested in his work”) or as comic, according as he looks towards the eternal or towards the world. The tragicomedy of the human (puthujjana’s) situation as apprehended by the authentic man in his lucid anxiety is the source of all tragedy and comedy on the purely everyday level. And, whereas the inauthentic man laughs or weeps with­out knowing why he does so—in other words, irrespon­sibly—the authentic man, when he laughs or weeps, does so responsibly. The authentic man, when he laughs at something (it will very often be at the serious-minded man, who is both very comic and very tragic), will al­ways have the other side of the picture present to mind, as the shadow of his comic apprehension. (And when he weeps, the comic aspect of the situation will be there outlined on the background.) He laughs (and weeps) with understanding, and this gives his humour a depth and an ambiguity that escapes the inauthentic man. In consequence of this, the authentic man is able to use his humour as a screen for his more authentic seriousness—seriousness, that is to say, about the human, or rather the existentialist paradox (he is looking for the solution and concluding, again and again, that the solution is that there is no solution; and this is the limit of the puthujjana’s field of vi­sion.) This sort of thing allows the authentic man to indulge in a kind of humour that horrifies and outrages the inauthentic.

It is obvious enough that there can be no progress in the Dhamma for the inauthentic man. The inauthentic man does not even see the problem—all his effort is devoted to hiding from it. The Buddha’s Teaching is not for the serious-minded. Before we deal with the problem we must see it, and that means becoming au­thentic. But now, when we consider your original ques­tion about the relation of humour to the Buddhadhamma, a certain distinction must be made. There is a cardinal difference between the solution to the problem offered by the Buddha and that (or those) offered by other teachings; and this is perhaps best illustrated in the case of Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard sees that the problem—the essential contradiction, attā hi attano n’atthi (“He himself is not his own”), Dhp 62—is in the form of a paradox (or, as Marcel would say, a mystery: a problem that en­croaches on its own data). And this is quite right as far as it goes. But he does not see how to resolve it. Further, he concludes (as I have suggested above) that, in this temporal life at least, the solution is that there is no solution. This itself is a reduplication of the original paradox, and only seems to make the prob­lem more acute, to work up the tension, to drive man further back into himself. And, not content with this, he seizes upon the essential Christian paradox—that God became man, that the Eternal became temporal—which he himself calls “absurd,” and thus postulates a solution which is, as it were, a kind of paradox cubed, as one might say—(paradox)3. But as we have seen, the original paradox is tragi-comical; it contains within its structure, that is to say, a humorous aspect. And when the paradox is intensified, so is the humorous—and a joke raised to the third power is a very tortuous joke indeed. What I am getting at is this: that in ev­ery teaching where the paradox is not resolved (and a fortiori where it is intensified), humour is an essen­tial structural feature. Perhaps the most striking case is Zen. Zen is above all the cult of the paradox. (“Burn the scriptures!”, “Chop up the Buddha image for firewood!”, “Go listen to the sound of one hand clap­ping.’”), and the old Zen masters are professional re­ligious jokers, sometimes with an appalling sense of humour. And all very gay too—but the Buddha alone teaches the resolution of the original paradox, not by wrapping it up in bigger paradoxes, but by unwrapping it.

If humour is, as I have suggested, in some way a reaction to fear, then so long as there remains a trace of the contradiction, of the existential paradox, so long will there remain a trace of humour. But since, essentially, the Buddha’s Teaching is the cessation of fear (or more strictly of anxiety, the condition of fear), so it leads to the subsidence of humour. Not, indeed, that the arahat is humourless in the sense of being serious-minded; far from it; no—it is simply that the need he formerly felt for humour has now ceased. And so we find in the Suttas (AN 3:105/A I 261) that whereas excessive laughter “showing the teeth” is called childishness, a smile when one is rightly pleased is not out of place. Perhaps you may like to see here a distinction between inauthentic and authentic humour.

You ask also about play: Sartre observes that in play—or at least in sport—we set ourselves the task of overcoming obstacles or obeying rules that we arbi­trarily impose upon ourselves; and he suggests that this is a kind of anti-serious-mindedness. When we are serious-minded we accept the rules and values imposed upon us by the world, by the “they”; and when we have fulfilled these obligations we feel the satisfaction of having “done our duty.” In sport it is we who impose the obligations upon ourselves, which enables us to en­joy the satisfaction of fulfilling them, without any of the disadvantages that go along with having to do what “they” expect us to do (for example, we can stop when we are tired—but you just try doing that when you are in the army!). In sport, we play at being serious; and this rather suggests that play (sport), like plays (the theatre), is really a way of making repairs in a world that threatens to come apart at the seams. So there probably is some fairly close connexion between play and humour. Certainly, we often laugh when we are at play, but I don’t think this applies to such obviously serious-minded activities as Test Matches.

29. Laughter and fear                                                                                              
24 May 1965

Reflecting on what I wrote a few days ago about humour, it occurs to me that I might have brought out certain aspects of what I had to say rather more clearly—in particular the actual relationship between laughter and fear. I think I merely said that laughter is “in some way a reaction to fear.” But this can be defined more precisely. To be “authentic” is to face the existential paradox, the essential contradiction, in a state of lucid anxiety, whereas to be “inauthen­tic” is to take refuge from this anxiety in the serious ­mindedness of the anonymous “they.” But the contradic­tion is tragicomic; and this (I suggested) is the source of all tragedy and comedy in the everyday world. It follows from this that the inauthentic man, in hid­ing in his serious-mindedness from the anxiety of con­tradiction, is actually hiding from the two aspects of existence, the comic and the tragic. From time to time he finds his complacent unseeing seriousness threatened with a contradiction of one kind or another and he fears. (The fearful is contradictory, and the contra­dictory is fearful.)

Pain, of course, is painful whether it is felt by the puthujjana or the arahat; but the arahat, though he may avoid it if he can, does not fear pain; so the fear of the inauthentic man in the face of physical danger is not simply the thought “there may be pain.” No—he fears for his physical existence. And this is the trag­ic aspect of the contradiction showing itself. And when the threat passes, the contradiction shows its other face and he laughs. But he does not laugh because he sees the comic aspect (that may happen later), his laughter is the comic aspect (just as his fear is the tragic aspect): in other words, he is not reacting to a contradictory situation, he is living it. Tragedy and comedy, fear and laughter: the two sides of a contra­diction. But he may be faced with other contradictions to which, because they are less urgent, he is able to react. He half-grasps the contradiction as a contra­diction, and then, according to the way he is oriented in life, either laughs or weeps: if he finds the tragic aspect threatening he will laugh (to emphasize the comic and keep the tragic at a distance), and if he finds the comic aspect threatening he will weep. (A passionate woman, who finds life empty and meaningless when she is not emotionally engaged in love—or perhaps hate—and fearing the comic as destructive of her pas­sion, may weep at the very contradiction that provokes laughter in a man who has, perhaps, discovered the ghastly boredom of being loved without loving in return and who regards the comic as his best defence against entanglements.) Laughter, then, is not a so much reaction to fear as its counterpart.

Another question is that of the sekha and anxiety. Granted that he is now fairly confidently authentic, by nature does he still experience anxiety? To some ex­tent, yes; but he has that faculty in himself by means of which, when anxiety arises, he is able to extinguish it. He knows of another escape from anxiety than flight into in-authenticity. He is already leaving behind him both laughter and tears. Here is a passage from SN 22:43/S III 43:

Having come to know, monks, the imperma­nence, changeability, absence of lust for and ceasing of matter (feeling, perception, de­terminations, consciousness), and if matter (…consciousness) formerly was as it is now, then all matter (…consciousness) is imper­manent, unpleasurable, of a nature to change. Thus seeing as it actually is with right un­derstanding, whatever is the arising of sor­row, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, they are eliminated; these, eliminated, there is no anxiety; not having anxiety he dwells at ease; dwelling at ease, this monk is called extinguished.

30 (a). Investigation of laughter                                                                  
2 June 1965

Certainly, I quite agree that we often, and per­haps mostly, laugh when no fear is present. But then (though I may not have made myself clear) I did not really want to maintain that fear is always present—indeed, I would say, precisely, that we laugh when fear is absent. Whenever we laugh—I think you may agree—there is always some contradiction or absurdity lurking in the situation, though this is not usually explicit: we laugh in a carefree way, then we may pause and ask ourselves “Now, why did I laugh then?,” and finally we see (if we have some reflexive or introspective facili­ty) that what we laughed at was some incongruity—or more precisely, that our laughter was our mode of ap­prehending that incongruity. What I had in mind, when I associated laughter with fear, was rather this: that every contradiction is essentially a threat (in one way or another) to my existence (i.e. it shakes my compla­cency); and that fear and laughter are the two alter­native modes in which we apprehend a threat. When the threat is advancing and may reach us, we fear; when the threat is receding or at a safe distance, we laugh. We laugh when there is no need to fear.

Children, as you rightly observe, laugh and laugh; and this—as I see it—is often because the child lives in a world where there are grown-up people, and the function of grown-up people—in a child’s eyes—is to keep threats at a distance. The child is protected from threats; he knows that they will not reach him, that there is nothing to fear, and so he laughs. The sea can be a dangerous thing; but if it is calm, or there is a grown-up about the place, the child can splash about and play with this danger because it is merely poten­tial. He pits his puny strength against the vast might of the ocean; and this is a contradiction (or incon­gruity), which he can apprehend in one of two ways, fear or laughter. If the ocean has the upper hand, he fears, but if he is getting the best of it (he plunges into the sea and emerges unharmed, he splashes, he kicks it, and the sea does not resent it) then he laughs: his laughter shows that “there is nothing to fear,” that fear is absent. But it does not show that fear is non-existent; merely that it is not there today.

You ask, rhetorically, if superiority feelings, “self” feelings, are not at the root of all guilt com­plexes. Certainly they are. But with guilt goes anxiety (we are superior—or we just “are”—and we are unable, to justify our superiority, our existence, and so we are anxious. Pride goes before a fall—and this is true right back as far as asmimāna, the conceit “I am”). And anxiety is anxiety before the essential contradiction, which shows its un-funny aspect. So, as you say, our feeling of superiority inhibits laughter. But it does not necessarily follow that when we lose the superi­ority we shall laugh along with everybody else. A practised yogin, certainly, particularly if he has been doing karunā (compassion) is not in the least superior; but it may well be that, by his practice, he has put fear so far from him that he has lost the urge to laugh.

How far our investigation of humour tends to de­stroy it in the act of investigating it (like atomic physicists when they “observe” an electron), depends principally upon the method used. If we adopt the scientific attitude of “complete objectivity”—actually an impossibility—then we kill it dead, for there is nobody left to laugh. This leads to the idea that jokes are funny in themselves—that they have an intrinsic quality of funniness that can be analysed and written about in a deadly serious manner. The other way is to watch ourselves as we laugh, in a reflexive effort, and then to describe the experience. This is the phenomen­ological (or existential) method of “going direct to the things themselves.” Of course, this needs practice; and also it does modify the original humour (for ex­ample, it tends to bring into view the tacit pathetic background, which is normally hidden when we laugh in the immediate, or inauthentic, mode). Nevertheless, the humour, though modified, is still there, and something useful can be said about it—though what is said will be very unlike what is said by the serious-minded uni­versity professor who writes his two scholarly volumes. Kierkegaard is insistent upon the principle, Quidquid cognoscitur, per modum cognoscentis congoscitur, “What­ever is known is known in the mode of the knower”; and he would say that a serious-minded person is inherently incapable of knowing anything of humour. If we are going to find out what is funny in this or that joke, we must allow ourselves to be amused by it and, while still amused, describe our amusement:

30 (b). Existentialist Idiom and Sutta idiom                                         
2 June 1965 (contd.)

Yes, the existentialist idiom is difficult, until you get the feel of it. The difficulty arises from the phenomenological method that I have just been talking about. The scientist (or scholar) becomes “objective,” puts himself right out of the picture (Kierkegaard is at his best when he describes this “absent-minded” opera­tion), and concerns himself only with abstract facts; the existentialist remains “subjective” (not in the de­rogatory sense of being irresponsible), keeps himself in the picture, and describes concrete things (that is, things in relation to himself as he experiences them). This radical difference in method, naturally enough, is reflected in the kind of language used by the scientist on the one hand and the existentialist on the other—or rather, in the difference in the way they make use of language. I was struck, when I first read Sartre, by the strange sort of resemblance between certain of his expressions and some of the things said in the Suttas. Sartre, for example, has this:

…we defined the senses and the sense-organs in general as our being-in-the-world in so far as we have to be it in the form of being-in-the-midst-of-the-world.

(Being and No­thingness, p. 325)

In the Suttas (e.g. SN 35:116/S IV 95 ) we find:

The eye (ear, nose, tongue, body, mind) is that in the world by which one is a perceiver and conceiver of the world.

Now whatever the respective meanings of these two ut­terances[16] it is quite clear that despite the twenty-five hundred years that separate them, Sartre’s sen­tence is closer in manner of expression (as well as in content) to the Sutta passage than it is to anything produced by a contemporary neuro-physiologist suppos­edly dealing with precisely the same subject—our sense organs and perception of the world. This remarkable similarity does not oblige us to conclude that Sartre has reached enlightenment, but simply that if we want to understand the Suttas the phenomenological approach is more promising than the objective scientific ap­proach.

Although the existentialist philosophers may seem close to the Buddha’s Teaching, I don’t think it nec­essarily follows that they would accept it were they to study it. Some might, some might not. But what often happens is that after years of hard thinking, they come to feel that they, have found the solution (even if the solution is that there is none), and they lie back resting on their reputation, or launch themselves into other activities (Marcel has become a Catholic, Sartre is politically active); and so they may feel disin­clined to re-open an inquiry that they have already closed to their satisfaction (or dissatisfaction, as the case may be). Besides, it is not so a easy to induce them to take up a study of the Dhamma. Even transla­tions of the Suttas are not always adequate, and any­way, they don’t practise samatha bhāvanā.

I don’t want to be dogmatic about the value of a familiarity with the existential doctrines; that is, for an understanding of the Dhamma. Of course, if one has a living teacher who has himself attained (and ideally, of course, the Buddha himself), then the es­sence of the Teaching can sometimes be conveyed in a few words. But if, as will be the case today, one has no such teacher, then one has to work out for oneself what the Suttas are getting at. And here, an acquaint­ance with some of these doctrines can be—and, in my case, has been—very useful. But the danger is, that one may adhere to one or other of these philosophers and fail to go beyond to the Buddha. This, certainly, is a very real risk—but the question is, is it a jus­tifiable risk?

You say, “Questions that strike a Sartre or a Kierkegaard as obvious, urgent, and baffling may not have ever occurred to Bāhiya Dārucīriya.” I am not so sure. I agree that a number of “uneducated” people ap­pear, in the Suttas, to have reached extinction. But I am not so sure that I would call them “simple.” You suggest that Bāhiya may not have been a very complex person and that a previous “Sartre” phase may not have been essential for him. Again I don’t want to be dog­matic, but it seems to me that your portrait of him is oversimplified. Your quotation of the brief instruction that the Buddha gave Bāhiya is quite in order as far as it goes; but—inadvertently, no doubt—you have only given part of it. Here is the passage in full (Udāna 10: 8):

Then, Bāhiya, you should train thus: “In the seen there shall be just the seen; in the heard there shall be just the heard; in the sensed there shall be just the sensed; in the cognized there shall be just the cognized”—thus, Bāhiya, should you train yourself. When, Bāhiya, for you, in the seen there shall be just the seen… cognized, then, Bāhiya, you (will) not (be) that by which (tvam na tena); when, Bāhiya, you (shall) not (be) that by which, then, Bāhiya, you (shall) not (be) in that place (tvam na tattha); when, Bāhiya, you (shall) not (be) in that place, then, Bāhiya, you (will) neither (be) here nor yonder nor between the two: just this is the end of suffering.

This is a highly condensed statement, and for him sim­ple. It is quite as tough a passage as anything you will find in Sartre. And, in fact, it is clearly enough connected with the passage that I have already quoted alongside a passage from Sartre: “The eye (etc.) is that in the world by which one is a perceiver and con­ceiver of the world.”

Let us now try, with the help of Heidegger’s indications, to tie up these two Sutta passages.[xiii]

(i) To begin with, “I—here” is I as identical with my senses; “here,” therefore refers to my sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and also mind). The counterpart of “here” is “yonder,” which refers to the various things in the world as sense-objects. “Be­tween the two” will then refer (though Heidegger makes no mention of this) to consciousness, contact, feeling, and so on, as being dependent upon sense organ and sense object—“Dependent upon eye and visible forms, eye-consciousness arises; the coming together of these three is contact; with contact as condition, feeling,” etc. (SN 35:107/S IV 87)

(ii) In the second place Heidegger says that “here” and “yonder” are possible only in a “there”; in other words, that sense-organs and sense-objects, which are “amidst-the-world,” in Sartre’s phrase, are pos­sible only if there is a world for them to be “amidst.” “There,” then, refers to the world. So the “here and yonder” and the “there” of the Bāhiya Sutta correspond in the other Sutta to the “eye (and so on)” as “that in the world….”

(iii) But Heidegger goes on to say that there is a “there” only if there is an entity that has made a disclosure of spatiality as the being of the “there”; and that being-there’s existential spatiality is groun­ded in being-in-the-world. This simply means that, in the very act of being, Idisclose a spatial world: my being is always in the form of a spatial being-there. (In spite of the Hindus and Hegel, there is no such thing as “pure being.” All being is limited and parti­cularized—if I am at all, I am in a spatial world.) In brief, there is only a “there,” a spatial world (for senses and objects to be “amidst”), if I am there. Only so long as I am there shall I be “in the form of being-­amidst-the-world”—i.e. as sense-organs (“here”) sur­rounded by sense-objects (“yonder”).

(iv) But on what does this “I am there” depend? “I am there” means “I am in the world”; and I am “in the world” in the form of senses (as eye… mind). And Heidegger tells us that the “here” (i.e. the senses) is always understood in relation to a “yonder” ready-to-hand, i.e. something that is for some purpose (of mine). I, as my senses, “am towards” this “yonder”; I am “a being that is de-severant, directional, and con­cernful.” I won’t trouble you with details here, but what Heidegger means by this is more or less what the Venerable Ānanda Thera means when he said that “The eye (and so on) is that… by which one is a perceiver and a conceiver of the world.” In other words, not only am I in the world, but I am also, as my senses, that by which there is a world in which I am. “I am there” because “I am that by which there is an I-am-there”; and consequently, when “I shall not be that by which,” then “I shall not be there.” And when “I shall not be there,” then “I shall neither be here nor yonder nor between the two.”

(v) And when shall we “not be that by which”? This, Heidegger is not able to tell us. But the Buddha tells us: it is when, for us, in the seen there shall be just the seen, and so with the heard, the sensed, and the cognized. And when in the seen is there just the seen? When the seen is no longer seen as “mine” (etam mama) or as “I” (eso’ham asmi) or as “my self” (eso me atta): in brief, when there is no longer, in connexion with the senses, the conceit “I am,” by which “I am a conceiver of the world.”

So, although it would certainly be going too far to suggest that Bāhiya had already undergone a course of existentialist philosophy, the fact remains that he was capable of understanding at once a statement that says more, and says it more briefly, than the nearest comparable statement either in Heidegger or Sartre. Bāhiya, I allow, may not have been a cultured or sophis­ticated man-of-the-world; but I see him as a very subtle thinker. Authenticity may be the answer, as you suggest; but an authentic man is not a simple person—he is self-transparent if you like, which is quite another matter.

31. Who judges? And with what as standard?                                           
2 July 1965

About your query—the “Q.E.D.” at the end gives it rather a rhetorical air, and it looks as if it might have been aimed at me as a knockout punch. Let me see if there is anything left for me to say.

Query: If all things are adjudged as characterized by dukkha, who does the judg­ing? And with reference to what criterion or norm? A subject (immortal soul) with reference to an objective sukha, no? Q.E.D.

You ask “Who does the judging?” This question takes for granted that judging is done “by somebody.” But this is by no means a foregone conclusion: we are quite able to give an account of judgement (or knowing) without find­ing ourselves obliged to set it up as “a relation be­tween subject and object.” Knowledge is essentially an act of reflexion, in which the “thing” to be known presents itself (is presented) explicitly as standing out against a background (or in a context) that was already there implicitly. In reflexion, a (limited) totality is given, consisting of a centre and a peri­phery—a particular cow appears surrounded by a number of cattle, and there is the judgement, “The cow is in the herd.” Certainly, there is an intention to judge, and this consists in the deliberate withdrawal of at­tention from the immediate level of experience to the reflexive; but the question is not whether judgement is an intentional action (which it is), but whether there can be intention (even reflexive intention) without a subject (“I”, “myself”) who intends. This, however, is not so much a matter of argument as something that has to be seen for oneself.

Of course, since knowledge is very commonly (Heidegger adds “and superficially”) defined in terms of “a relation between subject and object,” the ques­tion of the subject cannot simply be brushed aside—no smoke without fire—and we have to see (at least briefly) why it is so defined. Both Heidegger and Sartre follow Kant in saying that, properly speaking, there is no knowledge other than intuitive; and I agree. But what is intuition? From a puthujjana’spoint of view, it can be described as immediate contact be­tween subject and object, between “self” and the “world.” This, however, is not yet knowledge, for which a reflexive reduplication is needed; but when there is this reflexive reduplication we then have intuitive knowledge, which is (still for the puthujjana) immedi­ate contact between knowing subject and known object. With the arahat, however, all question of subjectivity has subsided, and we are left simply with (the presence of) the known thing. (It is present, but no longer pres­ent “to somebody.”) So much for judgement in general.

But now you say, “If all things are characterized by dukkha…” This needs careful qualification. In the first place, the universal dukkha you refer to here is obviously not the dukkha of rheumatism or a toothache, which is by no means universal. It is, rather, the sankhāra-dukkha (the unpleasure or suffering connected with determinations) of this Sutta passage:

There are, monks, three feelings stated by me: sukha feeling, dukkha feeling, neither­-dukkha-nor-sukha feeling. These three feel­ings have been stated by me. But this, monk, , has been stated by me: whatever is felt, that counts as dukkha. But that, monk, was said by me with reference just to the impermanence of determinations….

(SN 36:11/S IV 216)

But what is this dukkha that is bound up with imperma­nence? It is the implicit taking as pleasantly-perma­nent (perhaps “eternal” would be better) of what actu­ally is impermanent. And things are implicitly taken as pleasantly-permanent (or eternal) when they are taken (in one way or another) as “I” or “mine” (since, as you rightly imply, ideas of subjectivity are associated with ideas of immortality). And the puthujjana takes all things in this way. So, for the puthujjana, all things are (sankhāra ) dukkha. Howthen—and this seems to be the crux of your argument—how then does the puthujjana see or know (or adjudge) that “all things are dukkha” unless there is some background (or cri­terion or norm) of non-dukkha (i.e. of sukha) against which all things stand out as dukkha? The answer is quite simple: he does not see or know (or adjudge) that “all things are dukkha.” The puthujjana has no cri­terion or norm for making any such judgement, and so he does not make it. The puthujjana’s experience is (sankhāra-) dukkha from top to bottom, and the consequence is that he has no way of knowing dukkha for himself; for however much he “steps back” from himself in a re­flexive effort he still takes dukkha with him. The  whole point is that the puthujjana’snon-knowledge of dukkha is the dukkha that he has non-knowledge of;[17] and this dukkha that is at the same time non-knowledge of dukkha is the puthujjana’s (mistaken) acceptance of what seems to be a “self” or “subject” or “ego” at its face value (as nicca/sukha/attā, permanent/pleasant/self).

And how, then, does knowledge of dukkha come about? How it is with a Buddha I can’t say (though it seems from the Suttas to be a matter of prodigiously intelligent trial-by-error over a long period); but in others it comes about by their hearing (as puthujjanas) the Buddha’s Teaching, which goes against their whole way of thinking. They accept out of trust (saddhā) this teaching of anicca/dukkha/anattā; and it is this that, being accepted, becomes the criterion or norm with reference to which they eventually come to see for themselves that all things are dukkha—for the puthuj­jana. But in seeing this they cease to be puthujjanas and, to the extent that they cease to be puthujjanas,[18] to that extent sankhāra-dukkha ceases, and to that extent also they have in all their experience a “built-in” criterion or norm by reference to which they make further progress. (The sekha—no longer a puthujjana but not yet an arahat—has a kind of “double vision,” one part unregenerate, the other regenerate.) As soon as one becomes a sotāpanna one is possessed of apara­paccaya-tānam or “knowledge that does not depend upon anyone else”; this knowledge is also said to be “not shared by puthujjanas,” and the man who has it has (except for accelerating his progress) no further need to hear the Teaching—in a sense he is (in part) that Teaching.



Editorial Notes


[1] The Doctrine of Awakening, by J. Evola (Luzane, 1951).

[2] Clearing the Path: Writings of Ñānavīra Thera (Colombo: Path Press, 1987).

[3] The essay “Mindfulness and Awareness”—also original­ly a letter and included in Clearing the Path—was first Published by the BPS as a Bodhi Leaf (BL 60).

[4] Thera (elder) is a monastic honorific appended to one's name upon completion of ten years as a bhikkhu (monk).

[5] In Persia, evidently, opium is the religion of the masses.

[6] The rationalist, who would not for a moment dream of practising the Buddha's Teaching, can never understand that this is anything else than a glimpse of the ob­vious. Arthur Koestler, on first meeting the Buddha's Teaching, exclaimed “But it's all tautologous, for Heaven's sake!”

[7] Below this point, though the essential structure of addiction remains the same, it is no longer possible to get an outside view of it by voluntary effort. In other words, one cannot give up sakkāyaditthi (and become a sotāpanna) as simply as one can give up tobacco, merely by deciding to do so and sticking to the decision. Indeed, it is so difficult that it takes a Buddha to find out about it and tell others.

[8] Identity—"A is A;” Contradiction—"A is not both B and not B;” Excluded Middle—"A is either B or not B.”

[9] Some philosophers take advantage of this situ­ation: they develop their system as far as possible, carefully avoiding self-contradictions; but when they encounter one that they cannot explain, instead of con­fessing defeat they proudly declare that they have proved the existence of God.

[10] “…the Buddha saw something that did not change, over against prakriti he saw purusha though he would not have formulated it thus.” And again, “More­over the Hindus, overwhelmingly, and the Buddhists when they are off their guard, speak of this eternal being as the 'self'….”

[11] There is one text (at least) that directly op­poses the idea that nibbāna (extinction) is attā (self).

[12] In the Suttas, the Buddha and others continue for a week at a time “without changing their sitting position,” and this is, to me, perfectly credible.

[13] Saòkapparāgo purisassa kāmo
Na te kāmā yāni citrāni loke
Saòkapparāgo purisassa kāmo
Titthanti citrāni tath'eva loke
Ath'ettha dhīrā vinayanti chandam

[14] I.e., is afflicted or breaks up—the phrase ruppatī ti ruupam is untranslatable into English. {long ‘i’}

[15] Cf. the Khajjaniya Sutta (SN 22:79/S III 87–8) where it is said that we are normally “devoured” by matter, feeling, perception, determinations, and consciousness.

[16] Where the Sutta says “the eye is that in the world…,” Sartre says that we (as our sense-organs) are “amidst-the-world”; and where the Sutta says “one is a perceiver and conceiver of the world,” Sartre speaks of “our being-in-the-world.”

[17] In one Sutta (MN 44/M I 303) it is said that neither-dukkha-nor-sukha feeling (i.e. in itself neutral) is dukkha when not known and sukha when known.

[18] Strictly, only those are puthujjanas who are wholly puthujjanas, who have nothing of the arahat at all in them. But on ceasing to be a puthujjana one is not at once an arahat; and we can perhaps describe the intermediate (three) stages as partly one and partly the other: thus the sotāpanna would be three-quarters puthujjana and one-quarter arahat.


[i] Nichols is prolific. The book discussing opium addiction has not been identified; but in a later book, Father Figure, he discusses the instant cure of his father from lifelong alcoholism, albeit not by “faith in God” but rather through “loss of faith in inheritance.”

[ii] Dr. Helmut Klar is a well-known German Buddhist. The test described here sounds like the Lüscher Color Test, popularized in the 1970’s by a paperback book of that title.

[iii] The Hermitage is the Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa, Sri Lanka, where both the Ven. Ñānamoli and the Ven. Ñānavīra lived for many years.

[iv] Edmund Husserl was the founder of the phe­nomenological school in the early years of this century. This school has been very influential on the European conti­nent, though less well-known in English-speaking coun­tries. Husserl’s article “Phenomenology” in the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was praised by Ven. Ñānavīra as a lucid summary of its methodology. Among Hus­serl’s well-known disciples were Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre; hence phenomen­ology and existentialism are frequently linked.

[v]Heidegger’s major work is translated into English as Being and Time; Sartre’s is Being and Nothingness. Because the Ven. Ñānavīra read French but not German the latter book had a greater influence upon him; but when the former book was eventually translated and a copy reached him, he remarked that where the two disagreed, it was generally Heidegger who was in the right.

[vi] The book being discussed is The Doors of Percep­tions & Heaven and Hell. Huxley had a strong influence on the Ven. Ñānavīra in his youth; later their views di­verged considerably.

[vii] The Huxley article was a newspaper clipping the correspondent had passed on to the Ven. author.

[viii] Cf. AN 7 55/A IV 83.

[ix] The Middle Way is the journal of the Buddhist Society of Great Britain.

[x] Absolu et Choix was published by Presses Univer­sitaires de France in 1961. The quotation was sent in French. The translation used here is provided by the editor, from pp. 53-55 of Grenier’s book. The Prajñāpāramitā quota­tion was also sent in French, and would seem to be quoted from an essay, “Le Bouddhisme d’après les Textes pālis,” by Solange Bernard-Thierry on p. 608 of Presence du Bouddhisme, the Feb.-June 1959 issue of the journal France­ Asie, published in Saigon. The quotation seems to be from one of the more recent strata of the Prajñāpāramitā Suutra. The English translation is by the editor.

[xi] The article was entitled “Bread Before Books.”

[xii] See letter 19.

[xiii] Part of the letter not included among these selections includes a discussion of Being and Time,* pp. 169-172, particularly of a passage on page 171:

The entity which is essentially constituted by Being-in-the-world is itself in every case its ‘there’. According to the familiar signification of the word, the ‘there’ points to a ‘here’ and a ‘yonder’. The ‘here’ of an ‘I—here’ is always understood in relation to a ‘yonder’ ready-to-hand, in the sense of a Being towards this ‘yonder’—a Being which is de-severant, directional, and concernful. Dasein’s existential spatiality, which thus determines its ‘location’, is itself grounded in Being-in-the-world. The “yonder” belongs def­initely to something encountered within-the­-world. ‘Here’ end ‘yonder’ are possible only in a ‘there’—that is to say, only if there is an en­tity which has made a disclosure of spatiality as the Being of the ‘there.’ This entity carries in its ownmost Being the character of not being closed off. In the expression ‘there’ we have in view this essential disclosedness. By reason of this disclosedness, this entity (Dasein), togeth­er with the Being-there of the world, is ‘there’ for itself.

(* Being and Time, a translation by J. Macquarrie and E. S. Robinson of Sein und Zeit, by Martin Heidegger (London: SCM Press, 1982; New York: Harper and Row, 1962).)