Review of Ven. Ñānavīra’ Letters after 1960

Posted: September 19, 2010 by pathpress in Dhamma Article

by John Stella

Among the Letters of Ven. Ñāṇavīra Therai we may distinguish several literary techniques, perhaps more than his editor Ven. Bodhesako recognized. First, as he noted, they have much in common with the epistolary tradition in which ‘serious philosophical and literary discussion was conducted on a personal basis within a small circle of thinkers’. Especially with Ven. Ñāṇamoli Thera and his publisher, Judge Lionel Samaratunga, our author exchanged letters at a rapid pace, dealing with topics such as Existentialism, literature, the Laws of Thought, quantum physics and their relevance to the Dhamma. They often contained diagrams, equations and lengthy quotations in Pali and French.

Secondly, several of the Letters comprise ‘thinly disguised essays in a wholly modern tradition’, on issues such as the crucial distinctions between change and flux in Letter 8, and between positive and negative thinkers in Letters 22 and 27; on the nature of addiction in Letter 13; and on the merits of the existentialists in Letter 121.

Thirdly, Ven. Ñāṇavīra himself describes the Letters as ‘something of a commentary on the Notes’. His habit of cross-referencing in his book persists in his correspondence, as he often refers his readers to “Note X, Paragraph Y” of the text to sustain his argument. Hence it is that we may often come to a clearer understanding of the Notes via a study of the Letters, especially since the prose therein is not so dense.

Fourthly, those dealing with ‘the tragic, the comic and the personal’ii do not so much belong to the modern tradition, but rather reflect the style and content of the voluminous works of Michel de Montaigne.iii As do the Essais of the 16th century French classicist, Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s Letters offer his readers an astonishingly candid and variegated portrait of a solitary genius. One expression of that portrait shows a mind able to articulate conspicuously the thinking process, while another reveals a unique method of literary criticism, analyzing works by Dostoievsky, Huxley, Kafka, Joyce and Sterne to express the Dhamma in a Western idiom. At the same time it depicts the day-to-day life of one striving to follow the Buddha’s Teaching to the utmost, since for him the Dhamma was the only thing he took seriously. On the other hand, he was not insensitive to the comic aspects of a formerly well-to-do Englishman residing in a hut at the edge of a Ceylonese jungle, visited by elephants, snakes and tarantulas, and by curious people who were unsure whether he was a saint or a madman.

Yet again in the spirit of Montaigne who, according to Professor Frame, ‘combined insatiable curiosity about himself with remarkable detachment’, Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s aim ‘is not confession but communication’.iv Despite the ‘perverse complexities’ of his situation, he refuses to attach importance to it: more inclined to indulge in “black humour” than to lapse into self-pity or egotism, he relates his bouts with chronic intestinal disorders, satyriasis and despondency with what may be termed “forthright nonchalance”. In this way, the self-portrait remains at all times ‘incidental to the ideas’.

Finally, among the correspondence readers will find valuable advice for understanding and practising the Dhamma, gleaned from the author’s profound and comprehensive knowledge of the Suttas and his meditative experience. They may want to pay particular attention to his remarks on sati and on mettā bhāvanā, which he rightly describes as ‘notoriously easy to misconceive’.

Let us consider these perspectives in some detail. As authorial commentaries, the Letters call for close, serious study, on the level demanded by the Notes. It is worth mentioning that critics who have rejected the reasoning of “A Note on Paţiccasamuppāda” have never taken the Shorter Notes or the Letters into account. But the whole of what comprised Clearing the Path is more than the sum of its parts. As Ven. Ñāṇavīra writes in Letter 75, they are ‘like so many beads inter-connected with numbers of threads, in a kind of three-dimensional network’ which cannot be taken in isolation. Also, as he acknowledges, his formal publications exhibit his peculiar gift for ‘sweating down’ an idea: therefore, much of the illustration and elaboration of his arguments will be found amidst the ‘serious philosophical discussion’ conducted with his correspondents. Most readers of Notes will find comments in the Letters essential to comprehending intricate entries such as those on Attā, Dhamma, Sańkhāra and Fundamental Structure.

Just as essential are the long essays, which not only resolve individual queries regarding Sutta passages, the nature of change or the anatomy of consciousness, but also give us insight into the workings of Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s mind as we try to adopt his point of view. His method may be described simply, even if its implementation is complex. As demonstrated in the Foreword to the Notes, the approach always consists of taking a subjective view, at once remaining faithful to our own experience and adhering to the Laws of Thought. For example, in letters 6–8 our author denies the assertion that continuous change is ‘a matter of observation’. He argues instead that what we normally do is to apply an abstract notion we have learnt about theoretically to our concrete experience. Unfortunately, this tendency has become habitual in our thinking, for it is easier to accept someone else’s theory than to test it ourselves. As these letters demonstrate, no one has ever really observed continuous change or flux; nevertheless, many take it for granted, without pausing to consider the rather obvious fact that the exclusion of sameness or stasis renders meaningless the notion of change.

In contrast, Ven. Ñāṇavīra does not allow himself the leisure of lazy thinking, and those who indulge in it are exposed to the glare of his intellect’s ‘powerful searchlight’—be they his own correspondents, or well-known professional scholars such as Rhys Davids, Wijesekara, Jayatilleke and Burtt, who, despite their wealth of facts about Buddhism, hopelessly misconstrue the Buddha’s Teaching. Like so many, they write about Buddhist practices and ethics from an objective or historical perspective, and it apparently never occurs to them to apply those ethics to themselves as existing human beings and practise the Dhamma for real. But ethics, particularly for a religious mind, is clearly about what I should do, not about what Caesar or King Bimbisâra did. As Ven. Ñāṇavīra points out, history is accidental to ethics; otherwise, the term becomes relative to time and place, thus losing its meaning altogether. Moreover, the academic study of Buddhist ethics is a contradiction in terms, since the texts under discussion proclaim that one must not study the Suttas to become ‘full of lore’, but solely for the purpose of release. In order to write about Buddhism from a historical or scholarly perspective, this fact must be neatly put aside.

Ven. Ñāṇavīra extends his capacity for exposing inauthenticity into the realm of literary criticism, and as we mentioned in the Foreword to the first volume, his ability to express Dhamma in a Western mode is especially valuable for modern readers. The reason is evident. Nowadays, the majority of the literate population of the world, even in Asia, have been to some extent Westernized, and share at least in part our author’s background. This is manifest in Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s discussion of European plays and novels with Sri Lankan correspondents, who were familiar with the texts. And even supposing we have not heard Mozart’s operas, read Beckett, Kafka, Shakespeare or Sartre, their ways of thinking and their characters have been so deeply ingrained in our minds that unless we are expert Indologists, we most often communicate using their vocabulary, not the Buddha’s. It is pointless to pretend otherwise. We routinely describe someone as a Don Juan or a Shylock, describe our frustration in terms of waiting for Godot, or suffer like Roquentin from “alienation” and “ennui”.

Like it or not, such is our background, and as Ven. Ñāṇavīra demonstrates in Letter 107, we cannot approach the Dhamma as if it were not. Therefore, when he draws on serious works of fiction to elucidate the Notes or the Suttas, it should not be startling, or misinterpreted as an attempt to water down the Dhamma for Western tastes.v For as Professor Mario Olivieri points out, ‘Only when our internal awareness becomes resilient and concentrated enough will we no longer need the sensory support of metaphors and symbols.’vi Therefore, as long as we remain puthujjanas, we shall need to utilize every means conducive to our comprehension of what is ‘deep, profound and difficult to see’. Finally, the virtue of a familiar symbol or character is that the mind can immediately, without thinking, visualize many aspects of a complex notion at once.

For example, upon reading the existentialists, we come across references to l’homme moyen sensuel, the average sensual man who in “bad faith” dodges responsibility for his actions. These words may leave only a faint impression on our consciousness, but when in selected works of literature the concept of bad faith is vividly dramatized, an indelible image is etched in our memory. And especially after reading Letters 59, 62, 68 and 69 dealing with Kafka’s The Trial, the image of the protagonist Joseph K. will signify l’homme moyen sensuel and all he represents, as he is suddenly forced to reflect on the gratuitous nature of his existence. According to Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s innovative analysis of the novel, this incident constitutes his ‘arrest’, i.e. when he is challenged to give an account of himself and is unable to do so. Of course, Joseph K.’s immediate reaction is to absolve himself: ‘Above all, if he were to achieve anything, it was essential that he should eliminate from his mind the idea of possible guilt.’vii Indeed, if one is to “make good” in this world, he must continually avoid self-examination; otherwise, he will lose his ambition and neglect his affairs. Hence, Joseph K. complains his arrest occurs at a bad time, when he is under too much pressure at the Bank to busy himself about the charges against him. Yet he also rightly realizes that ‘If he were to put up a thoroughgoing defence—and any other would be a waste of time—to put up a thoroughgoing defence, did that not involve cutting himself off from every other activity?’viii

In these crucial passages we may identify Joseph K. as a quintessential puthujjana, despite his occasional instances of reflexion. To recall our definition of ethics, he knows full well what he should do: he should at once cut himself off from every other activity and live authentically, which would truly constitute a thoroughgoing defense. But, like a typical commoner, he does in fact waste his time and energy, whether on troublesome intrigues at work or on pleasurable diversions, both of which serve to take his mind off the alarming apprehension of existential guilt. Moreover, Joseph K.’s urge to ‘snatch at the world with twenty hands’ takes on a darker meaning as upādāna, while his attempts to acquit himself of the charges are in bad faith, since they are accompanied by procrastination, self-serving assurances and dalliances with women.

As with existentialist philosophy, serious fiction cannot substitute for the Suttas; however, ‘at least for one accustomed to Western ideas’ its symbolism may likewise provide ‘a more direct and fundamental approach to things than that of empirical science’ which dominates contemporary discourse. Therefore, a ‘Ñāṇavīrist’ interpretation of The Trial and other works will go a long way towards revolutionizing our way of reading and thinking.

For instance, let us apply what we have learnt from our author to a work composed by one of the Buddha’s contemporaries, in order to better understand a critical Pali concept. Probably the most famous ancient Greek tragedy is Oedipus Tyrannus, also known as Oedipus Rex.ix It dramatizes the downfall of the protagonist, a foundling, who by virtue of his acumen rose to power in the city of Thebes. Abandoned on a mountain by his father King Laïus, who was warned by the god Apollo that his son would kill him, he was saved from death by a shepherd, then adopted and raised kindly by Polybus and Merope, king and queen of Corinth. But upon hearing the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he flees Corinth. On his journey he quarrels with and kills a man who blocks his way. He then travels to Thebes, which at the time was being harassed by the Sphinx, a monster who posed a riddle to passers-by and devoured all who could not answer it. Oedipus solves the riddle, thus freeing Thebes, and in reward is made its ruler and given in marriage to its widowed queen Jocasta, by whom he has four children. Subsequently, Thebes is ravaged by famine and plague, and according to the Delphic Oracle, these calamities will persist until the slayer of King Laïus, Jocasta’s first husband, is banished from the Boeotian capital. Oedipus is charged with finding and punishing the offender. Tiresias, a blind seer, comes forward and hints that the tyrant himself is the one responsible for the city’s plight. Oedipus becomes enraged, refuses to admit guilt and accuses others of plotting against him. However, ensuing evidence confirms his true parents are Laïus and Jocasta, not Polybus and Merope, and that the stranger he murdered was his own father. At last, the protagonist is forced to admit to himself and others that he is guilty of parricide and incest. Upon these revelations, Jocasta hangs herself in the palace, and out of grief and remorse, Oedipus puts out his eyes.

Many who have never seen or read the play by Sophocles are familiar with Sigmund Freud’s famous analysis of it, the basis for his controversial theory known as the ‘Oedipus complex’, explained in The Interpretation of Dreams (V, D). For the Austrian psychologist, the drama represents a latent sexual attraction on the part of every male child to his mother, accompanied by jealousy and antipathy towards his father.x Hence the universal appeal of the tragedy since, according to Freud, we all share the guilt of Oedipus: ‘His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him.’

Freud’s reading of the play has been widely accepted. It does merit consideration, especially for perceiving that Sophocles dramatizes a latent guilt in all of us. However, the major drawback of his theory is that a crucial component of it—the contention that everyone undergoes an Oedipus complex in his early years—is purely speculative. While it is possible I was once infatuated with my mother, I do not recall my infancy; so I must rely on a psychologist, who in turn does not remember his, to tell me about it: because, according to Freud, memories of incestuous desire are “repressed”, i.e. buried in the unconscious. This fails to meet the criteria of Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s method, in which all assertions about human experience must be immediately verifiable. Even if I could recall events of a repressed past, even of a past life, I would remain in doubt: for as our author avers in “A Note on Paţiccasamuppāda” §7, ‘memory is not on the same level of certainty as present reflexive experience’. Therefore, we must go beyond the incest taboo in order to explain why ‘the oracle laid the same curse upon us as upon him’.xi

Let us see if we can arrive at a more satisfactory interpretation of the myth. The Italian novelist and essayist Alberto Moravia raises some crucial questions about the great Sophoclean tragedy which are seldom, if ever, addressed.xii While allowing that myths portray improbable events, he says it is reasonable to assume they still have realistic elements to them. So, for him it is striking that throughout their long marriage, Oedipus and Jocasta apparently never spoke of King Laïus, in whose palace they sleep; or, assuming they did, why does Oedipus—married to an older widow, and knowing full well the prophecies of the oracle—never suspect that those prophecies have come true? From his arrival in Thebes through the epidemic of the plague, he remains strangely ignorant or unaware of who he is and what he is doing. For as we recall, he is renowned for his intelligence, having solved the Sphinx’s riddle.

The only plausible explanation is that the protagonist makes himself deaf and blind to his own guilt, ignoring or repressing, if you will, the obvious connection between what he knows and what he fears. Thus, his is a studied, intentional ignorance with moral implications, unlike a mere lack of knowledge.

There is no riddle to his motives. Clearly, Oedipus continues to act in bad faith because it suits him. He prefers to remain in the dark because in so doing he may unabashedly prolong his enjoyment of power and pleasure: for only as long as he conceals the facts from himself and others may he maintain the position he usurped from his father, as ruler over Thebes by day and lover of Jocasta by night.

Hence, for Moravia the story of Oedipus is not one of illicit love and failed ambition, which, though powerful, would lack universal relevance. More profoundly, it is the tragedy par excellence of ‘wilful, presumptuous, cowardly and wicked ignorance’, which is ‘the origin of all evils’. Therefore, in the standard “recognition scene” of Greek drama, in which the identity of someone previously unknown is at last revealed to the protagonist, Oedipus is compelled, like Joseph K., to arrest himself. The charge is neither parricide nor incest, but rather that of closing his eyes to his own self-deception; his past crimes are not so grievous as his refusal to admit them, nor so despicable as his ongoing indulgence in greed and sensuality, facilitated by remaining conveniently unknowing and ‘unseeing’. Thus his comeuppance is not death or castration, but self-induced blindness.

In sum, we have witnessed the ultimate drama of crucial aspects of taṇhā and avijjā. As Ven. Ñāṇavīra writes in Letter 149, ‘Avijjā functions automatically, but conceals this fact from itself. Avijjā is an automatically functioning blindness to its automatic functioning.’ This wilful ignorance is the “tragic flaw” of Oedipus, Joseph K., and of every puthujjana. It conspires with us as we routinely and intentionally compromise ourselves in countless ways in the pursuit of self-gratification by yielding to our desires, furthering our ambitions, justifying our anger and excusing our indolence. Yet by a manoeuvre of the mind so vividly portrayed in both ancient and modern “fiction”, we summarily vindicate ourselves of our misdeeds by staging a mock trial. As we recall from “A Note on Paţiccasamuppāda” §25, ‘Avijjā is the Judge as well as the Accused, and the verdict is always “Not Guilty”.’xiii

This ‘Ñāṇavīrist’ interpretation enjoys the certainty of present reflexive experience and provides us a vivid illustration of ‘the origin of all evils’. Now, no one need resort to theories about infantile libido or undergo hypnosis to determine whether or not he shares the guilt of Oedipus. Let him merely observe the ‘automatic function’ at work in his own actions and reactions as he goes about his daily affairs. If he is honest with himself when asking the pointed questions of Letter 2 (‘What am I doing/thinking right at this moment?’), the answer will be as evident as a sensation of heat or cold. When challenged to give an account of himself, he will instinctively wink at the prospect of culpability.xiv

In contrast, Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s letters reveal an unblinking, reptilian eye, constantly examining the ethics of his motives and his behaviour. Unlike that of Oedipus and Joseph K., his gaze is never averted; nothing is concealed. Four centuries elapsed since a man had last offered such a forthright and comprehensive account of himself—to the point that our author’s frankness has provoked as great a scandal as his convictions.

Critics have been appalled by the correspondence with his physician and his publisher wherein he contemplates putting an end to his life. They have used it as a weapon to attack him personally and to discredit his Notes on Dhamma. Supposedly, one who could commit such a desperate act was surely non compos mentis and could not possibly perceive the Dhamma correctly: those ‘morbid’ thoughts prove his ideas are flawed, or worse, deluded. But such specious reasoning should really be an object of satire. Had Shakespeare taken his life, would his plays be a whit less meaningful? Should we dismiss the dialogues of Socrates because he drank poison? And what about the arahants mentioned in the Suttas who ‘used the knife’? Did they not comprehend the Buddha’s Teaching?

Clearly, the real question is whether Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s ideas on Dhamma hold up to scrutiny. It is a pity to spend even a few words refuting ad hominem arguments, but as he would say, although the ‘seasoned thinker’ will be wise to them, they could deceive readers unacquainted with logical fallacies.

Nevertheless, the suicide issue must be confronted. One naturally winces as our author nonchalantly explores the ways and means to cut short a life so endowed with genius. His insights are so acute that we who have learnt from him naturally wish he had enjoyed Montaigne’s longevity and written enough essays to fill three volumes. But we must proceed slowly. Ven. Ñāṇavīra plainly tells us why he no longer wanted to live. First of all, he suffered from great physical distress: in addition to amoebiasis, the gut-wrenching bowel disorder he discusses in detail, he was afflicted by diarrhea, insomnia, bursitis and damage to his sciatic nerve from sitting cross-legged all night on hard floors.xv His doctors could not cure him, and during the last years of his life he endured constant and severe pain.

Ven. Ñāṇavīra obviously had a strong personality, certainly tough enough to endure the aforementioned torments in themselves. Yet as his letters reveal, his ailments inhibited to an intolerable extent his ability to meditate and thus progress further towards arahattā, the only thing that really mattered to him. This last point must be kept in mind. He could have disrobed, of course, or carried on as a scholar-monk. But he did not become a bhikkhu in order to publish articles or spend his days on correspondence.xvi And since, as he saw it, the unswerving pursuit of nibbāna was the only justifiable purpose of his existence, he could not in good faith return to lay life. With no hope of ever again practising intense concentration, he was in effect condemned to serving a life sentence, which after long deliberation he decided to terminate.

Nowhere in the letters does he commend suicide. Indeed, it would have been a severe infraction against the Vinaya to do so. For a puthujjana, the consequences of suicide could be grave: as the Buddha warns in the Samyuttanikāya, most beings regress to a lower state after death. But as a sotāpanna our author ran no such risk; he was assured fortunate rebirths of a limited number before attaining release. That assurance must have also influenced his decision.

Lastly, some have unjustly charged our author with a nasty disposition, which they have mistakenly inferred from the sometimes acerbic tone of the Notes. For example, one samanera gave away his copy of Clearing the Path because he had become ‘very harsh’ after reading it. Surely because he had read it wrongly. On numerous occasions Ven. Ñāṇavīra stated that he had no wish to irritate anybody. On the other hand, he realized that a meek demur to the prevailing catechism resounded by Buddhist Orthodoxy would have had the effect of a whisper amidst a wrangle in an aeroplane hangar: it would not have been worth his breath. As he explained to Mrs. Quittner, ‘People will listen, but only if the unfamiliar is uttered loudly and firmly enough to inspire them with courage to think against tradition.’xvii

It was inevitable that an iconoclast such as Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera should be controversial, and that the Establishment would enlist its champions to shout him down. All have failed, and to date none of them has ever been accused of writing ‘the most important book of the century’.

i The Introduction to Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s Collected Letters and the Preface to his Notes on Dhamma are written on the invitation by the chief dāyaka, who has decided to republish these writings in two volumes in the hope that more persons will benefit from our author’s understanding of the Dhamma. The original 750 copies of Clearing the Path are now sold out, although a corrupted version of it missing some sections has appeared in Thailand. Our present edition is complete, and includes a selection of Letters not previously published (See Appendix).

ii From the title of the selection printed by the Buddhist Publication Society.

iii Although Ven. Ñāṇavīra does not refer directly to Montaigne (1533–1592), it is highly likely that as a student of French literature, before or during his stay at Cambridge, he encountered a writer of Montaigne’s standing.

iv See the Introduction to Montaigne’s Essays and Selected Writings, translated and edited by Donald M. Frame (New York: St. Martin’s, 1963).

v In addition, note that the Buddha himself stated an infinite number of similes were available to express his Teaching.

vi Come in uno specchio (Perugia: Guerra, 1999), p. 8 (my translation).

vii The Trial, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Knopf, 1937), p. 160 (italics mine).

viii Ibid., p. 168.

ix Some recent scholarship has estimated that the Buddha lived from about 480–400 BC, roughly coinciding with the life span of the tragedian Sophocles (496–406 BC).

x Similarly, females would feel attraction to their fathers and antipathy toward their mothers, known as an “Elektra complex”.

xi There are other reasons as well. For instance, the incest taboo is not universal, as we know from the history of ancient Egypt, where the royal line was preserved through intermarriage. In addition, the theory does not explain why other events causing intense psychological trauma are not repressed.

xii See L’attenzione (Milano: Bompiani, 1965) pp. 86–89.

xiii In the end, Oedipus and Joseph K. acknowledge their guilt, and ‘this is the furthest that anyone can go—in the direction of understanding, that is—without the Buddha’s Teaching’ (Letter 68); hence, the protagonists do not thereby remove avijjā altogether, since, as Ven. Ñāṇavīra noted, avijjā is comprised of more than intentional ignorance.

xiv Perhaps a recollection of our appraisals of Oedipus and Joseph K. may serve as a strong deterrent to indulge likewise in mauvais foi.

xv For an account of his illness by one physician who treated him, see Dr Kingsley Heendeniya, A Gist of Dhamma (Dehiwala: Buddhist Cultural Centre, 2001) pp. 4–5.

xvi Sadly, it is due to his acute suffering that this volume exists: for had Ven. Ñāṇavīra enjoyed good health he would not have taken on the project of publishing Notes on Dhamma or engaged in lengthy correspondence. See Letters 39 and 43.

xvii See also Letter 76.

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