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

[L. 14 | 20] 6 June 1962

About three months ago I had a fresh attack of amoebiasis. The manifestations were as follows: increased abdominal discomfort, 'hungry' feeling in the afternoon (except after thick curd), specific tenderness about the region of the left end of the transverse colon, abdominal distension, increased quantity of mucus (I normally have little), thick opaque mucus with traces of blood (not thought to be due to piles), slightly increased constipation. During the last few days these manifestations have recurred, and this morning I noticed a trace of blood in the thick mucus. On the principle of Occam's Razor, which says that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily (a thing the amoeba have yet to learn), I presume this recurrence is due to inadequate treatment two months ago (though, just as I have regular dāna dāyakas, it is possible also that I have amongst them a regular amoeba dāyaka who re-infects me from time to time). I wonder, therefore, if you would give me some indication of the best course to follow, both to eradicate the present infection and prevent recurrence and also to guard against fresh infection (which I seem to get rather easily in these parts).

Stomach trouble is really the principal occupational hazard of the bhikkhu (who has no control over the preparation of the food he gets), and we must expect to have to put up with a certain amount of it. But amoebiasis is very damaging to the practice of concentration (though perhaps in other respects it may not be very serious—'Just a little scarring of the intestine' as one doctor told me, rather leaving me wondering whether he would describe a bullet through one's brains as 'Just a little perforation of the head'), and it seems worthwhile taking precaution against it if that is at all possible.

B.N. tells us that one of the principles of the Oxford Group is 'Absolute Unselfishness', which is perhaps worth discussing briefly. Some casual English visitors (two 'grisly English faces'—Cyril Connolly's phrase—hitchhiking around the world) came the other day and asked me whether it wasn't rather selfish to sit here alone seeking my own welfare. The idea was, no doubt, that I should busy myself with helping others, like Albert Schweitzer, who is generally regarded these days as the model of unselfish devotion to the service of others. Another Albert—Einstein—has something to say about this:

Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of felt needs and assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual movements and their development. Feeling and desire are the motive forces behind all human endeavour and human creation, in however exalted a guise the latter may present itself to us. ('Religion and Science' in The World As I See It, p. 23)
Why, then, does Albert Schweitzer devote his life to the care and cure of lepers in Africa? Because, says Albert Einstein, he feels the need to do so; because in doing so he satisfies his desire. And what does the Buddha say? 'Both formerly, monks, and now, it is just suffering that I make known, and the ending of suffering.' <M. 22: i,140> Einstein has, to some extent, understood that suffering is the fundamental fact and the basis of all action. The Buddha has completely understood this; for he knows also the way of escape, which Einstein does not. When, therefore, the question 'What should I do?' arises,[a] the choice is not between being selfish and being unselfish; for whatever I do I cannot avoid being selfish—all action is selfish. The choice is between being selfish in Schweitzer's way—by unselfish devotion to the welfare of others—and being selfish in the Buddha's way—
The welfare of oneself should not be neglected for the welfare of others, however great; recognizing the welfare of oneself, one should be devoted to one's own welfare. (Dhammapada 166)

How are we to choose between these two ways of being selfish? The answer is: 'choose the way of being selfish that leads to the ending of being selfish; which is the Buddha's way, not Schweitzer's'. There are many earnest Buddhists in Ceylon who are scandalized by the Buddha's words quoted above; but naturally enough they will not admit such a thing, even to themselves; either they skip that verse when they read the Dhammapada or else they add a footnote explaining that the Buddha really meant something quite different. Here is the actual note made by a very well known Ceylon Thera: 'One must not misunderstand this verse to mean that one should not selflessly work the for weal of others. Selfless service is highly commended by the Buddha'. But this itself is a complete misunderstanding of the Buddha's Teaching. Time and again the Buddha points out that it is only those who have successfully devoted themselves to their own welfare and made sure of it (by reaching sotāpatti) that are in a position to help others—one himself sinking in a quicksand cannot help others to get out, and if he wishes to help them he must first get himself out (and if he does get himself out, he may come to see that the task of helping others to get out is not so easy as he formerly might have supposed). The notion of 'Absolute Unselfishness' is less straightforward than people like to think: it applies, if properly understood (but nobody less than sotāpanna does properly understand it), to the Buddha and to the other arahats (which does not mean to say that they will necessarily devote themselves to 'selfless service'), but not to anyone else.


[14.a] For most people, of course, the question does not arise—they are already fully devoted to seeking the means for gratification of their sensual desires and fulfillment of their worldly ambitions. [Back to text]