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. 13 | 19] 25 May 1962

I have finished the Beverley Nichols.[1] I think that one question is raised that calls for a detailed reply. B.N. describes how a certain morphia addict became 'changed'—i.e., found faith in God—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 that Christianity has not? Indeed, might it not be true to say that, in comparison with the complete and spectacular cure of Christianity where all that is required is an act of self-surrender, the subtle and abstruse Teaching of the Buddha, hard to understand even for the abstinent man, has nothing to offer? And this is the answer. Christianity does not cure the addict at all; it merely substitutes faith for morphia, it replaces one drug with another. The Buddha's Teaching offers not merely cure but total immunity for all time. Let us, however, look more closely.

Not myself being a religious person I have no first-hand knowledge of the 'faith in God' that is able to take the place of morphia, and I am therefore unable to describe it as a personal experience. But something can be said about the pharmacology of this potent drug. God—the Christian God, at least—is an impossible compound of the temporal and the eternal. He is temporal because he understands man, knows what is best for him, is pleased when man is good and angry when man is naughty (which is usually the case, and so 'God is angry every day' as it is said), will listen to man's prayers, and will help him—in short, God is man's Heavenly Father. All this is only possible for a being who, though no doubt a glorified edition, is essentially no different from man. God can only comprehend man if he himself has some acquaintance with man's weaknesses, he can only have compassion on the drug-addict if he himself knows what it is to be a drug-addict. (B.N. suggests that Christ, who was God, was subject to sexual desire.) God, therefore, like man, must exist (i.e. must be contingent in time). But, also, God is omniscient, omnipotent, and changeless—in a word, eternal—otherwise he would not be God. It is these attributes that distinguish him from man. Obviously enough, these two aspects are absolutely irreconcilable, a fact that Kierkegaard, the most intelligent of Christian philosophers, has been at pains to emphasize.

According to Kierkegaard, God does not exist—he is eternal.[a] Nevertheless, God existed as a man, as Jesus of Nazareth. This is absolutely impossible, it is a contradiction in terms; to assert that the eternal became temporal, that God became man, is scandalous and outrageous—in a word, absurd. 'Therefore' says Kierkegaard 'I believe it'. Kierkegaard describes the Christian as 'crucified upon a paradox'—accepting as a matter of faith what he knows to be ridiculous. To be a Christian—to have faith, even, in an eternal and benevolent God who is not specifically Christian—is to assert, against one's better judgement, that black is white.[b] But few Christians have Kierkegaard's better judgement against which they must assert that black is white. The vast majority are quite unaware that they are crucified upon a paradox, and are only too happy to nail their colours (black-and-white, presumably) to the mainmast in an emotional orgy of faith. And why should this drug be so extraordinarily intoxicating? The contradictory assumption that God is at once eternal and temporal enables Christians to indulge in the peculiar luxury of having their God and eating him (which they do literally, as they believe). A Christian is encouraged to believe that his own personal welfare is the particular province and special care of the Omniscient, Omnipotent, and Eternal Spirit of the Universe, who is infinitely and passionately interested in the smallest and most insignificant of his doings. Might this not, conceivably, upon occasion, and for certain people, be a far more potent drug even than morphia? But (it might be asked) is not this addiction to faith in God in any case less harmful than addiction to morphia—indeed, positively beneficial? What does the Buddha say?

'I do not, monks, see any other single thing that so leads to the arising of bad (akusala) things that have not arisen, or to the growth and development of bad things that have arisen, as wrong view.'   'I do not, monks, see any other single thing that so leads to the non-arising of good (kusala) things that have not arisen, or to the decline of good things that have arisen, as wrongview.'   'I do not, monks, see any other single thing that so leads beings, upon the breaking up of their bodies, upon their death, to arising in the evil destiny, in the waste, in hell, as wrong view.' <A. I,ii,8: i,30-31>
Better, then, in the long run, to be a morphia addict with right view (as far as this is possible), than an abstainer with wrong view (which is very possible).[c]

What, now, has the Buddha to offer the 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 morphia 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 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, with devastatingly accurate results that did not really please all of us. But this is a digression.[3]) 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[d] 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 way 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'?[e]

Not everybody is addicted to morphia, but most people are addicted to sensual gratification, and all except the ariyasāvakas are addicted to their own personality (sakkāyaditthi),[f] 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.

P.S. I don't know what you will make of this (I mean the latter part). In a way it is infinitely more difficult than either of the other things that I sent you, but that is because it is quite different. They were concerned only with method, and if either of them was found difficult that was mainly owing to lack of philosophical background. This deals directly with the Buddha's Teaching, and is difficult because no amount of philosophical background will help. Their principal aim (as we see in retrospect) was the purely negative one of preventing you from attempting to translate this into terms of psychology (the earlier one) or of physiology (all knowledge, for example, of the physiological changes produced by opium is totally irrelevant). You may perhaps find (whether you follow it or not) that this is of more vital interest than the other two.




[13.a] Observe a more subtle contradiction here, overlooked by K. To say anything about God, even that he is eternal, is tacitly to assume that he exists (i.e. is temporal). To say that something is eternal is to assume that there is something to which the attribute 'eternal' applies. If God is eternal, we may be sure of one thing, namely, that God is (whether he is eternal or anything else). In brief, an eternal God is a self-contradictory notion. [Back to text]

[13.b] This 'sacrifice of the intellect', which Saint Ignatius Loyola says is 'so pleasing unto God', is required also, incidentally, of the quantum physicist: he has to subscribe to the proposition that there are numbers that are not quantities. It is not, however, required of the follower of the Buddha, whose saddhā—trust or confidence—is something like that of the patient in his doctor. The patient accepts on trust that the doctor knows more about his complaint than he himself does, and he submits himself to the doctor's treatment. So far, indeed, from saying to his disciples 'You must accept on trust from me that black is white', the Buddha actually says, in effect, 'What you must accept on trust from me is that you yourselves are unwittingly assuming that black is white, and that this is the reason for your suffering'.[2] [Back to text]

[13.c] I do not wish to suggest that all Christians go to hell. There are many different kinds of wrong view (even within Christianity) and some are worse than others. And one can hold one's views tenaciously or weakly. A Christian, strong in good works, and little interested in Christian dogma, might well have a good destiny. [Back to text]

[13.d] In Persia, evidently, opium is the religion of the masses. [Back to text]

[13.e] 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!' [Back to text]

[13.f] 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 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. [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[13.1] Beverley Nichols: Nichols' output is copious. We have not discovered which book discusses opium addiction. However, in his later book, Father Figure (London: Heinemann, 1972), Nichols not only refers again (on page 160) to the Oxford Group's Principle of Absolute Unselfishness (cf. L. 14) but also discusses the instant cure of his father from lifelong alcoholism, albeit not by 'faith in God,' but rather through 'loss of faith in inheritance'. [Back to text]

[13.2] black is white: Cf. Bhayabherava Sutta <M.4: i,21>: 'There are, divine, some recluses and divines who perceive day when it is night and who perceive night when it is day. Those recluses and divines dwell confused, I say. I, divine, perceive night just as night; I perceive day just as day....' [Back to text]

[13.3] coloured squares: This sounds similar to the Lüscher Color Test, used by clinicians. A softcover book, The Lüscher Color Test, published in the '70s, discusses this approach and includes a set of coloured cards and detailed (but not always clear) instructions on interpretations of the results. In our experience self-interpretation is far more difficult and complicated than the book claims. (Dr. Helmut Klar is prominent in German Buddhist circles.) [Back to text]