As you probably know, I have been suffering, for many years, from the effects of chronic amoebiasis. But what perhaps you do not know is that last June I developed a complication of a nervous nature. This nervous disorder is particularly disagreeable for a bhikkhu, and involves the practice of a restraint that is not required of laymen. These disorders not only make my life uncomfortable, but also (which is of far greater consequence) leave me with little hope of making any further progress in the Buddhasāsana in this life. This being the situation, I decided upon suicide; and I did in fact, several months ago, make an attempt (which failed only because the method chosen was inadequate). My doctor is fully informed both of my bodily disorders and of my intentions, and he has done and continues to do what he can to ease the situation. However, my condition does not improve, and I am still of the same mind.
As regards Vinaya and Dhamma I am well aware of the situation and do not need to seek the advice of others. Suicide, though a fault, is not (contrary to a widespread opinion) a grave offence in Vinaya (it is a dukkata); and as regards Dhamma I know better than anyone else how I am placed. Taking all these matters into consideration I do not find, at least as far as my own personal situation is concerned, any very strong reason (though I regret the dukkata) to restrain me from taking my life (naturally, I am speaking only of my own case—for others there may be, and most probably are, very grave objections of one kind or another to suicide). My condition and my state of mind vary from time to time; and whereas on some days I may think weeks or possibly even months ahead, on others it is painful and distasteful to me to think even a few days ahead.
There remains, of course, the practical difficulty of actually killing oneself (having already tried once, I am aware that it is not very easy), but with sufficient determination it should not prove altogether impossible.
All this is purely for your information, and no action on your part is called for (except that I would ask you to treat the matter as confidential). But the reason that I am telling you this is that, as I gather from your letters, you seem to be of the opinion that I have managed to gain some understanding of the Buddha's Teaching, and that you wish to profit by it. Since this appears to be your view, I feel that I should warn you that time may be short. Although no fixed term to my life is decided upon, the situation remains precarious, and I cannot give any assurance that I shall not end my life without further warning. If, then, you have questions to ask, or any matters to discuss, I would advise you not to delay. Do not hesitate, thinking perhaps that you may be disturbing me. If I should find there is disturbance, nothing obliges me to reply to your letters, and I can easily ask you to stop writing.
I am quite well aware, of course, that in philosophical matters one's questions do not all arise at once, but that very often the settling of one question gives rise to another, and when that is settled still further questions may arise; and also, one's ideas take time to mature. But this cannot be helped—questions that have not yet arisen cannot, obviously, be asked. All that I wish to say is that when you do have questions that seem important it might be well not to postpone asking them.
Now that I have said so much, it is possible that you may appreciate something of the perverse complexities of the situation in which I find myself. Not the least of the peculiarities of my situation is the fact that, for one reason or another, there is nobody that I know of who is in a position to give me advice. This means that I have to rely entirely on my own judgement in whatever decisions I may take—whether it is a question, for example, of determining what I (or others) stand to lose by my killing myself, or a question, for another example, of the advisability of writing this letter to you.
In this last connection, something more should perhaps be said. On the one hand, I do not know you very well, and there is always a risk of misunderstanding in being too open with comparative strangers. On the other hand, it is absolutely necessary in the present circumstances that I find someone with more than average intelligence and saddhā with whom to entrust certain matters—specifically, the Notes on Dhamma. I do not know of anyone in Ceylon who, simply upon reading them, would see whether or not the Notes are correct (I am not speaking so much of the note on fundamental structure); nevertheless it seems to me that you are one of the possibly very few who might suspect that they are in fact correct (whether or not they are adequate is quite another matter). Since, then, I do not think that I should quickly find a more suitable (or more interested) person than yourself, I feel that it is advisable not to keep you in ignorance of the fact that I shall very possibly take my own life.
With reference to my last letter, there are one or two points that perhaps need further clarification. I think that I said that whenever I am faced with a real chair I am also presented simultaneously with various images, implicit or explicit, of myself or others sitting on such things as I now see. The explicit images, I said, are what we call 'memories', and I now wish to add that the implicit images are more or less what we call 'instincts'. Thus, if I am tired and I see a chair, I may not have a specific memory of sitting on one on previous occasions, but I shall simply have an instinct to go and sit on it. This, though it is conscious (in the sense referred to in the letter on satisampajañña) does not reach the level of awareness—I am conscious of my instincts but usually (unless I perform a deliberate act of reflexion, which is a practice to be encouraged) not aware of them (they are on the level of immediacy).
Possibly the word 'image' may not be clear to you. An image need not be visual—it might be verbal (as when some set of words, a formula for example, runs through our mind), or tactile (we can imagine the experience of stroking a cat without actually visualizing a cat), or gustatory (we can imagine the taste of castor oil, perhaps even to the point of actual nausea) and so on. A thought or an idea is an image (or a succession of them), and you can often use one of these words in place of 'image' if you prefer (though 'image' is really more satisfactory, since there are immediate images ['instincts', for example] that do not reach the reflexive status of thoughts or ideas).
In my opinion it is a matter of considerable importance to see the universal presence of the negative. It is not a very easy thing to do (since it requires one to break with habitual ways of thinking), but once it is done one has quite a different way of looking at things generally—at the world—to the slovenly positivistic view that most people normally have, and that modern scientific methods of education do so much to encourage. Without seeing the negative it is impossible to understand what is meant by 'The essence of man is to be in a situation' (see Preface and also Blackham, passim). And yet, even when this negative view has been achieved, there is still a start to be made on the Buddha's Teaching.
[45.1] dukkata: In the Vinaya, or monastic Code, offences are grouped according to seriousness, the most serious being pārājika, involving expulsion from the Order (cf. L. 56) and sanghādisesa, involving confession and temporary suspension of certain privileges. Dukkata (lit. 'wrongly done') is the least offence except for dubbaca ('wrongly said'). [Back to text]