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. 121 | 131] 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—a child has none) 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 (or exist—to use the verb in a particular sense ['to exist an experience']) 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, in your example (i.e. when we are white—and superior—and find we can't share the mirth of blacks laughing at the colour bar), 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, 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 cognoscitur, '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.

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. (B&N, p. 325)
In the Suttas (e.g. Salāyatana Samy. 116: 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[a] it is quite clear that despite the two thousand 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 (which, as we all know, reigns over the world).

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 easy to induce them to take up a study of the Dhamma. It is worse than useless to give them a copy of Buddhism in a Nutshell or a life subscription to the BPS, which make the Buddha's Teaching leaving out the difficulties. And even translations of the Suttas are not always adequate, and anyway, they don't practise samatha bhāvanā.[1]

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 (and against the accepted Commentarial tradition) 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? It is better, anyway, to cling to Heidegger than it is to cling to Bertrand Russell.

It seems to me that, whether or not the Kumbhakāra Jātaka is reporting the truth, it does a disservice in representing enlightenment as something attainable without hard work. It is too simple if we can attain just by seeing a ravished mango tree; and we turn away from the Jātakas with the disgruntled thought: 'It happened to them, so why doesn't it happen to me? Some people have all the luck'. No, in my view, the emphasis should be on the hard work—if not in the life when one actually attains, then in a previous life (or being).[2]

You say, 'Questions that strike a Sartre or a Kierkegaard as obvious, urgent, and baffling may not have even 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. For one thing, I regret to say, you have made something leaving out the difficulty. 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 and cf. Salāyatana Samy. 95: iv,73):

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,[3] to tie up these two Sutta passages.

(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—cakkhuñca paticca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññānam, tinnam sangati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, etc. (Salāyatana Samy. 107: iv,87).[4]

(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' 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, I disclose 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 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 attā): 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 Bahiya 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.

My health—thank you for asking after it—remains poor to middlin', and I manage to do almost no bhāvanā at all; at best a certain amount of dhammavitakka.


[121.a] 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'. [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[121.1] Samatha bhāvanā (development of calmness) is the counterpart of vipassanā bhāvanā (development of insight), with which the West is somewhat more familiar. The two together, along with development of faith (saddhā) and conduct (sīla) are four parts of the Dhamma that are compared (A. IX,4: iv,360) to the four feet of the quadruped. [Back to text]

[121.2] Kumbhakāra Jātaka: (408: book VII, no. 13). King Karandu is said to have become a paccekabuddha—a silent, or non-teaching, Buddha—by contemplating the difference between a tree ravaged for its fruit (and thus like the lay life) and a beautiful but fruitless tree, unplundered (compared to the monk's life).

'A mango in a forest did I see
Full-grown, and dark, fruitful exceedingly:
And for its fruit men did the mango break,
'Twas this inclined my heart the bowl to take.'
(from the translation by H. T. Francis and R. A. Neil [Cambridge University Press, 1897, reprinted Pali Text Society 1969], iii, 228) [Back to text]

[121.3] Heidegger: Apparently a portion of the letter immediately preceding this paragraph is missing. The context suggests that the missing portion may have involved discussion of B&T, pp. 169-72, particularly the 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' and '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.
[Back to text]
[121.4] cakkhuñca...: 'Dependent upon eye and visible forms, eye-consciousness arises; the coming together of these three is contact. With contact as condition, feeling,' etc. [Back to text]