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. 50 | 57] 19 May 1963

Your question about satisampajañña. Observing the particular 'doing' or 'feeling' is reflexive experience. The 'doing' or 'feeling' itself (whether it is observed or not) is immediate experience. But since one obviously cannot observe a 'doing' or a 'feeling' unless that 'doing' or 'feeling' is at the same time present, there is no reflexive experience (at least in the strict sense used here) that does not contain or involve immediate experience. Reflexive experience is a complex structure of which immediate experience is a less complex part (it is possible that I use the term 'reflexive consciousness' a little ambiguously—i.e. either to denote reflexive experience as a whole or to distinguish the purely reflexive part of reflexive experience from the immediate part).

Yes: observing the 'general nature' of an experience is reflexion (though there are also other kinds of reflexion). No: in reflexively observing the 'general nature' of an experience you have not 'left out the immediate experience'; you have merely 'put the immediate experience in brackets'—that is to say, by an effort of will you have disregarded the individual peculiarities of the experience and paid attention to the general characteristics (just as you might disregard a witness' stammer when he is giving evidence and pay attention to the words he is uttering). You simply consider the immediate experience as 'an example of experience in general'; but this does not in any way abolish the immediate experience (any more than your disregarding the stammer of the witness stops his stammering).

A sekha (bhikkhu or layman), as you rightly say, is a sotāpanna, a sakadāgāmī, or an anāgāmī, and the word 'sekha' means 'one who is training (scil. to become arahat)'. If he is sotāpanna he has at most seven more human existences—he cannot take an eighth human birth.[1] But if (as a bhikkhu in good health) he exerts himself now in the practice of meditation he may become sakadāgāmī, anāgāmī, or even arahat, in this very life. In this case he either reduces or completely cancels the number of fresh existences (as man or deva) he will have to undergo. If, however, he spends his time doing jobs of work, talking, or sleeping, he may die still as a sotāpanna and have to endure up to seven more human existences (not to speak of heavenly existences). In this sense, therefore, these things are obstacles for the sekha: they prevent him from hastening his arrival at arahattā, but they cannot prevent his ultimate arrival (see 'The Mirror of the Dhamma', BPS Wheel 54, p. 39, verse 9).[2]

I am delighted to hear that you are shocked to learn from the Buddha that a sekha bhikkhu can be fond of work, talk, or sleep. (I make no apology for speaking bluntly since (i) if I do not do it nobody else will, and (ii) as I have already told you, time may be short.)

Quite in general, I find that the Buddhists of Ceylon are remarkably complacent at being the preservers and inheritors of the Buddha's Teaching, and remarkably ignorant of what the Buddha actually taught. Except by a few learned theras (who are dying out), the contents of the Suttas are practically unknown. This fact, combined with the great traditional reverence for the Dhamma as the National Heritage, has turned the Buddha's Teaching into an immensely valuable antique Object of Veneration, with a large placard in front, 'DO NOT TOUCH'. In other words, the Dhamma in Ceylon is now totally divorced from reality (if you want statistical evidence, tell me how many English-educated graduates of the University of Ceylon have thought it worthwhile to become bhikkhus[3]). It is simply taken for granted (by bhikkhus and laymen alike) that there are not, and cannot possibly be, any sekha bhikkhus (or laymen) actually walking about in Ceylon today. People can no longer imagine what kind of a creature a sotapānna might conceivably be, and in consequence superstitiously credit him with every kind of perfection—but deny him the possibility of existence.

I venture to think that if you actually read through the whole of the Vinaya and the Suttas you would be aghast at some of the things a real live sotāpanna is capable of. As a bhikkhu he is capable of suicide (but so also is an arahat—I have already quoted examples); he is capable of breaking all the lesser Vinaya rules (M. 48: i,323-5; A. III,85: i,231-2); he is capable of disrobing on account of sensual desires (e.g. the Ven. Citta Hatthisāriputta—A. VI,60: iii,392-9); he is capable (to some degree) of anger, ill-will, jealousy, stinginess, deceit, craftiness, shamelessness, and brazenness (A. II,16: i,96). As a layman he is capable (contrary to popular belief) of breaking any or all of the five precepts (though as soon as he has done so he recognizes his fault and repairs the breach, unlike the puthujjana who is content to leave the precepts broken).

There are some things in the Suttas that have so much shocked the Commentator that he has been obliged to provide patently false explanations (I am thinking in particular of the arahat's suicide in M. 144: iii,266 and in the Salāyatana Samy. 87: iv,55-60 and of a drunken sotāpanna in the Sotāpatti Samy. 24: v,375-7). What the sotāpannais absolutely incapable of doing is the following (M. 115: iii,64-5):—

To take any determination (sankhāra) as permanent,
To take any determination as pleasant,
To take any thing (dhamma) as self,
To kill his mother,
To kill his father,
To kill an arahat,
Maliciously to shed a Buddha's blood,
To split the Sangha,
To follow any teacher other than the Buddha.

All these things a puthujjana can do.

Why am I glad that you are shocked to learn that a sekha bhikkhu can be fond of talk (and worse)? Because it gives me the opportunity of insisting that unless you bring the sekha down to earth the Buddha's Teaching can never be a reality for you. So long as you are content to put the sotāpanna on a pedestal well out of reach, it can never possibly occur to you that it is your duty to become sotāpanna yourself (or at least to make the attempt) here and now in this very life; for you will simply take it as axiomatic that you cannot succeed. As Kierkegaard puts it,

Whatever is great in the sphere of the universally human must...not be communicated as a subject for admiration, but as an ethical requirement. (CUP, p. 320)
This means that you are not required to admire a sotāpanna, but to become one.

Let me illustrate the matter in a different way. It is possible that you were living as a young man in India in the Buddha's day, and that at the same time there was a young girl of a neighbouring family who had been with her parents to hear the Buddha teach. And she may have understood the Buddha's Teaching and become sotāpanna. And perhaps she might have been given to you in marriage. And you, being a puthujjana, would not know that she was a sekha (for remember, a puthujjana cannot recognize an ariya—an ariya can only be recognized by another ariya). But even though she was sotāpanna she might have loved you, and loved being loved by you, and loved bearing your children, and enjoyed dressing beautifully and entertaining guests and going to entertainments, and even been pleased at the admiration of other men. And she might have taken a pride in working to keep your house in order, and enjoyed talking to you and to your friends and relations. But every now and again, when she was alone, she would have called to mind her sotāpanna's understanding of the true nature of things and been secretly ashamed and disgusted at still finding delight in all these satisfactions (which she would see as essentially dukkha). But, being busy with her duties and pleasures as your wife, she would not have had the time to do much practice, and would have had to be content with the thought that she had only seven more human births to endure at the most.

Now suppose that one day you had gone to see the Buddha, and he had told you that your wife was not a puthujjana like yourself, but an ariya, one of the Elect—would you have been content to put her out of reach on a pedestal (where she would, no doubt, have been very unhappy), saying to yourself 'Ah, that is too difficult an attainment for a humble person like me'? Or would not rather your masculine pride have been stung to the quick and be smarting at the thought that your devoted and submissive wife should be 'one advanced in the Dhamma', while you, the lord and master of the household, remained an ordinary person? I think, perhaps, that you would have made an effort at least to become the equal of your wife.

It is possible that you may have been disturbed by my recent letters in which I have informed you of my situation. I do not mean only by the content (i.e. that it is possible that I may take my life), but also by the style. You may have felt that I have stated the facts in a callous way, that I do not take the matter seriously enough, that I am indifferent to other people's feelings, and that perhaps even some of my remarks are almost offensive. Let me assure you that I have not the slightest desire to offend you or anyone else, and if I have seemed offensive that I am sorry for it. But also let me say that my style is deliberate and is not unconnected with the foregoing remarks about the present total divorce of the Dhamma from reality. The point is this: for me the Dhamma is real, and it is the only thing that I take seriously: if I cannot practise the Dhamma as I wish, I have no further desire to live. Though I say it myself, it seems to me that this attitude is a necessary corrective to the prevalent blindly complacent view of the Dhamma as something to be taken for granted—that is to say, as a dead letter—; and I regard it almost as a duty to reflect this attitude in my writing, even at the risk of giving offence. (For most Buddhists in Ceylon—I will not say for you—there are many things that they take far more seriously than the Dhamma, and when I show too plainly that I regard these as worthless trifles, offence is easily taken.)

I do not know how you will receive this letter. It is easy to make mistakes and to miscalculate the effect of what one says. In any case, please accept my assurances that it is written with the best of intentions and with the desire to communicate to you something that I regard as being of paramount importance.

Editorial notes:

[50.1] human births: Let alone human births, the Suttas seem to indicate that a sotāpanna cannot take an eighth birth of any sort, even in the devaloka. See A. III,86: i,233. [Back to text]

[50.2] Mirror of the Dhamma: 'Those who comprehend clearly the Noble Truths, well taught by Him of wisdom deep, do not, however exceeding heedless they may be, undergo an eighth birth. Verily, in the Sangha is this precious jewel—by this truth may there be happiness!' [Back to text]

[50.3] statistical evidence: This remark would have had particular significance for Mr. Samaratunga, inasmuch as his own brother (the 'Ven. Thera' referred to in certain other letters) created a stir in Colombo a decade earlier when, after having completed his own university studies, he thought it worthwhile to become a bhikkhu and did so. [Back to text]