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. 44 | 51] 11 April 1963

I am glad to say the unpolished specimens of your ignorance are satisfactorily un-ignorantly relevant to the matter in hand. The truly ignorant question is the irrelevant question.

To begin with, there is your 'overwhelming desire to know something of the Dhamma which gets precedence to Fundamental Structure'. Perhaps a simile will make the matter clear. No doubt you are acquainted with the game of chess, played on a board of 64 squares, with a number of pieces and pawns moving according to certain fixed rules. This I shall call 'dispassionate chess' in contrast to 'passionate chess', which I shall now describe.

Imagine that, in order to add an (unwanted) interest to the game of dispassionate chess, some foolish person were to conceive the pieces as being subject to various passions having the effect of modifying their moves. The bishops, for example, being enamoured of the queen, would be diverted from their normal strict diagonal course when passing close to her, and would perhaps take corresponding steps to avoid the presence of the king out of fear of his jealousy. The knights would make their ordinary moves except that, being vain fellows, they would tend to move into a crowd of admiring pawns. The castles, owing to a mutual dislike, would always stay as far distant from each other as possible. Passionate chess would thus differ from dispassionate chess in that the moves of the pieces, though still normally governed by the rules of dispassionate chess, would be seriously complicated under the influence of passion; but both passionate and dispassionate chess would be played on the same chessboard of 64 squares.

We can take passionate chess as representing the behaviour of the puthujjana, which is complicated by craving, and dispassionate chess as the behaviour of the arahat, which is entirely free from irregularities due to craving. The chessboard, on which both kinds of chess alike are played, is Fundamental Structure.

Now the Buddha is concerned with transforming the puthujjana into an arahat, that is to say, with removing the undesirable complications of passionate chess in order to restore the parity of dispassionate chess; and for this purpose an examination of the structure of the chessboard is clearly an irrelevant matter, since it is exactly the same in both kinds of chess. In this way it may perhaps be seen that an understanding of the Dhamma does not depend on an understanding of Fundamental Structure, and takes precedence. A study of Fundamental Structure may, however, be found necessary (at least in times when the Dhamma is no longer properly understood, which rather seems to be the situation today) in order to re-establish this important fact (for, of course, an understanding of what is not the Dhamma may lead to an understanding of what is the Dhamma).

I am sorry about the repellent mathematical appearance of the note (I used to be a mathematician in a small way), but I can assure you that no knowledge of mathematics is required to follow it. You simply start from a positive ('this') and a negative ('not-this') and see where it leads you, following the one rule of avoiding self-contradiction.

The first result is that three negatives, not one, are absolutely required (which, incidentally, is why space is necessarily three-dimensional—i.e. if you can move from here to there, you must also be able to move in two other directions all mutually at right angles). This leads us at once to the next point—the negative.

The great advantage of your having so intelligently displayed your ignorance is that you have at once put your finger on the vital spot. You say 'The negative cannot appear in immediate experience. It is at most an inference and is therefore forbidden(?)' The bracketed query, which I take to mean that you are doubtful whether the negative as inference can be accepted as a basic irreducible concept, is fully justified. You cannot start with inference (which is a logical category) for the very good reason that in order to infer you must have something to infer from, and what you infer from is thus automatically more primitive than the inference. Furthermore, you cannot infer 'not-A' from 'A', since inference is of necessity from like to like. (In its simplest form, inductive inference is by 'simple enumeration'—'if A has occurred so many times it will probably occur again'. And it is well known that deductive inference does not add anything to what is already given in the premises.) From 'A' you can only infer 'more A', but the original 'A' from which you infer 'more A' is not itself an inference.

So, too, if you infer 'not-A' there must be an original 'not-A' that is not itself an inference. This means that your statement that the negative cannot appear in immediate experience is a fundamental mistake.[a] If the negative appears at all (which of course it does) it must appear first in immediate experience. From the fact that you are at A you cannot infer that movement from A—i.e. to not-A—is possible: movement is an immediate experience, revealing immediately the existence of the negative. (And, incidentally, the fact that space is three-dimensional—if movement in one dimension is possible, it is possible also in two other dimensions—is also a matter of immediate experience. This shows that the discussion in FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE is not logical or inferential, but a pre-inferential description of the structure of experience. A logician will make neither head nor tail of it.)

Try a simple experiment. Fix your gaze on some given object, A, in your room. Then, without shifting your gaze from A, ask yourself if anything else in the room is at that time visible to you. You will find that you can also see a number of other objects surrounding A, but less distinctly. These other objects, though visible at the same time as A, form, as it were, the background to A, which occupies the foreground or centre of attention. These are objects that are peripherally visible, whereas A is centrally visible, or, if you prefer, A is present whereas the other objects are, in a manner of speaking, partly absent—i.e. not present. But all these other objects, though they are not-A, are given in the same immediate experience as A. I do not think, if you carry out the experiment carefully, that you will conclude that all these peripherally—non-centrally—visible objects, which are negatives of the centrally visible A, are simply inferred from A. How can you possibly infer the bookshelf in the corner of the room from the pen lying on your desk?

You say that you 'determine what is on the table as a sheet of paper because of its positive qualities'.[b] Let us take a perhaps more obvious example. You go into a room and you find there a chair. You proceed to enumerate its 'positive qualities'—its shape, size, colour, texture, rigidity, material, and so on. Then, on some later occasion, somebody asks you 'What is a chair?' Will you not reply quite simply and without hesitation 'A chair is something to sit on'? Or would you give a detailed positive description of a chair, but omitting to mention the fact that you can sit on it? But if you say it is something to sit on, can you explain how you derive (or infer) this surely not unimportant characteristic of a chair from the list of purely positive qualities that you have made (bearing in mind, of course, that this list cannot contain the slightest reference to the anatomy of the human body, which is certainly not amongst the positive qualities of a chair)?

Perhaps you might say that you know that a chair is something to sit on from past experiences with such things as you have positively described. In this case I shall not disagree with you, but shall ask you instead how 'past experience' comes to be present (for, after all, it is in the present that you are describing a chair as something to sit on). Perhaps you might then explain that you now remember your past experience. I then ask 'What is memory?' If you are a neurologist you will perhaps give me a description of the nervous organization of the brain and of the traces or impressions left there by each experience, enabling it to be recalled on a future occasion. Perhaps I might then ask about people who remember their past existences when they had quite a different brain. Or perhaps, since you are not, in fact, a neurologist with a convenient hypothesis handy, you might allow that just at the moment you are not in a position to give an entirely adequate account of the matter. This would then give me the opportunity of putting it to you that your 'past experience' of a present object A is simply the more or less elaborately organized collection of images that immediately present themselves whenever we are directly faced with the actual object A.

My past experiences of A are the (mental) associations that the sight of A now has for me. If I now see a chair I automatically have at the same time certain images, either implicit or explicit (in which latter case we call them 'memories'), of myself sitting on things like A or of seeing other people sitting on them. The actual sight of a chair, together with an accompanying image of sitting on one, enables me to say—without any hesitation at all, without any rational act of inference whatsoever—'This is for sitting on'. The (negative) image of sitting is given together with the (positive) sight of a chair, and determines the chair for what it is. An act of inference is only involved if the object with which we are faced is unfamiliar (i.e. we have no past experience of it, and present images arising in association with it are inadequate to determine it); and in this case we have to set in motion the complicated machinery of thinking about it, or perhaps we may even have to acquire the necessary 'past experiences' by experimenting with it. But even in such a case as this, the inadequacy of our images associated with the actual sight of the object are enough to determine it immediately as 'strange object, to be treated with caution'. In other words, even when we resort to inference to determine an object, it has already been determined (as 'requiring investigation') by negatives (i.e. images) given in immediate experience together with the positive object.

Perhaps we can now come to Sartre's waiter, who is no doubt waiting for us.[1] The point is, that a man is not a waiter as a stone is a stone. You can take a stone and enumerate all its qualities (actual and potential) and the stone is all those things (actually or potentially) all the time. But if we enumerate the qualities of a waiter we shall find that we have a list of various tasks or duties to be performed at different times of the day. To be a waiter is to get up at 5:30 a.m., to take the tram to the cafe where he works, to start up the coffee percolator, to sweep the floor, to polish the tables, to put them outside on the terrace, to attend to the customers, and so on and so forth. But a man cannot in the very nature of things do all these things at once, he can only do them one at a time. If he is sweeping the floor he cannot also be polishing the tables and attending to the customers. This means that he can never be completely a waiter in the sense that a stone is completely a stone; for he cannot fulfill all the requirements of 'being a waiter' at once. He may attempt to realize his 'state of being a waiter' by throwing himself heart and soul into his work and even by exaggerating the typical gestures associated with waiters; nevertheless he can never succeed in coinciding absolutely with his aim of 'being a waiter'.

The negative here is obvious—to be a stone is simply to be a thing, but to be a waiter is to perform a series of tasks one after another and not all at once. The waiter is determined as a waiter not so much by what he actually is doing, but by all the things that he is not doing but that he recognizes it is his duty to do. The waiter is determined by his negatives.

But the waiter is separated from (or trying to be) a waiter, not a journalist nor a diplomat. This simply means that at some point in his life he chose to be a waiter (i.e. to aim at being a waiter in the sense just described) and not to be a journalist or a diplomat. This means that his immediate world is so organized that 'being a waiter' is present, 'being a dishwasher' is absent (though perhaps not so far absent as he might wish), 'being a journalist' is far absent, and 'being a diplomat' is very remotely absent indeed.[c]

But all these absences (or negatives), by which his present ('being a waiter') is determined, normally remain on the level of immediate unreflexive experience (or consciousness—he is conscious of them, but not aware of them, which is a distinction to which I refer, if I remember rightly, in the letter to Mr. Dias on satisampajañña.[2]) If he is asked 'Are you a diplomat?' he will answer 'No, I am a waiter' without even having to think about it (just as you answered your enquirer 'A chair is something to sit on' without having to think about it). If these absences, these negatives, these determinations of what he is (a waiter), were present on the reflexive level instead of remaining on the level of immediacy, he would spend his day muttering to himself 'I am neither a journalist nor a diplomat, but a waiter; and if I do not behave myself I shall perhaps become a dishwasher'; but normally, unless he is a very neurotic waiter, this does not happen.

'Man is not a substance that thinks, but a separation from all substance'. (6ET, p. 113) If man were a substance (as a stone is a substance) he would entirely coincide with himself, and no thought (which is necessarily teleological) would be possible. The stone does not think because it is already fully and completely a stone, but the waiter (who is at best only teleologically aiming at being a waiter) is obliged to think about all the tasks he has to perform in order to be a waiter, an aim that is never fulfilled. Similarly with 'I am not, therefore I think'. (6ET, p. 113)

You say 'The Dhamma, I thought, was based on the higher levels of immediate experiences, as for instance the realization of the pañc'upādānakkhandhā'. This is not very clear. The practice of the Dhamma is carried out in a state of satisampajañña (as I remark in DHAMMA), and satisampajañña is reflexive experience and not immediate experience. Certainly there are different levels of satisampajañña (as when an attitude of satisampajañña is adopted towards satisampajañña on a lower level), but even the lowest level of satisampajañña is reflexive and not immediate.

I am not anxious to go into much detail here on pañc'upādānakkhandhā, partly because it would be largely a repetition of what I have already said in Notes on Dhamma, a detailed study of which you are postponing until they are printed. But a certain amount can be said. It is a mistake to say that viññāna is composed of vedanā, saññā, and sankhārā. The five items, rūpa, vedanā, saññā, sankhārā, and viññāna, can also be regarded as three: viññāna and nāma-rūpa, where nāma is vedanā, saññā, and sankhārā.[3] From VIÑÑĀNA and from NĀMA [c] you will see that viññāna (or consciousness) is to be regarded as the presence of nāma-rūpa and is not to be included in nāma. It is absolutely necessary to start one's thinking from the experience (nāmarūpam saha viññānenaD. 15: ii,64) as the basic unit. Each experience consists of these five items, and each fresh experience consists of a fresh set of these five items.

You quote the passage from DHAMMA about the shady tree and putting it in brackets reflexively; and then you say 'The vedanā, saññā, sankhārā, viññāna are in me—rūpa is in the tree. Or is the rūpa also in me?'[d] This is a confusion of thought that arises from not taking the experience as the basic unit. If there were no experience there would be no tree and no me; consequently the experience has priority over tree and me, in the sense that the tree and me depend upon the occurrence of the experience. It is therefore a confusion to reverse the situation and ask which part of the experience is 'in me' and which part 'in the tree'. All that can be said is that 'there is experience of a shady tree', and that this experience can be analysed into the pañc'upādānakkhandhā. One can say that rūpa, vedanā, saññā, sankhārā, and viññāna (and also the tree and me) are in the experience (more strictly they constitute the experience), but one cannot ask where the experience is.

You raise the question of other people: 'What happens when I meet person B?' The whole question of other people is extremely involved, and cannot be dealt with before one has settled the question of oneself. But I think Sartre's account (of which Blackham gives a précis) is correct in principle. I do not think the question can be profitably discussed here, partly on account of the complexity and partly because it is not really necessary for an understanding of the Dhamma. What can be said is this. The appearance of another person besides myself does not in any very simple way make two pañc'upādānakkhandhā instead of just one, for the reason that nobody can see them both in the same way at the same time (like two marbles) and then count 'one, two'. The appearance of somebody else is a certain modification of my experience that requires elaborate description.

With your paragraph 'The whole of the Dhamma applies to me...', I see no reason, in a general way, to disagree. The Dhamma concerns me and me alone, just as it concerns you and you alone, and everybody else in the same way.

I do not actually recall the details of our conversation about the resentment that arises when sentence is passed on one found guilty, but I offer this suggestion. In the first place it is necessary to be 'authentic' and not to deceive oneself. One says to oneself 'I am a Judge by my own free choice, and if I wished to stop being a Judge at any time there is nothing to prevent me. Therefore, whatever I do as a Judge is my own responsibility. Now, I choose to continue to be a Judge, and this means that I choose to perform all the functions expected of a Judge, amongst which is the passing of sentence on guilty prisoners'. One then goes on to say 'But although it is incumbent upon a Judge to pass the sentence prescribed by Law on guilty prisoners, it is by no means incumbent upon him to feel resentment when he does so. If, therefore, I feel resentment when I do pass sentence I am going beyond what is expected of me. This resentment does no good to the prisoner; it does no good to me; and it is not required by Law. Furthermore, I do not know this prisoner personally, and he has done no harm to me, and there is no conceivable reason why I should allow myself to become personally affected by his misdeeds or his fate. My duty, for which I accept responsibility, is to pass the prescribed sentence, nothing more. Let me therefore perform my duty and not concern myself further in the matter.'


[44.a] Compare Kierkegaard:

Negative thinkers always have one advantage, in that they have something positive, being aware of the negative element in existence; the positive have nothing at all, since they are deceived. Precisely because the negative is present in existence, and present everywhere (for existence is a constant process of becoming) it is necessary to become aware of its presence continuously, as the only safeguard against it. In relying upon a positive security the subject is merely deceived. (CUP, p. 75)
[44.b] You speak of its potentialities (i.e. its negatives) for determining it as being as far-fetched as its not being on fire. But suppose I were to say that the sheet of paper is combustible—would you call that far-fetched? Or would you be satisfied that I had mentioned a positive quality of the paper? But what does 'combustible' mean? That the paper is actually burning? No. That it is not burning? Not exactly, since a glass of water also is not burning, but we do not call a glass of water 'combustible'. Does it not then simply mean that the paper could burn, that 'to be on fire' is one of its potentialities? It is not on fire, but it might be. [Back to text]

[44.c] Note that the relative distances of the absences, i.e. their perspective, is an important consideration. A waiter is only just 'not a dishwasher' but very thoroughly 'not a diplomat'. A journalist, on the other hand, would be more nearly equidistant from dishwashing and diplomacy. [Back to text]

[44.d] What happens when my immediate experience of a tree is 'put in brackets' and seen reflexively is that the 'tree' becomes 'an example of rūpa' and 'I' become 'an example of attavādupādāna, of holding to the assertion of self'. [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[44.1] Sartre's waiter: For the passage on the waiter, see pp. 59-60 of Barne's translation. [Back to text]

[44.2] Letter to Mr. Dias: L. 2 [Back to text]

[44.3] viññāna and nāmarūpa: No Sutta reference has been found to support this assertion. In a note (possibly written prior to L. 1) commenting on Khandha Samy. 53: iii,53, the author remarked: 'Thus it seems that the first four aggregates—matter, feeling, perception, determinations—are equivalent to name-&-matter, though the Suttas never say so specifically—a fact that is unusually significant.' [Back to text]