[L. 126 | 136] 26 May 1964

Just a few words to express my appreciation of all the trouble you have taken in coming to visit me and in concerning yourself about my welfare—particularly intellectual. The books that you brought me are all of interest to me in one way or another, and not the least the Zaehner (in spite of the fact that I find him partly unreadable).

The book on time confirms my suspicion that the whole subject is in a state of chaos, and I am glad to think that my own contribution (in the Notes), if it is mistaken, at least errs in good company. I see that the question of time has occupied not a few ecclesiastics in the Middle Ages, and their findings have been as intelligent as anything that is produced today. (The particular question of the 'variability of qualities'—i.e., that a quality can vary in intensity while remaining unchanged in kind—is one to which I myself have given some attention, and I find that it has already been considered by Duns Scotus.) St. Augustine—a man of parts in more senses than one—has made some very acute remarks. (Are his Confessions available?)

The book is, in part, a combination of the philosophical naivety so typical of the dedicated scientists[a] and a kind of ultra-sophistication (also typical of scientists) that does not shrink from a more-than-Hegelian dialectic.[b] The effect of this alternation is far from displeasing, but it convinces me that my world must be very different from that of the scientist (I used to be a mathematician in a small way, but with the pure mathematician's dislike of any practical applications).

Huxley has certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons with his implied suggestion that the Holy Ghost may, after all, turn out to be no more than a rather obscure chemical compound—it puts the other two members of the Trinity in a strange light. No wonder the learned rescue-corps (Kierkegaard's expression) has to rush in to defend! However, in this particular controversy I am merely a spectator: I am more interested in Zaehner's references[1] to Pali Buddhism. He does not say much (and he admits he does not know much) about Theravāda texts, but what he does say is wrong in two respects.

(i) In the first place, he more or less identifies the anattā ('not-self') doctrine with Advaita Vedānta, and he does this with more than a suspicion that neither Buddhists nor even the Buddha himself would allow this.[c] Though this identification is quite gratuitous,[d] there is some excuse for it in view of certain books published in Europe which hold this view (Horner and Coomaraswamy in England, and Georg Grimm in Germany). No doubt you will gather from the Notes that I certainly do not hold the view that the object of the exercise is to get rid of my temporal 'self' in order to attain the permanent 'Self' behind it. But, this is not the place to pursue this question.

(ii) In the second place, Zaehner appears to assume that all experience attained in the practice of meditation (I use the word here in the widest sense) is of the mescalin/manic-depressive type, or at least that one has to pass through this state to reach the 'Beatific Vision'. Now, whatever the case may be with the Christian mystics, or with the Mahometan Sufis, or with the Hindus—or even with Mahāyāna and Zen Buddhists—about none of whom am I well informed (and, still less, practised in their disciplines), I can quite definitely assert that (to speak only of the practice of concentration—samādhi) the effect of practice according to the Theravāda tradition (details in the Visuddhimagga—Path of Purification) is quite different from anything Zaehner has described.

I myself have practised fairly continuously for one year, and then (after amoebiasis had crippled my capacity for practice) spasmodically for about fourteen years, and I am quite familiar with the low-level results of this practice. There is a gradual and increasing experience of calm and tranquillity as the object of meditation (in my case, the in- and out-breaths) becomes clearer and more definite, and at the same time distracting thoughts about other matters become less. (If one does turn one's attention to such matters, they are seen much more clearly and steadily than at normal times.) As one proceeds, one's capacity for practice increases, and one may be able to continue (with interruptions for meals, etc.) for many hours;[e] and also one positively dislikes any outside interruption, and necessary breaks are most unwelcome.

In all this there is, right from the start, no sign at all of elation and depression (or expansion and contraction—Zaehner, pp. 85ff.), and no experience of 'one-ness' (with nature, with Self, with God, or with anything else). There is nothing one could possibly call 'ecstatic' about it—it is pleasurable, and the more so the more one does it, but that is all. To begin with, certainly, one may be attacked either by sleepiness or by mental agitation (i.e. about other matters), but with persistence, and particularly when the object of meditation begins to appear clearly, these things no longer arise; but sleepiness is not depression and mental distraction is not manic exultation.

About the higher states (called jhānas), I am, unfortunately, unable to give you any personal account, since I have never reached them (though my motive in coming to Ceylon in the first place was to obtain them); but I am perfectly satisfied that they are attainable (given good health, persistence, and so on). In any case, in the descriptions of these attainments in the Suttas there is, once again, nothing that corresponds to what Zaehner describes; and, in particular, these practices alone do not lead to 'liberation' in the highest sense—nibbāna—though Zaehner seems to assume that they do (pp. 155-6). Moreover, it is by no means necessary to reach the highest stages of concentration in order to attain nibbāna—first jhāna (minimum) is sufficient.

I have wearied you with all this only because it seems possible that, in denying that there was anything 'mystical' about the Buddhism of the Pali Texts, I might have given you the impression that there was (in my opinion, at least) no practice of meditation. This, however, would be a mistake. In denying that Pali Buddhism was mystical, all I intended to convey was that (i) the practice of meditation (or, more specifically, concentration—samādhi) that it teaches cannot in any way be described as mystical (though certainly its effects are, to begin with, unusual [because few people practise], and eventually, supernormal [they can lead to mastery of iddhi powers: levitation, clairvoyance, memory of past lives, and so on]); and (ii) that eventual liberation—nibbāna, extinction—is not a mystical union with the Deity, nor even absorption in a Higher Self (both of which cover up and intensify the fundamental ambiguity of the subject ['I', 'myself', etc.]), but rather the attainment of the clear understanding and comprehension (paññā, aññā) about the nature of this ambiguity (which, when combined with suitable samādhi actually causes—or, rather, allows—the ambiguity to subside once for all).

Our actual discussion on the Dhamma was, I am afraid, rather indecisive. There are many world-views against which as a background the Buddha's Teaching is wholly incomprehensible—indeed, the Buddha himself, upon occasion, when asked about his Teaching, would answer, 'It is hard for you, having (as you do) other teachers, other persuasions, other views, to understand these matters' (e.g. M. 72: i,487). Zaehner's Weltanschauung, for example, is hopeless—and doubly so, since he is both a Roman Catholic and a University Professor, making him either hostile or indifferent (or both) to the Buddha. (Is there not, incidentally, something rather louche[3] about being at one and the same time a Catholic and a professor of comparative religion? Kierkegaard would have something to say about this. Perhaps he is objective on week-days and subjective on Sundays. But I know that I could never endure such a situation.) Anyway, I hope your visit was not entirely time wasted.


[126.a] How can he pass such a statement as this: '...the newborn is not conscious and only gradually becomes so in the first five or ten months of life'? [Back to text]

[126.b] No doubt you are aware that scientific research has established the existence of an 'Absolute Zero of Temperature'—about -273.4° C.—but did you know that some scientists now think that there may be things even colder than that? Heat is envisaged as the movement of particles, and Absolute Zero is the state where all these particles are at rest. A temperature below Absolute Zero seems to take us through the looking-glass. [Back to text]

[126.c] '...the Buddha saw something that did not change, over against prakriti he saw purusha though he would not have formulated it thus.' And again, 'Moreover the Hindus, overwhelmingly, and the Buddhists when they are off their guard, speak of this eternal being as the "self"...' (p. 126). [Back to text]

[126.d] There is one text (at least) that directly opposes the idea that nibbāna (extinction) is attā (self). [Back to text]

[126.e] In the Suttas, the Buddha and others continue for a week at a time[2] 'without changing their sitting position', and this is, to me, perfectly credible. [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[126.1] Zaehner: Mysticism...; see Acknowledgements. [Back to text]

[126.2] week at a time: See Editorial note 2 to L. 56. [Back to text]

[126.3] louche: suspect. [Back to text]