The Mind in Progress

Review of Ven. Ñānavīra’ Letters before 1960

In this collection of Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera’s Early Writings we are presenting a rare opportunity to accompany an extraordinary mind in progress.1 As we shall see, he was constantly seeking, revising his views and his approach to the Buddha’s Teaching until June 1959, when the ‘stainless Eye of the Dhamma’ arose in him. Never content with his thinking until he attained sammādiṭṭhi or Right View, he was the severest critic of his own essays and voluminous correspondence.

It is voluminous indeed, and it is striking to recall it was composed within the recent past. For in our age of sound bytes, text messaging and the Internet, our communication nowadays has become cursory, provisional and not worthy of saving, let alone publication; not many of us write more than brief sentences to each other, usually to be obliterated by both sender and receiver and dispatched promptly into cyberspace. Hence, the epistolary tradition of previous generations, in which correspondents discussed enduring themes instead of yesterday’s news and gossip, has all but vanished. As a sad consequence our acuity has undoubtedly been dulled, and few would be capable of an exchange of this magnitude and depth.2 In contrast to our present day intellectual equivalent of fast food, bland and unsavoury, produced and consumed in haste, Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s letters are often elaborate essays in themselves, spiced with geometrical diagrams, extensive quotations from the Suttas, explanatory footnotes, cross-references to previous instalments and even quantum physics, existentialist philosophy and certain European novels which illustrated it. Indeed, for the first time modern Western philosophy and literature have been extensively applied to explain the Buddha’s Teaching and express it in a Western mode. Especially those of us who were not born in a Buddhist country have benefited greatly from it, since like our author we first reflected on our uncertain plight when we read serious fiction, which often has a strong affinity to the Buddha’s Teaching. For example, the themes of futility, alienation and boredom prominent in twentieth-century literature have much in common with samsara: ‘While you live, nothing happens. The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that’s all. There are no beginnings. Days add on to days without rhyme or reason, an interminable and monotonous addition.’3 Hence, novelists such as Sartre, Joyce, Kafka, Sterne and others will be called upon to help elucidate the Dhamma. Their value is readily apparent: for undoubtedly their symbols, characters and themes formed Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s background, and their manner of thinking influenced his own:

Tristram Shandy is certainly a remarkable book: I read it some years ago and it had a profound effect on me. I read it during the same period in which I first read Diderot’s Jacques la Fataliste and Ulysses, both of which owe much to T.S. ... All three books have this in common: they are busy not going anywhere. And it was at this time that the question ‘Well, my lad, what are you going to Do in Life’ was beginning to raise its ugly head. And the more I read these books the more alarmingly clear … did it become that I ‘wasn’t going to Do Anything in Life.’ (EL.50, 23.xii.1957)

As his readers know, Ven. Ñāṇavīra eventually did something remarkable in life, through the publication of his essays, especially the astounding Notes on Dhamma, and his attainment of sotāpatti. Yet none of this would ever have occurred had he not encountered the aforementioned thinkers, who dramatised the banality and emptiness of the bourgeois livelihood society and family expected of him.4 Some may ask if these carefully crafted letters, a number of them thousands of words long, with numerous citations, were necessary to his bhāvanā or even distractions from it. Could he not just practise? I believe he would reply that in order to do so, one must understand what the practice is all about, a more complex affair than most realise, and one reason we have the benefit of his correspondence is clear.5 Our author maintained the following private dictum: Do not imagine that you understand something unless you can write it down.

Of course, even writing something down does not guarantee certainty or veracity. As he emphasised time and again, there are countless books and articles in print whose contentions are misleading or unfounded, and several letters in the 1950s reveal that they delayed his efforts to comprehend paṭiccasamuppāda, or Dependent Origination, a concept noted in the Suttas as ‘deep, profound and difficult to see.’ Here is perhaps the most outstanding example from the following two letters of August and September 1955:

My last postcard said that the ‘Meaning of Dhamma’ was proceeding smoothly. In my experience it is always dangerous to say a thing like that, and this was no exception. No sooner had the postcard gone off than I had an idea that has caused a certain amount of devastation in what I had (as so often before) regarded as the final version. I now agree with certain views about the paṭiccasamuppāda’s not necessarily referring to the three lives—Dahlke, Evola and others—, but I agree with these views for different reasons, and think (from what I remember) that they are wrong. But the ferment has only begun, and I have yet to see what the final brew will taste like. …

The ferment has now ended and the fresh brew is a great improvement—the paṭiccasamuppāda complete refers indifferently to two lives or three (not to one); but you will have to suspend judgement until you see how this is arrived at. … (EL.20)

The September postcard may elicit a smile from his readers, since it falls into the same ‘danger’ mentioned in the previous letter, that of a premature announcement of a breakthrough, and ironically each fresh brew soon tasted flat. Before he ‘attained to view’, Ven. Ñāṇavīra knew that he had to rewrite time and again, precisely because even his remarkable mind did not yet truly comprehend the Dhamma until after the metanoia he experienced in 1959. As he observes in the letter of 21.iv.1955, ‘each time I rewrite the essay I think there is nothing more to say, and each time I find I am wrong.’ (EL.17)6 We watch the ideas as they slowly ferment, suspending judgement as he revises and sometimes repudiates his own work,7 including sections of the published articles ‘Nibbāna and Anatta and ‘Sketch for a Proof of Rebirth’; however, the intense investigation of the 1950s, in the Early Essays and ‘Meaning of Dhamma’, led to Notes on Dhamma, called ‘the most important book of the century’ where he radically redefined the core of the Buddha’s Teaching against centuries of tradition and stated categorically, ‘Any interpretation of paṭiccasamuppāda that involves time is an attempt to resolve the present problem by referring to past or future, and is therefore necessarily mistaken.’ (Notes on Dhamma, p. 67)

Thanks to the unrelenting efforts of Ven. Ñāṇavīra, the Path has in fact been cleared of the dead matter that has obstructed it for so long, and now we can proceed without erring astrayif, however, we avoid the usual pitfalls. For he warns us throughout Seeking the Path and subsequent writings that the puthujjana8 goes about assuming at least tacitly that he understands what in fact he does not understand; hence, he resembles the purblind man in the Māgandiya Sutta (M.75) convinced ‘by one seeking to deceive him’ that he was wearing a clean white garment when it was really stained with grease and soot. Therefore, I believe that the most important reason to read this book is to become undeceived.9

Whether by reverence for tradition or by popular books, many have been blinded and deceived: by unsubstantiated post-canonical doctrines that change means flux, that ‘in the highest sense’ objects do not really exist, or facile new age contentions that we should postpone Nibbāna until all other beings are enlightened—none of which has any basis in the Buddha’s Teaching. Although our author does not purposely make the Dhamma difficult, he forcefully reminds us that is so; and his scorn for whatever is inconsistent with the Suttas and the Laws of Thought is just as firm and uncompromising as his ultimate stance on paṭiccasamuppāda. Those accustomed to books ‘about Buddhism will likely undergo the shock similar to what the devas felt upon hearing the Dhamma the first time, as Ven. Ñāṇavīra summarily debunks our previous convenient notions—whether fabricated from ancient Abhidhamma, disinterested modern scholarship or mystical Mahayana—and reveals the most inconvenient of all truths.

For a very long time the components of the tilakkaṇa (anicca, dukkha, anattā) have been treated objectively and therefore insufficiently. As a result it has been easy to take what our author has called the horizontal view, in which case they are reduced to merely general, theoretical concepts. Conversely, Ven. Ñāṇavīra tells us that the tilakkaṇa are existential, which we must realise subjectively, as affecting me personally, meaning my ambitions, my desires and my disappointments. As early as 1957 he asserted that impermanence was an inherent structural principle of experience, and not just an adventitious curiosity.’ (EL. 33)

This statement echoes the Lion’s Roar of the Buddha’s First Discourse, the Dhammacakkappavattanasutta. Since anicca is grafted on to whatever I think, do or feel, it therefore must be contaminated by dukkha as well as anattā; and so confronted by Nietzche’s question, ‘Has existence any significance at all?’ I am at a loss to answer. For what point is there, then, to the long years I have striven to get where I am, the diplomas I have framed, the trophies on the shelf or the anticipation of the next pay raise? They can only retain their gloss as long as long as I am held spellbound by their glare. Yet when the structural principle of Impermanence is invoked, they lose their lustre:

[W]hen we reflexively examine a field with its absent fields it is not seen as temporal. Each absent field has a different relative degree of appearance of absence, of attention paid to it. … Now I have said in separate places, (i) that we always automatically occupy the pleasantest attitude, (ii) that attention is always automatically directed to the pleasantest fields, and (iii) that degree of attention to a field is inversely proportional to its distance in time, i.e. varies as 1/coefficient of absence. These may be reduced to a single statement that the pleasantest alternative is always nearest in time (for which a structural reason is evident), or that comparative degree of pleasantness=distance in time. The present field, which is infinitely near, is infinitely pleasant (see (i)). That is to say, unreflexively; for reflexively we may see that the present field is most unpleasant.10 (EL. 33, 14. viii. 57)

In this brilliant analysis of our mind’s incessant, intricate and ultimately futile search for the best of all possible alternatives, Ven. Ñāṇavīra arrives at yet another astounding revelation and proof in detail of the Buddha’s succinct declaration yaṃ kiñci vedayitaṃ taṃ dukkhasmiṃ11 our most pleasant possibility appears as such only as long as we remain ‘unreflexive’. The life of the puthujjana can therefore appear pleasurable—if he remains oblivious to the inconvenient truth he does not want to know, acting ‘as if nothing’s wrong’:12 that is, as if the structural principle did not apply, thus engaging in a daily exercise of bad faith or inauthenticity as described by the Existentialists. Yet once they are viewed in the light of the tilakkaṇa, it is apparent that alternatives themselves are delusory, since every present field will soon become absent, and vice versa. In sum, this succession of present and absent fields demonstrates that mundane existence is truly comprised of an ‘interminable and monotonous addition’ of experiences.13

However, as Ven. Ñāṇavīra reminds us, to be a puthujjana—all cogent observations notwithstanding—is to be oblivious, inauthentic, unreflexive and most of the time distracted by the world around him; or in the Buddha’s language, blinded by avijjā, taṇha and upādāna. He inevitably engages in a self-compromise, hiding the unpleasant truth of impermanence from himself in order to appease an immediate desire.14 Perhaps we cannot be reminded too frequently that until one becomes an ariyasāvakā (noble disciple), avijjā is the ‘normal’ state, a priori, to use the term in the Kantian sense—immanent to the subject ‘I’ and thus a far greater obstacle to overcome than the incomplete translations as ‘not knowing’ or ‘ignorance’ imply:

I must remark that even if I had completely explained etc. motion to my own satisfaction, I should not for all that hold that I had lost my avijjā … An intellectual understanding of how I ought to, or might, or should see things had I no avijjā, is a mile away from being vijjāvimutti … But, then, as we discovered when you were here, there seems to be some difference between your understanding of avijjā and mine, and we may be talking at cross purposes some of the time. (EL.51, 27.xii.57)

With our author’s help we have already travelled far, but we must not deceive ourselves yet again: even when we arrive at an intellectual or verbal understanding, we are still a mile away from being ‘released through knowledge’. As he later wrote, in reference to Kafka’s The Trial, ‘There is no “happy ending” or “tragic ending” or “comic ending” to life, only a “dead ending”—and then we start again. We suffer, because we refuse to be reconciled with this lamentable fact; and even though we may say that life is meaningless we continue to think and act as if it had a meaning.’ (Clearing the Path, L.66) Indeed, one takes refuge in the Dhamma because he or she has been haunted by the lamentable fact; but for most of us, although we ought to, or might, or should regard them according to their ‘inherent structural principle,’ the diplomas, trophies and pay raises still glitter before our eyes.15 So, we must know what the practice is all about, yet as Ven. Ñāṇavīra states, even then there remains a great deal we still do not really know—namely, the tilakkaṇa.

On the question of anicca/dukkha/anattā it is necessary, I am afraid, to be dogmatic. The aniccatā or impermanence spoken of by the Buddha in the context of this triad is by no means simply the impermanence that everybody can see around him at any moment of his life; it is something very much more subtle. The puthujjana, it must be stated definitely, does not have aniccasaññā, does not have dukkhasaññā, does not have anattasaññā. These three things stand and fall together, and nobody who still has attavādupādāna (i.e. nobody short of the sotāpanna) perceives aniccatā in the essential sense of the term. (Clearing the Path, L.44, 8.vii.1962)

Implicit in this dogmatic assertion and, really, the entire corpus of Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s writings is a challenge to the reader.16 Returning to Nietzche’s question, ‘has existence any significance at all?’, the answer must be No, if our days merely add on to days, if we switch incessantly from present to absent fields and vice versa, occupied with business or pleasure until the dead ending. The only real purpose or ambition for the puthujjana’s existence, according to our author, is to perceive aniccatā and therefore cease being a puthujjana. And that, as he says, requires hard work.

Dr. M. John Stella

October 2008/2551

1 Formerly Harold Musson, he was born in 1920 into a British military family, and attained the rank of Captain during World War II. After the war he graduated with First Class Honours in Modern Languages from Cambridge University, but dissatisfied with his mundane life, he left England for Sri Lanka in 1948 and became a sāmanera the following year. He ordained as a bhikkhu taking the name of Ñāṇavīra at Vajirārāma monastery, Colombo, in 1950, and spent most of his ordained life in a solitary kuṭi near Bundala until his death in 1965. Additional biographical information is available at the Ñāṇavīra Thera Dhamma Page:

2 The majority of the Early Letters were exchanged with Ñāṇamoli Thera, formerly Osbert Moore (1905–1960), a fellow Englishman and friend who accompanied our author to Sri Lanka and resided at the Island Hermitage, near Dodanduwa. Some letters to Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s dayakas, Mr and Mrs Perera, as well as some of Ven. Ñāṇamoli’s replies, are included here.

3 From La Nausée (Paris: Gallimard, 1938), translated by Lloyd Alexander as Nausea (New York: New Directions, 1949).

4 ‘One who has understood the Buddha’s Teaching … is beyond the range of the existential philosophies; but he would never have reached the point of listening to the Buddha’s Teaching had he not first been disquieted by existential questions about himself and the world.’ From our author’s Preface to his Notes on Dhamma (Path Press Publications, 2009, p.xiv).

5 Another reason, sadly, is that intense pain often hindered Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s ability to practise samatha (mental concentration), so when he could not meditate he spent his time writing. He suffered from several chronic health problems, especially severe infections of colitis and amœbiasis. See the letter dated 5.x.1959, where he refers to another bout, which disturbed his ‘normal state of ill health.’

6 For this reason he strongly urged readers to pursue his authoritative writings from 1960–1965, which comprise Clearing the Path and needed no such revision. I further recommend the work of our author’s one of the editors, Ven. Bodhesako, in Beginnings: Collected Essays by S. Bodhesako (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 2008).

7 With the notable exception of the correspondence relating to Fundamental Structure, much of which survived in Notes on Dhamma.

8 The average, worldly person, ‘l’homme moyen sensuel’, but not necessarily a sensualist: specifically, one who has not perceived the Dhamma.

9 Compare verse 63 of the Dhammapada, 'Yo bālo maññati bāyam/paṇḍitovāpi tena so/ bālo ca paṇḍitamānī/ sa ve bāloti vuccati': The fool who knows he is a fool can for that reason be a wise man; but the fool who thinks he is wise is called a fool indeed.

10 It is crucial to remember that Ven. Ñāṇavīra and also Ven. Bodhesako distinguish between the states of ‘reflection’ (thinking about something) and ‘reflexion’ (self-examination). For ‘field’, read ‘phenomenon’ or ‘experience’.

11 ‘Whatever is experienced is dukkha.’ (S.xxxvi.11)

12 As in the Commonplace Book: ‘You cannot disagree with the Buddha’s teaching, you can only shut your eyes.’

13 As Ven. Bodhesako writes: ‘There is, then, an inherent unsatisfactoriness in our present (most satisfactory) experience: namely, that it is not wholly satisfactory; it is not all possible satisfaction. ... Sooner or later a ‘switch’ will occur: one particular absent experience will be found to be more desirable than our present experience; and we will intend the absent experience which, in the act of intending it, will become the present experience, while our (former) present experience will now be absent, or possible.’ From ‘Essay on Craving’, Beginnings, op cit.

14 The scheme of self-compromise is self-defeating, since dukkha lurks in the presence of taṇhā or any element of paṭiccasamuppāda, which Ven. Ñāṇavīra, in paragraph 7 of his Note on Paṭiccasamuppāda calls ‘a present problem or, anxiety.’

15 See the conclusion to the first chapter of René Daumal’s Le Mont Analogue (Paris: Gallimard, 1981), where he astutely observes the operation of the ‘chameleon law’ of human behaviour, or ‘elective affinity to what is nearest at hand.’

16 Consequently, in his Foreword to Clearing the Path, Ven. Bodhesako incisively called it a ‘work book.’