Saturday, July 19, 2014


"The reader is presumed to be subjectively engaged with an anxious problem, the problem of his existence, which is also the problem of his suffering." (Nanavira Thera, Notes on Dhamma)

"I am entitled to assume that you are never at a loss for an authentic model to study." (Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands)

About a year ago, I was dealing with similar issues in distinguishing between existence and existentialism, the mystical and scholarly approach to things. This set off a series of posts in which I compared Hemingway, Ramana Maharshi, Henry Miller and Douglas Harding, looking at how literature and mysticism deal with the problem of existence, the reality of death. It was very illuminating for me, and I'm going to spend a bit of time rereading and reworking those posts, perhaps into the essay they should obviously become.

Looking for an English translation of the French translation of Heidegger that Cyril Connolly cites in the Unquiet Grave (mentioned in passing in my last post), I stumbled on the life and work of Nanavira Thera, who has been completely unknown to me until now. It looks very interesting. And it was a fortuitous find. Nanavira also read Connolly, and, if we leave out his reflections on the inadequacy of scholarship*, we get telling invocation of reality that resonates nicely with the remark of Connolly's that I cited. First Nanavira:

The reader is presumed to be subjectively engaged with an anxious problem, the problem of his existence, which is also the problem of his suffering. […]* Only in a vertical view, straight down into the abyss of his own personal existence, is a man capable of apprehending the perilous insecurity of his situation; and only a man who does apprehend this is prepared to listen to the Buddha's Teaching. But human kind, it seems, cannot bear very much reality: men, for the most part, draw back in alarm and dismay from this vertiginous direct view of being and seek refuge in distractions.

And here, again, is Connolly:

Both my happiness and my unhappiness I owe to the love of pleasure; of sex, travel, reading, conversation (hearing oneself talk), food, drink, cigars and lying in warm water.

Reality is what remains** when these pleasures, together with hope for the future, regret for the past, vanity of the present, and all that composes the aroma of the self are pumped out of the air-bubble in which I shelter.

It is, I would say, the same "reality" that they are here talking about. That of suffering and illusion. "Distraction". And this is where Heidegger's notion of "care" comes in. I can't shake the suspicion that both the scholar and the sage, the writer and the mystic, suffer, not from too much reality, but too little. They do not engage with experience in a practical way, they don't take their situation "in hand". As Oliver Senior puts it:

If ... the artist finds himself constrained, by any consideration of expression, treatment or style, or by his deference to the peculiar nature and limitations of his tools and materials, to adopt or invent a convention or a symbol and to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand, then the particular problem dealt with in this book does not arise.

Senior may be right that the problem of drawing a hand is notoriously difficult to solve. The problem of existing is of course much, much more difficult. But I think Senior's is approach is exemplary. Both writers and sages have a tendency toward conventional and symbolic solutions, to substitution of a "semblance" of existence for actually being there, and doing the work.

I, too, of course, suffer from this tendency. But just as we all have a hand that we can use as a model, and therefore are always in a position to practice drawing one. And just as that is the only way to get past the difficulty, so we all have a life, which we can take in our own hands, and by this means become as good as we ever will at "existing". It's not easy, but there's no other way.

*Here's what I've left out: "There is therefore nothing in these pages to interest the professional scholar, for whom the question of personal existence does not arise; for the scholar's whole concern is to eliminate or ignore the individual point of view in an effort to establish the objective truth -- a would-be impersonal synthesis of public facts. The scholar's essentially horizontal view of things, seeking connexions in space and time, and his historical approach to the texts, disqualify him from any possibility of understanding a Dhamma that the Buddha himself has called akālika, 'timeless'."

**It is worth connecting this remark to Wittgenstein's Tractatus: "...solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality coordinated with it." (T5.64) (Cf. also William Carlos Williams).

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