In & Out – by Ven. Ñānavīra

by Ven. Ñāṇavīra

I have found, recently, in my reading of scraps of (English) newspapers, several references to the Establishment. This word seems to be enjoying a vogue at present; for I do not remember its being used much or at all in my day. Can you confirm this? It denotes the public school-university-club ambiente of conservative England—it is abbreviated to ‘E’, and seems to contain all those who are, or speak, ‘U’. Perhaps it is synonymous with the world of the Daily Telegraph. Sartre, no doubt, would say it is the collective noun embracing all salauds.1 This, really, by way of introduction to what follows. One of the articles referring to the Establishment was by Colin Wilson (The Outsider), who remarks that his intentions towards the Establishment are not very friendly. The article itself is of no interest at all, but it stimulated the thought in me that nobody could have rejected the Establishment more decisively than ourselves, in dropping it flat and becoming pabbajitas.2 Yet I find that we are now, as it were, the cornerstone of the Establishment, if not of England than at least of Ceylon. We are really incredibly respectable. We are almost the most respectable people in Ceylon, when you come to think of it (and you are even invited by an Ambassador and Professor to visit a foreign capital on his behalf). Our words, when we choose to utter them, are listened to with respect and sometimes awe, even if with incomprehension—and this particularly by those who are themselves accounted respectable. How has our rejection of respectability had this curious effect? For I have not in any way reverted to respectability, and I sometimes wonder what those Oh! so respectable people would think if they knew what I think. The answer seems to be in discussion of the concept of arana.3 For this discussion we shall need the following décor: (a) a door marked IN, (b) a door marked OUT, and (c) the Establishment. To arrive at arana we must go through four stages. In the first we are brought up as English gentlemen (or mutatis mutandis for other times and places) in the Establishment and by the Establishment. We are taught quite clearly that it is right and proper, nay our duty, to go in by the door marked IN, and out by the door marked OUT. And, obediently, we do so. But it sometimes happens that, as we grow up, we ask the question, Why is it my duty to go in by the door marked IN, and out by the door marked OUT? Of course nobody can give us a convincing answer, and the Establishment fobs us off with threats and browbeatings and attempts to get us married to some sensible girl. If, in spite of this, we persist, we become Angry Young Men, which is the second stage. We make a point of going in by the door marked OUT and out by the door marked IN. This stage, however, has very unstable equilibrium, because as soon as we become A.Y.M. the Establishment gives us up as a bad job and stops interfering with us. In consequence we have nothing to be angry about, and we may marry that sensible girl and finish up as something eminently dull such as a Cabinet Minister, a Company Director, or a Communist Party Boss. We may, however, find there is money in being A.Y.M. and we cultivate this professionally. This is hard work since we must always be in touch with current opinion in order to know what we are supposed to be angry with. But, persisted with, this way leads to a Nobel Prize for Literature (cf. Camus). Or, finally, Establishment or no Establishment, we may conclude that we exist and that there is no reason for existence, and something has to be done about this. Here we have the third stage, which doesn’t care tuppence what other people (the Establishment, Public Opinion, etc.) think or say, but does care about its own state of mind. This is probably the peak of European wisdom, the Greek ataraxia,4 it is best exemplified by Socrates. And here you go in and out by whichever door is the nearer. But the danger here is that the Establishment is likely to take offence at being publicly ignored (it does not mind enmity—the A.Y.M., etc.—but cannot stand indifference) and put you to death as it did Socrates. So finally we have what I think was taught by the Buddha and probably by nobody else—the fourth stage, which is arana. Here we think: there are those two doors marked IN and OUT; it makes not the slightest difference to me which I use to go in and out by; but if it is noticed that I don’t seem to think it is a matter of any importance, those who do think it is a matter of importance will make trouble for me; but this would be a disturbance, and would hinder my work; so, then, other things being equal, I shall go in by the door marked IN, and out by the door marked OUT, and I shall pass unnoticed and untroubled. And so I think that the Buddha has so arranged matters in the Vinaya that the Sangha is a highly respectable body of men who are losing or have lost all interest in respectability. It is at the beginning that the respectability of the Sangha is irksome, and some who are still A.Y.M. do not join it on this account (which is a good thing), and prefer to breathe fire and slaughter at the Establishment as Hindu ascetics and other odd things. But I find my present situation quite fascinating at times, and could almost wish to appear even more respectable than I do. I sometimes repeat to myself, with all the earnestness of which I am capable, cela m’est tellement égal.5 Try it yourself. It is a potent phrase if uttered with enough esprit de sérieux.6

(from a letter by Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera to Ven. Ñāṇamoli Thera, 3-9 December 1958)


1 cowards
2 those who have ‘gone forth’ as Buddhist monks
3 peacefulness, passionlessness
4 stoical indifference
5 ‘It is all the same to me.’

6 ‘spirit of seriousness.’

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