by R.G. de S. Wettimuny
The unfinished article of Wettimuny’s reflection on Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s ‘In & Out‘ was written on 10th May, 1969 with an intention to be published in one of Sri Lankan newspapers. The essence of this essay was found in a letter written on 3rd – 9th December, 1958, by the late Venerable Ñāṇavīra Thera to the late Venerable Ñāṇamoli Thera. The words in double inverted commas are from Venerable Ñāṇavīra letter.
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The Buddha’s Teaching is very difficult to see, though it is easy to state. Let alone seeing or understanding the Teaching, it is difficult to even arrive at the Teaching. For, to arrive at the Teaching one has to go thorough three distinct stages and it hardly matters whether one is living in a country where there is sympathy for Buddhist principles or not. This article attempts to describe these three stages and also to indicate how the one who arrives at the Teaching goes through these three stages.
For this purpose “we need the following décor: (a) a door marked IN, (b) a door marked OUT, and (c) the Establishment.” The Establishment denotes the “public school-university-club amblente” of countries which follow the same pattern of society as is to be found in conservative England. It has also become synonymous with ‘respectability’.
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In the first stage we are brought up as good gentlemen, law-abiding citizens, in the Establishment, by the Establishment, for the Establishment. If we are Buddhist by birth we are ordered to go to the temple on Poya days and offer some flowers before a statue of the Buddha. We are asked not to eat meat or fish (maldive fish is exempt) on the full moon Poya day. When the Sinhalese and Hindu New Year comes we are asked to dress new clothes, light the fires at the appointed time, eat at the appointed time, and offer betel to our uncles and aunts. If we are Christain by birth, when we are asked to go to Church on Sunday dressed in our best. When it comes on to Good Friday we must starve, and when it comes on to Christmas we must take in a surfeit of tasty food. We are made to feel that Religion is an outlet (for emotions) necessary for the maintenance of our mental health, just as the privy is an outlet (for refuse) necessary for the maintenance of our bodily health.
We must pass out advanced level general certificate of education and if we fail to enter the Medical or Engineering faculties we must not despise entering the Biological Science or Physical Science faculties. We are quite categorically told by the Establishment that the lowest conceivable standard of education is a pass in Arithmetic in the O. Level. When we are earning our own living we have to join a club, otherwise we are not sociable enough, therefore also not ‘respectable’ enough.
Many more things we are asked to do, and of course we obediently do them. In short, we are told that it is right and also our duty to go in by the door marked IN and out by the door marked OUT, and we obediently go in through the door marked IN and out by the door marked OUT.
Now it does happen that as we grow up, we begin to question why we must not eat meat and fish only on Poya days, why we must go to the temple on Poya days, why we must wear our best to go to the Church on Sundays, why we must feel sorry on Good Friday and make merry on Christmas day and so on. To put it again in a nutshell, we begin to question the Establishment as to why we must go in through the door marked IN and out through the door marked OUT. “Of course nobody gives us a convincing answer, and the Establishment fobs us off with threats and browbeatings, and attempts to get us married to some sensible girl” in order that we may get properly established.
Not withstanding the treads of the Establishment and its persistence that we must go in through the door marked IN and out through the door marked OUT, if we continue with our questions, we become Angry Young Men – abbreviated to A.Y.M. This is the second stage. Here we deliberately disobey the orders if the Establishment, and go out through the door marked IN, and in trough the door marked OUT. So the Establishment gives us up as a “bad job”, and – thankfully though – the Establishment stops interfering with us. For this reason we really have little to be angry about. But, unfortunately, we are in a state of “unstable equilibrium”, and we have to be quite careful that we do not fall into that category of A.Y.M. who are angry with the Establishment not because it cannot answer their questions, but because the Establishment cannot provide them with sensual excitement as frequently and as readily as they wish, and so proceed to build their own establishment with “love-ins” and LSD parties which presumably push them into their “inner selves”. We may even marry that sensible young girl, and from the point of view of genuine and edifying thinking, “end up as something eminently dull such as a Cabinet Minister, a Company Director, or a Communist Party Boss”, and when we retire, spend out old age painting landscapes, or angling for fish on the banks of a river, or playing bridge at the club. (Was it not Schopanhouer who said that playing bridge is the highest intellectual attainment or respectable society folk?) And so we can pass away as respectable pillars of the Establishment but as incapable of seeing the Four Noble Truths as when we first heard the three words. Amen.
There is also money in being an A.Y.M.; that is, by making a profession of it. We can write books which will be reprinted every month, and even as pimples in the field of genuine thinking, we can gain eminence because the countryside is to flat. But to continue to make money is not easy, because we have to read quite a lot, particularly the newspapers, so as to be well informed of current affairs and opinions. After all we got to know what we are supposed to be angry about. Persisted with, however, it might lead us to a Noble Prize in literature even though we would be considered to have been (as Maugham said) brutal in the twenties, flippant in the thirties, cynical in the forties, competent in the fifties, and superficial in the sixties. When we are offered the Nobel Prize we can still refuse to accept it because we are still supposed to be angry; it will however enhance our eminence.
Now, if we become neither anyone of those “eminently dull things” nor professionally Angry Young Men, we can proceed to the third stage. Here we care very little what the Establishment thinks of us. We bother little about public opinion, and it matters little to us what our neighbour thinks. But we do care about our own state of mind. “This is probably the peak of European wisdom, the Greek ataraxim (stoical indifference); it is best exemplified by Socrates”. Here we do what we think is right and proper. We don’t eat meat and fish on Poya day because we don’t eat meat and fish on other days, or we eat meat and fish on Poya days because we eat meat and fish on other days. Witout offering flowers before a statue of the Buddha we spend that time reading what the Buddha has said. We go to temple to discuss with the monks what the Buddha thought rather than to offer flowers. We prefer to read the Bible rather than go to Church and pray. In short we go in and out through which ever door is the nearer. At this stage, however, we have to mind our step, because the Establishment does not like our being indifferent towards it (it does not mind our being Angry Young Men); and the Establishment might for this reason entertain ideas of making things difficult for us. It even put Socrates to death.
Finally, in this stage as we are, Establishment or no Establishment, we come to the conclusion that we exist, and that we can find no reason for our existence. We find that there is nothing of which we can convincingly say: This and no other is what we have to do. So we find that of all the problems before us, the most important one is the problem of our own existence. And even if we cannot experience a solution to this problem we want to as least see a solution to this problem right here and now. We find that something has to be done about this.
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Now we are just ready to listen to the Buddha, and also listen to him in earnest. And if we do listen to him in earnest, then, for the first time in our existence we enjoy a bit of peace and passionlessness (arana) even though we may have not yet actually understood what he says.
We have now come a long way. We have arrived at the Buddha’s Teaching, and our arrival has ushered us in some place. This is the fourth stage. In this stage, if all other things are equal, we revert back to going in through the door marked IN and out through the door maeked OUT. And that, not because we consider it our duty to do so, but because we can then go in and out unnoticed. It also brings us to terms with the Establishment, and the Establishment considers us as having returned to ‘respectability’. In this way we secure that peace and quiet which we realise is so necessary if we are to find a solution to the problem of our own existence. And so we find 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.”