Breath by Breath


Being in the world, this world, is an undeniable reality for each and every one of us. For without it, I wouldn’t be writing; nor you, reading; or anybody else who potentially comes across this essay (no matter how remotely). Each of us living, having lived; breathing, having breathed. Thinking and tinkering about the days gone by, our hopes for the future, but nevertheless forced to be pulled back to our extraordinarily-ordinary reality of the present once more.

Shallow Breathing: Everydayness and the Irony of Living

…in the world, living, happy to live, acting, happy to act.

I recall having woken up one early morning with serenity—while other mornings with fret and panic—, ran to catch the bus and metro, got on with work and socialising, got home for dinner and a warm shower, scrolled on social media tirelessly, and finally ended up in bed to catch up on the sleep that I was most deprived of—‘tomorrow is another day’, that is, in more or less the same way. Surely you have experienced similar, have you not? Or you can be fully on top of things for however many days you stretch it, no matter, still wandering around and wondering about what tomorrow can bring.

Such is the nature of life, I was told. Birth, ageing, sickness, and death. “But what about everything else in between?”—one may ask. “Breathing to live.”—I’d reply, adding—“Also seeking, fearing, and delighting”. When meeting someone new, it’s not uncommon to ask or be asked—if not judge and be judged—whether one is the introverted or extroverted kind. Such is mundane communication, I suppose. But why do we bother? Here are the preceding and succeeding sentences from the quote above that I hid, from Grenier:

We do not belong to the world: that is the first thought which sets philosophy in motion. Not belonging to the world and yet in the world, living, happy to live, acting, happy to act. It is not that the world seems bad to us, but that it seems alien.

Jean Grenier

Having been born into the world, we feel estranged and alienated, Grenier says. A psychologist might argue: “The fact depends on whether one has had a secure attachment with their parents as a child”. But is this explanation constitutive of the Being that we are? Why are we in constant need of connection? “Because that is our nature. We’re packed animals.”—they may insist. Another may assert: “It’s part of being human. It’s part of our humanity.”. It being ‘part of being human’ isn’t an issue at all, although more questions can (and shall) be asked, whereas the latter notion regarding ‘humanity’ must be questioned in return: what about this “humanity”, “our” humanity?

We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they [man] take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness.

Martin Heidegger

The inauthentic, as Heidegger wrote—or for Sartre, the serious-minded—, is one who is ‘absorbed by the world’ and would accept ready-made answers prescribed by the anonymous (public) ‘they’, to move along life unperturbed and get on with their days. Indeed, the question must be raised: why do we seek what we seek, and fear what we fear? To understand what is most universal, we are in need to understand what is most personal, and this necessarily leads us to questions regarding our own most personal existence.

Deep Breathing: Understanding the Desperate Need for Meaning

There is no ‘happy ending’ or ‘tragic ending’ or ‘comic ending’ to life, only a ‘dead ending’.—and then we start again.

Ñāṇavīra Thera

Breath by breath do we spend our days. Breathing, chasing ends; breathing, chasing lives. “Congratulations.”—they’d say, for having survived another day. “Congratulations indeed.”—I’d say, but what do we make of it? Life is a series of becoming, they’d say. We open our eyes, take a deep breath for what is ahead of us, fight through the bad moments, relish the good moments and reflect on it at the end of the day: live, laugh, love. Or as another put it, the secret to happiness in life seems to be in the act of expanding our capacity to live, laugh, and love:

Those times when you get up early and you work hard, those times when you stay up late and you work hard, those times when you don’t feel like working, you’re too tired, you don’t want to push yourself, but you do it anyway. That is actually the dream. That’s the dream. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. And if you guys can understand that, then what you’ll see happen is you won’t accomplish your dreams, your dreams won’t come true; something greater will.

Kobe Bryant

I admit that I was one to have embraced the above sentiment at some point in my life—since I felt the need to, again and again. However, as inspiring as it sounds—or rather, because of it—, we shall turn our attention inwards to understand this very need of ours that results in a perpetual seeking. To start a journey without a destination in mind wouldn’t make much sense—even if transitory, mental delight. Yet, we helplessly journey only to be reminded of our inability not to choose to have gone on one.

The philosophical state is a state of breaking with the world, in contrast to the state of communion where live the child, and the man who innocently enjoys his senses.

Jean Grenier

Why do we laugh, why do we weep? Why do we dream, why do we live? Even though we often say (and hear another say) that life is meaningless, we continue to think and act as if it had a meaning—ceaselessly and chronically attempt to infuse it with meaning. In a single act of reflexion, the question raises itself: ‘why do I exist?’, and the barrier of innocence breaks down as we begin to be aware of our existence and to see that it is inherently unjustifiable.

The only reality is ‘care’ at every level of existence. For the man who is lost in the world and its distractions this care is a fear that is short and fleeting. But let this fear once take cognizance of itself and it becomes anxiety, the perpetual climate of the lucid man ‘in whom existence comes into its own’.

Martin Heidegger (as quoted by Camus)

There are three kinds of people illustrated by Kafka in his novel The Trial: (i) the ‘innocent’ (i.e. ignorant) mass of humanity who lack the ability to reflect and thus become aware of their guilt, obliviously weeping or laughing in the face of fear—two modes of flight from existential anxiety—, (ii) the (self-)accused, who are obscurely aware of the existential contradiction—and by implication, their guilt—but who would spend time busying themselves with quests in life in order to avoid the perpetual unrest, or else they adopt the attitude of bad faith toward themselves and regard their guilt as being ‘without significance’—refusing to accept responsibility for it—, and (iii) the (self-)condemned man, who faces up to the desolating truth and accepts the consequences (of existing).

For the reflexive man who retains his lucidity, there is only one verdict—‘Guilty’—and only one sentence—death. K.’s death in The Trial is the death of worldly hope; it is the immediate consequence of the frank recognition that one’s existence is guilty (that is to say, that it is unjustifiable); and this execution of the capital sentence upon hope is actually the inevitable conclusion to The Trial.

Ñāṇavīra Thera

Relinquished Breathing: An Escape Other than Escapism

Held up breath, breathe it out. Breathing in, breathing out. (Once more) breathing in, breathing out. Having exhaled and become aware of this gratuitous in-and-out breathing that underpins our life, we are forced to the realisation that we know not how not to breathe, let alone to exist. Having found (i.e. become aware of) ourselves thinking and pondering with this living (i.e. sentient) body as a basis, we see no other alternative but to exist. In H. J. Blackham’s words:

The peculiarity of existentialism, then, is that it deals with the separation of man from himself and from the world, which raises the questions of philosophy, not by attempting to establish some universal form of justification which will enable man to readjust himself but by permanently enlarging and lining the separation itself as primordial and constitutive for personal existence. The main business of this philosophy therefore is not to answer the questions which are raised but to drive home the questions themselves until they engage the whole man and are made personal, urgent, and anguished. Such questions cannot be merely the traditional questions of the schools nor merely disinterested questions of curiosity concerning the conditions of knowledge or of moral or æsthetic judgements, for what is put in question by the separation of man from himself and from the world is his own being and the being of the objective world. … These questions are not theoretical but existential, the scission which makes the existing individual aware of himself and of the world in which he is makes him a question to himself and life a question to him. … Existential philosophies insist that any plain and positive answer is false, because the truth is in the insurmountable ambiguity which is at the heart of man and of the world.

H. J. Blackham

In the frank recognition that one’s existence is unjustifiable—or else, absurd—, what are we then to do with this ‘fact’? Do we resign to pessimism, or shall we embrace the absurdity of it all—for the lack of a better option—? Is an authentic reflexive man forever condemned to anguish—if, in fact, he lives forever—? Does death end it all? Here is what a late 20th-century English-born Buddhist monk had to say regarding the matter:

You will have noticed that my interpretation of The Trial as the account of a man who, at a certain point in his life, suddenly asks himself why he exists, and then considers various possible justifications for his existence until he is finally obliged to admit honestly to himself that there is no justification, corresponds to what I have said in the Preface to the Notes:

‏‏‎Every man, at every moment of his life, is engaged in a perfectly definite concrete situation in a world that he normally takes for granted. But it occasionally happens that he starts to think. He becomes aware, obscurely, that he is in perpetual contradiction with himself and with the world in which he exists.

The Trial describes what happens to a man when he starts to think: sooner or later he condemns himself as unjustified, and then despair begins (K.’s execution, the execution of hope, is the beginning of despair—henceforth he is a dead man, like Connolly and Camus and so many other intelligent Europeans, and do what he may he can never quite forget it). It is only at this point that the Buddha’s Teaching begins to be intelligible. But it must be remembered that for Connolly and the others, death at the end of this life is the final death, and the hell of despair in which they live will come to an end in a few years’ time—why, then, should they give up their distractions, when, if things get too bad, a bullet through their brain is enough? It is only when one understands that death at the end of this life is not the final end, that to follow the Buddha’s Teaching is seen to be not a mere matter of choice but a matter of necessity. Europe does not know what it really means to despair.

Ñāṇavīra Thera

So what if death at the end of this life isn’t the final death? How can I ever know (i.e. confirm) if that were the case? Why should I even care when I have not, and will not have, a memory of it at all? True enough, these questions in themselves may be unimportant to our (present) everyday life, so much so that we’ve grown accustomed to quite immediately dismissing them whenever they occur. Still, other questions of similar nature concerning ourselves and our personal identity will eventually leave us feeling completely baffled—that is, without distracting ourselves from them through passionately affirming, denying or dismissing them:

This is how he attends unwisely: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I become in the future?’ Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the present thus: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where will it go?’

The Buddha

Precisely. We do care as these questions seem to persist in their arising and it is these recurring (if not spiralling) doubts regarding our place in the world and the nature of our ‘self’ that will imminently suffocate us till the end of our very lives—that is, without ever ‘finding’ (i.e. understanding) the Buddha’s Teaching.

Existential philosophies, then, insist upon asking questions about self and the world, taking care at the same time to insist that they are unanswerable. Beyond this point of frustration these philosophies cannot go. The Buddha, too, insists that questions about self and the world are unanswerable, either by refusing to answer them or by indicating that no statement about self and the world can be justified. But—and here is the vital difference—the Buddha can and does go beyond this point: not, to be sure, by answering the unanswerable, but by showing the way leading to the final cessation of all questions about self and the world. Let there be no mistake in the matter: the existential philosophies are not a substitute for the Buddha’s Teaching—for which, indeed, there can be no substitute. The questions that they persist in asking are the questions of a puthujjana, of a ‘commoner’, and though they see that they are unanswerable they have no alternative but to go on asking them; for the tacit assumption upon which all these philosophies rest is that the questions are valid. They are faced with an ambiguity that they cannot resolve. The Buddha, on the other hand, sees that the questions are not valid and that to ask them is to make the mistake of assuming that they are. One who has understood the Buddha’s Teaching no longer asks these questions; he is ariya, ‘noble’, and no more a puthujjana, and he 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. There is no suggestion, of course, that it is necessary to become an existentialist philosopher before one can understand the Buddha: every intelligent man questions himself quite naturally about the nature and significance of his own existence, and provided he refuses to be satisfied with the first ready-made answer that he is offered he is as well placed as anyone to grasp the Buddha’s Teaching when he hears it. None the less many people, on first coming across the Suttas [i.e. Buddhist scriptures], are puzzled to know what their relevance is in the elaborate context of modern thought; and for them an indication that the existential philosophies (in their general methods, that is to say, rather than their individual conclusions) afford a way of approach to the Suttas may be helpful.

Ñāṇavīra Thera

According to Ñāṇavīra Thera, then, it is due to not understanding the true nature of this ‘self’ that we hold most dear, that is the root cause of our tragi-comical ‘human’ situation—of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. Here are a few excerpts—unfortunately, omitting the more nuanced contexts and elucidations—that highlight the venerable monk’s examination into the sense of self ‘in’ the experience:

Attā, ‘self’, is fundamentally a notion of mastery over things (cf. Majjhima iv,5 (M.i,231-2) & Khandha Saṃy. vi,7 (S.iii,66)). But this notion is entertained only if it is pleasurable, and it is only pleasurable provided the mastery is assumed to be permanent; for a mastery—which is essentially a kind of absolute timelessness, an unmoved moving of things—that is undermined by impermanence is no mastery at all, but a mockery. (p. 58)

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…a mastery over things that is seen to be undermined by impermanence is at once also seen to be no mastery at all, but a false security, for ever ending in betrayal. And this is dukkha [suffering]. (p. 38)

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What we call the ‘self’ is a certain characteristic of all experience, that seems to be eternal. It is quite obvious that for all men the reality and permanence of their selves, ‘I’, is taken absolutely for granted; and the discrepancy that Kierkegaard speaks of is simply that between my ‘self’ (which I automatically presume to be permanent) and the only too manifestly impermanent ‘things’ in the world that ‘I’ strive to possess. The eternal ‘subject’ strives to possess the temporal ‘object’, and the situation is at once both comic and tragic—comic, because something temporal cannot be possessed eternally, and tragic, because the eternal cannot desist from making the futile attempt to possess the temporal eternally. This tragi-comedy is suffering (dukkha) in its profoundest sense. And it is release from this that the Buddha teaches. How? By pointing out that, contrary to our natural assumption (which supposes that the subject ‘I’ would still continue to exist even if there were no objects at all), the existence of the subject depends upon the existence of the object; and since the object is manifestly impermanent, the subject must be no less so. And once the presumed-eternal subject is seen to be no less temporal than the object, the discrepancy between the eternal and the temporal disappears (in four stages [of ‘awakening’]—sotāpatti, sakadāgāmitā, anāgāmitā, and arahatta); and with the disappearance of the discrepancy the two categories of ‘tragic’ and ‘comic’ also disappear. The arahat [i.e. ‘fully awakened’] neither laughs nor weeps; and that is the end of suffering (except, of course, for bodily pain, which only ceases when the body finally breaks up). (p. 232)

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Ñāṇavīra Thera, Clearing the Path (2022)

More importantly, understanding the nature of ‘self’ is not a matter of mere rationalisation, as it were problem-solving in quantum physics or even a simple crossword puzzle. Nor is it about believing—for if it were, it would be a matter of not understanding—in a hidden ‘Reality’ wherein one surrenders one’s (lesser) personalised self for the realisation of one’s greater non-personal potentialities (i.e. True Self, Universal Consciousness, etc.). To re-emphasise, the Buddha’s Teaching is existential, and a pre-requisite to understanding it correctly requires one to look ‘straight down into the abyss of [one’s] own personal existence’—as Ñāṇavīra Thera wrote. In other words, the understanding of the nature of ‘self’ is primarily a matter of attitude. And so we return once again to the facticity of our existential guilt.

Part of me is thoroughly jealous of Jimmy Porter’s generous fury—how satisfying to get one’s own back so articulately on the wearisome hypocrisy of those who appoint themselves our elders and betters! (I have all my life been miserably tongue-tied at just those moments when a vigorous protest seemed what was most needed. But I have never been able to believe in my own anger, and the only thing I can do is to turn my back on the whole affair and walk away.) Part of me, I say, is green with envy of Jimmy Porter’s extraordinary vitality—his anger is justified (so I almost feel) by his existence. But has Jimmy Porter ever asked himself whether his existence is justified? (p. 447)

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You ask, rhetorically, if superiority feelings, ‘self’ feelings, are not at the root of all guilt complexes. Certainly they are. But with guilt goes anxiety (we are superior—or we just ‘are’—, and we are unable to justify our superiority, our existence, and so we are anxious. Pride goes before a fall—and this is true right back as far as asmimāna, the conceit ‘I am’). And anxiety is anxiety before the essential contradiction. (pp. 435-36)

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…whereas fear is shrinking in the face of something, anxiety is shrinking in the face of—nothing. Precisely. We experience anxiety when we find that the solid foundation upon which our precious and familiar self rests—upon which it must rest—is not there. Anxiety is shrinking in the face of a contradiction—or rather, not a contradiction, but the contradiction. This is the contradiction that we fear; this is the contradiction that threatens us in our innermost being—the agonizing possibility that, after all, we have no being, and that we are not. And now we can see why all the seemingly little contradictions at which we laugh (or weep) in our everyday life are really veiled threats, sources of danger. These are the little cracks and fissures in our complacent serious-minded existence, and the reason why we laugh at them is to keep them at a distance, to charm them, to exorcise them, to neutralize them… (p. 428)

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Ñāṇavīra Thera, Clearing the Path (2022)

What might Ñāṇavīra Thera mean, when he said that we have ‘no being’? How, then, ought we to Interpret existence; our experience as Being-in-the-world? According to the Buddha, to understand the nature of the ‘Being of experience’ is to understand the nature of experience upon which this very Being depends: arising, disappearance, and change while persisting (ṭhitassa aññathattaṃ). In other words, to (truly) understand the impermanence of experience. And how ought we to understand ‘impermanence’? To give an example, the prolongation of our physically living body is only possible as underpinned by the continuance of our naturally occurring in-and-out breathing. Likewise, in general, the continuity of our (present) life is fully dependent upon the coming together of “our” conscious (i.e. sentient) six-based body (i.e. the sense faculties) and (the equiprimordial appearance of) their corresponding (sense-)objects—not our sense of self. Thus, it is the (qualitative) nature of inaccessibility (pertaining to control) that is meant by ‘impermanence’. It is this inherent inaccessibility to (the nature of) phenomena that make up our ‘world’, which defines our Being as ‘anxiety’—because we, ourselves, are not our own.

I was struck, when I first read Sartre, by the strange sort of resemblance between certain of his expressions and some of the things said in the Suttas. Sartre, for example, has this:

…we defined the senses and the sense-organs in general as our being-in-the-world in so far as we have to be it in the form of being-in-the-midst-of-the-world. (B&N, p. 325)

In the Suttas (e.g. Saḷāyatana Saṃy.—S.xxxv.116/iv,95) we find:

The eye (ear, nose, tongue, body, mind) is that in the world by which one is a perceiver and conceiver of the world.

… You say, ‘Questions that strike a Sartre or a Kierkegaard as obvious, urgent, and baffling may not have even occurred to Bāhiya Dārucīriya’. I am not so sure. I agree that a number of ‘uneducated’ people appear, in the Suttas, to have reached extinction [i.e. Nirvana, cessation of Being]. But I am not so sure that I would call them ‘simple’. You suggest that Bāhiya may not have been a very complex person and that a previous ‘Sartre’ phrase may not have been essential for him. Again I don’t want to be dogmatic, but it seems to me that your portrait of him is oversimplified. For one thing, I regret to say, you have made something easy…by leaving out the difficulty. Your quotation of the brief instruction that the Buddha gave Bāhiya is quite in order as far as it goes; but—inadvertently, no doubt—you have only given part of it. Here is the passage in full (Udāna 10/8 and cf. Saḷāyatana Saṃy.—S.xxxv.95/iv,73):

Then, Bāhiya, you should train thus: ‘In the seen there shall be just the seen; in the heard there shall be just the heard; in the sensed there shall be just the sensed; in the cognized there shall be just the cognized’—thus, Bāhiya, should you train yourself. When, Bāhiya, for you, in the seen there shall be just the seen…cognized, then, Bāhiya, you (will) not (be) that by which (tvaṃ na tena); when, Bāhiya, you (shall) not (be) that by which, then, Bāhiya, you (shall) not (be) in that place (tvaṃ na tattha); when, Bāhiya, you (shall) not (be) in that place, then, Bāhiya, you (will) neither (be) here nor yonder nor between the two: just this is the end of suffering.

This is a highly condensed statement, and for him simple. It is quite as tough a passage as anything you will find in Sartre. And, in fact, it is clearly enough connected with the passage that I have already quoted alongside a passage from Sartre: ‘The eye (etc.) is that in the world by which one is a perceiver and conceiver of the world’.

Let us now try, with the help of Heidegger’s indications*, to tie up these two Sutta passages.

[Editorial Note] *Heidegger: Apparently a portion of the letter immediately preceding this paragraph is missing [Ñāṇavīra Thera’s collection of letters were published posthumously as part of the book ‘Clearing the Path’]. The context suggests that the missing portion may have involved discussion of B&T, pp. 169-72, particularly the passage on page 171:

The entity which is essentially constituted by Being-in-the-world is itself in every case its ‘there’. According to the familiar signification of the word, the ‘there’ points to a ‘here’ and a ‘yonder’. The ‘here’ of an ‘I-here’ is always understood in relation to a ‘yonder’ ready-to-hand, in the sense of a Being towards this ‘yonder’—a Being which is de-severant, directional, and concernful. Dasein’s existential spatiality, which thus determines its ‘location’, is itself grounded in Being-in-the-world. The “yonder” belongs definitely to something encountered within-the-world. ‘Here’ and ‘yonder’ are possible only in a ‘there’—that is to say, only if there is an entity which has made a disclosure of spatiality as the Being of the ‘there’. This entity carries in its ownmost Being the character of not being closed off. In the expression ‘there’ we have in view this essential disclosedness. By reason of this disclosedness, this entity (Dasein), together with the Being-there of the world, is ‘there’ for itself.

‏‏‏‎[End of Editorial Note]

(i) To begin with, ‘I-here’ is I as identical with my senses; ‘here’, therefore refers to my sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and also mind). The counterpart of ‘here’ is ‘yonder’, which refers to the various things in the world as sense-objects. ‘Between the two’ will then refer (though Heidegger makes no mention of this) to consciousness, contact, feeling, and so on, as being dependent upon sense organ and sense object—cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tinnaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, etc. [‘Dependent upon eye and visible forms, eye-consciousness arises; the coming together of these three is contact. With contact as condition, feeling,’ etc.] (Saḷāyatana Saṃy.—S.xxxv.107/iv,87) [i.e. The Buddha’s exemplification of (the principle of) ‘dependent co-arising’].

(ii) In the second place Heidegger says that ‘here’ and ‘yonder’ are possible only in a ‘there’; in other words, that sense-organs and sense-objects, which are ‘amidst-the-world’, in Sartre’s phrase, are possible only if there is a world for them to be ‘amidst’. ‘There’, then, refers to the world. So the ‘here’ and ‘yonder’ of the Bāhiya Sutta correspond in the other Sutta to the ‘eye (and so on)’ as ‘that in the world…’.

(iii) But Heidegger goes on to say that there is a ‘there’ only if there is an entity that has made a disclosure of spatiality as the being of the ‘there’; and that being-there’s existential spatiality is grounded in being-in-the-world. This simply means that, in the very act of being, I disclose a spatial world: my being is always in the form of a spatial being-there. (In spite of the Hindus and Hegel, there is no such thing as ‘pure being’. All being is limited and particularized—if I am at all, I am in a spatial world.) In brief, there is only a ‘there’, a spatial world (for senses and objects to be ‘amidst’), if I am there. Only so long as I am there shall I be ‘in the form of being-amidst-the-world’—i.e. as sense-organs (‘here’) surrounded by sense-objects (‘yonder’).

(iv) But on what does this ‘I am there’ depend? ‘I am there’ means ‘I am in the world’; and I am ‘in the world’ in the form of senses (as eye…mind). And Heidegger tells us that the ‘here’ (i.e. the senses) is always understood in relation to a ‘yonder’ ready-to-hand, i.e. something that is for some purpose (of mine). I, as my senses, ‘am towards’ this ‘yonder’; I am ‘a being that is de-severant, directional, and concernful’. I won’t trouble you with details here, but what Heidegger means by this is more or less what the Venerable Ānanda Thera means when he said that ‘The eye (and so on) is that…by which one is a perceiver and a conceiver of the world’. In other words, not only am I in the world, but I am also, as my senses, that by which there is a world in which I am. ‘I am there’ because ‘I am that by which there is an I-am-there’; and consequently, when ‘I shall not be that by which’, then ‘I shall not be there’. And when ‘I shall not be there’, then ‘I shall neither be here nor yonder nor between the two’.

(v) And when shall we ‘not be that by which’? This, Heidegger is not able to tell us. But the Buddha tells us: it is when, for us, in the seen there shall be just the seen, and so with the heard, the sensed, and the cognized. And when in the seen is there just the seen? When the seen is no longer seen as ‘mine’ (etaṃ mama) or as ‘I’ (eso’ham asmi) or as ‘my self’ (eso me attā): in brief, when there is no longer, in connexion with the senses, the conceit ‘I am’, by which ‘I am a conceiver of the world’. Do you get my point?

So, although it would certainly be going too far to suggest that Bāhiya had already undergone a course of existentialist philosophy, the fact remains that he was capable of understanding at once a statement that says more, and says it more briefly, than the nearest comparable statement either in Heidegger or Sartre. Bāhiya, I allow, may not have been a cultured or sophisticated man-of-the-world; but I see him as a very subtle thinker. Authenticity may be the answer, as you suggest; but an authentic man is not a simple person—he is self-transparent if you like, which is quite another matter.

‏‏‎Ñāṇavīra Thera

To emphasise, this is not to deny that we have control of our actions and choices in life, but to go further and recognise that even the facticity of volition (including reflexion) is presupposed (i.e. necessitated, conditioned) by the meaningfulness of a situation that we are only in a position to find—we are not the creator of our experiences and nor can we will them to end (even in suicide, one can only injure oneself and wait for death to come). Once again, to understand the root of anxiety is to comprehend that the sense of self that we take for granted to be our own (i.e. ‘I’, ‘mine’) is fully dependent upon the arising and passing away of phenomena (i.e. in Buddhist terms, the five aggregates: matter, feeling, perception, ‘bodily’ formations, consciousness) that we have no control over—including but not limited to, the impermanent nature of our sense faculties—, the fact that they are inaccessible to us. With this understanding, through the practice of sense restraint and reflexive investigation of the Buddha’s Teaching, one begins to gradually undo one’s assumptions regarding the nature of oneself and of the world (or the nature of one’s self ‘in’ the world), and consequently exhaust (and end) one’s existential anxiety once and for all.

Here, Aggivessana, for whatever matter—past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, near or far—a disciple of mine sees all matter as it is, with right understanding, thus: ‘Not, this is mine; Not, I am this; Not, this is my self’. For whatever feeling… For whatever perception… For whatever determinations… For whatever consciousness—past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, near or far—a disciple of mine sees all consciousness as it is, with right understanding, thus: ‘Not, this is mine; Not, I am this; Not, this is my self’. To this extent, Aggivessana, a disciple of mine is following my teaching, is following my instructions, having gone beyond doubt, free from uncertainty, having reached self-confidence, he dwells without relying on others in the Teacher’s teaching.

The Buddha


One response to “Breath by Breath”

  1. Asu Dhakal Avatar

    Reblogged this on Samma Vihara.

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