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A Buddhist interpretation of Kafka's existential writings

You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do
so, and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided. !ran" Kafka

Half a century ago, an English monk living in Sri Lanka wrote some reflections about the Buddhist understanding of Kafka's stories which seem to describe a man's struggle to gain clarity and freedom in life. lthough !en. "#nav$ra suggested that these writings would only be accessible to Euro%ean intellectuals, in today's globali&ed world they might actually s%eak to a much broader audience.

#$. %&' () *uly +&,)

Kafka is an ethical, not an aesthetic, writer. There is no conclusion to his books. The Castle was actually unfinished, but what ending could there be to it? And there is some doubt about the proper order of the chapters in The Trialit does not really seem to matter ery much in which order you read them, since the book as a whole does not get you anywhere. !An uncharitable reader might disagree, and say that it throws fresh light on the "udiciary.# $n this it is faithful to life as we actually e%perience it. There is no &happy ending& or &tragic ending& or &comic ending& to life, only a &dead ending&and then we start again. 'e suffer, because we refuse to be reconciled with this lamentable fact( and e en though we may say that life is meaningless we continue to think and act as if it had a meaning. Kafka&s heroes !or hero, &K.&himself and not himself# obstinately persist in making efforts that they understand perfectly well are )uite pointless and this with the most natural air in the world. And, after all, what else can one do? *otice, in 'he 'rial, how the notion of guilt is taken for granted. K. does not )uestion the fact that he is guilty, e en though he does not know of what he is guiltyhe makes no attempt to disco er the charge against him, but only to arrange for his defence. +or both Kierkegaard and ,eidegger, guilt is fundamental in human e%istence. !And it is only the -uddha who tells us the charge against us avi((#.# $ should be glad to 'he )astlewhen you ha e finished it !that is, if &finished& is a word that can be used in conne%ion with Kafka#.

#$. ,-' ( August +&,)

/ou wonder how it is that learned men catch on to the significance of a book. $ would suggest that it is not so much the &learned& !if by that the academic uni ersity scholar is meant# as the &intellectual& man who sees the significance of a book. Two things seem to be necessary. +irst, a certain maturity of outlook on life, wherein the )uestions raised by life are clearly present !i.e. the man is looking, either for an answer to these )uestions, or, preferably, for a further clarification of the )uestions themsel es#. This man will read books not so much &for the story& !though he may do that by way of rela%ation# as for the fresh light that they may

throw on his problems. $n other words, he will be looking for the significance( and it is likely that he will find it if it is there. 0econdly, a community of cultural background with the author of the book is necessary. $n these days of widespread dissemination of books, any cultured 1uropean can be assumed to ha e the same general cultural background as any other cultured 1uropean. !The most intelligent of Chinamen, brought up solely on the Chinese Classics, would ha e difficulty in making anything of Kafka.#

#$. ,.' ) /ovember +&,)

About Kafka&s Trial, as $ remarked on an earlier occasion, it seems to me that the crime with which K. is charged is that of e%isting, and that this is why the charge is ne er made e%plicit. 1 erybody e%ists, and it would be ridiculous to charge one man with this crime and not the ne%t man as well. -ut not e erybody feels guilty of e%isting( and e en those who do are not always clear about what it is precisely that they feel guilty of, since they see that the rest of mankind, who also e%ist, go through life in a state of blissful innocence. The criminal charge of e%isting cannot be brought home to those who are satisfied of their innocence !since 2udicial censure is worse than futile unless the accused recogni3es his guilt#, and also it cannot be brought home to those who recogni3e their guilt but who are not satisfied that it is of e%isting that they are guilty !since 2udicial censure fails of its intended effect if the accused, though aware of guilt, belie es that the charge against him has been wrongly framed#. To secure a con iction, then, the charge must be one simply of guilt( and so, in fact, it is in The Trial. &4/es4, said the 5aw.Court Attendant, 4these are the accused men, all of them are accused of guilt.4 4$ndeed64 said K. 4Then they&re colleagues of mine.4& !pp. 78.9# And this charge of guilt, clearly enough, can only be brought against those who are guilty of guilt, and not against those who do not feel the guilt of e%isting. -ut who is it that feels the guilt of e%isting? :nly he who, in an act of refle%ion, begins to be aware of his e%istence and to see that it is inherently un2ustifiable. ,e understands !obscurely, no doubt, at first# that, when he is challenged to gi e an account of himself, he is unable to do so. -ut who is it that challenges him to gi e an account of himself? $n The Trial it is the mysterious and partly corrupt hierarchical Court( in reality it is he himself in his act of refle%ion !which also is hierarchically ordered#. The Trial, then, represents the criminal case that a man

brings against himself when he asks himself &'hy do $ e%ist?& -ut the common run of people do not ask themsel es this )uestion( they are )uite content in their simple way to take things for granted and not to distress themsel es with unanswerable )uestions)uestions, indeed, that they are scarcely capable of asking. K.&s landlady, a simple woman, discussing K.&s arrest with him, says &/ou are under arrest, certainly, but not as a thief is under arrest. $f one&s arrested as a thief, that&s a bad business, but as for this arrest$t gi es me the feeling of something ery learned, forgi e me if what $ say is stupid, it gi es me the feeling of something abstract which $ don&t understand, but which $ don&t need to understand either.& !p. ;7# 0o, then, K. is under arrest, but he has arrested himself. ,e has done this simply by adopting a refle%i e attitude towards himself. ,e is perfectly free, if he so wishes, to set himself at liberty, merely by ceasing to reflect. &The Court makes no claims upon you. $t recei es you when you come and it relin)uishes you when you go.& !The priest on p. ;99.# -ut is K. free to wish to set himself at liberty? :nce a man has begun to reflect, to reali3e his guilt, is he still free to choose to return to his former state of grace? :nce he has eaten the fruit of the tree of refle%i e knowledge he has lost his innocence,<a= and he is e%pelled from the terrestrial paradise with its simple 2oys. ,a ing tasted the guilty pleasures of knowledge can he e er want to return to innocence? Can he, in terms of The Trial, secure a &definite ac)uittal& from guilt, or does his case ha e a fatal fascination for him? &$n definite ac)uittal the documents relating to the case are completely annulled, they simply anish from sight, not only the charge but also the records of the case and e en the ac)uittal are destroyed, e erything is destroyed.& !pp. >7?.@# &Aefinite ac)uittal&, in other words, is a total forgetting not merely of one&s actual past refle%ions but of the ery fact that one e er reflected at allit is a complete forgetting of one&s guilt. 0o long as one remembers ha ing reflected, one goes on reflecting, as with an addiction( and so long as one continues to reflect, one holds one&s guilt in iew( for the Courtone&s refle%i e in)uisitor, &once it has brought a charge against someone, is firmly con inced of the guilt of the accused&, and &ne er in any case can the Court be dislodged from that con iction.& !p. >@@# To reflect at all is to disco er one&s guilt. 0o, then, is it possible to get a &definite ac)uittal&, to choose to unlearn to reflect? &$ ha e listened to countless cases in their most crucial stages, and followed them as far as they could be followed, and

yet$ must admit it$ ha e ne er encountered one case of definite ac)uittal.& !Titorelli, on p. >7>.# *o, whate er theory may say, in practice ha ing once tasted guilt one cannot unlearn refle%ion and return to the innocence of immediacy, the innocence of a child. The best one can do to ward off the ine%orable erdict&Builty, with no e%tenuating circumstances&is to seek either &ostensible ac)uittal& !p. >7@#, wherein awareness of one&s essential guilt is temporarily subdued by makeshift arguments but flares up from time to time in crises of acute despair, or else &indefinite postponement& !pp. >77.C#, wherein one adopts an attitude of bad faith towards oneself, that is to say one regards one&s guilt !of which one is perpetually aware# as being &without significance&, thereby refusing to accept responsibility for it. K., howe er, is not disposed to try either of these de ices, and seems, rather, to want to bring matters to a head. ,e dismisses his ad ocate as uselessperhaps the ad ocate in The Trial represents the world&s professional philosophers, and sets about organi3ing his own defence. +or this purpose he recruits, in particular, women helpers, perhaps regarding them as the gateway to the Ai ine !if $ remember rightly, this is one of Aenis&s earlier iewsin Crome /ellowthat makes life so complicated for him#. This iew is clearly mystical, and is denounced in The Trial. &4/ou cast about too much for outside help,4 said the priest disappro ingly, 4especially from women. Aon&t you see that it isn&t the right kind of help?4& !p. ;88# $n The Castle, on the other hand, K. uses women to get him entrance into the kingdom of hea en, and perhaps with some effect( but in The Castle guilt is e idence of the e%istence of Bod, and the guiltier one is the better chance one has of getting the fa our of the Castle !thus Amalia indignantly re2ects the immoral proposals of one of the gentlemen from the Castle and is promptly cut off from the Ai ine Brace, whereupon her sister :lga prostitutes herself with the meanest Castle ser ants in the hope of winning it back#. $n The Trial the task is to come to terms with oneself without relying on other people( and although we may sympathi3e with K. and the other accused in their efforts to ac)uit themsel es before the Court, actually the Court is in the right and K. and the others in the wrong. There are three kinds of people in The TrialD !i# the innocent !i.e. ignorant# mass of humanity, unable to reflect and thus become

aware of their guilt, !ii# the !self.#accused, who are guilty and obscurely aware of the fact but who refuse to admit it to themsel es and who will go to any lengths to delay the ine itable erdict !the gro elling ,err -lock of Chapter E$$$, for e%ample, has no less than si% ad ocates, and has succeeded in protracting his case for fi e years#, and !iii# the !self.#condemned man, who, like K. in the final chapter, faces up to the desolating truth and accepts the conse)uences. &The only thing for me to go on doing is to keep my intelligence calm and discriminating to the end. $ always wanted to snatch at the world with twenty hands, and not for a ery laudable moti e either. That was wrong, and am $ to show now that not e en a whole year&s struggling with my case has taught me anything? Am $ to lea e this world as a man who shies away from all conclusions?& !p. ;97# +or the refle%i e man who retains his lucidity, there is only one erdict&Builty& and only one sentencedeath. K.&s death in 'he 'rial is the death of worldly hope( it is the immediate conse)uence of the frank recognition that one&s e%istence is guilty !that is to say, that it is un2ustifiable#( and this e%ecution of the capital sentence upon hope is actually the ine itable conclusion to 'he 'rial. $ think you told me that you had found that K.&s death was an arbitrary and artificial ending to the book, which ought to ha e finished inconclusi ely. This would certainly ha e been true of -lock, who clearly did not ha e the moral courage to face factsD -lock would ne er ha e condemned himself to death !i.e. to a life without hope#, and to ha e him e%ecuted by di ine fiat would ha e been senseless. -ut with K. it was differentD 2ust as he had arrested himself by becoming refle%i e, so he had to e%ecute himself by admitting his guilt( and this is the furthest that anyone can goin the direction of understanding, that is without the -uddha&s Teaching. <@C.a= *ote the ambiguity, the ambi alence, of this word innocence, so close to ignorance, 2ust as guilt and knowledge are sometimes almost synonymous. Adam and 1 e, after eating the apple, knew that they were naked, and they were ashamed.

#$. ,&' , /ovember +&,)

'hat $ said in my last letter about K.&s reason for recruiting, in particular, women to help his casenamely, that he perhaps regarded them as the &Bateway to the

Ai ine&is e%cessi e. $t is true enough of The Castle, where K. is seeking Bod&s grace( but in The Trial K. is simply attempting to 2ustify his own e%istence, and his relations with women do not go beyond this. ,ere is an illuminating passage from 0artreD 'hereas before being lo ed we were uneasy about that un2ustified, un2ustifiable protuberance which was our e%istence, whereas we felt oursel es 4de trop,4 we now feel that our e%istence is taken up and willed e en in its tiniest details by an absolute freedom <i.e. that of the one who lo es us=<a= which at the same time our e%istence conditions <since it is our e%istence that fascinates our lo er=<a= and which we oursel es will with our freedom. This is the basis for the 2oy of lo e when there is 2oyD we feel that our e%istence is 2ustified. !-F*, p. 87># $n 'he 'rial, then, K. is seeking to use women to influence the susceptible Court !&5et the 1%amining Gagistrate see a woman in the distance and he almost knocks down his desk and the defendant in his eagerness to get at her.&p. ;88#. $n other words, K. is trying to silence his self.accusations of guilt by helping himself to women !which does indeed ha e the effecttemporarilyof suppressing his guilt. feelings by making his e%istence seem 2ustified#. -ut K. is toldor rather, he tells himselfthat this sort of defence is radically unsound !in Ar. A%el Gunthe&s opinion, a man&s lo e comes to an end when he marries the girl#. And, in fact, 0artre&s detailed analysis of the lo e.relationship shows only too clearly its precarious and self.contradictory structure.

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