Dear M and D, (12. 3. 54 from Brickhill)
I am not in the least bored by your letters. The peaceful and tolerant nature of my family background is an inspiration. Your descriptions of home life are a real joy to me and keep me in touch with you all. So, too, do I value your news of local events, parish affairs and so on. If I do not always refer to these in my letters, it is simply that so much happens here that I feel I must write to you about it. In many ways my letters to you are my diary.
In showing concern for where I stand and in voicing those concerns, you make me think and attempt to relate my new experiences out here to my earlier life. So I will try to define my viewpoint. I can begin by looking at my personal history and, since I doubt if we have ever really discussed this at home for we are quite reticent about such things, this may be a good way to begin. In any case it helps me make a sort of assessment of where I am.
The whole trend of my thinking and feeling since the age of fourteen or so seems, now I look back on it, to have followed an almost inevitable path; the coming to the surface of my own psyche, a feeling of my soul moving deeply within me to disclose itself. For a long time this movement was fettered by circumstances, which partly succeeded in conditioning my life as I grew up. Firstly, there was public school pride and snobbery, which some of my friends at university helped me to understand without knowing that they did it. Secondly, there was materialist thought which, while studying science at school and university, I found a prerequisite for an objective scientific approach. The part of me that refused this materialist view led my supervisor at university eventually to realise that my mentality would, perhaps, never be strictly or wholly scientific as he saw it. Materialism and an extreme dedication to intellect eventually squashes the soul. The thinking mind is only part of the personality, a flighty and capricious part, and its over-use leads to a blunting of subtler feelings and that awareness of beauty in life that is ultimately focused within rather than without.
I shall never forget the joy and wonder that seized me after my finals, when I went to Switzerland on my first continental holiday and found it no longer necessary to think logically and scientifically all the time. There was great peace as my mind relaxed to allow deeper feeling to arise. I thought as a ‘whole’, rather than as an objectifying intellect. It is this totality in thought that seems to characterise traditional Eastern thinking and to be its essential difference from modern Western philosophy. While the latter has produced marvels as well as horrors, the Eastern man of character appears to think more with his heart than with his mind. Indeed the Chinese word for mind is often better translated as heart. It is exactly this ‘heart’ that has been seeking expression within myself since I was a boy.
You remember when I was fourteen I spent a whole Easter term convalescing at home. As I grew stronger, I spent much time walking in the forest,7 long walks alone on the moors and through the woods experiencing the opening of springtime leaves and birds singing in reborn trees. On those walks, I had one or two experiences which at the time seemed quite natural (as indeed they are) and about which I thought little until I began to question the materialist outlook I was picking up through studying science at school. My memory is vague now but I can still see the moss on which I sat, the great, bare beech branches tapering upwards like cathedral tracery and the thin flecks of green emerging upon the twigs. It seemed as if my whole being swelled out of itself, embracing the ground I lay upon, the trees around me, the birds and squirrels that moved against the sky, the soft murmur of the breeze in the twigs. I became these things and was no longer the observer; the trees were within me and I within them. I had experienced a feeling of all-pervading oneness – there was no separation for everything seemed to possess the same quality – the essence of mind and being. I remember praying passionately and with such thankfulness to Jesus, who seemed to represent this force – not as something separate but included within it – yet who was somehow the donor of my vision.
It was this ‘insight’ that sustained me when my scientific training caused me to abandon a living faith in the Christian conception of God. God then became to me not a distant father but an intrinsic quality inherent in mind and matter alike. Yet that early experience has never come again. It was as if the development of intellect prevented it. The same happened to Wordsworth. However much I have sought, I have never felt so wonderful a thing as that again. In every serious contemplation my whole being craves for that experience of direct insight into peace, beauty, all-embracing love. Sometimes I feel I am near it – then my mind surges in, asking why and how – and the pure exaltation never comes.8*
World and life are to me wondrous, beautiful, full of loveliness but sometimes that feeling fades and all is jaded, tired, without value; then, once more, through some place or some person, that essential faith in living is reborn and I hope again. Plato writes in the Symposium about the spirit of man ascending though a knowledge of beautiful things to beautiful forms, persons and ideas until at the last the absolute beauty is understood and the soul merges into it for that is God.
This way of thinking, you will agree, is not Christian in the strict sense for it takes no account of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost nor of Christ, the redeeming son. God is not here a cause and the Universe an effect. Here God and World are one and the same as root and tree are united. We speak here of the absolute, the essence, the unknown, the indefinable quality that lies within everything spiritual and material in every man as well as every animal, in every race and behind every idea however rejected.
I never forgot that experience in the beechwood. I could take you to the exact place, if not the exact tree, right now. From it I built up a view of how things are. My only guide was Plato, my love of nature and the profound platonic love I had for a boy at school who seemed sublimely beautiful to me. He existed, however, only in my mind and the image was not projectable on to the real for the actual person was quite different, simple and not complex like my fantasies.
Here in Hong Kong I find these fundamental ideas reflected in countless varying ways and especially in Ch’an Buddhism. This is the reason for my interest in these things for I sense some fulfilment here. In the West, Buddhism is often described as selfish and pessimistic. In his introductory book, Christmas Humphreys, the eminent crown prosecutor, argues that this is deeply mistaken. The literature often talks about the Void. The real meaning of this term, at least in Chinese Buddhism, is not nothingness. All life is bound up in a vast unity by some common denominator, a quality which is not material yet subsumes all material and mind qualities. It is a substratum. It implies great brotherhood for each person is, at root, identical in spiritual constitution. Since the same quality underlies the universe, all forms however diverse are intrinsically related. This all is nothing yet the no-thing-ness is full. A bowl at the bottom of a pond is empty yet also full of water.9*
Motive is more important than deed. Altruism is part of the way, the giving of self for others because one knows that all, at root, are connected. Here we have the ‘we consciousness’ mentioned by such writers as Jung, Schweitzer and Buber, which seems vital in the present world situation. There are many religions but only one religious sense. It is this quality that interests me rather than the specifics of a religious creed. I seem to have found something that points to a still centre.
Eastern thought turns ever inwards towards the common material of life. Western thought begins with simple things and then builds a complex system, hierarchically organised, linear and projected outward on the world. Westerners make fine logicians and scientists. An Easterner, by plunging directly to the depths of things in experience, has developed greater insight into self. The logic is intuitive and goes with a relative indifference to things that happen outside the personal. Intellect is a prize goose that lays golden eggs in the West. In the East the heart brings forth a golden flower.
In your letters I have noted some remarks of regret, as if you feel you should have made me more orthodox by teaching me better Christianity. You have nothing to regret and you have failed in nothing. I am conscious often of a gratitude to you both for the security and freedom of expression I have enjoyed. I have been able to learn in a family atmosphere that did nothing to hinder and the freedom you allowed me has prevented any addiction to a way of life centred on playing bridge or drinking cocktails. You say you are ordinary but I do not think so. You are more discerning than most and make me sit up and think when you write letters like the last two I have received from you both. Most parents do not have the interest to do that and are too conventional to understand. A quiet life does not mean a dull life. It may be very full and much richer than a life devoted to social exhibitionism and exclusiveness. I hold you both in high esteem.
With love J.