The fist number of L. refer to the standard CtP edition published in 1987. The following number shows correspondence between letters in the new 2010 edition. Note that on this website CtP is available only 1987 edition with minor additions.

[L. 130 | 140] 2 August 1964

This letter gives me an opportunity to add something to what I said earlier. In my letter of the 26th I think I remarked that Mahāyāna Buddhism had taken over the Hindu idea of māyā without even proper acknowledgement. But this statement is obviously too simple, and is perhaps unjustified (since I do not know that the Mahāyānists did not think up the idea for themselves). It almost sounds as if there were no real difference between the two teachings; whereas, in fact, distinctions must be made. At the same time it is true to say that the Mahāyāna concept of nirvāna is separated by an abyss from the nibbāna of the Pali Suttas.

The question hinges on the scandal of the world's relativity, or variety, (which stubbornly resists all our efforts to reduce it to a single Whole)—'The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia' (Le Mythe, p. 28; The Myth, p. 11). Three quotations will perhaps illustrate this. Here, first, is Jean Grenier on the Hindu māyā:

The world may be the product of a sort of dream, not the dream of a spirit but the dream of a power inherent in the world. That would be the case of this illusion that the Vedantists call Māyā. ...For Indians Māyā is Shakti, which is to say a power from (and of) Brahma, through which the latter takes a perceptible appearance.... The Vedic hypothesis of Māyā, a hypothesis that would better be called a postulate, because of its generality and indemonstrability, consists in supposing that the world is the product of a cosmic illusion, a modification of Brahma. This modification would be apparent only, like the rope one thinks to be a snake but which nevertheless remains a rope. The absolute would not be more easily reached through it than the desert through the mirage. (pp. 53-5)
Secondly, here is a passage from the Prajñāpāramitā on the Mahāyānist avidyā:
Objects exist only insofar as they do not exist in reality. Insofar as they do not exist they are called avidyā, which means 'non-knowledge'. Common and ignorant people are attached to these things because they do not receive guidance (teaching) on this subject. They picture to themselves all these objects as existing, whereas in reality no one (nothing) exists.[1]
Finally, a verse from the Pali Suttas:
Sankapparāgo purisassa kāmo
Na te kāmā yāni citrāni loke
Sankapparāgo purisassa kāmo
Titthanti citrāni tath'eva loke
Ath'ettha dhīrā vinayanti chandam.
    (A. VI,63: iii,411)

Thought and lust are a man's sensuality,
Not the various things in the world;
Thought and lust are a man's sensuality,
The various things just stand there in the world;
But the wise get rid of desire therein.

For the Hindu, then, the variety of the world is illusion, and for the Mahāyānist it is ignorance; and in both cases the aim is to overcome the world, either by union with Brahma or by attainment of knowledge. Unlike the Hindus and the Mahāyānists, the Pali Suttas teach that the variety of the world is neither illusion (māyā) nor delusion (avidyā) but perfectly real. The attainment of nibbāna is certainly cessation of avijjā, but this leaves the variety of the world intact, except that affectively the variety is now uniformly indifferent. Avidyā, clearly enough, does not mean to the Mahāyānist what avijjā does in the Pali Suttas. You will have noticed, I expect, that Sister Vajirā was holding more or less the Mahāyānist view that nothing really exists, and that relief came when she was induced to abandon this idea.

I do hope that all this stuff I am sending you does not make you feel under any obligation to reply to it. That is not the idea at all—it is simply for you to read or not as you will, nothing more. The trouble is that when I get some coherent thoughts (or that seem so to me at least) I have to do something with them or else they get in the way; and the easiest thing is to write them down and post them to somebody. You will remember that Stephen Daedalus got rid of an aphorism by telegraphing it to Buck Mulligan at his pub. Tolstoy's toenails.

Editorial note:

[130.1] Prajñāpāramitā: The Ven. Ñānavīra's letter contains a French translation of this passage, apparently taken from an essay, 'Le Bouddhisme d'après les Textes pālis', by Solange Bernard-Thierry on p. 608 of Présence du Bouddhisme, the Feb.-June 1959 issue of the journal France-Asie, published in Saigon. The quotation would seem to be from one of the more recent strata of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, not identified by Ms. Bernard-Thierry. English translation is by the editors. (The aphorism at the end of this letter is from Joyce's Ulysses.) [Back to text]