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. 76 | 83] 17 December 1963

Disapproval, naturally, is to be expected, particularly in the quarter where it has been expressed. A parallel may be found in the medical profession, where a doctor with an unorthodox but effective remedy meets the greatest opposition from the Medical Association rather than from the patients who have benefitted from his unorthodoxy. But we can't make omelettes without breaking eggs.

I could, naturally, soften or omit the passages complained of, but I don't particularly want to. The Notes have been written with the purpose of clearing away a mass of dead matter which is choking the Suttas, and some reference to it is necessary. Furthermore, if this is to be effective, shock-treatment is sometimes best: mere hints that all is not quite in order can only too easily be ignored.[a] It is possible that a reader who is not familiar with English idiom might suppose that when I say that the 'rot sets in with the Abhidhamma Pitaka' (CITTA) I am saying that the Abhidhamma Pitaka is rot (in the colloquial sense of rubbish). This, of course, is not my intention, and if it seems likely that many people are going to misunderstand this, the word 'decay' could be substituted without loss of meaning but with loss of strength. The 'vicious' doctrine I cannot help—it is vicious—, but I don't suppose that anyone will think that I mean to say that it has taken to drink and debauchery.

I think that you have misunderstood the nature of the objection that is raised to my interpretation of sankhārā. The traditional interpretation says that sankhārā in the paticcasamuppāda formulation are cetanā and not anything else. The Suttas say that sankhārā in the p.s. are kāya-, vacī-, and citta-sankhāra, and they also define these as the in-and-out-breaths, thinking-and-pondering, and perception and feeling, respectively.[b] The traditional interpretation ignores this definition, and takes these three terms as bodily, verbal, and mental action, respectively; and for this they can find a justification if they are prepared to equate the cittasankhāra of the p.s. with the mano-sankhāra that is sometimes found in the Suttas but not in the p.s. context. For this see A NOTE ON P.S. §16.

Furthermore, if you will refer to A NOTE ON P.S. §6 you will see that upon occasion, the sankhārā of the p.s. do mean cetanā. But though all cetanā (intentions) are sankhārā (determinations), the reverse is not true. And in particular, the in-and-out breaths are called kāyasankhārā because (in the terms of the Cūlavedalla Sutta—M. 44: i,301) they are kāyikā (bodily) and are kāyapatibaddhā ('bound up with the body'), and not because they are cetanā. Similar considerations apply to vacī- and citta-sankhārā. Please refer to the last sentence of A NOTE ON P.S. §5. But this argument does not, at this stage, raise the question whether or not the in-and-out breaths are cetanā.

[As a matter of fact they are cetanā, in the sense that (as you rightly say) breathing is a conscious act (though not necessarily a deliberate act, an act of awareness), and all consciousness is intentional (i.e. involves volition, understood, however, in a subtle sense—in the Notes the word volition is not used in this subtle sense, which I call intention; but see CETANĀ, fourth paragraph, and NĀMA, second paragraph). While in sleep we breathe, and while in sleep we are conscious; for we can be woken out of sleep by a noise. If we did not in some sense hear the noise, we should not awaken, and if we hear it we must be conscious: a noise cannot provoke consciousness, it can only disturb it.

[In the Suttas, consciousness does not cease until saññāvedayitanirodha, 'cessation of perception and feeling', which is above all the jhānas and all the arūpa attainments. Breathing, on the other hand, stops in the fourth jhāna, where there is still consciousness. (This means that, from the point of view of the individual concerned—which is the only point of view that matters—the body ceases in fourth jhāna and above. One cannot take one's body with one into the arūpa or 'immaterial' attainments.) If you are in any doubt about whether breathing involves intention or volition, put your hand firmly over your nose and mouth so that you are unable to breathe. You will soon discover a growing 'will-to-breathe' that will oblige you to remove your hand before ninety seconds are up. This will is there all the time, but it is not normally noticed so long as we can breathe freely. If the heart is obstructed, on the other hand, we feel pain, but it cannot be described as a 'will-to-heartbeat'.]

In addition to the foregoing, you may refer to §15 of A NOTE ON P.S. and particularly the two sentences starting 'Sankhārapaccayā viññānam....' Here the discussion is drawing finer distinctions, and it is most improbable that the Venerable Objector has made anything of it at all. §19 shows that though the breathing is kāyasankhāra because it is bound up with the body, it is sankhāra also as cetanā inasmuch as it is experience (all experience is intentional), and is thus entitled to a place in the paticcasamuppāda as sankhāra on two separate counts.

Confusion is possible if we ask 'As experience, what kind of intention is breathing?'; for the answer is that it is kāyasañcetanā, 'body-intention', along with all other intentional bodily actions (such as walking). And, referring again to §16, you will see that kāyasañcetanā is kāyasankhāra. Thus breathing is twice kāyasankhāra. But the word kāyasankhāra, 'body-determination', is a grammatical compound that can be resolved in two distinct ways: (i) as 'what determines the body', and (ii) as 'a determination that is bodily'. In the first it is the breaths (as bound up with the body—the body depends on the breathing), and in the second it is any determination (specified by the Sutta of §16 as intention) involving the body (breathing, walking, etc.).

Vacīsankhāra, 'speech-determination', also has this double sense: in the first it is 'what determines speech', which is thinking-and-pondering; and in the second it is 'a determination (as intention) that is verbal', as (for example) swearing. But thinking-and-pondering is not speech-determination in the second sense: as intentional action (sañcetanā) it is obviously mind-determination. But, with 'mind-determination', only the English is ambiguous, not the Pali: for the first sense of 'mind-determination' we have cittasankhāra, and for the second sense we have manosankhāra.

The traditional interpretation takes advantage of this verbal ambiguity—ignoring the citta/mano discrepancy—to define sankhārā in the p.s. as exclusively cetanā. (I think, perhaps, if you want to see the distinction clearly, you might take 'thinking-and-pondering' as a test-case. Thinking-and-pondering is said in the Cūlavedalla Sutta (which gives the first sense of vacīsankhāra) to be speech-determination, for the following reason: 'First having thought and pondered, then one breaks into speech.' Ask yourself 'Is thinking-and-pondering speech-determination also in the sense of being verbal action?'.) Now, it seems, it is I who am accused of confusing these two senses (in the reverse direction, of course). This can only be made by someone who takes for granted the traditional interpretation of p.s.—if the interpretation is not pre-judged, purely verbal considerations as well as those of consistency support the Notes.

The discussion, as you see, is rather involved, and there is a temptation to cut the Gordian knot by ignoring these distinctions. Unless one is capable of following the intricacies of the situation, and is actually prepared to do so, a certain amount of good will is necessary if the interpretation of the Notes is to be accepted. Unfortunately there seems to be little reason to suppose that the Venerable Objector possesses either the capacity or the good will. But I do not see that any purpose would be served by setting out the argument in greater detail: as I remark in §7, the note is not a polemic, and if the reader is not already dissatisfied with the traditional interpretation no amount of argument will convince him.

The Venerable One who remarked that there are many mistakes in the Notes is perfectly correct: there are many mistakes in the Notes—from the traditional point of view. But if he thinks I am not aware of them he is doing me an injustice.

The question whether it is right to write against books like the Patthāna seems to be largely rhetorical. I regret that I find it necessary to disagree with the Patthāna, but since I do I am prepared to state my disagreement in writing. It is, if I may say so without presumption, to the greater glory of the Suttas; but I don't suppose the Venerable One would see it quite in this light.

I am glad to hear that there are some laymen who are finding the Notes worth studying. By all means let them send questions about points needing further elucidation. The more sharply the questions can be framed the better it is, not only for me but also for the questioner, who will perhaps find out what it is precisely that he is asking—and may thus discover that he has answered his own question.

Your letter shows only too clearly what I knew all along, namely that the Notes will get a more intelligent hearing from laymen than from monks. This ought not to be so, but it is so. At the very least, criticism from monks should amount to something more than simply pointing out that the Notes deviate from the accepted view. Surely, if they have given any thought to the Suttas at all, they must see that the accepted view might perhaps not be altogether infallible—especially in view of the poor results in terms of ariyapuggalas produced. Like the one above about the Patthāna, it is a rhetorical question, or so I fear.


[76.a] Question: Is this likely to antagonize anyone who might otherwise be sympathetic? Knowing Abhidhamma Pitaka enthusiasts, I think not. Will it raise organized hostility? Not, I think, unless it is translated. If it does is this necessarily a bad thing? I don't know enough to give a definite answer, but it does not seem to be self-evident. [Back to text]

[76.b] There is no Sutta where it is actually stated that the kāya-, vacī-, and cittasankhāra of the p.s. are the same kāya-, vacī-, and citta-sankhāra as those thus defined. But there is no a priori reason why they should not be. [Back to text]