Many thanks for your letter, which gives me the opportunity of clarifying certain things about Notes on Dhamma.
I quite see that the sentence referring to the Milindapañha as a misleading book is likely to provoke criticism. But you will find that I have made uncomplimentary remarks not only about the Milinda (see PARAMATTHA SACCA, final paragraphs, NA CA SO, ANICCA [c], and PATICCASAMUPPĀDA [c]) but also about the Patisambhidāmagga of the Suttapitaka (see A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §§1&2 and PATICCASAMUPPĀDA), about the Vibhanga and Patthāna of the Abhidhammapitaka (see CITTA), about the Visuddhimagga (see A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §§1&2, CITTA, and PATICCASAMUPPĀDA), about the Abhidhammatthasangaha (see CITTA), and finally about all Pali books en bloc with the exception of the twelve or thirteen of the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas (see Preface [a]). Of these, the Patisambhidā, the Vibhanga, and the Patthāna, which belong to the Tipitaka (whereas the Milinda does not, except in Burma), are regarded with still greater veneration than the Milinda; and the Visuddhimagga, having been written in Ceylon, is very dear to nationalist sentiment (it is part of the cultural heritage of Ceylon). Furthermore, the views that I have set forth are, I think, without exception, contrary to the accepted traditional interpretation of the Dhamma. It is precisely for this reason that I have thought it necessary to put them down in writing, and to indicate as misleading the exegetical books that are responsible for the current misinterpretations of the Suttas. Thus it is part and parcel of my purpose to denounce the Milinda, which in my view is a particularly guilty offender (because it is so popular). (Incidentally, it is not my purpose to demonstrate the unreliability of the Milinda as a whole by inference from one or two isolated instances, but to state categorically and on my own authority that it is in fact a generally misleading book. The same applies to my adverse remarks on other books.)
Perhaps I may have given you the impression that these various notes of mine were not originally intended for publication (on account of excessive difficulty). But this needs some qualification. I certainly wrote these notes with a view to their eventual publication, and in their present form (with the uncomplimentary remarks about the Milinda and all); but not necessarily in my lifetime. I wished to leave these views on record for the benefit of anyone who might later come across them. I was not so much concerned whether anyone would want to publish them after my death, as to leave them in the form in which I wanted them published (if they were to be published at all).
When you first asked me if I was going to have the notes published, I hesitated for two reasons. First, as I told you, I was doubtful whether the average intelligent layman, who cannot devote much time to private thinking, would derive any benefit from them. Secondly, I was well aware that, if published, they might stir up a hornet's nest on account of their outspoken disagreement with traditional ideas, and this might have unpleasant consequences for the author or for the publisher. However, having read them, you told me that you did find them of interest and that you thought that others might too. So the first objection was removed. The second objection is more complex. Let us consider the kinds of people to whom these notes might give offence.
(i) The self-appointed guardians of Sinhala cultural traditions. Since these notes are in English and their author is a non-Sinhala (who cannot be expected to know any better) they can hardly be taken seriously; though the publisher might come in for some abuse.
(ii) The sincere traditionalists, who have spent all their lives studying and teaching the traditional commentarial interpretation. These will be mostly the elderly and learned Mahātheras who, for the most part, do not read English and who, in any case, are unlikely to pay much attention to what is written by a junior bhikkhu.
(iii) Those with vested interests in Buddhism. Writers of textbooks, school-teachers, self-appointed Buddhist leaders, and all those whose position requires them to be authorities on the Dhamma. Their interests will be best served by ignoring the Notes altogether, certainly not by drawing attention to them by criticizing them.
(iv) Professional scholars—university professors, etc. These are more likely to object to my criticisms of themselves as sterile scholars than to my adverse comments on the Milinda or on other books. If they write serious criticisms of the Notes, there is no difficulty in replying to them (and perhaps even with profit).
(v) Popular writers on Buddhism. These are the people who are likely to write irresponsible and emotionally charged criticisms in the various Buddhist journals. Such articles, however, are ephemeral, and satisfy only those who have no more intelligence than themselves. There is so much of this sort of thing already that a little more will not make much difference; and an intelligent person is quite likely to consider that adverse criticism by such writers is in fact a commendation. It is usually not necessary to reply to such criticisms.
As far as I am concerned, if my health were good enough to allow me to devote all my time to practice, I should find the business of preparing these Notes for publication and of answering possible criticisms of them an intolerable disturbance; as it is, however, my general condition seems to be deteriorating, and a certain amount of literary activity may actually be welcome to help me pass the time. That it is possible that I may make myself an unpopular figure by having these notes published is not a prospect that worries me in the least. Though, as I said earlier, the notes were primarily intended for posthumous publication, I see two possible advantages in having them published before my death. The first is that an authoritative unmutilated edition can be assured, and the second is that serious objections and criticisms can be answered and possible obscurities can be cleared up.
So much having been said, perhaps you will be in a better position to see how you stand in this matter. I can only agree to your publishing the Notes if you yourself consider that they should be published; that is to say, in spite of the facts that they go against the accepted traditional interpretation of the Dhamma, and that they may therefore possibly provoke adverse criticism.
Of course, if you do still decide to publish, much unnecessary criticism can be avoided by judicious distribution of the book. As far as I gathered, it was your idea to have the book distributed privately (and presumably free of charge) to suitable individuals and to selected libraries (and possibly societies), and not to have it exposed for public sale. My own view is that the book should be as widely dispersed as possible in places where it is likely to be preserved.
[39.1] without exception: This statement, though true in the main, certainly goes too far. The Notes also discuss some wrong views that have arisen independent of the traditional interpretation. [Back to text]