Dear Mrs. Quittner,
As far as I can gather from what you say, it may be such that you are one of the (regrettably) few people to whom the Notes are really addressed. So I think that I ought to give you the opportunity—if you want it—of writing direct to me about things in the Notes that are not clear to you. Many things, certainly, are difficult in themselves, and more words about them will probably not help much; but there may be other things about which the Notes are unnecessarily obscure, and perhaps also things left out without any apparent reason; and here some further discussion might be useful. (In this connexion, your lament that the notes on nāmarūpa are inadequate may be justified. In the first place, however, a certain amount of amplification will be found in other notes[a] and in the second place, I am not at all sure that a detailed study of the intricacies of nāmarūpa—particularly à la Ñānavīra—may not easily become a misdirection of effort: the very fact that the Notes say considerably more on this question than is to be found in the Suttas is already a doubtful recommendation. See Notes, RŪPA, last paragraph, third sentence from the end. But in these days of printed books a greater detail is demanded, and is perhaps not entirely objectionable. In any case, to say more I should have to say a lot more; and though the flesh is willing, the spirit is weak.)
I am by no means vexed that, as well as commendable, you should have found the book 'arrogant, scathing, and condescending', since the fact that it seems so is not altogether unintentional—though, also, it is not wholly a contrived effect. The individual notes were, for the most part, originally inscribed in the margins of my P.T.S. dictionary, without any immediate thought of publication. And yet, they were written in exactly the same tone as what you find in the present book.[b] In transcribing the notes for publication it was not through negligence that no attempt was made to alter the style: I preserved it knowing quite well that it would keep the reader at a distance—which was what I wanted. Certainly, it is galling for the European (and perhaps not galling enough for the Oriental) to be treated as if he had no opinion worth consulting: the European reader expects his author to submit his reasons for what he says, so as to enable the reader to judge for himself; the author is required to take the reader into his confidence, and if he does not it is resented. In dealing with rational matters this is quite in order; both parties are assumed to have the same objective point of view (the same absence of point of view, in other words), and the reader follows the author's arguments in order to decide whether he agrees or disagrees; and having done so, he shuts the book and passes on to the next. But if the question at issue is not within the sphere of reason, all this is a misunderstanding. If the book is an invitation, or perhaps a challenge, to the reader to come and share the author's point of view (which may require him first to adopt some point of view instead of remaining objectively without any at all), it obviously defeats its own purpose if it starts out by allowing the reader to assume that he already does so. (At this point, I would refer you to three Suttas of the Anguttara: V,xvi,1-3: iii,174-6, i.e. Book of the Fives, Suttas 151-153, or the first three of the Saddhamma Vagga.) In a live discussion, or in a correspondence, the appropriate relationship can perhaps be established gradually and painlessly; but in a book, impersonally addressed to unknown readers, the situation is less accomodating, and some outrage to the reader's self-respect (especially if it is what Camus calls 'l'orgueil européen') must be expected. Without presuming to say whether the Notes are adequate in this respect, I shall try to show what I mean by referring to a point that you yourself have raised.
In your letter you have remarked—presumably with reference to note (a) of the Preface—that the author, with a few strokes of the pen, has reduced the three baskets to two, and that without giving any reasons. It is now 2500 years after the parinibbāna, and we find ourselves faced with a large accumulation of texts (to speak only of the Pali), some certainly reporting what the Buddha actually said, and others, no less certainly, the work of commentators, scholiasts, and so on; but one and all claiming to represent—or rather, claimed by Tradition as representing—the Buddha's true and original Teaching. The first difficulty, today, is to get started: it is obvious enough that we cannot accept all these texts, but where are we to draw the line? All we can do is to make a preliminary critical survey, and then, with an intelligent guess, divide the texts into those we will accept and those we will not. Having made the division we lay aside the critical attitude and set to work to grasp the Teaching. It would not be unduly difficult in the Notes to muster an array of critical arguments leading to the rejection of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. But at once the reader would have something positive and objective to seize hold of, and a learned controversy would start up moving more and more passionately away from the point at issue. 'In general,' says Kierkegaard,
all that is needed to make the question simple and easy is the exercise of a certain dietetic circumspection, the renunciation of every learned interpolation or subordinate consideration, which in a trice might degenerate into a century-long parenthesis. (CUP, pp. 29-30)
Do not forget that the book is written in Ceylon and not in England. With you there is no sacrosanct Buddhist tradition, and people will listen to new ideas proclaimed even in a normal tone of voice: here it is quite otherwise. People will listen, but only if the unfamiliar is uttered loudly and firmly enough to inspire them with courage to think against tradition. Once the ice is broken they may take the plunge; and one or two already—laymen—seem to have embarked on a serious study of the Notes. The few English-speaking monks who have seen the book mostly don't like it, but traditional orthodoxy does not have the same official backing here as it does in hard-headed Burma. We have thought it prudent not to send copies to the two pirivena universities here, which are strongholds of Sinhalese Nationalism; but we have received a polite letter from the Librarian of the Maha-Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok saying that the book will be 'a useful work of reference' for the many monks of various nationalities who come to study there. There is a certain ambiguity about the Siamese that I have not yet fathomed.
[3.a] In general, as you get more familiar with the book you may find that difficulties raised in one part are answered—or partly—in another. [Back to text]
[3.b] A man, cast up alone on a desert island, might, after a time, and seeing no other people, give up wearing clothes without feeling immodest. Some strangers, landing on his island many years later and seeing him, might tell him about his immodesty in emphatic terms. But by that time he would quite likely have forgotten what the word means. So it is with one's thoughts. After a certain time in solitude they forget their modesty and go about naked. If one then shows them to a stranger without clothing them decently, he may well find them arrogant. But the word is no longer familiar. (I am, in any case, something of a solitary by nature, sadly lacking in warmth of feeling either for or against other people. This, really, is the unpardonable offence, and all the rest follows from it.) [Back to text]
[3.2] P.T.S.: The Pali Text Society (73 Lime Walk, Headington, Oxford, OX3 7AD, England) has published all the Sutta and Vinaya texts in both the original Pali (roman-script) and in translation, as well as a Pali-English dictionary and other scholarly aids. [Back to text]
[3.3] Book of the Fives: 'Monks, endowed with five things one is unable, even when hearing the true Teaching, to get down to sure practice, the correct way in skilful things. Which five? He disparages the talk; he disparages the talker; he disparages himself; he hears the Teaching with a distracted mind lacking one-pointedness; he pays improper attention.' <A. V,xvi,1> The next two Suttas differ from this Sutta by substituting, in xvi,2, 'he has a poor understanding, is dull or witless' and 'he conceives as directly known what has not been directly known' for the last two terms and, in xvi,3, also substituting 'he hears the Teaching with contempt, obsessed with contempt', 'he hears the Teaching with a censorious mind, looking for faults', and 'regarding the one who expounds the Teaching his mind is upset and has become (non-receptive) like barren ground' for the first three terms. [Back to text]
[3.4] l'orgueil européen: 'The prodigous history evoked here is the history of European pride.' (The Rebel, p. 16) [Back to text]
[3.5] Three baskets: The Pali Canon is known, collectively, as the Tipitaka, the Three Baskets, since it consists of three major sections: the Vinaya Pitaka (Basket of Discipline), Sutta Pitaka (Basket of Discourses), and Abhidhamma Pitaka (Basket of Further Truth). Readers of the Notes can hardly be unaware that the Ven. Ñānavīra Thera rejected the Abhidhamma Pitaka as a scholastic invention not representing the Buddha's Teaching. [Back to text]
[3.6] parinibbāna: 'full extinction' can refer to the breaking up of the body of any arahat, but in this case it is used with specific reference to the Buddha. [Back to text]