A few days ago I received from you a letter containing Mr. G.'s comments on the Notes on Dhamma. I have been through it with some care (though unfortunately I do not read Sanskrit), and it is obvious that he has taken considerable trouble about preparing them. He clearly has a considerable wealth of learning at his command, and seems to be quite familiar with the Pali texts, from which he quotes freely. At the same time, however, it is evident to me that the differences between his point of view and mine go too deep to be removed simply by a discussion of the various points he has raised. In order to explain my meaning I should have to make use of arguments that he would probably feel inclined to dispute, and the difficulties would thus merely be shifted from one place to another. But I have the impression that he is well satisfied that his position is the right one, and I do not think it would serve any useful purpose for me to call it in question.
In his letter he remarks that I explain too inductively, that I tend to look for my ideas in the Canon instead of deducing from the passages what they mean. This criticism, however, supposes that we are, in fact, able to approach the Canon with a perfectly virgin mind, equipped only with a knowledge of Pali and a sound training in logic. But this is precisely what we cannot do. Each of us, at every moment, has the whole of his past behind him; and it is in the light of his past (or his background or his presuppositions) that he interprets what is now presented to him and gives it its meaning. Without such a background nothing would ever appear to us with any meaning at all—a spoken or written word would remain a pure presentation, a bare sound or mark without significance. But, unfortunately, each of us has a different past; and, in consequence, each of us approaches the Canon with a set of presuppositions that is different in various ways from everybody else's. And the further consequence is that each of us understands the Canon in a different sense. We try to discover our personal ideas in the Canon because there is nothing else we can do. It is the only way we have, in the first place, of understanding the Canon. Later, of course, our understanding of the Canon comes to modify our ideas; and thus, by a circular process, our later understanding of the Canon is better than, or at least different from, our earlier understanding, and there is the possibility of eventually arriving at the right understanding of the ariyapuggala. Certainly we can, to some extent, deduce from the Canon its meaning; but unless we first introduced our own ideas we should never find that the Canon had any meaning to be deduced.
For each person, then, the Canon means something different according to his different background. And this applies not only to our understanding of particular passages, but also to what we understand by the Buddhadhamma as a whole.
(i) We may all agree that certain passages were spoken by the Buddha himself and that they represent the true Teaching. But when we come to ask one another what we understand by these passages and by the words they contain we often find a profound disagreement that is by no means settled simply by reference to other Sutta passages. (He and I are evidently agreed—to take a case in point—that the Sīvaka Sutta represents the Teaching of the Buddha. But whereas I understand it as indicating that only one out of eight kinds of feeling is kammavipāka, he brings forward an argument to justify its interpretation in a quite contrary sense—that all eight kinds are kammavipāka. And though I entirely disagree with his interpretation, I very much doubt whether I should be able to produce a Sutta passage to convince him of—as I see it—his mistake. And this for the simple reason that he will inevitably interpret whatever passage I may produce according to his ideas. We may agree on the text, but we shall disagree on the interpretation.)
(ii) Since everybody already has his own ideas (vague or precise) of what constitutes happiness, he will naturally look to the Buddha (that is, if he has placed his saddhā in the Buddha) to supply that happiness, and he will interpret the Dhamma as a whole in just that sense. Later, of course, he may find that the Dhamma cannot be taken in the sense that he wishes, and he will then either change his ideas or else abandon the Dhamma for some other teaching. But, in any case, there is no reason at all for supposing that two people (unless they have both ceased to be puthujjana) will be agreed on what it is, precisely, that the Buddha teaches. (So, in the present case, I do not find that Mr. G.'s view of the Dhamma—so far as I can grasp it—has any very great resemblance to mine; and that difference evidently reflects the difference in our respective backgrounds against which we interpret the Dhamma. He may (perhaps) say that he reads and understands the Suttas without any reference to a background, and (if so) I have no wish to argue the point; but I know that, for my part, I never come without a background (in a sense I am my background) when I consider the texts, even though that background is now very different from what it was when I first looked at a Sutta. And if he disagrees with what I am saying, that disagreement will itself be reflected in the way each of us understands the nature of the Dhamma.)
Probably he is not much concerned to understand the mode of thinking that refuses a horizontal (or temporal) interpretation of paticcasamuppāda and requires instead a vertical (or simultaneous) view; but if it should so happen that he is interested, then he could read—if his studies leave him time—either Heidegger's Sein und Zeit or Sartre's L'Être et le Néant. It must be made clear, however, that these works are in no way a substitute for the Canon and, further, that the philosophies of these thinkers, when considered in detail, are open to criticism in several respects. It is their manner of thinking that is instructive. (In this connexion, Mr. G. might note that by the term 'reflexion' I mean paccavekkhana, not pariyatti.)
[107.1] Sīvaka Sutta: The text is at L. 149. A reference is to be found in A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §3. [Back to text]
[107.2] There follows a postscript to this letter which has been omitted here because it consists of a long quotation from Sartre—B&N, p. 477—and passages added to the Notes after the book was first published (which additions have all been included in the present edition of Notes), including a comment on viññānam anidassanam (non-indicative consciousness: cf. A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA §22) which resulted in the following letter to Mr. G. himself [L. 107a].