16 July 2008

Letter 2.38

With the same post as this letter will go a request to an individual to unearth a copy of Notes on Dhamma for your consumption. He will presumably send you -- if he sends you anything at all -- one of the original copies, i.e. without, the many later additions including translation of various texts. This may be a disadvantage -- I'm not sure if your Pali is good enough to manage the more difficult passages without a crib -- and if so, my apologies. If you are really taken by the book -- and I must say that of all books this one most requires the reader to 'live with it' for some months or years--no doubt arrangements can be made to supply you with some or all of the missing sections and later additions.The views of your two friends on the Letters was of some interest. They were both obviously very shocked by such a direct presentation of Buddhadhamma (“The world, for the most part, Kaccana, upon hearing this Teaching, quakes and fear and trembles”) and try to account for it on the one hand (by P) by thinking that the shock was due to Ven. Ñānavīra's discussions of suicide and on the other (by D) by perhaps a more healthy but nonetheless still fearful cynicism. After all the Dhamma can be frightening -- it may be -- will be -- (wrongly) apprehended by most of us as an attack on our most precious possession, our 'self', and it takes a considerable amount of strength developed through calmness (samatha) to be able to look down into that chasm without contracting vertigo.

One other point that P raises is worthy of comment, namely the acceptance of the texts and the age. As you say, Ānanda didn't have a tape-recorder (though he did have, apparently, a remarkable memory, having memorized all the Buddha's discourses). But even if it were shown that the texts were not 25 hundred years old but 25 years old this would demonstrate nothing whatsoever except that historical scholarship is a farce, which is already known. The sole criterion for accepting the texts is whether they are useful. (I know I needn't tell you this, but your friend P seems to feel that how old a text is is somehow relevant to how useful it is and also to either be unaware of or to ignore Ven. Ñānavīra's attainment of sotapanna, and, of course, as a sotapanna he is using the texts as a formulation of his own direct knowledge. Anyway, the whole question is complicated -- too complicated for a letter -- but both points are dealt with very well in K's
Concluding Unscientific Postscript (among other works), a reading of which might be profitable for your friend P.
Odd, is it not, that P, after a thoroughgoing attack on acceptance of the Pali texts as a guide to exploration of one's own experience, should then proceed to describe himself as a 'good Madhyamikist'? As to the Note on Suicide (whose is this? yours or D's?), I would only remark that if we did not enjoy life considerably we would not need to contemplate death, and that the only true way to com it suicide is to nibbāna. In a sense, this is the essence of the Dhamma.

Thanks very much for your poems. In exchange I offer my latest haiku.

  I knew a man who
  though he could not name the stars
  yet could see them.


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