[L. 105 | 112] 23 November 1964

I have just run through Mr. G.'s comments on the Notes, and it seems at first glance that the principal objection he is raising is against my interpretation of paticcasamuppāda as not describing a process in time. As a matter of fact, you are already familiar with this objection, since in an earlier letter you told me of someone who maintained that the three-life interpretation was compatible with the views expressed in the Notes. At the same time you remarked that Sister Vajirā had earlier preferred a 'temporal' interpretation of the p.s. but had later changed her mind. I replied, first, that I did not see that my interpretation was compatible with the three-life interpretation (and certainly Mr. G. does not find it so!), and secondly, that Sister Vajirā's change of view took place when (as it seems) she ceased to be a puthujjana.[a] If I can work up the energy to reply to him, it will be more concerned with discussion of different general points of view than with answering the particular points he raises (which largely depend on the difference in our points of view).

He remarks in his letter, 'Another big fault is the Ven. Author...nearly always tries to discover his ideas in the Canon instead of deducing from the passages what they teach.' This criticism is unavoidable. From his point of view it will seem justified. The thing is, that I have a source of information (my own experience) that he does not know about; and when I say that a certain thing is so, without giving Sutta backing (though I always try to give supporting references where I can), he will naturally get the impression that I am imposing arbitrary views (much the same sort of thing happened with Mrs. Quittner when she described the Notes as 'arrogant'). Unless the Notes are read with the idea that the author may have something to say that the reader does not already know about, they will remain incomprehensible. (In the Suttas, the Buddha says that one listening to the Dhamma who is randhagavesī, 'looking for faults',[1] will not be able to grasp it. Note, again, Sister Vajirā's change of attitude in the course of her letters, and her eventual admission that she had formerly been 'conceited'.)

I enclose a press cutting about Sartre.[2] The view that he is expounding here ('A writer has to take sides...') finds no justification at all in his philosophy. If, therefore, he holds this view, he does so simply because he finds it emotionally satisfactory. This view, of course, is quite familiar to us—it is the Socialist argument we sometimes hear, that since one cannot practise the Dhamma if one is starving, therefore food comes first; and therefore food is more important than the Dhamma; and therefore it is more important to produce food than it is to behave well; and therefore any kind of violence or deceit is justified if it helps to increase food production.

As Sartre puts it, it seems plausible—it is better to feed the poor than to entertain the rich. But when we look at it more closely we see that certain difficulties arise. To begin with, it assumes (as all socialists, Sartre included, do assume) that this life is the only one, that we did not exist before we were born, and shall not exist after we die. On this assumption it is fairly easy to divide mankind into two groups: the rich oppressors, and the poor oppressed, and the choice which to support seems easy. But if this is not the only life, how can we be sure that a man who is now poor and oppressed is not suffering the unpleasant effects of having been a rich oppressor in his past life? And, if we take the principle to its logical conclusion, should we not choose to be on the side of the 'oppressed' inhabitants of the hells, suffering retribution for their evil ways, and to condemn the fortunate ones in the heavens, a privileged class enjoying the reward of virtue, as the 'idle rich'? And then this view ignores the fact that our destiny at death depends on how we behave in this life. If bad behaviour in this life leads to poverty and hunger in the next, can we be sure that bread is more important than books? What use is it providing the hungry with bread if you don't tell them the difference between right and wrong? Is metaphysics so unimportant if it leads men—rich and poor, no matter—to adopt right view and to behave accordingly?

Of course, the very fact that Sartre's philosophy does not have anything to say about the hungry and oppressed is a blemish on his philosophy; and it might be argued that Sartre is therefore better occupied standing up for the hungry and oppressed than in propagating his metaphysical views; but that still does not justify the principle. And, in the last analysis, the Buddha's Teaching is for a privileged class—those who are fortunate enough to have the intelligence to grasp it (the Dhamma is paccattam veditabbo viññūhi (M. 38: i,265)—'to be known by the wise, each for himself'), and they are most certainly not the majority! But Sartre's attitude is symptomatic of a general inadequacy in modern European thought—the growing view that the majority must be right, that truth is to be decided by appeal to the ballot-box. (I read somewhere that, in one of the Western Communist countries, it was decided by a show of hands that angels do not exist.)



[105.a] This actually is not irrelevant here, since Mr. G. is one of the group of Buddhists to which Sister Vajirā formerly belonged, and there is much in common between his present views and Sister Vajirā's former views: both, presumably, derive from the same source. [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[105.1] looking for faults: See editorial note 3 to L. 3. [Back to text]

[105.2] a press cutting: It is from the London Sunday Times of 24 May 1964:

     JEAN-PAUL SARTRE who, at 58, has just published the first volume of his autobiography has been explaining what he means by the confession in the book, 'I no longer know what to do with my life.'
    For most of the period during which he became famous he has, he says, been in a state of 'neurosis' and 'folly.' This was bound up with the idea that, as a writer, he was engaged in a 'sacred' activity and only in the last decade has he awoken from this. Now he is finding the cerebral imaginative world of the literary man receding before the grimness of the real world.
     'I've suddenly discovered that the exploitation of men by men and undernourishment relegate luxuries like metaphysical ills to the background. Hunger is a real evil. I've been getting through a long apprenticeship to reality. I've seen children die of hunger.
     'What does literature mean to a hungry world? Literature like morality needs to be universal. A writer has to take sides with the majority, with the hungry—otherwise he is just serving a privileged class. Do you think you could read Robbe-Grillet in an underdeveloped country?' [Back to text]