[L. 144 | 154] 26 June 1965

I heard a few days ago that Ven. S. had asked one of the important pandita mahātheras of I forget which of the Sinhalese universities whether he had read the Notes. Yes, he had read them, but the author had evidently understood nothing of the Dhamma. Why? Because his explanation was not in accordance with the abhidhamma method. But on what particular point, for example, was the book wrong? That, it seemed, was not worth discussing. I don't appear to be in much danger of becoming a popular hero—not amongst the Buddhists, anyway.

Nindanti tunhim āsīnam,
nindanti bahubhāninam
mitabhāninam pi nindanti
n'atthi loke anindito.

You're blamed if you sit quiet,
you're blamed if you say a lot,
you're blamed if you say a little;
there's no one in the world that's not blamed. (Dh. 227)

On the other hand,

Na cāhu na ca bhavissati
na c'etarahi vijjati,
ekantam nindito poso
ekantam vā pasamsito.

There never was, there will not be,
nor is there now,
a man that's wholly blamed
or wholly praised. (Dh. 228)

And so I get a few kisses amongst the kicks. A Dr. James W. Gair of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, is presently (as they say) at Peradeniya doing research on the Sinhalese language. Pursuing his researches in Bundala the other day,[1] he was dragged by the village boys to my kuti where he introduced himself. He is faintly Anglican (so he told me) and has no particular interest in the Dhamma; but we got talking and I showed him the Notes. When he came to the last part, FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE (the noughts and crosses), he started reading and said, much to my astonishment, 'Ah! This is familiar—we have something like it in Linguistics. Yes, "o o is one, and o x is two", I follow that. I'm going to have fun reading this.' 'I had fun writing it' I replied. And so we parted on the best of terms. Wasn't that nice?

I see what you mean about the Balfour/Willett book, and in fact I did not want to press it on you because I rather thought you might feel that way about it. Our temperaments are too different—which, of course, you very well understand when you disapprove my preference for ideas over images. It is not easy for me to think mythically—in terms, that is to say, of myths (in the good sense)—and I always tend to ask myself 'Is it true as a matter of fact? Is such a thing actually possible?' whereas for you, as I understand you, the question is 'Is it a valid myth?' And so by a commodious vicus of recirculation, we come back to Balfour and Willett.[2] For me the question that this book raises (whether or not it provides the answer) is obviously 'Are these communications actually what they purport to be? Is rebirth (or personal survival of death) true as a matter of fact?' And, of course, this question is perfectly intelligible to me.

But to you, I rather imagine, this question is not intelligible: it is not the sort of question that can be raised at all—or at least, it ought not to be raised. Re-birth, survival, yes, by all means, but as a metaphor for something else, perhaps for everything else (the continuation of the human race, of one's seed in one's progeny, of one's fame in the successive editions of one's books, of the traditions and culture of a people; the re-birth of the year at the winter solstice, of the foliage of a tree each spring, and of the tree itself in the germinating of its seeds—your list will be far better than mine can ever hope to be).

Perhaps you will say (or am I misrepresenting you?) that the truths of religion are mythical truths, that they are not matters of fact; and if you do say this, I shall not contradict you. But then I shall have to say, with infinite regret, that if it is a religion you are after (in the sense of a 'valid myth'), then I have nothing to offer you, because the Dhamma is not a religion.[a]

In other words, before we can even begin to discuss the Dhamma we have to agree whether or not the question 'Is there re-birth?' can be raised at all, and if so in what sense. It is simply a matter of first securing our lines of communication. But I am not suggesting that you will want to do this. (What makes the situation all the more difficult is the popular and mistaken idea that the Buddha's Teaching 'explains re-birth'.)

So you think perhaps that I have my knife into Christianity—or even into God? But really it's not true. After all, Christianity never did me very much harm, and I soon forgot it. I was brought up to be (I suppose) 'a Christian and a Gentleman', and I found it much easier to unlearn being a Christian—but then I was not a Catholic (thank God!). Actually, I rather find myself at a loss when a question of God is raised: I feel that I am expected to say something (even if it is only goodbye), and I don't find anything to say. There is no shortage of epitaphs on God, and if I felt the need of one I could say, with Stendhal (la seule excuse de Dieu, c'est qu'il n'existe pas[3]) that God, if he existed, would have a lot to answer for; but even to feel the need to excuse him on the ground of his non-existence, the question of his existence would first have to raise itself. And for me the question does not raise itself.


[144.a] I don't mean to say that the truths of Buddhism are necessarily matter-of-fact truths in an objective scientific sense: the Four Noble Truths are not even, properly speaking, propositions at all. (Cf. Heidegger's idea of 'truth' as the self-disclosure of a thing for what it really is.) [Back to text]


Editorial notes:

[144.1] researches: They resulted in a grammar, Colloquial Sinhalese, published by his university. [Back to text]

[144.2] recirculation: The previous sentences were afterthoughts which, squeezed along the margins, took their reader on an excursion around all four edges of the paper and back to where they began. The 'commodius vicus' etc. alludes, of course, to the opening lines of Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Many (but not all) of the passages in the Letters which appear as footnotes were originally afterthoughts, though not usually so well-travelled. [Back to text]

[144.3] la seule...: 'the only excuse for God is that he does not exist.' (The Rebel, p. 58) [Back to text]