[ Book Reviews ]
Clearing the Path
Writings of Ñanavira Thera
Notes on Dhamma
Collected Letters (1960-65)
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From the Introduction:
Notes on Dhamma has been variously described as 'arrogant, scathing, and condescending', as 'a fantastic system', and as 'the best and most important book on Buddhism ever written by a Westerner'. The Ven. Ñanavira Thera himself remarked of the book that 'it is vain to hope that it is going to win general approval... but I do allow myself to hope that a few individuals... will have private transformations of their way of thinking as a result of reading the Notes'.
And indeed, the influence of Notes on Dhamma on Buddhist thinkers continues to increase more than a quarter of a century after its publication. Inasmuch as the first edition, long out of print, consisted of only 250 copies, how is it that this book has aroused such extraordinary interest and controversy? The answer, it seems, is to be discovered not only in the specific content of the Notes but in their general attitude, their view and direction. In describing that attitude their author wrote of the Notes that they 'attempt to provide an intellectual basis for the understanding of the Suttas (the Buddhist texts) without abandoning saddha (faith)'; that they 'have been written with the purpose of clearing away a mass of dead matter which is choking the Suttas'; and that, above all, 'the Notes are designed to be an invitation to the reader to come and share the author's point of view'.
That point of view — achieved by the Ven. Ñanavira through dedicated self-investigation using the Buddha's Teaching as a guide — is described unflinchingly in the Notes, which assume that 'the reader's sole interest in the Pali Suttas is a concern for his own welfare'. However, the Notes, with their admitted intellectual and conceptual difficulties, are not the only way to discuss right view or to offer right view guidance. The letters which are collected here are not only 'something of a commentary on the Notes'; they are, independently, a lucid discussion of how an individual concerned fundamentally with self-disclosure deals with the dilemma of finding himself in an intolerable situation, where the least undesirable alternative is suicide.
With openness, calmness, grace, and considerable wit, the Ven. Ñanavira discusses with his correspondents the illnesses that plague him and what he can and cannot do about them, and about his own existence. His life as a Buddhist monk in a remote jungle abode in not incidental to the philosophy he expounds: the two are different aspects of the same thing, namely a vision that penetrates into the human situation both as universal and particular, and recognizes that it is this situation which is the business of each of us to resolve for ourselves. In presenting this view the Ven. Ñanavira offers a contemporary exposition of the Teaching of the Buddha. In living this view he evokes a dramatic situation wherein an individual resolutely faces those questions which every lucid person must eventually face.