Rebel Monk: The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera (1920-1965) (Part 1)
The following series of posts will consist of the biography I wrote back in 2003-4 of Ñanavira Thera, an English monk who lived the last decade of his life in Sri Lanka. While long an obscure figure in Buddhist circles–one might almost call him a minor “cult figure”–Ñanavira has been steadily gaining wider recognition, especially through the writings of Stephen Batchelor, who discussed him in Buddhism Without Beliefs. To the best of my knowledge, my biography is the most complete of him available, or at least the best I’ve seen. (By all means, if something better comes along, and you hear about it, let me know!) The volume of Ñanavira’s collected writings, Clearing the Path, published by Path Press, has affected my life and thinking more than any other book, Buddhist or otherwise, and is one of the few Dharma books I can recommend without reservation, though it is admittedly demanding. People wanting to know more about this brilliant and iconoclastic man can go to the links on my homepage for the Ñanavira Thera Dhamma Page and the Path Press website.
Who Was the Venerable Ñanavira Thera?
He was born Harold Edward Musson on January 5, 1920 in the Aldershot military barracks near Alton, a small, sleepy English town in the Hampshire downs an hour from London. His father, Edward Lionel Musson, held the rank of Captain of the First Manchester Regiment stationed at Aldershot’s Salamanca Barracks. A career officer, Edward Musson later attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and probably expected his son and only child to follow in his footsteps. His wife, nee Laura Emily Mateer, was Harold’s devoted mother.
The family was quite wealthy, with extensive coalmine holdings in Wales. Much of Harold’s youth was spent at a mansion on the outskirt of Alton, within sight of a Benedictine abbey. Townspeople describe the boy as solitary and reflective; one remembered Harold saying that he enjoyed walking alone in the London fogs. The same neighbor recalled Harold’s distaste for a tiger skin displayed in the foyer of the family’s residence, a trophy from one of his father’s hunts in India or Burma.
Between 1927 and 1929 the family was stationed in Burma, in Rangoon, Port Blair, and Maymo, and this experience afforded young Harold his first glimpse of representatives of the way of life he would later adopt: Buddhist monks. In a conversation with interviewer Robin Maugham (the nephew of novelist Somerset Maugham), Harold (by then the Venerable Ñanavira) indicated that what he saw in Burma as a child deeply affected him: “I suppose that my first recollection of Buddhism was when I joined my father in Burma. He was commanding a battalion out there. I’d seen statues of Buddha, and I’d heard people talking about him. I remember asking someone ‘who was the Buddha?’ And I was told: the Buddha was a man who sat under a tree and was enlightened. Then and there… I decided: ‘this is what I want to do.’”
Harold received the typical schooling for scions of military families, attending Wellington College and, afterwards, Cambridge. Before Cambridge, though, he spent six months in Italy in 1938, in Florence and Perugia, to study Italian and, as he wrote later, to “broaden my mind.” At Cambridge he attended Magdalene College, where, in 1939, he sat for Mathematics and then Modern Languages (1940), in which he earned a “Class One.”
By this time the introspective boy had become a young man with a taste for music—he enjoyed Mozart, the late Beethoven, Bartok, and Stravinsky—and a love of literature. He confessed, however, that he was “not a great reader of poetry,” preferring ideas to images, a fact reflected in his natural philosophical bent. A man of his time, he was most drawn both then and later to those writers and thinkers who best characterized the interwar period, the era that became known as Europe’s “Age of Anxiety,” during which the whole of the Western intellectual tradition was questioned and challenged. He read, among others, Kafka, Sartre, and Huxley, from whom he learned that, as he later wrote, “there is no point in life”—a common European sentiment of the day.
But the writer who most drove this lesson home for him was Joyce who, he said, “had a great influence on me.” He later described Joyce’s landmark novel Ulysses as “grossly obscene” yet “profoundly moral,” the purpose of which was to “hold a mirror up to the average sensual Western man, in which he can recognize his image.” Speaking of the characters in the book, he said what most affected him was “the ultimate meaninglessness and futility of all their actions and aspirations”—and his recognition of himself in them.
This sense of the purposelessness of life was certainly the driver behind Harold’s eventual career choice, and while there is little evidence beyond the recorded words of the often unreliable Maugham interview, it is possible that even before age twenty the man who later became the monk Ñanavira was considering the contemplative life. According to Maugham, his interviewee remarked that while at Wellington he had attended lectures on Buddhism given by a chaplain, and when in Italy had read a couple books. “During my time at Cambridge I slowly began to realise that…I would certainly end my days as a Buddhist monk.”
Whether or not this was Ñanavira’s ipsissima verba can’t be known, but it seemed an unlikely outcome in 1940, for with war raging on the continent Harold enlisted in the Territorial Royal Artillery. It was probably not entirely by choice—a family acquaintance spoke of him as having “completely resented warfare,” and in a later letter as Ñanavira he said he agreed with Huxley that “there were three kinds [of intelligence]: human, animal, and military.” Given his family background and the acute need of the times, though, there was probably little else he could have done. In July 1941 he was commissioned Second Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps, where he became an interrogator of prisoners. In 1942 he was promoted to Lieutenant and in 1944 to Temporary Captain. Between 1943 and 1946 he served overseas with the British Eighth army, primarily in North Africa (in Algiers) and Italy.
He spent most of 1946 in a hospital in Sorrento, Italy for reasons unknown. During his time there he encountered a book that was to have a decisive influence on him, and which marked his first definite involvement with Buddhism. The book was La Dottrina del Risveglio [The Doctrine of Awakening] by Julius Evola. Evola’s case mirrored Harold’s in many ways. Born into a devout Catholic family in 1898, Evola served in an artillery regiment in the First World War, but after the war found it impossible to resume a normal life, being filled with “feelings of the inconsistency and vanity of the aims that usually engage human activities.” As a result, he sought solace in art, drugs, and, finally, suicide—from which act he was saved by a passage he encountered in the Pali Suttas, the oldest Buddhist scriptures.
Harold began translating the book while still in the hospital in order to brush up on his Italian, a project he continued upon his return to England later that year. He took up residence in London, supported by his share of the family wealth. (His father had passed away sometime during the war.) There he lived—by one account—a “Bohemian lifestyle,” smoking forty cigarettes a day and working on his translation of Evola’s book. In the translator’s forward, Harold noted the book’s most important contributions, specifically that it “recaptured the spirit of Buddhism in its original form” by “its encouragement of a practical application of the doctrine it discusses.” Harold’s subtitle to the book, “A Study of the Buddhist Ascesis” underlined the critical element of applicability that he saw in Buddhism. (In a letter dated February 21, 1964, remarking on the book, he wrote “I cannot now recommend [it] to you without considerable reserves.” [Letter to the Hon. Lionel Samaratunga, Clearing the Path, p. 357.] What those “reserves” were Ñanavira never specified.)
Perhaps his labor over Evola’s ideas of Buddhist discipline finally drove home for Harold the contradictions and unsatisfactoriness of the life he was leading. As he later related to Maugham: “I had plenty of time and plenty of money. And I painted the town red. I tried to enjoy myself. I tried to get as much pleasure out of life as I could… But somehow I found that I wasn’t happy… I wasn’t really enjoying myself. I felt that it was all pretty futile…” And so it was that one evening in 1948 he found himself in a bar, where he met a fellow officer whom he’d known from the war, Osbert Moore. Moore was fifteen years Harold’s senior, had graduated from Exeter College at Oxford, and served during the war as a staff officer in Italy where the two men had met. Presently he was working at Bush House as Assistant Head of the BBC Italian section. Moore too had read some books on Buddhism, including Evola’s, and been affected by them. Their conversation turned to Buddhism, and, as Harold later recounted, he and Moore gradually “came to the conclusion that the lives we were leading… were utterly pointless.” By the time the pub closed, the two had decided that together they would abandon the world and go to Ceylon to ordain as Buddhist monks.
Continued in Part 2…
1. Robin Maugham, Search for Nirvana (London: W.H. Allen, 1975), p. 189.
2. Clearing the Path, p. 378.
3. Ibid, p. 379.
4. Ibid, p. 408.
5. Ibid, p. 407.
6. Ibid, p. 304 and ibid, p. 292 fn. (d) respectively.
7. Ibid, p. 407.
8. Ibid, p. 407.
9. Robin Maugham, op. cit.
10. Clearing the Path, L. 134. (Due to a printer’s error, pages 451-466 are absent in my edition of CTP.)
11. Julius Evola, Le Chemin du Cinabre (trans.) (Milan: Arché-Arktos, 1982), p. 12. Quoted in Stephen Batchelor, “Existence, Enlightenment and Suicide: The Dilemma of Nanavira Thera,” from Tadeusz Skorupski (ed.), The Buddhist Forum, Vol. IV (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1996).
12. Julius Evola (trans. by Harold Musson), The Doctrine of Awakening: A Study on the Buddhist Ascesis (London: Luzac, 1951), p. ix.
13. Robin Maugham, op. cit., p. 189.
14. Ibid, p. 190.