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Rebel Monk: The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera (1920-1965) (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

The Search

Harold settled his affairs in England; most importantly, he took steps to get his by then finished manuscript of Evola’s book to potential publishers.  (It finally saw publication by Luzac in 1951, long after the author was already gone.)  By one account the two men went first to India in November 1948 where they spent three months with the Ramakrishna Mission in Calcutta, a religious order founded by Ramakrishna Parahamsa, India’s most popular nineteenth century saint.  They left the mission dissatisfied, though, and came to Ceylonon an exploratory venture.  (This account is according to Kingsley Heendeniya, a doctor-friend and supporter of Ñanavira, who to this day writes columns on Buddhism in various Sri Lankan publications.  However, I was unable to confirm his version of events.)  They ended up finally at the Island Hermitage in Dodanduwa where, on April 24, 1949, they were ordained as samaneras (novice monks) by the abbot, the famous German monk, Nyanatiloka.  Harold received the ordination name of  Ñanavira and Moore the name Ñanamoli. 

Ven. Ñāṇavīra and Ven. Ñāṇamoli

Ñanamoli possessed a scholarly bent, and would live out the remaining years of his life at the Hermitage, his reputation as one of the most renowned translators of Pali literature cemented by his translation of the massive fifth century Sinhalese commentary, the Visuddhimagga (published as The Path of Purification).  (In a letter dated December 2, 1954, Ñanavira, recalling Dante as the man who had been to Hell and lived to tell the tale, joked that Ñanamoli would “in time… be regarded with… awe as the man who read the Vissudhi Magga and lived to translate it.”[1])  Ñanavira went to study under Palane Siri Vajirañana Maha Nayaka Thera, the abbot at Vajirarama Temple in Colombo (Ceylon’s largest city and capital).  There he received the upasampada, or higher ordination as a fully ordained bhikkhu (monk) the following year.  His aspirations were more contemplative than Ñanamoli’s, and when he returned to the Island Hermitage he devoted as much time as possible to the practice of meditation (anapanasati).

In 1951 he experienced the first of many notably “third world” complications to his new life: he contracted typhoid.  While he eventually recovered, he seems never to have fully regained his health, for not long after he was infected by amoebiasis, a malady that would plague him for the rest of his life. 

Amoebiasis, also known as amoebic dysentery, is a type of gastroenteritis caused by the protozoa Entamoeba histolytica, and is typically spread by water contaminated with feces, or (as seems most likely in Ñanavira’s case) by contaminated hands touching food that is then consumed.  What is actually transmitted from host to host are cysts of the protozoa that, once they invade the small intestine, release active amoebic parasites which then enter the large intestine, causing tiny ulcers.  About ten percent of the world’s population is infected, making it the third most common cause of death by parasitical infection.  However, ninety percent of carriers are, fortunately for them, asymptomatic—that is, they don’t even know they have it.  For those unfortunates in whom the disease manifests itself, symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood and mucus in the stool, and distension of the bowel.  In extreme cases the disease can spread to the liver, lungs and brain.

Thanks to this affliction, Ñanavira found that the state of the weather had a direct effect on his bowels and energy level: dry weather energized him, wet weather drained him.  The weather at Island Hermitage is typically rainy and humid, so he was forced to seek some other place of residence.

Even while Ñanavira was away from the Hermitage on scouting expeditions for a new dwelling place, he and Ñanamoli maintained a vigorous correspondence wide-ranging in its subject matter, including twentieth century philosophy, translation of critical Buddhist terminology, logic, even quantum physics.  The point of their efforts was to build a conceptual bridge that would enable them to grasp the meaning of the Buddhist Suttas (discourses of the Buddha), and for this purpose they found the writings of the existentialists (e.g. Jean-Paul Sartre) and phenomenologists (e.g. Edmund Husserl) to be more helpful than anything else they had encountered.

What emerges from this correspondence (the bulk of which is dated between 1954 and 1959) is a picture of Ñanavira as a man intensely wrestling with the views and practices the Buddhist texts presented him with, trying to clarify them in terms he could understand.  At first—“in those innocent days” as he later told it—he looked to the traditional commentaries on the Suttas for clarification, but as he compared what the Suttas said to what the commentaries said about the Suttas, he came more and more to doubt their accuracy.  Thus by 1955 he would write to Ñanamoli that “the Vissudhi Magga (or so I consider) is not the Buddha’s Teaching”[2]—an opinion that in Ceylon (both then and now), was practically heretical, that text being the most comprehensive single commentarial work, and written in Ceylon to boot.  By that time too he had begun to doubt the commentarial “three life” interpretation of one of the most important of Buddhist teachings: paticcasamuppada, or “dependent arising.”  However, as late as February 1959 he was still uncertain as to what extent he agreed—or disagreed—with the commentaries on this point.  These uncertainties, however, would shortly come to an abrupt end.

A letter to Ñanamoli dated February 2, 1955 indicates an initial foray into the hot southern “dry zone” region of the island, an area known as Hambantota.  He remarked to Ñanamoli: “I don’t like this kind of weather, but apparently it likes me…”[3]  The next two years were spent mostly at various caves and hermitages in the area, none of which particularly pleased him.  (He described one as “a nightmare” and “a mockery of the monk’s life.”[4])  Finally, by no later than June of ’57, he settled into a kuti (a small house) at Bundala in Hambantota, an ancient village whose inhabitants were, according to local lore, descended from the washerwomen of a certain king of Sri Lanka who reigned some fifteen hundred years earlier.  The kuti, built by lay supporters, nestled in the Bundala forest reserve (now a national park), a wilderness inhabited by elephants, leopards, boar, monkeys and, of course, plenty of snakes (especially Russell’s vipers, or polonga as they are locally called, and cobras).  It consisted of a single room, eight feet square, and entered by a twelve-foot long corridor built for walking meditation.  A stone bed, a table, a chair and some books furnished the room.  A latrine and earthen water storage structure were built nearby.

Bundala Kuti (Aug. 2006)

Thus it happened that the young man who had grown up wealthy in an English mansion would spend the rest of his life in this little wilderness retreat, supported by lay supporters (dayakas) in Colombo and by the alms offerings (dana) of faithful villagers.  In a later letter to one of his Colombo dayakas, he wrote of his abode: “Compared with the senasana or resting place of bhikkhus in former days, this kuti is a well-appointed and luxurious bungalow, and the conditions of life here easy and soft.  As regards solitude, however, this place seems to accord with the Buddha’s recommendations…that it should be neither too near nor too far from a village, that it should be easily approachable…, and that it should be free from mosquitoes and snakes and other such creatures.  I do not think it would be easy to find a better place for practice of the Buddhadhamma—but for that, alas! it also needs good health.”[5]

Ñanavira’s health at this point was never good even on the best of days, and due to the now chronic affliction of his bowels, he found seated meditation difficult.  Despite apparently undergoing frequent treatments for the disorder (his letters after 1960 detail some of the treatments and discussions with his doctors concerning his condition) recoveries were typically short-lived and often interrupted by poor weather or reinfections.  He therefore took to walking meditation for the development of mindfulness.  In this he made progress—so much so that, on the 27th of June 1959, something extraordinary occurred.  Writing in the language of the scriptures, Pali, and imitating their characteristically repetitive cadence, he described the event that permanently altered him:

At one time the monk Ñánavíra was staying in a forest hut near Bundala village.  It was during that time, as he was walking up and down in the first watch of the night, that the monk Ñánavíra made his mind quite pure of constraining things, and kept thinking and pondering and reflexively observing the Dhamma as he had heard and learnt it.  Then, while the monk Ñánavíra was thus engaged in thinking and pondering and reflexively observing the Dhamma as he had heard and learnt it, the clear and stainless Eye of the Dhamma arose in him: “Whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of ceasing.”

Having been a teaching-follower for a month, he became one attained to right view.  (27.6.59)[6]

 Accompanying this paragraph were several texts, also in Pali, from the Canon itself.  One, from the Sutta Nipata (verse 55), bears repeating:

“I have gone beyond the writhing of views.

With the path gained, I have arrived at assurance.

Knowledge has arisen in me and I am no longer to be guided by another.”

[Knowing this,] let him fare lonely as a rhinoceros horn!

Five days later, he wrote to Ñanamoli: “I have now entered one of my non-letter-writing moods, and so I shall not reply in detail at present to your rather meaty letter.”[7]  Nowhere else in the course of their correspondence (as we have it) had he written anything like this, and Ñanamoli was never to know the reason for it.  The letters from Ñanavira petered out, the last dated January 11, 1960.  As he remarked in a later letter to a supporter, he found continuation of the correspondence “pointless.  There was no longer anything for me to discuss with him, since the former relationship of parity between us regarding the Dhamma had suddenly come to an end.”[8]

The correspondence never resumed.

On March 8, 1960, Ñanamoli, having completed his magnum opus translation of the Visuddhimagga, went on a walking tour with the abbot of Island Hermitage.  In some little back of beyond he passed away from coronary thrombosis.  His body was transported by bullock cart to a hospital, and later to Colombo for the funeral.

Continued in Part 3

1. Letter to Ñanamoli, December 2, 1954 (http://nanavira.blogspot.com/search/label/1954).

2. Letter to Ñanamoli, March 7, 1955 (http://nanavira.blogspot.com/search/label/1955).

3. Letter to Ñanamoli, February 24, 1955 (http://nanavira.blogspot.com/search/label/1955).

4. Letter to Ñanamoli, undated.  Probably March or April of 1954.  (http://nanavira.blogspot.com/search/label/1954).

5. Clearing the Path, p. 287.

6. Ibid, p. 495.  Translation by the original editors of Clearing the Path.  I have slightly modified their sutta verse translation (below) for the sake of clarity.

7. Letter to Ñanamoli, July 2, 1959 (http://nanavira.blogspot.com/search/label/1959).

8. Clearing the Path, p. 386.


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