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Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

Rebel Monk: The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera (1920-1965) (Part 3)

Continued from Part 2

Stream Enterer

At this point a pause from our until now strictly chronological narrative is in order.  For the obvious question has to be asked, and answered: What happened?  What was this event that, simply judging by the content of the letters previously (to Ñanamoli) and subsequently (to various lay people), wrought such an interior transformation as to be the defining moment of Ñanavira’s life?

A little history behind this oddly written document is first in order.  The manuscript, a single page, was from the time of its writing kept in a sealed envelope in the kuti.  That it was written in Pali indicates its intended audience—other monks.  On the envelope exterior the following was written: “In the event of my death, this envelope should be delivered to, and opened by, the senior bhikkhu of the Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa.  Ñanavira Bhikkhu.  20th September 1960.”[1}  However, in July 1964, while in Colombo for medical treatment, Ñanavira turned the envelope over to the new abbot of Vajirarama Temple and, for some reason, the letter was opened not long after and its contents read and discussed.  Thus, as Ñanavira described it later, “this rather awkward cat” got “out of the bag”—unintentionally, it seems—and became “semi-public property.”[2]  The public (such as it was) immediately began to debate the validity of the author’s claim.

To understand exactly what that claim was, a clarification of terms is obviously in order, for at this point even readers familiar with the terminology and stock phrases of the Suttas might be unsure exactly what was being claimed, and those entirely new to the subject are likely to be at least moderately bewildered.  The activity the author was engaged in that fateful night—“walking up and down”—was walking meditation, a practice used especially in the Theravadan tradition for the development of the four “foundations of mindfulness” (satipatthana) as prescribed by the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta (M:10) and elsewhere.  In that sutta, the Buddha is quoted as saying:

…a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world.  He abides contemplating feelings as feelings…  He abides contemplating mind as mind…  He abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects…[3]

This passage refers to the development of moment-to-moment awareness of 1) postures (standing, sitting, lying down, and, of course, walking), 2) sensations on and in the body, 3) mood states (happy, sad, attentive, dull, etc.), and 4) mental phenomena such as thoughts, images, memories, etc.  Thus, referring specifically to the mindfulness of postures, the Buddha says that “a bhikkhu is one who acts in full awareness when going forward and returning; …when looking ahead and looking away; …when flexing and extending his limbs…”[4] etc.  All activities should be encompassed by satisampajañña—“mindfulness and clear comprehension”—even defecating, urinating, and falling asleep.  Walking meditation is specifically for the development of this faculty in action

The author’s saying he “made his mind quite pure of constraining things” will be readily understandable to those readers who have some significant practice of meditation under their belts.  For after a while of practice there comes a time when the mind no longer wanders from its subject of meditation—it becomes firmly fixed in, absorbed by, that object.  This is a unitive state, highly pleasurable, in which self-consciousness is lost and there is only the act of attention.  At that point the mind is bright, supple, and very awake.  Ñanavira, obviously, had practiced assiduously and his mindfulness had attained a pitch sufficient for a breakthrough.

The critical passage here—and what amounts to a very bold claim—is “the clear and stainless Eye of the Dhamma arose in him,” a phrase found in various rewordings throughout the Suttas and Vinaya.  Thus, when Kolita (Mogallana), later one of the Buddha’s two chief disciples, heard the Dhamma from his friend Upatissa (Sariputta, the other chief disciple), and understood it, “there arose [in him] the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye.”[5]  The awakening of many other disciples is so described.

This “Eye of Dhamma” (dhammacakkhu) is almost always linked with the phrase: Yam kiñci samudayadhammam sabbam tam nirodhadhammanti.  (“Whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of ceasing.”)  This is a stock phrase in the canon and is invariably associated with the direct seeing by the individual of paticcasamuppada (“dependent arising”), the arising and ceasing of self-consciousness, and the extinguishing (at least for an instant) of personally contrived experience.

In short, Ñanavira claimed to have become a sotapanna, or “stream enterer.”

More subtle details emerge from the sentence after the main paragraph: “Having been a teaching follower (dhammanusarin) for a month, he became one attained to right view (ditthipatta).”  A dhammanusarin is one in whom the faculty of insight (paññindriya) is most pronounced and who, having reflected upon the Teaching, has sufficiently understood it and has developed the meditative faculties (concentration, energy, etc.) necessary to enter upon the Path (magga).  On that Path, one becomes sotapanna; upon attainment of the “fruit” (phala) of the Path one is sotapanna.  Through that attainment, the dhammanusarin becomes ditthipatta.  The time between entering the path and attainment of the fruit varies from individual to individual.  It can be in a succession of moments, or, as in Ñanavira’s case, a month or more.  (It should be noted that this language—“path,” “fruit,” etc.—while perhaps poetic or picturesque, refers in fact to precise psychological states.  Indeed, the Suttas, in one way or another, are mostly devoted to the description of psychological states and the practical methods used to obtain and master these states.  The Buddha’s Teaching is, fundamentally, an applied psychology.)

Ñanavira’s quote from the Sutta Nipata serves as a reminder of what his singular achievement meant: the ariya (noble disciple) is no longer affected by the “writhing of views”; that is, he has no longer attachment to the beliefs and ideologies that the ordinary person, secular or religious, requires to support and define his or her personal world.  He has “arrived at assurance,” meaning his attainment is indubitable, a direct, reflective certainty.  Finally, the noble disciple no longer requires the guidance or teaching of another—not even the Buddha.  He has become, to a degree, an embodiment of the Teaching, having understood and seen it directly.  While with the sotapanna that embodiment is still mostly incomplete, it is sufficient to guarantee his knowledge of what is the Path and what is not, and to insure his practice accordingly. 

That Ñanavira was fundamentally altered by his experience there can be no doubt.  In his writings afterward, in the formal Notes and informal correspondence dating from 1960 on, there is no longer the wavering of opinion, the expressed doubts, the searching that so characterized his epistles to Ñanamoli.  While acknowledging the necessity for further work, he had found something so fundamental and definite that henceforth there could, for him, be no uncertainty as to what the Buddha had meant.  And thus, quoting from the Suttas, he could write with confidence: “There is… a path, there is a way by following which one will come to know and see for oneself: ‘Indeed, the recluse Gotama speaks at the proper time, speaks on what is, speaks on the purpose, speaks on Dhamma [“Truth”], speaks on Vinaya [“Discipline”].’”[6]

Notes On Dhamma

Sometime in 1960 Ñanavira began work on two formal writings that became “A Note on Paticcasamuppada” and “Paramattha Sacca.”  (These reside in chapters six and nine respectively of the present volume.)  Many shorter pieces followed, and by 1963 Ñanavira had, with the help of a number of lay people (particularly the Honorable Lionel Samaratunga), privately published a work entitled Notes on Dhamma (1960-1963).  Two hundred and fifty matt black, hardbound volumes were printed and distributed to universities, some bhikkhus and laity in Ceylon, and to a number of Buddhist societies in Germany, France, and the UK.  The response, overwhelmingly, was polite incomprehension, though a few discerning individuals expressed strong reactions—positively or negatively, or both together.  One was “provoked to a fit of indiscriminate xenophobic fury.”[7]  Various others described the book as “a fantastic system,” as “arrogant, scathing, and condescending,” and as “the most important book to be written in this century.”  Ñanavira described it as “both unpopular (learned) and unpopular (unorthodox)”[8] and admitted it was “vain to hope that it is going to win general approval.”[9]  He invoked Robert Graves, indicating that what Graves had said of his book, White Goddess, could be said of the Notes: “…a very difficult book, as well as a very queer one, to be avoided by anyone with a distracted, tired, or rigidly scientific mind.”[10]

Notes on Dhamma (1963 original typescript)

The book’s intent was twofold: First, to preserve the Buddha’s Teaching from the accumulated misunderstanding of centuries by pointing out texts and traditions that misinterpreted it.  “The Notes,” he said, “have been written with the purpose of clearing away a mass of dead matter which is choking the Suttas…”[11]  Its second aim was “to indicate (what for purposes of argument may be called) the proper interpretation of the Suttas.”[12]  This interpretation was, by its nature, practical, in that the Notes were “concerned only with the essential application of the Buddha’s Teaching…”[13]  The book was therefore not intended as a scholarly rendition, or mere description, of the contents of the Suttas.  If the first goal was negative—the elimination of needless, confusing baggage—the second then was positive—an indication of the correct way of understanding.

The book did not make for casual or light reading, and Ñanavira readily acknowledged its difficulties, especially for “‘objective’ or positivist thinkers [i.e., the “rigidly scientific”] who will not easily see what the book is driving at.”[14]  Ñanavira defended this aspect, however, by arguing that “the teaching contained in the Pali Suttas is (to say the least) a great deal more difficult—even if also a great deal more rewarding—than is commonly supposed; and the author is not of the opinion that Notes on Dhamma makes the subject more difficult than it actually is.”[15]

Inevitably, there were questions.  A number of those who read the book wrote to Ñanavira seeking clarification and further elaboration.  A voluminous correspondence between the author and his readers ensued.  Among these correspondents were a businessman, a British diplomat, a barrister, Ñanavira’s doctor, and a British Buddhist.  Tellingly, no monks either from Ceylon or abroad ever made a response.

In reading the correspondence once cannot help but be reminded of the old epistolary tradition, such as what is found in the New Testament, in which much personal reflection (philosophy, if you will) was carried on among small groups of sympathetic individuals, who thrashed out their visions of the world using a shared language of symbols and psychological terminology.  There is also, at times, something akin to a Buddhist apologetics in Ñanavira’s writings.  Like the early Christian apologists, who wrote to the pagan culture of ancient Rome, Ñanavira, in his letters, strove to build conceptual bridges from twentieth century secular thought to the more rarefied and timeless world of the Buddhist Suttas. 

Continued in Part 4


1. Ibid, p. 528, L. 97, n. 2.

2. Ibid, p. 381.

3. M:10.3.  Bhikkhu Ñanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (translators), The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995), p. 145.

4. M:10.8.  Ibid, p. 147.

5. From Vinaya Mahavagga I.23.5, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (www.accesstoinsight.org/canon/vinaya/mv1-23-5.html).

6. D.8:13.  Translation by original editors, Clearing the Path, p. 495.

7. Ibid, p. 166.

8. Ibid, p. 451.

9. Ibid, p. 353.

10. Ibid, L.131 (See note 10 above.)

11. Ibid, p. 339.

12. Ibid, p. 338.

13. Ibid, p. 290 fn. (ii).

14. Ibid, p. viii.

15. Ibid.

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