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Rebel Monk: The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera (1920-1965) (Part 4)

Continued from Part 3

Three Visitors

In the summer of 1959 and on into the fall, Ñanavira’s health was much improved.  The improvement did not last, however, and by October he was suffering from “the local colitis that is common in dry weather.”[1]  Then in January of the following year, he was treated for symptoms of lymphatic filariasis, a mosquito-borne disease caused by microscopic worms that infect the human lymph system.  Fortunately, it turned out to be nothing more than a temporary distraction, and after an apparently successful treatment inColombo, Ñanavira returned to Bundala.

Sometime during 1960[2] Ñanavira’s mother came to see him.  Her husband having passed away she was alone and wanted her son to come back toEngland.  Through Ñanavira’s lay supporters it was arranged for her to come toSri Lanka, where she stayed at the Mt. Lavinia Hotel outsideColombo.  She and Ñanavira met somewhere in the city, probably atVajiraramaTemple.  By one account, she was “devastated by his pagan life” and shocked to see him as he ate with his hands from his alms bowl.  She pleaded with him to return toEngland; he refused.  She left and two weeks later inEngland she died of a heart attack.  When Robin Maugham, in early 1965, interviewed Ñanavira, he recorded Ñanavira’s recollection of his mother’s death:

 His voice was quite impassive as he spoke.  I find it hard to describe the tone of his voice.  Yet if I don’t I shall miss the whole point of the man I’d traveled so far to see.  There was no harshness in his tone.  There was no coldness.  There was understanding and gentleness.  And it was only these two qualities that made his next remark bearable.

‘My mother’s death didn’t worry me,’ he said.  ‘Even now, during this life, every moment we are born and die.  But we continue.  We take some other shape or form in another life.’[3]

In 1961 his kuti received yet another visitor.  Sister Vajira (the religious name of Hannelore Wolf) had been in the country since 1955, living most of her time, like Ñanavira, as a hermit.  Ñanavira later described her as “an extremely passionate and self-willed person, with strong emotions, and, apparently, something of a visionary.”[4]  She had read

Sister Vajira

a 1956 article written by Ñanavira entitled “Sketch for a Proof of Rebirth” that had been printed in the Buddha Jayanti and been impressed.  A correspondence ensued, but this lapsed after a short while.  In 1961 she asked to come see him to discuss Dhamma, and after the meeting the correspondence resumed.  Ñanavira sent her “A Note on Paticcasamuppada” and “Paramattha Sacca,” as well as several of the shorter notes he had written by that time.  In a later letter to a supporter, Ñanavira confessed that he “did not expect anything very much” to come of the correspondence, but he “found that she was giving attention to what [he] was saying.”[5]  Finally, by January 1962, her letters gave indication “that something might happen.”

Something did.

Shortly before the 21st of January, Sister Vajira, guided by Ñanavira’s letters and Notes, experienced an ecstatic breakthrough culminating in her attainment of sotapatti—she, too, became a sotapanna.  To Ñanavira she wrote: “I have lost a dimension of thought, at least to the degree [necessary] to grasp this matter…”[6]  In reference to this curious statement, Ñanavira remarked to a supporter “I am unable to see that it could have been written by a puthujjana, even if he were trying to deceive.  It would never occur to him to add the part about ‘losing a dimension of thought.’  One must actually have had the experience to know how exactly this describes it.”[7] 

Sister Vajira’s later letters confirmed Ñanavira’s suspicion concerning her transformation.  On the 23rd she wrote “…the moment I realized what it really means to be puthujjana, I ceased to be one.”[8]  In the margin of the letter Ñanavira scrawled: “This claim can be accepted.”[9]  She went on: “I won a victory over myself; and when I awoke this morning I had found refuge in the Dhamma, and I realized everything (or a great many things) that we had been discussing…  I begin now to discover the Dhamma.  I can just stay in one place and see everything passing before my eyes that I knew without knowing.  It is an entirely new landscape.”[10]

Sister Vajira’s experience, however, was so potent as to be at least temporarily destabilizing.  She went “off her head for a fortnight of joy”[11]—to use Ñanavira’s words—during which she lost a degree of self-control; a situation she herself had anticipated in her last letter.  As Ñanavira described the episode:

Things were now happening much too fast for me to keep up with them.  (It seemed—and seems—to me that she went through in about five days what took me three months and a half—though of course our circumstances were different—and I was quite unprepared for her subsequent behaviour, though she gave me notice of it at the end of the letter of the 23rd.)  Evidently what happened was that with the sudden release of the central tension all her compensating tensions found themselves out of work and began aimlessly expending themselves this way and that, and some time was required before she found a new position of stable equilibrium.  I asked the Ven. Thera for a report, and he replied (as I hoped he would) that although she had recovered she ‘seemed to be a changed person’.[12]

On February 22, 1962 “she was bundled out of the country”—deported—and returned to HamburgGermany.  There reports indicated she remained “a changed person,” but no longer had interest in the Dhamma or her Buddhist friends, something Ñanavira interpreted as “a good sign, not a bad one—when one has got what one wants, one stops making a fuss about it and sits down quietly.”[13]  Ñanavira concluded:

For my part I am satisfied (judging solely from the letters) that, however strange her behaviour may have seemed to her well-wishers in Colombo, there was nothing in it to contradict my opinion.  What you speak of as the ‘breaking point’ was (as I see it) no more than the entry into a particularly strong (and pleasurable) emotional state consequent upon the realization (which, at the beginning especially, can be breath-taking) that ‘nothing matters any more’.  I don’t suppose she was within a hundred miles of telling the people who were caring for her what the reason was for her condition. Certainly, her last letter, for all its emotional colouring, gives no suggestion that she is in any way unhappy or distressed, or even that she has any doubts about her new state.  And you will observe that I am quietly but firmly dismissed at the end of the letter. Whatever else happened, one thing is certain—she no longer finds herself in any way dependent upon me.  A psycho-analyst, at least, would be gratified with that result![14]

 (The story of Sister Vajira—aka Hannelore Wolf—is not a happy one.  See here for her biography.)

Continued in Part 5


1. Letter to Ñanamoli Thera, October 5, 1959 (http://nanavira.blogspot.com/search/label/1959).

2. This according to Robin Maugham, op. cit. p. 184.

3. Robin Maugham, p. 200.

4. Clearing the Path, p. 386.

5. Ibid, p. 385.

6. Ibid, p. 530.

7. Ibid, p. 387, fn. (a).

8. Ibid, p. 531.

9. Ibid, fn.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid, p. 390 fn. (b).

12. Ibid, p. 385-6.

13. Ibid, p. 386.

14. Ibid, p. 388.

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