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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 5)

Continued from Part 4…

Last Years

In the month after Sister Vajira’s departure, Ñanavira’s health took a definite turn for the worse.  He suffered a fresh attack of amoebiasis, with “increased abdominal discomfort, ‘hungry’ feeling in the afternoon…, specific tenderness about the region of the left end of the transverse colon, abdominal distension, increased quantity of mucus…, thick opaque mucus with traces of blood…, slightly increased constipation.”[1]  His symptoms included as well more general “lassitude and debility, especially in bad weather.”[2]  While he received treatment in April 1962, this apparently was inadequate, for the symptoms recurred in June and he was treated with a different drug, Entamide (Diloxanide).  This time the treatment was not only ineffective but also resulted in bizarre and unforeseen side effects.  He wrote to his doctor:

I have the impression that there is a continuous, though variable, specific stimulation, which, though no doubt neutral in itself (it is, indeed, disagreeable when observed dispassionately), is a pressing invitation to sensual thoughts.  I have never experienced anything like this before.[3] 

It got worse—much worse.

After two or three days [of taking the medication] I began experiencing a violent erotic stimulation, as if I had taken a very strong aphrodisiac.  If I lay down on the bed I at once started to enter upon an orgasm that could only be checked by a prodigious effort of attention to the breath, or else by standing up.  Even after stopping the course of treatment this persisted…[4]

This new affliction was satyriasis (the male equivalent of nymphomania)—defined by Webster’s as the “abnormal and uncontrollable desire by a man for sexual intercourse,” and aptly described by Stephen Batchelor as “a devastatingly inappropriate malady for a celibate hermit.”[5]  Three months later this erotic stimulation had decreased, “but it was still very far from normal”[6] and not improving.  Ñanavira’s plight had devolved into a Catch-22.  He noted: “This erotic stimulation can be overcome by successful samatha practice (mental concentration), but my chronic amoebiasis makes this particularly difficult for me.  So for me it is simply a question of how long I can stand the strain.”[7]

In November, the strain having become more than he could bear, he unsuccessfully attempted suicide by self-asphyxiation.  He remarked after the fact: “I should not have attempted suicide, nor still be regarding it (intermittently) as an immediate possibility, were it not for the additional strain of the erotic stimulation.”[8]  He wrote further:

I find that, under the pressure of this affliction, I am oscillating between two poles.  On the one hand, if I indulge the sensual images that offer themselves, my thought turns towards the state of a layman; if, on the other hand, I resist them, my thought turns towards suicide.  Wife or knife, as one might say.[9]

While for most readers this dilemma would appear the easiest and most natural to resolve, disrobing being the obvious and, in this case, a not dishonorable course of action, to Ñanavira that was “a layman’s view.”  He noted that “whereas it is known that monks have become arahats in the act of suicide, it is nowhere recorded that anyone has ever become arahat in the act of disrobing.”[10]  He cited specific instances in the Suttas of monks who due to various problems had chosen suicide as opposed to disrobing.  He wrote:

It is hard for laymen (and even, these days, for the majority of bhikkhus, I fear) to understand that when a bhikkhu devotes his entire life to one single aim, there may come a time when he can no longer turn back—lay life has become incomprehensible to him.  If he cannot reach his goal there is only one thing for him to do—to die (perhaps you are not aware that the Buddha has said that ‘death’ for a bhikkhu means a return to lay life…)[11]

(The reference here is to S.20.10: “For this, bhikkhus, is death in the Noble One’s Discipline: that one gives up the training and returns to the lower life” [Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, p. 711].)

Ñanavira’s suicidal tendencies were, it appears, strictly determined by his physical circumstances and not by the usual motives.  He says as much: “It is extremely depressing to be accredited with all sorts of motives—resentment, remorse, grief (‘a secret sorrow’), despair, and so on—that are totally absent.”[12]  He wrote extensively on the subject of suicide and was emphatic about why he felt it was a justifiable—perhaps even necessary—option for him.  “[F]or me the Dhamma is real, and it is the only thing that I take seriously: if I cannot practise the Dhamma as I wish, I have no further desire to live.”[13]  Moreover, he saw his attitude—and the course of action it might lead him to—as being “a necessary corrective to the prevalent blindly complacent view of the Dhamma as something to be taken for granted—that is to say, as a dead letter—; and I regard it almost as a duty to reflect this attitude in my writing, even at the risk of giving offence.”[14]

Ñanavira was certainly cognizant of the effect his words and the course of action he contemplated had—or might have—on others. 

[P]eople [he remarked] find it scandalous (though they cannot say so openly) that anyone should take the Buddha’s Teaching so seriously as actually to be willing to ‘lose his sense of proportion’ by living in solitude, and perhaps also to lose his life.  People want their Dhamma on easier terms, and they dislike it when they are shown that they must pay a heavier price—and they are frightened, too, when they see something they don’t understand: they regard it as morbid, and their one concern (unconscious, no doubt) is to bring things back to a healthy, reassuring, normality.[15]

He noted, too, the particular horror that most cultures—especially Western—had of suicide:

Such a gesture threatens to undermine the precarious security of Society, which is based on the convention that ‘life is worth living’.  Suicide puts in question this unquestionable axiom, and Society inevitably regards it with fear and suspicion as an act of treachery.  (It is customary, in England at least, for Coroners’ courts to give the verdict ‘Suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed’.  This insult automatically puts the victim in the wrong and reassures Society that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds…)  If the victim should fail in his attempt, Society takes its revenge upon his temerity by putting him in prison (where, presumably, he is expected to learn that, actually, life really is worth living).  Those, on the other hand, who can show good reason for ending their lives (the man, for example, with a political grievance) do not by their act put this convention in question, and they are therefore regarded as safe and perfectly respectable.[16]

But for many people, he speculated, his suicide (if it came to that) might not be the most controversial element of the situation.  The reality of the Buddha’s Teaching might be far more disturbing:

[T]hough a suicide for the sake of the Buddha’s Teaching would be bad enough, the real scandal would be if it became known that some person or other still living had reached one of the stages [i.e., sotapanna, sakadagami, anagami, or arahat].  People do not, in their heart of hearts, like to think it possible—the shock to their comfortable conventional ideas would be intolerable.[17]

This of course comes back again to his theme, oft-repeated throughout the letters, of “the present total divorce of the Dhamma from reality”,[18] of the refusal of too many people—even self-acknowledged Buddhists—to authentically examine their lives in the light of the Teaching, and then to act on the basis of that examination.

There are also the obvious ethical issues that suicide raises—would it not be akin to committing murder?  On this Ñanavira was less vocal simply because the ethics of suicide (in terms of the Buddha’s Teaching) are determined by one’s status as a puthujjana, sekha, or asekha (arahat), and it is not allowable under the Buddhist monastic discipline for a bhikkhu to make claims (even if true) of a higher status to anyone except another monk, preferably his teacher.  There is, thus, in many of Ñanavira’s discussions with his correspondents, a necessary degree of ambiguity regarding the ethical nature of his possible choice.  He did note, however, “that though [suicide] is never encouraged [in the Suttas] it is not the heinous offense it is sometimes popularly thought to be, and… the consequences of the act will vary according to circumstances—for the puthujjana [which Ñanavira was not] they can be disastrous, but for the arahat… they are nil.”[19]  This passage highlights Ñanavira’s in-between status as a sotapanna—i.e., as a sekha bhikkhu who was neither puthujjana nor arahat.  The Buddha, however, was not ambiguous about such a one’s destiny: “he is freed from [the possibility of] hell, the animal realm, and the domain of ghosts, freed from the plane of misery, the bad destinations, the nether world.”[20]  According to the Suttas then, a sotapanna committing suicide could expect human rebirth at worst, and his eventual destiny was not in doubt: “Bhikkhus, a noble disciple…is a stream-enterer, no longer bound to the nether world, fixed in destiny, with enlightenment [i.e. arahatta] as his destination.”[21]   

Finally, it should be noted that while Ñanavira could hardly have been content with his predicament, he was not unhappy with what life had dealt him.  In an undated letter (written sometime in 1964), to the new abbot of Vajirarama Temple in Colombo, he clarified his more general feelings about his life:

…I have no reason for dissatisfaction.  I have done what I did not expect to do, and so I am content.  Certainly, the age of forty-four is rather early to close the account, but when I left England at the time of the first Berlin crisis I told myself that if I managed to practise the Dhamma for even one year I should count myself fortunate.[22]

The beginning of 1963 found his amoebiasis “appreciably worse than three years ago”[23] and the nervous condition still with him.  He wrote, “it is distasteful for me to think of even a week more of this, and a year or over is out of the question.”[24]  However, he did manage a year, and more, during which he experienced one or two temporary revivals in his health, only to be followed by inevitable declines.  For a brief spell, he was plagued by heart palpitations, and then “ash skin” (a dry, scaly, itchy skin condition).  Only the ups and downs of his bowel condition—as the weather determined—seemed to be constant, along with the nervous affliction.  A mid-1964 Colombo visit to treat his skin and other conditions cured the former but “brought about no improvement”[25] in the latter.  Ñanavira’s morale, through all this, was “precarious,” and he felt himself sustained chiefly by his ushering Notes on Dhamma through its publication process and by his answering of inquiries into the issues his writings raised.  In response to those questions, he set about revising the Notes, and this too helped him pass the time.   

By 1965, Ñanavira had aged beyond his years.  Maugham, visiting him that January, said “[h]e looked tired and ill.”[26]  In a late 1964 letter to a friend, a monk who for a brief time lived nearby and studied with Ñanavira wrote: “This is an old man of 60.  He is in constant physical pain but he never shows it nor does the peace in his eyes ever change.  We spend many hours talking—rather he speaks and I learn.”[27]  Ñanavira was at the time a mere forty-four years old. 

On July 5, 1965, some time after 2:45 in the afternoon, a Bundala local brought Ñanavira an afternoon beverage.  The kuti was silent.  Its occupant lay still on the cement bed, in the traditional “lion posture”—lying on the right side, the right hand tucked under the head.  His other hand dangled to the floor, an empty vial beside it. 

Making one last use of his typical ingenuity, Ñanavira had rigged a cellophane facemask and then filled it with a sufficient quantity of ethyl chloride, an anesthetic given him to dull the pain of insect bites.  His passing would have been quick and painless. 

The villagers were devastated.  On the following day, they built him a funeral pyre eight feet high.  Women draped it with their finest saris.  Ñanavira’s ashes were interred by the kuti

In the months before his passing, Ñanavira had prepared his papers.  He left behind, among other things, an amended and expanded typescript of Notes on Dhamma, marked with the dates 1960-1965.  Two decades later, this manuscript would form the nucleus of a book of Ñanavira’s gathered correspondence and would be published by Path Press in Colombo in 1987 under the title of Clearing the Path: Writings of Ñanavira Thera 1960-1965.  The anonymous editors, Samanera Bodhesako (Robert Smith), a former editor at the Buddhist Publication Society inKandy,Sri Lanka, and Professor Forrest William of the University of Colorado, were supported in their meticulous and pain-staking labors by a grant from the Council on Research and Creative Work at the University of Colorado.  Sadly, Ven. Bodhesako died the next year, age forty-nine, from a sudden intestinal hernia.  With his demise, Path Press ceased to exist in any functional form, and Ñanavira’s book went out of print.

Afterword: Like a phoenix from the ashes, Path Press lives again, stronger than ever.  Please visit its site here.  Moreover, Notes on Dhamma has been reissued, and the complete Clearing the Path is in process of reissuance.  It’s about time: my copy, in addition to a significant printer’s error, suffers from a broken spine from over use.  I need a new one.     

Reissue of Notes on Dhamma


P.S. For those who would like a pdf of this biography, see here.

1. Ibid, p. 209.

2. Ibid, p. 522.

3. Ibid, p. 214.

4. Ibid, p. 522.

5. Stephen Batchelor, op. cit.

6. Clearing the Path, p. 522.

7. Ibid, p. 276.

8. Ibid, p. 226.

9. Ibid, p. 216.

10. Ibid, p. 524.

11. Ibid, p. 276.

12. Ibid, p. 222 fn (a).

13. Ibid, p. 283.

14. Ibid, p. 283-4.

15. Ibid, p. 376.

16. Ibid, p. 219.

17. Ibid, p. 376.

18. Ibid, p. 283.

19. Ibid, p. 219.

20. S.55:1.  Bhikkhu Bodhi (trans.), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), p. 1788.

21. S.55:2.  Ibid, p. 1789.

22. Clearing the Path, p. 525.

23. Ibid, p. 225.

24. Ibid, p. 233.

25. Ibid, p. 380.

26. Robin Maugham, “I Solve the Strange Riddle of the Buddhist Monk from Aldershot,” The People (London: September 26, 1965).  Quoted in Clearing the Path, p. 540.

27. Quoted in Kingsley Heendeniya, “The legend of Bundala,” The Island, July 7, 2003 (http://www.buddhanet.net/budsas/ebud/ebdha256.htm).


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