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The Seven Stages of Purification and the Insight Knowledges by Matara Sri Ñanarama

The Seven Stages of Purification and the Insight Knowledges: A Guide to the Progressive Stages of Buddhist Meditation by the Venerable Mahathera Matara Sri Ñanarama.  Buddhist Publication Society 1983/2000.  74 pages.

Do not be fooled by the page count.  This is a dense little book with lots of Pali outlining in detail the stages of meditation development originally described in Buddhaghosa’s work the Visuddhi Magga.  Its purpose is not to teach you how to meditate.  The assumption here is that you’ve already been given the instructions and are now in a position to put them into practice.  What the book describes are the results of that practice, from your first meeting with the bare phenomena of experience until the moment everything winks out of existence–i.e. nibbana (nirvana).

I’m not going to attempt here to explain what the seven stages are–that’s the purpose of the book, after all.  What I will say is that if you are planning to take up vipassana (i.e. insight, or satipatthana) practice in a serious way, you need to read this book or some equivalent substitute.  In other words, it behooves the one who would travel in his own mind to get a map and to master it–to know the terrain–before traveling there.  Failure to do so is likely to result in confusion, disorientation, lost time and wasted effort, not to mention needless pain and suffering.  You should view this as what it is–an atlas of mental states to be experienced by those who drive the vehicle of insight.

As a guide, the book is excellent.  It tells you in detail what you’ll encounter, along with the dangers, rewards, and tips on what needs to be done to keep up momentum and keep the goal in sight.  Do not look for scintillating prose or touchy-feely New Age fluff–it isn’t here.  This is hardcore, to be known, used, and–ideally–mastered.  The goal is to make this material your own, not to debate its merits as a “philosophy” book.  All the philosophy the West has produced will do less for you than will following this little guide.  The dialogues of Plato,  Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, the aphorisms of Nietzsche–none will give as much to you if you are willing to sit down and do the work this thin text recommends.

That goes for me, too, by the way.

Other books and resources in a similar vein you should check out are: The Progress of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw, Practical Insight Meditation, by Mahasi Sayadaw, Daniel Ingram’s talk at Brown University’s Cheetah House, Kenneth Folk’s writings on the progress of insight.  Use them all.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera (the pdf)

This pdf is the complete text of my biography of Ñanavira Thera, available for free distribution.

The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera


A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (the pdf)

If you enjoyed reading my series of thirteen posts inspired by Scott MacPherson’s critique of my post “Thoughts On Christian-Buddhism“–or even if you didn’t–I’ve collected and edited them all to form a single document in pdf format.  Here it is, for free distribution


A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (table of contents for a 13-part series)

  Table of Contents

  1. If God Is Eternal: Why the Bible Is A Bad Place to Start Your Dharma Practice
  2. Looking For the Buddha In the Bible: How Not To Make Spinach Soufflé
  3. Dukkha: Why the First Noble Truth Is No Laughing Matter
  4. Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire
  5. Dependent Arising: Why This Whole Ball of Shit Keeps Rolling
  6. Reprise: Is the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism Inside Christianity?
  7. Nirodha: It’s the End of Your World As You Know It
  8. Parallel Lines: Mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths
  9. Right View: That First Step Is A Doozey!
  10. Be Not Like the Blind Men: The Ending of Faith Is the Beginning of Wisdom
  11. So Why Are We Having This Conversation Anyway? Christian-Buddhists As Religious Chimeras
  12. Doublethink As the Door to Christian-Buddhism
  13. Common Ground: The Contemplative Conversation

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).

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.

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.

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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