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The Hermit of Būndala BIOGRAPHY OF



Path Press Publications

First edition: January 2014 Path Press Publications ISBN 978 94 6090 008 2 Path Press Publications www.pathpresspublications.com © Bhikkhu Hiriko Ñāṇasuci, Path Press 2014 All rights reserved www.pathpress.org No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system or technologies now known or later developed, without permission in writing from the author or the publisher.

sabbaṃ būndalamunīyaṃ

abbreviations CDB CtP CUP Dhp. GO MN MLDB NoD SN SfN StP SV S&R Thag.

Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha Ñāṇavīra, Clearing the Path Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript Dhammapada Bodhesako, Getting Off Majjhima Nikāya Bodhi, The Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha Ñāṇavīra, Notes on Dhamma Saṃyutta Nikāya Maugham, Search for Nirvana Ñāṇavīra, Seeking the Path Ñāṇavīra, The Letters of Sister Vajirā Bodhesako, Stringhoppers and Rabbitholes Theragatha


Preface Acknowledgements Introduction (by Robert Brady)

9 15 17

PART ONE – THE LIFE 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11.

Young Harold The Captain The Island Būndala The Seeker The Noble One Response of Others ‘Wife or Knife’ Colombo Death The Legacy

29 43 55 73 83 93 107 121 139 153 173

PART TWO – OTHER VIEWS, OTHER VOICES 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18.

The Outsider The Story of Sister Vajirā (also by Dr. Hellmuth Hecker) Robin Maugham’s Visit Būndala Villagers The Mind in Progress (by Dr. John Stella) The Study of Notes on Dhamma (by Prof. Forrest Williams) Conclusion

References Index

207 223 241 261 271 281 309 313 317

The scholar’s essentially horizontal view of things, seeking connexions in space and time, and his historical approach to the texts, disqualify him from any possibility of understanding a Dhamma that the Buddha himself has called akālika, ‘timeless’. Only in a vertical view, straight down into the abyss of his own personal existence, is a man capable of apprehending the perilous insecurity of his situation; and only a man who does apprehend this is prepared to listen to the Buddha’s Teaching.1

— Ñāṇavīra Thera, Notes on Dhamma

1. NoD, pp. ix-x.



Throughout the history of Buddhism, there have been people who have devoted their lives to the realization of Dhamma, and freedom from all suffering. Living as hermits in dense jungles, high mountains, sleeping under the trees, in caves, huts or hermitages, they would get by with few needs and without talking much. A life such as this is so inspiring and yet so difficult to live. Such was the life of Venerable Ñāṇavīra Thera. The story of the Buddhist monk, born as Harold E. Musson, has already inspired a number of books and a radio play. A bright and studious child, Harold was the product of an upper-class Edwardian English army family. He was educated at Cambridge, and after his involvement in WW2 in Algeria and Italy, he led a pleasant bohemian existence. Experiencing a deep sense of dissatisfaction with his life, he left his family and all of his wealth in order to live the life of a hermit in the Sri Lankan jungle, where he pondered, wrote about and realized the Dhamma. But life in the jungle was not easy and after living with a serious illness for some time, he eventually decided to take his own life. Although the story of his life has provoked a great deal of interest, inspiration and criticism, this is not the main reason why Bhante (Pāli word for “Venerable Sir”) Ñāṇavīra has attracted wanderers on the Path. Bhante was not a romantic figure, nor a wholly glorious one, but simply a human who was able to dig deeply into the most sensitive and hidden corners of his existence. Because of this, and with his level of understanding of the Dhamma, he was able to describe his understanding in writings and conversations with others who needed that help. The method was always the same: digging into wounds, clearing the rot, and applying a medicine. Many people, who prefer the comfort of their cherished views, do not greatly appreciate his methods. But those who genuinely feel the pain and who are aware that their minds are affected by a ‘parasite’, do not have any other alternative but to start to look for a doctor – someone to help them, even if the treatment will require some significant discomfort.


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Ñāṇavīra especially attracts those with a Western education: his impeccable understanding of Dhamma which sets him apart from other Buddhist teachers, is capable of filling the gaps in Westerners’ minds who are approaching Dhamma not from a faith-based perspective, but by making use of their rational intellect (“the European has an excess of paññā over saddhā, and he tends to reject what he cannot understand, even if it is true”1). Bhante then leads his readers to use that intelligence to look into the problem of their existence and develop a sense of looking into the problem more phenomenologically, rather than using logic or learned “common sense”. It would be a mistake to try to consider the life-story of this man only in a historical sense. His is an example of the life of a man who is actually rather close to us: he lived only a few decades ago in Europe and in Sri Lanka – cultural backgrounds which may be familiar to some of us. He chose to dedicate his whole monastic life to the realization of the truth of the Buddha’s Teaching. And it is a great fortune for us that we can read about his life in such detail – how he gradually approached the truth, practising it relentlessly, and living according to it – and how he ultimately sacrificed his life for it. We are not likely to get any better record of the private thoughts of somebody who sees things in a different light from most of humankind and who achieves such success. This biography offers only a taste of the great blessings of the Venerable Ñāṇavīra Thera, but hopefully it can inspire us to follow his path towards the end of saṃsarā. *  *  * For over five years the author has been loaded with papers, files, and other materials which have been collected for the Path Press archive. During this time, a number of the last surviving people who had met the late Venerable kindly shared their memories of him: rich descriptions and stories that make the image of Ñāṇavīra’s life even more vivid. The initial aim of Path Press was to prepare a suitable presentation of Bhante’s writings and it has succeeded in this by preparing and printing two hard-cover books Clearing the Path and Seeking the Path, as well as the Notes on Dhamma (1960-1965) and an additional collection of correspondence between Ñāṇavīra and Sister Vajirā. However the question remained 1. CtP, p. 303.



about how to present all the extra records which were still occupying space in the archive but which had never been made public. Moreover, the idea of writing a biography had been in the air for over decade, but none of the potential writers had found the opportunity to carry it out. When the author was asked to do something useful with these materials and to prepare a short biography for the then forthcoming volumes of the collected writings, he took on this task but the biography extended over twenty pages, which was far too long for that edition. The publisher suggested that we finalize it anyway and print it separately. There were good reasons to doubt that the author was capable of doing this. He is not a native English speaker and has never before written anything of such magnitude, not even in his first language. Also, it is not easy to make a commitment to devote so much time to a project that requires such systematic and analytical thinking. But since we received materials from other potential biographers, the author realized that he should take up that challenge himself. He received a lot of moral support, including from Stephen Batchelor and Gerolf T’Hooft, the publisher of Path Press Publications, and there was support from many people to see the book in print. The author is especially grateful to Michael Rae who edited the book and gave it its final shape: without him the book would not have come into existence for a long time. The task of preparing this book has not been an easy one. First, almost half a century has passed since Ñāṇavīra died and almost all the people who knew him have also passed away, so it has proved difficult to get hold of the remaining records of his life. Second, Ñāṇavīra was a hermit and a rather secluded one at that. He tried to avoid meetings with people and rarely ventured out into social gatherings; and anyway there is not much to say about living in an empty hut. Third, as Bhante said to the English writer, Robin Maugham, “I’m no longer concerned about my past... When you ask me questions about my past life, I have to think quite hard before I answer them. It’s as if I were filling in a form for some purpose”.2 He never provided much in the way of detail about his early life. The approach to the preparation of this book was decided to allow freedom to the different thoughts of those who knew Ñāṇavīra and, since the biography is partly based on interviews, to give people the chance to speak for themselves about his life. The author has not tried to make 2. SfN, p. 201.


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this book objective and consequently many personal views and understandings are part of the story. Instead of overly polishing the recorded memories, we feel it is appropriate that all who share their memories talk from their feelings and perceptions, whether from devotion (the villagers) or critical examination (the philosopher), or indeed from any other position. Since this book does not meet all the expectations that professional historians may have, some things may appear as irrelevant or as unusual. All of this can be justified as it is felt that they each add to give a full picture of Ñāṇavīra Thera. Another stylistic feature that the author would like to comment on is the fact that we have not tried to provide a detailed study and examination of Ñāṇavīra’s teachings. We have included articles from Dr. Stella (The Mind in Progress) and from Prof. Williams (The Study of Notes on Dhamma). But, as Bhante wrote when referring to his book Notes on Dhamma, “Kierkegaard’s attitude towards his books was that nobody was competent to review them except himself – which, in fact, he proceeded to do, his later works containing a review of his earlier ones. I have much the same attitude towards the Notes.”3 Ñāṇavīra then proceeded to clarify points in Notes in his letters. Therefore for a detailed examination, the reader will have to rely on Ñāṇavīra’s own commentary, i.e. his letters. It is assumed that the reader is already broadly familiar with Theravāda Buddhism and the life of a monk and we have not provided any detail about the teachings of the Buddha. We would only note that being a bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk, means following the discipline which was laid down by the Buddha. Discipline is not a practice of austerity or the seeking-out of hardship, but is used as a useful tool for practice, in order to create suitable conditions for recognizing these Dhamma teachings in one’s life. Therefore bhikkhus are mendicants and are fully dependent upon the good-will of others. For example, the monastic code forbids monks from storing, growing, buying and cooking food. This means that bhikkhus cannot be totally isolated from people but have to have contact with lay-supporters on an everyday basis, either by accepting food offered by visitors or by going into villages for alms-round. This motivates monks to practise more diligently and to simplify their lives, as well as providing an opportunity for the laity to receive Dhamma teachings and instructions on how to live skilfully. 3. CtP, p. 237.



The last note is for those who are not already familiar with Ñāṇavīra’s intention to kill himself. Bhante wrote extensively and carefully on the question of suicide, which arose for him because of the severity of the ailment and other health problems he was suffering from. It is understandable that this is the most sensitive part of his life for many people. Since this topic is unavoidable in the book, I would like to make it clear that this book is not in any way suggesting that suicide is a recommended resolution for any problem, especially if it is an act of ignorance by someone who is still not safe in Dhamma. *  *  * Ñāṇavīra encouraged his reader to develop a “vertical view, straight down into the abyss of his own personal existence” and since this book is rather horizontal, looking for connections across space and time, the author must emphasise that the book should not be seen as a substitute for Bhante’s Notes on Dhamma or indeed any other of his writings – and it is not intended to be used as a study book. As Bagoda Premaratne, a Sri Lankan writer, said “what is important is not his biography, nor what he did, but what he wrote. His interpretation of the Dhamma.” And therefore to have interposed some kind of introduction between the reader and the late Bhante would have been inconsistent with the invitation to a wholly personal response which Notes on Dhamma offers. The present author agrees that the only place where a person can really get to know Ñāṇavīra is in his main work, the Notes. The present book should be taken rather as an appendix to Bhante Ñāṇavīra’s work, a collection of other pieces of information for those who are still curious to know about the life he lived and who are perhaps initially unable to digest the Notes. The author hopes this biography can at least inspire and encourage the reader to study this great man’s writings more extensively. As the book took shape, the author’s appreciation for Venerable Ñāṇavīra Thera’s guidance grew ever deeper. The crux of the Buddha’s teaching explained by him in such a ground-breaking way makes one realise that he was a truly remarkable man, a great muni, a sage. If nothing else, it has certainly been worth reflecting on these noble qualities. — Bhikkhu Hiriko Ñāṇasuci



I owe a great deal of gratitude to the following individuals: For telling their stories: Ven. Guttasila Mahāthera, Ven. Ñāṇaramita Mahāthera, Dr. Kingsley Heendeniya, Peter Maddock, Savitri Brady, Bogoda Premaratne, Kulasiri Pereira, Sidath Wettimuny, Nalin Fernando, and the villagers of Būndala: Jayadasa, Jayananda, Jayasena, Kusumadasa, Piyadasa, Somanadasa, Somadasa, and others. For helping with the preparation of this book, editing and providing historical information: Ven. Nirodho Mahāthera, Ven. Ñāṇatusita Thera, Ven. Gavesako Thera, Ven. Sumāna, Ven. Yogānanda, Ven. Ñāṇavisuddhi, Ven. Chandako, Ven. Araññabho, Linda Furrow, Dr. Hellmuth Hecker, Thusitha Jayawardena, Jonathan Pizzolo, Tom Rosenberg, Peter Tomlinson, Rohan Wijesekera, Prof. Forrest W. Williams, Sunil Wettimuny, Cambridge University Library, the Buddhist Publication Society, and to all who helped the late Remzi Khoury (Ñāṇavira Thera Memorial Foundation) with his research. Special thanks to the late Katharine M. Delavenay for memories of the early life of her cousin, Harold Musson (Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera). She lived a long life, but unfortunately passed away during the preparation of this book. Also I would like to thank Stephen Batchelor for loading me with historical materials, for assistance to my work and sharing with me some of his skills in writing; to Michael Rae for editing the whole book; and to my publisher, Gerolf T’Hooft, for encouragement and pleasure in preparing and printing this book. Support and encouragement for this book was great, and that made me feel even more responsible that the document is prepared correctly, as much as I am capable of. It also gave me an opportunity to meet many like-minded people and being very inspired by their good-heartedness, kindness, generosity, and being impressed by their qualities of wisdom. Thank-you to all.



A Letter from Robert Brady (correspondent of Ñāṇavīra) 11 November 1965 Dear Mrs Delavenay (cousin of Ñāṇavīra), You must think me very neglectful but I have been extremely busy and have found it difficult to make time for a suitable reply to your letter. I can well understand your perplexity if the only information you have received about your cousin’s death came from the article in THE PEOPLE. At the time of his death I sought in every way to locate his next of kin not only on my own behalf (and I wanted to let you know about his death as I interpreted it), but also on behalf of the British High Commission to which I am attached, for although Ñāṇavīra (I must continue to call him so – he had long since given up being Harold Edward anything!) had renounced British citizenship we wanted to communicate with you, again as a courtesy. However, the place where he died is so remote and communication so difficult and one is dealing with monks, who are not concerned with such matters as next of kin, and when finally after a visit not only to the place where he had lived but to two Buddhist “monasteries” as well I abandoned the attempt it was because I was assured that a certain Bank would have taken steps to inform you and everything would be in order. However, I would like you to know that I travelled to the spot as soon as I heard the news of his death and spent the night of the 6th July there, with two Buddhist monks – an American and Swiss who had known him. The young American – formerly an engineer – is now occupying his hut, or kuti as it is called. He lives under the inspiration of Ñāṇavīra and seems to have only one ambition viz to go through with the self-discipline in the way that Ñāṇavīra had indicated to him. Having come on his own to Ceylon, he considered himself most fortunate in having had the opportunity of meeting Ñāṇavīra and partaking in his discourse. It is obvious from the circumstances of his death that Ñāṇavīra wanted him


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to succeed him there. But I must add here that wanted is too strong a word – he wanted nothing, wanted for nothing, and worked for nothing except liberation. Your cousin’s memory is revered by the villagers, who regard him as a sort of saint although his manner of leaving this life was somewhat unusual. Maybe the simple people are wiser than the more sophisticated. He is remembered for his gentleness although he never made any attempt to win anybody’s good opinion for himself and was never easily accessible. It is likely that the jungle area where he lived will be declared as an Animal Sanctuary in memory of him. If you have not seen Ñāṇavīra in recent years you will not find it easy to visualise him or the life he had led in Ceylon, but certainly his life and attitude of mind were far different from what comes through to the reader of a popular article written for a newspaper. Some things are too delicate for words at all. How therefore could we expect such a life, such ideas and such an attitude to be caught in the net devised for landing nothing more subtle or refined than the rough spiritual fare of the reader of our Sunday papers? He would have laughed at my saying so but the first thing required is undoubtedly reverence. Not of course for Ñāṇavīra but for what consummation he was trying to make himself a fit vehicle towards. And the other thing above all required is reverence for the person (in this case the public) one is addressing. How many journalists respect the persons they write for? Don’t they rather despise them by writing down to what they consider a fair average of their intelligence and spiritual capacity? I was going to say that what Ñāṇavīra was aiming at was a certain state of mind, but it isn’t really a state of mind, rather a state of mindlessness. One cannot use words in their ordinary sense when dealing with such matters, because words distort, they are full of preconceptions and worn-out sentiments, and are stuffed with the sick old rags of selfishness. What I am trying to say is that the goal he was aiming at permitted of no dilly-dallying or bantering on the way. It would seem that anybody who undertook to try and reach it had got to be a whole-hogger. There was no turning back once you put your hand to that particular plough. He was single-minded; perhaps too much so, for he refused to believe in the possibility, or even the relevance, of grace, the necessity for some free gift from God which has to be added to one’s own efforts if they are to fructify. Some of us may well believe that, no matter how dedicated such efforts may be, they are sterile so long as they arise out of ourselves alone.



When he told me that he had been interviewed and photographed for a Sunday paper I was shocked and couldn’t resist telling him so. I could only feel that this was the Achilles heel in a man of extraordinary singleness of purpose. In this respect (so it appeared) he seemed to be capitulating to some residual vanity in his nature, that was quite unexpected in anyone leading the type of life he was leading or attempting to lead. Could this have been the last kick of the old mule of human pride? I asked myself. But I don’t really believe so. Much greater means of achieving renown were offered to him and rejected. For one thing he could have become the venerated personal focus of a group of intellectuals in London or any other great western city. If anything was obvious it was surely that he did not respect the opinion of ordinary people sufficiently to wish to court it in any way. But if we are to look for the cause of his choosing the particular death that he did in fact choose we have to tread carefully because we are in unfamiliar territory. I am convinced that it is never a single cause that leads to a major or indeed to any decision. And this is obviously true in the case of Ñāṇavīra. In the first place, we are dealing with a human being, a man at once deeply complex and at the same time almost alarmingly simple; too simple, I would have said, for his mind, otherwise so subtle, became when it reached a certain position totally uncritical. Or so it seemed to me, for example in his apparently naïve acceptance of lore from the Buddhist suttas. Secondly, we are dealing with a very rare type of human being and so we must approach the question through his own views on life and the world. I only knew him over a period of some months but he once spent a few weeks at my house in Colombo and I was privileged to have him explain a great deal to me, as he did also to others whom I would bring along from time to time to meet him there. He also wrote many letters. They are remarkable for the picture they provide not only of a brilliant mind but of a man relentlessly thorough with himself, undeviatingly sincere in his quest. Nevertheless his English type of humour survived all his discipleship, and all his dedication to what must of necessity strike the sophisticated English reader as a regressive type of thought. Above all, the letters are a record of a man who took the lesson of the Buddha literally, that there is a way to release, that this release comes through detachment, and detachment can only be achieved by actually doing


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something about one’s unsatisfactory situation: detachment cannot be bought over the counter, or taught in a classroom, or acquired in a debating club. His aim was to seek release from the pressure of everyday life by taxing concentration, a practice which enables a person to detach himself from the world, the attractions of which are illusory, no matter how seductive. Any lesser aim was to his mind quite beside the point. My feeling is that his interview for THE PEOPLE was in tune with his humour; you might almost see in it a faint ironic attempt to ensure that he would be debunked from beyond the grave. Because as he told me, though I hadn’t the imagination to realise it at the time, he did not intend to go on living. I cannot believe the interview was given for any self-regarding purpose. For he never romanticised himself – never! For him the true, that is to say, the silly romantics are the deluded people like the rest of us who continue in our ordinary life of householders in spite of its burden of worry and anxiety and the daily reminders we are given of the fleeting nature of any pleasure whatsoever. He regarded us as being the rather pathetic persons knocking our life out to keep it in and never perceiving life for the delusion it is. In other words, he considered ordinary life totally unsatisfactory and qualitatively different from release, which is the only desirable object of life. In the view of Buddha’s teaching there could be no compromise. What one had to do was to inhibit other interests that distract one from the way towards the goal. It is simply a case of cutting out distractions. But this is not so simple as it sounds. The first step was to become a Buddhist monk, and he came to Ceylon and took up his lodging with several other kindred spirits, Sinhalese and European. He liked that life – in the Island Hermitage at Dodanduwa, discussing till all hours of the night, and devoting any spare time left over to the business of learning to meditate with a view to calming the mind. Then came the realization that you can’t discuss your way into liberation, release or salvation – call it what you like. Either you discuss or you follow the path actively. You cannot do both; discussion is distraction, although he would have admitted that of all possible subjects for discourse that on the Dhamma is least noxious. Doing is unceasingly demanded of one; or at least one must allow doing to be done in what, for the want of better term, one is still forced to call the self. In fact, it is a basic Buddhist belief that the self is an illusion, and the most pernicious of all delusion. Let that be! Refusing to be satisfied with any halfway ‘solution’, what he



now found he had to do was to leave this little community and go away and live by himself. That was about a year after he came to Ceylon. A hut was provided for him in an estate near Karunegala and there he devoted himself wholly to meditation in the Buddhist manner. He told me that at that time, sixteen years ago, he would often meditate the whole night through. I have spoken since his death with a monk who knew him and who says he applied himself intensely to meditation, so much so that he had sometimes to have his limbs unlocked from the cross-legged position he had got fixed in. Fanatic, if you like, but no more fanatic than what any great lover (that rare occurrence) has it in him to be. Finding the humidity unsuitable at that place he changed over about ten years ago and went to the south of Ceylon where a hut was constructed for him in a clump of scrub jungle about a quarter of a mile from the sea and perhaps half a mile from the village Bundala. The village people brought him his food every day unfailingly. He was the subject of much public veneration in his lifetime although he did not welcome idle visitors. It was when they brought his tea at 4 p.m. on 5th July that they found him in the ghastly helmet of plastic he had so ingeniously devised for himself and in such a way that he could not even involuntarily snatch it from his head. It appears from what he told me that the condition of amoebiasis which he had contracted many years ago had got worse and worse. To counteract it drugs were prescribed by a pious Buddhist doctor who in fact used to visit him fairly often and would look to his medical wants whenever he came to Colombo. Ñāṇavīra appears to have become fascinated with anti-biotics and many such drugs were found in his hut after his death. The total result of the amoebiasis and of the attempts to alleviate it was a condition which occasioned very considerable physical inconvenience and, doubtless, much pain. It finally came about that he was spending more time not meditating than he could spend in meditation. But meditation, if it is to have any meaning, requires a certain minimum of bodily fitness. Buddhist theory, you see, has little esteem for asceticism as such or the patient acceptance of disease. Nor does it see in suffering any indication of divine favour, as a Christian at times can. The Dhamma is not a religion of the Cross but rather a way of life aimed at eliminating the cross. To the Buddhist, disease is a hindrance to liberation. It is by no means a vehicle of God’s grace; indeed, disease


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tends to engage too much of the subject’s attention and so deflects him from the path leading to the goal; otherwise put, sickness is an intolerable waste of time. So far so good, I hope I have managed to convey some sense of the argument. But I am very far from being clear about any of these matters in my own mind. One thing however I must tell you. If we are to begin to understand his last years it is essential for us to know and remember that Ñāṇavīra had got the idea some five years ago (and it is not for us to judge whether it was just a crazy delusion or not) that he had attained the experience of what is called stream-entrance (sotapatti), that is to say, he had made a breakthrough in the trek he was pursuing and reached the first stage on the way to enlightenment as indicated in the texts. This position is not very far along the path though few people attain it. But once it is attained there is no going back. The nearest thing in Christian experience would be the total committing of oneself to Christ as one’s personal saviour. But there is no other resemblance between the two. He would reject any attempt to label it a mystical experience. To him and the few out-and-out Buddhists like him mystical experience is a selfish emotional indulgence. To understand Ñāṇavīra’s situation it is necessary to have some idea of the basic oriental conception of a karmic order that is common to Hinduism and Buddhism. This karma is the moral heritage, the line of moral law of cause and effect which persists from birth to birth. It is a sort of God-substitute (really a demigod or devil) in a religion that does not believe in a creating and personal God. To speak of transmigration is to the Buddhist erroneous, for there is nothing which can migrate from life to life. There is no immortal soul in their thinking. Only a line as it were of moral responsibility, which is renewed from birth to birth although nothing is ever repeated, just as in the preliminaries to the Olympic Games the flame of the torch first lit at Athens lights another and another and so on, until you reach Tokyo or wherever the Games may happen to be taking place. The question is, Is the flame at the end the same flame as the one at the beginning? Of course not, it is not even the same as it was itself a moment ago; yet in some way it is connected with the first flame. Likewise acts are connected across the ages by a line of moral causality. You must pay in the present life or your karma’s embodiments must pay in future lives the debt accumulated through evil deeds in the past. But man has free will and if he merits by the action of



past karma to live in a situation where he is confronted with the Dhamma and accepts and follows it, he has the free will to make a short-cut to liberation. Well, Ñāṇavīra believed what the Buddhist scriptures say, viz that sotapatti once attained, there can be no more than seven re-births before final Enlightenment. It is against this essential background that we must view his act in bringing his life to an end. So far from being an act of despair his end was an affirmation of hope; and more than hope – the certainty of final extinction, when the flame whose fuel is lust, hate and greed, having no longer any fuel to sustain it, goes out. Nibbana or Nirvana may be derived from the verb ‘to go out’, like a candle. Once he had decided that there was no longer any good that this present body could do, indeed that this body of his was by reason of its infirmity an abiding hindrance to his progress, it was totally consistent with his principles that he should abandon it and that he should do so with as little regret or sentiment as any of us would experience in relinquishing an old worn-out coat, especially when there is a good new one awaiting us! Undoubtedly in the great heat of Bundala at that time, early July, the attractions of this life must have seemed greatly diminished and no doubt this helped to encourage him to undertake the act of ending his life. But to call this despair is assuredly to put oneself at the furthest possible distance from the truth. He made his arrangements meticulously. The last letter he wrote to me, dated the day he died, contains a joke. The handwriting is exactly as usual. Everything was done as if in preparation for the visit of an auditor. Everything was in order. It strikes one, looking at it from this “bank and shoal of time”, that he pitied us and wanted to save us as much trouble as possible, while never forgetting that in the long run each man is alone. That is a pernicious doctrine, man setting himself up in his silly postures of pride, but alas it is a common one today even among those who have no conception of the Buddha to lead them out into the Way of liberation. You may wish to contrast such an out-and-out attitude with the more comforting attitude that we imbibe as Christians – that God’s grace is necessary for us all. The danger is, no doubt, that we do not trouble to contribute even a little amount we are capable of. We live an unreal life, a phantasy life at the whim of every passing fancy. This can scarcely be called existence. Ñāṇavīra on the other hand certainly existed to some degree. Nevertheless his was after


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all only another theory though it had the merit of being a practical one, one he worked out to its end in practice. But surely the human heart is greater than all the theories. Man must never cease to transcend himself. The kernel of evil in any other view is that it denies man’s divinity. My self is a poor pathetic trivial thing but it has a little spark of the divine. We must never forget that. But Ñāṇavīra’s theory denied it and he took his interpretation as the Buddha’s real meaning. But the corpse of a suicide is no recommendation for any theory, is it? The human heart rejects it. It offends the reader of THE PEOPLE because the ordinary man knows that whatever the theoretical apparatus that is invoked in order to justify it, a man in killing himself does something that is gravely wrong, opposed to his own deepest nature, i.e. the divine in him. As I have said Ñāṇavīra did nothing by halves. He had early made his mind that the only way to follow the Buddha was to trust him utterly, and for this it was necessary to follow the scriptures (suttas) and not the commentaries. He compiled notes on the Buddha Dhamma called simply that: “NOTES ON DHAMMA”. They are remarkably lucid though difficult. They are unflinching in their approach. They displease the easy-going sort of person whether monk, layman or scholar who thinks of the Way as something pleasant to talk about and think about but not to do anything about. To Ñāṇavīra a way that is not trodden is only an ink mark on a map, an empty conception, not worth the thinking. These “NOTES ON DHAMMA” were published in foolscap size in typewritten roneo’d form by a Mr Lionel Samaratunga, a District Judge here in Ceylon. They have not, as I say, been popular with most of the people who have read them. But they ought to be published in book form. I tried to get Sir Stanley Unwin to publish them but his firm said they were not a commercial proposition. I believe, and so do a few of his friends, that these NOTES ought to be published and I have felt all along that it is in France they would meet with the best welcome, because he found in existentialist thought the nearest thing to a formulation in contemporary philosophy of the theory (if you can so term it) underlying the Buddha’s teaching. He more than anybody else realised that no philosophy could take the place of the way but, for a statement of what it is about in intellectual terms, the existentialist approach is the most satisfying. It may be that you would be interested in arranging for the translation of the NOTES into French, and getting somebody – perhaps a University



in France – to publish them. This would be an appropriate gesture to the memory of a great and an unique man. Perhaps on the other hand you are not interested, and think we are as mad as he was, but at any rate there you have our opinion! As we have seen he was no mystic, in fact he rather smiled at the mystics, who saw God and then came back down again into ordinary life! What, he would ask, was the point? He was not even religious, had no time for rites, rituals or the heart-warming sentimentalities of religious teaching. He was simply and solely a follower of the Buddha, the man who had made an intensive analysis of the human condition and offered a remedy for it. If I can answer any questions about Ñāṇavīra I shall try and do so, but I am really rather ignorant of these things. I have only attempted to present you with some idea of Ñāṇavīra as I seemed to know him. I have not attempted, except in the highest way, to judge him or his ideas or his basic attitudes. He and I used to have some very interesting discussions. There were many points on which we could not see eye to eye. But what I think we shared was reverence for what we thought mattered, and irreverence for all that smacks of pretentiousness or humbug. Yes, we had something in common. I can see him in my mind’s eye reading his obituary notice as it appeared in THE PEOPLE, and then with a smile saying: “Now do you see what I mean?” And after a pause I would have said to him: “After all those years of endeavour, one would have thought you could have managed a mention in THE TIMES”. He would have laughed at that remark, he would have thought it really funny! Yours sincerely, Robert Kilian Brady

(Mr. Robert K. Brady was born in 1912 in Scotland. Degree in Philosophy (M.A.) at Edinburgh University. After a short time he was teaching in England and in Malta, and he joined the British Council in 1936 until his retirement in 1968. Then he did a degree in Theology at Cambridge University and worked in Egypt-Alexandria as an Anglican priest for seven years. He died in 1979.)

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The Hermit of Būndala  

Biography of Ñāṇavīra Thera, with reflections on his life and work

The Hermit of Būndala  

Biography of Ñāṇavīra Thera, with reflections on his life and work

Profile for pathpress