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The legend of Bundala:
Venerable Nanavira Thera (1920-1965)

Kingsley Heendeniya

Harold Musson was an only child, born in army barracks in Aldershot, England in 1920. His father was a rich man owning coalmines in Wales, who commanded a battalion of the British Army in Burma where Harold spent a few years as a child of 7 years.

One day, he asked, "Who is the Buddha?" and when told, 'The Buddha was a man who sat under a tree and got enlightened", the little boy had said, "That is what I want to do!" Harold graduated from Cambridge University at the age of 21 years with First Class Honours in Modern Languages and in mathematics.

In the last World War, he served as a captain assigned to interrogate prisoners of war in Italy. In 1945, he fell ill and in his hospital bed in Sorrento, he read the book 'La Dottrina del Risveglio' by Julius Evola, a born Catholic. Evola had written that his aim was to illuminate the true nature of original Buddhism, weakened to the point of obscurity in subsequent forms whereas the essential spirit of the doctrine was determined by a will for the unconditioned, confirmed by investigation that leads to mastery over life and death. Impressed by the book, and by Evola, a well-known rebel in Italy and Germany, Harold translated it to English as the ' The Doctrine of Awakening - A Study in Buddhist Ascesis'. [Luzac, London, 1951].

Osbert Moore was with Harold in Italy at the time. [See biography of Nanamoli Thera]. After the war, Harold had no need to do a job. He led a bohemian life indulging in 'wine, women and song', chain smoking 40 cigarettes a day, when, walking in Hyde Park one evening, he gave up smoking with grim determination.

The words of the Buddha on self-discipline haunted him and he saw the futility of his mode of life as a rich playboy. So when he met his army friend Osbert at a London pub one night, they both decided to explore the Teaching of the Buddha. They arrived in Ceylon in 1948 and became pupils of Venerable Nyanatiloka Maha Thera of the Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa. Harold, ordained as Nanavira, and later studied under Palane Sri Vajiranana Maha Nayake Thera of Vajiraramaya (to whom he dedicated the only book he wrote).

Nanavira from his young days, was a person who regarded other people not as 'we' but as 'they' and was inclined to solitude. He did not like curious visitors at the Hermitage, and because of a bowel disorder, he went to various aranyayas [forest monasteries]. He regarded them a charade and found the ideal place in the Bundala Forest Reserve, 13 miles away from Hambantota.

A local dayaka, [lay supporter], Mr. Hilton Perera, helped to build a zinc shed. Bundala is supposed to be the village of the washerwomen and men of Dutugemunu. It was then a remote, poor community living in wattle and daub houses. The gravel road off the highway to Tissamaharama, running in a straight line through sand and scrub and forest and lagoons where flamingos nest when it is winter in Europe, ended in a fishing wadiya [camp]. About halfway is a culvert over a shallow perennial pond of water, and hidden by thorn brush and gnarled trees, is a narrow footpath to the kuti with a corridor and one room of brick and mud, built later. Here Nanavira Thera lived, strived, achieved and died.

Nanavira started to beg for his food and meditate 14 hours a day. He was more than 6 feet tall, with a handsome figure, like a statue of the Buddha. My striking memory is the metta [loving-kindness] in his eyes and satisampajanna [mindfulness & awareness] in everything he did. There was nothing that he wanted whenever I asked him, except medicine for his illness, though I once saw him writing with a pencil stub about one inch long.

His mother came to take home her only son because she was lonely after the father died, and when he refused, she flew home and died in two weeks. He was twice brought to Colombo to syringe mud from his ears from bathing in muddy water at the culvert and for swelling of the knee joints from relentless anapanasati [in-out breathing meditation] on a hard cement floor. He later damaged his sciatic nerve permanently.

The villagers regarded him as their 'living god' and took his dana [morning and noon meals] to the kuti by sharing the days between them. The Buddha says, 'Seclusion is happiness to one who is contented, has learnt and seen the Dhamma'. Nanavira Thera attained Sotapatti [Path entry] on 27 June 1959 and wrote the following letter in classical Pali, sealed it, 'To be opened after my death' and sent to the senior monk at the Island Hermitage: -

'Homage to the Auspicious One, Worthy, Fully Awakened.

At one time the monk Nanavira was staying in a forest hut near Bundala Village. It was during this time, as he was walking up and down in the first watch of the night, that the monk Nanavira 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 Nanavira 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]'.

These books, he later wrote, contain the Buddha's Teaching -- they can be trusted absolutely from beginning to end: '(Vinayapitaka:) Suttavibhanga, Mahavagga, Culavagga; (Suttapitaka:) Dighanikaya, Majjimanikaya, Samyuttanikaya, Anguttaranikaya, Suttanipata, Dhammapada, Udana, Itivuttaka, Theratherigatha. No other books whatsoever can be trusted. Leaving aside Vinaya, seek the meaning of these in your own experience. Do not seek their meaning in any other books: if you do, you will be misled'. He rejected the Abhidhammapitaka, the commentaries and texts as 'leaving less to be unlearned' and also as not being the words of the Buddha.

The letter was irresponsibly opened in 1964, one year before he took his own life. He inhaled from a vial of ethyl chloride my mother had supplied after he used one I gave him to use as a local anesthetic for inflamed painful insect bites. He anesthetized himself by wearing an ingenious handmade cellophane facemask. When found by a villager who went with the afternoon beverages, Nanavira Thera was dead, sleeping in the lion's pose, one hand fallen beside the empty vial gently laid on the floor.

He died on 5th July 1965. Photographs taken one year before, and an eyewitness Ven. Nanasumana tells, "He is an old man of 60 years. He is in constant physical pain but never shows it nor does the peace in his eyes ever change. We spend many hours talking - rather he speaks and I learn". He was only 44 years! I am shocked to see the emaciated gaunt frame and realise that the bowel condition he had may be, become malignant.

The entire village mourned. They built a pyre 8 feet high. The women gave their best sarees to drape it and they interned his ashes by the kuti, beside his sanctuary by the sea. Thus ended the life of a solitary genius. No serpent ever harmed him. They would uncoil, move away and watch him pass and wild elephants yet guard his kuti. Nanavira Thera is the legend of Bundala.

Nanavira Thera used his linguistic skills and disciplined thinking to write on Dhamma when he found that he could not proceed to arahatta.

With no hope of Nibbana here and now, unable to practise intense samadhi, condemned to a life sentence of pain and distraction, poisoned by the medicine he was given, he wrote, 'The only thing I take seriously is the Dhamma. If I cannot practice it as I want, I have no further wish to live". He rejected an offer of a holiday in London and a suggestion to disrobe.

He said it is 'death in the Dhamma' and no one 'has become arahat in the act of disrobing'. Some jealous persons, who cannot get within a mile of him and of the Path, mislead that Nanavira Thera could not have understood the Dhamma - as if the many arahats who took the knife in the time of the Buddha also failed to understand it. Or, that the dialogues of Socrates have no value because he drank poison rather than escape as his friends arranged. All have failed and none has been 'accused of writing the most important book of the century'.

The truth is in the only book he wrote, 150 pages of 'Notes on Dhamma', 250 copies of which were cyclostyled by Lionel Samaratunga, High Court Judge, Balapitiya in 1964.

The brilliance of Nanavira Thera comes alive to us now when his writings are scrutinized in the expanded book 'Clearing the Path' published in 1987 by the American Samanera [novitiate monk] Bodhesako with assistance from the Department for Creative Writing, University of Colorado. He included 150 selected letters Nanavira Thera wrote to readers who asked to explain items in the 'Notes'. In Europe, it was reviewed 'the most important book of the century' - and Nanavira became a cult figure.

'Clearing the Path' is a difficult book but no less than the Suttas.

Like the Buddha, he used his background education to communicate. There are many western classical quotations, aphorisms, wit and humor written to an elite familiar with writings of Huxley, Joyce, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Nietzche and others of that genre. He uses his mathematical and analytical skills, the Laws of Thought and logic to demolish comparisons of Dhamma with quantum mechanics and with the ideas of scientists egregiously quoted by some people to offer character certificates to the Buddha.

He laments that 'people and even monks in Ceylon do not read the Suttas and are ignorant of what the Buddha actually taught'. The European he says, has excess of panna [wisdom] over saddha [faith] and tends to reject things even when true while the Asian with excess of saddha over panna accepts things even when false!

Venerable Nanavira Thera wrote 'my aim is to clear dead matter that is choking the Suttas...and if I do not write it, no one else will'. He has severely criticized well-known scholars such as Rhys Davids, Wijesekera, and Jayatilelke who misconstrue the teaching of the Buddha. Nanavira Thera has given unique precise interpretations of selected core Dhamma such as paticcasamuppada, sankhara, cetana, atta, upadana, namarupa, vinnana, avijja, phassa, the tilakkhana and demolished hallowed traditional books such as Milindapanha & Visuddhimagga.

The unbiased intelligent reader with a compelling personal reason to study and practice Dhamma is invited to accept his point of view.

'Clearing the Path' is out of print and I have arranged to publish it in its two separate parts, Vol. I 'Notes' & Vol. II 'Letters', [from photographing the original] by the Buddhist Cultural Centre, Anderson Road, Dehiwela, Sri Lanka with a Foreword & Introduction by my friend, Dr. John Stella, a lecturer in Western Classics in the USA. .

The book is translated to Dutch and Serbian. All of 576 pages can be downloaded in digital form from the Internet. (See https://www.geocities.com/Athens/9366/nanavira.htm  ) (British & foreign newspapers and journals may copy.)


Source: The Daily News, Sri Lanka, 01 October 2003, https://www.dailynews.lk 

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last updated: 01-10-2003