“Ñāṇavīra Thera”

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Ñāṇavīra is a dramatic example of the seeker, much disillusioned by the world, yet troubled by personal weaknesses (especially his sexuality). He thought that he had become a stream-winner (sotāpanna).

Over the years he became increasingly independent in his views, both challenging the accepted orthodoxy and refining his own understanding. It is possible that the largely self-taught monk Ñāṇavīra had mistaken the early texts on suicide as condoning it, and that, for him, as a “stream-winner,” that is, an arya or saint of the path, his suicide would not be in vain. Or, on the other hand, his bodily pains and mental sufferings had the better of him.

To illustrate some of these aspects I have selected some significant parts from his letters and marked some of his controversial statements:

 [L. 3]   11 January 1964
 […] In any case, to say more I should have to say a lot more; and though the flesh is willing, the spirit is weak.

This statement suggests Ñāṇavīra suffering from despair; he feels his mind (/’spirit’) is (too) weak for further discussion, though, he states he (‘the flesh’) is actually willing to continue. This statement is significant because usually the mind gets stimulated in a conversation and is willing to express itself, but in case of a bhikkhu practising mindfulness, he does so as to control his (energetic) mind and in doing so he practises control over his speech which, in turn, tires out the body (‘the flesh’). Thus, the motivation behind Ñāṇavīra’s statement is somewhat different from the common monastic’s practises and motivations.

            [L. 4]   12 April 1964
 Many thanks for your letter. If you feel like it, and if I am still about the place, by all means come and see me when you next visit Ceylon. I shall be only too happy to discuss things with you; but, at the same time, I rather fancy that I am less proficient at talking than at writing. Although earlier I did discourage both visitors and correspondents, the situation has since changed. My chronic digestive disorder has worsened and has now been joined by a nervous complaint (caused, ironically enough, by a drug prescribed to cure the amoebiasis), and the combination drastically reduces the time I can devote to practice: in consequence of this I have to get through my day as best I can with thinking, reading, and writing (it is only on this account that the Notes have made their appearance). So outside disturbances are now sometimes positively welcome.

Again, in this letter we find another statement suggesting Ñāṇavīra suffering from despair and depression; it seems almost as if he requests the addressee of his letter (by all means) to pay him a visit, for he is desperately ‘welcoming outside disturbances in order to get through his days’ since his health problems have already reduced the time he can devote to practice. NÑāṇavīra is obviously slipping down and now wishes for something or someone to cheer him up a little in these moments of suffering.

                [L. 8]   2 May 1964
 […] An intelligent person observes that there is such a thing as change, that the things in his world do change from time to time; and the Buddha informs him that nothing that exists is exempt from change, that all existing things do come to an end sooner or later. And when that person considers this fact and applies it in the proper way (with yoniso manasikāra) to his own existence, it is enough (given certain other conditions) to lead him to enlightenment.

When, in examining this letter, we ‘consider that all existing things do come to an end sooner or later and apply this fact in the proper way to one’s own existence’, then, by committing suicide Ñāṇavīra could have believed this might lead him to enlightenment.

                [L. 12]   26 March 1962
[…] It is a matter of regret to me that, though I have been so well treated by so many doctors in Ceylon, and have found them, as people, so friendly and easy to talk to, I am yet quite unable to get beyond a certain point with them and discuss things that really matter. Always there arises a barrier of uncomprehension, and I perceive that, even though I am still being listened to, communication is no longer taking place.

In this letter we find expressions of frustration – or ‘regret’ as Ñāṇavīra describes it himself. At times like this Ñāṇavīra seems to be overthrown by negativity and is suffering from such encounters. He feels disenchanted by the fact that he cannot find someone to communicate with in a way he feels necessary for himself; he does not merely seek for someone who is willing to listen to his talks, but more likely someone who possibly could inspire him, if only that person could engage in more complex discussions.

                [L. 13]   25 May 1962
 […] Better, then, in the long run, to be a morphia addict with right view (as far as this is possible), than an abstainer with wrong view (which is very possible).

Here we see Ñāṇavīra’s emphasis on the importance of right view, the purpose of which was “to indicate the proper interpretation of the Suttas,” the key to which he believed he had discovered through an experience he thought to be stream-entry.

[…] Let me recall my own experience when I gave up cigarettes. I had been smoking forty or more a day for several years when I decided to give them up. Not being able to do things in half-measures I stopped smoking all at once. I remember walking in the park not long after I had finished my last cigarette, and feeling pleased with myself that I had actually taken the decision. (I also felt rather light-headed, which was no doubt a deprivation symptom — this continued for some days.) But the principal thought that assailed me was this: though I had no doubt that I could stick to my resolution, there was one thing that I really needed to confirm it and to fortify me in my determination not to have another cigarette, and that one thing was… a cigarette. Far from its being obvious to me that in order to give up cigarettes I should give up cigarettes, I had the greatest of trouble to resist the pressing suggestion that in order to give up cigarettes I should take a cigarette.

In this letter we get to see some aspects of Ñāṇavīra’s personality; ‘not being able to do things in half-measures’, ‘having no doubts that he could stick to his resolutions’, and ‘the need to confirm and fortify his determination’. Clearly, such characteristics in his personality have caused him a lot of suffering.

Ironically, we might add, that, in order to give up life he should have taken another (chance at) life.

[…] I would ask you to pause before dismissing this account as fanciful; this same theme — the vicious circle and the escape from it by way of understanding and in spite of appearances — is the very essence of the Buddha’s Teaching. The example discussed above — drug-addiction — is on a coarse level, but you will find the theme repeated again and again right down to the finest level, that of the four noble truths. It will, I think, be worthwhile to illustrate this from the Suttas.

Here we find yet another attempt “to indicate the proper interpretation of the Suttas.”

[…] Not everybody is addicted to morphia, but most people are addicted to sensual gratification, and all except the ariyasāvakas are addicted to their own personality (sakkāyaditthi),[f] and even the ariyasāvakas, with the exception of the arahat, still have a subtle addiction, the conceit ‘I am’ (asmimāna). The arahat has put an end to all addiction whatsoever. There is thus no form of addiction that the Buddha’s Teaching will not cure, provided the addict is intelligent and willing to make the necessary effort.

Here, again, we see Ñāṇavīra’s emphasis on the importance of right view. This frequent returning emphasis on the importance of sakkāyaditthi also suggest Ñāṇavīra struggling with personality problems.

                [L. 14]   6 June 1962
 About three months ago I had a fresh attack of amoebiasis. The manifestations were as follows: increased abdominal discomfort, ‘hungry’ feeling in the afternoon (except after thick curd), specific tenderness about the region of the left end of the transverse colon, abdominal distension, increased quantity of mucus (I normally have little), thick opaque mucus with traces of blood (not thought to be due to piles), slightly increased constipation. During the last few days these manifestations have recurred, and this morning I noticed a trace of blood in the thick mucus. On the principle of Occam’s Razor, which says that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily (a thing the amoeba have yet to learn), I presume this recurrence is due to inadequate treatment two months ago (though, just as I have regular dāna dāyakas, it is possible also that I have amongst them a regular amoeba dāyaka who re-infects me from time to time). I wonder, therefore, if you would give me some indication of the best course to follow, both to eradicate the present infection and prevent recurrence and also to guard against fresh infection (which I seem to get rather easily in these parts).

                Stomach trouble is really the principal occupational hazard of the bhikkhu (who has no control over the preparation of the food he gets), and we must expect to have to put up with a certain amount of it. But amoebiasis is very damaging to the practice of concentration (though perhaps in other respects it may not be very serious — ‘Just a little scarring of the intestine’ as one doctor told me, rather leaving me wondering whether he would describe a bullet through one’s brains as ‘Just a little perforation of the head’), and it seems worthwhile taking precaution against it if that is at all possible.

In this letter we find Ñāṇavīra complaining about his health problems, almost to the extent where it seems as if he is blaming the amoeba organisms, for ‘the amoeba have yet to learn that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily’. But Nanavira does not stop blaming at this point, in fact, he goes on by ‘presuming this recurrence is due to inadequate treatment’. But even that would not do for him; he goes as far as accusing a layman being possibly the one ‘re-infecting him from time to time’. Since he requests advise from his addressee ‘to give him some indication of the best course to follow, both to eradicate the present infection and prevent recurrence and also to guard against fresh infection’,  this puts pressure on either the doctor himself – such as is told to him by the doctor describing it as ‘Just a little scarring of the intestine’ – or on the layman in question, for according to Ñāṇavīra they are both considered possibilities that have caused this recurrence. Also, his remark on the ‘hungry feeling’ seems to put extra pressure on the laypeople; it would be better for them when they serve the bhikkhus rich meals, such as thick curds, because serving the wrong kinds of food could be ‘very damaging to the practice of concentration’ for the bhikkhu suffering from amoebiasis.

                B.N. tells us that one of the principles of the Oxford Group is ‘Absolute Unselfishness’, which is perhaps worth discussing briefly. Some casual English visitors (two ‘grisly English faces’ — Cyril Connolly’s phrase — hitchhiking around the world) came the other day and asked me whether it wasn’t rather selfish to sit here alone seeking my own welfare. The idea was, no doubt, that I should busy myself with helping others, like Albert Schweitzer, who is generally regarded these days as the model of unselfish devotion to the service of others. Another Albert — Einstein — has something to say about this:

                Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of felt needs and assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual movements and their development. Feeling and desire are the motive forces behind all human endeavour and human creation, in however exalted a guise the latter may present itself to us. (‘Religion and Science’ in The World As I See It, p. 23).

                Why, then, does Albert Schweitzer devote his life to the care and cure of lepers in Africa? Because, says Albert Einstein, he feels the need to do so; because in doing so he satisfies his desire. And what does the Buddha say? ‘Both formerly, monks, and now, it is just suffering that I make known, and the ending of suffering.’  Einstein has, to some extent, understood that suffering is the fundamental fact and the basis of all action. The Buddha has completely understood this; for he knows also the way of escape, which Einstein does not. When, therefore, the question ‘What should I do?’ arises, the choice is not between being selfish and being unselfish; for whatever I do I cannot avoid being selfish — all action is selfish. The choice is between being selfish in Schweitzer’s way — by unselfish devotion to the welfare of others — and being selfish in the Buddha’s way.

                The welfare of oneself should not be neglected for the welfare of others, however great; recognizing the welfare of oneself, one should be devoted to one’s own welfare (Dhammapada 166).

                How are we to choose between these two ways of being selfish? The answer is: ‘choose the way of being selfish that leads to the ending of being selfish; which is the Buddha’s way, not Schweitzer’s’. There are many earnest Buddhists in Ceylon who are scandalized by the Buddha’s words quoted above; but naturally enough they will not admit such a thing, even to themselves; either they skip that verse when they read the Dhammapada or else they add a footnote explaining that the Buddha really meant something quite different. Here is the actual note made by a very well known Ceylon Thera: ‘One must not misunderstand this verse to mean that one should not selflessly work the for weal of others. Selfless service is highly commended by the Buddha’. But this itself is a complete misunderstanding of the Buddha’s Teaching. Time and again the Buddha points out that it is only those who have successfully devoted themselves to their own welfare and made sure of it (by reaching sotāpatti) that are in a position to help others — one himself sinking in a quicksand cannot help others to get out, and if he wishes to help them he must first get himself out (and if he does get himself out, he may come to see that the task of helping others to get out is not so easy as he formerly might have supposed). The notion of ‘Absolute Unselfishness’ is less straightforward than people like to think: it applies, if properly understood (but nobody less than sotāpanna does properly understand it), to the Buddha and to the other arahats (which does not mean to say that they will necessarily devote themselves to ‘selfless service’), but not to anyone else.

From this part it becomes clear to see that Ñāṇavīra regards himself superior (by claiming to have reached sotāpatti) over the ‘many earnest Buddhists in Ceylon who are scandalized by the Buddha’s words’.

With this being said, I hope to have shown how the powerfully tragic figure of Ñāṇavīra and his letters epitomize a proverbial deeply troubled intellectually-driven ronin who, being either unwilling or unable to work towards personal liberation, was helplessly swept away by speculative views.


Reference: Baron Julius Evola (1898–1974) and Ñāṇavīra Thera, Harold Edward Musson (1920–65): http://146www.dharmafarer.org/.

Ñāṇavīra Thera—Writings: http://www.nanavira.110mb.com/.


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