Biography of Hannelore Wolf (Sister Vajirā)
by Hellmuth Hecker
14.10.1928 Hamburg – 7.12.1991 Maschen
In an upper class neighbourhood in Hamburg a wife lived in well to do conditions. She had two sons and no concerns. However, somehow she sought for a deeper meaning and came across Schopenhauer while reading. Then a wandering preacher of a Christian sect appeared in Hamburg who appealed to her religious feelings and she followed him. Soon she got a child from him: Hannelore Wolf. Although the sect worshipped the child as the God-sent heir to the master, he himself abandoned mother and child without giving any financial support. They had to live in St. Pauli in a damp cellar. The government child inspector, on the reason of neglect, gave the child to foster parents. Her foster father Bading was an employee at the department of finances in Hamburg. Hannelore grew up in this family together with two adopted sisters. After finishing school she followed a course in technical design. In the meantime, her physical father had turned to politics and had ended up in a mental home before the war. Her physical mother suffered a similar fate and died in the early 1950s.
Hannelore was looking for religious meanings. In early summer 1949 she noticed a poster that announced a four part introductory course to the teachings of the Buddha. It was held by Paul Debes. Thus she went to the university’s main lecture theatre where the talks were given on 23.6.1949. After the first talk she hesitated to go again, but nevertheless did so.
The talk was especially agreeable to her. I wrote to my friend Fritz Schäfer in Itzehoe on 25.6.1949:
“It was great. It was dead silent in the hall and nobody left (same as during talk No. 1). The spiritual contact was remarkably close. Although nothing new was really said, I was completely taken.”
Hannelore was so much impressed that she listened to the next talks, came to the seminary group of Debes, and took part in his first “weeks of investigation” in an Adults’ Education College in the Lüneburger Heide area on 6-27.8.1949. I noticed her there. On her belt she wore a medallion with the inscription “In tempestate securitas.” She told me that the summary of the Buddha’s teaching was: “To increase good, decrease evil, avoid staying on.” The next year she only participated during 3 days of the 3 weeks study course of the second “weeks of investigation”. There she said that she wanted to become a nun in Ceylon. She remarked: “All of you like it too much around here.”
During both courses of “weeks of investigation” she had become friendly with Mrs. Erika v.d. Osten (PhD). … She suggested to Hannelore to become a private teacher for her son and daughter. Thus Hannelore moved to their place in Sept. 1950, and lived quite happily with the family. When Mrs. v.d. Osten’s husband returned from internment as a prisoner of war, the family moved back to Hannover. Hannelore returned to Hamburg and worked as a technical designer again. She also joined the circle of Debes-friends there.
She wrote to me in London on 12.4.1953, where I did some studies in order to prepare legislative on Army Service Refusal: “All of you are lovely and terribly worldly people. Always hanging out in the world without ever finding satisfaction.” After returning from London, I met her frequently at Dhamma talks. In autumn 1953 she founded, together with two female friends from the Debes group and me, a Dhamma discussion group … Hannelore played an influential role in the Buddhist circles and tried to deflate tensions.
In June 1954 the Sinhalese monk Ven. Nārada suddenly turned up in Hamburg. Hannelore took the opportunity trying to get a chance to go to Ceylon as a nun. Debes had tried in vain to find such an opportunity through sister Upalavanna. At the instigations of Ven. Nārada “Hamburg Buddha Mandala” was founded, out of which the Buddhist Society of Hamburg evolved on 9.10.1954. Ven. Nārada gave Pali names to many Buddhists and Hannelore, called Hanna, became Vajirā. The founding of the society and Hanna’s ambitions caused a lot of unrest. My brother in law, Wolfgang Seel, also a Buddhist and later working as a psychologist, who had good character knowledge, was of the opinion that it was much to early for Hanna to go to Ceylon and to isolate herself completely from her cultural background. It would not be good for her.
After much turmoil she finally got a chance to go to Ceylon. In 1955 the Vihāra Mahā Devi Hermitage at Biyagāma near Colombo was to be opened, where Buddhist nuns (dasa sila upāsikā = ten precept female followers) lived. Through the mediation of Ven. Nārada and Mrs. Salgado, the leader of a Buddhist women society supporting the Sangha, she could go there. After I had vouched for any possible costs of a return journey, she got her visa and departed on 1.4.1955. from Genoa by the ship called “Asia”. I brought her on board and she said:
“Now I go away to meet the real life, and you return, hopefully in order to get fed up with the world.”
On board she got to know the astronomer Dr. Winfried Petri, who later converted to Buddhism. He was on his way to Ceylon to watch a solar eclipse. Together with him she visited Ven. Nyānatiloka and Ven. Nyānaponika in Kandy as well as the Island Hermitage of Polgasduwa, about which she wrote:
“After I had seen this island, I can only say: If someone does not become a saint here, he will never become one, because he is not internally capable of doing so, as the external conditions are perfect. … On the whole island there are only 3 monks and an upāsaka. Solitude is difficult to bear.”
After she had moved from the house of Mrs. Salgado to Biyagāma on 6.5.1955 where at that time ten young Singhalese women lived as nuns, she also took on the 10 rules and was ordained as Sister Vajirā by Ven. Nārada on the full moon of July. About her life she wrote: “By the way, I live here as if in a fairy-tale. In my whole life I have not had it so good and beautiful as here… I can’t describe the peace entering my heart when I see a sunset, which is different every day… I am surprised how gentle I have become, in any case, with regards to judging others.” (1955)
To provide her with even greater quiet, generous supporters built a nice bungalow for her in the palm-tree forest of the monastery garden. However, before long her moods changed. She suffered internal lack and noticed that she could not possibly meditate all day long. At the turn of 1955/56 she wrote, that she had reached the end of her wits. She felt relief when the cars of her donors came up the driveway to the monastery and would bring some diversification. Finally, she became even physically ill.
The abbess, Sister Sudhammā, was also a [school] teacher in Colombo. Sister Vajirā found it non-ascetic when a nun was earning money and wrote a critical memorandum in English with her views about the defects of the nun’s life. She sent me the text and requested me to make cyclostyle copies of it so that she could distribute it. When I declined, she turned to Mrs. v. d. Osten, who made the copies of the text. After the polemic pamphlet had been sent out, Vajirā made herself many enemies. They took offence that the stranger, who was living on the alms food of the country, knew everything better. The nuns, for example, switched off the power supply to her kuti and turned a cold shoulder on her. When I got to hear about it, I approached Ven. Nyānaponika for help, who made an extra effort and went to her and mediated with a lot of difficulties, so that at least she could remain at Biyagāma, now only tolerated with Buddhist equanimity.
Taking on scholastic work offered itself as a way out of her frustration. Having learned English quickly, she then started with intensive Pali studies and soon started to translate texts and carried on a correspondence about Dhamma topics. On her request, I sent her a type writer.
She once visited Sister Upalavanna, but the two women from Hamburg did not get along with each other. Dr Petri, still a Catholic at the time, wrote to me in his report about his journey to Ceylon, having expressed his reverence for Ven. Nyānatiloka and Ven. Nyānaponika:
“With the German postulant Vajirā I could not escape the impression of a rigid and completely unfeminine ambition… It seems that she envisions the founding of a Buddhist nunnery for Europeans following the example of Nyānatiloka, of which she was to become the first abbess. … She categorically refused to participate in any communal religious activities-not even making exceptions for the sake of doing others a favour.”
One of the dāyakas of the monastery who also donated for her benefit and whom she respected a lot, was Dr. Ananda Nimalasuriya from Colombo. He owned land east of Galle, at Heenatigala near Talpe, in the dry zone, which offered healthier conditions than the coastal zone near Colombo. He got a nice bungalow, a small hermitage, built there, to which she moved in 1959. Young Sinhalese women venerated her very much there, and one lived temporarily with her as a disciple.
In September 1961 I had sent her the first edition of my Ethik des Buddha. She replied that especially the description of renunciation was not convincing enough, which was true. She also wrote that she was learning the Dhammapada by heart in Pali and had started with an English translation with the text newly arranged. She also had visited Ven. Nyanāloka on Polgasduwa, and complained about the oppressive climate. Wolfgang Seel had written to her in September 1961 and had criticised her a lot. She did not reply. In any case, correspondence with German Buddhists, I included, faded away in 1961. Only with Mrs. v.d. Osten she continued corresponding.
Around autumn of 1961 the English monk Ven. Ñānavīra Thera, who lived 40 km from her in a kuti in the jungle as a hermit, had sent both to me and to her, a text he had written, A Note on Paticca Samuppāda, wherein he criticized the extension over three-lives interpretation. Vajirā had briefly met him and his friend Ven. Nyānamoli at the Vajirārāma monastery in Colombo in 1955. About that she wrote this to Germany at the time:
“I was told that he tried to live in solitude in the mountains, because he is a great friend of meditation; however he had to return because he did not get enough to live on.”
In 1956 Ven. Ñānavīra had written an article called A Proof of Rebirth in the Buddha Jayanthi magazine, which was published in Colombo to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of Buddhism. Vajirā liked it so much that she translated it into German and sent it to Max Ladner in November 1956. He agreed to publish it in the magazine Einsicht. However, Ven. Ñānavīra did not agree with the translation and publication which in the end didn’t take place.
On 12.11.1961 she thanked Ven. Ñānavīra for sending the Note, “which could have been written for me,” [original quote in English] for a letter of 9.11.1961 and notified him that she would like to meet him on Polgasduwa, where he was staying for a few days, to talk about his text. On 18.11.1961 she arranged that her supporters bring her there by car early in the morning. A conversation which lasted for several hours took place on the island. Thereupon an intensive exchange of letters followed. She wrote sixteen more long letters, the last one on 25.1.1962. His letters she burned, for which she apologised: “That I burnt your letters and notes was the most dangerous act that I ever committed.” (Clearing the Path, p. 530.) [quote in English]
Years later Ven. Ñānavīra, who had sent her letters to a friend, wrote about her:
“Sister Vajirā is an extremely passionate and self-willed person, with strong emotions, and apparently, something of a visionary … she alternates between modes-one could almost say attacks-of emotional periods and of admirable clear-headedness … emotion for her is quite normal, as it is for nearly all women.” (op.cit. p. 386, letter of 24.8.1964) [this quote and the following letters are left in English in Dr. Hecker's book]
To her last letter, of 25.1.1962, in which she assumed that he controlled the wind-element through breathing exercises, he answered dismissingly on 29.1.1962, saying that the wind-element rather controlled him for the last ten years and disturbed his digestion, so that he could not exercise mindful breathing in and out. This letter was left lying in her kuti for years, until it was discovered after his death.
In the meantime the following had happened. On 5.2.1962 Mrs. Salgado had written to Ven. Ñānavīra: “I have to tell you something very sad. Sister Vajirā has gone out of her head. Please do not answer any of her letters on the Dhamma. Some girls have stayed with her for the last few days and came and told Mrs. Nimalasuriya that she is very bad.”
Upon his letter of 7.2. Mrs. Salgado wrote on 12.2.:
“We went on the 6th and brought sister to Colombo. She ran away in the night from Mrs. Nimalasuriya’s house and was walking along the streets, several followed her and with great difficulty put her into a car. Dr. Nimalasuriya, Dr. Shelton Fernando and their wives along with me forced her into a car and took her to Sulamin Hospital at 2 a.m. … Now she is much better after the treatment; there also, twice she has jumped through the window and roamed about, but the nurse and attendants managed to bring her back. Now Sister Vajirā says that she wants to get into a saree and at times says that she wants to go back to Germany. We are now wondering what to do with her. By this same post I am writing to Rev. Nyānaponika also.”
On 24.2. the Sinhalese Siridhamma wrote to Ven. Ñānavīra, that they had sent rs. 200-300 worth of clothes for Vajirā:
“Although she was speaking of marriage at one stage, prior to her departure, she had said that she would go back to her foster parents and lead a quiet life (single).”
On 26.2. Mrs. Salgado wrote to Ven. Ñānavīra:
“Just a line to inform you that Sister Vajirā left for home on the 22nd. She had recovered but not perfectly normal. She was well enough to go by herself, without anyone else to look after her. The Embassy made arrangements for her trip … she gave up her nun’s life and became a lay woman. She said that she does not want to be a nun again…”
At around the same time, I got three letters from Ceylon: One from Ven. Nyānaponika in Kandy; one from Ven. Nārada in Colombo; and one from the German embassy there. In this way I was informed about the above developments. The embassy wrote that Ms. Wolf had to be repatriated due to her health situation. Her situation had stabilized to relatively normal, but a ship journey could not be taken into consideration, so that I had to transfer the vouched travel costs for the airplane to the attaché at the embassy. They put her on an airplane and telegraphed me the time of arrival at Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel. On the morning of 24.2.1962 she arrived. I waited for her in the arrival hall and brought her to the car of Paul Debes, who had also brought his daughter Monika along. The four of us drove to Hannover. The drive over the Elbe bridges was full of obstructions because there was work going on everywhere to repair the damage caused by the flood disaster of 17.2.. About her inner flood she only spoke hesitatingly. She had fallen in love with Ven. Ñānavīra and had had the feeling that he had come through the air (wind-element) to her in her kuti. On Sunday 5.3. I went to Hannover where she was staying with Erika v.d. Osten. There she spoke about some more things, part of them she told me directly; part of them I heard through Mrs. v.d. Osten.
On 7.4. she moved from Hannover to Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel, where a Buddhist nature path practitioner, Else Münster, was living in a suburban house together with her brother. They provided Hanna with a spacious loft room, where she was taken care of. I visited her several times there. She told me that she dreamt of Ñānavīra every night. Because I did not agree with the opinions about the Dhamma which she expressed, I wrote a dismissive letter to her beginning of June. Apparently that caused another crisis. She declared that Ven. Ñānavīra had disrobed, was in London already, and would become King of Ceylon and she the Queen. Yes, that he was already waiting for her in her old house at Heimhuderstrasse. Else Münster quickly decided to take a taxi and bring her there. There she changed her ideas.
While I was on holiday in the Tessin in June-July 1962 she wrote to me that had secretly left the Münster family without saying goodbye and had returned with her suitcase to her foster parents who put her up. That was the beginning of a return to normal. With a lot of effort the foster parents managed to convince her to take up her profession again. And thus she started to work for the textile machine factory Artos in Hamburg on 1.9.1962. Her foster mother died around that time.
End of 1963 I met her and we drove to Rohlfshagen because she wanted to visit Debes one more time, before he went off on his journey to meditate in Burma and Ceylon for more than a year. She had gotten addicted to smoking, had become fat and remarked that she regrettably was only a caricature of herself.
Since I did not hear from her for almost two years, I wanted to visit her in 1964 at her foster father’s. She was there, as she said later, but did not open the door. On 2.7.1965 I tried to visit again, met the foster father on the stairs and thus got in. She said that everything seemed to her so far away; she did no really recall whether we had addressed each other in an intimate and casual or in a distant and formal way [in German "du" or "Sie", "you" or "you"]. The inner split could only be overcome very slowly; there were hard battles. She did not want to have anything to do with Buddhism, and she had thrown away all the issues of “Buddhistische Monatsblätter” [periodical of Buddhist Society Hamburg]. She did not want to visit Mrs. v.d. Osten, and in any case did not want to have anything to do with women. She maintained that she had not received a copy of Ven. Ñānavīra’s Notes on Dhamma which had been published in the meantime, but she still held him in high esteem. She smoked one cigarette after the other. What she would like to do was travelling and going out.
After he foster father had married a 26 year old woman, whom she did not get along with, she moved to a room in Maschen in 1968, closer to the company she worked for. In 1971 she got a little apartment there and in 1978 her company moved to Maschen, too. Her job was the best therapy for her. She had to get focussed, had to get along with her colleagues and was too tired at night to follow phantasies. Every year she went on a four weeks’ holiday in Bavaria. Once she even went to England. Until 1966 she only wore sarees. When her boss forbade her this, she sewed long dresses for herself, which resembled the Indian ones. Her sewing machine was the only “luxury” in her spartanically equipped apartment without television or telephone. She continued shaving her head and wore a wig. She dismissed requests from Buddhists to meet her. Debes visited her in Maschen one more time.
In 24.3.1986 Samanera Bodhesako had written to her from Ceylon to request permission to publish parts of her letters to Ven. Ñānavīra in the planned book Clearing the Path. She sent me this letter on 8.4. and asked me to inform the Samanero of her agreement, which I did on 11.4. and added that he could cite her as Sister Vajirā. On 20.3.1988 he wrote me that the book was done and sent out. Also that she, too, had received a copy. On 23.6. I answered him that I had read the book with great interest and asked him if he had received a confirmation from her. I did not get a reply to this letter, which also contained some questions and corrections. He had died suddenly in Nepal on 19.8.1988.
On 31.3.1984 Hanna lost her employment at the company for which she had been working for 22 years, because they were reducing personnel. As a compensation she got 32,000 DM [€16,361.35]. She had never had that much money at one time. She gave in to the temptation to drown the shock of being pensioned in alcohol. Then, however, her Buddhist insight did appeal again: should she wait until her money was used up and she would be forced to stop drinking by external causes? For the time being she reduced it. She radically stopped smoking in 1988.
On 14.2.1989 I went to Maschen and visited Hanna. Most important in the two and a half hours of conversation was her statement that she was still a Buddhist. She had not been in Hamburg since 1978, not even for the burial of her foster father who died in 1982, and who supported her financially until his end.
On the evening of 7.12.1991, she had breathing difficulties, opened the windows of her apartment a bit and sat down at her desk. There her heart failed and she was in another world. That’s how she was found two days later. She was buried in nearby Hittfeld.
Revised translation of:
© Hellmuth Hecker:
Lebensbilder Deutscher Buddhisten
Ein bio-bibliographisches Handbuch
Band II: Die Nachfolger
Section 119. pp. 374-386.
Translation © Path Press, 2008
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