The Wit and Wisdom of Ven Nanavira Thera

Posted: April 7, 2016 by pathpress in News, Review

Speech for the Opening of a Monument in Bundala, Sri Lanka, Friday 26th February 2016, by Michael Rae (Path Press Board Member)

24– Ven Nanavira was nothing if not a very serious person. He came to Ceylon with Ven Nanamoli to attempt to achieve just one thing – the enlightenment that the Buddha talked about. This was not common or socially acceptable so soon after the end of World War Two – but as Nanavira writes in L 50 “ for 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.” Nanavira later removed himself from contact with other monks and the support of a monastery by moving to a single room kuti (hut) in the hot coastal plains in the south of the country. There he was free of distractions and could spend his days in meditation, or reading and writing. He seemed to prefer his own company.

10– The early correspondence between Nanavira and Nanamoli (collected in Seeking the Path) is daunting in its erudition (quantum mechanics, analytical logic, philosophy etc) and is applied with a commitment to phenomenological and existential principles. Nanavira combined this with his increasing knowledge, and reading, of the Buddhist writings, and filtered the whole through his own direct experience. A rich and heady mix. (From L 73, we can see that the section ‘Fundamental Structure’ in Notes on Dhamma (NOD) is a result of this period. This is the part of NOD with which most people seem to have the greatest difficulty).

– As has been noted by others, Nanavira’s writings after 1960 are markedly different however, but still impressively serious. Gone is the spirit of searching and encyclopaedic research, to be replaced by a calm authority and a desire to help others gain a correct understanding of the Buddha’s Teaching. Nanavira’s seriousness is now made evident by his preparedness to take on the might of the Commentarial tradition, by his frank discussion of his health problems and of his preparation for suicide, and by his desire to make his points clear and understood by other people. All of this is handled with a measured, objective and detached tone of voice.

– Nanavira writes in the Preface to NOD that his book is for the person “subjectively engaged with an anxious problem, the problem of his existence, which is also the problem of his suffering. There is therefore nothing in these pages to interest the professional scholar, for whom the question of personal existence does not arise”(p 5). He writes later in L 80 that “the Notes are designed to be an invitation, a provocation, a challenge, to the reader to come and share the author’s point of view”. Nanavira makes it clear that he is not interested in having a ‘sharing of views’ with the reader – I doubt that, if he were alive today, Nanavira would be a heavy user of internet chat-sites or blogs!

– So by writing NOD, Nanavira is only interested in the serious business of helping people to make personal transformations in their lives. This can make reading Nanavira often anything but comfortable – his writings are a world apart from the popular ‘Buddhist’ writings that seek to reassure the person with problems that all will work out in the end, that one should learn to love oneself, that we can always find solace in the natural or animal world (preferably with beautiful photos or videos), and that good things will eventually happen to ‘good’ people.

– Nanavira takes a hatchet to all of this by emphasising that the Buddha says that life is marked by impermanence and suffering and that holding to even a small part of one’s life is foolish in the extreme. The suttas, he writes in L 21, reverse the layperson’s notions of health, saying that “sensual thoughts are the thoughts of a sick man (sick with ignorance and craving), and the way to health is through thoughts of foulness and the diseases of the body, and of its death and decomposition.” Nanavira makes it clear that he would rather take his own life than make compromises – there is no way out, no relief or panacea for a person who is facing the fact that this life is pointless or painful. This can be daunting and challenging for the reader who may initially cling to the hope that, once certain changes have been made or matters resolved, life will ‘improve’ – that true love will come along, that fame and prestige (with concomitant rewards) will be mine, or that I am going to stay healthy and youthful for many more years (with, hopefully, science offering a further extension).

– Nanavira, in his writings, makes it clear that one has to let go of holding to such hopes of future pleasures and rewards – his words (with their calm, insistent authority) become like the voice of our own conscience, exhorting us to apply ourselves, to be ‘authentic’ and to distinguish what is true and important from what is false and foolish. But the path is long and hard and Nanavira’s words may seem severe when a person feels confused. While other books may suggest abandoning morality, the Notes go further, Nanavira writes, and even “suggest that we should abandon humanity” (L 133). Cold comfort indeed!

– However, since I was first introduced to Nanavira’s writings, I have found no other thinker who evidences the same wisdom and sense of personal authority. For me, this demonstrates that Nanavira’s claims of achievement are valid – and besides his actions and life speak louder than words and, however challenging, offer a role model for a person to follow. I believe this is evidence of Nanavira achieving what he sets out to do in NOD: to clear away the thickets of misunderstanding and bring the Buddha’s Teaching into the present day – to make it meaningful and relevant in a way that challenges people (but also encourages them) to apply themselves and to realise the insights of the Buddha for themselves.

– Putting it another way (as Nanavira does himself) his writings show how the arahat is possible. Nanavira’s writings have (in my opinion) the unique capacity to help the layperson get a sense of what the experience of nibbana truly is. (I realise some may view this as dangerous territory for me to comment on). Nanavira is able to remove any romantic notions we may have about mystical experiences, special powers and insights, incomparable self-control etc. Nanavira clarifies the experience of the arahat, making it clear that certain things we may previously have associated with this are foolish or irrelevant, while other things (such as not holding to notions of ‘self’) are vital and essential.

– In my opinion, in Nanavira’s writings we do not get the sense of someone discussing these concepts in the abstract or theoretically, but as a person who has realised them for himself ie. that Nanavira is talking of experiences that he knows, and which his actions and life demonstrate he has achieved. (In the two books Seeking the Path and Clearing the Path, we have probably a unique example of an intelligent person practising the Buddha’s teaching both before and after sotapanna. In the second book the tone of voice changes, the approach to topics and the purpose of the discussion (at least from Nanavira’s side) are quite different – there is clarification and confirmation from him, and no more need for exploration and testing.

– As Nanavira says himself, his purpose in NOD and his later Letters, is not to convince or convert, but to offer insights and clarification for the individual willing to apply and check for themselves (in following the Buddha’s Teaching). Nanavira helps the person avoid make unnecessary mistakes, and clarifies what the Buddha actually said rather then what others claim he said. I believe in this way Nanavira has helped many people over the last 50 years – starting with Sr Vajira – to develop appropriate insights and make changes in their lives. It is this achievement that we have gathered to celebrate and acknowledge today – how this rather eccentric, upper-class Edwardian English gent (as described by the young Peter Maddock who met him in 1965) continues to offer an important message for a distracted, digital world where it is getting ever harder to appreciate what is important from what is not.

– I have focussed in this paper on what I consider to be the importance of Nanavira’s message and the serious and personal model his life presents. As noted already, Nanavira makes it clear what it is important to take seriously (“All determinations are impermanent. All determinations are suffering. All things are not-self.”); and what can be treated lightly or dismissed (the Abhidhamma and Commentarial tradition, the famed inductive approach of Western science, the voice and views of the masses, the cultural achievements of the West etc). In fact, according to Nanavira, pretty much everything, apart from the need to apply the Buddha’s teaching in one’s life! But surely, a little voice in one’s head may say, this is going too far, surely there are some other things of importance? Surely there are some pleasures that can be enjoyed?

– There are some people who react negatively to the writings of Nanavira, saying that his views are all too depressing and cynical. These people criticise Nanavira, claim that he was mentally unstable, and focus on the more notorious aspects of his life (his suicide especially) to prove their case that he was not a man of achievement, and therefore that his writings can be safely ignored. This seems foolhardy – first, because these people have probably failed to appreciate how Nanavira’s approach to life models renunciation and ‘letting go’; and second, because they have probably missed the thread of humour that runs through all Nanavira’s writings and which, like spice in a meal, serves to make the points he is making all the more compelling.

– I imagine that, if one were to have met Nanavira (and there are some rather unreliable records of this), in addition to being struck by his quiet authoritative manner, one would have noticed the many quips and jokes – some even, to judge from his writings, in quite bad taste (cf. reference to the ‘hair on a polar bear’s bum’ in L 135)! Maybe this was an old habit left over from his childhood and upbringing, but I also like to think that it is the gentle and chivvying manner of a senior to a junior partner on a long journey – necessary to keep the spirits up and help keep things in perspective.

– Nanavira writes in L 119 (just weeks before he took his own life) that “it is tragic that we should take as meaningful a world that is actually meaningless, but comic that the world we take as meaningful should actually be meaningless”. And I think it is another of Nanavira’s contributions to helping us understand the Buddha’s Teaching, that he shows very clearly how comic many aspects of living are, and not just tragic. (I should add here Nanavira’s caution that these comments do not apply to the sotapanna but only to the layperson, for whom life’s ambiguities still exist.) I think, when faced with life’s exigencies, Nanavira might agree that people should learn from the old saying that “If you couldn’t laugh, you would weep”.

– I would like to end therefore by sharing a few examples of what I consider to be the wit of Nanavira. In all cases, there is (I believe) a serious point behind the humour. There always is with Nanavira – he would never crack a joke without a purpose, and even less would he laugh at a person or a situation if there was not a serious lesson to be learned in terms of how to live one’s life.

So, three examples from Nanavira’s Commonplace Book that I like are:

# 232 “Q. When is a thing not a thing?

A. When it is mine.” (Seeking the Path, 2010 p. 411)

# 39 “Q. Why the Buddha rather than Jesus?

A. Jesus wept.” (Seeking the Path, 2010 p. 385)

# 209 “You say that in seeking what benefits me I am being selfish? And that it is better for me to be unselfish? Better for me, did you say? How selfish, then, to seek to be unselfish!” (Seeking the Path, 2010 p. 407)

Finally, at the risk of striking a somewhat discordant note and facing accusations of being insensitive to the significance of today’s gathering, I feel I have to share Nanavira’s wonderfully barbed comments from 1957 about a proposed monument for a Thera who had recently passed away:

“1. In general, the proposal to have the monument …. as a near replica of Lenin’s Tomb is excellent. In the first place this provides a strong element of Irony. (How few will know, and how curious the effect on those who do!)

2. It sounds perfectly hideous. And it is necessary that it should be; for at all costs we must emphasize the Ethical at the expense of the Aesthetical. (On this point we need not worry: any ‘Work of Art’ produced in modern Ceylon is bound to be incredibly revolting – which is one reason why I stay here.)

3. It will be very heavy. It should be so heavy that it can only be removed by Faith. Thus, if it is also hideous enough, every time we see it we shall be tempted to remove it, and this is a good religious exercise.

4. It is essential that there should be Repetition. In other words there must be more than one: there must be a number, all exactly alike, with an identical inscription ‘Erected in memory of etc’. I suggest that they are so arranged that wherever one goes in the Hermitage one is always walking towards one.

5. If these conditions are fulfilled the effect should be shattering. Even the most casual visitor will be moved before he has gone to exclaim ‘But this is Absurd’.

6. If anyone objects that this is a joke, in bad taste, tell them ‘So is existence’.“ (Seeking the Path, 2010 p. 60-61)

– I do not for one moment think that today’s monument is ‘hideous’ and thankfully we have avoided endless ‘repetition’, so perhaps Nanavira’s message about existence being a ‘bad joke’ has been lost on us today. But in any event it is hopefully not inappropriate to feel in a celebratory mood, and offer appreciation for one man’s life and of what it has given us.


Thoughts about Ven. Nyanasumana

Posted: April 3, 2016 by pathpress in News, Review

Speech by Steven Ganci during the Ven. Nyanavira Thera Memorial Day, Bundala, Sri Lanka, 26th February 2016.


Ven. Nyanasumana (1941-1970)


Well, it’s a great pleasure to be here with all of you today (including the kabargoya [monitor lizard] and all the other creatures in this peaceful place). Though many of us are relative strangers to one another we gather as friends with a wholesome intention.

We’re here, of course, to remember the life of the Ven. Nanavira Thera, and the varied and extraordinary effects his writings have had on so many people over the past 50 years — including, I’m sure, many of us presently gathered. But I would like now, with these short comments, to ask us all to consider not Ven. Nanavira’s life, but rather the contributions and lives of others: those who’s efforts have protected, preserved, and ultimately made available the Ven. Thera’s legacy.

15And of the many people, both lay and monastic, who have done so, I’ll now share some thoughts about the Ven. Nanasumana Bhikkhu, an intimate student of the Ven. Nanavira immediately prior to the Thera’s death, and the ‘inheritor’ of this kuti as well as the Ven. Thera’s writings on Dhamma. Read the rest of this entry »

Invitation to Memorial Day for Ñānavīra Thera

Posted: January 27, 2016 by pathpress in News

NV01aV.NanasumanaOn 26th February 2016 people will gather together in Bundala, Sri Lanka to remember the life of the Ven. Ñānavīra Thera who passed away in 1965, and reflect on the effects his writings have had on us over the past 50 years. At this occasion we will enshrine the remains of Ven. Ñānavīra and set up a new monument which has been built with many donations from devotees. Also on this occasion we will prepare a suitable grave for the remains of his disciple, Ven. Ñānasumana, who died in Bundala five years later, in 1970 – his remains have been kept together with Ven. Ñānavīra’s ever since. The kuti (hut), where the Venerables were living, is to have a plaque placed on it to remind future generations of hermits and visitors of the historical importance of the place. The celebration starts around midday. Everyone is welcome to join with us.

Location: Bundala Kuti, Hambantota 82002, Sri Lanka
Google map.

For more information you can contact us on +94 (0)76 5252 557

by Michael Rae

NV14c_colNanavira makes it clear at the start of Notes on Dhamma for whom the book is written and to whom it might appeal. This is the person who is reflecting on their situation in life and trying to find some meaning for their existence. At any point in time, this is not everybody and in fact this kind of enquiry may sometimes be brought on by a dramatic or unpleasant event in the person’s life, such as the death of someone dear or a medical scare. For whatever reason, all the usual pleasures of life become meaningless, the roles and activities that we have spent years building up seem shallow and trivial, and we may be filled with despair as we reflect on our superficial and selfish priorities.

This is a situation described by many writers and in the world of philosophy by the existentialist thinkers. In order to address the predicament, the existentialists describe the need for the person to at least be ‘authentic’ in their approach to the problem. They describe how most people are too weak or too scared to face up to the harsh reality of their situation, preferring instead to lose themselves in distractions of one sort or another. These may include losing oneself in the fantasy world of modern media, in addictive behaviours such as work, sex and drugs, or in other escapist fare such as a belief in a ‘personal saviour’. Anything that will take their minds off the horrible reality that stares them in the face in their darkest moments – that each of our lives is ultimately totally meaningless, our personal world is so fragile that it could be destroyed in an instant, and that, no matter how hard we try, we have no final control over our fates. Read the rest of this entry »

Mrs Willett’s Mediumship by Balfour

Posted: February 21, 2015 by pathpress in News

A Study of the Psychological Aspects of Mrs Willett’s Mediumship, and of the Statement of the Communicators Concerning Process
(Proceedings, Vol 43., 1935)
by Gerald William, Earl of Balfour


Path Press is sharing this digital version of the original copy with the permission of the Society for Psychical Research since this book has been recommended by Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera in his letters, described it as “a fascinating book”, but it could not be obtained in bookshops or on any online library.

Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s recommendation:

“[T]his book seems to me to be quite exceptionally good evidence for [rebirth]; and the various philosophical problems discussed (between the living and the dead) are themselves of no little interest.” (CtP, p.307)

“The book contains an account of some extremely high quality ‘communications’ purporting to come from the deceased members of the Society for Psychical Research (Henry Sidgwick, F.W.H. Myers, E. Gurney, S. H. Butcher, A. W. Verrall, William James) and addressed to Oliver Lodge and Gerald Balfour (the author). The book does not discuss the question of survival at all but accepts for the nonce the ‘communications’ at their face value—i.e. as actually coming from the (late) individuals that they claim to come from—and then, with this assumption, proceeds to discuss how the messages were transmitted and the actual contents of the messages—but the contents of the messages are themselves actually a discussion of how they were transmitted. Anyway, I found the book of remarkable interest from several points of view; and I thought that you might like to see it. I know that some people find such books (i.e. on mediumistic communications) extremely distasteful, and I shall not press it upon you. In any case it is not to be regarded as an attempt to ‘prove re-birth’ to you (re-birth, anyway, cannot be proved as one ‘proves Pythagoras’; whether one accepts—or rejects, as the case may be—the account of some event as ‘evidence’ for re-birth depends upon one’s temperament and one’s presuppositions): I merely remark that since, as you know, I accept re-birth as a matter of course, I found no antecedent obstacle opposing my taking part (by way of marginal comments) in the Myers-Gurney-Balfour controversy about the divisibility of the self. But, whether you read the book or not, would it be too much if I were to ask you if you could possibly get the book bound for me? I think it is worth preserving, and it will not last long with only paper cover.” (CtP, p.475)

Dr. M. John Stella passes away.

Posted: November 30, 2014 by pathpress in News

John StellaWe regret to inform that our friend and member of Path Press, Dr John Stella, passed away on 28th November 2014 in Gainesville, Florida USA, after suffering a massive stroke.

John Stella received an M.A. in English language and literature from Oxford University, a Diploma della Conoscenza della Lingua Italiana from Universita per Stranieri in Perugia, Italy and a Ph.D. from the University of Western Australia. He was an Editorial Advisor for Mots Pluriels, an international journal of contemporary cultural, political, and ethical issues. He has also written extensively on the Dhamma and Western literature, contributing articles to diverse publications such as the Washington Buddhist, Forum Italicum, Rivista di Studi Italiani and the Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities.

His essay, “One, no one and One Hundred Thousand” was published as the final chapter of Reflections of the Dharma, edited by Dr. Sunthorn Plamitr (Chicago, 1990). Dr Stella’s book Self and Self-Compromise in the Narratives of Pirandello and Moravia (Peter Lang, 2000) incorporates Ven. Ñāṇavira’s approach to the Suttas to offer, additionally, a revolutionary interpretation of Pirandello & Moravia – two of the most significant authors of the twentieth century. John was also Research Associate of the School of European Languages, University of Western Australia, and a lecturer in Western Classics in the USA.

John contributed a Foreword & Introduction to two volumes of the Buddhist Cultural Centre’s edition of Ven. Ñāṇavira’s Clearing the Path, an Introduction “Scratching the Itch” for Ven. Bodhesako’s Beginnings, Collected Essays (BPS, 2008), and an essay “The Mind in Progress” as a chapter for Ven. Hiriko Ñāṇasuci’s book The Hermit of Bundala (PPP, 2014). He was an Editorial Advisor for Path Press and an editor of Ven. Bodhesako’s books.

On 30th September John suffered a massive stroke from which he never recovered. Our thoughts are with his brother Fred and his family, and John’s girlfriend.

John will be greatly missed by many friends and all of us who worked with him at Path Press. He will be remembered as someone who had a great interest in Dhamma and developing the right-view, which he shared in his very interesting and engaging writings. We are very grateful for all that he has done.

May the merit of John’s life and work bring him good fortune in his new abiding.

Path Press Committee

Some of John Stella’s essays:

Scratching the Itch – text
Review of ‘Notes on Dhamma’ – text
Review of Ven. Ñānavīra’ Letters after 1960 – text
More essays can also be found here.


Image  —  Posted: October 6, 2014 by pathpress in News

Notes on Meditation

Posted: July 30, 2014 by pathpress in Bhikkhu's Notebook, Dhamma Article

pdf-downloadby Ven. Ninoslav Ñāṇamoli


1. Mindfulness of breathing, bhikkhus, developed and repeatedly practised, is of great fruit, of great benefit; mindfulness of breathing, bhikkhus, developed and repeatedly practised, perfects the four foundations of mindfulness; the four foundations of mindfulness, developed and repeatedly practised, perfect the seven enlightenment factors; the seven enlightenment factors, developed and repeatedly practised, perfect knowledge and freedom…

2. Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, gone to the forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.

3. Breathing in long, he knows, ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he knows, ‘I breathe out long.’

4. Breathing in short, he knows, ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he knows, ‘I breathe out short.’

5. ‘Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe in,’ he trains himself thus; ‘experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe out,’ he trains himself thus.

6. ‘Calming the bodily determination, I shall breathe in,’ he trains himself thus; ‘calming the bodily determination, I shall breathe out,’ he trains himself thus…

Ānāpānasati Sutta, MN 118.

1. The practice of ānāpānasati or mindfulness of breathing represents a phenomenological exercise in developing the principle of simultaneity (akālikā dhamma). This is accomplished by the sufficient establishing of mindfulness and knowledge of what one is supposed to do and discern.1 It is an exercise because it requires one actively engaging in and being aware of the act of breathing, and it develops the principle of simultaneity because while one is actively breathing, one is aware of one’s actions (body, feelings, and thoughts). These are two different, simultaneously present things: the physical or bodily act of breathing, and the mental reflexive thoughts of one doing that very act. One is not supposed to be favoured on account of the other; a person should not be overdoing the breathing (i.e. turning it into a forceful breathing exercise) nor should he be underdoing it (i.e. forgetting about the act of breathing that is being performed, and letting it happen unawares). In the same sense one should not overthink one’s thinking (i.e. get lost in thought). The point is to mindfully breathe while remain fully aware of oneself-mindfully-breathing, or – to put it simply – to remain aware of the present phenomenon of “I am breathing.Read the rest of this entry »