Speech by Steven Ganci during the Ven. Nyanavira Thera Memorial Day, Bundala, Sri Lanka, 26th February 2016.
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.
And 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.
Reflection upon Ven. Nanasumana’s life has, I think, been quite worthwhile, for me personally, for a couple of reasons. First, and perhaps foremost, is that it calls to mind the sense of gratitude that I feel for those, as I’ve mentioned, who have preserved Notes on Dhamma and the Ven. Thera’s other writings. As the custodian of Nanavira’s writings following his death, Ven. Nanasumana worked from the beginning, at times alone but also at times with others, to preserve, organize and collate them for future publication. He was devoted to this work, and he continued it until his death.
The second reason for reflecting on Nanasumana’s life, again for me personally, is that I find elements of it to be inspirational. Not because of any profound accomplishments of attainment (though who’s to say there were none) but rather because of the way he faced the challenges and difficult circumstances of his spiritual quest. In other words his distinct accomplishments were those manifesting in qualities of effort and action rather than in attainment.
I’ll try to illustrate what I mean by this with some biographical information —
What little I know of Ven. Nanasumana’s short life as a bhikkhu I’ve learned from his letters to his friend, Tom Edmon, back home in America. And having read them a few times it’s quite clear to me that his life, at least his time as a monk, and most likely the period leading up to his decision to leave California for Ceylon, was not a relaxed or easy one.
That he left a successful career as an architect, working in real estate, at such a young age — his early 20s — giving up life in what was then, as now, considered by middle-class American youth to be a kind of utopia of the particular brand of American materialism and hedonism currently taking shape –- a place with the unofficial motto: “let the good times roll!” –- the intention to give up such a life must have originated from a particularly strong sense of dis-enchantment, or even dis-gust. It certainly reflects a willingness, and indeed the mental courage, to act — with both decisiveness and commitment.
And I think these same qualities are reflected in Ven. Nanasumana’s subsequent life as a monk as well. For the challenges he faced as a bhikkhu were, I believe, quite difficult. Choosing — very quickly, apparently within months of ordination — to go out on his own, largely separating himself from the companionship of colleagues and the support and guidance of elders, he must have felt periods of great loneliness, occasional anxiety — perhaps even desolation. In fact, these feelings are reflected in some of his letters… And, apart from the 9 months or so that he spent as a student of the Ven. Nanavira, this was the pattern of his life: essentially isolated, responsible for his own affairs, and reliant on his own discipline and fortitude to accomplish his intentions.
Not an easy way to live, and by Nanasumana’s own admission had he not encountered Ven. Nanavira he could not have endured such a life. But this meeting with Nanavira, and the months spent subsequently as his student, had a profound and clearly life-changing impact. Visiting him regularly in this kuti for instruction, Nanasumana developed a deep and humble respect for his teacher –- once describing their relationship in a letter thus: “He speaks and I learn.” — and he clearly gained a progressively firmer grounding and confidence in the Buddha’s Teaching and in its practice, which was to support him for the rest of his life.
As one would expect, losing such a teacher was a powerful blow, but Nanasumana carried on through the difficulties of life as a relatively inexperienced bhikkhu, living on his own, with great diligence, enduring hardships with real fortitude, and at times even thriving — such that it appears that in the latter years of his life, living mostly in or near this kuti, his practice of samatha meditation, to which he devoted great effort, bore fruit. And in reading his last several letters I get the distinct impression that Nanasumana had — by this time about 6 years a monk — settled with progressively greater comfort into the life of a hermit bhikkhu.
So… having described some small part of Ven.Nanasumana’s life and experiences, I return to my reason for presenting this memorial: what is it about this venerable bhikkhu that inspires me? After all, Nanasumana was, in some ways, an ordinary man, not particularly well educated, or of literary bent. Nor did he exhibit any distinctive scholarly or aesthetic talents, inclination, or skills. In this sense he was, perhaps, an average man — like me — and perhaps others of us.
But Ven. Nanasumana was distinctive — I’m sure not at all ordinary — in his capacity to pursue his goals with energy, focus, and even zeal. With an almost visceral, rather than purely intellectual, experience and understanding of dukkha and its cause, he had, I believe, the capacity to apply a single-minded purpose to tasks at hand.
For he was no dilettante when it came to his spiritual efforts. He had real ‘grit’: the uncompromising determination to forge ahead in the face of difficulty — to simply not give up. In a word, he persevered. And to apply such effort in the related spheres of investigation and practice of the Buddha’s Teaching is a very good thing, indeed.
This is what inspires me about his life: his ordinariness in some ways, but also his determination. It tells me that one doesn’t have to be especially talented or clever, but that endurance may carry one forward. That diligence and sustained effort in the work of calming and unwinding the volatility of mind, which hinders the growth of wisdom, can bear fruit.
For I do believe that Ven. Nanasumana did progress along his path. His letters near his death suggest a maturing and calming nature, a quieter confidence in his practice and the trajectory upon which it was directing him.
In 1970, at the age of 29, Ven. Nanasumana died as a result of 2 bites by a polonga — a Russell’s viper — here, near this kuti. Whether or not he was poised for significant progress we will not know. I personally believe that he might have reached a point where great strides could have ensued had he lived, but such is mere speculation.
Better, perhaps, that we simply reflect with gratitude and appreciation upon the examples of such sincere men and women, noting their difficulties / failures / successes, and allow ourselves to be both encouraged and inspired in our own lives. Add to this Ven. Nanasumana’s instrumental efforts to preserve the writings of his teacher and the benefits we continue to derive from those efforts, and we have more than sufficient reason to remember him with gratitude on this most auspicious occasion.
Thank you very much