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.



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