Nyanatiloka | Ñāṇatiloka

Nyanatiloka (1878-1957)
Nyanatiloka (1878-1957)

1. Nyanatiloka

Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahāthera (19 February 1878, Wiesbaden, Germany – 28 May 1957, Colombo, Ceylon), born as Anton Walther Florus Gueth, was one of the earliest westerners in modern times to become a Bhikkhu, a fully ordained Buddhist monk.

2. Early life and education

Nyanatiloka was born on 19 February 1878 in Wiesbaden, Germany, as Anton Walther Florus Gueth.

His father was Anton Gueth, a professor and principal of the municipal Gymnasium of Wiesbaden, as well as a private councillor.

His mother's name was Paula Auffahrt. She had studied piano and singing at the Royal Court Theatre in Kassel.

He studied at the Königliche Realgymnasium (Royal Gymnasium) in Wiesbaden from 1888 to 1896.

From 1896 to 1898 he received private tuition in music theory and composition, and in playing the violin, piano, viola and clarinet.

From 1889 to 1900 he studied theory and composition of music as well as the playing of the violin and piano at Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main.

From 1900 to 1902 he studied composition under Charles-Marie Widor at the Music Academy of Paris (Paris Conservatoire).

His childhood was happy. As a child Nyanatiloka had a great love of nature, of solitude in the forest, and of religious philosophical thought.

He was brought up as a Catholic and as a child and adolescent he was quite devout.

He went to church every evening and absorbed himself in the book The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.

As a child he wanted to become a Christian missionary in Africa and as an adolescent he ran away from home to become a Benedictine monk at Maria-Laach Abbey but soon returned.

From then on his belief in a personal God gradually transformed into a kind of pantheism and was inspired by the prevailing atmosphere of weltschmerz (world-weariness).

From the age of 17 he was a vegetarian and abstained from drinking and smoking.

Around the age of 15 he began to have an almost divine veneration for great musicians, particularly composers, regarding them as the manifestation of what is most exalted and sublime and made friends with musical child prodigies.

He composed orchestral pieces and in 1897 his first composition called Legende ( Legend ) was played by the Kurhaus Orchestra of Wiesbaden.

At about the same time he conceived a great love for Philosophy:

He studied Plato's Phaedo, Descartes, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, von Hartmann and especially Schopenhauer.

He also had a great interest for languages, foreign countries and peoples.

While visiting a vegetarian restaurant he heard Theosophical lecturer Edwin Böhme giving a talk on Buddhism which made him immediately an enthusiastic Buddhist.

The following day his violin teacher gave him Buddhist Catechism by Subhadra Bhikṣu and another book on Buddhism that gave him the desire to become a Buddhist monk in Asia.

After studying composition with the well-known composer Charles-Marie Widor in Paris, he played in various orchestras in France, Algeria, and Turkey.

In 1902, intending to become a Buddhist monk in India, he travelled from Thessaloniki to Cairo by way of Palestine. After earning the necessary money by playing violin in Cairo, Port Said and Bombay, he travelled to Śrī Lanka.

3. Early years as a Buddhist monk

In 1903, at the age of 25, Nyanatiloka briefly visited Śrī Lanka and then proceeded to Burma to meet the English Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Ānanda Metteyya (Allan Bennett).

In Burma he was ordained as a Theravāda Buddhist novice (sāmaņera) at the Ngahtatgyi Pagoda under Venerable U Asabha Thera in September 1903.

As a novice he first stayed with Ānanda Metteyya for a month in the same room.

In January or February 1904 he received full acceptance into the Saṅgha (upasaṁpadā) with U Kumara Mahāthera as preceptor (upajjhaya) and became a Bhikkhu with the name of Ñāṇatiloka.

Although his preceptor was a renowned Abhidhamma reciter, he learned Pāḷi and Abhidhamma mostly by himself.

Later in 1904 he visited Singapore, perhaps with the intention to visit the Irish monk U Dhammaloka.

At the end of 1904 he left Rangoon to go to Upper Burma together with the Indian monk Kosambi Dhammananda, the later Harvard scholar Dharmānanda Dāmodara Kosambi.

In a cave in the Sagaing Mountains they practised concentration and insight meditation under the instructions of a monk who was reputed to be an Arahant.

Desiring to deepen his study of Pāḷi and the Pāḷi scriptures, he went to Śrī Lanka in 1905.

In 1905–06 Nyanatiloka stayed with the Siamese prince monk Jīnavaravaṁsa, (lay-name Prince Prisdang Chumsai, who had earlier been the 1st Siamese Ambassador for Europe) in palm leaf huts on the small island of Galgodiyāna near Matara, which Jīnavaravaṁsa called Culla-Lanka ( Small Lanka ).

Pictures of Nyanatiloka and Jīnavaravaṁsa taken at this monastery suggest that they were doing meditation of the nature of the body by way of observing skeletons or were contemplating death.

At Culla-Lanka Nyanatiloka ordained 2 laymen as novices (sāmaņera):

The Dutchman Frans Bergendahl (1885-1915?), the troubled son of a rich merchant, was given the name Suñño and the German Fritz Stange (d.1910) was given the name Sumano.

In the summer of 1906 Nyanatiloka returned to Germany to visit his parents.

Sumano, who was suffering from consumption and had to get treatment, also went with him. They returned to Śrī Lanka in October.

At the end of 1906 Nyanatiloka returned to Burma alone, where he continued to work on translating the Aṅguttara Nikāya.

He stayed at Kyundaw Kyaung, near Rangoon, in a residence built for Ānanda Metteyya and him by the rich Burmese lady Mrs Hla Oung.

At Kyundaw Kyaung he gave the novice acceptance to the Scotsman J.F. McKechnie (1871-1951), who got the Pāḷi name Sāsanavaṁsa. This name was changed to Sīlācāra at his higher ordination.

Nyanatiloka also gave the going forth (pabbajā) to the German Walter Markgraf, under the name Dhammānusāri, who soon disrobed and returned to Germany:

Markgraf became a Buddhist publisher and founded the German Pāḷi Society (Deutsche Pāḷi Gesellschaft), of which Nyanatiloka became the Honorary President.

In 1906, Nyanatiloka published his 1st Buddhist work in German, Das Wort des Buddha, a short anthology of the Buddha's discourses arranged by way of the framework of the Four Noble Truths.

Its English translation, The Word of the Buddha became one of the most popular modern Buddhist works. It has appeared in many editions and was translated into several languages.

Nyanatiloka also started on his translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya.

He gave his first public talk, on the Four Noble Truths, in 1907:

It was given on a platform in front of the Pagoda of Mawlamyine. Nyanatiloka spoke in Pāḷi and a Burmese Pāḷi expert translated.

4. Plans for a Theravāda Buddhist monastery in Europe

Upon returning to Germany, Markgraf planned to found a Buddhist Monastery in the southern part of Switzerland and formed a group to realise this aim.

They had found a solitary alpine hut at the foot of Monte Lema Mountain, near the village of Novaggio overlooking Lake Maggiore, and Nyanatiloka left Burma for Novaggio at the end of 1909 or the beginning of 1910.

The architect Rutch from Breslau had already designed a monastery with huts for monks, and the plan was that Bhikkhu Sīlācāra and other disciples were to join Nyanatiloka there.

Nyanatiloka's stay and plans drew a lot of attention from the press and several journalists visited him to write about him and the planned monastery.

However, the plan went wrong:

The Alpine Mountain, where the hut were, was covered by snow and in freezing temperatures, and Bhikkhu Nyanatiloka was walking around in summer sandals and monks dress – and soon he became sick with bronchitis and malnutrition, and the party had to find another place.

After half a year he left Novaggio with the German monk candidate Ludwig Stolz, who had joined him at Novaggio, to try to find a better place in Italy or North Africa.

In Novaggio Nyanatiloka worked on his Pāḷi-Grammatik (Pāḷi Grammar) and his translation of the Abhidhamma text called Puggalapaññatti (Human Types).

5. Italy, Tunisia, Lausanne

In Italy, Nyanatiloka first stayed with a lawyer in a town near Turin.

After the lawyer tried to persuade Nyanatiloka and his companion Stolz to make harmoniums to make their living, they left to Rome, where they stayed with the music teacher Alessandro Costa.

From Rome they went to Naples and took a ship to Tunis, where they stayed with Alexandra David-Néel and her husband for a week.

Then they went on Gabès, where they were told to leave Tunisia by policemen.

After visiting David-Néel again, they left for Lausanne, where they stayed with Monsieur Rodolphe-Adrien Bergier (1852-?) in his Buddhist hermitage called Caritas .

At Caritas, the glass painter Bartel Bauer was accepted by Nyanatiloka as a novice called Koññañño.

Soon after Koññañño left to Śrī Lanka for further training, the American-German Friedrich Beck and a young German called Spannring came to Caritas.

After another 2 unsuccessful visits to Italy in search of a suitable place for a monastery, Nyanatiloka and his closest disciples left to Śrī Lanka from Genoa on 26 April 1911 to found a monastery there.

6. Founding of the Island Hermitage

After arriving at Śrī Lanka, Nyanatiloka stayed in a hall built for Koññañño in Galle. Ludwig Stolz was given novice ordination at a nearby monastery and given the name Vappo.

From Koññañño, Nyanatiloka heard about an abandoned jungle island in a lagoon at the nearby village of Dodanduva that would be a suitable place for a hermitage.

After inspecting the snake-infested island and getting approval of the local population, 5 simple wooden huts were built.

Just before the beginning of the annual monk's Rainy Season retreat (Vassa) of 1911 (which would have been started the day after the full moon of July), Nyanatiloka and his companions moved to the Island.

The hermitage was named Island Hermitage. The island was bought by Bergier in 1914 from its local owner and donated to Nyanatiloka.

In September 1911 Alexandra David-Néel came and studied Pāḷi under Nyanatiloka at the Island Hermitage while staying with the monastery's chief supporter, Coroner Wijeyesekera.

Visitors such as Anagārika Dhammapāla and the German ambassador visited the Island Hermitage during this period.

Several Westerners—4 Germans, an American-German, an American, and an Austrian—were ordained at the Island Hermitage between 1911 and 1914.

Stolz who had followed Nyanatiloka from Europe was ordained as a novice at the island in 1911 and was ordained under the name Vappo in Burma in 1913.

In 1913 Nyanatiloka started a mission for the Śrī Lankan outcastes , Rodiya people, beginning in the area of Kadugannava, west of Kandy.

Some of the Rodiya lived and studied on the Island Hermitage.

The son of the Rodiya chieftain was accepted by Nyanatiloka as a novice with the name Ñaṇaloka. After the death of Nyanatiloka he became the abbot of the Island Hermitage.

Nyanatiloka mentions that there were reproaches because of the caste egalitarianism at the Island Hermitage

7. Sikkim

Nyanatiloka travelled to Sikkim in 1914 with the intention to travel on to Tibet. In Gangtok he met the Sikkimese scholar translator Kazi Dawa Samdup and the Mahārāja.

He then travelled on to Tumlong Monastery where Alexandra David-Néel and Sīlācāra were staying, and returned to Gangtok the next day.

Because of running out of finances Nyanatiloka had to return to Ceylon. He returned to Śrī Lanka accompanied by 2 Tibetans, who became monks at the Island Hermitage.

8. World War I

In 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, Nyanatiloka along with all Germans in British colonies, was interned by the British.

First he was allowed to stay at the Island Hermitage, but was then interned in the concentration camp at Diyatalawa.

From there he was deported to Australia in 1915, where he mostly stayed at the prison camp at Trial Bay. He was released in 1916 on the condition that he would return to Germany.

Instead he travelled by way of Hawaii to China in order to reach the Theravāda Buddhist Burmese tribal areas near the Burmese border, where he hoped to stay since he could not stay in Burma or Śrī Lanka.

After China joined the war against Germany, he was interned in China and was repatriated to Germany in 1919.

9. Japan

In 1920, after being denied re-entry into British ruled Śrī Lanka and other British colonies in Asia, Nyanatiloka went to Japan with his German disciples Bhikkhu Vappo (Ludwig Stolz) and Sister Uppalavaṇṇā (Else Buchholz).

He taught Pāḷi and German at Japanese universities for 5 years, including at Taisho University where he was assisted by the legendary eccentric Ekai Kawaguchi, and at Komazawa University where he taught with President Yamagami Sogen, who had also studied Pāḷi in Śrī Lanka.

He also met with Japanese Theravāda monks, but could not stay in any monasteries in Japan.

He lived through the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, which destroyed Tokyo, but was surprised to see universities reopen just 2 months later.

Nyanatiloka continued working on his translations of Pāḷi texts during this period.

In 1921 he visited Java, where he contracted Malaria, and Thailand, where he apparently hoped to stay since it was a Theravāda Buddhist country:

Although he was given a pass and visa by the Thai ambassador in Japan, he was arrested in Thailand on suspicions of being a spy and was deported after a few weeks.

By way of China he returned to Japan.

Return to Śrī Lanka and Island Hermitage

In 1926, the British allowed Nyanatiloka and his other German disciples to return to Śrī Lanka.

The Island Hermitage, which had been uninhabited for many years, was overgrown by the jungle and had to be rebuilt.

The period from 1926 to 1939 was the period during which the Island Hermitage flourished most:

Scholars, spiritual seekers, adventurers, diplomats and high ranking figures such as the former King of Saxony visited and stayed during this period.

Anagārika Govinda, the later Lama Govinda came in 1928 and with Nyanatiloka founded the International Buddhist Union (IBU), which stopped functioning after Govinda converted to Tibetan Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism a few years later.

During the period from 1931 to 1939 there were many ordinations at the Island Hermitage, mostly of Germans:

Nyanaponika (Sigmund Feniger), who became a well-known Buddhist writer and scholar, and Nyanakhetta (Peter Schönfeldt), who later became a Hindu Swami called Gaurībalā, ordained as novices in 1936 and as Bhikkhus in 1937. They both had a German Jewish background.

All applicants for ordination were taught Pāḷi by Nyanatiloka, who considered a working knowledge of Pāḷi indispensable for a proper understanding of Theravāda Buddhism since the translations of Buddhist texts at that time were often faulty.

11. World War II

In 1939, with the British declaration of war against Nazi Germany, Nyanatiloka and other German-born Śrī Lankans were again interned, first again at Diyatalawa Garrison in Śrī Lanka and then in India (1941) at the large internment camp at Dehradun.

12. Last Years, 1946–1957

In 1946, Nyanatiloka and his German disciples were permitted by the British to return to Śrī Lanka, where they again stayed at the Island Hermitage.

In 1949 the well-known Western Buddhist monks, Ñāṇamoli, Ñāṇavīra were ordained under Nyanatiloka.

In December 1950, Nyanatiloka became a citizen of the newly independent Ceylon. For health reasons he moved to the Forest Hermitage in Kandy in 1951.

Vappo and Nyanaponika soon followed him.

In 1954, Nyanatiloka and his disciple Nyanaponika were the only two Western-born monks invited to participate in the Sixth Buddhist council in Yangon, Burma. Nyanaponika read out Nyanatiloka's message at the opening of the council.

Nyanatiloka also served as the first Patron of the Lanka Dhammadūta Society (later renamed as the German Dhammadūta Society) which was founded by Aśoka Weeraratna in Colombo, Śrī Lanka on 21 Sept. 1952.

Nyanatiloka also resided temporarily at a new Training Centre for Buddhist Missionary work in Germany that was opened by the Lanka Dhammadūta Society in Dalugama, Kelaniya in 1953.

Ven. Nyanaponika (German) and the (then) newly arrived Upāsaka Friedrich Möller from Germany were also temporarily resident together with Nyanatiloka at this Training Centre.

Friedrich Möller was the last disciple of Nyanatiloka:

At the age of 43, Möller was accepted as a novice by Nyanatiloka on 19 September 1955, taking the Pāḷi name Ñāṇavimala. He was later known as Ven. Polgasduwe Ñāṇavimala Thera.

13. Death

Nyanatiloka died on 28 May 1957, in Colombo, Śrī Lanka.

At that time Nyanatiloka was resident at the Saṅghavasa located on the newly opened premises of the German Dhammadūta Society at 417, Bullers Road.

This was his last place of residence prior to his death.

He was given a state funeral which had the then Prime Minister of Śrī Lanka, Hon. S.W.R.D Bandaranaike delivering the funeral oration.

The proceedings of the funeral were broadcast live over Radio Ceylon and a memorial stone was erected for him.