The German Buddhist monk Ven. Nyanatiloka Maha
Thera was one of the most outstanding and influential Buddhists
of the 20th century.
He was a pioneer and a missionary, a scholar and
He was a pioneer and missionary because he was
the first continental European to become a Buddhist monk (in
1903), the first monk to try to set up a monastery in Europe (in
1910), the first monk to give pabbajjá (Going Forth) in Europe
(in 1910), the first one to set up a monastery (the Island
Hermitage in Dodanduwa) where Westerners could become Buddhist
monks and learn about Buddhism (1911).
He became a monk at a time that it was more
difficult to travel and diseases such as malaria were common. He
had to endure many hardships because of his German nationality
and was interned during World War I as well as WW II. After WWI
he could not return for several years to his beloved Sri Lanka.
Nevertheless, despite all the hardships, he endured and through
his efforts in setting up the Island Hermitage monastery, making
translations, etc, he was trailblazer for generations of Western
Buddhists to come.
In 1911, Ven. Nyanatiloka was involved in
setting up a project to help deprived Buddhist people near Kandy.
He was also involved in setting up an international Buddhist
union in the 1920s, and in the 1950s went to Burma to
participate in the important Sixth Council synod. In his last
years, he was also supportive of the German Dharmaduta Society,
which was founded by Asoka Weeraratna in 1952. Ven. Nyanatiloka
was the first Patron of this Society.
In a memorable message to the publication ‘
Buddhism in Germany ’ Ven. Nyanatiloka says as follows:
"It was just 50 years ago in 1903, that I came
first to this Island which, since then, I have considered my
spiritual home, and I am therefore happy to be now a citizen of
Sri Lanka. Yet, it will be understood that it was the great wish
of my heart to give the country of my origin the best I
possessed, i.e. the Dhamma. And to that end I have devoted the
greatest part of my 50 years in the Sangha. I did so in the firm
conviction that the Dhamma will take root in my home country,
Germany, and may have a great future there.
``Now it has been a very great pleasure to me to
hear that Mr. Weeraratna returned from Germany with the very
same conviction, and was able to report on lively Buddhist
activities there. I believe that the chances for Buddhist
mission work in Germany are now greater than ever before. I am
therefore very happy that the Lanka Dharmadutha Society has
undertaken that great task of sending a well-prepared mission to
Germany and to support Buddhist work there, in general.
I greatly appreciate the initial work done by
the Society up to now, and particularly the sacrificing labour,
devotion and energy shown by the Founder and Secretary of the
Lanka Dharmadutha Society, Mr. Asoka Weeraratna. I should,
indeed, regard it as a happy culmination of my life if Vesak
1956, i.e. the year 2500, will see a well – established mission
in Germany, which will not fail to have a far-reaching influence
on the other Western countries, too. I wish the Society full
success in their great and noble enterprise. Selfless effort to
give the Dhamma to those who are most in need of it will be of
great blessing to those who give and receive ". Nyanatiloka
(May 25, 1953)
Ven Nyanatiloka was a scholar because of his
many outstanding and authoritative translations of Pali
scriptures into German as well as English. Being endowed with
great linguistic skills, he quickly mastered Pali and made the
first and only translations of several important Buddhist
scriptures in German (Anguttara Nikaya, Milindapanha,
Visuddhimagga, Puggalapannatti). His published first book, The
Word of the Buddha, a cleverly compiled anthology of Buddhist
discourses, was, and still is, very popular and went through
many reprints and was translated into many languages. Its impact
was such that some of those who read the booklet decided to
become monks. The Path to Deliverance is an advanced supplement
to the Word of the Buddha. The popular Buddhist Dictionary,
which explains important Pali terms, remains an unsurpassed
Ven. Nyanatiloka was a teacher who had hundreds
of disciples over the years. Because of his literary works he
became well known in Buddhist circles all over the world. This,
combined with his efforts in setting up a monastery where
Westerners could learn about Buddhism and train to become monks,
attracted many Europeans, but also Sinhalese, Tibetans,
Japanese, Dutch, etc. In order to gain a proper understanding of
the Buddhist teachings, Ven. Nyanatiloka emphasized the study of
the Pali scriptures in their original language and made it a
prerequisite for ordination candidates to learn some Pali, which
he himself would teach them.
In 1950, Ven. Nyanatiloka received the
citizenship of Sri Lanka. His home country of Germany also
remembered him, and recognized his outstanding life work as a
Buddhist scholar, when, in 1955, he was nominated an Honorary
fellow of the prestigious academic society for oriental studies,
the Deutsche Morgenlandische Gesellschaft.
Ven. Nyanatiloka passed away peacefully on May
28, 1957 at the age of 79 years, while convalescing in the newly
established Monks' Training Centre of the German Dharmaduta
Society, based at 417, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 7.
He was accorded a State funeral by the
Government of Sri Lanka. Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, then Prime
Minister, delivered the funeral oration, amidst a large and
representative gathering of mourners at Independence Square.
German Dharmaduta Society