Ven. Nanavira – the scholar monk, the suicide and the film


BY Nan

To me the documentary "Nanavira Hamuduru" screened at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo 8, on 18 July, was extra meaningful. I had been discussing the traditional Buddhist veto-view on suicide at any stage in a human’s life and the opposing view of the practicality of suicide, medically aided or self inflicted, once a person is terminally ill and poised to degenerate to a degraded vegetative state of no thoughts, no mental or physical control and no use to him/her, least of all to relatives and friends. Monks and learned Buddhist laymen say no to suicide but make an exception for an arahant since his samsaric cycle of births is over and he attains Nibbana at the end of the present life. The film therefore was significant since people have been, unfortunately, more impressed/curious/interested in the monk’s suicide, than in his erudition or the great sacrifices he made in the name of meditation and study of and contemplation on the Buddha’s teachings.

The Scholar Monk

Harold Edward Musson was born in England at a military barracks, his father being a captain in the First Manchester Regiment. The son had his early education in Wellington College, Berkshire and then at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he followed courses in modern languages and mathematics. He enlisted in 1939 at the very start of WW II and in 1941 was a commissioned 2nd lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps. He "completely resented warfare". After the war, not short of money, he shared a flat with Osbert Moore in London and lived a carefree life gratifying the senses. But there was deep dissatisfaction in both, so selling all their possessions the two young men came to Ceylon. They obtained samanera ordination in 1949 at the Island Hermitage, Polgasduwa, Dodanduwa, from Ven Nanatiloka and assumed the names of Nanavira and Nanamoli. In 1950, ordination to the higher order was at Vajiraramaya Temple, Bambalapititya. Nanavira Thera opted for the life of a forest monk, hence his shift to a jungle abode in Bundala. Moore, now Nanamoli Thera, stayed on at the Island Hermitage.

Food left for the forest monk to collect was naturally very spiced with chilly, abhorrent to a western palate and stomach. Soon Ven Nanavira was ill with amoebiasis, which some now suspect to have been stomach or colon cancer. He was, as Tom Rosenberg told the ICES audience, inclined to take much medicines, naturally since he wanted no body interruptions to his meditation and writing. This intake of drugs probably caused satyriasis which combined with the amoebiasis, causing both mental and physical pain and disturbance, drove him to suicide which he justified in letters written to persons both local and foreign, doctors included. Neither the film nor the Wikipedia account of the monk details his method of suicide but I have heard tell he tied a plastic bag around his head and suffocated to death. Some of his correspondence details his ideas on suicide.

His writings are divided to two periods: Early writings: seeking the Path – 1950 to 60; later writings: clearing the Path – 1960 to 65 of which "Notes on Dhamma" (1960 -63) is the most widely debated. He read widely and authors who seem to have influenced him include Camus, Kafka and Satre. Critics have said his Notes … "is arrogant, scathing, condescending" but others judge it is the most important book on Buddhism to be written in the 20th century. "Notes … attempts to provide an intellectual basis for the understanding of the Suttas without abandoning saddha (faith)". Nanavira Thera hoped that at least a few readers and scholars would reason matters out and go his way, agreeing to his interpretations. 150 of his letters were collected and published.



Much more controversial to the interested and sympathetic person is Nanavira Thera’s suicide, more than his unique interpretation and exposition of the Dhamma, which some say is often contrary to held beliefs and traditional translation from the Pali scripture. I am one of these – sadly ignorant of his views on the Teachings having not read a single of his books but feeling real karuna at his suffering physically, emotionally and mentally. Here he was in the thick of the jungle infested with the deadliest of snakes and predators, but troubled by none of these and totally unafraid, until his stomach complaint and erotic fantasies tortured his mind. I was intrigued when I first heard about these from a close relative of the late N Q Dias who continued a protracted correspondence with the monk. In fact I believe the topic of suicide was discussed between them; also the fact of his admission of being disturbed by erotic thoughts. It is compassion we feel for him, all alone in the forest, bleeding and suffering stomach pains and then afflicted by sensual thoughts and imaginings. This led to the monk writing to his friend Thera Nanamoli that it had come to the point of ‘wife or knife’ – disrobing and re-entering lay life or ending his life in robes. Of course he opted for the latter but was suffering too much to wait for death to claim him. It may also be that recognizing he was a sothapanna – Stream Enterer on the Path to deliverance, he felt that never going into a life lower than a human, he was justified in taking his own life and starting a new one minus the sufferings of the present.

The Film

The 20 minute documentary was produced by the Tulane Media Unit of the Tulana Research Centre for Encounter and Dialogue headquartered in Gonawila, Kelaniya. The Tulana Media Unit "is a response to the challenges posed by the mass media in today’s world and aims to provide avenues for alternative and different voices to be heard in the public arena. Its objectives are to create critical consumers and producers of the mass media from amongst the ordinary people, especially the youth of Sri Lanka, to create an avenue for their voices to be heard in the mainstream media channels and on the Internet…"

The director of the film is Tom Rosenberg who has been in Sri Lanka on a Fulbright Fellowship since 2009. He studied comparative religion at Columbia University and will proceed to the University of Texas at Austin to follow an MFA in film production. Seeing his first film and mentally reviewing it, one is sure his future is bright in the field of cinema. Rosenberg led a discussion at the ICES following the screening of his documentary. Questions were varied. More than one person from the audience enquired about the mathematical figurations of Ven Nanavira in his writing that were captured on film. Rosenberg admitted he was no mathematician and Oxbridge mathematics dons he had sent copies of pages to were also stumped. It was suggested this study of the diagrammatic integer-filled calculations of the monk be pursued further.

The film though short – 20 minutes - was commendable. The scenes of the forest of Bundala; the Thera’s brick and tile two roomed kuti; photographs of him; and conversational input of a monk and laymen including villages of the area and correspondents of the monk threw much light on the monk’s personality and achievements both in his study of the Dhamma and his attainment of peace, serenity and some say, the elevated state of Sothapanna. Photography and background music were specially fine. The notice sent out by ICES announcing the screenings said: "This film looks at the issue of monastic suicide within the context of Nanavira Thera’s commitment to practicing the Buddhist Dhamma." This looking into I felt was not adequately achieved. His suicide is mentioned but not much comment or opinions expressed on it. However, the manner of suicide was sensitively avoided and his death by his own hands was depicted in the film delicately. The commentator said that when people broke open the door and entered the bedroom of the kuti, Ven Nanavira was found dead.

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