The handful of Westerners who actually travelled to Asia in the first half of the 20th century in search of another wisdom had to leave behind not only the security of their traditions but also the non-commital Romanticism of Somerset Maugham. For the first time in nearly two thousand years, they were preparing to embrace something else. And this step was of another order than either the intellectual enthusiasms of a Schopenhauer or the muddled fantasies of a Blavatsky. At the Island Hermitage, founded in Dodanduwa in by the German Nyanatiloka, the doyen of Western Buddhist monks, he was directed to the town of Matara in the extreme south.
From Matara Maugham was driven by jeep to the village of Bundala, where the farmers led him to a path that disappeared into the forest. The path became narrower and darker as it led further into the dense jungle.
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He was tall and lean with a short beard and sunken blue eyes. His face was very pale. He stood there, motionless, gazing at me. His voice was clear with a pleasantly cultured intonation about it; it was calm and cool yet full of authority. He might have been inviting me in for a glass of sherry in his rooms at Cambridge. From the age of seven to nine he had lived in Burma, where his father commanded a battalion. He was educated at Wellington College and went up to Magdalene College, Cambridge, in , where he read mathematics and then modern languages.
His task was to interrogate prisoners of war. Having served in a mountain artillery regiment during the First World War, he found himself like his fictional counterpart Larry Darrell incapable of returning to normal life. Allen, , He was only dissuaded from carrying this out by coming across a passage from the Middle Length Sayings Majjhima Nikaya I, 1 in the Pali Canon where the Buddha spoke of those things with which the disciple committed to awakening must avoid identifying.
During this time he came into contact with Arturo Reghini, a high- ranking Mason and mathematician who believed himself to be a member of the Scuola Italica, an esoteric order that claimed to have survived the fall of ancient Rome. Following Reghini he denounced the Church as the religion of a spiritual proletariat and attacked it ferociously in his book Pagan Imperialism Around the same time he published such titles as Man as Potency and Revolt Against the Modern World, revealing his indebtedness to Nietzsche and Spengler. He did not, however, join the Fascist party and looked down upon Mussolini with aristocratic disdain.
Towards the end of his life he declared that he had never belonged to any political party or voted in an election. After Hitler came to power, Evola was feted by high-ranking Nazis, his books were translated into German and he was invited to the country to explain his ideas to select aristocratic and military circles. But, as with many of his German admirers, he kept aloof from what he considered the nationalist, populist and fanatic elements of National Socialism.
He claims in his autobiography that because of his position as a foreigner from a friendly nation, he was free to present ideas which had they been voiced by a German would have risked imprisonment in a concentration camp. Nonetheless, when Mussolini was overthrown in , Evola was invited to Vienna by a branch of the SS to translate proscribed texts of Masonic and other secret societies.
He condemns the loss of such ascesis in Europe and deplores the pejorative sense the term has assumed. Even Nietzsche, he notes with surprise, shared this anti-ascetic prejudice. Today, he argues, the ascetic path appears with the greatest clarity in Buddhism. He was nonetheless critical of a large body of accepted opinion that had grown up around them.
What appeal could this book have had for an officer of the Allied forces advancing through Italy as part of a campaign to overthrow a regime based on notions of aryan supremacy? Yet Captain Musson immediately set about translating The Doctrine of Awakening into English, a task he completed three years later. But the war forced maturity on me. He settled in London. They began comparing notes. We shared the belief that the whole of this existence as we saw it was a farce. They left England in November and were ordained as novices in an open glade at the Island Hermitage by Nyanatiloka, then an old man of seventy-one, on April 24, Moore was given the name Nanamoli, and Musson Nanavira.
In they both received bhikkhu ordination in Colombo. Western thinking… seemed to me to oscillate between the extremes of mysticism and rationalism, both of which were distasteful to me, and the yoga practices—in a general sense—of India offered themselves as a possible solution. Over the following months and years Nanavira became increasingly independent in his views, both challenging the accepted orthodoxy and refining his own understanding. Temperamentally, he acknowledged a tendency to stand apart from others.
I am a born blackleg. Maugham, Search For Nirvana, Then, on the evening of June 27, , something happened that radically changed the course of his life. At one time the monk Nanavira was staying in a forest hut near Bundala village. For such people these truths are no longer beliefs or theories, but realities. The experience, however, is available to anyone, irrespective of their social position, sex or racial origins.
He left behind some of the finest English translations from Pali of key Theravada texts. In July of the same year, a German Buddhist nun called Vajira Hannelore Wolf , who had been in Ceylon since and since had been living as a hermit, called on Nanavira for advice.
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He subsequently sent her a copy of the two notes he had just finished typing. These had a tremendous impact on her. But the rapidity and intensity of the change provoked a kind of nervous breakdown and the Ceylonese authorities deported her to Germany on February 22, On her return she ceased to have any contact with her former Buddhist friends in Hamburg. If I indulge the sensual images that offer themselves, my thought turns towards the state of a layman; if I resist them, my thought turns towards suicide.
Wife or knife, one might say. Although he realised that the erotic stimulation could be overcome by meditative absorption, such practice was prevented by his chronic indigestion. He does not seem to have been driven by the conventional motives for suicide: resentment, remorse, despair, grief. Despite such disclaimers, one has the strong impression that he wished to communicate his vision of the Dhamma to a wider public. The response was largely one of polite incomprehension. When Robin Maugham entered the tiny hut at the beginning of , Nanavira had largely completed the revisions to his Notes on Dhamma.
There were two straw brooms and two umbrellas—and his plank bed and the straw mat I was sitting on. The questions he asked as he squatted uncomfortably on the floor were typical of those a sympathetic but uninformed European would still make today. To this end he asked at length about his relations with his family, the reasons why he became a monk, if he felt lonely and whether he missed the West. Maugham left the first meeting with a positive impression.
Nanavira explained how his mother had come out to Ceylon and tried to persuade her only child to return home. When he refused she suffered a heart attack. As soon as she recovered she went back to England and died. There was no harshness in his tone. There was no coldness. There was understanding and gentleness. And it was only these two qualities that made his next remark bearable. But we continue. We take some other shape or form in another life. He was visibly tired. The whole point of our present existence is to reach Nirvana—complete understanding of natural phenomena—thereby ending the chain of re-birth.
The older one is Robin Maugham, a nephew of the celebrated Somerset Maugham. He is a novelist third-rate, I suspect and a writer of travel books. Although they both seemed interested in the Dhamma, I rather think that their principal reason for visiting me was to obtain material for their writings. I had a slightly uncomfortable feeling of being exploited; but, unfortunately, once I start talking, I like going on, without proper regard for the repercussions later on.
At root, though, Maugham seems sincere. Maugham and his companion walked away towards the path that led from the jungle glade to the village. Perhaps he knew a truth that would make the existence of 61 ibid. Perhaps he knew the answer.
Perhaps he had found the secret of life. But I would never know. His chronic indigestion continued to be aggravated by satyriasis.
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Six months Maugham, presumably for dramatic effect, says two weeks after their meeting, on the afternoon of July 7, , Nanavira ended his life by putting his head into a cellophane bag containing drops of chloroform. Only a month earlier his letters had been exploring the meaning of humour. The memory of the English monk from Aldershot continued to haunt Robin Maugham. In he published The Second Window, an autobiographical novel about a journalist who becomes entangled in a child sex-abuse scandal in Kenya. As a digression from the main theme, the protagonist visits Ceylon to track down a certain Leslie Edwin Fletcher who is rumoured to be living there as a Buddhist hermit.
A radio-play A Question of Retreat followed in a similar vein. Shortly afterwards, in , Julius Evola published his autobiography. Towards the end of the war Evola had been injured by a bomb in Vienna and for the remainder of his life was partially paralysed. He returned to Italy and became a focal figure for the far right, receiving in his apartment a steady trickle of those who still admired the values he espoused. Although he died in , he has been resurrected recently as a hero of resurgent neo-fascist groups in Italy. Evola, Le Chemin du Cinabre, The texts are scrupulously edited, extensively annotated and cross-referenced by means of a comprehensive index.
The compilation, editing and publication of this book was a labour of love performed anonymously by Ven. With his death Path Press ceased to function and the book can now only be obtained from a Buddhist distributor Wisdom Books in London. Its purpose is to help the user to acquire a point of view that is different from his customary frame of reference, and also more satisfactory.
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They are all written in a dense, exact style in numbered sections, most of the key terms remaining in Pali. I am obliged to say this myself, since it is improbable that anybody else will.