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German Indologist and Buddhist scholar defends Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera

by Hans Gruber, Asian Tribune, June 8, 2007

I would like to give the following commentary on the two matters of the present discussion, Nyanatiloka and the Buddhistisches Haus in Berlin.

1) It would be very strange indeed if Nyanatiloka’s not giving full ordination to Nyanaponika and his not assisting in Nyanaponika’s full ordination by Singhalese monks had something to do with a "bowing" to Nazi-pressure of the German consulate. Under the British rule of Ceylon the influence of the Germans must have been very limited. Other reasons are possible for Nyanatiloka’s behaviour which have nothing to do with what Marianne Wachs and Volker Zotz suggest (in his careful words: "facts like this deserve a careful treatment").

Besides, if Nyanatiloka had anti-Semitic tendencies it would have been utterly impossible, as Bhikkhu Bodhi says, for Nyanaponika to become the principal disciple of Nyanatiloka ("literary heir and heir to the Forest Hermitage") and also that other German Jews became his ordained followers (Peter Schoenfeldt/Nyanakhetta and Nyanamalita). It would also have been impossible, as Janaka Perera quotes that research-work, that a Singhalese "low caste" boy named the Venerable Nyanaloka later became the abbot of the Island Hermitage. And to interpret Nyanatiloka’s preference for a private room for his meditation in the "loyalist" section of the detention camp at Dehra Dunn as sympathy for Nazism is quite far-fetched.

The attacks on Nyanatiloka by Mrs Wachs and Mr Zotz may well have another background: Marianne Wachs has a clear Zen-influence in her biography and views on Buddhism. Volker Zotz has a clear affinity for and gained support by the devotionalist and paradise-orientated Japanese Shin-Buddhism. In many ways this tradition’s veneration of the "saviour" transcendental Amida-Buddha in his "pure land" is the opposite to Theravada. The small Berlin "Theravada Förderverein" led by M. Wachs holds peculiar theses on Theravada in the West. Ordained Western Theravadins e. g., despite their unquestionable and growing influence in the West, are not part at all of her ideas or visions of Western Theravada.

Bhikkhu Nyanatiloka is one of the clearest and most influential representatives of Western Theravada. He has founded the tradition to which e. g. Bhikkhu Bodhi belongs to whom we are indebted for his comprehensive modern English translations of the Buddha’s suttas from the Pali Canon. Before his translations these most authoritative sources for the Buddha’s words weren`t well accessible, except in the form of old and dry translations of the Pali Text Society or the works of German syncretistic thinkers like Karl Eugen Neumann. He leaned more towards Christianity than towards Buddhism, as his translation clearly shows.

The more popular Buddhism becomes in the West the more there arises a certain competition between these in many ways different principal traditions of Buddhism, namely of Mahayana and Theravada. The unprecedented features of Buddhism in the West are that here 1) all major Asian Buddhist traditions come together and that 2) Buddhism encounters in Christianity the most powerful and most missionary world religion. These backgrounds sometimes bring about a certain discrediting or misinterpreting of the Early Buddhist tradition which is not well compatible with Christianity or Monotheism in general and also not with some Mahayana teachings.

Certain forms of Western Theravada, especially the popular mindfulness practice tradition of Vipassana, are a growing thorn in the eye of some Western Mahayanists.For Vipassana with its strong integration of lay-people into the full path of liberation and as a strong practice tradition based on the earliest collections of the Buddha’s teachings is so to say the "Great Vehicle" (Maha-Yana) of Theravada.

2) On the subject of the "Buddhistisches Haus" to which I feel close in my appreciation for Dr. Paul Dahlke and some personal contacts. I have also given several public talks there.

There would be a simple solution to this whole ongoing debate and the many conflicts around this old German Theravada institution - namely, to convert it into a German "Stiftung" (foundation). It should of course be led by the Singhalese. But then the Buddhistisches Haus would not be the private possession of some people any more. A Stiftung is subject to strict German legal rules. The books e. g. are always transparent to the public. All flows of money would become reliably clear. Potential donators (the Haus doesn’t receive much dana) could be absolutely sure and check that their money only serves the Haus. Besides, the purpose of a Stiftung cannot be changed. In this way it would be certain that the Buddhistische Haus remains a German Theravada institution, as Dr. Paul Dahlke clearly wanted it.

Increasing financial means are needed to upkeep and restore the Buddhistische Haus. If it is not converted into a German Stiftung there is always the possibility that it will be sold by their private owners. It would bring them much money but a sale would remain a permanent blemish on the Singhalese or their "engagement" for Buddhism in Germany.

I have a good friend in Berlin, Rolf Diederich, who had a leading position in a large German company and also from his university training is a specialist on economical matters. For a long time and with the best of intentions he patiently tried to convince Tissa Weeraratna and others of the Buddhistische Haus to convert it into a Stiftung, in vain.

It would be good if there arises public pressure from Sri Lanka on the German Dhammadutha Society to make this step. There are wealthy Mahayana organizations from Japan or elsewhere which would be happy to buy this old and beautiful institution. Such an attempt was already made in the thirties. At that time the heirs of Dahlke rejected the offer because it was not Dahlke’s will and incompatible with his intentions. The same holds true for today.


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