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Research dispels falsehoods about pioneering German Buddhist monk

By Janaka Perera, Asian Tribune, June 1, 2007

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- A three-year scholarly research on the life and times of the pioneering German Buddhist monk, the Venerable Nyanatiloka has helped to dispel inaccuracies and falsehoods about him – especially the allegation that he had affinities to National Socialism in the 1930s. The research work has been undertaken by a European bhikku who wishes to remain anonymous at this point of time.

The Ven. Nyanatiloka's most important disciple was Jewish whose lay name Siegmund Feniger. Born in Germany on July 21, 1901, he was the only child of a Jewish couple. He was ordained as the Venerable Nyanaponika and became adviser to Asoka Weeraratne, Secretary of the German Dharmaduta Society from its very inception.

The Ven. Nyanatiloka also ordained a Sinhala rodiya (so-called low caste) boy who was named the Venerable Nyanaloka. He later became the abbot of the Island Hermitage, Polgasduwa, Dodanduwa. It is inconceivable that these acts of ordination were the characteristics of a person who believed in racial superiority, anti-Semitism, class or caste distinctions.

After the British authorities allowed him to return to Sri Lanka in 1926, the Venerable Nyanatiloka resided in the Island Hermitage until the outbreak of World War II. A few years before war broke out another German Buddhist monk, the well-known Lama Anagarika Govinda wrote to him inquiring about some Nazi troublemakers who had visited the hermitage and later defamed the Ven. Nyanatiloka.

During the war years the British authorities detained all Germans in the colonies regardless of their political views. After detention in Diyatalawa , Sri Lanka , the Ven. Nyanatiloka and other German bhikkus were transferred to Dehra Dunn , India . There the detention camp was divided into two sections to prevent clashes between those leaning towards National Socialism and opponents of Fascism. On the section where loyalists to the German Government were quartered there were private rooms while on the opposite camp detainees were billeted in cramped conditions.

Since Nyanatiloka preferred privacy for meditation he was eventually able to obtain a private room in the section where it was available.

But there is absolutely nothing in his writings or speeches to suggest that he held anti-Semitic views or leaned towards National Socialism. On the contrary, the thrust of his life was to follow the path of the Buddha.

In today's Germany except for those in the lunatic fringe (neo-Nazis and skin-heads) calling a German a Nazi is considered highly defamatory and is the ultimate insult that can be hurled against him/her. It reduces the instantaneously the standing of the person in the contemporary German society. It has become a convenient weapon for some to discredit others.

Sri Lanka honoured the Ven. Nyanatiloka with a State funeral and commemorated his 100 th birth anniversary in 1978 but completely neglected to keep his memory alive either by issuing stamps, erecting a statue or naming a road or building after the Maha Thera. The same goes for his associates and pupils like the Ven. Nyanaponika.

But foreign Christian missionaries like Fr. Joseph Vaz and Fr. Gonsalvez who came from Goa to revive Roman Catholism and convert Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindus to Christianity in the 17th Century have been honoured by the State with commemorative stamps and even institutions that have been named after them.

Sri Lanka can claim to be a leader in the Buddhist world only if she honours and keeps alive the memory of foreign spiritual seekers who came here, studied Buddhism and disseminated the message of the Enlightened One in their native lands.

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