A Bhikkhu with intellectually convinced vision of Dhamma
Venerable Nyanaponika Maha Thera: A Bhikkhu with intellectually convinced vision of Dhamma by Rohan L. Jayetilleke, Lanka Daily News, July 20, 2005 Colombo, Sri Lanka — The evening is chilly in the Udawattekelle Forest Reserve of Kandy. The Day is October 18th, 1994. Sister Nyanasiri (American Dasa Sil Matha, formerly Helen Wilder) who entered the Sil Matha Order under Nyanaponika Maha Thera, as usual brings the evening ‘Gilanpasa’.
The late Venerable Nyanaponika Maha Thera
She walks path strewn with dead leaves leading from the main point of entry to the Forest Reserve, above the Trinity College junior playground, passing the Tapovana and the Senanayake Asrama of Bhikkhus to the little colonial cottage, the abode of Nyanaponika Maha Thera, about 100 meters away. She arrives at the Silvan abode bereft of running water or electricity, where only a lantern keeps the abode alight in the night. The Maha Thera is feeble and blindness is too framing him. Reverently she offers the ‘Gilanpasa’. Maha Thera partakes of the ‘Gilanpasa’. The abode his residence since 1952, engaged in writing, studying and meditating. Maha Thera joyfully says « Nyanasiri, you need not bring me ‘Heeldana’ (breakfast) tomorrow morning. I am passing away tomorrow, right on the dot at 5.30 a.m. » She bursts out in laughter. Maha Thera too joins. Nyanasiri remarks, « Venerable Sir, you must be an Arhant, certainly you are one to foretell the exact day and time of passing away as was done by the Buddha at Capala Cetiya in Vesali, three months before the final passing away (Mahaparinirvana) at Kusinara between two Sala trees ». On the following morning right at 6.00 a.m. Nyanasiri walks through dewed path through the Forest Reserve to the abode of the Maha Thera. The agitated caretaker comes forward, falls at her feet and says « Maniyo, Maha Thera got up at 5.00 a.m. Had a glass of hot water, washed his face sat on the bed cross legged at 5.15 a.m, then stretched himself on the bed and passed away at 5.30 a.m. This episode was narrated to me by Sister Nyanasiri, with whom we were associated for many years. Sister Nyanasiri passed away about a year ago, bequeathing all her assets to the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, which her preceptor Ven. Nyanaponika Thera founded in 1958. The person (German) who was to become Ven. Nayanapoinika Maha Thera was born in Hanau, Germany on July 21, 1901 as Siegmund Feniger, the only child of a Jewish family. In 1922, he moved with his parents to Berlin, where he met with other German Buddhists and also had access to Buddhist literature in German language. He first came across the writings of Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera (1878-1957), the former German violin virtuoso Anton Gueth, which had already been published in Germany. Young Siegmund had learned Ven. Nayanatiloka Thera had established a monastery for Western Monks on an island lagoon (opposite the Railway station) Polgasduwa, Dodanduwa named Island Hermitage. This news stirred his conscience to come to Asia and become a Buddhist Monk. However this expectation did not concretize for some time. In 1932, his father passed away and did not wish to leave his widowed mother in the lurch. Then Adolf Hitler, came to power in Germany. Millions of Jews were gassed to death in gas chambers. Knowing he and his mother too would end up in gas chambers in November 1935, he left Germany along with his mother to Vienna, where they had relatives. Having arranged his mother to stay in Vienna, in early 1936 he left Europe for Sri Lanka and joined Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera at the Island Hermitage, Polgasduwa, Dodanduwa. After several months of studies in June 1936 he was ordained as a novice under the name Nyanaponika and in 1937 was conferred Higher Ordination (Upasampada), under the Tutelage of Nyanatiloka Thera. In 1939, after the Nazis invaded Austria, Ven. Nyanaponika Thera arranged for his mother and other relatives to come over to Sri Lanka. She passed away in Colombo in 1956. Through the influence of his son and the generous hosts she embraced Buddha Dhamma and became a devoted Buddhist lady. Then the Second World War broke out in 1939, and the British Government had all German males resident in their colonies consigned for interment suspecting them to be German spies. The interment was first at Diyatalawa Army cantonment in Sri Lanka and later at Dehra Dun in northern India. Despite these traumatic experiences as prisoner of war, during this period, Ven. Nayanaponika Thera completed the German translations of the Sutta Nipata, the Dhammasangani (the first book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka) and its commentary. He also compiled an anthology of texts on Satipattana Meditation. That was when at Diyatalawa and the balance writing of what Ven. Nyanaponika Thera began was concluded at Dehra Dun, India.
With the cessation of war, the two Bhikkhus were released from interment at Dehra Dun and returned to Sri Lanka in 1946 and resided at the Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa. In early 1951 they were conferred citizenship of Sri Lanka. In 1946, Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera was offered a hermitage in the Udawattekelle Forest Reserve, and being advanced in age preferred the cooler climate of Kandy rather than to the hot and stuffy sea – coast climate of Dodanduwa. In 1947, Ven. Nyanaponika Thera too joined him at the new Kandy Hermitage. In 1952, both Venerable Nyanatiloka Thera and Nyanaponika Thera were invited by the Burmese (Myanmar) Government for consultation in preparation of the Sixth Buddhist Council, to be convened in 1954 to re-edit and reprint the entire Pali Canon and its commentaries. On the conclusion of the consultations Ven. Nyanaponika Thera stayed on in Burma for a period of training in Insight Meditation (Vipassana) under the well renowned meditation teacher Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw Thera. The experience he gathered motivated him to write his best known Magnum Copus, ‘The Heart of Buddhist meditation’ published by Buddhist Publication Society with many editions and translated into more than seven languages. This is a prescribed text in universities in the Study of Buddhism. In 1954, the teacher and the pupil returned to Burma for the opening ceremonies of the Council, which was held in a cave – structure built similar to the Sattaprani Caves in Rajagaha (Rajgir) of India, where first Buddhist Council was held. For the closing ceremonies in 1956 Ven. Nyanaponika Thera went to Burma alone as his teacher was indisposed. In 1957, the health of Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera deteriorated and he moved to Colombo for easy and ready medical attention. Finally on May 28, 1957, the great pioneering scholar monk passed away and was accorded a State Funeral at the Independence Square, Colombo attended by the Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, many State officials, both the laity and religious dignitaries and prelates of all Nikayas.
His ashes were enshrined at the Polgasduwa Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa and a tombstone was built to perpetuate his memory. Ven. Nyanaponika Thera, thereafter keeping up to the request of his teacher, revised Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera’s German translation of the complete Anguttara Nikaya, retyping the five volumes in full by himself, and also compiling a forty paged index to the work. Six months after the death of his teacher, the career of Ven. Nyanaponika Thera was to be launched in a new direction, a permanent contribution to the spread of Buddhism worldwide. A prominent lawyer in Kandy A.S. Karunaratne suggested to his friend, Trinity College teacher in retirement Richard Abeysekera, that they start a society for the publication of Buddhist literature in English, mainly to be distributed abroad. The unanimous decision was Ven. Nyanaponika Thera in the Udawattekelle Forest Reserve Aramaya would be the best director of the Institution. Thus on the New year’s Day of 1958, the Buddhist Publication Society (BPS) was born. Devoting his entire time and energy to writings of the society, he wrote tracts, encouraged others to write, collated important Suttas, translated them and had them published. In addition to his own writings he had 200 wheel titles and 100 Bodhi Leaves (booklets) authored by numerous scholars and books were issued during his editorship of the BPS. Ven. Nayanaponika Thera’s biography is completely submerged in his writings. With advancing age having a heavy toll on his strength, in 1984, Ven. Nyanaponika Thera retired as editor of BPS and in 1988 he retired as President, accepting appointments as BPS’s distinguished Parton. His fame and recognition as an exponent of authentic Theravada Buddhism reached all corners of the globe. In 1978, the German Oriental Society appointed him as honorary member in recognition of his combination of objective scholarship with religious practice as a Buddhist Monk. In 1987, the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka at its first convocation, conferred on him its first ever Honoris Causa Degree of Doctor of Literature. In 1990, he received the Honoris Causa Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Peradeniya. In 1993, The Amarapura Maha Sangha Sabha to which he belonged for 56 years, conferred on him the honorary title of Amarapura Maha Mahopadhyaya Sasana Sobhana (The Great Mentor of the Amarapura Maha Sasana Sabha, Ornament of Teaching). His last birthday which fell on July 21st 1994, was celebrated by his friends and the BPS staff with the release of the BPS edition of his book. The Vision of Dhamma, a collection of his writings from Wheel and Bodhi leaves series. On the 19th of October 1994, the last day of his 58th Rains Retreat as a Bhikkhu, he breathed his last in the pre-dawn quietude of the Udawattekelle forest hermitage. His body was cremated at Mahiyawa Cemetery Kandy at which a large gathering of religious and lay dignitaries as well as his many friends and admirers. On the 29th of January after the traditional of Buddhistic three-month Alms Giving, his remains were interred at the Island Hermitage in Dodanduwa, where he spent his formative years as a Bhikkhu. His tombstone lies in close proximity to that of his teacher Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera. Beyond the war, a fascinating life, he was a farmer, scientist, author, journalist, soldier, lawyer, investigator and teacher–the list of accomplishments goes on and on for Henry Steele Olcott. By Mac Wyckoff Date published: 7/16/2005
FOR MOST SOLDIERS, who participated in the Civil War, it was the biggest event of their lives. It was something they never forgot and were influenced by for the rest of their lives. However, there were a few soldiers whose Civil War experiences, important as they might have been, were simply blips on the radar screens of their lives. One such soldier was Henry Steele Olcott. He was born in 1832 in Orange, N.J. While Olcott was attending Columbia University in 1851, his father’s business failed. Olcott dropped out of school and moved near three of his uncles, who were farmers in Ohio. His uncles encouraged his interest in the paranormal, including mesmerism, in which he found he had some ability. He successfully mesmerized a neighbor during a dental surgery, preventing her from suffering pain. He also developed an interest in agriculture. He soon returned to the East Coast, where he began to study the science of agriculture. He established a farm school, which pioneered the teaching of agriculture. He went to Europe to further his study and, by 1858, had published two books. He became the agricultural correspondent for several newspapers, including the New York Tribune.
In 1859, when Virginia banned Northern journalists from attending the hanging of John Brown, Olcott was the lone Northern reporter to witness the event. His eyes met Brown’s just before death–a look that he would never forget. In 1860, Olcott married Mary Morgan. With the outbreak of war, Olcott joined the Signal Corps and served with Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Olcott participated in Burnside’s campaigns on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and along the Rappahannock River during the early stages of the second Manassas Campaign. There is no documentation, but it seems likely that while Burnside was headquartered at Chatham in August 1862, Olcott strolled the hallways of the stately mansion overlooking the city of Fredericksburg. He then became seriously ill with dysentery. Upon Olcott’s recovery, Burnside recommended that he be detailed to investigate corruption in the army’s supply system. Olcott found the corruption so widespread that he was given a large staff to assist him. Eventually, hundreds of cases were investigated. His efforts earned him a promotion to colonel and a special recognition from Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war. Olcott’s work proved so successful that he was then detailed to investigate fraud and corruption in the Navy. After the assassination of President Lincoln, Olcott and two others were appointed to investigate the conspirators. His recommendations proved sound, but unfortunately most were ignored by the prosecutors. Olcott then returned to New York, where he studied law and in 1866 passed the bar. He had a very successful practice specializing in customs, internal revenue and insurance cases. He continued his work as a journalist. He seemed to be the stereotype of a middle-aged Yankee: prosperous, honest, energetic and practical. But his life began to change. Two of his four children died, which may have led to the souring of his marriage. In 1874, he divorced. One friend described him as a « gay dog » who had a mistress and lived in nightclubs. It is unclear whether his temporary change of lifestyle caused the divorce or was a result of the divorce. In July 1874, Olcott was sent by one of his publishers to investigate a psychic phenomenon in Vermont. There had been reports of « solidification of phantom forms. » He proceeded to write 15 articles that launched his career as a psychic investigator.
« I saw at once, » he wrote, « that, if it were true that visitors could see, even touch and converse with, deceased relatives this was the most important fact in modern physical science. »
While in Vermont, Olcott met Helena Blavatsky and came under her spell. Madame Blavatsky was a Russian « wonder worker » who produced magic like phenomena. Despite their difference in personality and temperament, they would work closely together. Olcott sincerely believed in her power to produce wonders through hypnotic suggestion. He witnessed her disappearance from one room and appearance in another room. The woman’s interest was in performing the feats, whereas Olcott’s interest was purely intellectual curiosity about the phenomena and the latent powers of man. When Blavatsky was accused of fraud he stuck by her, but eventually realized that there was too much fraud committed by other wonder workers for him to determine what was a legitimate phenomenon. In 1875, Olcott and Blavatsky helped organize the Theosophical Society, of which Olcott was elected president. The purposes of the group were « to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity; to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science; and to investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man. » They sought to discover the highest truth as taught throughout the ages, from the Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates to the prophets and Asian thought. In 1878, Olcott and Blavatsky moved to India, where he lived for the rest of his life. Olcott combined firm conviction with brilliant administrative and organizational ability. While he traveled extensively in Asia, Europe and the Americas, these abilities helped him establish new theosophical groups. He was able to support his travels through wise investments and business deals. In 1880, Olcott converted to Buddhism, although he made it clear this was a philosophical change, not a religious one. His greatest accomplishment was to popularize Buddhism in the Western countries, and he contributed to the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka. He wrote a Buddhist catechism that is still in print today. He founded three colleges and 250 schools under Buddhist auspices in Ceylon. A statue to Olcott stands in Ceylon, and a memorial bust in Adyar, India, where he lived. Olcott died of heart disease in Adyar on Feb. 17, 1907. Although he had an interesting and important Civil War career, Olcott’s main contributions to society occurred after the war. A search on the Internet for Olcott produces more hits than for almost any Civil War general. He was a farmer, scientist, author, journalist, soldier, lawyer, investigator and teacher. He was a superb investigator, organizer and administrator. He was the type of man who saw something that needed to be done, and then did it, despite the difficulties.
He also was interested in his family genealogy. He wrote a book on his family tree. My interest in him arose when I discovered that one of his grandmothers was a Wyckoff, a descendant of Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, a Dutch immigrant who built what is the oldest standing house in New York. I am a 13th-generation descendant of Pieter Claesen Wyckoff. MAC WYCKOFF of Spotsylvania County is a historian.