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A Profile of Ven.Nanavira Thera

Ven. Nanavira Thera's writings brings to the fore how much the Thera was involved in Dhamma exploration during the period he was ordained as a Bhikku and through the writings of "The Notes on Dhamma" and "Letters" we are fortunate to share the understanding the Thera had on Dhamma . Endowed with an exceptional ability to pursue philosophical ideas and to form his own opinion on the validity of those ideologies, one can see how he examines minutely the philosophical ideas of renowned philosophers of past and of his era. The reader will come across persons involved in philosophical writings such as Kierkegaad, A.Camus, J.P.Sartre, Heidegger,J. Grenier,f. H.Bradley, Mc Taggart, Hegel, Husserl, Bertrand Russel, H.G.Blackham, A.S.Eddington, Gaston ,Bachelard, K.Jaspers and Descartes that had been discussed by the Thera in his Notes on Dhamma and Letters. Though he had been considered to have an "existentialist" ideology by his critics, one need to bear in mind that he had not embraced that ideology but had surpassed the existentialist philosophy that was unable to put forward solutions to an individual's existence, by becoming a disciple of Lord Buddha, or a Sangha, whose sole aim was the release from lust, hate and delusion as the Buddha has elaborated which ultimately solves the problem of the individuality by putting to an end to the very “existence”.


A Brief Profile of Ven. Nanavira Thera (a)

5-1-1920   Born as Harold Edward Musson, in Aldershot, England
1938 Age-18 yrs. Enters Magdalene College, Cambridge
1939 Age-19 yrs. Magdalene College, Cambridge ,Mathematics
1940 Age-20 yrs. Magdalene College, Cambridge ,Modern Languages
1941-1946 Age-21-26 yrs. British Army
1948 Age-28 yrs. B.A. degree in Modern and Medieval Languages from Cambridge University
    Living in London and decides to go to Ceylon to become a Buddhist monk
1949 Age-29 yrs. Novice Ordination as a bhikkhu at the Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa
1950 Age-30 yrs. Higher Ordination as a bhikkhu at the Vajiririma monastery, Colombo
1950-1955 Age-30-35 yrs. Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa
1955-1965 Age-35-45yrs. Bundala Kuti
5-7-1965 Age-45 yrs. Death


Ven.Nanavira Thera has written “The Notes on Dhamma” and “Letters” during the period of 1960 to 1965, while he was severely suffering from an ailment. He was ordained as a Bhikkhu in 1949. Though not mentioned specifically of his early years as a Bhikku in his writings, he had learned Pali and studied the Pali Tipitaka methodically and with an analytical skill, had understood the essence of Dhamma knowledge profoundly which he penned down during the period of 1960-1965.

One hardly comes across with such candid details of a Bikkhu following the path of Dhamma with such intimate details. Nothing had been hidden as can be seen with the correspondences the Thera had with others. That openness of his inner self itself can be seen as a virtue according to Dhamma. The correspondences amply show how much that he regarded is important to pursue Gautama Buddha's instructions as appearing in Buddha's discourses. One needs to develop “Dhamma Sanvega” reading Thera's “Notes on Dhamma” since those had been written with utmost discomfort undergoing with his ailments for the benefit of those who would practice Dhamma for the sole purpose of release from samsara. It could be seen that none of the Pitakas missed the critical scrutiny of analyzing from Ven. Nanavira Thera for standing against the soundness of the originality for Gautama Buddha's Dhamma.

At a time when the Sutta Pitaka was considered as just some discontinued sermons of Gautama Buddha, that lacked merit for the pursue of the ultimate release from Dukka and towards the attainment of Nibbana, it was once again given the due prominence for the attainment towards Nibbana, by Ven. Nanavira Thera by the explanations of utmost important Dhamma matters, hitherto unexplained by any Dhamma scholar from Sutta Pitaka. His “Notes on Dhamma" explains " Paticcasamuppada" in great detail and Shorter Notes on other important topics such as “Atakkavacara”, :Atta”, “Anicca”, “Citta”, “Cetana”, “Dhamma”, “ Na Ca So”, “ Nama”, “Nibbana”, “Paticcasamuppada”, “Phassa”, “ Bala”, “Mano”, “Mame”, “Rupa”, “Vinnana”, “Sakkaya”, “Sankhara” and “Sanna”. The content of Dhamma is very dense in each topic that the reader needs deep attention, thought and consideration to grasp what the author has put forward. The companion book "Letters" consists of 150 letters the Thera had corresponded with a cluster of persons interested on Dhamma and can be considered as some vibrant thinkers of sort. The correspondences mainly covers Dhamma topics with more general explanations and helps to understand deep Dhamma matters mentioned in the “Notes on Dhamma”.

The mode of Ven. Nanavira Thera’s death had been under severe criticism at the time and was made to discredit him in general. The fact that he has taken his own life needs much thought on the circumstances that existed for him to take such an action. Than hearing from second hand sources, and making self opinions on the information based on them, it is prudent for one to read his “Letters” that describes fully the circumstances that resulted the Thera to take such a decision.

During the time as a Bikkhu from 1949 to 1965, one is able to find in detail, the life spent by the Thera. One can assume that between 1949-1960, he had practiced Dhamma and studied the Tipitaka with utmost care and interest and come to understand it in a new light making inroads to the content of Sutta discourses as seen from the later correspondences and the "Notes on Dhamma". The reason for the “Notes on Dhamma” and the “Letters” that had been written were to overcome the physical sufferings due to severe illness and conditions that made the Thera to stay away from meditation. Writing on Dhamma matters had made him occupied in an useful manner even under severe discomfort from the illness engaging him in Dhamma vitakka. The drugs prescribed for his severe amoebiosis had caused side effects which were of hindrance to his Sila. To overcome this, as he mentions in the Letters, he had two ultimate choices before him, that was whether to disrobe and become a lay person or to take the own life, still under the clear Dhamma vithakka ability. He had opted for the latter with reasons as given in his correspondences.

Many had been very critical and disapproving of the action Ven. Nanavira Thera had chosen in regard of ending his own life. Perhaps there may be other sides to it overlooked by the many in this regard.

Gautama Buddha has mentioned in no uncertain terms that he don’t approve any one moment of this samsara even as a Deva or a higher celestial being. Gautama Buddha always stressed the need to overcome lust, hate and delusion for this purpose. His advise for this disciples were at least to become a sotapanna or stream attainer person who will definitely end the samsara with in seven more existences. The unwavering determination to live a virtuous life as a Sangha can be noticed throughout his writings. The Thera was of opinion that due to the critical illness, he found it difficult at times to maintain a Dhamma vithakka or Dhamma manasikara. He preferred not to live as a person without Dhamma vitakka or manasikara for any time and considered to end the very life since he considered that his chances of this action would outweigh the negative side of him becoming a laity by disrobing. The accumulation of meritorious deeds of Sila, samadhi and panna during the Thera's 15 years of period under Upasampada sila will be immense if one refers to Gautama Buddha’s discourses. The action of taking one's own life by a "putujjana" with lust, hate and delusion can not be compared to that of a person in the fold of “ Atta Purisa Puggla” of “Bhagavatho Savaka Sangho” . Even a person with “sotapatti anga” on the path to “sotapanna” is a “ariya savaka” with deeds of immense kusala kamma he has obtained, that are indeed meritorious as to Lord Buddha’s sermons. The suicide of a “Puthujjana” and that of Ven. Nanavira Thera cannot be regarded in the same light. The intentions would be worlds apart in the two instances.

If elaborated more on intentions and referring Vinaya Pitaka, in Parajika Pali, one will come under instances that the Buddha ascribes the same bodily action with different intentions to be either Parajika of a Bhikku or no offence by a Bhikku at all. The Letters of Ven.Nanavira Thera indicate quite clearly the intentions the Thera had for taking the decision to end his own life to be able to die under Dhamma Manasikara, virtue and the developed mind.

In the Lonaphala Sutta, Lord Buddha explains the simile of the Salt Crystal. A very summerised quote from the Lonaphala Sutta can be described as follows. A crystalised piece of salt put into a small vessel or cup filled with water will turn the water into salty taste that will make the water in the cup impossible to drink. But the same piece of crystalised salt put into River Ganges will not make the water in the river salty. Like the salt crystal put into the cup of water makes the water salty and unfit to drink, the person with undeveloped virtue and undeveloped mind doing even a small evil thing will take him to hell, where as the person with developed virtue and developed mind will hardly feel any bad effect from the same evil deed just like the water in River Ganges could not make salty by the salt crystal put into the river.

Similarly the result of the same act of a suicide by a totally ignorant “Puthujjana” and the Ven. Nanavira Thera may not be taken in equal terms.

The Writings of Ven.Nanavira Thera are a wealth of Gautama Buddha's Dhamma, explained with immense Sadda towards Lord Buddha , not lacking authority with openness and clear reasoning. A wise, unbiased and inquisitive minded person with Saddha following the path of Gautama Buddha's Dhamma will be fortunate to come across Ven. Nanavira’s Writings to realize what the Gautama Buddha has disclosed.




CLEARING THE PATH – Writings of Nanavira Thera (1960-1965) – Volume-I – NOTES ON DHAMMA

CLEARING THE PATH – Writings of Nanavira Thera (1960-1965) – Volume-II – LETTERS

(a) – For complete works by Ven. Nanavira Thera, please visit

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A Profile of Ven.Nanavira Thera

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