Nyanatiloka Mahathera (19 February 1878, Wiesbaden, Germany – 28 May 1957, Colombo, Ceylon), born as Anton Gueth, was one of the earliest westerners in modern times to become a Bhikkhu, a fully ordained Buddhist monk.
Early life and education
Nyanatiloka was born in on 19 February 1878 in Wiesbaden, Germany as Anton Walther Florus Gueth. His father was Anton Gueth, a professor and principal of the municipal Gymnasium of Wiesbaden, as well as a private councillor. His mother's name was Paula Auffahrt. She had studied piano and singing at the Royal Court Theatre in Kassel.
He studied at the Königliche Realgymnasium (Royal Gymnasium) in Wiesbaden from 1888 to 1896. From 1896 to 1898 he received private tuition in music theory and composition, and in playing the violin, piano, viola and clarinet. From 1889 to 1900 he studied theory and composition of music as well as the playing of the violin and piano at Hoch’sches Conservatorium (Hoch Conservatory) in Frankfurt. From 1900 to 1902 he studied composition under Charles-Marie Widor at the Music Academy of Paris (Paris Conservatoire).
His childhood was happy. As a child Nyanatiloka had a great love of nature, of solitude in the forest, and of religious philosophical thought. He was brought up as a Catholic and as a child and adolescent he was quite devout. He went to church every evening and absorbed himself in the book The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. As a child he wanted to become a Christian missionary in Africa and as an adolescent he ran away from home to become a Benedictine monk at Maria-Laach monastery but soon returned. From then on his “belief in a personal God gradually transformed into a kind of pantheism” and was inspired by the prevailing atmosphere of weltschmerz (world-weariness). From the age of seventeen he was a vegetarian and abstained from drinking and smoking.
Around the age of fifteen he began to have an “almost divine veneration for great musicians, particularly composers, regarding them as the manifestation of what is most exalted and sublime” and made friends with musical child prodigies. He composed orchestral pieces and in 1897 his first composition called “Legende” (“Legend”) was played by the Kurhaus Orchestra of Wiesbaden.
At about the same time he conceived a great love for philosophy. He studied Plato's Phaedo, Descartes, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, von Hartmann and especially Schopenhauer. He also had a great interest for languages, foreign countries and peoples. From the age of seventeen he was a vegetarian and abstained from drinking and smoking. While visiting a vegetarian restaurant he heard Theosophical lecturer Edwin Böhme give a talk on Buddhism which made him immediately an enthusiastic Buddhist. The following day his violin teacher gave him Buddhist Catechism by Subhadra Bhikshu and another book on Buddhism that gave him the desire to become a Buddhist monk in Asia. After studying composition with the well-known composer Charles-Marie Widor in Paris, he played in various orchestras in France, Algeria, and Turkey. In 1902, intending to become a Buddhist monk in India, he travelled from Thessaloniki to Cairo by way of Palestine. After earning the necessary money by playing violin in Cairo, Port Said and Bombay, he travelled to Sri Lanka.
Early years as a Buddhist monk
In 1903, at the age of 25, Nyanatiloka briefly visited Sri Lanka and then proceeded in order to Burma to meet the English Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya. In Burma where he was ordained as a Theravada Buddhist novice (samanera) at the Ngda Khi Pagoda under Venerable U Āsabha Thera in September 1903. As a novice he first stayed with Ananda Metteyya for a month in the same room.
In January or February 1904 he received full acceptance into the Sangha (upasampadā) with U Kumāra Mahāthera as preceptor (upajjhāya) and became a bhikkhu with the name of Ñāṇatiloka. Although his preceptor was a renowned Abhidhamma reciter, he learned Pali and Abhidhamma mostly by himself. Later in 1904 he visited Singapore, perhaps with the intention to visit the Irish monk U Dhammaloka. Having first stayed with U Dhammaloka, with whom he was not impressed, he then stayed for a fortnight with a friendly, but married, Japanese priest. While having to wait for his ship back to Burma, he stayed for a month in an unoccupied Sinhalese temple in Kuala Lumpur. At the end of 1904 he left Rangoon to go to Upper Burma together with the Indian monk Kosambi Dhammānanda, the later Harvard scholar Dhammananda Kosambi. In a cave in the Sagaing Mountains they practised concentration and insight meditation under the instructions of a monk who was reputed to be an arahant. Desiring to deepen his study of Pali and the Pali scriptures, he went to Sri Lanka in 1905. In 1905–06 Nyanatiloka stayed with the Siamese prince monk Jinavaravamsa, (layname Prince Prisdang Jumsai, who had earlier been the first Siamese Ambassador for Europe) in palm leaf huts on the small island of Galgodiyana near Mātara, which Jinavaravamsa called Culla-Laṅkā (“Small Lanka”). Pictures of Nyanatiloka and Jinavaravamsa taken at this monastery suggest that they were doing meditation of the nature of the body by way of observing skeletons or were doing contemplation of death. At Culla-Laṅkā Nyanatiloka ordained two laymen as novices (samanera). The Dutchman Frans Bergendahl, the troubled son of a rich merchant, was given the name Suñño. The German Fritz Stange, training to be an Postal Department official, was given the name Sumano. In the summer of 1906 Nyanatiloka returned to Germany to visit his parents. Sumana, who was suffering from consumption and had to get treatment, also went with him. They returned to Sri Lanka in October.
At the end of 1906 Nyanatiloka returned to Burma alone, where he continued to work on translating the Aṅguttara Nikāya. He stayed at Kyundaw Kyaung, near Rangoon, in a residence built for Ananda Metteyya and him by the rich Burmese lady Mrs Hlā Oung. He also stayed in Maymo in the high country. At Kyundaw Kyaung he gave the novice acceptance to the Scotsman J.F. McKechnie, who got the Pali name Sāsanavaṃsa. This name was changed to Sīlācāra at his higher ordination. He also gave the going forth (pabbajjā) to the German Walter Markgraf, under the name Dhammānusāri, who soon disrobed and returned to Germany. Markgraf became a Buddhist publisher and founded the German Pali Society (Deutsche Pāli Gesellschaft), of which Nyanatiloka became the Honorary President.
In 1906, Nyanatiloka published his first Buddhist work in German, Das Wort des Buddha (The Word of the Buddha, published in English in 1927) and had started on his translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Nyanatiloka gave his first talk, in Pali, in 1907. It was given on a platform in front of the Pagoda of Moulmein with a Burmese Pali expert as interpreter. It was on the Four Noble Truths.
Plans for a Theravada Buddhist monastery in Europe
Upon returning to Germany, Markgraf planned to found a Buddhist Monastery in the southern part of Switzerland and formed a group to realise this aim. Enrico Bignani, the publisher of Coenobium: Rivista Internazionale di Liberi Studi from Lugano had found a solitary alpine hut at the foot of Monte Lema Mountain, near the village of Novaggio overlooking Lake Maggiore, and Nyanatiloka left Burma for Novaggio at the of end 1909 or the beginning of 1910. The architect Rutch from Breslau had already designed a monastery with huts for monks, and the plan was that Bhikkhu Sīlācāra and other disciples were to join Nyanatiloka there. Nyanatiloka's stay and plans drew a lot of attention from the press and several journalists visited him to write about the him and the planned monastery. However, Nyanatiloka suffered heavily from bronchitis due to the cold weather, and also from malnutrition, and after half a year left Novaggio with the German monk candidate Ludwig Stolz, who had joined him at Novaggio, to try to find a better place in Italy or North Africa. In Novaggio worked on his Pāli-grammatik (Pāli Grammar) and his translation of the Abhidhamma text called Puggalapaññatti (Human Types).
Italy, Tunisia, Lausanne
In Italy, Nyanatiloka first stayed with a lawyer in a town near Turin. After the lawyer tried to persuade Nyanatiloka and his Stolz to make harmoniums to make their living, they left to Rome, where they stayed with the music teacher Alessandro Costa. From Rome they went to Naples and took a ship to Tunis, where they stayed with Alexandra David-Néel and her husband for a week. Then they went on Gabès, where they were told to leave Tunisia by policemen. Nyanatiloka and his companion were reluctant to do so because they felt at ease with the Arabs, who according to Nyanatiloka, had a lot of trust in them. After visiting David-Néel again, they left for Lausanne, where they stayed with Monsieur Rodolphe-Adrien Bergier (1852-?) in his Buddhist hermitage called “Caritas.” At Caritas, the glass painter Bartel Bauer was accepted by Nyanatiloka as a novice called Koṇḍañño. Soon after Koṇḍañño left to Sri Lanka for further training, the American-German Friedrich Beck and a young German called Spannring came to Caritas. After two more unsuccessful visits to Italy in search of a suitable place for a monastery, Nyanatiloka, Spannring, Stolz, Beck, and perhaps also Bergier, left to Sri Lanka from Genoa on 26 April 1911 to found a monastery there.
Founding of the Island Hermitage
After arriving in Sri Lanka, Nyanatiloka stayed in a hall built for Koṇḍañño in Galle. Ludwig Stolz was given novice ordination at a nearby monastery and given the name Vappo. From Koṇḍañño, Nyanatiloka heard about an abandoned jungle island in a lagoon at the nearby village of Dodanduva that would be a suitable place for a hermitage. After inspecting the snake-infested island and getting approval of the local population, five simple wooden huts were built. Just before the beginning of the annual monk’s rainy season retreat (vassa) of 1911 (which would have been started the day after the full moon of July), Nyanatiloka and his companions moved to the Island. The hermitage was namedIsland Hermitage. The island was bought by Bergier in 1914 from its Burgher owner and donated to Nyanatiloka. In September 1911 Alexandra David-Néel came and studied Pali under Nyanatiloka at the Island Hermitage while staying with the monastery's chief supporter, Coroner Wijeyesekera. Visitors such as Anāgārika Dhammapāla and the German ambassador visited the Island Hermitage during this period. Several Westerners—four Germans, an American-German, an American, and an Austrian—were ordained at the Island Hermitage between 1911 and 1914. In 1913 Nyanatiloka started a mission for the Sri Lankan “outcastes”, rodiya, beginning in the area of Kadugannava, about 20 km west of Kandy. Some of the rodiya lived and studied on the Island Hermitage. The son of the Rodiya chieftain was accepted by Nyanatiloka as a novice with the name Ñāṇāloka. After the death of Nyanatiloka he became the abbot of the Island Hermitage. Nyantiloka mentions that there were reproaches because of the caste egalitarianism at the Island Hermitage
Nyanatiloka travelled to Sikkim in 1914 with the intention to travel on to Tibet. In Gangtok he met the Sikkimese scholar translator Kazi Dawa Samdup and the Maharaja. He then travelled on to Tumlong monastery where Alexandra David-Néel and Sīlācāra were staying, and returned to Gangtong the next day. Because of running out of finances Nyanatiloka had to return to Ceylon, accompanied by two Tibetans, who became monks at the Island Hermitage, returned to Sri Lanka.
World War I
In 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, Nyanatiloka was interned by the British in Sri Lanka, deported to Australia (1915), released, travelled to China, interned in China (once China joined the war against Germany), repatriated with Germany in 1919.</ref>Buddhist Annual of Ceylon (1929).</ref>
In 1920, after being denied re-entry into Sri Lanka, Nyanatiloka taught at Japanese universities for five years.
Return to Sri Lanka & Island Hermitage
In 1926, he was allowed to return to the Island Hermitage.
World War II
In 1939, with the British declaration of war against Nazi Germany, Nyanatiloka and other German-born Sri Lankans were again interned, first in Sri Lanka and then in India (1941). In 1948, he was permitted to return to Sri Lanka.
In 1954, Ven. Nyanatiloka and Ven. Nyanaponika (one of Nyanatiloka's disciples) were the only two Western-born monks invited to participate in the Sixth Buddhist council (Burma).
He died 28 May 1957, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and was given a state funeral.
The English translation of Nyanatiloka's German autobiography — covering his life from his childhood Germany to his return to Ceylon in 1926 after banishment; finished by Nyanatiloka in 1948, but probably based on a draft written in 1926 - was published as part of The Life of Nyanatiloka: The Biography of a Western Buddhist Pioneer (written and compiled by Bhikkhu Nyanatusita and Hellmuth Hecker, BPS, Kandy, 2009 View online.) This comprehensive biography contains an introduction, large bibliography, list of disciples, biography of Nyanaponika, photographs, and detailed information on the early history of early German and Western Buddhism.
English titles by Nyanatiloka:
- Word of the Buddha: an Outline of the Ethico-philosophical System of the Buddha in the Words of the Pali Canon (1906, ::1927, 1967 (14th ed.), 1981, 2001), also freely available online
- Guide through the Abhidhamma-Pitaka (1938, 1957, 1971, 1983, 2009)
- Buddhist Dictionary : Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines (1952, 1956, 1972, 1980, 1988, 1997, 2004)
- Buddha's Path to Deliverance : a Systematic Exposition in the Words of the Sutta Piṭaka (1952, 1959, 1969, 1982, 2000)
- Fundamentals of Buddhism: Four Lectures (1994)
Autobiography and biography
Nyanatiloka also translated traditional Theravadin Pali texts into German including:
- the canonical Anguttara Nikaya
- the paracanonical Milindapañha
- the post-canonical Visuddhimagga.