Nyanatiloka: Playing with Emptiness


‘On the doctrine of anatta, or ‘egolessness’, i.e., the impersonality and emptiness of all phenomena of existence, the author repeatedly felt the necessity of throwing light from every possible point of view, but it is exactly this doctrine which, together with the doctrine of the conditionality of all phenomena of existence, constitutes the very essence of the whole Teaching of the Buddha without   which it will be by no means possible to understand it in its true light.  Thus the doctrine of impersonality runs like a red thread right through the whole book.’

(Nyanatiloka: Buddhist Dictionary, Preface 1946)

The Venerable Nyanatiloka Maha-Thera (1878-1957) was an eminent German-born Theravada Buddhist monk who entered the Sangha in Sri Lanka, and became renowned for exact and precise scholarly understanding of that school’s complex Dharma teaching.  He possessed the ability to a) understand and contextualise often obscure Pali terms and concepts, and b) correctly transliterate and translate those terms into Western languages.  His work regarding the Theravada School is reliable and insightful.  His numerous Dharma-books bring alive – for a Western audience – the teachings of the Buddha first uttered well-over two thousand years ago in ancient India (in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, it is believed that the Buddha lived around three thousand years ago).  Indeed, many have reported experiencing a type of ‘freedom’ just from coming into contact, and reading Nyanatiloka Maha-Thera’s words, and in his old age, he had more than a passing resemblance to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.  In his youth, he studied music Frankfurt and Paris, and travelled widely throughout the world, visiting India, Sri Lanka, the Middle East, and Greece.  He became a novice monk (Samanera) in Rangoon (Burma) in 1903, and became a Bhikkhu a year later in 1904 (in the Theravada tradition).  Between 1910-11 he left Sri Lanka and travelled to Lausanne area of Switzerland – where introduced many to Buddhism.  In fact, it was during this time that the Venerable Nyanatiloka Maha-Thera ordained the first Buddhist monk on Western soil.  Of course, like a number of Germans who go unrecognised, Nyanatiloka Maha-Thera (birth-name Anton Gueth) did not participate as a belligerent in either WWI or WWII, although whilst living in Sri Lanka, he was twice imprisoned by the British as an enemy alien (as Sri Lanka was then a British Colony).  In 1916, he was granted a passport to Honolulu, from where he travelled to China.  He was arrested and imprisoned (as China had joined Britain in her war against Germany), and was not released until 1919.  He lived as a teacher of Pali for a time in Japan after WWI, before finally being allowed back into Sri Lanka by the British in 1926.  During WWII the British interned him in the Dehra-Dun Central Internment Camp, situated in North India – before being released in 1946.  Indeed, this is the address he gives at the bottom of his 1946 Preface for the First Edition of his excellent book entitled ‘Buddhist Dictionary’ (a very learned compendium of Pali Buddhist terms correctly translated into English).

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