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Ven. Nyanatiloka Maha Thera, 50th death anniversary

Pioneer missionary: The German Buddhist monk Ven. Nyanatiloka Maha Thera was one of the most outstanding and influential Buddhists of the 20th century.

He was a pioneer and a missionary, a scholar and a teacher.

He was a pioneer and missionary because he was the first continental European to become a Buddhist monk in 1903, the first monk to try to set up a monastery in Europe in 1910, the first monk to give pabbajja (Going Forth) in Europe (in 1910), the first one to set up a monastery (the Island Hermitage in Dodanduwa) where Westerners could become Buddhist monks and learn about Buddhism (1911).

He became a monk at a time that it was more difficult to travel and diseases such as malaria were common. He had to endure many hardships because of his German nationality and was interned during World War I as well as WW II. After WWI he could not return for several years to his beloved Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, despite all the hardships, he endured and through his efforts in setting up the Island Hermitage monastery, making translations, etc, he was trailblazer for generations of Western Buddhists to come.

In 1911, Ven. Nyanatiloka was involved in setting up a project to help deprived Buddhist people near Kandy. He was also involved in setting up an international Buddhist union in the 1920s, and in the 1950s went to Burma to participate in the important Sixth Council synod. In his last years, he was also supportive of the German Dharmaduta Society, which was founded by Asoka Weeraratna in 1952. Ven. Nyanatiloka was the first Patron of this Society.

In a memorable message to the publication 'Buddhism in Germany' Ven. Nyanatiloka says as follows:

"It was just 50 years ago in 1903, that I came first to this island which, since then, I have considered my spiritual home, and I am therefore happy to be now a citizen of Sri Lanka.

Yet, it will be understood that it was the great wish of my heart to give the country of my origin the best I possessed, i.e. the Dhamma. And to that end I have devoted the greatest part of my 50 years in the Sangha. I did so in the firm conviction that the Dhamma will take root in my home country, Germany, and may have a great future there.

Now it has been a very great pleasure to me to hear that Mr. Weeraratna returned from Germany with the very same conviction, and was able to report on lively Buddhist activities there. I believe that the chances for Buddhist mission work in Germany are now greater than ever before. I am therefore very happy that the Lanka Dharmadutha Society has undertaken that great task of sending a well-prepared mission to Germany and to support Buddhist work there, in general.

I greatly appreciate the initial work done by the Society up to now, and particularly the sacrificing labour, devotion and energy shown by the Founder and Secretary of the Lanka Dharmadutha Society, Asoka Weeraratna.

I should, indeed, regard it as a happy culmination of my life if Vesak 1956, i.e. the year 2500, will see a well-established mission in Germany, which will not fail to have a far-reaching influence on the other Western countries, too.

I wish the Society full success in their great and noble enterprise. Selfless effort to give the Dhamma to those who are most in need of it will be of great blessing to those who give and receive". - Nyanatiloka (May 25, 1953)

Ven. Nyanatiloka was a scholar because of his many outstanding and authoritative translations of Pali scriptures into German as well as English. Being endowed with great linguistic skills, he quickly mastered Pali and made the first and only translations of several important Buddhist scriptures in German (Anguttara Nikaya, Milindapanha, Visuddhimagga, Puggalapannatti).

His published first book, The Word of the Buddha, a cleverly compiled anthology of Buddhist discourses, was, and still is, very popular and went through many reprints and was translated into many languages. Its impact was such that some of those who read the booklet decided to become monks. The Path to Deliverance is an advanced supplement to the Word of the Buddha. The popular Buddhist Dictionary, which explains important Pali terms, remains an unsurpassed reference book.

Ven. Nyanatiloka was a teacher who had hundreds of disciples over the years. Because of his literary works he became well known in Buddhist circles all over the world.

This, combined with his efforts in setting up a monastery where Westerners could learn about Buddhism and train to become monks, attracted many Europeans, but also Sinhalese, Tibetans, Japanese, Dutch, etc. In order to gain a proper understanding of the Buddhist teachings, Ven. Nyanatiloka emphasised the study of the Pali scriptures in their original language and made it a prerequisite for ordination candidates to learn some Pali, which he himself would teach them.

In 1950, Ven. Nyanatiloka received the citizenship of Sri Lanka. His home country of Germany also remembered him, and recognised his outstanding life work as a Buddhist scholar, when, in 1955, he was nominated an Honorary fellow of the prestigious academic society for oriental studies, the Deutsche Morgenlandische Gesellschaft.

Ven. Nyanatiloka passed away peacefully on May 28, 1957 at the age of 79, while convalescing in the newly established Monks' Training Centre of the German Dharmaduta Society, based at 417, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 7.

He was accorded a State funeral by the Sri Lankan Government then Prime Minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, delivered the funeral oration, amidst a large and representative gathering of mourners at Independence Square.

German Dharmaduta Society


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service

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