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Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera: was he a Nazi sympathizer?
Asian Tribune, Sunday, June 3, 2007
An article in the Asian Tribune (May 28, 2007) on Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera, a respected scholar monk from Germany who pioneered Buddhist studies during his stay in Sri Lanka, has provoked a controversy over his alleged political role. Janaka Perera, a regular contributor to the "Asian Tribune," wrote (May 28, 2007) urging that the Sri Lankan government should issue a stamp to commemorate the outstanding contribution he made to Buddhism and Buddhist studies. This article has prompted Dr. Marianne Wachs, Chairperson Foederverein Theravada-Buddhismus, Berlin to allege that Ven. Nyanatiloka was a Nazi sympathiser who discriminated against Jews. A reply to this allegation maintains that Ven. Nyanatiloka's best disciple was a Jew.
Here is correspondence on this issue:
The Editor in Chief
I am a Buddhist, a regular reader of the Asian Tribune and writing this letter in reference to the article "Pioneering Western Buddhist monks forgotten" published on the 28th May 2007 in the Asian Tribune. I am very astonished about the ignorance shown in this article by its author, Mr. Janaka Perera, who contributes often to your website.
In praising the late Ven. Nyanatiloka, it appears he is omitting some proved facts concerning Nyanatiloka; his cowardice and his servility to German National socialism in the time of the Third Reich.
Prof. Volker Zotz, an eminent professor for Buddhist philosophy at the Universities of Tokyo and Luxemburg, has made a well-known research about Nyanatiloka's attitude towards National Socialism. Concerning Nyanatiloka's attitude while he was interred in Dhera Dun, I quote – in my own translation from German to English - from his study "Auf den glückseligen Inseln. Buddhismus in der deutschen Kultur", Berlin: Theseus Verlag, 2000 (in English: "On the happy islands. Buddhism in German culture"):
"Because of strong hostilities between National Socialists and their adversaries, the camp was finally divided into two parts. Nyanatiloka – who had already earlier paid his tribute to National Socialism and had not ordinated people with Jewish background – rested with some of his pupils in the part of the camp reserved for the National Socialists. (...) Nyanatiloka himself has never said anything concerning his decision. His autobiography ends – like many other German autobiographies – before the time of the Third Reich." (p. 218-219)
Furthermore, Janaka Perera is wrong in his research writing this article. The Sri Lankan State has honoured Nyanatiloka as well as some other German monks - at his death with a state funeral. So it is simply not true that the Sri Lankan State or the Singhalese Buddhists have disregarded the merits of Theravadan monks coming from Germany.
A rather strange part of his article is the following: Why and what made Mr. Janaka Perera mention Nyanatiloka and not the Ven. Nyanaponika who came also from Germany and has much more merits in propagating Theravada Buddhism in Germany and throughout the world. I pause to wonder - Is it because Ven. Nyanaponika came from a Jewish background? Has Mr. Perera anti-Semitic tendencies – or is he simply misinformed?
It is quite clear to any reader of this article, that Janaka Perera has been influenced by the German Dhammaduta Society in Colombo as he is praising highly the "permanent Buddhist mission in Germany" – Das Buddhistisches Haus Berlin-Fronau. He is trying to create an image to the reader, that this Buddhist Institution in Berlin is doing great service to spread Theravada Buddhism in Germany.
The truth is - The Berlin Buddhist Temple - Das Buddhistische Haus which is managed by the German Dhammaduta Society in Sri Lanka has become a laughing-stock in Berlin due to its mismanagement and an object of great despise in the German Buddhist scene. - I wouldn't be astonished to hear that Mr. Perera has underlying anti-Semitic tendencies!
I kindly request you to publish this letter in the Asian Tribune and place the facts right to all readers with respect to Buddhism.
To the Editor in Chief
I am writing in response to Dr. Marianne Wachs's letter regarding Janaka Perera's article about the great German scholar-monk Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera ("Pioneering Western Buddhists," Asian Tribune, May 28th). I found Dr. Wachs's letter shockingly and systematically misleading. It amounts to nothing less than the defamation of a noble and illustrious monk to whom the whole modern Theravada Buddhist world is deeply indebted. As an American monk ordained in Sri Lanka and a long-time student of Ven. Nyanatiloka's foremost pupil, the late Ven. Nyanaponika, I feel compelled to write a rejoinder to protect the honor of this distinguished Buddhist personality.
I will begin by observing that Dr. Wachs does not seem to have read Mr. Perera's article very carefully. She asks why Mr. Perera mentions Ven. Nyanatiloka but not Ven. Nyanaponika, yet if she had read with a little care she would have noted that in his very first sentence Mr. Perera states the reason: "Today (May 28th) is the 50th death anniversary of the passing away of the pioneering German Theravada Buddhist monk, the Venerable Nyanatiloka Maha Thera." This explains why his article focuses on Ven. Nyanatiloka. But does he fail to mention Ven. Nyanaponika and other European monks? If Dr. Wachs had read on, she would have seen the following sentence in the next paragraph: "His example was soon followed by other European monks of the caliber of the Ven. Nyanaponika, Ven. Nyanawimala, and Ven. Nyanamoli among others." Dr. Wachs insinuates that Mr. Perera had neglected to mention Ven. Nyanaponika because he harbors anti-Semitic tendencies. Seeing that Mr. Perera gives full credit to Ven. Nyanaponika, she should certainly withdraw her reckless words.
The main thrust of Dr. Wachs's letter is the claim that there are some "proven facts" about Ven. Nyanatiloka that show his attitude was one of "cowardice and servility to German National Socialism in the time of the Third Reich," that is, towards Nazism during the reign of Hitler. To prove this allegation she cites a statement from Volker Zotz, "an eminent professor for Buddhist philosophy," which says that Ven. Nyanatiloka "had already earlier paid his tribute to National Socialism and had not ordinated [ordained] people with Jewish background." This is a sheer error of fact, if not intentional calumny. As Dr. Wachs notes elsewhere in her letter (contradicting her own thesis!), Ven. Nyanatiloka had ordained Nyanaponika, a German Jew who came to Island Hermitage in 1936.
On the same occasion, he ordained another German Jew named Peter Schoenfeldt, who became Nyanakhetta. Later Nyanakhetta's younger brother Malte came to Sri Lanka and was ordained as Nyanamalita. A well-known photograph, taken on Ven. Nyanatiloka's 60th birthday in 1938, shows him with Nyanaponika on one side and Nyanamalita on the other. The German teacher with two disciples of Jewish background is hardly the picture one would expect of a Nazi sympathizer.
The only "proof" that Dr. Wachs offers for her claim that Nyanatiloka had Nazi sympathies is a feeble one wrapped in curtains of obscurity. It was his decision, during World War Two, to stay in the so-called "Nazi" side of the internment camp at Dehra Dun, rather than in the anti-Nazi side, where Nyanaponika and the other German Jewish Buddhist monks stayed. This in no way proves that Nyanatiloka was cowardly or servile towards the Nazi regime, which was reigning in Germany thousands of miles away. Some explanation for his decision is offered by the German Buddhist chronicler Hellmuth Hecker in his biography of Ven. Nyanatiloka, Der Erste Deutche Bhikkhu. To sum up briefly: As a Buddhist monk living far from Germany, he probably did not know what was really taking place in Germany. The relative comfort of the nationalist barrack and its smooth organization might also have inclined him to reside there, rather than go to the anti-Nazi side. But to allay any suspicions that might be drawn from his choice of residence, there is more concrete proof that Nyanatiloka’s personal attitude was opposed to Nazism. In a letter that Anagarika Govinda, the German follower of Tibetan Buddhism, wrote to Nyanatiloka before the internment, he said: "I am happy ... that you got rid of the Nazis who disturbed the peace at Dodanduwa and apparently are discrediting you everywhere" (cited by Hecker, pp.173-74).
If Ven. Nyanatiloka had really shown pro-Nazi inclinations, the bond between him and his pupil Nyanaponika would surely have been irreparably broken. Yet during their five years of internment, the two remained on amicable terms, and after their release they lived together again, first at Island Hermitage in Dodanduwa and then at Forest Hermitage in Kandy. Ven. Nyanatiloka appointed Ven. Nyanaponika his literary heir and heir to the Forest Hermitage. Such a close bond could hardly have continued between an ex-Nazi and a Buddhist monk of Jewish origins.
Though raised in a wealthy and prestigious German family, Ven. Nyanatiloka lived most of his monk's life in Asia, as a mendicant monk supported by the generosity of others. He mixed with people of all races and nationalities, without discriminating on the basis of race, class, or caste. In his short autobiography he described his practice as a Buddhist monk: "We radiate loving kindness and good-will, without making any kind of distinction, to all living beings whether small or great or middle size." Such sentiments are the exact antithesis of Nazism, which upholds the doctrine of a "master race" and extols violence, war, and genocide.
Dr. Wachs writes that Ven. Nyanaponika had "much more merits in propagating Theravada Buddhism in Germany and throughout the world" than Ven. Nyanatiloka. I think Ven. Nyanaponika himself would have found such comparisons offensive and ridiculous. In any case, from living with him, I know that Nyanaponika always cherished fond memories of Nyanatiloka. In his old age, each day until his final illness, he used to do a short meditation on gratitude towards his teacher (as well as others who had benefited him).
Dr. Wachs asked you to publish her letter in order to "place the facts right to all readers with respect to Buddhism." But it is her letter that distorts the facts and drops damaging innuendoes bordering on vilification. I therefore request you to publish my letter to correct these errors and protect the reputation of this illustrious Buddhist monk, who dedicated his life of over fifty years in the Buddhist Order to spread the Buddha's teaching of universal loving-kindness and good-will.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
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