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50th Anniversary of Buddhist Publication Society

Saga of German Jew turned Buddhist publisher

Rohan L. Jayetilleke, Daily News (Sri Lanka), Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Most Venerable Nyanaponika Maha Thera in the Forest Hermitage (Photo: Detlef Kantowsky, 1991)

January 1st 2008 marked the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy founded by Most Venerable Nyanaponika Maha Thera.

The person who was to become known all over the world as the Venerable Nyanaponika Maha Thera was born on 21st July 1901 in Germany, zat Hanau, near Frankfurt, as the only child of a Jewish couple, Isaak and Sophie Feniger.

His lay name was Siegmund Feniger. As the child was six years old, his parents moved to an industrial town in Upper Silesia called Knighutte. In this town his father set up his own business as book seller.

The young Siegmund attended school in Konigshutte, where he studied Latin, Greek and French. his parents were moderately religious Jews committed mainly to the ethnical ideals and humane values of Judaism.

Under these family circumstances Siegmund received a religious upbringing and even from his early years he showed a keen interest in religion. On his own free will he undertook studies in Hebrew and Jewish religious texts, under the guidance of rabbi.

Having completed his school career at the age of sixteen he commenced a working life as an apprentice in a bookshop in a neighbouring town, from where he garnered various aspects of the book trade. Even from his childhood he was a voracious reader.

Even though the family economy did not permit him to pursue a university education his appetite for reading had an intellectual bent, which inspired him to read great classics of Western literature and philosophy.

Thus this intensive and extensive reading habit gave him a new mindset and had a vision of the doubts of the Jewish religious beliefs, that he had traditionally accepted without any questioning. The doubtful mind of his prompted him to search for religious books.

While reading, Siegmund came across the books on the wisdom of Asia, including books on Buddhism and translations of Buddhist Pali texts. Buddhism had an immediate impact on his mind and heart, as they provided a balanced teaching that would meet with his critical mind and his search for a new religious persuasion.

These texts cleared his doubts about the origin of suffering and gave him a lead to the goal of deliverance and the way to realization sans rites rituals and dogmas. Though he had no teacher or a friend to guide him in Buddhism, he was convinced the ultimate truth is in the teaching of the Buddha. He was twenty years old and considered that himself an intellectually convinced Buddhist.

In 1922 he moved with his parents to Berlin, where he met other Buddhists, joined a Buddhist group and had access to much larger range of Buddhist literature.

It was here that he first heard of a learned person who was to play a vital role in his later career. This was the German Buddhist monk Venerable Nyanatiloka, who had had his ordination in Burma in 1903 and in 1911 had established, in a lagoon in Dodanduwa of the southern coastal area of Sri Lanka, a retreat for Western Buddhist monks called Island Hermitage.

Venerable Nyanatiloka was an indefatigable translator of Pali Theravada Buddhist texts, and his writings and translations which Siegmund came across in Berlin gave him a clear vision of the teachings of the Buddha.

In 1924 the Feniger family moved to Konisberg, in East Prussia (modern Kaliningrad in Russia). At a public lecture on Buddhism Siegmund met a wider circle of Buddhists. To gather with these friends, they regularly met for reading the Suttas and Dharma discussions. He also set up a Buddhist lending library in his father's shoe shop.

This library brought him in contact with Professor Helmuth von Glasenappa, the renowned German Indologist, who was then serving at the University of Konigsberg.

From left: Ven. Nyanamalita, Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera, Ven. Nyanaponika. Taken at a studio in Galle on Ven. Nyanatiloka’s birthday, 19th February, in 1937 or 1938.

Earlier one member of the Buddhist circle in Berlin had gone to Sri Lanka and had taken ordination at the Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa under Ven. Nyanatiloka.

Later he had proceeded to Burma where he passed away. He was Bhikkhu Nyanadhara who wrote letters to his Buddhist friends in Germany about the monk life in the East. These letters gave Siegmund, to perfect his vision to become a monk.

He knew there were Western Buddhist monks living in the East and facilities were supportive for monk life.

Though the idea had germinated in him, he could not proceed further for sometime. In 1932 his father died after a prolonged illness and Siegmund was not willing to leave his widowed mother and travel to the East.

In 1932 son and mother moved to Berlin and Siegmund rejoined his former circle of Buddhist friends. The dark war clouds were wafting. In 1932, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany.

Due to the Anti-Jewish program of Hitler, he lost his job with the book association and joined the Central Committee of German Jews for Help and Self Protection, a Jewish organization formed to safeguard vital interests of German Jews.

However, with the passage of time it was clear to him that it was not safe for him and his mother to live in Germany. Thus in December 1935 he left Germany with his mother to Vienna where their relatives were domiciled for a long time.

Siegmund discussed his wish to become a Buddhist monk with his mother, who was very sympathetic to his desire, but advised him to do so, only after their life was secure from Nazism.

Siegmund then wrote to Ven. Nyanatiloka to be admitted for ordination as a monk, when the situation eased enabling him to travel to Sri Lanka. The older monk replied consenting. Having arranged his mother to lodge with their relations in Vienna, he set out on his journey to tha East.

Siegmund from Vienna reached Marseilles, and from thereon 16th January 1936 took ship to the distant East, scheduled to reach at Colombo Port en route. The ship reached Colombo Port on the 4th February 1936, and in a launch did come a stately light-skinned person in saffron robes to meet him.

This was Ven. Nyanatiloka, who had come from Dodanduwa to welcome his new pupil from his motherland. The same day after lunch both of them left for Dodanduwa by car to the Island Hermitage.

The great venture thus dawned. On the Poson Poya Day of 4th June 1936, along with three others Siegmund received Pabbaja (ordinations as a Samanera - novice monk. His teacher named him Nyanaponika, meaning 'inclined to knowledge'.

The following year, on 29th June 1937, in a mainland Vihara he received Higher Ordination (Upasampada). Taking lessons from his teacher in the Buddha's Dhamma, he studied English on his own.

This tutelage lasted for about, as was the scheme of learning for around six to nine months and Ven. Nyanatiloka left his pupils to continue studies on their own, while he gave them assistance and guidance, whenever it were sought by the pupils.

In 1938, due to the unbearable heat at Dodanduwa, Ven. Nyanaponika Thera moved into the hilly country of Gampola (Kandy District) and lived alone converting an abandoned brick-kiln in the centre of a paddy field, obtaining his alms going around the neighbouring village on Pindapata.

In this serene and quiet atmosphere Ven. Nyanaponika translated selections from the Samytta Nikaya from Pali into German.

At the internment camp in Dehra Dun, 1943. In the front row, from left: Ven. Nyanaponika, Lama Govinda, Ven. Nyanamalita.

The Second World War broke out. All men of German nationality living in Sri Lanka were considered spies of Germany and were arrested and kept in civil internment at Diyatalawa, in the British military camp in the hill country. Venerable Nyanatiloka and Nyanaponika too were interned at the Diyatalawa camp from September till late months of 1940.

Ven. Nyanatiloka arranged Vens. Soma and Kheminda to look after the Island Hermitage at Dodanduwa and to be in company with a senior Sinhala monk Ven. Nyanaloka Thera, a disciple of Ven. Nyanatiloka.

In the wake of the fall of France in June 1940, the German Jews including Ven. Nyanaponika were rearrested, after a respite of three weeks and were taken back to Diyatalawa.

On the capture of Singapore by the Japanese, Sri Lanka was declared a war zone. The German civil internees, the German Bhikkhus were dispatched in late 1940 to the Dehra Dun in the Himalayan foothills. It was here Ven. Nyanaponika spent five agonising years (1941 - 1946), the most treacherous years of the Second World War.

When the world was experiencing the conflagration of the war, Ven. Nyanaponika Thera at the Dehra Dun camp quietly translated into German the entire Dhammasangani, the first book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, along with its commentary, the Atthasalini.

The notes he compiled on Abhidhamma philosophy later became the raw material for his later work, 'Abhidhamma Studies' composed in English after the cessation of the war. He too prepared at this camp an anthology of texts of Satipatthana meditation, too, in German.

Some editions were later incorporated into the Heart of Buddhist Meditation', a text for Master's degree in Buddhist Philosophy and even Doctoral studies in many universities around the world.

In 1951 Ven. Nyanatiloka moved from the Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa to a cottage in Udawattekele Forest Reserve, just behind the Sri Dalada Maligawa Kandy.

This came to be known as the Forest Hermitage, still existing and abode of the foreign monks directing the activities of the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy.

In 1954 the two scholar monks visited Burma, By this time Ven. Nyanaponika too had taken up residence in the Forest Hermitage, Kandy and both attended the opening session of the Sixth Council, at Rangoon, Burma.

In 1956, as his teacher was ailing, Ven. Nyanaponika Thera attended the closing ceremony of the Council, and made a very effective contribution to the council with his explanations on the Dhamma.

Ven. Nyanaponika at the request of his teacher edited his teacher's German translation of the complete Anguttara Nikaya, consisting of five volumes, which he retyped himself and also a forty-paged indices to this work.

The most epoch-making event in the career of Ven. Nyanaponika was the formation of the Buddhist Publication Society on New Year Day (January 01st) 1958, along with two lay friends from Kandy, namely retired teacher of Trinity College Kandy, as his assistant secretary and he himself as secretary and lawyer A. S. Karunaratna as the Treasurer.

The founders envisioned originally to issue only a limited number of minute booklet in English on various aspects of Buddhism, mainly for foreign readers to be despatched by post.

Having published 25 booklets their humble and meritorious venture blossomed into what is now the world renowned Buddhist Publicaction Society, Sangharaja Mawatha, Kandy, in a large two storeyed building with a bookshop and with Information Technology, employing a large staff, and now directed by Venerable Nyanathusita of The Netherlands.

It is hoped that that Patron of Amarapura Maha Sangha Sabha Hon'ble Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, will initiate action with the Postal Ministry, to issue a set of commemorative stamps of the Nyanaponika Thera and the Buddhist Publication Society building, during Vesak period (May) this year to mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Buddhist Publication Society, Sangharaja Mawatha, Kandy.

source: http://www.dailynews.lk/2008/01/16/fea05.asp

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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa.
Buddha sāsana.m cira.m ti.t.thatu.