Buddhist Monk and British POW – Buddhistdoor Global

For our own good and for the good of our fellow human beings, we must be vigilant with every step we take. It is only by a high degree of attention that we will succeed.

(Nyanaponika Thera)

Nyanaponika Thera. At buddho.org

Shortly after Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, the British government ordered the internment of all German nationals living in their Southeast Asian territories. It was feared that these “enemy aliens” were spies or were willing to help the Nazis. One of the thousands of German nationals arrested and jailed was Siegmund Feniger, an ordained Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka better known today as Nyanaponika Thera. For the next six years, his “monastery” would be a camp for British prisoners of war (POW).

Feninger was born in Hanau, Germany on July 21, 1901. His parents were Jewish and he was their only child. In 1921, the family moved to Berlin, where Siegmund discovered books on Buddhism that captured his interest. He also learned that a German monk, Nyanatiloka Thera, had established a Buddhist monastery for Western monks on the island of Sri Lanka. Immediately Feninger knew he wanted to become a monk and join the community.

However, as an only child, Feninger was equally devoted to his parents and reluctant to simply leave them. His father died in 1932, around the time Adolf Hitler came to power. Wanting to protect his mother from growing German anti-Semitism, Feninger arranged for her to live with relatives in Vienna in 1935. It was only then that Feninger left Europe for Sri Lanka in 1936, where he was eventually ordained a Buddhist monk under Nyanatolika Thera and given the name Dhamma Nyanaponika Thera.

As attacks on Jewish people increased in Europe under the Nazis, Nyanaponika arranged for his mother to live in Sri Lanka. Under the influence of her son, she also embraced Buddhism and remained devoted to the path until her death in Colombo in 1956.

Nyanaponika’s arrest and incarceration as a German national took place in 1939. At first he was held in a military camp in Sri Lanka before being transferred to a larger and more difficult POW camp. safe in North India. In accordance with Buddhist teachings on accepting even unpleasant and intrusive reality, Nyanaponika adapted to his new circumstances by using his time as a POW to write books and translate Buddhist texts into German. When the war ended, Nyanaponika returned to his monastery in Sri Lanka. A few years later, in 1951, the Sri Lankan government granted him citizenship.

In 1957, Nyanaponika was approached by two lay Buddhists who wanted to print a series of introductory books to Buddhism in English for free distribution overseas. Believing that the project was feasible and would be beneficial, he joined them. Originally, the three intended to publish a limited series of small, inexpensive books on basic Buddhist principles. However, the response to their initial impressions was so overwhelmingly positive that the three abandoned their initial limited goal in order to form the Buddhist Publication Society (BPS). Nyanponika was its first president. From these humble beginnings, the BPS emerged to become one of the world’s largest publishers of Buddhist literature.

Because Nyanaponika spent much of his time introducing Buddhism to Westerners, he was effective in clarifying the differences between Christianity and Buddhism. Nyanaponika disagreed that all religious paths lead to the same destination. He identified a stark contrast between Buddhist teaching and those of Christian traditions, based on the opening words of the Dhammapada and the Bible.

In the Dhammapada, one of the most popular and influential Buddhist texts, Buddha’s teaching is about the mind. The text opens with these words:

Everything we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that pulls the cart.

On the other hand, the Christian Bible starts with this sentence:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Nyanaponika Thera. At colombotelegraph.com

Commenting on these two openings in his book The Heart of Buddhist MeditationNyanaponika writes: “Here the roads of these two religions separate: one leads far into an imaginary beyond, the other leads straight home, into the very heart of man”, adding “in Buddhist doctrine, the mind is the starting point, the focal point, and also the culminating point.

Regarding the development of the mind, Nyanaponika said that Buddhism teaches these three basics: know the mind who is so close to us and yet so unknown; at shape the mind who is so heavy and stubborn and yet so supple; and to free the mind who is in bondage everywhere, and yet can gain freedom here and now.

When Westerners have declared Buddhism to be “atheistic”, Nyanaponika objected to this description, saying:

Buddhism has sometimes been called an atheistic teaching, either in an approving sense by freethinkers and rationalists, or in a pejorative sense by people of theistic belief. Buddhism can only be described as atheistic in one way, namely insofar as it denies the existence of an eternal and omnipotent God or deity who is the creator and orderer of the world. The word ‘atheism’, however, like the word ‘impious’, frequently carries a number of derogatory connotations or implications which in no way apply to the Buddha’s teaching.

Finally, to those who saw Buddhism as too focused on suffering, Nyanaponika responded as a Buddhist master of joy:

Life, though full of misfortunes, also contains sources of happiness and joy, unknown to most. Let’s teach people to seek and find true joy within themselves and rejoice in the joy of others! Let us teach them to deploy their joy to ever more sublime heights! The noble and sublime joy is not foreign to the Teaching of the Illuminated. Wrongly, the Teaching of the Buddha is sometimes considered as a doctrine spreading melancholy. Far from it: the Dhamma leads step by step to ever purer and higher happiness.

During his life, Nyananponika received many honors: Distinguished Patron of the Buddhist Publishing Society, Honorary Member of the German Oriental Society, and Honorary Doctor of Letters and Literature from several Sri Lankan universities. He died on October 19, 1994, on the grounds of his beloved island hermitage. He had been a Buddhist monk for 58 years.

Nyanaponika was one of those unique individuals who, through the causes and conditions of his background as well as his own initiative, lived a pioneering life. He chose a life of vocation and calling that went far beyond a career. Not only was he one of the first true Western Buddhist monks, but he was also among the most influential, respected for his strict practice, his fidelity to the teachings he received and his rigorous translation. He published prolifically. Even today, he is considered one of the leading modern authorities on the Theravada tradition.

Nyanaponika Thera with Lama Govinda and Li Gotami, late 1960s or early 1970s. From wikimedia.org

Nyanaponika Thera’s Words of Wisdom

The dark, messy corners of the mind are the hiding places of our most dangerous enemies. From there, they attack us out of the blue and all too often succeed in defeating us.

The mind is the source of all good and evil that arises within and comes to us from without.

It is one of the few consolations in this desolate world that not only evil, but also good has a strong contagious power that will manifest itself more and more if only we have the courage to put it to the test.

By facing one’s own defilements, one will be prompted to increase the effort to eliminate them. On the other hand, if out of false shame or pride we try to look away when they present themselves, we will always avoid the final and decisive encounter.

Repeated gratification turns a desire into a habit, and an uncontrolled habit turns into a compulsion.

Right meditation is not an escape; it is not intended to provide hiding places for temporary oblivion. Realistic meditation aims to train the mind to face, understand and conquer this very world in which we live.

Meet your defilements with a free and open gaze! Do not be ashamed, afraid or discouraged!

Mindfulness, although seemingly passive in nature, is actually an activating force. It makes the mind alert, and vigilance is essential to any useful activity.

In an untrained mind, noble tendencies and righteous thoughts are often assailed by the sudden irruption of passions and prejudices.

Sustained attention not only provides the nurturing soil for the growth of intuition, it also makes possible the fuller use and even repetition of the intuitive moment.

A passing impulse, an occasional indulgence, a passing whim can, through repetition, become a habit that is difficult to uproot, a desire that is difficult to control, and finally an automatism that cannot be questioned.

Harmful physical or mental habits can reinforce themselves, not only if they are deliberately encouraged, but also if they are abandoned. unnoticed or unopposed.

Having the comfort of a “sure foot” in life, we too easily forget to walk. Instead, we prefer strengthen our position, to improve and embellish the little cage that we build ourselves from habits, ideas and beliefs.

To cross the ocean of life and reach the other shore” in complete safety, it takes skill to navigate its currents and counter-currents.

A call to reduce hatred and violence in today’s world can no longer be dismissed as unrealistic moralizing. For the individual and for humanity, it has now become a matter of survival, physical and spiritual.

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