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How I Became a Theravada Buddhist

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Photo by Florian van Schreven

I followed my curiosity about Buddhism for 40 years before I finally understood the heart of Theravada Buddhism.

I began my studies in an honors degree in philosophy at McMaster University in Canada at the end of the 1950s. There I received  a sound foundation in the history of metaphysics and epistemology. Like many a youth of the so-called Beat Generation, however, I also owned a copy of Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen without quite understanding it.

In due course, after graduate work in Germany in philosophy and literature, I became a lecturer at the University of Maryland, Munich Campus, where I served for 25 years before joining the faculty of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. During all of this time, I had been continuing a study of Buddhism that began in 1960 under Prof. George Grant in the Department of Comparative Religion at McMaster University.

While teaching for the University of Maryland in Munich, I had the chance, by coincidence, to participate in a seminar led by Alan Watts, who was enjoying a final European speaking tour a few months before his untimely demise. Listening to Watts summarize Western epistemological endeavors in the history of philosophy and talking about being and nothingness, I had a sudden illumination on the questions of emptiness and non-self. After 15 years of existential fear and trembling, I passed through a gateless gate with hardly an “ah ha!” and my existential anxiety dropped away, just like that.

“I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” I told Watts.

“Don’t hang on too hard!” he said with an ironic twinkle. That was good advice. Watts was a skilled Zen teacher with a keen intellect.

I subsequently read a bookcase full of books on Zen, Japanese, and Mahayana Buddhism, but found the readings scattered, cryptic, and often inaccessible. I realized that I needed to advance further, but I didn’t know what path to take. The problem was that my understanding was still too theoretical and intellectual. 

In the early 1980s, I owned a 40-foot, blue-water sailing yacht in the South of France and did a lot of cruising about the Mediterranean, single-handed, often a hundred miles from land, in an attempt to be at one with the universe. It was a good life, but it was only a stage. That kind of aloneness is not yet the final answer.

One day, when docking in Corsica, in the port of Bonifacio, I met an older couple from Holland who owned a sturdy ketch and who talked knowledgeably about Buddhism. I told them that I wanted to go to Asia to learn more, firsthand.

“Go to Sri Lanka,” the Dutch-Indonesian wife said. “My friend Tissa will take care of you there. Just write and tell him why you want to come.” She and her husband gave me Tissa’s address. The husband, a retired sea captain with the air of a man who knew the world, smiled kindly.

Ven. Ampitiya Sri Rahula Maha Thera. From newsfirst.lk

About a year later, I found myself in the airport in Colombo waiting for Tissa to pick me up. It was my first journey to the East, and I was tingling with anticipation. That was 1986 and, as Ven. Ampitiya Sri Rahula Maha Thera, who was to become one of my principal teachers, later remarked to me, I was still very “raw.” I knew what I was looking for, but I hadn’t yet found the correct path.

Tissa helped me to change that. We visited many temples in the south of Sri Lanka by way of introduction. Then he took me to a withdrawn meditation center, where the monks lived in caves and where there was a skeleton hanging out in the open air as an object of meditation on the transience of life.

I was received by the head monk, who sat in retreat in a hollow beneath a great overhanging rock. I could actually see radiant energy emitting upward and outward from his shoulders and upper body. The monk spoke to me with reserve but gave me an English translation of the Buddha’s discourse on breathing meditation and directed me to go and pay respect to a wise and elderly German monk in the Forest Hermitage at Kandy called Ven. Nyanaponika Maha Thera, who could answer my further questions. Little did I know what a kindness I had been shown.

I was fortunate to have Tissa’s guidance. Had I turned up in Sri Lanka on my own, just another Western seeker in search of Shangri-La, I wouldn’t have known where to go or whom to talk to, and I would not have gained access to the places that I did. Tissa opened doors everywhere. He even arranged for me to gain admittance to the inner sanctum of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth at Kandy, one of the most sacred shrines of Theravada Buddhism. I don’t know how he managed that but, probably out of a sense of well-meaning generosity, he felt that my just being in the proximity of the Sacred Relic of the Tooth would bring spiritual blessing.

In due time, Tissa took me to the Forest Hermitage in Kandy to pay my respects to Ven. Nyanaponika Maha Thera, who, as it turned out, was a most renowned monk, Pali scholar, and author of The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, plus a whole shelf of other books and translations of Pali texts. He was the head of and spiritual force behind the Buddhist Publication Society (BPS) in Kandy. He had also been a delegate from Ceylon representing the Theravada tradition at the Sixth World Congress of Buddhists in 1957, together with his teacher, Ven. Nyanatiloka Maha Thera, who was another eminent Pali scholar and author of The Word of the Buddha and The Path of Deliverance, as well as numerous texts and translations that have guided and influenced three generations of Buddhists worldwide.

At the Forest Hermitage, I had the good fortune as well to meet Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American monk and scholar working under the guidance of Ven. Nyanaponika and helping as an editor for the Buddhist Publication Society. Bhikkhu Bodhi was the author of The Noble Eightfold Path and numerous other translations and explications on difficult Pali texts. The Forest Hermitage was another inner sanctum—a haven of knowledge and wisdom.

Ven. Nyanaponika Maha Thera.
From wikimedia.org
One person’s journey to the heart of Buddhism
The Word of the Buddha by Ven. Nyanatiloka
Maha Thera. From pariyatti.org

They received me with a matter-of-fact warmth and loving-kindness, which was a lesson in itself. Very much in awe, after some scattered questions, I asked how I could find the real source of Buddhism. They said to start with the Ven. Nyanatiloka’s translation of The Word of the Buddha and then go on to practice the discipline outlined in his Path to Deliverance. They stressed that the emphasis must be on actual practice of the path as opposed to theory. And that I would find it difficult—not just at first, but all the way along, even into an advanced stage. But if I followed the word of the Buddha and the practice, I would make progress.

In summation, when I asked them where I could discover the meaning of Buddhism, they answered: “Why look anywhere but in the words spoken by the Buddha?” That’s what Theravada Buddhism is all about and, to my amazement, the Buddhist Publication Society has made it all available in English, with nothing cryptic or inaccessible about it. I just hadn’t known where to look. So I read another bookcase full of BPS publications, this time perhaps for the right reasons, and, finally, realized that the path I had missed was the one of practical mental application and discipline applied to the thoughts, feelings, and actions of everyday life, as opposed to pure intellectual pursuit. If the mind is being tuned but not in harmony with the body, then advancement will be blocked. 

The starting place was Ven. Nyanatiloka’s translation of The Word of the Buddha, which outlines the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, and which is the subject of the discourse in the body of this text.

Some good advice is just to begin and then keep doing it as long as it feels good.

It’s a wonderful paradox that once you understand the book, you no longer need it.

See more

Buddhist Publication Society
The Word of the Buddha: An Outline of the Buddha’s Teaching in the Words of the Pali Canon (Buddhist Publication Society)

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