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There follow instructions about the disposal of his remaining possessions. ‘Their smallness being mainly due to the support of aged relatives whose income seemed to get smaller as the cost of living and taxes got bigger. Had I, for example, remained at the BBC I might have hoped to get back to where I was before the war by the time I was sixty. What a prospect!’
Later, in the same letter, he writes: ‘I have no regrets for leaving England. I had, however, expected regrets from separation from one’s friends, but have been surprised at their strength. The fact probably shows the danger to myself of declining into an impecunious old bore depending for moral support on the long suffering of others. Old hungry and querulous … a prospect both unattractive and unbecoming. Besides there are positive reasons for wanting to be a hermit.’
The Island Hermitage at Dodanduwa, where he is already living, though not yet as a monk, appears from his description which follows, with its rich jungle vegetation and abundant bird, animal and reptile life, a beautiful, exotic if not altogether peaceable place to retire to, and certainly far removed from the comfortless caves in rocky and desert landscapes often associated with hermit dwellings.
‘The hermitage really consists of two islands joined by a causeway. Polgasduwa (coconut tree island) has been the hermitage since before the first World War, whilst Madiduwa (round island) was a cinnamon garden which was given to the hermitage by the owner.
The original hermitage is covered with a forest jungle of mangroves, palms, creepers and what not amongst which are seven isolated ‘houses’ (one room each) and a refectory. Madiduwa is more open and covered with cinnamon bushes and coconut palms. Both are surrounded and the causeway arched over with a narrow belt of mangroves … The lake is large, about two-and-a-half miles across and brackish as it connects with the sea. It is entirely surrounded by hillocks covered with coconut palms. A huge colony of cranes which spend the night feeding in the countryside among the rice fields, roost by day and squawk in the island mangroves. Iguanas wander among the bushes, some three feet long and oddly prehistoric-looking, whilst similar looking water lizards swim in the lake. Large birds whoop and shriek and small birds sing rather saccharine and sentimental songs — often, indeed, tunes rather than songs. Drums beat for long periods from many places on the mainland, sometimes all night and sometimes all day, with complicated rhythms. All day from the nearest mainland comes the monotonous pounding of coconut husks being beaten into fibre.
‘The weather is always summer. The sun is now overhead. It is apt to be very heavy at midday but there are always clouds about and the sky looks absurdly English. Often it rains, and what rain! Clouds pile up with thunder and lightning. Then you hear a strange roaring like a waterfall across the lake and soon the rain bursts on the island with astonishing violence.
‘The day, at present, is spent like this: I aim to get up at four and meditate till about seven. Then sweep the room (the only manual work allowed to monks) and make tea in the kitchen. Breakfast arrives brought by one of the four lay attendants. It consists of rice gruel made with coconut milk, rice cakes with spiced sauce, sweets and bananas and papaws. I spend the morning between learning Pali, meditation or cooking. Sometimes food is brought and sometimes not, in which case I cook it from supplies I keep in hand.
‘In the afternoon one sleeps for a bit, bathes in the lake and meditates afterwards. At seven or so there is tea in the refectory for anyone who wants to go there. Here one has cups of tea and lemon and talks of doctrine with the monks, or Pali discourses are recited. It is dark at this time and the refectory is open on two sides to the air. Strangely when the doctrine is discussed or Pali recited, large toads come out on to the floor to listen, their large golden eyes unblinking. When it is over they go away. The atmosphere is almost Franciscan, especially when the rain roars so loud that you have to shout to be heard and the feeble light of naked oil wicks is drowned by the almost continuous blue lightning accompanied by the crashing of thunder — or again on one of those incredibly grandiose nights of the full moon when soft strong fight streams down through the dense trees.
‘One goes to bed at about ten. As you see one does not eat after midday, a habit which I have taken to kindly. I sleep on a board with a thin mattress which is also reasonable as I have always liked hard beds …
‘Two things impress me about the monks here, Sinhalese, German and Burmese, — that is their extraordinary kindness, solicitude and cheerfulness and that there are no subjects which are taboo for discussion or anything which you have to take on trust.’
Towards the end of the letter he writes that he and Musson have decided to join the order, the first of the two prescribed initiation ceremonies to be held within a few weeks.
For the next eleven years of his life at the Hermitage, interrupted only by occasional visits to other monastic settlements and by some quite protracted pilgrimages to Buddhist sanctuaries particularly venerated by the Sinhalese, was to follow the routine already described. He had found ‘the hermit’s life under the right circumstances’ which he had been looking for, but the circumstances were such and so far from solitary, that as a hermit’s life, strictly speaking, it hardly qualified. Despite its name the Island Hermitage was, in fact, a small monastic community much revered for its strict adherence to Buddhist doctrine. From his own account it had many visitors including lay supporters, Sinhalese dignitaries both religious and political, foreign monks, especially Burmese, and world-traveling seekers after truth some of whose eccentricities he gently derides. He does, however, in the interest of his own seclusion, make the path of some twenty yards or so from the refectory to his hut sufficiently maze-like to deter all but the most persistent of unsolicited intruders.
I had supposed from his growing interest in mysticism through which he had come to see philosophy as only ‘a map or blueprint’ that he had decided that it was as a Buddhist monk that he might best pursue his cultivation of that ‘inner reality’ of which he had written while in Italy that he knew where it was leading him and that ‘the prospect was infinitely great’.
At the time when I had first heard of his departure for Ceylon I had little knowledge of Buddhism beyond what I had read in Alexandra David-Neale’s intriguing but unreliable account in her book With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet. Unaware of the existence of different sects I had assumed that mysticism played an accepted role in Buddhist practice. I did not realize that the Theravada sect, to which the Sinhalese adhered, was so different from the Mahayana sect of which the Tibetans were followers. Ñanamoli, as he must now properly be named, describes the difference in two of his early letters.
He begins by answering a question of Susan’s about Pali.
‘It is a dead Indo-European language and a sort of dialect of Sanskrit … in which the Theravada canonical texts (the oldest Buddhist texts) are written. It has no alphabet of its own but is written with mainly Sinhalese, Burmese, Siamese, Sanskrit, Cambodian and, now, Latin characters.(2) It was brought to Ceylon from India by the son of the Emperor Asoka and later spread to Burma, Siam and Cambodia. Mahayana Buddhism, which has Sanskrit texts, is found in Tibet, Nepal, China and Japan.
‘As to the origin of the terms Mahayana and Hinayana (Theravada) in the former the doctrine of how to act to reach Nirvana became overshadowed by a fantastic theology … while the aim to become an Arahat, or one who attained Nirvana while still alive, became overshadowed by the idea of the Bodhisattva, or one who has reached the point at which Nirvana is attainable and who renounces it to remain in the world until all other beings have been ‘saved’… This northern Buddhism styled itself Mahayana, or the ‘greater vehicle’ and invented the name Hinayana, or the ‘Lower Vehicle’ for the southern form according to which no one gets to Nirvana unless they do something about it, and which holds that one should go straight ahead and not bother about anything or anyone … the object of living a monk’s life here is to practise renunciation and meditation in order to get out of the endless round of becoming and making some headway towards Nirvana … good works, it is held, are all very well but are best practised by laymen who are better fitted to perform them … this seems sensible.’
Sensible it may well seem to one who, without taking any irrevocable vows, has renounced all worldly possessions to adhere to the strict rules of the monastic life with the sole object of attaining to his own salvation; but to Westerners it must inevitably appear coldly self-centered and lacking in obligation to the rest of humanity.
This, however, is not at all how the monks are seen by the Buddhist laity. By a tradition which may have been eroded in recent years by Western influence or the conduct of hostile political regimes, the monasteries are regarded as centres of exemplary living in accordance with the precepts laid down by the Buddha, thereby extending a benign influence among the community as a whole, and offering the devout the opportunity of gaining merit by supporting them with food and other necessities: the more dedicated the monks, the greater the merit gained.
Now in choosing to join a Theravada order Ñanamoli had turned away from the mysticism to which he had been drawn while in Italy, since the southern sect, though it may count some locally accepted ‘saints’, has given little encouragement to mystics, but it was as a mystic, retired to some remote mountain cave, reaching out, through the rigours of renunciation and intense spiritual exercise, to that other world which he had once glimpsed in Gubbio, that it had been tempting to imagine, on hearing of his exodus to the East, as a fitting outlandish destiny for the gentle, withdrawn and slightly mysterious Bertie of the Beckley years. And yet it seems odd that he should have recommended Susan to read, for her better understanding of Buddhism, the life of Milarepa, (‘for atmosphere’, he suggests) the great Tibetan mystic who after starting life as a highly accomplished and homicidal magician, ended, after a harsh and exacting penance, as a saintly poet-monk whose life was so austere that, existing only on grass, his emaciated body turned green.
It must be said from his own description of it, the Island Hermitage, so far as atmosphere went, bore little resemblance to Milarepa’s cave which is still a centre of devout pilgrimage and has about it a remarkable aura of sanctity.
But the Hermitage, aside from providing an agreeable if frugal retreat for the practice of renunciation and meditation, had much else to offer, not least the friendly cheerfulness of the monks and their readiness to give advice and discuss points of doctrine with lay visitors and supporters.
Some months after he had settled on the island, he joined a five day excursion to visit the ruins of a monastic centre in the jungle dating from the first century, but abandoned in 1400. It is typical of numerous such excursions, or pilgrimages, he was to undertake during the years to come. Though some were more exacting than others, with meals provided by willing helpers wherever they stopped, together with endless cups of tea and ‘polite conversation’, they have about them a touch of Anglican church outings.
‘A party of seven of us including lay supporters set out in a converted army truck. We first called at a monastery between Galle and Matara where we were given tea, and polite conversation was indulged in … It had a most attractive atmosphere … rather like a spacious eighteenth century farmhouse with its yard and wide verandas … and prints here and there on the walls … All wore an air of dignified and simple seclusion.’
They travel on to another monastery, Seenimodera, which proves a disappointment.
‘New dwellings, new shrines, new (and gracious, how awful!) sculpture and all or most of it in cement. The principal (most hospitable, cheerful and an indefatigable talker) has a passion for having an example of everything mentioned in the Texts in the way of monastic equipment … The whole thing was in the style of a child’s painted, plaster Noah’s ark, and its ugliness was only equaled by the charm and amiability of the people there. More tea…’
It was dark when they reached Tissamaharama, an early centre of learning and pilgrimage abandoned about 1500 but now restored. Here there was more tea. As the area was malarial they slept under mosquito nets. Ten miles on through a jungle heavily scented with jasmine bushes, they reach their first objective, a ruined monastery called Madunagalavihara. Here there are rocks three hundred feet high ‘fitted out as cave dwellings, temples and so on. The view from the top was really an Italian primitive come to life — the flat green jungle like a sea all round out of which rose huge, fantastic granite rocks like the bodies of elephants, rounded, grey, enormous and very old. Scattered about almost as if taken out of a box and set there for ornament were isolated hills and mountains, jagged single, twin and triple cones and hogs’ backs — to the south the sea and to the north the central massif.’
Yet another ten miles and they reach Cittalapabbata the abandoned settlement for which they had set out. ‘The area coveting the hills was bigger and more impressive, but the outstanding feature was the tremendous atmosphere surrounding it. … It is said to have contained so many saints at one time living there that it became unsuitable for meditation and retreat owing to the crowds which came constantly to see them … We spent the night there with a fire to keep off bears … At dawn the singing of the birds was like the tuning up of a big orchestra.’
On the return journey they visit a forest hermitage where there are crowds of people and pious slogans attached to the trees. ‘As we wandered round looking at the rather Grimm’s Fairy Tales cave dwellings we were followed by a party of the public. Eventually we came to the reception room, a deeper, larger cave elegantly white washed and well furnished. Here we had tea amid much bowing down and exchange of politeness … Supporters came from all over the place and from Colombo nearly one hundred and seventy miles away to prepare dana (that is, food for the monks). Opportunities to be able to do this are booked up for years ahead. The whole thing — especially such things as appointing a relay of people to fan a statue of the Buddha on hot days — much amused our party and, personally, I found it quaint to say the least.’
They stopped again at Seenimodera for their midday meal. ‘Our host was in greater spirits than ever. During ablutions at the well he seized a German hermit of some sixty-odd years and scrubbed his face heartily with soap while he bleated in protest.’ They leave with their host talking and beaming to the last as he waves goodbye from the veranda steps.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. A visit to only one other monastery is recorded, ‘… very neat, new and tidy with a very smart new library — more tea and polite conversation. Since then I have not been off the island and have not wanted to go anywhere, unless, perhaps, to retire to Cittalapabbata — but the food problem there is difficult.’
But the calm of the Hermitage was disturbed some months later by what must have been a most distressing event: the arrival of Harold Musson’s mother, whether in an attempt to persuade her son (now called Ñanavira) to leave the monastery or with the notion of embracing Buddhism, herself, is not clear. It was that Musson must have left London, possibly without telling her of his intentions and, certainly, without giving her his address. Distracted, she wrote to Susan to ask her to send a message to her son through Bertie. Susan included the message in her first letter. He replies that he has delivered the message but it was unnecessary as mother and son were already in touch.
Mrs Musson’s visit occurs a year later, probably in December 1949. It seems she may have confided in Susan who may have written to Bertie to warn him of her intentions. In an undated letter, probably written in January 1950, after a long description of the behaviour of the island cats he comments on her visit.
‘Mrs Musson has been and returned. I cannot help feeling that all would have been happier if the visit had not taken place. Still, it is difficult to know the workings of one’s own mind, let alone that of another. Certain water creatures delight in adorning their shells with other shells, pebbles, and leaves. Sometime they stick on another living creature without regard to its likes or dislikes. In the building up of systems of relationships between people one sometimes observes one building into his or her scheme of things — his or her psychological house or shelter, as it were — the personality of another … Anyway I cannot help feeling that while Mrs Musson is very unhappy, she has made herself much more so by insisting (which appears to be the case only don’t say I said so should the question arise) on coming out here, otherwise she would probably not have had the seizure which was at first thought to be a stroke and later diagnosed as ‘conversion hysteria’, I am told. (All this again for your ears alone.) The mind is a very strange thing indeed. No wonder the whole world rushes madly round seeking distraction from the terrors of its own mind (that is the real escapism) and doesn’t look inside!’
Even Susan, worldly and far from soft hearted, herself, must have found this view of the affair rather callous, for in his next letter he writes. ‘I, too, am sorry for poor Mrs Musson. It seems that a further diagnosis discovered a stroke which has affected the speech centre. Even now she has not fully recovered. ‘Be an island unto yourself for there is no other refuge.’ There seems to be an impasse here out of which there is no getting.’
This is the last we hear of Mrs Musson. More strangely, Harold Musson, himself, is only mentioned again twice in the whole correspondence. Eighteen months later, in answer to an enquiry from Susan, he adds as a postscript to a long letter: ‘You asked, by the way, if Harold Musson is still here. Yes, still here.’ In a later letter, prompted, perhaps, by a further enquiry, he writes that when he had stated that he was still here, he had meant in Ceylon. ‘He has, in fact, moved a hundred and fifty miles away north of Colombo.’ That is all.
There are few descriptions of Buddhist ceremonies in the letters. The fullest and most interesting is his account of the funeral of his much revered Sinhalese preceptor in Colombo.(3)
‘He was seventy-eight, had a fall last month, broke his hip and died of pneumonia. I went to Colombo when I heard it and he was still conscious when I saw him in one of Colombo’s big nursing homes. It was a death in the grand scale of, it appears, a national figure, and it took place in full public. A death of the sort that seems to have been lost in Europe since the eighteenth century. His pupils took turns at recitations round his bed and increasing crowds of people kept coming day and night, some serving soft drinks from time to time and sitting on the floor. As the days went by the visitors grew more important. The ex-prime minister and the Governor General came and the newspapers were full of it. It was a most strange experience to watch someone one has known personally and greatly liked and looked up to, slowly die in the full glare of the public eye.
‘After his death he lay in state in the monastery library for four days. Then the body was taken in procession to the burning ground in the afternoon. It was preceded by a single drum that beat a slow, syncopated tapping, like water dripping on to fallen bread fruit leaves, and a single shawn that went on repeating the same three note phrase. The effect was most moving and extraordinarily right. The procession was two miles long with five hundred bhikkhus and flocks of people carrying banners and flags. The whole length of the streets being lined with split palm shoots and hung with white cotton drapery.
‘The scene at the burning ground was a Byzantine painting or, perhaps, a Siennese primitive. In the immediate foreground, from where I was, a belt of human figures blocked in only two colours: yellow-brown bhikkhus and white laity gave the setting a vigorous classical simplicity. Behind them in the middle distance rose two edifices: on the left the hearse in the form of a pavilion or pagoda made of looking-glass columns and gold and white paper: on the right the pyre which was a higher pavilion, a castle with turrets and domes made entirely of white cotton stretched over a frame. The hearse stood out bright and hard against a single big blackish-green tree, but the soft white pyre seemed to fade half into the sky which was a vague pigeon-grey with huge dim cloud-castles half hidden in it. At sunset the pyre was lighted. The upper part went up in flames while people round about flung firewood and oil on to it. Next morning I went with a small party to collect the ashes.’
Another ceremony he attended he found tawdry and the atmosphere, with large crowds, disagreeable. He had set out on an excursion with a Sinhalese monk which took them first to Anuradhapura for the anniversary of the arrival of the son of the Emperor Asoka when he came to convert the people of Ceylon. ‘The great stretches of shady, grassy parks full of majestic ruins were swarming with hundreds of thousands of people. The great shrine, now restored and looking like the dome of St Paul’s placed on the ground, smooth and whitewashed and surmounted with a gilt pinnacle, was floodlit. From the terrace on which it stands (crammed with people in every attitude of worship and refreshment-eating, and literally piled with lotus flowers) the great swell of the dome, which hides all but the top of the spire, seemed to hang suspended with the full moon behind it. Impressive.
‘From there it is about a quarter of a mile to the sacred Bodhi tree … half-way between was a huge temporary open pavilion in the centre of which a kind of roofed ornamental rotunda filled with monks taking part in a non-stop recitation of scriptures which had lasted for a month all day and all night. As they recited amid a blaze of coloured electric fairy lamps, the rotunda rotated slowly and the recitations were laid on through loudspeakers. The effect was peculiar and indigestible … I was not sorry to leave Anuradhapura, impressive as the miles of ruins are and the parks and the great lakes and the three enormous stupa domes.’ They went on to Mihintale nine miles away where, according to legend, the Emperor’s son alighted after his miraculous flight through the air from India. He finds the monastery, seven hundred steps up a granite staircase ‘a rather wretched recent building bordering on hovel architecture — rich and mean, important, hearty and busy, hospitable and worldly.’ They spend the next day exploring the ruins.
They set out to walk back to Anuradhapura towards evening by a little frequented jungle track. ‘The road for some miles is quite deserted and shut in on both sides by the monotonous jungle — the jungle which is so easy to get into and so hard to get out of. Where visibility is reduced to about ten yards. By day it is hot, airless and dry. There is an uneasy sense of being watched or just observed with indifference or verging, perhaps, on dislike. No Sinhalese will go into it without first breaking off a green branch and hanging it on a tree as a placative measure and there are tree shrines and ant-hill shrines near jungle villages or on lonely roads which no particular religion will own. It is quite quiet except for some occasional hidden bird that warbles off and on with the sweet voice of a concert flute blown by an idiot child, or, rarely, a slight rustle is caused by something always out of sight … Sometimes there is a tree with a greasy patch high up on its trunk where elephants rub themselves. Or one comes across an isolated tall tree full of cicadas scraping out loud rhythmic music, as dry and tuneless as a Bartok quartet, to an audience which isn’t there. Rarely a troop of monkeys crashes through the branches and fling sticks and abuse at one as they pass, but this only underlines the normal tone of closeness, suspense and commonplaceness.
‘Besides ourselves on the road there was only a man and boy and the man’s wife in sight. She had quarrelled with him and was walking on far ahead sulking, carrying a child and not looking back while he kept shouting at her to stop, but she only walked faster and said nothing. He was carrying a small, battle-axe-shaped hatchet of the kind used for fighting off attacks by bears.
‘The jungle is full of bears. They live on termites mostly which they suck out of termite hills, and honey; but they loathe the sight of man. If a bear sees one, it rushes upon him, screaming horribly, I’m told, and claws out his eyes. They wake up about sunset.
‘The sun was, in fact, just going out of sight, and it was very quiet … The darkness comes on very quickly. The jungle which mostly dozes by day, under the stupefying sun, wakes up then. Slack strings are tensed and vibrate. Whole orchestras of crickets strike up, things prowl and owls hiccup and cough and fireflies drift up and down. The sense of being observed gets worse. As the sun went down the woman’s fear suddenly overcame her anger. She stopped and waited for the man and boy with their axe to catch her up. We left them behind in the darkness. It was some time before we came to the first houses.’
The excursion turned out to be one of the longest he undertook, or, at least, described. Joining up with some other monks in a bus they went down the east coast as far as the centre of the island where they turned inland to visit temples in the neighbourhood of Kandy. ‘We spent every night’ he concludes, ‘in a different monastery and saw many others. I was surprised by the number of monks who live isolated in remote caves in the forest.’
Two years later he tries out cave dwelling for himself, but only for ten days. He does not mention having any companions with him, neither does he make a point of being alone which he surely would have done had his stay been quite solitary, nor does it seem likely that the happening he describes at the end of the ten days would have taken place unless other monks had been with him.
‘To get to the place I had to go by bus eight miles beyond Hambantota and then walk two miles in the uninhabited jungle to a high rock which stands above the tree tops about one hundred feet. There are three ruined brick shrines on top and a lot of ruined stone buildings on the sides where there are also deep pools of water. At the bottom on one side there are two caves in one of which I stayed. The nearest houses were two miles away along the road. Each night elephants and tortoises and other things left their footprints in the jungle track. I saw a wild deer and some jackals and a very big gorged python under a tree (incredible sight!) and a peacock in flight (there were lots of them screaming rather royally, musically and triumphantly in the jungle). Also I caught a glimpse of a tusker elephant one evening in the dusk. Hornbills in the trees, too, as big as geese (their heads are too big for their bodies and their bodies for their tails so that when they perch on a branch they first topple forward and only right themselves with unseemly antics) and lots of monkeys. At night huge black scorpions would creep out of their houses (holes in the ground) and sit outside their doorsteps waiting for something to happen. In the morning lovely pink-plush mites walked about looking for guidance, alone or one following another or in little files of three or four like large animated wild strawberries … There was a most improbable view from the top of the rock, just the view, exactly, that a fly must get when it sits on one of the things in a Palissy-ware plate(4) — all mossy looking jungle with a complete six or seven mile distant rim just like a plate. Beyond the rim (in an altogether other world, nothing to do with me at all) was the whole range of the Ceylon mountains to the north and east … and to the south, over the rim, a small strip of salt-pan and then the ocean … My plate, which hypnotized me, was nothing but a mossy mass of jungle crawling with living things (some enormous), ringing with birds, heavily scented with several sorts of jasmine and jungle flowers … all the plants blooming away after the rain and trying their best to strangle each other, animals whooping like demons and tearing each other to bits and millions of birds singing away like lunatic angels. Nature seems to me on such occasions like a mad ogress in a flowery cotton-print crinoline frock and spring hat. She is quite horrible, isn’t she? and as fascinating as one of her painted vipers is to a painted bird.
‘At the end of the ten days about one hundred and fifty people from different places came flocking together by cars, bullock carts and on foot, and produced a ceremonial meal. Very senior monks came and gave sermons under the neighbouring banyan tree which was the monkeys’ bedroom at night. After which everyone played at Johnny Crowe’s garden for a bit and then went their various ways abandoning the place to the animals.’
Delightful and sometimes alarming descriptions of animals, birds, reptiles and insects occur throughout the letters. The earliest have pages on the behaviour of the cats on the Hermitage island. They produce a comment from Susan to which he responds: ‘You are right about animal and human behaviour — the parallelism works both ways and argues, one would think sometimes, in favour of the notion of rebirth — I don’t mean metempsychosis(5) of anything so concrete or tiresomely immortalistarian as that, but more in the sense of strains of consciousness that might reproduce themselves in different levels of existence. I don’t see why, for instance, some of the people one has met should not be reborn as an ant-hill or did not exist say as a hornet’s nest before they became human. Who knows, too, whether the present state of the world is not mostly due to the contents of some termite-hill having contrived to get born into it? And nowadays, too, it is becoming fashionable to talk about the “collective unconscious”.’
He claims to have become fairly practiced at bottling snakes, including a two-and-a-half foot cobra, in old Horlicks containers, for transportation to a neighbouring uninhabited island.
‘We catch on an average two a month, mostly varieties of Kraits, I believe … I must confess I personally like snakes and were I alone I would let them be and feed the cobras. There is a very nice and harmless whip snake speckled green and brown who rears up when one meets him and wriggles his neck in an extraordinary way like a Turkish stomach dancer. Rat snakes, six to eight feet long, go about with complete unconcern for one’s presence. The other day one climbed a mangrove tree and seized a dozing crane by the foot. There was a fearful uproar among the cranes and the victim escaped. Two days ago, in washing a handkerchief, I found myself washing a two inch grey scorpion mixed up with it. It gave me a lot of trouble getting the soap off it after which I put it in the cinnamon bushes hoping it was none the worse. Kindness to twelve inch centipedes which leap at you and make a rattling noise and remind one of miniature models of the long chains of iron luggage trolleys on the platform of the Gare de Lyon, is admittedly difficult. I bottle them and release them at the far end of the island. The suspected presence of a centipede is, one notes, very inimical to the preservation of dignity.’
In hot weather he observes that ‘the birds sit about with open beaks, look wild … with a tendency to shriek madly. One bottle-green bird with white patches round its eyes and front which makes it look as if it had stuffed its face into a bowl of porridge and let it all run down its shirt, shrieks “Kotoruwa” (coconuts) alternatively from left to right, its whole body with passion and will go on doing it for hours.’
After climbing Adam’s Peak (the highest mountain in Sri Lanka) on the way down he encounters a millipede ‘the amiable kind, you know, which rolls itself in a spiral. It was climbing up a tree and was all made of shiny black lacquer rings. Its lemon-yellow legs flowed by in waves. It was quite a foot long and proportionately thick. Also there was a dragon lizard marbled mossy green and brown with a jagged mane and an ivory white rhinoceros horn on the tip of its nose. I met a daddylonglegs today, but not quite the kind one is used to. Though its body and wings were the ordinary size and shape, its legs were a full three inches long, thin as one hundred cotton, gracefully curved and clothed in yellow and white banded football stockings. It was like one of those creatures in Dali’s Temptation of St Anthony. A product of natural selection? Nonsense! Made by a creator, then? But why not the third possibility, that its family had always been interested in being different and had worked it out long ago for themselves?’
It is not until August 1952 that he first writes of his intention to translate into English some of the texts from the Pali Canon. By 1955 he has become so absorbed in the work that he lets almost a whole year pass without writing to Susan. He tells her that somebody wants to publish one book he has translated, originally for his own edification. ‘It is the principal commentary on the Tipitaka and was written in Ceylon at the time of St Augustine. After a wave of conflicting feelings, I eventually agreed, but that meant typing it, about one thousand pages, and then, of course, in the process altered my style, changed my mind and generally had a distracting time of it. This took from April to October spending all daylight hours every day, typing about five pages a day and revising it. Now someone is reading through it and I have got to compose an introduction … I can no longer hide behind the author translated but have to come, as it were, off my fence and actually say something, myself.’
Later he writes that he has put his name in the first letters of each sentence in the preface. It amuses him to see if anyone will notice. ‘It represents partly the getting past an obstacle and partly some rather abstruse literary amusement for myself.’ Two years later, when translating various texts has become his primary undertaking, he describes it as ‘a particular kind of soothing occupation like playing a musical instrument and solving mathematical problems.’
Despite his declared ambition to ‘obtain to obscurity’ he is clearly not too put out when someone writes to tell him that ‘my remaining here, coupled with translating Pali, is creating a sort of legendary reputation in Colombo. Now if that were so, I think it would be fine, for then I might travel even further by letting my legendary, or otherwise, self go and live in, say, Colombo while I stay here without it. I think we could get on very well at a distance, we could write to each other, of course, occasionally, but not depend on each other in the rather futile way we do.’
Although from 1952 onwards his translation work so absorbed him (one rather wonders how much time was left for the meditation which took up most of his early days at the Hermitage and which he had declared, along with the practice of renunciation, to be the object of living a monk’s life), he still went on occasional outings or pilgrimages. It was on one such in March 1960 that, at the age of fifty-five and apparently in sound health, he was struck down by a fatal heart attack.
Here would seem a fitting point in this sketch of his life to quote from the tribute paid to him by the Venerable Nyanaponika in his introduction to the posthumously published Thinker’s Note Book.
‘What was known of the monk life of the Venerable Ñanamoli to a wider public in Ceylon and abroad, was his outstanding scholarly work in translating from the original Pali into lucid English … His translations showed the highest standard of careful and critical scholarship and a keen and subtle mind, philosophically trained. His work in this field is a lasting contribution to Buddhist studies.
‘It was characteristic of him that he had limited his publication to that scholarly field, so that his “public image” was that of an able scholar and exemplary monk, which left him enough of his cherished “obscurity”.
‘Very few knew, or even suspected, those other facets of his rich and profound mind, which in the present volume appear in such an astonishing variety … Yet there were still other layers of his mind (and still not the deepest) without which the personality presented by this book and in his scholarly work would be incomplete and misleading. These other features of his character, however, manifested themselves only in his way of life and in his human relationships. From his unrelenting realistic world-view, as appearing in his note books undeceived by the deceptions and self-deceptions of life and our own minds — a reader could possibly gain the impression of a harsh if not cynical character with a rather contemptuous view of mankind. But this would be very far from the deep humanity and friendly composure of his nature which made his self-effacing reticence still more unobtrusive. He had a natural affinity with the Buddha’s detachment as well as his compassionate outlook … His friendliness and compassion were unsentimental and undemonstrative, but of a simple human warmth. His quiet and friendly smile will be unforgettable to his companions … The simplicity and frugality of a Buddhist monk came quite natural to him … In the Buddha’s teaching on reality and man’s situation in it, he found fresh inspiration for his own thought, and the Buddha’s practical path to deliverence being the solution to the human predicament, was the guiding and directing force of his inner life.’
I do not think there is anything in the preceding extracts taken from his letters from Ceylon, with the possible exception of his rather heartless attitude to Mrs Musson’s visit and his strange reticence about what had become of Harold Musson, which detract from Nyanaponika’s tribute. Indeed, there is a most sympathetic aspect of his character, untouched on in the introduction, as revealed in his keen observation and aesthetic appreciation of the natural world around him and his readiness to preserve the lives of creatures not merely repellant to most people, but lethally dangerous to handle, as in the care with which (here, surely, a hint of St Francis!) he cleaned the soap off the scorpion inadvertently caught up in his laundry.
Sadly, however, there proved to be much in the letters, whole pages, indeed, which not only tend to reproduce and reinforce the unfavourable impression which Nyanaponika admitted might be drawn from a reading of the Note Book, but are at odds with those qualities the tribute so warmly extols: his detachment, compassion, self-effacement and dedication to obscurity.
After the first three letters, short and hastily written, the contents of which have already been touched upon, the correspondence takes off into those densely-written, many-paged missives which were to be despatched, with only rare lapses of more than a few months, until shortly before his death. What is striking about them is how different they are in tone and content from those written from the Isle of Man and Italy, and how changed the personality of their author appears to have been by the two years he spent in England.
There are several possible influences which may have helped to bring about this change. One was the effect of working at the BBC where, probably with justification, he felt himself to be intellectually superior to his colleagues, and was contemptuous of the prevailing atmosphere of petty intrigue: another was his close friendship with Musson, although, apart from their addiction to abstruse metaphysical discussion and their mutual attraction to Buddhism, there is nothing in the letters to indicate how their intimacy in London may have affected him, or why it should have depreciated after their arrival in Ceylon. More important, perhaps, was the influence of Susan, herself, and the weekends at Stanton. When he admits to the strength of his regrets at separation from his friends, he declares his ties to be centred on Stanton and Beckley, but it is always to Susan that he writes. When she asks him if she can give his address to the Feildings, he replies: ‘Of course I have no objection to Basil and Peggy having my address. I have not written to them (for selfish reasons, if you like) because I want to write as few letters as possible and because I might find it difficult at times to know what to write about. It is better not to go to a party if one has not suitable clothes to go in, though this has nothing to do with one’s regard for those whose party it is.’
In his early letters from the Isle of Man he had been desperately eager for news of the Beckley circle, whereas now it is for news of friends to whom Susan has introduced him while he was in England, some scarcely more than acquaintances, that he has an insatiable appetite, protesting when she hints of some new twist in relationships that she has not told him enough. He takes a keen interest in Susan’s relations with her daughter, Valerie. Responding to Susan’s complaint that she has learnt through a friend that Valerie has been deceiving her about her sentiments towards her young man, he comments: ‘If she is putting it on, it shows considerable ability on which she should really be complimented, although it is scandalous that it should be at your expense.’
However impressive his detachment may have appeared to his fellow monks, the correspondence shows, in respect to the past, that it was flawed, for whatever else he may have succeeded in renouncing, his yearning for gossip from England is so strong that he can write: ‘I am tantalized by your saying that you have a lot more to tell me and I am full of curiosity about S-, etc; write and tell me everything about everybody.’
As to compassion, he showed little towards Mrs Musson, nor does it surface often elsewhere in the letters other than in cool expressions of sympathy or regret. The attempted suicide of a former colleague in London he finds ‘interesting because there is something poignantly modern in the strident incongruity of the mixture of champagne and coal gas, and something so personally right that even that should fail.’ Of the death of a Dutch friend with whom he went on a holiday in the Netherlands shortly before leaving for Ceylon, he has nothing to say except that his attitude to art was encyclopaedic and he had no genuine appreciation of painting. When he hears that the wife of a cousin of Susan has left him, his comment is vicious. ‘The story sounds too true to be good. You should keep in touch with her because it will be most interesting to hear a first hand account of hell, for she will certainly go there.’ As it turned out, she outlived Susan, who ended her life suffering from the hell of a mind-incapacitating stroke, to become a distinguished art historian, remaining on the friendliest terms with her former husband.
When Susan writes that Geoffrey Dennis, who so befriended him in the Isle of Man and who was responsible for requesting his release from the army to join the BBC, has asked for news of him, he feels it necessary to explain why he never introduced him to her. Gratuitously and without a hint of gratitude for what he owed him, he gives an unrelentingly disparaging account of his character, listing among his defects, ‘his bad taste and vulgarity of manner, aggressive humility, restless hunting after spiritual satisfaction and venomous wrangling with his wife over their divorce.’ He ends by telling Susan he has no objection to her letting him know that he is in Ceylon.
That harsh and contemptuous view of mankind of which Nyanaponika warned, is expressed in the letters more strongly and frequently than in the Note Book. It was, perhaps reinforced by his study of Existentialism which, itself, may have been encouraged (as seems likely from what we were to learn later) by tea-time table-talk with the German monks at Dodanduwa. After describing it as a dismal, though rather convincing, philosophy of pessimism (‘we are in hell and at cross purposes and there is no way out’) he asks Susan to send him two works by Sartre which were left in his flat, and for any others more recently published. A reading of L’Être et le Néant he admits to leaving him somewhat shattered. ‘While it is a difficult and forbidding book, it is the most convincing philosophical treatise I have ever read. Still, I would not recommend anyone to read it.’
Along with his existentialist studies his interest in the state of the world revives and his early resolution to stop reading newspapers is abandoned. His reaction to events is predictably, and often with good reason, pessimistic, but while he deplores them he does not conceal that they reassure him of the rightness of his decision to withdraw into the monastic life. He sees himself as ‘sitting on the fence, but such a small and obscure one that it is unlikely that anyone will bother to uproot it.’
The news that Susan’s son, Robert, has become a convert to Catholicism and, later, that he is to enter the Dominican order revives his old prejudice against the Catholic Church. The only attraction it has ever had for him is in ‘its decorative grandeur, emotional glamour and thrill of mystery.’ But he has ‘always been unable to perform the sacrifice of reason on the altar of emotion which the Church demands, mainly because it disgusts me.’ He cannot stomach St Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy which ‘seems to me to have an alien, oppressive and unsatisfactory, smartish taste.’ While he finds papal infallibility and the bodily assumption ‘not only absurd but in bad style,’ he is strongly against the taking of irrevocable vows as imposed by the Church. In Buddhism no such vows are demanded. After reading the Ceylon letters and with Nyanaponika’s eulogy still in mind, I felt that the subject of whom I had set out to write this account, had developed two quite different personalities: the one, hard-hearted, cynical, astringent, gossipy and not without malice (so very different from the character we had known or thought we had known in the past — withdrawn in his shy friendliness and retiringly modest though so erudite and many gifted); the other (not at all at odds with what we might have then conceived — for there was always a touch of the monastic about him — as his eventual destiny), the exemplary monk and dedicated scholar only breaking off from elucidation of obscure texts to make pilgrimages to remote jungle sanctuaries, impressing those he travelled or met with by his piety and equable temperament and always observant of the nature around him while equally sympathetic to whatever creatures, commonplace, exotic or even venomous, he encountered.
When we visited Sri Lanka in 1982 we had already learnt in Bangkok of Ñanamoli’s renown as a Pali scholar and translator, but it was not until some years later, after Susan’s death, that Basil lent me the letters he had written to her during the war and from Dodanduwa. Certainly our visit to the Venerable Nyanaponika in his Forest Hermitage was the most rewarding event of our stay.
A few days after our meeting with him, armed with the letter of introduction he had given, we set out from Colombo to visit the Island Hermitage at Dodanduwa. The sixty mile ribbon of pot-holed and dangerously-cambered tarmac running along the west coast between Colombo and Galle was jammed with traffic of all kinds from vast lorries to ox carts and bicycles, through which the driver of the taxi we had hired, drove with alarming aggressiveness.
The lake at Dodanduwa reaches at its western extremity to within a few yards of the road. There were several fishing boats pulled up on the shore, but when we asked one of the fishermen to take us out to the island, he refused, explaining that tourists were forbidden to visit the Hermitage and that he would get into serious trouble with the monks. It was only when we showed him our letter from Nyanaponika, addressed to the abbot, that he reluctantly agreed.
The lake is about two miles long with the island in the middle. Starting out towards it, had we already read Ñanamoli’s letters, we would have seen that its setting had changed little since his description of it written some thirty years before. Despite the proximity of the tourist-infested fringe along the coast, no new buildings had sprung up along its shores and no speed-boats disturbed its glassy surface. The low hills rising steeply out of the unbroken jungle were still elegantly tufted with coconut palms. All that was missing was the sense of remoteness remarked on by Ñanamoli, for if there were still the thumping of coconuts being bounded for their fibre or the constant beating of drums ‘in complicated rhythms’, they would have been drowned by the noise of the traffic on the Colombo road.
Nearing the island we saw on the shore to one side, within easy rowing distance of it, a temple with numerous outbuildings, the settlement, no doubt, to which our hermit had, as we were to read later in the letters, made occasional trips as breaks from meditation or translating from the Pali. Our boatman headed for a gap in the ring of mangrove trees which hedged in the island. Steering through it under arched branches he sidled the boat against a wooden landing stage. As we got out he kept looking round so nervously that we feared he would not obey our instructions to wait for us. A path tunneled through the trees, wound up from the shore. We had just started along it when a Sinhalese, evidently a lay brother, came hurrying to meet us. We held out our letter defensively, but he did not bother to look at it, explaining that a message had already been received from Nyanaponika and the monks were expecting us. Pointing to the boatman he asked if we had paid him for bringing us over. When we replied that we had agreed on a modest sum, he turned on the man with a spate of abuse in Sinhalese which left him cowering at the bottom of his boat. He had no right to ask for anything, we were told. On no account should we think of paying him.
The tunnelled path opened on to an area of level ground on which a wooden hut with a corrugated iron roof stood out from the partially cleared jungle. This, our guide told us, was the refectory where the monks would be waiting to receive us.
The hut was rather dark inside and austerely furnished with a table and chairs at its centre from which four youngish looking monks (shaved heads make age difficult to determine) rose to give us a friendly welcome. They spoke fluent English with a German accent. We were presented to the abbot who was sitting by himself in an armchair in one corner. As he was Sinhalese and spoke no English we were only able to exchange polite bows and smiles. We explained to the others that we had known Ñanamoli well many years before when he had been living near Oxford, that we had corresponded with Nyanaponika about him and were naturally interested in seeing the place in which he had spent the remaining years of his life after leaving England.
One of the monks offered to show us his “cell”. It was only a short distance away along a path which zigzagged through the semi-jungle. Though quite small and sparsely furnished the hut offered an agreeable enough retreat for anyone of a solitary disposition. Next we were shown where he was buried, an unmarked patch of cleared ground under a tangle of tropical greenery.
On our return to the refectory we found tea with lemon awaiting. us. We sat down at the table with the monks, two of whom had been long enough at the Hermitage to have known Ñanamoli. From all that Nyanaponika had told us of his dedication to the monastic life and his international renown as a Pali scholar, we assumed that his memory would be sufficiently revered by his brother monks for those who had known him personally or even only by repute, to be interested in hearing something of his English background and early life. Accordingly I told them all that I knew of his upbringing on Tresco and of how, despite having received little formal education, he had been accepted as a student at Oxford. I went on to describe how, when living at Beckley (what another world it is seemed with its fine furniture and topiary garden from this tin-roofed shed in its jungle setting!) he had astounded all who met him by his erudition, gift for languages and the varied skills in which, though self-taught, he had excelled. They listened politely, but I sensed that they were not much interested in what I was telling them, so I let my account of Bertie, as we had known him, trail lamely off. They smiled but asked no questions and made no comments until one of them conceded, though rather dismissively, that he had been an able and dedicated scholar.
In the silence which followed we drank our tea and were encouraged to refill our cups. As there appeared nothing more to be said, I was about to suggest that it was time for us to leave when I was asked by one of the monks, and the others perked up as they waited for my answer, if I had known the friend he had come out with. They were clearly disappointed when I admitted that I had never met Musson and knew nothing about him. But now my own curiosity was aroused and, once reminded of him, I was prompted to enquire why, if he was still in the community, he was not present at the tea-table.
If a little dismayed by their cool attitude to the memory of poor Bertie, had I been a friend of Harold Musson I would have been heartened by their reply, for they spoke of him with the mixture of enthusiasm and reverence usually reserved by the faithful for a guru or near-saint. Revealing that they were existentialists they told us how much they owed to him for his interpretation of that philosophy in Buddhist terms, and how they acknowledged him as their continuing inspiration. Some years before, committed to the exacting demands of his faith, he had withdrawn to a remote part of the island where he had built himself a hut beside a jungle track a mile from the nearest village. There with great courage and endurance, a true anchorite, he had dedicated himself to a life of solitude and meditation, relying on the village people to fill his begging bowl with sufficient food to sustain him. After some years, he had developed cancer.(6) Declining any form of medication he had set himself by the practice of meditation alone to arrest the progress of the disease and overcome the pain it inflicted on him. He had had friends in Colombo who visited him from time to time, but he refused the medicines they brought until one such visitor managed to persuade him to accept a bottle of pain-killers. For a time he put them aside and did not use them until, finally, when the pain became insupportable and he found it impossible to continue meditating, he took all the pills at one go and killed himself.
A good death, calm and resigned whatever the suffering, is considered by Buddhists to be of the greatest importance, especially for a monk, to ensure the spirit a propitious onward passage. Of all ways of dying suicide is considered the worst.
Horrified by the manner of Musson’s death, the hierarchy in Colombo had reacted with inordinate asperity. We were not told what form this took, but it seemed likely that he had been refused the full burial rights customarily accorded to a monk.
His existentialist followers had been so disillusioned by their behaviour that they were considering leaving the island. They had heard that there was a growing interest in Buddhism in Europe and wanted to know if this was true of England. We were able to tell them that there was a Theravada temple in London and that we knew of a flourishing monastery in the country.(7) They appeared encouraged by this and we parted from them with a friendly exchange of the ritual smiles and bows.
We found our boatman still waiting for us. As we recrossed the lake, the noise of the traffic growing steadily louder, we pondered the contrast between Nyanaponika’s heartfelt tribute to Ñanamoli and the casual regard in which his memory was held by his brother monks at the Hermitage. With our own recollections of him in mind and the adoration and affection we had felt for him, Nyanaponika’s adulation had not come as a surprise. That the monks, younger and with their existentialist leanings, should have lacked the perception to see in him more than a dry scholar, was understandable. What had really astonished us was what they had told us about Harold Musson. Known only through the Feildings’ disparaging description of him, had we learned before our visit of his decision to become a lone hermit in the jungle, we might have taken it as a theatrical gesture; but from the account we had just been given, especially of Musson’s death, there could be no doubt of the sincerity of his resolve and the endurance he had shown in carrying it out.
When preparing this sketch of Osbert Moore’s life, I read the letters he had written from Dodanduwa, I found it difficult to explain his failure to mention anything of the friend he travelled out with and together with whom he had been initiated into the same monastic order, until in answer to a direct enquiry and then with evident reluctance giving only minimal information. Even if he may have questioned Musson’s motives in choosing to live as an anchorite, why in his reply to Susan did he confine himself to the bare statement that he was living ‘a hundred and fifty miles away’? Was it, possibly, because he felt a weakness in his own position, since after all that he had written of his desire for a hermit’s life, he had been content to stay on at Dodanduwa, appreciative of his growing fame as a Pali scholar while enjoying the frugal but easy going and, when he felt the need of it, companionable atmosphere of the community?
At the time these questions did not trouble us, but even if we had already read the letters which gave rise to them, we would not have been any less moved to have seen the island retreat in its beautiful tropical setting where Bertie, whom we had so much esteemed and so regretfully remembered from Beckley days, had passed in meditation and abstruse Theravada studies the last eleven years of his life.
(1) One of these was the actress, Peggy Ashcroft. When I met her many years later and reminded her of Beckley, her immediate reaction was, not to speak of the uniquely beautiful house and its garden, but to ask: “What became of that extraordinary man, Bertie Moore””
(2) He mastered the first four of these before beginning his translations.
(3) His preceptor was the Venerable Pelene Vajiranyana Maha Nayaka Thera. (Ed.)
(4) Shades of the antique shop in the Broad. The ware was made by Palissy in the sixteenth century: plates and dishes and vases, mostly green, and remarkable for being covered with all sorts of objects and creatures, lizards, toads and snakes and foliage in high relief.
(5) Basic to Buddhist doctrine, but not now much believed in by sophisticated Buddhists. A Tibetan lama, of the long established Tibetan colony at Darjeeling, to whom I gave some account of Ñanamoli’s life had no doubt that he had been born to become a monk as a result of the high spiritual level he had attained to in his previous existence.
(6) The disease Ñanavira suffered from was actually amoebiasis, not cancer. His prescribed medication caused him further complications. The manner of his death was not quite as described here. (Ed.)
(7) This must be a reference to Chithurst Buddhist Monastery in Sussex. (Ed.)
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