The Legend of Bundala

by Kingsley Heendeniya

More than 50 years ago, I had the once-in-a-lifetime fortune to meet Harold Musson and Osbert Moore who came to Sri Lanka on an exploratory visit to study Buddhism. They had met in the British Secret Service during the World War when assigned to interrogate prisoners in Italy.

Harold born on in 1920 at Aldershot graduating in 1940 with a First Class in Modern Languages from Cambridge and also studied Mathematics. Osbert, born in 1905 graduated from Oxford and was an Executive Director in the BBC Italian section of Bush House. In Italy, Harold came across a book on Buddhism written by Evola and published an English translation ‘The Doctrine of Awakening – A Study on Buddhist Ascesis’ [Luzac, London, 1951].

After the war, Harold, an only child and heir to Coal Mines in Wales returned to a bohemian life in London. Osbert went back to the BBC. One evening, they met in a pub and during a long discussion they found no meaning in their pursuits and in the trivialities of post-war life. It destined them to visit the Island Hermitage, be ordained by its German High Priest Nanathiloka – Harold as Ñānavīra and Osbert as Ñānamoli – to live, strive, achieve and die in the wilds of Sri Lanka. This is their story.

I graduated as a doctor in 1958 and the following year volunteered to serve as Medical Officer of Health at Hambantota. Ñānavīra found the humidity of the Island Hermitage affecting his health and the company of others interfering. About two years before me, he came to Hambantota for its dry climate, and his search for solitude led him to the forest of Bundala, 13 miles further south. Bundala was then a remote hamlet with very poor people living in wattle and daub mud huts, subsisting on burn and slash cultivation and fishing. I am told it was an ancient village of the caste of washerwomen and men serving King Duttugemunu, around 1500 years ago.

Dense forest

From the main highway to Tissamaharama, a thin gravel road ran through the jungle to the village. Just past a culvert at a bend is a clearing of the scrub land and rolling sand where, after the rains, flamingos come every year to feed. And hidden in a crop of dense forest is a footpath leading to the dwelling house or kuti designed and built by Ñānavīra. As even now, all around was thick virgin forest with wild elephants, leopards, wild boar, monkeys, endemic and migrating birds feeding in the lagoons; and infested with poisonous snakes, the deadly Russel’s viper (polonga) and the cobra. The area is now the Bundala Forest Reserve.

The kuti had one room about 8 feet square entered along a 12 feet corridor built for walking meditation. It had a stone bed and as I remember, a table, chair and some books. Ñānavīra built a latrine and an earthen water storage structure. Nearby, if you walk through the jungle is the sea, stretching without land all the way to Antarctica. It is an idyllic place to practice the Dhamma as recommended by the Buddha. Whenever I visited him in the stillness and cool of evenings, the aroma of solitude and the soft rays of the setting sun would seep into me the meaning of tranquillity. But seasonal droughts in July can be enervating and one day I met Ñānavīra bathing in the culvert, in a drying pool slaked with mud. Later, he was taken to Colombo to syringe the mud from his ears! Another time, he was treated for bursitis of both knees from unrelenting practice of anapanasati meditation. This is how an Englishman learned and practiced the Dhamma.

My visits were for not more than an hour, mainly to know if he wanted my mother to send him anything. [My mother Clara, was the founder and secretary of the Sasanadhara Kantha Samitiya or women’s society she built with other ladies to look after the needs of the monks of the Island Hermitage]. One day, I saw him writing with a pencil stub less than one inch – and yet Ñānavīra wanted nothing except some medicine for his chronic bowel disorder, treated as for amoebiasis. Letters published after his death reveal a long correspondence with a doctor about ups and downs and its progress to become incurable. At the same time, he answered profound philosophical questions on Dhamma. As time went by, pain and frequent diarrhoea attacks interfered with concentration. The drugs prescribed produced poisonous effects. In a discourse to King Passanedi, the Buddha has described five conditions for striving, the second of which is ability for good digestion. In a letter to his doctor in December 1962 he said, ‘Although I wrote to you in my last letter that I was oscillating between the extremes of disrobing and suicide; a return to lay life would be pure weakness, and in any case I should be miserable”. So, on July 5th 1965, he decided to put an end to his life.

But I am now getting ahead of my memories. Ñānamoli had a fine sense of self-deprecating humour and enjoyed robust health. Among other work, he translated to English the Visuddhimagga of Buddhagosa and never left the island from the day of his ordination. After completing his magnum opus, he decided to go on a pilgrimage with the then High Priest of the Hermitage. The rules of the Vinaya do not permit, among other things, handling of money. My mother’s samithiya attended to all that. So, when my father put Ñānamoli in the train at the Fort railway station, he asked “Sir, when are you returning?” Ñānamoli, smiled and said “Bertie, how do you know I am returning?” He died of a heart attack on a desolate gravel road in the backwoods of Kurunegala, about 25 years after walking the lush carpets of the BBC. The body was taken by bullock cart to a hospital and later, after the inquest, for the funeral in Colombo. My mother sent me a telegram to inform Ñānavīra.

I went to Bundala in the afternoon around 3 O’clock. I parked the car near the culvert and walked through the jungle looking around for elephants. I met Ñānavīra at a small clearing in the footpath. He was dying his robe in the way prescribed by the Buddha. The first thing he said was “Kingsley, why are you coming at this time”? I was then in my late twenties and he a little older. We were like friends and stupidly, I beat around the bush. He interrupted, “Have you come to tell me that Ñānamoli has died?” The casualness with which he said it hangs in my memory. When I explained he continued to dye the robes and wring them as if the news meant nothing. He said Ñānamoli had written to him about the pilgrimage and left instructions to settle his affairs in the event of death. Ñānamoli had a presentiment of death! I told Ñānavīra that I am unable to take him by car for the funeral in Colombo because I did not have leave. Can he travel by bus? Without the slightest hesitation, he got ready with his bowl slung over the shoulder and walked with me to the car. In the distance we saw two wild elephants and he remarked: “Kingsley, the problem for human beings is boredom. Animals are never bored. Do not read the Suttas because you will then give up the lay life”. He knew I had just got married. He had never made any attempt to teach me the Dhamma though he had detected a dormant reflexive nature in me. One evening, I was standing on the beach, alone. There was the horizon in the setting sun and the clear blue vault above, the sound of crashing waves and an ethereal emptiness. I felt utterly insignificant in the immensity of the universe and had an overpowering feeling that nothing in life mattered. I had told Ñānavīra about this strange glimpse of an insight.

I brought him to Hambantota and lodged him at a small temple near my residence. The next day after a noon day meal my wife served, I took him to the town bus stand. It was about 1 PM. The bus to Colombo starts from Tissamaharama. It was packed when it arrived. Ñānavīra got in. I paid for his ticket. He stood in the gangway with his bowl slung over the shoulder holding the handrail – tall, imposing and indifferent. It occurred to me that here was a man who at one time could have bought the bus on the spot! I inquired if there was anyone willing to pay for a taxi in Colombo to Vajiraramaya and I shall give the money. A man who was seated immediately got up, gave it to Ñānavīra and assured he will attend to everything. That was the last time I saw Ñānavīra. Shortly afterwards, I went on transfer to the North Central Province and we corresponded briefly. He had a peculiar way of folding letters into the envelope, as in origami. Unfortunately, I have not preserved any.

A few years before, Ñānavīra’s mother flew to Sri Lanka to take her son home. His father had died and she was alone. My mother arranged for her to stay at the Mt. Lavinia Hotel. Ñānavīra met her at Vajiraramaya in Colombo. His pagan life as she thought, and the bizarre change devastated her in her only child. She recoiled to see him eating with his fingers from the begging bowl. Ñānavīra tried and failed to explain. He returned to his forest refuge. The mother flew back to London – and died in two weeks.

I met Kate Burvill from the Tate Art Gallery [presently with Thames & Hudson] in a strange way in Colombo, in January 1999. She is a niece of Ñānavīra and had come on a holiday to Sri Lanka for the first time, combining it with a search for information about her uncle. She visited the Island Hermitage and the monks there referred her to me. She telephoned from the Galle Face Hotel and we met. The next day I took her to Bundala – to give her a feeling for the wilderness, the solitude, the ambience and peace where her uncle lived strived and entered the Path when Kate was only 3 years old.

At the kuti, we met an English monk, a former telecommunication engineer, who gave her the library copy of ‘Clearing the Path’. He said there was a waiting list in Europe for the kuti. Later in the evening, though our driver protested about wild elephants on the road in the gathering night, I arranged for her to meet the mother of the village headman of Bundala. The old lady re-told the story of Ñānavīra. The headman, she said was a three-month baby in her womb when tragedy struck the village.

This is the way Ñānavīra died. One evening, I saw his skin inflamed with insect bites and gave him a vial of ethyl chloride spray used those days as a local anaesthetic. He used it and obtained another from my mother. By now his sickness had worsened. He had attempted suicide twice. This time was final. He constructed a facemask with polythene and through an ingenious self-closing tube made also from polythene, inhaled ethyl chloride vapor probably after his noonday meal. A man from the village came as usual to offer the evening dana of fluids at about 4 p.m. He tapped the door. There was no response. He then opened it and went into the room. Ñānavīra was ‘sleeping’ on his bed in the position adopted by the Buddha – the lion’s pose – with a polythene mask over the face. One hand was fallen with the empty ethyl chloride vial gently laid on the floor. Ñānavīra Thera was dead. He ran to the village and the news spread like fire. The whole village, including women and little children ran to the kuti.

The village headman’s mother gave a moving graphic account of the funeral arrangements – how she and other women gave their best saris to drape the pyre 8 feet high made by the villagers. Her daughters joined to say that even now Ñānavīra is not forgotten. Questions are set about his life at the regional Dhamma Sunday School competitions. My father attended the inquest. There was a sealed letter addressed to the coroner and no postmortem examination was done. The people of Bundala cremated their beloved Ñānavīra Thera and interned his ashes by the kuti, beside his sanctuary by the sea.

The ashes of an American monk Nanasumana (Mike Schoen) who died from a bite of a polonga lie beside it now. He had met Ven. Ñānavīra in October 1963 and begun regular Dhamma study with him. In a letter to a friend dated 9 Oct. 1964 Nanasumana wrote of Ñānavīra: “This is an old man of 60. He is in constant physical pain but he never shows it nor does the peace in his eyes ever change. We spend many hours talking – rather he speaks and I learn”. Note that in 1964. Ven. Ñānavīra was only 44 years old. From this brief eyewitness account one can see the harsh physical effects of the bowel disorder. A friend in Yugoslavia sent me this information and a photograph of Ñānavīra taken at this time. I am shocked to see the gaunt, emaciated frame of a man who looked like the statue of the Buddha when I knew him. But I too can see the same haunting kindness in his eyes as when I knew him.

Serpents never harmed Ñānavīra.

They would uncoil, move some distances and watch him pass. No wild elephant ever threatened him. They would visit the kuti every night, drink the water he leaves in a bucket, sometimes kicking it, and pull his towels and robes on the clothes line to tease him. But they never touched a tile. With one kick, they could demolish the kuti in a minute. So it stands today – and yes, the elephants still keep vigil. Because of Kate I now know more about the kalyanamitra I had. The following year I met her at the Tate Gallery, and she presented me a brand new copy of ‘Clearing the Path’, the book by Ñānavīra Thera on Dhamma that has not been written for 2000 years, reviewed in London as the ‘most important book of the century’. He lives in the hearts of people who have no need to understand any of it. Ñānavīra, attained sotapatti in 1959, and perhaps arahant at death. He is the legend of Bundala.

[Condensed from the ‘A Gist of Dhamma’ by the writer]

Back to Other Bits