Introduction to Nanavira Thera and his approach to Buddhist practice

by Michael Rae

NV14c_colNanavira makes it clear at the start of Notes on Dhamma for whom the book is written and to whom it might appeal. This is the person who is reflecting on their situation in life and trying to find some meaning for their existence. At any point in time, this is not everybody and in fact this kind of enquiry may sometimes be brought on by a dramatic or unpleasant event in the person’s life, such as the death of someone dear or a medical scare. For whatever reason, all the usual pleasures of life become meaningless, the roles and activities that we have spent years building up seem shallow and trivial, and we may be filled with despair as we reflect on our superficial and selfish priorities.

This is a situation described by many writers and in the world of philosophy by the existentialist thinkers. In order to address the predicament, the existentialists describe the need for the person to at least be ‘authentic’ in their approach to the problem. They describe how most people are too weak or too scared to face up to the harsh reality of their situation, preferring instead to lose themselves in distractions of one sort or another. These may include losing oneself in the fantasy world of modern media, in addictive behaviours such as work, sex and drugs, or in other escapist fare such as a belief in a ‘personal saviour’. Anything that will take their minds off the horrible reality that stares them in the face in their darkest moments – that each of our lives is ultimately totally meaningless, our personal world is so fragile that it could be destroyed in an instant, and that, no matter how hard we try, we have no final control over our fates.

The existentialist philosophers describe various responses that a person may make in the face of this stark predicament, of which the most significant is probably that of the early Sartre who says that one just has to ‘grin and bear it’ – that life is absurd, that one accepts this and lives one ‘s life ‘authentically’ in response. This is as far as the philosophers can take a person in terms of helping to deal with life’s problems (unless one pins one’s hopes in an all-benevolent deity). This existential situation, Nanavira says, is the starting point of the Buddha, and it is also the starting point for Notes on Dhamma. Nanavira writes that people who take alternative approaches, seeking to explain the Buddha’s Teaching by reference to its history and traditions, or by objectively analysing its main theses, are all likely to go astray and miss the point. However, if one acknowledges that there is a problem in one’s life that one wants to address, if one accepts the Buddha’s guidance and makes the correct and necessary effort, then the person may notice changes in their view of the world as their appreciation and understanding of the Buddha’s message increases.

Nanavira refers in several places to how his purpose is to change people’s thinking and to clarify faulty interpretations of the Buddha’s teaching, instead offering an approach that is correct and produces results. What is this approach and what justifies it? Nanavira’s main explication is in a series of writings in Notes on Dhamma on various key concepts found in the Buddhist suttas. Nanavira’s writings are all inter-connected and offer a series of explanations and clarifications of what the Buddha taught. Nanavira makes it clear that he writes of nothing but what he has experienced himself (with the guidance of the Buddha). His book, Notes on Dhamma, is offered as a handbook that is intended to enable other people to share these insights and experiences. Based on his experience, Nanavira places much emphasis in showing how the concept of the Arahat (Enlightened One) is possible, and of how the Arahat as an individual actually thinks and behaves. Nanavira is keen to bring the Arahat out of the mists of time and mythology and demonstrate that what the Buddha taught those millennia ago is still something relevant and achievable in the present day. For some people, although admittedly not all, the clarity and certainty of Nanavira’s explanations (in Notes on Dhamma and in his Letters) give confidence that here is a man that knows of what he speaks, and that he in fact has achieved what he is discussing. If he can do it, then in principle others can also. For such people, this confirms why Nanavira’s writings are worth exploring and getting to grips with.

Island Hermitage group
at the Island Hermitage

Nanavira makes it clear that he is not saying anything new – he is merely clarifying what the Buddha taught all those years ago but which has been lost under layers of commentary over the generations. In his earlier years as a Buddhist monk, Nanavira spent much time exploring the writings of western science and philosophy in an attempt to help him clarify and better understand the Buddha’s teachings. His research may not suit all people and Nanavira warns that his writings of this era contain some mistakes. It was his approach as he was educated at Cambridge University, obviously had a very brilliant mind and had an interest in areas such as mathematics and philosophy. This is not typical of most of us and we do not have to worry about replicating all aspects of Nanavira’s path – however we can each of us benefit from what, as the result of his research, he wrote down and left as a guide in Notes on Dhamma.

A key aspect of Nanavira’s achievement is, as already noted, that he makes the Buddha’s message contemporary. Nanavira achieves this firstly by removing all unnecessary traditions, sentimentality and ritualism – both by nature and preference, his is a clear, cerebral approach. Secondly he makes the Buddha’s message modern because he is able to link it in with a wide range of contemporary Western thought such as quantum physics, literature, formal logic, psychology and mathematics. This enables him to comment in an encyclopaedic manner on what each of these has to offer the enquirer, and note where their limits lie. This, combined with the insights gained through regular meditation practice, gives his work its unique and fascinating character – especially as his Letters usually manage to make the concepts under discussion clear, in a way that few of us have probably been able to grasp previously.

While Nanavira is mainly concerned with suggesting a different (and, he believes, correct) approach to the Buddha’s teaching, he does make a couple of distinctive contributions of his own. Both of these are tools for thinking with – tools to help with understanding the experiences in one’s life, and for reconciling these with the teachings of the Buddha. The first of Nanavira’s innovations is the great emphasis he places on ‘reflexion’ – the practice of observing all aspects of one’s experience as they occur, and of generalising from this to help understand the processes of conscious experience. This is a concept that Nanavira develops from the writings of the phenomenological and existential thinkers such as Sartre and Husserl. Nanavira makes it clear that what he refers to as ‘reflexion’ is what in the suttas is referred to as ‘mindfulness’ & ‘awareness’ (sati-sampajanna).

Nanavira’s second contribution is a formal tool that makes up the last two notes in Notes on Dhamma which Nanavira calls Fundamental Structure. This offers an approach based on similar tools in line geometry and formal logic which Nanavira uses to demonstrate how any item in experience is related to any other item, whether in space or time, but most importantly structurally. Fundamental Structure enables the thinker to handle complex processes in their experience and enables him or her to observe their constituent parts. Importantly Nanavira claims that Fundamental Structure also demonstrates absolutely how and why reflexion is possible, and how and why reflexion offers a certainty that the inductive methods of science cannot. Reflexion, incidentally, also shows conclusively the falseness and foolishness of all claims for ‘mystical’ insights or visions. If one has any interest in Nanavira’s thinking, one must get rid of all notions that the Buddha’s approach is offering anything ‘mystical’ whatsoever. Fundamental Structure may assist in confirming this.

Nanavira exhorts the person to practise reflexion in all aspects of their daily-life, as much as is possible in today’s complex and busy world. Nanavira makes it clear that any person interested in developing further on the Buddha’s path should seek to live as simple and uncomplicated a life as possible, as this is the only way to ensure that the important and routine aspects of life emerge for one to work with. Nanavira acknowledges that, while not many people are likely to make much headway with the formal concepts of Fundamental Structure, this does not matter. The important thing is that, with dedication and the correct approach, they will see for themselves what the Buddha is talking about in the suttas and that this will confirm what Fundamental Structure describes.

These are large claims, but what exactly are the insights that Nanavira says the person can achieve? Nanavira writes that, through the practice of reflexion, the person will start to see the ‘5 aggregates’ common to all experience. As described by the Buddha, these are matter (rupa), feelings (vedana), perceptions (sanna), determinations (sankhara) and consciousness (vinnana). These will not be individually described here as this would take too much space – but the reader is directed to Notes on Dhamma where there is detailed explication of all these items. What will gradually become apparent to the practitioner is, Nanavira says (following the Buddha), that all of these 5 aggregates are accompanied by feelings of ‘me’, ‘I’ or ‘mine’. The person will always view the various aspects of their experience as being ‘their’ experience, or as things that are happening ‘to them’. This is the experience of the commoner who takes himself or herself for granted and who assumes that this is the way that life always is. This incidentally is the experience described at the head of this essay – that of the person trying (but failing) to make sense of their ‘existential’ situation, however extreme or ordinary.

Whether or not one understands the formal elements of Fundamental Structure, the practitioner will, if they continue with their practice of reflexion and reflection on the Buddha’s teachings, begin to see and understand the connections and inter-relations of all the various aspects of their experience. They will begin to realise how (as the existentialist philosophers describe) we are each of us responsible for creating our own life and of how there is no escape from this. Developing this insight is of critical importance for anyone wanting to make changes to their life. One needs to understand not only how each thing has contributed to every other thing, but also how when things are not happening (or are absent), other things are also not going to happen (or be absent). Following the lead of Kierkegaard, Nanavira describes how this sort of thinking shows the importance of the ‘negative’ in experience – of how we are each of us described as much by what we are not, as by what we are. This is what Fundamental Structure shows but, while it is important for the person to discover the application of this in their own lives, they do not have to appreciate the formal explanation of it.

Following the teachings of the Buddha, Nanavira asserts that, through the continued practice of this approach to their experiences, the person will begin to appreciate one of the cornerstones of the Buddha’s Teaching – the notion of Dependent Arising. Contrary to the long-standing traditional explanation of Dependent Arising (Paticcasamuppada), this is not a thesis that asserts how actions (good or bad) in this life will lead to consequences in the next life. Rather it is a structural principle at the core of the life that each of us is creating (and living) at every moment. Dependent Arising is confirmed with absolute certainty in direct reflexion – one sees how all aspects of our experience and understanding are connected with all other aspects, and of how each of these depends upon and is influenced by the others. This throws light on core teachings of the Buddha – especially on concepts such as ‘intentions’ (cetana),’ determinations’ (sankhara) and ‘action’ (kamma). (Once again, the reader is referred to Notes on Dhamma if they want to get more information on what these concepts mean and of how Nanavira describes the process working).

Nanavira quotes the Buddha as saying that “He who sees the Dhamma [the nature of things], sees dependent arising”. Nanavira adds that “To be determined and to be dependently arisen are one and the same thing”. As the person progresses in their practice, they will start to appreciate teachings that the Buddha gives about how all experience consists of the contact between consciousness – which is a negative; and ‘name & matter’ (nama-rupa) – which is a positive. The former is simply the presence of a phenomenon of any kind in awareness; while the latter is the appearance and behaviour of the phenomenon in experience. Although this is only observed in reflexive practice, what the Buddha describes is actually occurring all the time – that is, ‘name & matter’ is constantly coming into contact with consciousness in the creation of the myriad experiences in our lives. With practice and guidance from the Buddha, the practitioner will notice that enmeshed in all these experiences is the sense of ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘mine’ etc. Nanavira describes how each of us thinks that things are ‘happening to me’, and that ‘these are my thoughts, feelings, and sensations’ etc.

_DSC0626For Nanavira his major breakthrough was, after many years of effort and practice, realising that, with the exception of the Buddha, we have all got this wrong. For the Buddha alone makes it clear that, contrary to what we think, there is actually no ‘I’ or ‘self’ present in our experience. As Nanavira points out, this is the unique insight of the Buddha which, if developed, will ultimately lead to ‘extinction’ or ‘enlightenment’. Much of Notes on Dhamma is focused on emphasising this point that, while the lay-person may, through the practice of reflexion, appreciate and understand the processes of their conscious experience, they cannot by themselves get beyond this or resolve the various issues it throws up. This describes the limit of the existentialist thinkers such as Heidegger who give magnificent descriptions of ‘being-in-the-world’, but can get no further. The Buddha however shows how this can be brought to an end and how, in doing so, all the other issues and problems in a person’s life can also be brought to an end.

Nanavira explains how the notion of ‘self’ that most of us hold to is fundamentally a false notion of mastery over things (and naturally we prefer the pleasurable over the unpleasant and imagine that this can be made permanent). Nanavira writes that the Buddha’s method is necessarily indirect – he seeks not to explain in the abstract, but to lead so that we can experience things for ourselves. Thus the wrong view has to be removed indirectly, through realising that things which this notion of ‘self’ depends on are themselves impermanent, and therefore that ‘self’ is impermanent also. Holding to the notion of ‘self’, against all the evidence of its impermanence, is what causes the suffering in our lives. Rather than being an essential component of experience, Nanavira writes that “subjectivity is a parasite” on it, which is therefore better removed. In Notes on Dhamma Nanavira spends much time describing how it is possible for a person to shift from viewing things as happening to ‘me’ or as being ‘mine’, to seeing that it is holding to this (false) notion of ‘self’ that propagates all the other false views. The person with right-view realises that he/she has things the wrong way round – that in fact “I am because I crave-to-be” and that “with cessation of craving-to-be, I am ceases”. Nanavira writes that “with perception of impermanence, the inherent appropriation subsides; ‘things are mine’ gives place to ‘things are’ (which things are still significant ie. they point to or indicate other things – but no longer point to a ‘subject); ‘I am’ vanishes”. The things of the world still remain and present themselves, but there is now no holding or craving for them, and no self-generating, self-perpetuating cycle of self-hood and suffering.

This describes the ‘extinction’ that the Buddha exhorts as being of the highest value and which leads to the destruction of all “lust, hate and delusion”. The person with right-view still has the 5 aggregates (matter, feelings, perceptions, determinations, consciousness) in their experience and still experiences things as being significant and as connected to other things – but they do not have any sense of these things as being ‘mine’ or ‘for me’ (which the lay-person does). Freedom from holding to the notion of things being ‘for me’ or ‘mine’, releases the person from the suffering associated with the inevitable failure to exercise control, and their experience confirms the Buddha’s saying that “All determinations are impermanent. All determinations are suffering. All things are not-self”. The existential ‘drama’ referred to at the head of this paper has now been removed or extinguished.

The importance of Nanavira is not that he is saying anything new or different, although he does have a particular style which is attractive and appealing to some people. Rather it is that, uniquely in modern times, he has left a record of a person diligently applying himself to master the Buddha’s teachings. One can follow him as he commences as a commoner like all of us (albeit a highly intelligent one), how he struggles against all sorts of difficulties (especially poor-health) and how ultimately he achieves success over himself and realises the Buddha’s promise of enlightenment. He leaves us a clear record of what this means and how it can be achieved. He brings what might previously have been arcane and theoretical concepts uttered by the Buddha millennia ago into the modern age. One thinks about how, if this man can achieve this, then so can others and possibly (why not?) even me. However, while Nanavira exemplifies the Buddha’s teaching in his life and work, this throws up challenges to the easy and comfortable life most of us aspire to. Nanavira makes it clear that there would not have been a Notes on Dhamma if he had had good health and been able to practise meditation as he desired. However his poor health prevented him from developing his insights further and, having written his book and having no further use for his body in this life, he committed suicide in July 1965 in the “best possible frame of mind – calm, unmoved, serene”.

This has become a somewhat notorious incident and has led some people to query whether it demonstrates that Nanavira’s claim to attainment is false. They ask how a person who claims to have reached the first but critical stage of enlightenment can commit suicide – and then read all sorts of other motives into why Nanavira took his own life. It has to be said that these people usually have a patchy, if non-existent, understanding of what Nanavira actually wrote and have their own arguments that they want to promote, enabling them to safely commit Nanavira to the margins. However Nanavira’s writings surely stand for themselves – his post-1960 writings in particular speak with great clarity and authority. In addition, Nanavira stands out from other writers on Buddhism by the way that his life epitomises what he writes about. Nanavira represents the fully reflexive (and therefore authentic) individual. Once he realises his ill-health prevents any further progress being made, there is no alternative for him but to take his own life and his actions and writings demonstrate that this was of no great concern to him. If nothing else, this act surely demonstrates an integrity and ‘authenticity’ that his critics can only speculate about, but would find hard to replicate in their own lives.

In the meanwhile, anyone with a fair and open mind can go back to Nanavira’s writings and see for themselves if they throw any light on the Buddha’s message, and decide whether there is an approach here that, as it has for others, may assist them in their progress on the Buddha’s path. For this, we can be grateful.


Nanavira Thera 2003, Clearing the Path: Writings of Nanavira Thera (1960-1965), Path Press, Netherlands

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