Death and transfiguration

Back in July I watched what apparently was a bootleg copy of the 2008 movie The Soviet Story, directed by Edvins Snore and sponsored by a group in the European Parliament, as well as the City of Riga and “Tēvijas Sargs” (not sure who or what that is).

At about the same time I looked into the biography of Nyanaponika Thera, whose Heart of Buddhist Meditation was the first book about Buddhism I found after becoming interested in this religion back in the late 1990s. It is also the only non-canon book I have ever needed, really. I had heard he was German, but then learned–right about at the same time as I watched The Soviet Story–that Ven. Nyanaponika Thera’s life was intertwined with all the horror that went on in Europe during the Second World War.

Unlike so many others, however, he found peace.

Death

The Soviet Story is about the killing that happened in the USSR, and also gets into the Nazis, etc. It’s harrowing to watch because they use archival film, some of which only turned up after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s, much of which involves people dying of starvation and/or disease or being murdered. There are also interviews with survivors.

When you watch the trailer, (warning: it’s pretty graphic, too, with people being shot on camera and lots of dead bodies shown), you probably will get the impression this is anti-Soviet propaganda film. That’s not how the movie comes across, though.

What actually comes to mind as I try to describe it is a conversation in Cloverfield, where they’re crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and Hud is filming the scene out in the harbor and the mob on the bridge (quote from IMDb)

Rob Hawkins: Still filming?
Hud: Yeah, people are gonna want to know… how it all went down.
Rob Hawkins: Well, you can just tell them how it all went down, Hud.
Hud: No, that wouldn’t work. People need to see this, you know? It’s gonna be important..

Enough time has passed now that the old phrase “Never again!” is not quite as emphatic as it used to be right after the war. People need to see something like The Soviet Story, and to learn, for example, that the whole world followed the Ukraine mass starvation in the newspapers, and it was pretty much recognized for the genocide it was–and nobody did anything to try and stop it.

So I mention The Soviet Story here. Try to see it, if you can bear watching all the horror. It’s important. People need to know that it happened, so it will never ever happen again.

Until the next time.

Transfiguration

Despair, cynicism: that is how most of us react to this horror. But it’s only a movie. What was it like to actually be caught up in it all, to be Siegmund Feniger, the only son of a Jewish family? What was he to do in 1935, when the Nazis imposed the Nuremberg Laws, making Jews “state subjects”? He was 34 years old, living in Berlin with his widowed mother, who depended on him. Things were getting worse and worse for German Jews, and those who wanted to flee were finding it hard to find other countries that would accept them.

A rather unusual path opened up for the Fenigers, though. Since their move to Berlin in 1922, young Siegmund had been in contact with German Buddhists and had come across the writings of Anton Gueth, a former German violinist who was now a monk known as the Venerable Nyanatiloka Thera and living in Sri Lanka. In the early 1930s, when Siegmund found out that Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera had established a monastery for Western monks in Sri Lanka, he decided to go there and enter the religious life.

However, he couldn’t leave his mother behind in Hitler’s Germany, so they both fled to Vienna in late 1935. After getting his mother established there, Siegmund left for Sri Lanka in early 1936 and entered Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera’s Island Hermitage monastery. In June, after much studying, Feniger changed his name to Nyanaponika, was ordained as a novice, eventually receiving advanced ordination.

Meanwhile, back home in Europe, things were getting even worse, and the horrors multiplied. Vienna was no longer a haven after Hitler invaded Austria in 1939, so the monk Nyanaponika arranged for his mother and other family members to leave Vienna and come to Sri Lanka. Then the British interned all German males throughout all their colonies, including Sri Lanka, for the duration of the war. Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera and Nyanaponika Thera were interned first at Diyatalawa in Sri Lanka and then moved to northern India for the remainder of the war.

Some people would have complained about suffering under the Nazis in Germany and Austria and then under the British in Sri Lanka, but Ven. Nyanaponika Thera had more important things to do. He spent his internment translating Buddhist texts into German; compiling an anthology on Satipatthana meditation; and completing what his teacher had begun on that subject.

That is the point of Nyanaponika Thera’s biography where I wish to stop for now, because the way Ven. Nyanaponika Thera spent his internment shows how clearly he had already escaped the cycle of horror and suffering.

That is a good contrast and balance to the horrors partially shown in The Soviet Story that were unfolding all the while that Siegmund Feniger was undergoing transfiguration into Ven. Nyanaponika Thera.

Buddhism is only “simple” in the suttas; one can get so involved in trying to talk about it in day-to-day life. However, Ven. Nyanaponika Thera talked about it quite well over many decades, and very clearly. In Courageous Faith, he said:

Among those calling themselves “believers” or “religious people” or, in our case, Buddhists, there are still too few who have that kind of genuine faith in the actual power of the Good to transform and elevate the life of the individual and of society, to secure them against the resistance of the evil in themselves and in the world outside. Too few dare to entrust themselves to the powerful current of the Good, too many secretly believe, in spite of a vague sort of “faith,” that the power of the evil in themselves and the world is stronger — too strong to be contended with. Many politicians everywhere in the world seem to believe the same, particularly those who call themselves “realists,” obviously implying that only the evil is “real.” They think that of necessity they have to submit to its greater power. If they are not willing to put it to the test, it is no wonder that they cannot achieve much good.

To be sure, in face of the great forces of evil and stupidity, this kind of genuine faith in the Good requires a certain amount of courage. But no progress of any kind is possible without courage. Progress means to overcome the natural inertia of present unsatisfactory conditions in the individual and in society. It certainly requires courage to take the first step in breaking through that resistance of the natural inertia and the self-preserving tendency of things and minds. But just that courage is the preliminary condition of success.

The man was talking from experience. He countered post-war imagery of ferris wheels and cuckoo clocks and true-blue heroes with a life of practicing “genuine faith in the Good.”

It seems there will always be suffering, horror, and death; at the same time, coexistent with it, there is always profound revelation and peace. Why is that, I wonder.

Sources:

The Soviet Story Web site.

Nyanaponika Thera (Wikipedia)

Nazi Germany (Wikipedia)

“Courageous Faith” Nyanaponika Therapy.

The Ferris Wheel/Cuckoo Clock scene from The Third Man (1949)

Opening credits to She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) (linked above; by the way, I love this movie)



Categories: Buddhism

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