The Story of Sister Vajirā

An internet tangent this afternoon that started with viewing some old images of the Parappuduwa Nuns’ Monastery in Sri Lanka, quickly turned into a full-fledged exploration of the monks whom I affectionally dub the ‘Ñāṇas’ (e.g. Ñāṇatiloka, Ñāṇamoli, Ñāṇavīra, Ñāṇaponika, Ñāṇavimala, etc.). In reading about Ven. Ñāṇavīra, of whom I somehow always end up reading about the longest, I came across this article, which features a striking image of a woman I had never seen before:

My first thought was, of course, ‘Oh! A Nun! :grinning:’. And my second thought was, ‘who in the world is that?!’ Now, I don’t mean to brag (or sound tremendously creepy), but there are very few Western Theravada nuns that I haven’t at least heard of, and so to see a new face was exciting.

This is Sister Vajirā (Hannelore Wolf), a German woman born in 1928 who would eventually become a dasa sil mata in Sri Lanka in 1955. Vajirā was by all accounts a fiery person, Ñāṇavīra once describing her as, “an extremely passionate and self-willed person, with strong emotions, and, apparently, something of a visionary.” (From the Buddhist Books Blog article linked above).

Indeed, in his biography of Vajirā, the scholar Hellmuth Hecker writes,

…Sister Vajirā found it non-ascetic when a nun was earning money and wrote a critical memorandum in English with her views about the defects of the nun’s life…After the polemic pamphlet had been sent out, Vajirā made herself many enemies. They took offence that the stranger, who was living on the alms food of the country, knew everything better. The nuns, for example, switched off the power supply to her kuti and turned a cold shoulder on her. When I got to hear about it, I approached Ven. Nyānaponika for help, who made an extra effort and went to her and mediated with a lot of difficulties, so that at least she could remain at Biyagāma, now only tolerated with Buddhist equanimity.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Vajirā’s life is her relationship with Ñāṇavīra, to whom she wrote many letters over the course of a couple of years. It seems that Ñāṇavīra was in some sense a guide and teacher to Vajirā, elucidating certain points of the Dhamma. It is during this exchange of letters that it is claimed (allegedly) that Vajirā became a sotāpanna, the BBB article stating,

Shortly before the 21st of January, Sister Vajira, guided by Ñanavira’s letters and Notes, experienced an ecstatic breakthrough culminating in her attainment of sotapatti—she, too, became a sotapanna. To Ñanavira she wrote: “I have lost a dimension of thought, at least to the degree [necessary] to grasp this matter…”[6] In reference to this curious statement, Ñanavira remarked to a supporter “I am unable to see that it could have been written by a puthujjana, even if he were trying to deceive. It would never occur to him to add the part about ‘losing a dimension of thought.’ One must actually have had the experience to know how exactly this describes it.”

What follows in Vajirā’s life is not a very happy story – following this attainment she has a mental breakdown and is eventually forced to return to Germany. One account from Hecker’s biography gives a profound example of the kind of fiery person Vajirā must have been,

“We went on the 6th and brought sister to Colombo. She ran away in the night from Mrs. Nimalasuriya’s house and was walking along the streets, several followed her and with great difficulty put her into a car. Dr. Nimalasuriya, Dr. Shelton Fernando and their wives along with me forced her into a car and took her to Sulamin Hospital at 2 a.m. … Now she is much better after the treatment; there also, twice she has jumped through the window and roamed about, but the nurse and attendants managed to bring her back. Now Sister Vajirā says that she wants to get into a saree and at times says that she wants to go back to Germany. We are now wondering what to do with her. By this same post I am writing to Rev. Nyānaponika also.” [My italics]

Something that I find incredibly interesting is that Vajirā (for better or for worse), was known by many very important Western monastics living in Sri Lanka at the time. Including at least several of the Ñāṇas, who were fetched at various times to help deal with this German nun who was causing a kerfuffle. Hecker even writes, hilariously, that “…[she] once visited Sister Upalavanna, but the two women from Hamburg did not get along with each other.”

After her return to Germany, Vajirā leaves behind Buddhism almost entirely, corresponding only very sporadically with Hecker, and later indirectly with Samanera Bodhesako who would write Clearing the Path, the collected works of Ñāṇavīra. In learning about Vajirā’s story, it is also interesting to me that two somewhat troubled people (Vajirā and Ñāṇavīra - the latter of whom would famously commit suicide) had formed a kind of relationship with one another, and bodes the question of just how healthy that relationship was, particularly with regards to Dhamma. Her story leads me to reason to ‘choose your kalyāṇamittā well.’

Sister Vajirā was a tremendously interesting individual who, by all accounts, led a difficult and tumultuous life. Nevertheless, her story inspires me to learn from her mistakes and to have faith in the Dhamma, even when the path becomes more murky.

May Sister Vajirā always be well, happy, and peaceful, and may she attain nibbāna. :pray:

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Thank you for sharing this history.

do you know the names and fates of the 1928 bhikkhunis assaulted in Thailand?

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I actually haven’t read about this issue before, so thank you for mentioning it. I don’t, but Bhante @sujato has written an article on his blog about the 1928 ordination and might know more.

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Thanks so much for the story.

I’m afraid I don’t know any more than what is in that article. I am sure that Ven Dhammananda (Chatusmarn Kabalsingh) will have written more on this, though.

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Wow that was really interesting thanks for sharing.

Interesting that she would become a sotapana and later ‘disrobe’ and have nothing more to do with Buddhism

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Ahem, not everyone would agree that Nyanavira was the best judge of whether someone was a stream-enterer …

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And there I was trying to be polite about it :wink:

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I got that. I just didn’t think everyone else would!

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I vaguely remember reading somewhere that one of the major reasons for Ven. Vajirā’s breakdown was some kind of romantic dynamics between her and Ven. Ñāṇavīra, or maybe, better put, lack thereof. Whether this is true, an incorrect interpretation of the events, a result of the prejudice people frequently regard women with (‘oh, she must have fallen in love with him!’) or my wrong memories is a very good question.

At the same time, I remember reading some of her letters to Ven. Ñāṇavīra and being unplesantly surprised by their general tone. You almost immediately get an impression that their relationship was somewhat unwholesome, even though you can’t quite pin down what exactly was wrong. Anyway, I personally have this impression every time I try to read Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s written correspondence with anyone. Not a mild for of nibbida you experience after pondering on the Dhamma but an almost claustrophobic feeling of dread and anxiety, as if you were locked in a small dark room.

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I found the whole interaction between them to be unpleasant too. Ñāṇavīra was just dismissive and seemed to be talking from a position of absolute authority. Things like “Letting off steam”, “Exit unwanted ariyasàvikà” that he wrote when reading her letters.

And he seems to have had a snarky side to him too, with a dim opinion of feminine intelligence. From Letter 91:

The question ‘Why are there other people?’, for example, would be metaphysical in Sartre’s sense. Metaphysics, so understood, lead eventually to the direct intuition ‘It is so’, beyond which it is impossible to go. One is perhaps tempted to remark that such metaphysics have something in common with feminine reason: ‘I love him because I love him.’

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Hi @Brenna, great story, thanks for sharing! I just read your post but am very inclined to study the material you provided on the matter more fully. Thanks for this very thorough compilation!

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This feels like negative ruminations seen in depression. I also think depressed people attract people with other mental health issues, not in any negative way, but perhaps because they recognise mutual suffering, but form difficult relationships subsequently related to the mental health difficulties. Monasticism is especially difficult for depression because coping mechanisms involve enjoying sense pleasures. Sense pleasures help to counteract ‘anhedonia’ -lack of normal enjoyment in life’ which is a symptom of depression, and hopefully return the mind to a normal state. Worthlessness, hopelessness, constant negative thoughts, low motivation, emotional suffering and suicidal ideation maybe mistaken for growth in the dhamma unfortunately. Antidepressants and therapy are effective and the compassionate thing to do is to get the needed help.

With metta

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Only having read the three letters of Sister Vajira that are on the Nanavira website, I don’t have a very informed opinion about their relationship. This, however, just hurts one’s feelings:

“At the end of the collection the Ven. Ñānavīra wrote: ‘Exit unwanted ariyasāvikā.’”

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:joy: I was debating whether or not I should mention this, especially since some people seem to think Ñāṇavīra was like actually a stream-enterer. But I see my sensitivity was unnecessary. :sunglasses:

Yeah, I read about this too but decided against mentioning it because there is so much more to Vajirā’s life than whether or not she loved Ñāṇavīra.

Yeah, I feel this too. But I think Ñāṇavīra’s relationship with himself was also a a pretty unwholesome one :woman_shrugging:.

Can we agree then that Ven. Ñānavīra was somewhat of an asshole? :sweat_smile:

This is spot on, thank you so much, Mat! :pray:

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I am not sure…

There are some traces of misogynistic thought in his letters, but the main impression I got was that of a lonely person holed up in a hut somewhere, battling lots of private demons. And he never mentions his time in the war anywhere - that struck me as a bit odd. His Dhammic practice seemed to be a labored, obsessive construction of labyrinthine arguments and counter-arguments, relying on no one but himself. His letters show this trait - most of the paragraphs are meticulously written and condensed, with lots of paranthetical remarks. The opponents which he picked were all philosophers and he toiled away in isolation, trying to expose their leaky systems…it was all rather bleak and desolate.

And I don’t agree with Mat’s theory which he posted above. One can’t jump to the conclusion that people are depressed and mentally ill based on a few letters that we read, decades after they have died - that’s just presumptuous. With sister Vajira, it may have been a possibility - she did things like set fire to a heap of letters and burn them as a kind of symbolic, cathartic gesture. Nanavira was just banging his head on a wall as his days ground on, with his physical ailments making meditation an impossibility. It’s a terrible situation to be in - all worldly activities have been abandoned and every day is just a long, interminable stretch of deadened hours which have to be spent battling diseases and loneliness. This is when suicide becomes attractive and the mind will be calm when evaluating it as a solution.

But, in any case, both of them lived tumultuous lives. :slight_smile:

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Yes, I think you’re definitely very right, Sujith. I was mostly joking with my asshole comment, but Ven. Ñānavīra certainly was a multifaceted person who had many different things happening in his mind. He was also, despite his somewhat rude comments, a very intellectual and intelligent person. Which makes me wonder whether he would have thrived more in someplace like the Island Hermitage, where he could have been around other monks who would have looked after not only his mental wellbeing, but also ‘checked’ on his knowledge of the Dhamma.

Sure, but I also think that the very fact Ven. Ñānavīra committed suicide (despite his struggles with disease) points towards mental illness in some capacity. For unless he was an arahant and had removed all craving, there would have been some desire within him to end his life based on an aversion to what was happening in his body/mind. Now I have no idea what he was going through, but I think at the very least one can say that he was not well.

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