[L. 110 | 117] 10 January 1965

The visitors I spoke of in my postcard came and talked and took photographs and notes for several hours on the afternoon of the 8th. The older one is Robin Maugham, a nephew of the celebrated Somerset Maugham. He is a novelist (third-rate, I suspect) and a writer of travel books. Although they both seemed interested in the Dhamma, I rather think that their principal reason for visiting me was to obtain material for their writings. I had a slightly uncomfortable feeling of being exploited; but, unfortunately, once I start talking, I like going on, without proper regard for the possible repercussions later on. So probably, in perhaps a year's time, there will be a new travel book with a chapter (complete with photographs) devoted to yours truly, and the romantic life he is leading in the jungle.[1]

Whether or not this would (or will) be a bad thing or not, I really can't say. I thoroughly dislike the idea myself, but people are already so much misinformed about the Dhamma in the West (particularly in England) that—if Robin Maugham gives a reasonably accurate account of his visit—it is possible that some good might come of it. Not to me, of course, since it will be a source of disturbance; but that no longer matters so very much. If only he doesn't go and give the impression that I am seeking publicity by building me up into a kind of character in a novel! But it is so difficult to know what to say and what not to say to the people who come and see me.

Maugham was at Eton and Cambridge (he went down the year before I went up) and was in the Middle East during the war; so, since we have much the same sort of background, we were quite at ease with one another. His friend, a much younger man, but no less charming, gave a rupee to one of the villagers because of his poverty-stricken appearance. Unfortunately, the man in question is the second-wealthiest person in the village, owning a tractor, a house, and about twenty-five thousand rupees in cash. They roared with laughter when I told them, and I still find myself chuckling when I think about it. Delicious irony!

I have long since stopped trying to understand how the sīl-poya[2] is arrived at. Presumably it is worked out by astrologers rather than by astronomers, which means to say that it probably has little connexion with the dates of the astronomical phases of the moon. Actually, the interval between one (astronomical) full moon and the next is by no means constant: I calculated (from the Government calendar) that the longest interval is 29 days, 19 hours, 29 minutes, as against the shortest, which is 29 days, 6 hours, 52 minutes. The effect of this is that the full moon may fall one or two days either earlier or later than what it would if the interval were regular (the average is 29 days, 11 hours, 18 minutes). But I do not think that the astrologers (or the makers of Sinhala almanacks) pay much attention to the Nautical Almanack issued by the Admiralty and probably use their own traditional method of calculation. On the other hand, our Vinaya Uposatha days do not seem to have any connexion with the sīl-poya. I have known our Sangha-poya to fall two days before the sīl-poya, and, on another occasion, to fall one day after the sīl-poya.

But the principle upon which our Sangha-poya days are calculated is quite clear. The year is divided up into three seasons each of four lunar months (with an extra month intercalated about once in three years). These four lunar months are subdivided into eight periods each of fifteen days, with the exception of the third and the seventh, which are only fourteen days, so:

Obviously, this system pays no attention at all to the astronomical dates of the phases of the moon; except that, at the end of the year, the various differences have more or less cancelled out (in this system, the average interval between full moons is 29 days, 12 hours). Actually, this system certainly goes back to Kautilya (I discovered it in his celebrated treatise on government), and Kautilya is thought to have been Chandragupta's grandfather.[3] So in all probability this is the self-same system that was in use in the Buddha's day. Perhaps the sīl-poya days on the government calendar have simply been calculated by the Government printer. Who knows?

P.S. There is an additional complication to all this, viz. that the day of the sīl-poya (as also the Sangha-poya) goes from dawn (4:24 a.m.) to dawn, whereas the astronomical day is from midnight to midnight. Thus, if the moon is full at 2 a.m., it falls on a different day according to which system is used.

Editorial notes:

[110.1] Maugham: See L. 138. The visit resulted in an article in The People (of London) dated 26 September 1965 (below), which was reprinted in greater (but not more accurate) detail as a chapter of Maugham's book, Search for Nirvana (London: W. H. Allen, 1975). Unfortunately, the visit also resulted in a novel, The Second Window (London: William Heinemann, 1968) and, papañcaratino, a radio play, 'A Question of Retreat'. The English monk of the novel and play bears no resemblance to the man who emerges from these letters.

SOMERSET MAUGHAM, world-famous novelist now 91 and living in seclusion in his Riviera villa, sent his nephew Robin Maugham on a strange mission earlier this year. 'An author must seek out his stories all over the world,' he said. 'You should go to Ceylon. Find that rich Englishman who is living in a jungle hut there as a Buddhist monk.' Robin Maugham did that. And he brought back this fascinating story—complete with a surprise ending.
HAROLD EDWARD MUSSON—the British Army officer turned Buddhist priest whom I had travelled seven thousand miles to find in the jungle of southern Ceylon—sat back against the wooden bedstead in his hut and stared at me pensively.
     'What made you decide to become a Buddhist?' I asked him. He was shy and reticent. He had not spoken with anyone for years. And yet he had an urge to communicate.
     'I suppose my first recollection of Buddhism was when I joined my father in Burma,' he said. 'He was commanding a battalion out there. I'd seen statues of Buddha, and I was told the Buddha was a man who sat under a tree and was enlightened.'
     Musson smiled, almost apologetically.
     'Then and there,' he said, 'I decided: "this is what I want to do."'
     Musson, born in 1920 in Aldershot barracks, went to Wellington College and Cambridge University. In the war he served as an officer in Field Security in North Africa and Italy. 'I came back to England at the end of the war and settled in London,' he told me. 'I had private means so I didn't have to work. I tried to get as much pleasure out of life as I could. But somehow I wasn't happy. I felt that it was all pretty futile. Then one evening in a bar in London I ran into an old Army friend called Moore. We began talking about our common interest in Buddhism. Gradually we came to the conclusion—both of us—that the lives we were leading were utterly pointless. And by the end of the evening we'd decided that to abandon our Western lives and go to Ceylon to become Buddhist monks.


     'We settled our affairs in England as best we could and left for Ceylon. That was in November 1948. And in April 1949 we were ordained Buddhist monks.'
     Musson gently brushed away a fly that had settled on his bare shoulder.
     'A year later Moore, seven years older than I, died of coronary thrombosis. And I nearly died of typhoid.'
     Outside the sun was beginning to set. Monkeys were chattering in the trees and the jungle birds were screeching.
     I shifted uncomfortably on my mat and continued to take notes as he spoke of the religion to which he had devoted his life.
     'Whatever deliberate action you do brings its result in a future life,' he said. 'Thus, if you kill—or cause to be killed—an animal, that will have its results. This is why a Buddhist will not kill any living creature.'
     I felt that by now I knew him well enough to argue a bit with him. 'How do you reconcile that belief with eating meat?' I asked.
     'Provided that one has no part in the killing of it one can eat meat,' he replied. 'So a monk can accept meat brought to him as alms if he doesn't see or hear it being killed—or suspect it has been killed specially for him.'
     I thought that Musson's argument was false, and I was about to say so, when suddenly he smiled and said: 'I have something to show you.'
     He picked up a glass jam-jar with a screw top. Inside it was a large tarantula. The bite of this poisonous spider can kill a man.
     'Where did you find it?' I asked.
     Musson smiled gently. 'I found him crawling up my leg last night.'
     'But why didn't you kill it?'
     'Because a Buddhist does not believe in taking the life of any living creature,' he said. 'I told you that just now—though I could see that you didn't believe me.'
     'So now what will you do with him?'
     Musson smiled at me. By way of answer, he motioned to me to follow him away from his little hut a few yards into the undergrowth. Carefully he unscrewed the top of the jam-jar, removed the tarantula, and let it fall to the earth.
     'He won't be able to harm anyone here,' he said.
     A Buddhist monk may not kill—not even a deadly tarantula spider like the one Edward Musson found crawling on his leg. Instead, he trapped it in a jam-jar—and then freed it, out of harm's way, in the jungle.
     'Aren't you lonely, with no other living person for miles around?' I asked him when we had settled down in his hut again.
     'When I first came here,' the hermit replied, 'it took me some time to get used to the sounds of the jungle. But after a bit you find you simply don't want other people. You become self-contained.'
     'How do you eat?' I asked him. 'How do you keep going?'
     I knew that a Buddhist monk's religion forbids him to sow or reap or provide for himself in any way. He must exist only on what is freely given to him.
     'Someone from the local village generally brings me tea—either very early in the morning or late in the afternoon,' the hermit told me. 'And before noon they bring me alms in the form of a gruel of rice and a little fruit.'
     He gave me his wonderfully gentle smile.


     'The villagers are very good about it,' he said. 'But sometimes they forget. And they don't bring me any food before noon. So then I don't have anything to eat all day[1] for we are not allowed to eat anything after mid-day. But the following morning I'll take my begging-bowl into the village, and I'll be given food.
     'You see, I have no money,' Musson told me. 'If I ever have to go to Colombo—to see a doctor, for instance—I take my begging-bowl and stand by a bus-stop. People will come up to me and will try to put food into my bowl. But I will cover up the bowl with my hands. Then they will ask me: "What is it you require, Venerable Sir?" And I will reply, "A bus-ticket." I won't say, "The money for a bus-ticket," because a Buddhist priest must not handle money. The reason for this is that with money you can buy women. And this rule of the Lord Buddha is intended to put temptation out of a monk's way.'
     The hermit stroked the side of his face with his bony hand.
     'A Buddhist monk's bank balance is his bowl,' he said. 'Even his clothes are given to him. If no one gives him his robe, then he must go and scavenge on dust-heaps to find rags. And then he must stitch the rags together to make himself a robe.'
     I decided to ask the question I had been longing to ask since I first met him. I took a deep breath.
     'When you look back at the life you led in England,' I said, 'when you think of the wealth and comfort you enjoyed, when you remember your friends—don't you have any regret?'
     The hermit gazed at me in silence. 'No,' he said after a while. 'I can't say I have any regrets at all...besides, the one advantage of these surroundings is that you don't put yourself in the way of temptation.
     'I now find the thought of sex is abhorrent. And I can find pleasure in living here because I enjoy the process of concentration. The whole point of Buddhism,' he said, 'is to bring to an end this farcical existence. Nothing is permanent,' he said. 'So the wise man, when he sees that there is nothing he can hold for ever, chooses to opt out. He decides to get out of the race.'
     From my uncomfortable position on the straw mat on the hard floor with my legs tucked beneath me I glanced up at the hermit. He looked tired and ill. The light was fading. It was time for me to go. I began to move, but the hermit moved his hands in a gesture to stop me.
     'You'll go now,' he said. 'And we may never meet again. But I don't want you to misunderstand me.'


     He paused, and his gentle, sad eyes rested on me. 'If you write about me,' he said, 'I don't want you to make me out a saint. It's no sacrifice to give up everything for the sake of doing exactly what you want to do.'
     He leaned back on his bed and was silent. Our meeting was at an end. I got up stiffly from the roll of matting.
     'Goodbye,' he said.
     I joined my hands and raised them above my head. I bowed to him in the ritual act of obeisance. He stood watching me in silence. His face was expressionless. In the dim light I moved away down the little path through the jungle that joined the track that led to the village—and thence back to civilization. Behind me I left the hermit—the Venerable Nanavira Thera from the Island Hermitage, or Harold Edward Musson from Aldershot—alone to face the long night.
     My uncle Somerset Maugham's instinct had been right. He was indeed a most unusual man....
     But there is an even more unusual post-script to this story.
     A short while ago I received a cable from Nalin Fernando, the Ceylonese journalist who had helped me to find Musson's secret hut. The cable read: 'MUSSON SUICIDED MONDAY INHALED ETHER NALIN.'
     Strangely enough, during our second meeting I had asked Musson about suicide.
     'If an ordinary person commits suicide,' he said, 'it is wrong. But if a monk who has "attained liberation" kills himself, then it is only a minor offence in our philosophy because he is only anticipating the next stage in the chain of rebirth.'
     I wonder if Musson did not kill himself because he was suddenly overwhelmed by the realisation that he had turned his back on the world in vain.
     Perhaps in a long night of despair he realised that all his years of meditation and suffering had been completely useless.
     No one will ever know.

NEXT WEEK: The amazing predictions of the man who says he knows the royal family's future.

© Robin Maugham, 1965
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[110.2] Sīl-poya is the day, based on the lunar week, on which laypeople observe special restraints (see, e.g., L. 119, first paragraph). New moon day and, even more so, full moon day, are regarded as particularly auspicious for undertaking such observances. See A. VIII,41: iv,248-51. Sangha-poya (= Uposatha, Observance day) is the (more or less) fortnightly day on which bhikkhus convene for confession of faults, recitation of the Pātimokkha (Code of Discipline), and business of the Order. [Back to text]

[110.3] Asoka's grandfather: Kautilya (Chanakya) was the éminence gris behind the Mauryan throne. Our considerable knowledge of Mauryan India comes largely from the account of Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the Court of Chandragupta at Pātaliputta. Although his account has not survived in the original, copius extracts are to be found in later writers, especially Strabo. [Back to text]