Nyanaponika Thera or Nyanaponika Mahathera (July 21, 1901 – 19 October 1994) was a German-born Sri-Lanka-ordained Theravada monk, co-founder of the Buddhist Publication Society, contemporary author of numerous seminal Theravada books, and teacher of contemporary Western Buddhist leaders such as Bhikkhu Bodhi.
In 1921, he moved with his parents to Berlin, where he met with German Buddhists and also had access to Buddhist literature in the German language. He first came across the writings of Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera (1878–1957), the former German violin virtuoso Anton Gueth, which had already been published in Germany. Young Siegmund had learned that Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera had established a monastery for Western monks on an island lagoon (opposite the Railway station) Polgasduwa, Dodanduwa named Island Hermitage. This news stirred his conscience to go to Asia and become a Buddhist monk.
However, circumstances prevented him from acting on this plan for quite some time. In 1932 his father died, and he did not wish to leave his widowed mother in the lurch. Then, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany.
In November 1935 he and his mother left Germany and moved to Vienna, where they had relatives. Having arranged for his mother to stay in Vienna, in early 1936 he finally was able to leave Europe for Sri Lanka, where he joined Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera at the Island Hermitage, Polgasduwa, Dodanduwa.
After several months of studies, in June 1936 he was ordained as a novice and was given the name Nyanaponika. In 1937 he received Upasampada (Higher Ordination) under the tutelage of Nyanatiloka Thera.
In 1939, after the Nazis invaded Poland, Ven. Nyanaponika Thera arranged for his mother and other relatives to move to Sri Lanka. Through the influence of her son and the generous hosts, she embraced Buddha Dhamma and became a devoted Buddhist. She died in Colombo in 1956.
When World War II broke out in 1939, the British Government had all German males resident in their colonies consigned to internment camps, suspecting them to be German spies. Nyanaponika's and Nyanatiloka's internment was first at Diyatalawa Army Cantonment in Sri Lanka, and later at Dehra Dun in northern India.
Despite these traumatic experiences as a prisoner of war, during this period Ven. Nyanaponika Thera completed German translations of the Sutta Nipata, the Dhammasangani (the first book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka), and its commentary. He also compiled an anthology of texts on Satipatthana Meditation. This work was begun at Diyatalawa, and it was finished while he was interned at Dehra Dun.
With the cessation of war, the two bhikkhus were released from internment at Dehra Dun. They returned to Sri Lanka in 1946 and resided at the Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa. In early 1951 Sri Lanka granted citizenship to both of them.
In 1946, Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera was offered a hermitage in the Udawattekelle Forest Reserve, but being advanced in age he preferred the cooler climate of Kandy to the hot and stuffy sea-coast climate of Dodanduwa. In 1947, Ven. Nyanaponika Thera joined him at the new Kandy Hermitage.
In 1952, both Venerable Nyanatiloka Thera and Nyanaponika Thera were invited by the Burmese (Myanmar) Government to be consultants to the Sixth Buddhist Council, to be convened in 1954 to re-edit and reprint the entire Pali Canon and its commentaries. After their work with the Council was completed, Ven. Nyanaponika Thera stayed in Burma for a period of training in Vipassana (Insight Meditation) under the renowned meditation teacher Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw Thera.
The experience he gathered motivated him to write his best-known work, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, published by the Buddhist Publication Society. This work was reprinted in many editions, and was translated into more than seven languages.
In 1954, the teacher and the pupil returned to Burma for the opening ceremonies of the Sixth Buddhist Council, which was held in a cave-like structure built similar to the Sattaprani Caves in Rajagaha (Rajgir), India, where the First Buddhist Council had been held. For the closing ceremonies in 1956 Ven. Nyanaponika Thera went to Burma alone, as his teacher Nyanatiloka was indisposed at that time.
In 1957, the health of Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera deteriorated, and he moved to Colombo for easy and ready medical attention. Finally, on May 28, 1957, the great pioneering scholar monk died, and he was accorded a State Funeral at Independence Square, Colombo, attended by the Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, many State officials, and both the laity and religious dignitaries and prelates of all Nikayas.
His ashes were enshrined at the Polgasduwa Island Hermitage, Dodanduwa, and a tombstone was built to perpetuate his memory. Ven. Nyanaponika Thera, thereafter dutifully honoring the request of his teacher, revised Ven. Nyanatiloka Thera's German translation of the complete Anguttara Nikaya, retyping the five volumes in full by himself, and also compiling a forty-page Index to the work.
Six months after the death of his teacher, the career of Ven. Nyanaponika Thera was to be launched in a new direction, a permanent contribution to the spread of Buddhism worldwide. A.S. Karunaratne (a prominent lawyer in Kandy, who was Mayor of Kandy in 1945) suggested to his friend Richard Abeysekera (d. August 1982) (Trinity College teacher in retirement), that they start a society for the publication of Buddhist literature in English, mainly to be distributed abroad. The unanimous decision was that Ven. Nyanaponika Thera, in the Udawattekelle Forest Reserve Aramaya, would be the best director of the institution. Thus, on January 1, 1958, the Buddhist Publication Society (BPS) was born.
Devoting his entire time and energy to the publications of the BPS, Nyanaponika Thera wrote tracts, encouraged others to write, collated and translated important suttas, and had them published. In addition to his own writings, 200 Wheel titles and 100 Bodhi Leaves (booklets) - authored by numerous scholars - were issued during his editorship at the BPS.
Ven. Nyanaponika Thera's biography is completely submerged in his writings. With advancing age having a heavy toll on his strength, in 1984 Ven. Nyanaponika Thera retired as editor of BPS, and in 1988 he retired as President, ending his career there with recognition as a Distinguished Patron of BPS. His fame as an exponent of authentic Theravada Buddhism reached all corners of the globe.
In 1978, the German Oriental Society appointed him an honorary member, in recognition of his combination of objective scholarship with religious practice as a Buddhist monk. In 1987, the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka at its first convocation, conferred on him its first ever Honoris Causa Degree of Doctor of Literature.
In 1990, he received the Honoris Causa Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Peradeniya. In 1993, The Amarapura Maha Sangha Sabha, to which he belonged for 56 years, conferred on him the honorary title of Amarapura Maha Mahopadhyaya Sasana Sobhana (The Great Mentor of the Amarapura Maha Sasana Sabha, Ornament of Teaching).
His last birthday (which fell on July 21, 1994) was celebrated by his friends and the BPS staff with the release of the BPS edition of his book The Vision of Dhamma, a collection of his writings from the Wheel and Bodhi Leaves series. On October 19, 1994, the last day of his 58th Rains Retreat as a bhikkhu, he breathed his last in the pre-dawn quietude of the Udawattekelle forest hermitage.