From the time of Alexander the Great and his descendants, Hellenism and Buddhism met in Asia and exerted a mutual influence. In the footsteps of this tradition walks a modern Greek who, after an unusual life course, is now, at the age of 64, an important Buddhist monk and scholar with many books to his credit, international acclaim and deep experience in meditation.

The Athenian and Macedonian News Agency spoke with him and presents the special case of Bande (Sevasmios) Nanyadasana, who was born in 1959 as Ioannis Tselios in Serres. No other modern Greek – at least as far as is known – has a similar long course in traditional Buddhist monasticism, for more than 40 years, which he himself confirms.

As a teenager in Thessaloniki, he was an excellent student with a penchant for physics and mathematics, especially atomic-nuclear physics, he “devoured” relevant books and had a dream of working for the American Space Agency (NASA). But along the way – also under the influence of Erich Fromm’s books – he discovered psychology and then sociology. So he studied sociology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt for two years, but did not complete his studies, which generally disappointed him.

At the same time, he declared himself an atheist. “How is it possible,” he wondered, “that the all-good and all-powerful God allows the evil that is so common in the world? How can something so pure come out of something so evil?’ It was the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Tselios, with long hair and a beard, lived like many other restless youths in Europe, read voraciously books (among others, all by Kazantzakis), traveled adventurously to several European countries and searched for a meaning in life.

As he says, “theoretical knowledge was not enough for me, I wanted to see the world, so I made many trips alone to European countries and Morocco, reaching the Sahara. My friends were afraid, they did not dare to travel alone. But as a high school student I had already gone to Mount Athos alone with a sleeping bag for 15 days”.

Until a trip to India in 1981 changed his life. “I arrived in New Delhi carrying only a bag of books and a sleeping bag. I found it disgusting that everyone, even the gurus, smoked hashish. I didn’t find anything substantial there, something spiritual,” he says. For many months he traveled alone from the Himalayas north to south, often on the roofs of trains, among Western hippies and local religious fanatics.

Finally, after being disappointed by “the theomania and superstition of India”, at the age of 22 he had his first contact with Buddhism in this vast Hindu country, the cradle of Buddhism, and specifically with the Theravada tradition (Teaching of the Elders), which is older and more authentic than successors such as Mahayana, Zen and Tantric Tibetan Buddhism. A tourist brochure, where he happened to read a phrase of the Buddha (“this is my last birth, I have passed beyond the ocean of existence”), which shocked him, was the starting point of a new path.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he says. “Who had the audacity to say such a thing? For half an hour the mind stayed on these words. I decided that I must learn about the Buddha.’ He began then, under the guidance of an Indian Buddhist monk, director of the Buddhist museum of Kusinara (where the Buddha had died), to meditate systematically and read Buddhist books.

“The first thing the monk said to me surprised me: In Buddhism there is no god, give all your attention to your breathing. I, who was also an atheist, felt so much freedom. Within five minutes, I achieved such good concentration that I felt like I was reborn. I came closer to myself and that was disruptive for me. I stayed there for a month, then went to Nepal, visited Kathmandu and Lumbini, where the Buddha was born, and returned to India for another month. When I learned that there were Buddhist countries, I chose to go to the closest one, Sri Lanka. But before that, I visited Tibetan Buddhists living in Darjeeling, northern India. I stayed in a Tibetan monastery for seven days, but I was disillusioned with their cults and deities that strongly resembled religion, and I also understood a corruption in relation to money. That is why I sought authentic Buddhism in Sri Lanka.’

Knowledge and insight

In Sri Lanka (Ceylan), a primeval Buddhist stronghold, he stayed in Buddhist centers and quickly made the great decision to become a forest monk: first a novice (shamanera) in 1982 and, after this preparatory period, a regular monk (biku) in 1986.

“At one point,” he says, “I had bought a return ticket to Greece, to find a quiet place to meditate. But finally I burned the ticket and decided to stay in Sri Lanka and become a monk. No one influenced me to become a monk. In Buddhism you have to knock on their door and then they will give you information. They themselves do not come to tell you ‘you must become a Buddhist’. I never met a convert to Buddhists. Even the teachers were telling me how to learn to meditate, not how to become a Buddhist. My ordination ceremony, where I put on the cassock and became a novice, took place at the Polgastuva hermitage on an island.”

There, at the age of 23, he was ordained by the state-recognized scholar Venerable Kaḑavedduve Shrī Jinavaṃsa Mahāthera. Then for four years he practiced at the Nissaraṇa Vanaya Monastery in the Mitirigala district under the guidance of Venerable Mātara Ñāṇārāma Mahāthera, another state-recognized scholar and renowned meditation teacher.

In 1986, Nanyadasana (his monastic name means “knowledge and vision”) received higher ordination and subsequently studied the ancient Indian language Pali, the Three Collections of Sacred Buddhist Texts (Tipiṭaka) and their subsequent commentaries, under the guidance of polymaths teacher at the Gnānārāma Dharmāyatanaya monastery, where he remained for 16 years. In 1997 he received, after written and oral examinations, the title of Vinayācariya (Professor of Monastic Education), which is equivalent to university level, but is not allowed to be used by monks for livelihood.

Nyanadassana’s life was one of ever greater deepening and dedication to Buddhism, both theoretically with extensive study of the Buddha’s discourses (suttas) and Buddhist psychology (Abhidhama), and practically with daily meditations. He lived in different monasteries in Sri Lanka, at times secluding himself in huts, huts and caves in the jungles and rainforests. “Meditation,” he emphasizes, “is not an easy task, which is why most people avoid it.”

His most recent stay was in an isolated hermitage at the sprawling Na Uyana Aranya, the largest Buddhist meditation center in the country, which includes six monasteries, covers more than 50,000 acres of forest and has 150 monks, 50 of them foreigners. The hut where he lives at an altitude of 400 meters was built especially for him by a layman who wanted to do a good deed, which is a tradition in Sri Lanka.

“The Sinhalese feel great pride when a foreigner is interested in becoming a Buddhist monk in their own country. They really appreciate it. There are currently about 100 foreign Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka. As far as I know from the relevant records and other information, there is no other Greek Buddhist monk before me in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand or any other country with Theravada Buddhism,” he says.

Now known internationally as “the Greek Nanyadasana”, he has developed a significant education in Buddhist scriptures, thanks to learning both the local language (Sinhalese) and the ancient Indian Buddhist language Pali, related to Sanskrit. From one point on, having become a Presbyter (Mahāthera), he himself taught locals and foreigners who came to the monasteries, acquired disciples and along the way wrote and translated ten books – all freely available – in various languages ​​(English, German, Sinhalese ). Some had a wider impact in the Buddhist world internationally, notably a book of his on dawn (when exactly the day begins for monks), which required five years of research equivalent to a PhD and “shook” many Buddhist communities.

He has also, repeatedly, been invited and traveled to various Asian countries (Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, etc.) to give talks and hold meditation classes. Between 2003 – 2007 he lived and practiced meditation at the famous Buddhist meditation center Pa-Auk Tawya in Myanmar (Burma).

In Athens

In April 2019, he returned to Greece, at the invitation of the president of the Greek Theravada Center and honorary consul of Sri Lanka in our country, Michael Xynou. He originally planned to stay six months, but his stay has been extended considerably. To this day it is hosted mainly in Agia Paraskevi, in the building where the cultural association of Sri Lanka (which covers the needs of the approximately 850 Sinhalese in Greece) and the Theravada Center are housed together.

In this “Athenian” four-year period, he has taught successive courses of Buddhist psychology-philosophy and meditation both live and online via Zoom and Facebook (due to the pandemic), so that Greeks can get to know Buddhism “first-hand” and reliably .

At the same time, he worked feverishly for the publication in Greek of various books. Already, the book “What the Buddha Taught”, an international bestseller (since 1959) by the learned Buddhist monk Valpola Rahula, has just been published by the Theravada Center in a new translation of his own. Two books of his own, a detailed guide to Buddhist meditation and a book on the life and teachings of the historical Buddha, are also being prepared for publication.

“When I came to Greece, I didn’t know what I would find,” he says. “However, I saw that there is interest in Buddhism and meditation. The Greeks always talked about ‘know thyself’, but they didn’t know a method for it. Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Heraclitus had dealt with such issues, so Buddhism, which teaches how to analyze yourself, overcome your emotions and concentrate your mind, is not something foreign. What Buddhism can offer a modern Greek is self-awareness, knowledge of the workings of the mind, to turn inward and not outward. The goal of Buddhism is to understand our passions, drives, fantasies, delusions and how much we suffer because of them, how self-created our pain is. The Buddha gives the instructions for an inward journey.”

“Buddhism is not God-centered but human-centered,” he adds. “It is not the fault of life, politicians, the will of God or Satan, something outside of us. Within us is the source of our suffering and our happiness, as long as we clear our minds. If someone is unhappy, it is his own fault because of his ignorance. Bliss can only be found within us. Everyone can avoid attachments, have altruistic tendencies and generosity, extinguishing greed and anger. The world’s problems come from our own minds. Buddhism seeks the purification of the mind, because mental defilements bring everything bad into life.”