The Greek Buddhist monk Nyanadassana has been a senior monk of the ancient Buddhist Theravada tradition for 37 years in Sri Lanka.
Nanyadasana was born in 1959 as Ioannis Tselios in Serres, northern Greece. At the age of 64, after an unusual life, he has become an important Buddhist monk and scholar with many books to his credit, international acclaim and deep experience in meditation.
He is called “Bhante”, a respectful title used to address Buddhist monks and superiors. No other modern Greek has a similar long course in traditional Buddhist monasticism.
“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 tells the Athens-Macedonia News Agency (AMNA).
He finished secondary school in Thessaloniki and studied sociology at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.
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 dreamed of working for the American Space Agency (NASA).
But along the way, he discovered psychology and then sociology. So he studied sociology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt for two years, but found his studies disappointing and did not complete them.
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?”, he recalled, speaking to AMNA.
The Greek man follows steps to become a Buddhist monk
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 books voraciously, traveled adventurously to several European countries and searched for the meaning of life.
In 1981, aged 22, a trip to India was the turning point in his life: while looking at a tourist brochure, he read this memorable Buddha quote: “This is my last birth. I have crossed the ocean of existence.”
“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 tells AMNA. For many months he traveled alone from the Himalayas in the north to the south, often on the roofs of trains, among Western hippies and local religious fanatics.
Heading to Sri Lanka Buddhist monasteries
He visited Kusinara, the place where the Buddha reached his final rest. It was there that, under the guidance of an older Indian Buddhist monk who was the Director of the Museum of Kusinara, Ioannis Tselios was not only trained in meditation, but he also read about Buddhism. More interested than ever, he decided to look for the original and authentic teachings of Buddha, thus traveling to Sri Lanka.
“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,” he tells AMNA.
“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 Buddhism. Even the teachers were telling me how to learn to meditate, not how to become a Buddhist,” he adds.
In 1982, aged 23, he was ordained by Kaḑavedduve Shrī Jinavaṃsa Mahāthera, a scholar recognized by the state as a teacher-inspector, and he embraced the monastic life in order to study and practice.
He practiced for four years at the renowned meditation monastery Nissaraṇa Vanaya in Sri Lanka.
In 1986, he received the higher ordination as a teacher inspector. He then studied the ancient Indian language Pali and the Three Baskets of Sacred Buddhist Texts, along with the Explanations and Commentaries, at the monastery Gnānārāma Dharmāyatanaya, where he stayed for 16 years.
In 1997, following a written and oral exam, he received the title of Vinayācariya (Professor of Monastic Education).
Encouraged by his teacher, he began teaching while writing over ten books. From 2003 to 2007, he trained in meditation at the meditation centre in Myanmar before returning to Sri Lanka. He has been repeatedly invited to Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan to give lectures and courses on the Teachings of Buddha and meditation.
Greek Buddhist monk returns to Athens
He is a writer and translator of more than ten Buddhist books in German, English, Sinhalese and Pali, and he has a lot of experience in giving lectures in English and Sinhalese (the official language of Sri Lanka).
In April 2019, he returned to Greece, where he is teaching Buddhism at the cultural association of Sri Lanka (which covers the needs of the approximately 850 Sinhalese in Greece).
“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,” he tells AMNA.
“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,” he adds.
“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,” Nyanadassana or Ioannis Tselios says.