Buddhism, interestingly, can always be read in either an extinctionist or a liberationist manner. Last night, taking advantage of my scholar host's copious library, I read Stephen Batchelor's first class essay on Harold Musson (1920-1965), an Englishman who became a Theravada Buddhist monk. Musson was distinctly of the extinctionist persuasion and, indeed, in the end, committed suicide. The essay is called "Existence, Enlightenment and Suicide" and part of the argument is a discussion about whether Musson, or Nanavira, as was his Buddhist name, was a "stream enterer", as he claimed, or not, this question having a direct bearing on the nature of enlightenment. Some of the material about Musson derives from his own writing and some from an interview with him by Robin Maughan, the nephew of Somerset Maughan the novelist.
Another theme of the essay is concerned with questioning the contemporary image of Buddhism. Here let me quote Batchelor, "Nanavira's writings stand out as one of the most original and important contributions to Buddhist literature this [i.e. 20th] century. But why then... does Nanavira Thera remain such an obscure figure? The short answer is because he singularly fails to fit the popular stereotype of what a contemporary Buddhist should be. It is frequently assumed in the West that Buddhists are mystically inclined, liberal, ecologically sensitive, democratic, pacifist, tolerant, life-affirming, compassionate and spiritual. After reading Clearing the Path, however, such are not the qualities one would readily ascribe to Nanavira Thera." Batchelor asks if the stereotype actually owes more to Western Romanicism than to actual Buddhism. "Is the real reason for Nanavira's unattractiveness the challenge he presents to the assumptions on which the stereotype is based? Or, alternatively, is the stereotype valid and Nanavira deluded and misguided?"
Nanavira, in his writings and letters, is unusually frank about himself. On the one hand he was clearly a courageous, free-thinking, scholar and practitioner of meditation who was willing to risk his all in the pursuit of truth. On the other hand, he was anit-social and "a right-wing misogynist with uncontrollable lusts and a penchant for suicide", though this seems not entirely correct as, as far as I can glean, he did control his lusts, at least as far as gross behaviour is concerned.
I find the portrayal tantalizing since it does show a life outside of the stereotype which, in itself, is refreshing. Literature about Buddhism (and other forms of spirituality) in the West has become boringly conformist to the only image that seems to sell reasonable numbers of books which is exactly as Batchelor describes and is, furthermore, attached to a raft of doctrines such as oneness, non-duality, original enlightenment, buddha nature, interdependent co-arising, here-and-nowness, choicelessness and so on that are presented in dogmatic form as the views of Shakyamuni who would probably have some difficulty recognising most of them. On the other hand, I don't agree with Nanavira's extinctionist interpretation of Buddhism either, though I recognise that it is one way that many of the texts can be read. Perhaps in the last analysis we cannot know whether Nanavira was right or not. We would need to ask Shakyamuni himself.
Buddhism as I teach it is life-affirming. I understand it as liberationist within this life and within any conceivable life. I believe in nirvana here and now, but not in here-and-nowness in the sense that it is often presented. Much of Buddhism is, after all, about what happens over the passage of time. In this sense I am closer to the sarvastivada position - past and future matter just as much as the present, especially if one is to make ethical decisions, which means that I also think Buddhism is not about choicelessness, but is often directly a guide to how choices be made. The matter of choice means that all is not actually dependent upon all - interdependence is only a special case. Things arise in dependence upon other things and the otherness is important. All this means, of course, that I understand the Buddha Dharma as having strong relevence to how this world works and how one should conduct oneself in it rather than being a recipe for escape from it.
In my view, Nanavira was a classic English eccentric who managed to persuade himself of his own special status. I think that he completely missed the point of Buddhism, but I could be wrong and he could be right. If he is right then what I practise is not Buddhism. Whether this is so or not, I shall continue to call what I do Buddhism and to draw from the texts in my own way, just as he did in his. Where Nanavira felt that he had escaped from both rationalism and romanticism, I perhaps could be said to embrace both, without feeling that either is the ultimate philosophy of life. Humans have both a rational capacity and a romantic one - thanks be for both! Let's liberate them, not extinguish them. At the same time, let us also attend to the Buddha's central message, which I take to be that a noble life is possible here in this very fathom long body and, indeed, in any other realm in which one may find oneself wandering. I agree with Nanavira about nobility, rigour, and commitment and I would have enjoyed meeting him. We would have found much to disagree about but I like to think it would have been an honest encounter.