If you’re in the mood for a charming—even beguiling—love story that deepens your understanding of Buddhism, then this is the book. The Pilgrim Kamanita is a drama that overlays longing and learning onto characters and teachings taken from traditional Buddhist texts.
The book begins with a youthful romantic encounter between a young traveling merchant, Kamanita, and a young woman, Vasitthi. Too soon, her family separates the couple; and the heart-broken Kamanita returns to his native city. There he eventually becomes established in a luxurious palace and takes two wives. But when his security is threatened by the notorious robber, Angulimala, Kamanita realizes that the loss of these earthly riches would be more a blessing than a tragedy. He abandons his wealthy lifestyle and sets off as a pilgrim in search of the renowned spiritual teacher, Gotama Buddha.
On his travels, Kamanita encounters a holy man and listens to his teachings, but he fails to recognize this man as the Buddha. Hearing nothing in the teachings of his imagined eternal bliss, Kamanita rejects them and dashes off recklessly to continue his pursuit. He is fatally gored by a cow. After death, he reappears in the heavenly paradise called Sukhavati, where his misguided search for the Buddha continues over billions more years.
At this point the novel takes on the dimensions of modern science fiction, as Kamanita embarks on extravagant journeys through both space and time. In Sukhavati, he is reunited with his love, Vasitthi. She describes how, through various twists and turns, she was introduced to the Buddha by the bandit Angulimala, now a monk, and became the Buddha’s disciple as well. Kamanita and Vasitthi’s otherworldly conversations include a simple dialogue of just a few sentences about the nature of the universe, conducted over several millions of years.
We then witness the slow decay of paradise itself and the fading of the brightness of the “Hundred-thousandfold Brahma,” a mysterious and transcendental being. Kamanita’s own pilgrimage ends in a twilight of the entire manifold universe, one clearly inspired by Schopenhauer and Wagner’s Goetterdaemmerung:
And while in immeasurable space, worlds upon worlds flashed and shouted as they pressed forward again into the new Brahma day, the Pilgrim Kamanita went out—out of the sphere of knowledge of gods and humans. Out, quite as the light of a lamp goes out when it has consumed the last drop of oil in its wick. Kamanita’s pilgrimage was complete.
The histories of both this novel and its distinguished editor reflect the globalization of Buddhism. The Pilgrim Kamanita was written in German by a Dane, Karl Gjellerup (who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature), and was first published in 1906. The book was translated into English in 1912, and sometime during the 1930s translated into Thai by two aristocratic Thai academics studying at Oxford. It was used for years as part of the Thai high school curriculum.
The book’s latest editor, Theravadin monk Ajahn Amaro, came across The Pilgrim Kamanita at Amaravati Monastery, in his native England. He was so enchanted by it that he read passages regularly to the monastery community, who found its teachings compelling and rewarding. With the encouragement and support of friends, Ajahn Amaro took on the ten-year task of reediting this novel to make its Edwardian English more accessible to modern readers. In his own words, he “divided each original sentence into three new ones.” Now coabbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in California, he has enhanced this edition with 100 pages of his invaluable commentaries, offering references from Buddhist and Hindu scriptures. Three major Buddhist discourses are also reprinted as appendices.
Ajahn Amaro’s new edition of The Pilgrim Kamanita is certain to satisfy Western readers—trained monastics and lay Buddhists alike. Throughout this book, we can see our own stories as expressed through Kamanita’s deepening preoccupations: his attachment as he is initially entranced by the power of the sensual world (“Night after night we came together there, and on each occasion Vasitthi and I discovered new treasures in our mutual affection and bore away with us an increased longing for our next meeting.”); and his painful realization of a higher awareness (“Was there ever a greater idiot than I?! What I have been longing for as the highest happiness, as fulfillment itself, that I have already been in possession of for billions of years.”).
This book overcomes the gap we usually experience between our spiritual practice and our humanistic culture. The captivating story delights as well as informs; there’s something in it for both romantics and scholars. Now almost a century old, The Pilgrim Kamanita remains unique.
To download a free copy of The Pilgrim Kamanita, visit https://www.amaravati.org/dhamma-books/the-pilgrim-kamanita/ or https://www.abhayagiri.org/books/417-the-pilgrim-kamanita