Tracing an Estonian Buddhist in Burma: Reverend Friedrich Lustig (1912-1989) by Karin Dean
In Thailand , before my first trip to Burma in year 2000, a well-known Swedish journalist who lives in Thailand told me:
- “If you go to Shwedagon 1 and ask anybody about Friedrich Lustig , they will know him.He is the most well-known Estonian in Burma , and most likely in the whole of Southeast Asia .”
When I was in Northern Burma , thousands of kilometers away from Shwedagon, the first Burmese who I inquired about Friedrich Lustig – he was a Catholic priest Father Victor – said: "Yeah, Lustig … I often met him in Rangoon ! His Burmese name is Ashin Ananda. ”
This is how I learned about Friedrich Lustig and his Burmese name, Ashin Ananda.
Thus we can say that Friedrich Lustig has left definite traces in Southeast Asia and of course in Burma . His life definitely was not that of a quiet meditating monk.
There are a lot of questions, mysteries and controversies to be explored – that are of relevance to Estonian (and Burmese !) culture, to world history and geopolitics, and to the history of Buddhism (of Estonia ).
The purpose of my presentation is to raise these issues.
I will give just a few basic facts about Lustig’s life trajectory that are well researched, and spend most of the time on the issues that need to be studied further.
Namely, in 2004 in Burma I could trace down two of Lustig’s disciples and other people who knew him, and was shown Lustig’s belongings.
There are important new materials to be studied further. I will come back to this later.
Background: Estonia-France-Southeast Asia
- Friedrich Lustig was an Estonian , born in Narva , Estonia, in 1912.
- At an early age he was interested in Buddhism but his biggest influence was an encounter with Karlis Tennisons, whose disciple he became and remained until the end of his life. Lustig was ordained as a Buddhist monk ( Bhikṣu ) at the age of 18 in a Buddhist temple Imanta in Riga.
- Tennisons and Lustig made their way from Riga to Paris , where Lustig studied Sanskrit , Tibetan and Chinese .
- Tennisons and Lustig then sailed on a French liner Desirade to Singapore and continued to Thailand .
- Thailand : 1931-1949 (travels in China 1935-36):
In Thailand : 18 years (1931-1949)
Retrospectively, Lustig i n his Brief Sketch of My Life writes that they were treated extremely well in Thailand
- Lustig taught languages in Bangkok , he is known to have taught French to the Burmese diplomats.
- Lustig and Tennisons accumulated a collection of books, documents and manuscripts, coins, postal marks and other valuable items – which indicates that they did not only engage in alms collection.
- Lustig expressed openly his political views:
The following are some basic facts about Lustig’s activities in Thailand , in comparison to the political background of the time:
In 1939 he criticized the then Thai military government for changing the country’s name from Siam to Thailand that he regarded as diminishing the kingdom’s Buddhist cultural heritage.2
- Country background: Together with the name change the then Prime Minister Pibul Songgram (1938-1944) had built a leadership cult and promoted his version of nationalism where Thais had to become modern in the western sense. Initially pro-Japanese , he then distanced from Japan into collaboration but was pressured by
Nov 6, 1941, Lustig bought the red Soviet flag – that was the time when Thailand Japanese invasion.
The next day he hoisted the flag on his roof.
They also reportedly interacted with Russians (and with the Soviet Japan ). was being threatened by Ambassador in
- Country background: A month later Japan invaded Thailand (Dec 8 1941); Dec 12 Thailand signed a military alliance with Japan; Jan 25, 1942 Thailand declared war on the Allied powers.
Lustig told a German journalist in Rangoon 1987 that they had written in the Bangkok Post an article called "Six Hours Before Pearl Harbor, " accusing the Thai government of knowing about the Japanese attack on the U.S. six hours prior to the event.3
- Country background: The Bangkok Post started printing in August 1946. It would thus be interesting to get hold of the article.
- Pibul Songgram who had been forced to resign at the end of the war came to power through a coup in April 8, 1948
Lustig: they were escorted to the Thai-Burmese border by thirty Thai soldiers. Lustig: “That was on September 7th, 1949. We crossed over into Shan territory where we stayed for four months, because Rangoon was surrounded by insurgents at the time.”
Lustig and Tennisons were expulsed from Thailand – which is an extraordinary Thai practice. A widely believed version is that the Thai government suspected them of being the Soviet spies.
There are some questions to be answered: why did they communicate with Russians, why the Soviet flag? [personal interests to obtain passports/visas (?)]
Why did Thailand send them to the Burma border – it has traditionally not been the Thai practice to expel people to a neighboring country.
(Certainly since the late 1950s, the Thai authorities have kept ‘stateless’ people at the immigration jail.
Some Chinese and Vietnamese were in there for 30 years or more, and one or two White Russians were still around in the early 1960s.) Did monk robes save them?
What were the reasons for their expulsion? Were these political, geopolitical or Thailand’s internal affairs?
Lustig and Tennisons both contributed articles in the Bangkok Post newspaper, expressing their political views that did not go along well with the then Thailand’s military government and who was siding with fascist Japan .
I suggest that the reasons involved Thailand’s internal affairs. The following supports this argument:
- confrontation against the Thai military government / the PM cult policies
- Lustig was a staunch anti-communist (as expressed by Lustig’s disciple in Burma )
- Desire to leave Thailand ?
In Burma : 40 years (1949-1989)
The following insights and details about Friedrich Lustig’s stay in Burma is mostly based on my personal notes and memory from my encounters/communication with the following individuals:
Two of Lustig’s many Burmese disciples:
U Dha Ma – now the abbot of the monastery at Shwedagon where Lustig lived for about 40 years (met in Rangoon , January 2004)
U Aung Khin – the closest person to Lustig , his disciple who Lustig called his ‘son’ (met in Rangoon, January 2004; April 2005; September 2005)
U Ye Htoon – a Burmese lawyer and businessman whose father helped Lustig throughout his life in Rangoon (e-mail communication; met in Rangoon , April 2005)
Peter Janssen – a German journalist working for Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa), living in Bangkok who interviewed Lustig at length in 1987 for a story in Bangkok Post (met in Bangkok , several times 2004-2005).
Lustig’s diaries: 1941-1946; 1954-1983 (with a few years missing incl. 1964 the year that the military came to power in Burma )
Tennisons and Lustig entered Burma from Shan State and it took them six months to make their way to the capital Rangoon – where the then Prime Minister U Nu granted them political asylum.
For Burmese, they looked strange – not only for their European origin – but for their long beards while wearing Burmese monk robes as Mahayana Buddhists. (The Burmese are devout Theravada Buddhists.)
U Ye Htoon: “People were curious and not at all happy of seeing the bearded persons wearing our monks’ robes. Sometimes stones were throne at them.
They also did not get along with people living around the area. Reception by those around them was not pleasant…
Furthermore, they exacerbated their bad relationship with their neighbors by harboring many stray dogs, feeding them with their leftover food.
I remember seeing about 50 dogs at their abode, living in and around their room…My father requested them to shave off their long beards. But, the elder mentor refused.”
Garnering the sympathy and support of the Burmese powerful and intellectual elites helped them hugely to make home in Burma and slowly gain respect and even VIP status in Rangoon.
They were living in the most revered places in Burma – at Shwedagon Pagoda .
His initial guarantor was U Chan Htoon, the Attorney General and a very powerful and influential person in the government – who offered Tennisons and Lustig food every day and other necessities for their existence and also arranged with a few government officials living nearby to offer them alms.
His son of who U Ye Htoon has said the following (in e-mail communication):
“My father took sympathy on them and sponsored them by giving them abode at the underground of a large building (Zayat) located at the first level at the western entrance of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda …
Every day, from the time they arrived in Burma , Rev Lustig walked to our home in the morning for alms for both of them…
Rev Lustig was a great piano player. We often listened to his playing of Mozart, Schubert, Tchaikovsky and other classical music.
I remembered a day he brought a man with a huge drum.
He played Tchaikovsky's 1812 and at his signal the man beat the drum, with all his force, to mimic the sounds of canons fired in the battlefield.
It was a great performance, which I would not forget for the rest of my life.
It was a strange scene to see a Buddhist monk playing a piano with great passion.
My father was so enthused that he asked the Reverent to give piano lessons to me and my sister Esme. So, he gave us piano lessons, when he came to our home for alms…”
Tennisons and Lustig represented Latvia and Estonia , respectively, at the Third World Fellowship of Buddhists' Conference in Rangoon in 1954; and in 1956 at Kathmandu Fourth conference, where they received by the Nepalese queen who also gave them a White Tara statue.
This statue I held in my hands in January 2004 at a small community shrine that is attended by Lustig’s disciple U Aung Khin at the outskirts of Rangoon.
Changes in Lustig’s life after Tennisons’s death in 1962:
- Lustig inherited Tennisons’s religious title of the Archbishop for Latvia
- he changed his name to Ashin Ananda
- he shove off his beard
- he became slowly accepted by the Buddhist clergy (U Ye Htoon: “He was now thoroughly assimilated and was able to move around without much getting attention.”he gave up playing piano
- he was teaching English to some people.
- he got a few disciples and friends: in 1962 U Dha Ma and in ~ 1963/4 U Aung Khin, a novice in the monastery who later became a history student at Rangoon University who Lustig gave money for his studies for a whole year.
In 1971-1981 Aung Khin was running a private English language school in Rangoon downtown where Lustig was teachin two hours every day form Monday to Friday (Interview with Aung Khin, Rangoon , January 2004)
In 1964 the military regime under General Ne Win took power in Burma, and foreigners were forced to leave. Friedrich Lustig got a permission to stay because of this peculiar situation.
Furthermore, with an underground Communist Party of Burma fighting for power while the Communist threat from China always loomed over Burma , General Ne Win appreciated Friedrich Lustig’s anti-communist stance and literary talent – and requested him to write articles denouncing communists in The Working People's Daily and The Guardian. This Lustig did happily for ten years.
This earned Lustig a military pass allowing travel anywhere in the country, including in such off-limits areas as the Naga Hills. “I am not sorry for what I did.
I wrote everything with a clear conscience,” commented Lustig later to a foreign journalist. He also traveled together with his friend and disciple U Aung Khin.
U Aung Khin: Ashin Ananda loved Mandalay and Bagan. He loved pagodas and we have so many pagodas in Burma .
He wrote a poem about every place, where he described his feelings. He was an artist – like a painter. He painted Burma with words.
He describes Burma , Buddhism , the Burmese in his poems. We are very thankful to him. But his poems did not sell very well …
In Rangoon , he was busy with receiving guests and attending ceremonies, including a lot of diplomatic ones.
The German Ambassador was one of his most frequent visitors and who became a Buddhist owing to Friedrich Lustig (according to U Dha Ma, Rangoon , January 2004).
Also diplomats from the embassies of Thailand , Sri Lanka , Nepal , Germany , Soviet Union , often came as guests (ibid.). Lustig often attended embassy events (the German and Israeli embassies have been pointed out to me by U Aung Khin, Rangoon , January 2004).
In addition, Friedrich Lustig had transformed a lot of Burmese classical music such as Yodayar, Bawle, Patpyo (the Mahagitta Baungyoke) into international music notes, which were published by the government in 1952 under the title “Classical Burmese Music. ”
Lustig’s Poetry Books
Burmese Classical Poems Translated by Friedrich Lustig (1967), Rangoon.
- Includes Acknowledgement by Margaret M. Kardell, foreword by Lustig and a botanical glossary
Burmese Poems Through the Ages: a Selection Translated by Friedrich Lustig (1969), Rangoon.
- This includes a Foreword by Lustig commenting and explaining some features of Burmese classical poems; includes a botanical glossary, 2 copies
Fluttering Leaves, Friedrich Lustig (1970), Rangoon.
- Includes an introduction to Lustig’s life, expressing his love for Burma ; includes a message of thanks from Dr. Nguyen Luu Vien, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Vietnam in his letter to Ananda in 1967 from Saigon.
Winking Candles and Blazing Trails, Friedrich Lustig (1972), Rangoon
Fifty Selected Poems, Ashin Ananda (1986), Rangoon.
- This is a collection of Lustig’s English language poems that includes ‘A Brief Sketch of My Life’ – that starts with a sentence: “I was born in Narva, Estonia, on April 26, 1912.”
Review by Anna J. Allott of “Burmese Classical Poems by Friedrich V. Lustig ” in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 89, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1969)
U Aung Khin, the person who knew him the best:
“Lustig loved to play chess. But every time he lost he got angry but not for long.
We had lots of fierce arguments. He criticized communism . I was teasing him that then he is an imperialist – and this lead to a big argument between us. But we never fought for a long.
Lustig was very natural. Very open. Very direct and outspoken…He said everything directly. For example, at the hospital before his death, people came to visit him and brought apples and other fruit.
Lustig said: Why do you bring me apples now? Before you never brought me apples. Take them away! Burmese monks do not speak like this.
He loved me like his son. I wanted to go study abroad. He did not allow me. He asked who was going to cremate him.”
The cremation ceremony was attended by 77 monks and 57 nuns because Friedrich Lustig was 77 years old and had been a monk for 57 years of his life, according to U Aung Khin.
I would like to highlight the following:
- Friedrich Lustig was the ‘most well-known Estonian in Southeast Asia ,’ a prominent figure
- there is a lot to be still learned about some of the controversial moments concerning Friedrich Lustig’s life
- the closest person to Lustig – with who he spent a considerable amount of his time – U Aung Khin, is still alive, although his health is getting worse.
- Lustig’s books and personal belongings (U Aung Khin has saved these from the monks at the monastery who have wanted to vacate the space taken by these in the monastery. U Aung Khin has tried to protect Lustig’s books and documents at his house at the outskirts of Rangoon in poor conditions. In 2005, when we discovered Lustig’s diaries from 1941-1989, these and some other valuable documents were brought to Estonia by the Estonian film group.)
- Lustig’s ashes?
For any Burmese, the stay by Friedrich Lustig and his guru Karlis Tennison in Burma since 1949 until their natural deaths of high age, is intriguing.
While millions of people have left – escaped – Burma as economic, political and war refugees, Tennisons and Lustig , on the contrary, came to Burma , sought, and were granted political asylum. They truly had to have a serious reason.