My memories of Asokananda, a teacher, a friend

Asokananda & Ermanno

Ermanno Visintainer

The premature death of Asoka has forced me to being reminiscent, to consider again for finding a new form to evoke, to represent, first of all inside myself, but consequently, I hope, for other people, an objective remembrance about the figure of Asokananda. Regarding to this subject, I have to specify that it wasn’t for me possible at soon, my mind was full of confused imagines and reminiscences. My discovery of an international leader of Thai-massage and a friend, the long years of regular meetings with him, the many courses as assistant beside him and finally the epilogue of this all: my experience in New Zealand as vice-manager of the massage school in Rotorua.

His loss has left me, like the most people who have met him, astonished and speechless; I couldn’t find or assemble, immediately the right thoughts and words to expressing a synthetic and exhaustive imagine of what he represented for me.

Who was Asoka? Of course an answer to such question can have prevalently an intrinsic and subjective value. I don’t claim to express an exhaustive judgment about him; I’m not the unique person who knew him. On the other hand Asoka has always been critical against the inclination to define a univocal truth, either regarding to massage or also more in general. He has ever been an assertor of a multiple point of view on the reality. Anyway I want to try now to describe a sketch of him.

 The people who were close to him have described thus: “more than our teacher, more than our friend…”. Undoubtedly Buddhism was the essence of his life. There was an amalgamation of two elements in his personality, whose the first one was of an essence substantiated by sidereal and extrasamsāric consciousness, or śūnyatā, the Buddhist noetical emptiness. The second aspect was the metta, the Buddhist compassion, which he always dwelled on, in other words, the affable part of him and of what he liked to define his activity: the Thai-massage.

The first occasion I met Asoka it was in 1994, during the initial class he had organized in Italy by the present manageress of what, in that time starting from only an undeveloped project, an embryonic idea, became afterwards the Italian Sunshine House branch of his Thailand ’s school.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard about him or about his curriculum of Thai-massage teacher, indeed some years before, I went to Thailand in order to studying Thai-massage by the Buntautuk Hospital of Chiang Mai, like many other foreigners and tourists on the search of discovering the Thai-massage’s secrets, that had begun to spread all around the world quite in these years.

I remember that I’d seen some newspaper’s article about him within the center in Chiang Mai , where the master Chongol, with whom I’d started this fascinating path towards Thai-massage, trained and who, offered us the Asoka’s book of the Thai-massage, which was the first publication on a western language.

After having practiced some years Thai-massage by myself I received the invitation to cooperate for organizing Asoka’s debut in Italy , at which I agreed enthusiastically.

This experience was for me, although it wasn’t the first time that I did a massage course, extremely interesting and stimulating but quite shocking at the same time. Since the first moment Asoka seemed me be a totally different kind of teacher in comparison of these I used meet before, the most part of them were quite arrogant just because having practiced some years of massage after a brief holyday in Japan or in other eastern countries, so were imposing you any kind of macrobiotic diet or else. He was really a remarkable man. His method of teaching was instead very free, simple and spontaneous. First of all he was a sort of teacher who didn’t impose you any kind of penitent and mortifying restrictions, neither dietetic nor fideistic, by entering in his school. By evoking in my mind his smiling and small glasses-bearing figure, I remember his fashion, his style of wearing dresses that was very original:  he wore always in a pure counterfeit silk Thai shirt, false Benetton pants, probably bought up in the night bazaars of Chiang Mai, plastic beach slippers at the feet even in winter, all of which he changed once any couple of days.

His intriguing and antinomist style of life, which, for many people he met, created somewhat attrite, was a kind of intentional provocation, of challenge towards the ordinariness.

 About himself, once, during a class he explained that he was “a professional tourist, a person who tried to pursue a nomadic style of life”, his purpose was to travel around the world by teaching Thai-massage and -I add- he could really demonstrate to having achieved it. Anyway, by thinking about it a posteriori, I suppose that this attitude was also his personal way to interpreting the Buddhist concept of non-ipseity, anātta and non-attachment, anupādāna, he had learnt by his stay in the Theravada monasteries. I think, he has tried to situate himself in a sort of adamantine condition shaped for avoiding to be touched by the conditionings of the samsāra life, personifying a synthesis between a sort of itinerant Buddhist monk, a master of "Doctrine of Awakening" and a manager, a cool calculating man, able of taking advantage from this globalized international scenery, in which we all are living.

I remember that Asoka was also a sort of two faced-Janus interlocutor able to relating with every kind of people even having antithetic interests.

Anyway in order to avoid adulations or fetishistic mythicizing about his figure, I want also to add that often there was somewhat of ineffable in his attitudes, which, I don’t know how to designate if not tantric.

His most ingeniousness has been surely to having created a worldwide Thai-massage network, by combining a perfect mix of traditional wisdom and modern technology, permitting to all his associates to gain a virtual benefit too, which is still running now despite his passing away.

Sabbe sankhārā aniccā

All the conditioned things are impermanent

Sabbe sankhārā dukkhā

All conditioned things are unsatisfactory

Sabbe sankhārā anattā

All conditioned things are not self

As he was using always recite during his morning sermons.

Turning again about this first course, I remember, he went with Carla Possanzini, who is his first Italian pupil and the first Italian senior assistant; she is the authoress of his Italian publication of the book for the Edizioni Mediterranee too.  During the course I had also the opportunity to meet, the first time, these who have become his most notorious present successors: Andrea Baglioni and Laurino Bertelli, author of the book “Latrino's tantric constipation dance”, published by Asokananda.  

Of course the most difficult part of the lessons was pertaining the early waking up for the chanting and meditation. Not for the meditation in itself but properly for the shock of the lacking sleep. The chanting of the Buddhist profession of faith: Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammā Sambuddhasa and the Dependent Origination: the Paticcasamuppāda, was for me especially charming. I remember that, properly like a genuine mantra should operate; it remained echoing in my mind even for long time after the course.  

About yoga I remember that at first I didn’t like it, because in comparison with my previous long years of martial arts and tai chi practice, it seemed me coarse and superficial, nevertheless, especially during the first days it had been so effective that my whole body became painful: the liver, the legs, the back, evidently I was going through a great alchemistic process of physical and spiritual purification, thus I realized that these three elements operated in a very powerful syntropic manner.   

Therefore, this class had been for me a sort of refinement on various levels, or rather on the whole five košas, in fact although, as I said, I did already practice Thai style of massage since a couple of years, I realized that, until that moment, my head was still full of rationalist-Aristotelian -as Asoka was using to say- conceptions, loaned prevalently from my previous massage formation.

The entire course was characterized, like in the East it should be on the other hand, from a teaching approach based purely on the practice, without great philosophical speculations or Pindaric flights about vacuous theories.

Asoka, on the contrary of most local Italian colleagues, teaching oriental styles of massage with western analytic approach, spoke us frequently about this “different” aspect. He was a persuaded confuter of the western Christian and Aristotelian theory about the existence of a unique approach to the truth. In other words he was an assertor of a different epistemological point of view, according to which, likewise to the Buddhist madhyamaka method, the understanding doesn’t spring from a logic-speculative process but from the aptitude to deconceptualize the mind and to disburden it of all notions, in other words, by anubhāva or etymologically becoming the meditated thing, i.e. the direct experience, homorganic of what otherwise is the object of the thought separated from the subject.

“The East does not consider the truth as unique and absolute but it contemplates various possibilities. There not exist immutable or absolute concepts. Each situation in the East is fluid and changeable. The Thai masseur, and in general in the East, don’t practice diagnosis or therapy. The western way of thinking is dogmatic, pragmatic and rationalist. In the East all is variable… it depends… (from the Barcesino’s notes)”, explained us, by emphasizing these last words.

Evidently by using it he would refer to the Hindu and Far-Eastern concept of truth and sin, in which, indeed, the actions aren’t distinguished according to its intrinsic value, but according to the opportunity connected with cosmic or spiritual reactions, they don’t distinguish the moral from the immoral, but the advantageous from the injurious.

Asoka, later, explained us that Thai-massage wasn’t to consider inferior to other style of eastern massage just because of its lack of a complex or seductive philosophical theory, but rather, like a very complete form of massage easier and alternative of these. 

“It runs like a substitute and unconventional way on a road map”, he said, by using his simple words, in the advanced courses, by clearing up about the energy lines. 

I remember that at the end of the course by meeting Asoka, mindful of my shiatsu background, I said him: “you like me, your style of teaching is brilliant and I think you are the Matsunaga of Thai-massage”, in the sense of a reformer, someone who has reinterpreted its principles.  Anyway, with hindsight, now I believe that he has been even greater.

If I, today, should find a term, a locution to define the peculiarity of the massage which Asoka has transmitted us, I would be use definitions borrowed from the ethnoliguistic science, therefore, in my opinion, his approach to the massage was a polysynthetic and ergative one, in contrast with the most analytic-inflected and reifying typology of pseudo-eastern origin based only on a logical-discursive methodology, spread here in Europe. By using the term “polysynthetic”, I want suggest an allusion to something of archetypal, like this function of the paleoasiatic languages, in which a single word synthesizes the meaning of a entire normal analytic phrase, so I recognize in the massage that Asoka transmitted us the most pure surviving form of an ancestral paleoasiatic tradition of massage which subtends all the present oriental styles. With the term ergative instead I mean the homorganic connection between masseur and patient.  

  Asoka, namely, by speaking about, although he was not favourable to mixing the different typologies of massage, has been very receptive towards various styles. Since many years, for example, he included the Keralite-massage of the master Prabhat in his school, pointing out the common origin and the analogies with the Thai-massage and I know he was interested for others too.

I would like to add a last short note about his absorption in the Buddhist religion and about his function of pioneer in the West for the spreading of Thai-massage. May be many people are not informed that although Asoka was a German, he was also of Hungarian origin. I still remember the occasion in which we discussed, he specified it in his book “The yoga of Mindfulness”.  I think that properly these peculiar aspects of his figure can be compared with that of an illustrious Hungarian predecessor and traveler of the East, who was the author of the first Tibetan dictionary: the most famous of Hungarians, the orientalist Alexander Csoma Kőrösi (born in 1784 in Transylvania, died in 1842, in Darjeeling, India) whose tomb at the feet of Himalayas is a place of pilgrimage, and the Dalai Lama pronounced him a saint during a visit to Hungary. Thus, I think that we can identify in both these personalities: of Asoka, whose tomb is in Thailand , and of Csoma Kőrösi , a sort of parallelism. Both have been exegetes of an absolute Orient, an archetypal Orient-origin dwelling physically in the exterior world but situated above all in the interiority, outside of the cartographic dimensions and attainable just by means of a noetical and meditative apperception. I remember that in Sanskrit the terms pūrva and pūrvaja meaning Orient and ancestor derive from the some root. Both could enlarge theirs spiritual horizons by penetrating and by recognizing themselves in the essence of a doctrine in which they weren’t born: the Buddhism. Both have bequeathed us a paradigm of life from which we, in this international scenery obscured by the so-called civilization's fight, can draw our inspiration.    


ritorna ai pizzichi…