In memoriam Jan de Breet

1 March 2022

Jan de Breet, 62 years old, passed away 24th November 2021. He devoted dozens of years to the translation of the Pali-Canon, working together with his partner Rob Janssen(1931-2019). Jacques den Boer wrote the below obituary

Jan de Breet
Jan de Breet

Jan de Breet was an extremely learned man, and at the same time an extremely modest one. For more than 25 years he was also a board member of the Friends of Buddhism Foundation(Vrienden van het Boeddhisme, VvB). At the end of 2020 he had to resign for health reasons. He continued his translation work on the last part of the Sutta Pitaka, the 19e part, with the help of Yvon Mattaar, who succeeded Rob as his co-translator, and found a very good teacher in Jan.

Jan de Breet

After the gymnasium B examination, Jan started studying biology and later switched to history at Nijmegen University, where he also came into contact with Buddhism. There he met Professor Victor Westhoff, professor of botany, former chairman of the Dutch Buddhist Centre (later the Friends of Buddhism Foundation) and board member of Tidorp, a Buddhist commune on Schouwen-Duiveland, where Jan lived during 1983-’84.

Jan had decided to become a Buddhist after a lecture held in Nijmegen by the Jesuit and Zen Buddhist Prof. Dr. Enomiya Lasalle, of German origin and living in Japan. At that meeting he also met Rob Janssen, as Jan later told us, with whom he would live and work together the rest of his life.

Rob Janssen had already started studying Sanskrit and Pali in Leiden in 1974, after travelling to pilgrimage sites of Buddhism in India, in addition to his professorship in clinical psychology and personality studies at the Free University (VU)in Amsterdam. He had also become a member of Arya Maitreya Mandala, a Tibetan Buddhist order founded by the German-born monk Anagarika Govinda.

‘In March 1984 I travelled from Tidorp to a village near Überlingen at the Bodenlake in Germany to attend a ‘Klausur’ for candidates for ordination membership of the Arya Maitreya Mandala (AMM). Afterwards I decided not to return to Tidorp,’ Jan wrote in a retrospective on that crucial period in his younger years.

Later that year, he began studying indology at Leiden University. In July 1989, he graduated with an impressive thesis on ‘Skill in Means in the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita, the Perfection of Insight in Eight Thousand Lines’, with a translation from Sanskrit and Chinese, together 173 pages.

Meanwhile, in 1988, he had become treasurer of the Friends of Buddhism, of which Prof. Dr. Rob Janssen had been chairman for several years.

Jan became a Pali lecturer and research associate at the Institute for Non-Western Studies at Leiden University in 1990. In 1992 and 1994 he published some scientific articles, but in 1995 he took an intermediate step. He switched to translating books on Buddhism from German and English for the young publishing house Asoka. It was short-lived.

Two years later the great work began. The idea came from their professor of Buddhology, Prof. Dr. Tilmann Vetter: Jan started working together with Rob Janssen (now retired as professor) on the translation of the enormous Pali Canon, the teachings of the Buddha, as written down in Sri Lanka from oral tradition in the ancient Indian language Pali. In 2001 their first volume appeared, the Digha-Nikaya, The Long Discourses, 872 pages, with a general introduction of 45 pages, a true monk’s work, which they continued together until Rob Janssen’s death.

Subsequent volumes have continued to appear with clock-like regularity. A highlight in the course of the years was the honour of knighthood received by them in April 2013 in the order of Oranje-Nassau, with the honorific words: ‘Through their dedicated translation work they have made a considerable contribution to the acceptation of Buddhism in the Netherlands’.

In between, they faithfully contributed to the activities of the Friends of Buddhism Foundation. Rob was chairman for many years, Jan treasurer from 2003 to 2017 and also secretary from 2009 to 2013. Moreover, they were active in the Buddhist Union Netherlands and in 2018 they were both appointed honorary members.

The only break they allowed themselves was their summer travels through Europe, but usually combined with visits to members of the Arya Maitreya Mandala.

The life’s work of Jan de Breet and Rob Janssen is continued by Yvon Mattaar with the support of the Friends of Buddhism Foundation with guidance from Prof. Richard Gombrich, among others.