Werner has described his childhood in the small town in south Moravia as idyllic. His father was a ‘master-baker’ and ran a small confectionery shop, and his mother was originally a qualified cook. The idyll ended when in 1933 their house was sold in an auction as a result of arrears in mortgage repayments during the great depression.
The family then moved to Znojmo, a district town, not far from the Austrian borders. Here Werner started his secondary education in the local grammar school (called reálné gymnasium) which was interrupted by the incorporation of Znojmo into the ‘Sudetenland’ after the Munich ‘agreement’ in 1938. He continued his studies in Brno, but could not undergo final, so-called ‘maturity’, examinations, because of restrictions imposed by the German occupation authorities in the closing years of the war. He passed them after the war in the liberated Czechoslovakia in autumn 1945 and enrolled in the Philosophical Faculty of the Masaryk University in Brno, reading philosophy and history and studying Sanskrit and classical Chinese from textbooks. He was earmarked for the post of assistant in the Philosophy Department headed by Professor J. L. Fischer who, upon being appointed Rector of Palacký University in Olomouc, asked him to follow him.
Here he was given the opportunity to study classical Chinese under Professor Jaroslav Průšek and to perfect his Sanskrit under Professor Vincenc Lesný, who accepted him as his assistant when, after the communist putsch of February 1948, Marxist philosophy became dominant and Werner could not hope to pursue the career in comparative philosophy which J. L. Fischer had originally foreseen for him. He gained his PhD, having defended his thesis on a semantological analysis of primitive languages and passed the rigorous examinations in philosophy and Indian philology in May 1949. He also took state examinations in philosophy and history as a qualification entitling him to teach in gymnasiums.
In autumn 1950 Werner was entrusted with lectures on the comparative grammar of Sanskrit and on the History of India and published his first academic paper abroad. He was also asked to give a course in the history of ancient Middle East, but was criticised for failing to apply to it the Marxist method of historical and dialectical materialism. He was also investigated by the Secret police for his contacts with foreign visitors. In autumn 1951 Oriental Studies in Olomouc were closed down. Prof. Lesný’s request for Werner’s transfer to Charles University in Prague was turned down for political reasons and he was dismissed at a fortnight’s notice. His own application for a teaching post in a gymnasium was turned down for the same reasons.
In the chaos created by the communist government during the wholesale nationalisation of industry and commerce Werner found a job in an enterprise newly created for building roads and railways. One of his tasks was to produce detailed descriptions of work done by technical staff, which placed him in the category of technical (rather than administrative) clerks and this became the designation of his occupation entered in his identity card. When a year later he had to begin his two-year military service, he was given only the most basic training and became, as a ‘technician’, the assistant of the regimental caretaker-cum-quartermaster (1952–54). (After the purge of ‘bourgeois’ officers, the newly commissioned substitutes of working-class origin needed, owing to their lack of competence, the unofficial but tolerated help of educated soldiers who for political reasons were not deemed fit for officer training. After his military service, Werner did not get his previous job back, but was transferred, in a similar capacity, to the headquarters of the nationalised enterprise overseeing restaurants and canteens. A year later (1955) he lost even this job to a communist party member and after a short training period worked as a restaurant manager (1956–60).
Time permitting, Werner continued his studies and published articles on indological topics in England, West Germany, India and Sri Lanka. It was a time of court proceedings against suspected anticommunist dissidents who were often sentenced on trumped-up charges. Werner’s foreign contacts led to his being investigated by the secret police on suspicion of belonging to a spy ring, passing messages abroad under the pretence of academic articles. No evidence was found and Werner withstood intimidating pressure to confess. No charges were brought against him., but he was sent to work in a coal mine for one year and thereafter was allowed to work only in manual jobs – in gasworks (1961–64), as a plumber (1964) and as a tram driver (1964–67).
The investigation by the secret police had a side effect. The restaurant Werner was in charge of was being transferred in his absence to a new manager. A substantial deficit was figured out in its accounts and Werner was accused of stealing state property. Before the court proceedings he was allowed to check the accounts and found faults in them. Their correction reduced the assumed deficit to an insignificant sum due probably to a still undiscovered fault. Nevertheless, the judge, one of those newly appointed from working-class cadres after six week training, who did not even allowed Werner to speak during the court ‘hearing’, found him guilty. However, the appeal judge, still from the old fully qualified ranks, acquitted him.
After the loss of his academic position Werner came to appreciate some practical aspects of Indian teachings. He mastered the basic set of hatha yoga positions and procedures, adopted the practice of Buddhist meditation and headed a clandestine group of like-minded practitioners. He further entered into correspondence with foreign organisations and personalities, among them with the Buddhist Society in London, the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka, and its editor Nyanaponika Thera, The Yoga Institute in Santa Cruz, Bombay and Lonavla, the Buddhistisches Seminar für Seinskunde, founded and conducted by Paul Debes from his isolated retreat in Lüneburger Heide near Hamburg, the Yoga Institute in Fulda, West Germany, founded by Dr Otto Albert Isbert, Mrs C. Walinski-Heller in Nürnberg, who had been in 1959 the Mother of Svami Shivanada’s ashram in Rishikesh, and the Order Ārya Maitreya Mandala (AMM) founded in India by Lama Anagarika Govinda and headed in West Germany by Dr. Karl-Heinz Gottmann. He made some written contributions to the publication activities of these organisations. At home he started contributing to the flourishing clandestine publication activities geared to spiritual practices by translating Buddhist texts and books. These circulated in typescript copies.
When he discovered that members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences working in its Moscow headquarters were practicing hatha yoga positions as their obligatory morning exercises (introduced by a member who had learned them while doing some research in India), he used it to persuade a newspaper to publish his first illustrated article on hatha yoga. As a result, he was invited to give several lectures with demonstrations in Bratislava, Slovakia, with a television program (1963), and a year later he was allowed to repeat the lectures in Brno and several other towns in Moravia, Bohemia and Slovakia. The social club of the biggest factory in Brno then invited him to conduct courses in hatha yoga and enabled him to found The Yoga Club (1964) in which he was able to introduce cautiously some spiritual elements, such as meditation, under the heading of relaxation. This club continued to function under instructors trained by Werner even after his emigration in the wake of the Soviet invasion (1968) and still exists, now on an independent basis.
In 1966 a meeting for discussions was arranged for him in Halle (East Germany) with a pupil of Paul Debes from West Germany and here Werner also met Professor Heinz Mode, an expert on Buddhist sculpture of Sri Lanka and India, who knew of his activities. The same year he visited Budapest at the invitation of Dr Hetényi who headed the Hungarian branch of AMM and the so-called Institute of Buddhist Philosophy. He was also shown the healing methods in the internationally known Institute for physically and mentally handicapped children, founded and headed by Dr Petö who was achieving great results by special methods inspired by yoga and Daoist slow motion exercises in combination with the recitation of Tibetan mantras.
Therapeutical effects of the hatha yoga practice were also demonstrated in Werner’s courses. A case in point was a member of the orchestra of the Brno opera who suffered from a serious psychosomatic condition which was causing him great embarrassment during long operatic acts. No medical, psychiatric or psychotherapeutical treatment he had undergone had cured him. In the end he was told by the chief district psychiatrist: “Go to that crazy Werner, maybe he will help you with his yoga.” His full recovery after only a few weeks had an unexpected effect. Werner was invited to lecture on ‘Oriental therapies’ in the yearly advanced training courses for psychiatrists and was appointed the editor of the Psychiatric Digest. His working place was the Psychiatric Institute in Kroměříž (1967–68), where he was engaged in a project researching the physiological processes during the practice of yoga and meditation and the possibilities of their therapeutic application. For that purpose he was personally subjected to the appropriate measurements of his bodily functions, which included the EEG of his brain activity, while assuming yogic positions and practising meditation. He was further training a team of doctors and nurses at the Institute in these activities.
Werner was over the years receiving invitations from institutions in the West that he was in touch with to take part in seminars and conferences, and therefore he kept applying, for several years unsuccessfully, for a passport. In 1967 he obtained one and the director of the Psychiatric Institute granted him six weeks’ leave for a ‘study trip’ in West Germany. During this time he participated in international conference of yoga teachers, an internal seminar of the AMM held in the ‘House of Stillness’ (Hause der Stille) in Roseburg and was granted honorary membership of the Order of AMM. In the forest retreat of Paul Debes in Lüneburger Heide he held discussions with him, his helpers and pupils. He also visited Mrs Walinski-Heller, who outlined a plan to open a clinic for yoga therapy in Nürnberg in collaboration with the Kroměříž Institute, Werner acting as a go-between. (The plan was subsequently enthusiastically welcomed by the director in Kroměříž.) On the way back Werner was a guest of Professor Heinz Mode in Halle, spent some time in Leipzig where in the Indological Department of the University he met Dr Heinz Kucharski, who briefed him on the activities of their secret Yoga Association, and took part in reading Chinese Buddhist texts in the Sinological Department. In East Berlin he visited Professor J. H. Schultz, known as the author of ‘autogenic training’, a psychotherapeutic procedure inspired by the hathayoga method of relaxation.
In January 1968 came the so-called ‘Prague Spring’ with Alexander Dubček, the new leader of the communist party, who initiated liberal reforms. Werner made an application to the Ministry of Education for his reinstatement into his academic appointment, but the reply was negative. Not even under ‘communism with a human face’, which is how Dubček described the system he aimed to introduce, was a non-party member allowed to teach humanities. Using the freer atmosphere in other ways, Werner brought his Yoga Club into the open and conducted his hatha yoga course in premises lent to the club by the Educational Department of Brno municipality. On 8 May he founded, with the assistance of Viennese Buddhists, the ‘Buddhist Circle of Czechoslovakia’. However, the Soviet invasion of the country on 21 August 1968 put a stop to these activities. It also prevented Werner’s planned departure for England by air, to fulfill an invitation from the Buddhist Society in London to lecture at their Summer School that month. Taking advantage of the chaotic situation in towns which was tying down the invading army, while the borders remained manned by Czech guards, Werner crossed over to Bavaria two days after the invasion and arrived only a few days late in the Buddhist Summer School in England. He fulfilled his teaching assignment, but anticipating renewed oppression in his native country after the re-introduction of totalitarian government, which would inevitably lead to his further persecution, Werner decided to stay and settle in England.
Here he was first employed in the Cambridge University Library and was also appointed as a supervisor in Sanskrit for Churchill College. In 1969 he won the appointment as Spalding Lecturer in Indian Philosophy and Religion in the School of Oriental Studies in the University of Durham, where he newly introduced courses in Sanskrit and also conducted courses in yoga and Indian civilisation for the University’s Extramural Department as well as for the University of Leeds. He again taught in the Summer School of the Buddhist Society and also in teacher training courses of the British Wheel of Yoga. In 1975 he founded annual academic Symposia in Indian religions which he conducted for ten years and which still continue under elected committees. In 2010 he returned to conduct the 35th symposium held in Oxford in honour of his 85th birthday. the years 1975-1976 he was a guest professor in the Peradeniya University in Kandy, Sri Lanka, in Karnataka State University in Dharwar and in Benares Hindu University in Varanasi. He gave occasional guest lectures in the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, London, Lancaster, Manchester and Stirling. During his academic tenure Werner travelled extensively in Asian countries, including India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan.
Werner’s retirement in 1990 coincided with the collapse of communist regimes and he was able to become active in his native country. The Society for Science and Art (Svaz pro vědu a umění), with headquarters in the USA and membership recruited from Czech and Slovak refugee academics around the World could hold its biennial conference for the first time in Prague and he was invited to chair its section on religions. Subsequently, in the years 1991-1993, he was a corresponding member of the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences and in the years 1993-1998 he was professor in the Masaryk University of Brno, in the Institute for the Study of Religions, which he helped to found (replacing the abolished Institute of Atheistic Studies of the communist era). In the years 1991-1993 he was several times the guest lecturer for the Swan Hellenic travel agency on tours through India, Nepal, Cambodia and Vietnam. In 1999 he visited South Korea for the first time and in the years 2002-2007 he became a guest professor in the Institute of Buddhist Studies of the Dongkuk University in Seoul and Kyeongju. Since 1993 he has been an honorary professorial Research Associate in the Department of the Study of Religions, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society (FRAS) and of the Temenos Academy (FTA).
Werner had left his country legally after the Soviet invasion, on his still valid passport. Subsequently he was granted, through the Czechoslovak Embassy in London, a temporary permission to reside abroad. But his application for permanent permission was refused by the Ministry of Interior in Prague in December 1969 and he thus became an illegal emigrant. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he remarried at the end of 1970. In due course he acquired British citizenship. He lived with his wife in London.