Western Buddhism’s Hidden History I


The establishment of a previously alien
religion in a new environment is bound to be one of fits and starts, successes
and dead ends, and so it has been with Buddhism in the West. Until fairly
recently the beginnings of Western Buddhism 
was thought to be fairly clear and well-known, but recent research  has  shed
new and unexpected light on this phenomena.

seems certain now that the first Westerner to ordain as a monk, remain so for an
extended period,  and have at least some
influence, was Bhikkhu Dhammaloka. His
early life and given name
are uncertain. He reportedly gave at least three names for himself at different
times; Laurence Carroll, Laurence O’Rourke and William Colvin.  He was born in Dublin in the 1850s, emigrated
to the United States, and worked his way across the US as a migrant  labourer  before finding work on a trans-Pacific liner.
Leaving the ship in Japan, he made his way to Rangoon arriving  in the late 1870s or early 1880s, around the
time of the British annexation of Upper Burma. He became a monk sometime before
1899 and started giving public talks a year later. As with some other early
Western monks in Asia Dhammaloka urged people to remain true to the faith of
their fathers and not be seduced by the enticements of  the missionaries. He told the Burmese that
their religion was as ethical, coherent and valid as that of the missionaries, if
not more so. Being Irish, Dhammaloka was also decidedly anti-British and he
attacked the colonial government at every opportunity, making him something of
a hero to the Burmese and an irritation to the British. Touring the country
huge crowds assembled to listen to the white monk who lauded rather than
disparages the Burmese and their religion. In 1907 Dhammaloka founded The
Buddhist Tract Society which during its existence published numerous books and
booklets on the Dhamma. His anti-British comments eventually led to Dhammaloka and
some of his supporters being charged with sedition, found guilty and fined
Rupees 1000 each. Dhammaloka left Burma shortly after and disappeared from
history. He is thought to have died in 1914.


More well-known successors
to Dhammaloka were H. Gordon Douglas (Bhikkhu Asoka) formerly head of   Mahinda College in Ceylon who ordained
in   February 1899  and died of cholera in Burma in April
1900;  the Scotsman  Allan Bennett (Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya) ordained
in Burma in May 1902 and founder  of  the International Buddhist Association
and  Buddhist Society of Great Britain
and Ireland. He died in 1923; Anton Gueth (Ven. Nyanatiloka) of German who was ordained
in Burma in 1904 by Ananda Metteyya and lived much of the rest of his life in
Ceylon; and J. F. McKechnie (Bhikkhu  Silacara) who ordained as a novice in July
1907 in Rangoon. After disrobing in 1925  McKechnie  continued as editor of The British Buddhist
for many years. However, recent research has uncovered a surprising number of other
Westerners who were drawn to the Buddhist monkhood  before these pioneers. In the 1870s a
destitute Russian became a monk in Bangkok and in 1878 an Austrian man is reported
to have ordained in Bangkok. Nothing more is known about these two individuals.
In June 1892 a Mr. MacMillan arrived in Ceylon from Scotland and ordained under
the name
Records from Japan show that a Dr.
“a well-known Englishman” became a monk there in 1900. A Jewish man named Arnold Abraham or Abrams who had lived in the Straits
Settlements in Malaya ordained in Rangoon in June 1904 and took the name  Dhammawanga. M. T. de la Courneuve was ordained
as a novice by Dhammaloka under the name Dhammaratana in Singapore October 2nd
1904.  He was an ex-Inspector of Police, Pahang, Straits Settlements in
Malaya and his father had been a Deputy Commissioner in the Burmese Civil
Service. An individual named C. Roberts, a 
Welshman who is said to have spoken 
spoke with an American accent,  ordained
as a novice probably in Rangoon in 1904. He disrobed in October 1904 after
receiving a remittance from parents. He may have put on the robe simply because
he was without money. An American sailor whose name has not been recorded  ordained
in Burma and in 1905 was residing  in the
Tavoy Monastery in Rangoon. Others who
have come to light include Frans Bergendahl (Sunno),  
a 20-year-old son of a wealthy
Amsterdam merchant and  a German Mr. Stange (Sumano)    who were both ordained by Nyanatiloka in 1906.
Sumano died in 1910 and Sunno  died in
1915. An Irishman whose lay name is unknown took the name Bhikkhu Visuddha 
and was  involved in
mass conversions of  untouchable
mine-workers in Marikuppam in India in 1907-8. Nothing else is known of
him.  A Mr. Solomon  became a   novice
in Burma  in 1907  but was disrobed shortly after for breaking
rule about drinking alcohol. The German Walter Markgraf became a novice under  Nyanatiloka in 1907 and disrobed half a year
later. E. H. Stevenson born in the UK in 1863 ordained under the name
Sasanadhaja in Burma in September 1908 and is mentioned as giving lectures
lectures in Australia on a tour as a missionary for Buddhism in 1910.

As with most of these others we have only the barest
information about these pioneers, mainly from incidental sources. Because of
lack of information it is difficult to know why these men took, what was then
such an unusual step and why they eventually disrobed. No doubt some were at a
loose end or were eccentrics, others may have developed a fascination for Asian
culture and wanted to experience it form the inside.  Cardinally all of them would have found the climate
and food in the tropics challenging, and Asian Buddhist norms so different from
their own, and this probably explains why so few of them lasted long in the
robes. One who did survive and indeed flourish was
Charles Pfoundes.

Up until recently
it has been widely accepted that the British monk Ananda Metteyya’s (Allan
Bennett’s)  founded and organized the
first  Buddhist mission to the West in
London in 1908. Recent collaborative research by historians in Japan and
Ireland however has shown that this assumption needs to be revised. In fact it
was not Theravadian but rather Mahayana Buddhists who were the first to try to
teach Buddhism in the West. In 1889 the Japanese-sponsored  Buddhist Propagation Society  (BPS) of Japan  launched a mission  to London  led for three years by the Irish-born Buddhist
Captain Charles Pfoundes.


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