The hidden history of Buddhism in the West


CharlesPfoundes in Japanese eccleastical garb.

By Bhante Dhammika
of Australia

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.

It 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. Born in Dublin in the 1850s, he emigrated to the United States, 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 Buddhists to remain true to the faith of their fathers and not be seduced by the enticements of Christian missionaries. He told the Burmese that their religion was as coherent and as valid as Christianity, 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 flocked to listen to the European 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’s numerous Burmese admirers had no problem raising the money to pay his and the other’s fines. Dhammaloka left Burma sometime after this 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 he 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 Sumangala. Records from Japan show that a Dr. Norman, "a well-known Englishman"became a monkthere in 1900.A Jewish man named Arnold Abraham or Abrams who had lived in the Straits Settlements in Malaya ordained in Rangoon in June 1904and took the name Dhammawanga. M. T. de la Courneuve was ordained as a novice by Dhammaloka under the name Dhammaratanain 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 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 Stange (Sumano) were both ordained by Nyanatiloka in 1906. Sumano died in 1910 and Sunnodied in 1915. An Irishman whose lay name is unknown took the name BhikkhuVisuddha 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.Solomonbecame a novice in Burma in 1907 butwas 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 Sasanadhajain Burma in September 1908 and is mentioned as giving 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 then was 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 from the inside. Certainly 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 in the robes for long. One who did survive and indeed flourish was Captain Charles Pfoundes.

Up until recently it has been widely accepted that the British monk Ananda Metteyya’s (Allan Bennett) 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 Japanese 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. The Buddhist Propagation Society had chosen a particularly opportune time to send its mission. Gilbert and Sullivan’s Japanese-themed opera The Mikado was running to record crowds in London and several exhibitions of Japanese art in London and Paris had created a fascination in things Japanese.

Charles Pfoundes was born 1840 in Waterford in Ireland in 1840 to Protestant parents who had been bankrupted during the great Famine of 1845-50.Immigrating alone to Australia in 1854he joined the colonial navy and later captained a Siamese ship and ever after usually prefixed his name with Captain. He came into contact first in Thailand and seems to have been fascinated by it. His travels led him to Japan in 1863 where, having quickly learned Japanese he worked in shipping, as a cultural mediator, interpreter, guide and later as a newspaper columnist. He returned to Europe in 1878 via the US, married, worked at various jobs and began giving lectures on oriental subjects, mainly Japanese culture and Buddhism. On his return to Japan 10 years later without his wife he ordained as a priest in Kobe. Throughout the 1870 the Japanese government pressured monks to marry in the belief that it would weaken Buddhism and aid the modernise the country, and many monks gave into this pressure. Thus most Japanese clergy became and remain today technically priests rather than monks. Pfoundes died in Kobe in 1907 at the age of 67.

During his three year mission in London and elsewhere in the UK starting in 1888 Pfoundes’ lectures were well attended given that he was apparently an engaging and interesting speaker. A photograph of him at this time shows him in the full regalia of a Japanese prelate, accoutrements that must have increased his authority and made him appear even more interesting. Newspaper reports of the time show that Pfoundes’ two main subjects were Buddhist doctrine and criticisms of Theosophy which he dismissed as nonsense masquerading as Buddhism.

In 1883 the Theosophist A. P. Sinnet had published his book Esoteric Buddhism which became and remains even today a seminal text of Theosophy. Sinnett claimed that his book was the gist of "psychic communication" he had had with Mahatma KootHoomi, one of the supposed "Great White Masters in the Himalayas". It should be kept in mind that the general public at the time knew little of genuine Buddhism and Madam Blavatsky and Sinnett’s "esoteric Buddhism", actually a mish-mash of late Victorian spiritualism and occultism with a smattering of Buddhism and Hindu, was attracting a great deal of attention. In his lectures, Pfoundes made it clear that Buddhism and Theosophy had nothing in common. Notices in newspapers of the time show that Pfoundes was determined to clarify Buddhism and distinguish it from Theosophy.

Stratford, Enterprise Hall, Great Eastern Road. Sun. December 6th, at 7, Captain Pfoundes, ‘Theosophy: Its frauds and follies.’

Progressive Association, Penton Hall, 81 Pentonville Rd, Sun December 13that 7, CaptainPfoundes, ‘Theosophy: Is it true? – An exposé of a dangerous fallacy.’

Progressive Association, Penton Hall, 81 Pentonville Rd,–January 31st, at 7, Captain Pfoundes, ‘Buddhism not Theosophy: the two critically contrasted’, preceded by vocal and instrumental music.

However, on several occasions Pfoundes went beyond criticizing Theosophy to pointing out the dubious behaviour of some Theosophists, calling Madam Blavatsky a charlatan, Sinnett either delusional or a liar, and Charles Webster Leadbeater a pederast. All these claims have since been shown to have some substanceto them but not at that time and Pfoundes was sued for libel. He settled out of court for 550 Pounds.

Having said all this, it is right to point out that while the early Theosophists had a scant understanding of the Buddha’s Dhamma and the "Great White Masters in the Himalayas" were non-existent, they had an important role to play in the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon and elsewhere, and energised the independence movements in various Asian countries. Their esoteric Buddhism owed almost everything to Blavatsky and Sinnett’s fanciful claims and almost nothing to the Buddha. As Colonel Olcott learned more about genuine Dhamma during his stay in Ceylon is quietly distanced himself from Madam Blavatsky and her followers.

Western monks such as Ananda Metteyya and Silacara helped give Asian Buddhists a renewed confidence in their religion while at the same time explaining it to European readers. Captain Charles Pfoundes went to the West to promote it and to help distinguish it from other forms of spirituality. Buddhists both East and West owe a debt of gratitude to them all.

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