Ananda Metteyya – the first to bring the “living force” of Buddhism to Britain

Posted on April 25, 2010

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Ananda Metteyya

Ananda Metteyya

Ananda Metteyya (Charles Henry Allan Bennett) (1872 – 1923)

Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya, born Charles Henry Allan Bennett, was a key figure in the introduction of Buddhist practice to the UK, and the second Englishman to become a Buddhist monk in the Theravada tradition, not an insignificant event in Buddhism’s history (the first was Gordon Douglas who died shortly after his ordination in 1899). Although Buddhism had been known of in Britain for some decades previously, it was Ananda Metteyya who injected a practical dimension which had previously been lacking. He inspired many people to explore Buddhism.

Early life and involvement with the occult

Aleister Crowley

Bennett was an analytical chemist by training who was brought up as a Roman Catholic by his widowed mother. Before becoming a Buddhist, he was a member of the famous occultist group, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. During his years in the order (1894-1900) he was a friend and mentor of Aleister Crowley, the self-confessed “wickedest man in the world”. Both Bennett and Crowley had rejected Christianity while still in their teens; both had also experienced powerful states of absorption which drove them to pursue altered states of consciousness; and both shared an interest in Buddhism. Bennett was inspired, like many of his generation, by Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem “The Light of Asia, one of the few books about the Buddha then available in the West.

Bennett lived alone in a small flat in a poor district of London with few personal possessions. He was always very poor and tormented by illness, but his magical abilities made a strong impression on other occultists of the time. For example, Crowley was impressed by the “blasting rod” Bennett had constructed out of glass, which allegedly was able to render people unconscious. His debilitating asthma made it difficult for Bennett to earn a living and compelled him to resort to regular ministrations of morphine, cocaine and other drugs. He lived with Crowley for a short time at Crowley’s flat at 67-69 Chancery Lane, where the pair pursued their common passions of magic and practical mysticism, no doubt assisted by liberal doses of the above-mentioned chemicals.

Ordination and work as a Buddhist emissary

In 1900 at the age of 28, with the Golden Dawn in an organisational shambles, Bennett took a ship to Asia to relieve his asthma, and to dedicate himself to Buddhism. First he travelled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where he studied Hatha Yoga. Later, in Burma, Bennett took the vows of a Buddhist monk, and received the name Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya “Bliss of Loving Kindness”. In 1902 Crowley came to visit him there and was instructed in Hatha Yoga. At this time both men were agreed as to the validity of Buddhism. Bennett spent years studying and practicing Buddhism in the East and in 1903 founded the International Buddhist Society.

Ananda Metteyya

Back in England in April 1908, Bennett attempted to spread the study of Buddhism on his native soil by establishing the first society for the promotion of Buddhism in the United Kingdom. At once he faced difficulties in keeping the Vinaya Rules in London. For example he was not allowed to ride behind a horse, but London’s public transport was horse-drawn. He could not handle money, so could never travel alone. He could not share a house with a woman. However he managed and proved an immediate attraction. Tall, good looking and with a pleasing voice and manner he was popular wherever he went.

In October of that year he returned to Burma to continue his study and literary work. His health problems persisted for years. The tropical climate did little to improve his asthma and brought him new ailments peculiar to the East. It is said that his skin had turned yellow through liver trouble and one source mentions that he was operated on in 1913 due to a gall stone problem. In 1914 he de-robed and returned to England with the intent of going on to a drier climate to preserve his life. He tried at Liverpool to board a ship bound for California, where his only sister lived. At this point he was suffering severe asthma spasms and convulsions. The captain, unwilling to take responsibility for anyone so gravely ill, refused him passage and thus he was stranded in the UK.

Final years

With the outbreak of World War I he was forced to live in poverty and illness. Aleister Crowley tried to rekindle their friendship, but to no avail. By this time Crowley had rejected Buddhism in favour of his own reworking of the Hermetic Tradition; Bennett would have nothing to do with it. He remarked, “No Buddhist would consider it worthwhile to pass from the crystalline clearness of his own religion to this involved obscurity”.

Charles Henry Allan Bennett

Bennett’s health grew worse than ever in England, where it had first declined in his earlier years due to the climate. In January 1923 his only book was published, “The Wisdom of the Aryas“. His joy from that was short, however, because he died two months later of an intestinal blockage.

He left behind almost no possessions but his manuscripts which would go largely unrecognized for decades. It would not be until the “beat” writers of the 1950s, and later the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s, that Buddhism would become the popular force it is today in the West, and that Bennett would gain at least some of the recognition he deserved as a pioneer bringing Buddhism to Britain. As Christmas Humphreys stated, it was Ananda Metteya who “brought Buddhism as a living force to England.” He is buried in Morden Cemetery.

References

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