Christmas Humphreys – the most eminent of 20th Century British Buddhists

Posted on May 5, 2010


Christmas Humphreys QC

Travers Christmas Humphreys, QC (1901–1983) was a man whom many consider to be the most eminent of all the British Buddhists of the 20th century. He was the author of several books on Mahayana Buddhism and the founder of the Buddhist Society. His career as a barrister saw him prosecute several controversial cases in the 1940s and 1950s, and he later became a judge at the Old Bailey.

Involvement with Buddhism

The sudden war-time death of his much-loved elder brother was a significant and traumatic event that shattered the Christian beliefs of his youth. At the age of seventeen he bought a copy of “Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism” by Ananda Coomaraswamy and said later that ‘I seemed to remember the principles of the Dharma almost as fast as I read them, and lightly regarded Buddhism as an old friend once more encountered.’

Trinity Hall, Cambridge University

Humphreys’ interest in Buddhism developed while he was studying law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge University in the early 1920s. During his time at Cambridge he joined the Cambridge Lodge of the Theosophical Society, eventually becoming its President. Despite the popularity of Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem “The Light of Asia“, prior to the end of the nineteenth century, Buddhism was mainly the concern of academics. In 1906 the short-lived “Buddhist Society of England” (later the Buddhist League) was founded by R. J. Jackson and J. R. Pain (an ex-soldier who has served in Burma) and presided over by W.T. Rhys Davids, the famous scholar of Pali and founder of the Pali Text Society. The young Christmas Humphreys attended lectures by these early British Buddhists and others such as Allan Bennett (Ananda Metteya) and Francis Payne (who delivered 36 lectures in Essex Hall, Strand).

At the age of 21 he met his future wife Aileen Faulkner, who was also interested in Buddhism and Theosophy. The couple and others loosely formed a study group that was to quickly develop into the Buddhist Lodge of the Theosophical Society, which Humphreys organised in 1924. In 1926, tensions between different schools of thought led to the Lodge seceding from the Theosophical Society and developing into the Buddhist Society, now one of the oldest Buddhist organizations in the West.

Legal Career

Christmas Humphreys was the son of the well-known barrister and judge, Sir Travers Humphreys. His father made it to the High Court, Even Christmas Humphreys’ mother served as a Justice of the Peace. He attended Malvern College at Cambridge University. In 1924 Humphreys was called to the bar as a member of Inner Temple, the oldest, richest, and most exclusive of the four principal Inns of Court. The fact that Humphreys was admitted as a barrister at this particular Inn speaks of his upper class background and upbringing.

The Old Bailey

Much like his father, Humphreys was attracted to criminal law and this was the area in which he built his practice. In 1934, he became Junior Treasury Counsel (i.e. a prosecutor) at London’s Central Criminal Court commonly known as “the Old Bailey.” In 1950, he became Senior Prosecuting Counsel and, in 1955, he was selected by Inner Temple as a Bencher, a principal officer of the Inn. 1959 saw Humphreys “taking silk” i.e. appointed QC (Queen’s Counsel). In 1962 Humphreys was appointed a Commissioner at the Old Bailey, where he became an Additional Judge in 1968, and served on the bench until his retirement in 1976.

Among the highlights of Humphreys legal career was his involvement in the Tokyo war crimes trial of 1947-48 to try the leaders of the Empire of Japan for crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during World War II. Also in 1950 at the trial of the nuclear spy Klaus Fuchs, Christmas Humphreys was the prosecuting counsel for the Attorney General.

Controversial Murder Cases

Humphreys was involved in over 200 murder cases during his long legal career. However, a series of controversial murder cases in which Humphreys was the prosecutor stand out in British history. The first of these were the Evans-Christie cases, which were followed by the Ellis case.

Timothy EvansJohn ChristieDavid Blakey and Ruth EllisDerek Bentley

The Evans case resulted in the hanging of an illiterate (and apparently mentally retarded) Welshman, Timothy John Evans (pictured above, far left), on March 9, 1950 for the murders of his wife and child. Several years after his execution, new evidence appeared during the trial of Evans’ neighbour John Reginald Halliday Christie (pictured above, centre left), a former policeman. This evidence seemed to indicate that Evans had been innocent at least as far as his daughter was concerned. Evans was, in fact, posthumously pardoned. The true murderer of Evans’ child (and possibly his wife) appears to have been Christie. Christie was hanged as well on July 15, 1953.

The Ellis case involved one Ruth Ellis (pictured above, centre right) who admitted in open court that she intended to kill her (possibly abusive) lover, David Blakely (pictured together with Ellis). Although Ellis was clearly guilty, the idea of hanging an attractive young woman, which took place on July 13, 1955, was felt to be nearly as revolting as the hanging of an innocent man. Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be sentenced to death in the United Kingdom.

Humphreys led for the Crown in the Craig and Bentley case, where the teenager Derek Bentley (pictured above, far right) was hanged for the murder of a police officer, committed in the course of a burglary attempt. The murder of the police officer was committed by a friend and accomplice of Bentley’s, Christopher Craig, then aged 16. Bentley was convicted as a party to the murder, which created a cause célèbre and led to a 45-year-long campaign to win Derek Bentley a posthumous pardon.

These cases together mobilized opposition to capital punishment in Britain and played a part in its eventual abolition.

Reconciling a judicial career with Buddhism

Humphreys preferred to work as a prosecutor because he believed that witnesses for the prosecution were far more likely to tell the truth or to attempt to do so, than witnesses for the defense. He felt that as a prosecutor it was his task merely to establish guilt. Sentencing was, of course, a matter for the judge. To Humphreys, it was karma that had made him a prosecutor just as it was karma that had led criminals to commit crimes. Later, it would be karma that saw Humphreys as a judge. Someone in the dock would be reminded that no person was sending him to prison, no judge, no jury: “Only your own actions have put you where you are. You knew that what you were doing would bring you here.” When asked how he, as a Buddhist, could be a judge, and how he felt about it; Humphreys answered: “I am the man in the dock.”

Humphreys stated that the reason for his being able to accept a permanent judgeship in 1968 was that England had suspended the death penalty by that time. Once Humphreys joined the bench, he quickly established a reputation for being a “gentle judge.” He found sentencing to be an ordeal because it meant adding to the suffering of the criminal as well as making matters worse for the criminal’s family, friends, and others. As a result, he tended to be lenient in his sentencing. He believed that long sentences were normally counterproductive.

Humphreys’ lenient sentences would sometimes stir up prosecutors, but the most trouble came from the press. In June 1975, Humphreys passed a lenient sentence on a young black man who had pleaded guilty to rape. The man was eighteen years old and had actually raped two women at knife-point. Humphreys sentenced him to a six months’ suspended sentence. The media played up the sentencing. Adding to the public outcry was Humphreys sentencing a few days later of a man who had cheated his employer of £2,000, who was jailed for eighteen months. Six months later Humphreys was asked to resign. Humphreys’ judicial career was thus over in 1976. He devoted the last few years of his life to Buddhist activities and remained president of the Buddhist Society until his death in 1983.

Humpreys’ impact on Buddhism in Britain

Humphreys was a prolific author, writing, co-authoring, or editing an total of 37 books, the majority of which dealt with Buddhism. Humphrey’s saw his lifelong endeavour as an attempt to extract the essence of Buddhism in a way that was applicable to everyday experience in the West; and also so that Buddhists of all countries could find out where they agree – rather than where they differ. In 1945, Humphreys drafted a document which aimed to outline a set of principles of Theravada and Mahayana Buddism while justifying their individual tenets. He spent much time with Buddhist leaders in an attempt to agree on these principles, so as to avoid sectarianism. This was the setting for a tour of Buddhist countries following the conclusion of the proceedings of the Tokyo war crimes trial. Humphreys travelled throughout Asia meeting various Buddhist leaders. The outcome of this work was Humphreys’ “Twelve Principles of Buddhism” (see below).

His 1951 Penguin classic “Buddhism“, which has sold over a million copies, has inspired generations. It became a standard text book and marked a turning point; from being of minor fringe interest, Buddhism entered the mainstream, attracting many people.

After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 Humphreys came into contact with Tibetans. At the Dalai Lama’s request, he visited and reported on the refugee camps in India, and assisted the Dalai Lama in coordinating work for the Tibetans in exile and the preservation of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1961 the Dalai Lama became Patron to the Buddhist Society.

In 1978 Humphreys published his autobiography “Both Sides of the Circle”. He also composed poetry inspired by Buddhism. In 1975 he was invited to be present at the Thanksgiving Service in St. Paul’s Cathedral for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, as Founding President of the oldest and what was then the largest Buddhist Organisation in Great Britain. This royal mark of recognition showed that Buddhism was fully accepted as one of the resident religions of England and accepted as part of the Establishment, a major achievement in which Humphreys was instrumental.

Christmas Humphreys, instrumental in British Buddhism

Humphreys was a highly cultured English gentleman whose intelligence and judgment commanded respect. A dynamic leader and visionary, he was unique for his time in demanding to know how Buddhist teachings, which in Britain had previously been the domain of academic study, were applicable to everyday life. This was unprecedented given the dominance of the Church of England in the realm of British religious life. Humphreys was also pioneering in his work to popularise Mahayana Buddhism, where previously most contact with Buddhism in the UK had been with the Theravada tradition.

His life as a lay practitioner demonstrated his ability to draw on Buddhist values while functioning in the modern legal system of a secular yet essentially Christian society, working effectively as a Buddhist within a non-Buddhist framework. Although certain events during his career as a prosecutor were controversial and although likewise his later career as a judge featured some judgments that were controversial and perhaps occasionally unsound, Humphreys managed to instill some wisdom and heartfelt compassion into his courtroom and is an example for Buddhists in the legal profession wishing to act likewise.

His former home in St John’s Wood, London, is now a Buddhist temple, Shobo-an (‘Hermitage of the True Dharma’) associated with the Buddhist Society. Humphreys left it to the Zen Centre on his death in 1983 and it was inaugurated as a temple in July 1984.

Christmas Humphreys’ “Twelve Principles of Buddhism”

1. Self salvation is for any man the immediate task. If a man lay wounded by a poisoned arrow he would not delay extraction by demanding details of the man who shot it or the length and make of the arrow. There will be time for ever-increasing understanding of the Teaching during the treading of the Way.  Meanwhile, begin now by facing life as it is, learning always by direct and personal experience.

2. The first fact of existence is the law of change or impermanence. All that exists, from a mole to a mountain, from a thought to an empire, passes through the same cycle of existence; birth, growth, decay and death. Life alone is continuous, ever seeking self-expression in new forms. “Life is a bridge; therefore build no house on it.”  Life is a process of flow, and he who clings to any form, however splendid, will suffer by resisting the flow.

3. The law of change applies equally to the “soul”. There is no principle in an individual which is immortal and unchanging. Only the “Namelessness”, the Ultimate Reality, is beyond change, and all forms of life, including man, are manifestations of this Reality. No one owns the life which flows in him any more than the electric light bulb owns the current which gives it light.

4. The universe is the expression of law. All effects have causes, and man’s soul or character is the sum total of his previous thoughts and acts. Karma, meaning action-reaction, governs all existence, and man is the sole creator of his circumstances, and his reaction to them, his future condition and his final destiny. By right thought and action he can gradually purify his inner nature, and so by self-realization attain in time liberation from rebirth. The process covers great periods of time, involving life after life on earth, but ultimately every form of life will reach enlightenment.

5. Life is one and indivisible, though its ever-changing forms are innumerable and perishable. There is, in truth, no death, though every form must die. From an understanding of life’s unity arises compassion, a sense of identity with the life in other forms. Compassion is described as the “Law of laws-eternal harmony”, and he who breaks this harmony of life will suffer accordingly and delay his own enlightenment.

6. Life being One, the interests of the part should be those of the whole. In his ignorance man thinks he can successfully strive for his own interests, and his wrongly-directed energy of selfishness produces its cause. The Buddha taught four Noble Truths:

a) The omnipresence of suffering;

b) its cause, wrongly-directed desire;

c) its cure, the removal of the cause; and

d) the Noble Eightfold Path of self-development which leads to the end of suffering.

7. The Eightfold Path consists of: (1)Right Views or preliminary understanding, (2) Right Aims or Motives, (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Acts, (5) Right Livelihood, (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Concentration or mind-development, and, finally, (8) Right Samadhi, leading to full Enlightenment. As Buddhism is a way of living, not merely a theory of life, the treading of this Path is essential to self-deliverance. “Cease to do evil, learn to do good, cleanse your own heart: this is the Teaching of the Buddhas”.

8. Reality is incomprehensible, and a God with attributes is not the final Reality. But the Buddha, a human being, became the All-Enlightened One, and the purpose of life is the attainment of Enlightenment. This state of consciousness, Nirvana, the extinction of the limitations of selfhood, is attainable on earth. All men and all other forms of life contain the potentiality of Enlightenment, and the purpose therefore consists in becoming what you are: “Look within; thou art Buddha”.

9. From potential to actual Enlightenment there lies the Middle Way, the Eightfold Path from desire to peace”, a process of self-development between the “opposites”, avoiding all extremes. The Buddha trod this Way to the end, and the only faith required in Buddhism is the reasonable belief that where a Guide has trodden it is worth our while to tread. The Way must be trodden by the whole man, nor merely the best of him, and heart and mind must be developed equally. The Buddha was the All-Compassionate as well as the All-Enlightened One.

10. Buddhism lays great stress on the need of inward concentration and meditation, which leads in time to the development of the inner spiritual faculties. The subjective life is as important as the daily round, and periods of quietude for inner activity are essential for a balanced life. The Buddhist should at all times be “mindful and self-possessed”, refraining from mental and emotional attachment to “the passing show”. This increasingly watchful attitude to circumstances, which he knows to be his own creation, helps him to keep his reaction to it always under control.

11. The Buddha said: “Work out your own salvation with diligence”. Buddhism knows no authority for truth save the intuition of the individual, and that is authority for himself alone. Each man suffers the consequences of his own acts, and learns thereby, while helping his fellow man to the same deliverance; nor will prayer to the Buddha or to any God prevent an effect following its cause. Buddhist monks are teachers and exemplars, and in no sense intermediaries between Reality and the individual. The utmost tolerance is practiced towards all other religions and philosophies, for no man has the right to interfere in his neighbour’s journey to the Goal.

12. Buddhism is neither pessimistic or “escapist”, nor does it deny the existence of God or soul, though it places its own meaning on these terms. It is, on the contrary, a system of thought, a religion, a spiritual science and a way of life, which is reasonable, practical and all embracing. For over two thousand years it has satisfied the spiritual needs of nearly one-third of mankind. It appeals to the West because it has no dogmas, satisfies the reason and the heart alike, insists on self-reliance coupled with tolerance for other points of view, embraces science, religion, philosophy, psychology, ethics and art, and points to man alone as the creator of his present life and sole designer of his destiny.