Early western Buddhists

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Ananda Metteyya

“Apart altogether from the misery that that civilization has spread in lands beyond its pale, can it be claimed that in its internal polity, that for its own peoples, it has brought with it any diminution of the world’s suffering, any diminution of its degradation, its misery, its crime; above all, has it brought about any general increase of its native contentment, the extension of any such knowledge as promotes the spirit of mutual helpfulness rather than the curse of competition?” (Ananda Metteyya, 1903). Image published by Alexander Duncan, sethian AT rogers.com

The Dhammaloka project has forced us to rethink what we thought we knew about the early history of western Buddhism and the Buddhist revival. Far from being a simple story of European gentleman scholars and Asian reformers, we find a “Buddhist crossroads” of modernists, eccentrics, radicals and transnational Buddhist activists learning from each other and jointly developing a new understanding of what it meant to be Buddhist.

Beyond the handful of individuals regularly cited as the first western Buddhists – because the organisations they founded survived and passed on their memory – we find a plethora of figures who, like Dhammaloka, may have been more significant and better-known in their own time than some of those now identified as the real founders. Many did not come to Buddhism through books; were plebeian or outright “beachcombers” and “loafers” scorned by colonial elites; and were involved in other forms of anti-colonial politics.

The “early western Buddhists” pages discuss research on westerners who, like Dhammaloka, became Buddhist in Asia before the outbreak of the First World War. Some, such as Ananda Metteyya (Allan Bennett) or Nyanatiloka (Anton Gueth), are relatively well-known, while others such as Charles Pfoundes and John Bowles Daly are only now becoming the subjects of serious research.

This section of the website links to existing publications (online and print) research on early western Buddhists in Asia and other useful online resources; a list of the currently-known first western Buddhist monks and details of the lineages they founded; and the conference “Southeast Asia as a crossroads for Buddhist exchange: pioneer European Buddhists and Asian Buddhist networks 1860-1960″.


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