The first western Buddhist monks

Information on the first western Buddhist monks has hitherto been very scanty. With the significant exception of Alois Payer’s Neobuddhismus collection, most writing on the subject has tended to focus on those who founded organisations that survived into the present, or were absorbed by later organisations. (For more on the question of who is remembered and why, see this article.)

The list below, based on research carried out by Brian Bocking, Laurence Cox and Alicia Turner, is certainly incomplete and may contain inaccuracies. It is (for now) restricted to the discussion of ordained western Buddhists, and to those certainly or possibly ordained before 1910, including both novice and higher ordinations. There is some initial discussion of the “lineages” founded by at least three of these figures (chronologically Dhammaloka, Ananda Metteyya and Nyanatiloka) though this is technically problematic at this early stage, when none of the three had the seniority to personally give the full ordination. In some cases we are thus discussing the figures who are agreed to have inspired the ordination of others, in others we are discussing ordinations whose validity may have been open to dispute.

We present this material in the spirit of encouraging greater interest and research into this area.

Figures previously regarded as the ‘first’ European Buddhist monks

Bhikkhu Aśoka, H. Gordon Douglas ??-1900. English. Head of Mahinda College in Ceylon. Ordained February 1899 in Ceylon, traveled in Burma and India, died of cholera in Bassein, Burma in April 1900.

Ananda Metteyya, Allan Bennett (MacGregor) 1872-1923. English / Scottish. Known for participation in the Golden Dawn with Aleister Crowley. Ordained in Burma in May 1902.  Founded the International Buddhist Association and led the first Buddhist mission to England in 1908, founding the Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Inspired the ordination of Nyanatiloka and Silacara (see below).

Nyanatiloka. Anton Gueth 1878-1957. German. Ordained in Burma in 1904 by Ananda Metteyya.  Well known for his work in Burma and Sri Lanka throughout the 20th century. Inspired the ordination of Sunno, Sumano, Silacara, Dhammanusari (see below) and later many others.

U Silacara, J. F. McKechnie 1871-1951. Scottish. Answered a call to join Ananda Metteyya and ordained as a novice in July 1907, Rangoon. After disrobing in 1925 continued as editor of The British Buddhist for many years.

Previously unknown or unacknowledged figures

Unnamed. Destitute Russian ordained in Siam (early 1870s?). Disrobed due to problems with monastic code.

Unnamed. Young Austrian ordained in Siam, July 1878. Described as well-educated and ordained in part to meet requirements for working in state service.

Mr MacMillan Scottish. Arrived in Ceylon in June 1892 to be ordained by Ven. Sumangala.

Captain Charles Pfoundes (born Pounds). Irish Orientalist who claimed ordination within Jodo Shinshu, Tendai and Shingon by 1895, perhaps considerably earlier; in Japan from 1860s, later involved with (Japanese) Buddhist Propagation Society and gave lecture tours for them 1890-3. Died 1911.

Karlis Alexis Tennisons (1873 – 1962). Estonian / Latvian. Ordained a Gelugpa monk among Siberian Buryats; involved in St Petersburg Buddhist temple (the first such temple in Europe).

U Dhammaloka, Irish (1856? – 1913?) Upasampadā July 8 1900; senior monk at Tavoy Monastery, Rangoon. Variously claimed to have ordained thirteen or fifteen western monks, including Arnold Abraham / Abrams, Dharmatrata, Dipalamkara, Vara (see below).

Dr Norman.  “A well-known Englishman”.  Travelling to Japan to ordain in 1900.

James Butemen. Ordained Tavoy monastery, Rangoon in January 1902.

“There’s a bunch of one-time beachcombers scattered among the Burmese monasteries.” (Irishman John Askins M.A. in Ceylon, reported by Harry Franck, 1905)

Asoka (II), European name unknown. Ordained in Rangoon, Burma on May 21st 1902. Described as an elderly Englishman with spectacles.

Dr Alois Führer (1853 – ??) German. Disgraced archaeologist involved in the search for the sites of the Buddha’s life; arrived in Ceylon February 1903 intending ordination in Siam but then went to Burma for ordination instead. By mid-February appears in Siam claiming to have been ordained in Burma.

Arnold Abraham/Abrams. Jewish Straits Settler. Sent by Dhammaloka to Rangoon for ordination in June 1904, subsequently disrobed. Buddhist name possibly Dhammawanga.

Dharmatrata, M. T. de la Courneuve. Ordained as a novice by Dhammaloka in Singapore October 2nd 1904.  An ex-Inspector of Police, Pahang, Straits Settlements. Father a Deputy Commissioner in the Burmese Civil Service.

Dipalamkara, C. Roberts. Welsh, spoke with an American accent. Ordained as a novice probably in Rangoon, by 1904.  Disrobed Oct 1904 after accepting a remittance from parents.

Unnamed Former Sailor,  American.  Ordained in Burma and residing by May 1905 in the Tavoy Monastery, Rangoon.

U Wisaya, G. Moore. Mentioned as travelling in Burma with a follower from Madras in June 1905.

U Vara, arrived in Penang with Dhammaloka (presumably from Rangoon) in July 1905.

July 1905 – Dhammaloka claims fifteen European monks in his “lineage”.

Suñño (Frans Bergendahl), Dutch (1885-1916), and Sumano (Mr Stange), German. Bergendahl was the 20-year-old son of a wealthy Amsterdam merchant. Both given novice ordination by Nyanatiloka in 1906; Sumano died in 1910 and Suñño took higher ordination thereafter, dying in 1915.

U Visuddha / Wisuddha, Irish. Involved in mass conversions of dalit mine-workers in Marikuppam, 1907-8, via Madras Sakya Buddhist Society.

Mr Solomon. Re-ordained as novice in Burma (Rangoon?) June 1907 and disrobed after breaking rules on drink.

Dhammanusari, Walter Markgraf. German. Novice ordination by Nyanatiloka in 1907, disrobed half a year later.

Sasana Dhaja, E. H. Stevenson 1863-? English. Ordained in Burma September 1908.  Gave lectures in Australia on a tour as a missionary for Buddhism in 1910.

September 1909 – Dhammaloka claims thirteen European monks in his “lineage”.

Dates uncertain

Unnamed Irish monk. Met in China by Sir Thomas Lipton (founder of tea firm), at some time prior to 1913.

Unnamed Irish monk. Met while travelling with other monks from Calcutta and Bombay by an Irish medical doctor, again pre-1913.

Two unnamed American monks. Beachcomber bhikkhus met by Louis Brownlow en route between India and Rangoon, date between 1906 and 1915.


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