The postcard above is one of the most unusual I have collected. I could see right away that the man in the Burmese monk’s robes was Western, not Burmese. The story behind this man is intriguing. How could one go from being a disciple of Aleister Crowley, once known as “the wickedest man in the world”, to a disciple of one of the gentlest religions on earth and leading the first Buddhist mission to England?
The short version is that Allan Bennett was born in London in 1872. His father died when he was young and he was adopted by a Mr. McGregor. He was educated in Bath and then trained as an analytical chemist. Known as a sensitive soul, he rejected his mother’s faith (Catholicism) and all other Christian faiths, probably because of his scientific background and his horror of the suffering he saw about him, and his own suffering. Allan was an asthmatic, and the disease plagued him all his life.
In the 1890’s he explored Hinduism and Buddhism, and was also drawn to spiritualism. He joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1894, four years before Crowley did. This order was interested in the occult and paranormal, and studied astrology, alchemy and mysticism. Crowley recalled him as being very serious and capable of magic powers but also pure and harmless. In 1900 Crowley raised money to send Bennett to Sri Lanka, where a warmer climate would improve his alarmingly failing health. It was also hoped that Bennett would preach the Golden Dawn’s esoteric philosophies to the East but this was not to be. This was where Allan found his “truth” and he started on the road to becoming a Buddhist monk.
He studied Pali, yoga and meditation and soon became expert in all three. He was turning away from magic and the esoteric and starting to embrace Theravada Buddhism. He decided he wanted to be ordained in Burma, as he saw the monks or Sangha there being purer than those of Sri Lanka.
In December of 1901, Bennett was ordained as a novice monk in Akyab in the Arakan (the area now known as the home of the Rohingya). The following year he received a higher ordination and became the Venerable Ānanda Metteyya.
He later moved to Rangoon and started the Buddhasāsana Samāgama Society, to help spread Buddhism throughout the world. He published six issues of “Buddhism – An illustrated Quarterly Review” between 1902 and 1908, and copies were sent to libraries throughout Europe. Official representatives were now established in Austria, Burma, Ceylon, China, Germany, Italy, the USA and England.
In November 1907, the Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland was formed specifically in anticipation of Ven. Ānanda Metteyya’s first Buddhist mission to Britain in April of 1908. According to Christmas Humphreys:
“He was then thirty-six years of age, tall, slim, graceful, and dignified. The deep-set eyes and somewhat ascetic features, surmounted by the shaven head, made a great impression on all who met him, and all who remember him speak of his pleasing voice and beautiful enunciation. It seems that his conversation was always interesting; and in his lighter moments he showed a delightful sense of humour, while his deep comprehension of the Dhamma, his fund of analogy from contemporary science, and power and range of thought combined to form a most exceptional personality.”
Ven Metteyya returned to Burma in October of 1908. He continued his work in Burma, even promoting the idea of Buddhism being taught in schools in Burma which, surprisingly, it was not. His health gradually deteriorated until in 1914 his doctors in Burma persuaded him to go back to England. By this time he had disrobed as a monk and was desperately poor. His lived off the charity of friends and watched as the horrors of The First World War unfolded in Europe.
To find out the rest of his story and why he lies in an unmarked grave in Morden, please read the biography so eloquently told by Elizabeth J. Harris in 1998, on which I based this post. There are many more details in her paper entitled “Ānanda Metteyya, The First British Emissary of Buddhism.”