The Great Beast and the Buddhist
Allan Bennett was born in London in 1872. Bennett’s father was a civil engineer and passed away when he was still a child. His father’s death and Bennett’s severe asthma meant that Allan grew up both sickly and in severe poverty.
Despite his impoverished upbringing, Bennett was educated at Hollesley College and trained as an analytical chemist. Unfortunately, his poor health made it difficult for him to keep steady work.
Bennett was raised a Roman Catholic by his widowed mother, but rejected the faith at a young age. In 1890, when he was around 18 years old, Bennett experienced, what he would later describe as, shivadarshana, a yogic term for a deep trance state where the individual experiences the destruction of the universe and achieves union with the god Shiva. Shivadarshana is one of the stages of samadhi (meditative consciousness), which you’ve probably heard more frequently referred to as right concentration, the final step on the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. (An easier way to parse this experience for those interested in Western mysticism would be “crossing the Abyss”) This incident, which we know little about in terms of details other than what he related to Crowley, had an immense impact on Bennett.
Trying to understand this experience is probably what lead him to join The Theosophical Society in 1893 and undoubtedly what helped send him on the path toward becoming a Buddhist monk.
Whether she was a charlatan or not, the impact of Helena Blavatsky’s Western Occult cocktail served with an Eastern mysticism chaser cannot be stated enough. Not only did her work introduce Eastern ideas to a wide Western audience, but among indigenous peoples it sparked a revival in their own religions. Buddhism was dead for hundreds of years in India until 1891. And Mohandas Gandhi was quite vocal about how it wasn’t until he was introduced to Theosophy while living in London, that he ever thought about practicing Hinduism, let alone questioning what the Christian Missionaries had told him: that his religion was nothing other than superstitious nonsense.
In 1894, Bennett joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. While he never had the same impact on the group as some of its members, he was well known for his supreme concentration, his knack for practical ceremonial magic, and his specially constructed wand whose parts could be changed as needed for different workings.
Along with George Cecil Jones, Bennett was one of Crowley’s first magical teachers. When Crowley initially met Bennett, Allan was living in a dilapidated tenement slum south of the Thames. The living conditions were so terrible that Crowley promptly invited him to room with him at 67/69 Chancery Lane.
Allan’s impact on Crowley was deep and profound. While roommates, Bennett introduced him to the use of mind-altering drugs to induce altered states of consciousness. The Beast would expand on Bennett and S.L. Mathers’s work on the Hermetic Qabalah for his own Liber 777. And Crowley’s seldom discussed concept of Magical Memory comes directly from Bennett’s later writings aimed specifically for Buddhists.
Other than his first mountaineering instructor, Bennett is the only significant person in Crowley’s life that he did not later attack or defame in either public or private writings. Crowley had only positive things to say about Allan, even within his private diaries, calling him “a tremendous spiritual force” and “the noblest and gentlest soul that I have ever known.” He described Bennett’s mind as “pure, piercing, and profound.” Despite being written five years after their last meeting, he dedicated his poem “UT” to Bennett. And, perhaps most telling of all, Crowley would later say that in all his years of studying magic and the occult Bennett was the rarest of breeds -- a man who wasn’t interested in gathering power but in finding enlightenment.
Mathers, however, eventually tired of Bennett and the two had a falling out over “orientalism.” In 1900, Allan traveled to Sri Lanka, hoping the change in climate would alleviate his many health problems. There he found employment with the Solicitor General, a man named P. Ramanathan, as a tutor for his sons. Boring enough on the surface. However, to occultists the Honorable Ramanthan was better known as Shri Parananda, a Shavite yogi and the author of commentaries on the life of Christ, which put forth the notion that Jesus was in fact a composite figure created from several different people, including a Hindu holy man whose yogic aphorisms were attributed to Jesus.
Crowley visited his friend in 1901 and received instruction in yoga. Later, that same year, Bennett joined a local Buddhist Sangha (unsurprising that this should happen there–the Buddhist revival that began in India in 1891 was lead by a Sri Lankan named Anagarika Dharmapala) before making his way to the city of Sittwe (then called Akyab) in Burma. There, in the monastery of Lamma Syadow Kyoung, he took the monastic vows and the Dharma name Ananda Metteyya.
Officially, Bennett is considered to be the second Englishman to be ordained as a Buddhist Monk of the Theravada tradition. George Douglas, who was ordained in 1899 or 1900, was widely considered to have been the first. There are conflicting accounts as to Douglas’s fate, some reports allege he died a mere 6 months after his ordination and others that he relocated to Sri Lanka where he lived quietly.
Most research now points to an Irish migrant worker named Laurence Carroll as the first westerner to be ordained. Though he later squabbled with Bennett in the press, Dhammaloka (Carroll’s Dharma name) is mostly forgotten today. Instead of spreading the Dharma, Dhammaloka focused most of his time and energy on attacking Christianity, Western and colonial influence in Burma (this would see him convicted of sedition), and being a harsh proponent of the Vinaya (the monastic rules handed down by the Buddha).
Bennett meanwhile, with the help of some wealthy Burmese Buddhists, began working to bring Buddhism west. He founded the Buddhasasana Samagam, the International Buddhist Society, sometime around 1902, began editing and publishing Buddhism: An Illustrated Review in 1903, then founded The Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1908. Until near the end of his life, he divided his time between Burma and London working to spread Buddhism in the UK as much as his health and the generosity of his benefactors would allow.
Unfortunately, the climate of Burma did not improve Bennett’s severe asthma. By 1908, he was suffering new health conditions endemic to the tropics. Finally, in 1914, he traveled to England for the last time. While there he met with his sister and hoped to travel with her to California but was denied a VISA due to the start of World War I. Stranded in England, Bennett found it impossible to keep his monastic vows due to the practicalities of modern life in London, so he had no choice but disrobe. He managed to continue teaching and lecturing on Buddhism until his death in 1923.
Why then does Bennett remain such an obscure figure? I think there are a couple of reasons. While I’ve heard Bennett described as mysterious, I don’t think that’s true. In this modern age, most of us, with very little effort, generate a lot of info that’s easy to find. You want to know what your high school girlfriend had for lunch last Wednesday? No problem. That’s not true for those who lived in the past. Unless the person was well-known or intentionally sought out the lime-light (like Crowley), the further back in time you go, the more difficult it becomes to find any information. This becomes twice as hard with someone like Bennett who spent most of his life poor and with little possessions.
While I do think Bennett has gotten lost in Aleister Crowley’s long and black shadow, I suspect it’s mostly due to how Buddhism has been presented to make it more palpable to Westerners drunk on the illusion of their superior intellect and who, despite claims otherwise, have never been able to fully escape the tyranny of a monotheistic worldview -- even as they take others to task over their faith. These changes make Buddhism more acceptable to Westerns and also, as capitalism is our civic religion, make the Dharma easier to monetize.
Walk into your local bookstore and look at the section on Eastern religions. Odds are it’s mostly Buddhist books and odds are those books are about mindfulness, how to be happy, and other self-help topics. But good luck finding anything else. In the West, Buddhism has been purposefully portrayed as a slurry of relaxation techniques and proto-psychological therapy with a mix of philosophy and self-help.
This is, I think, quite clear from a quick search of the magazine for Western Buddhists. There is only one article on Allan Bennett at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. It presents Bennett as the answer to a trivia question. It glosses over Theosophy (never mind there would have been no 20th century Buddhist revival without it), The Golden Dawn, and Crowley in a single sentence. Though Bennett wrote about things like the role of devotion and the miraculous in Buddhism and carefully described meditative techniques for plumbing past lives, the sole article frames Allan’s motivations as the sort of things that would send you or I to the gym and to see a therapist.
This is Buddhism in the West. There can be no mention of anything that might make it feel like a religion. Buddhist cosmology and eschatology are only good for anime. Tulpas and the Diamond Vehicle are acceptable only in the context of Twin Peaks' muddy mysticism. And we like the Dalai Lama as long as he’s a leader in exile who irks China, reminds us to be kind, and never mentions that his role as head of a theocratic government in exile is based on controlled powers of reincarnation.
And thus poor Allan's Bennett's dangerous journey around the world to search for enlightenment in the face of a great suffering, instead becomes the story of how sickly Allan Bennett made the dangerous journey around the world just to, you know, be happier and healthier...So, don’t forget your mindfulness t-shirt on the way out. And we do accept credit cards.
* originally appeared at Disinformation.com