Monday, May 30, 2016

Western Buddhism's Hidden History I

The establishment of a previously alien religion in a new environment is bound to be one of fits and starts, successes and dead ends, and so it has been with Buddhism in the West. Until fairly recently the beginnings of Western Buddhism  was thought to be fairly clear and well-known, but recent research  has  shed new and unexpected light on this phenomena.
It seems certain now that the first Westerner to ordain as a monk, remain so for an extended period,  and have at least some influence, was Bhikkhu Dhammaloka. His early life and given name are uncertain. He reportedly gave at least three names for himself at different times; Laurence Carroll, Laurence O'Rourke and William Colvin.  He was born in Dublin in the 1850s, emigrated to the United States, and worked his way across the US as a migrant  labourer  before finding work on a trans-Pacific liner. Leaving the ship in Japan, he made his way to Rangoon arriving  in the late 1870s or early 1880s, around the time of the British annexation of Upper Burma. He became a monk sometime before 1899 and started giving public talks a year later. As with some other early Western monks in Asia Dhammaloka urged people to remain true to the faith of their fathers and not be seduced by the enticements of  the missionaries. He told the Burmese that their religion was as ethical, coherent and valid as that of the missionaries, if not more so. Being Irish, Dhammaloka was also decidedly anti-British and he attacked the colonial government at every opportunity, making him something of a hero to the Burmese and an irritation to the British. Touring the country huge crowds assembled to listen to the white monk who lauded rather than disparages the Burmese and their religion. In 1907 Dhammaloka founded The Buddhist Tract Society which during its existence published numerous books and booklets on the Dhamma. His anti-British comments eventually led to Dhammaloka and some of his supporters being charged with sedition, found guilty and fined Rupees 1000 each. Dhammaloka left Burma shortly after and disappeared from history. He is thought to have died in 1914.
More well-known successors to Dhammaloka were H. Gordon Douglas (Bhikkhu Asoka) formerly head of   Mahinda College in Ceylon who ordained in   February 1899  and died of cholera in Burma in April 1900;  the Scotsman  Allan Bennett (Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya) ordained in Burma in May 1902 and founder  of  the International Buddhist Association and  Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He died in 1923; Anton Gueth (Ven. Nyanatiloka) of German who was ordained in Burma in 1904 by Ananda Metteyya and lived much of the rest of his life in Ceylon; and J. F. McKechnie (Bhikkhu  Silacara) who ordained as a novice in July 1907 in Rangoon. After disrobing in 1925  McKechnie  continued as editor of The British Buddhist for many years. However, recent research has uncovered a surprising number of other Westerners who were drawn to the Buddhist monkhood  before these pioneers. In the 1870s a destitute Russian became a monk in Bangkok and in 1878 an Austrian man is reported to have ordained in Bangkok. Nothing more is known about these two individuals. In June 1892 a Mr. MacMillan arrived in Ceylon from Scotland and ordained under the name Sumangala. Records from Japan show that a Dr. Norman, “a well-known Englishman” became a monk there in 1900. A Jewish man named Arnold Abraham or Abrams who had lived in the Straits Settlements in Malaya ordained in Rangoon in June 1904 and took the name  Dhammawanga. M. T. de la Courneuve was ordained as a novice by Dhammaloka under the name Dhammaratana in Singapore October 2nd 1904.  He was an ex-Inspector of Police, Pahang, Straits Settlements in Malaya and his father had been a Deputy Commissioner in the Burmese Civil Service. An individual named C. Roberts, a  Welshman who is said to have spoken  spoke with an American accent,  ordained as a novice probably in Rangoon in 1904. He disrobed in October 1904 after receiving a remittance from parents. He may have put on the robe simply because he was without money. An American sailor whose name has not been recorded  ordained in Burma and in 1905 was residing  in the Tavoy Monastery in Rangoon. Others who have come to light include Frans Bergendahl (Sunno),  a 20-year-old son of a wealthy Amsterdam merchant and  a German Mr. Stange (Sumano)    who were both ordained by Nyanatiloka in 1906. Sumano died in 1910 and Sunno  died in 1915. An Irishman whose lay name is unknown took the name Bhikkhu Visuddha  and was  involved in mass conversions of  untouchable mine-workers in Marikuppam in India in 1907-8. Nothing else is known of him.  A Mr. Solomon  became a   novice in Burma  in 1907  but was disrobed shortly after for breaking rule about drinking alcohol. The German Walter Markgraf became a novice under  Nyanatiloka in 1907 and disrobed half a year later. E. H. Stevenson born in the UK in 1863 ordained under the name Sasanadhaja in Burma in September 1908 and is mentioned as giving lectures lectures in Australia on a tour as a missionary for Buddhism in 1910.
As with most of these others we have only the barest information about these pioneers, mainly from incidental sources. Because of lack of information it is difficult to know why these men took, what was then such an unusual step and why they eventually disrobed. No doubt some were at a loose end or were eccentrics, others may have developed a fascination for Asian culture and wanted to experience it form the inside.  Cardinally all of them would have found the climate and food in the tropics challenging, and Asian Buddhist norms so different from their own, and this probably explains why so few of them lasted long in the robes. One who did survive and indeed flourish was Captain Charles Pfoundes.
Up until recently it has been widely accepted that the British monk Ananda Metteyya’s (Allan Bennett’s)  founded and organized the first  Buddhist mission to the West in London in 1908. Recent collaborative research by historians in Japan and Ireland however has shown that this assumption needs to be revised. In fact it was not Theravadian but rather Mahayana Buddhists who were the first to try to teach Buddhism in the West. In 1889 the Japanese-sponsored  Buddhist Propagation Society  (BPS) of Japan  launched a mission  to London  led for three years by the Irish-born Buddhist Captain Charles Pfoundes.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Christianity Burgeoning in China

Although the Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist, the country's constitution allows "freedom of religious belief," and the practice of formal religion has expanded in China, in fits and starts, for decades. The number of Chinese professing Christianity, in particular — estimated at more than 70 million — is rising so dramatically that, by some projections, China will have the world's biggest Christian population by 2030. The profusion of churches seems to have unnerved some Chinese authorities, who have undertaken a campaign to tear down hundreds of crosses, and in some instances entire churches, in Zhejiang, a coastal province where a prosperous Christian community and large numbers of churches have taken root. The government's move against churches, after years of widening religious tolerance, reflects its continued resistance to the rule of law and, with it, the potential for any challenge to the Communist Party's monolithic grip on political power. The government's insecurity revealed itself in late August when a highly respected rights lawyer, Zhang Kai, who had taken up the cases of dozens of churches in Zhejiang protesting the demolition of their crosses, was detained by police. The fact that he is being held in secretive detention, with no access to his lawyers, colleagues or family, and on trumped-up charges — endangering state security and "assembling a crowd to disrupt social order" — only underscores the authorities' fretfulness. What's more, Mr. Zhang was seized by police just a day before he was to meet with U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David N. Saperstein, who was in China partly to discuss the travails of Christian churches. The detention came less than a month before Chinese President Xi Jinping is to meet President Obama at a U.S.-China summit, so it also represents a slap at the United States. Mr. Obama should not let it go unmentioned when Mr. Xi visits Washington. The detention of Mr. Zhang augments a crackdown in which hundreds of Chinese human rights lawyers have been arrested and interrogated by police since July for having championed sensitive causes that make the government nervous. The sweep has targeted lawyers who have represented environmental activists; parents of children who became ill from consuming tainted powdered milk; a Beijing research assistant for a prominent German newspaper; women's rights activists protesting sexual harassment; and pro-democracy campaigners, among many others. In all, according to Amnesty International, more than 230 lawyers were detained, at least briefly, and at least two dozen were still being held weeks later. A confident government in Beijing could surely countenance growing civic activism whose common thread is the service of human dignity; and indeed, China's authoritarian system, despite its intolerance of dissent, had allowed a proliferation of issue advocacy, at least on a case-by-case basis, that stopped well short of threatening the regime itself. Now, by attempting to muzzle and intimidate lawyers and activists like Mr. Zhang, and tear down church crosses by the hundreds, the government is only drawing attention to its tenuous legitimacy and the limits of China's rule of law.
From The Washington Post.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Vesakha Again

All attempts to include some photos of Nepal’s Bunga Dyah Jatra car festival in my post of earlier today failed, so here they are now. There seems little doubt that this type of festival goes back to the Vesakha festival that the Chinese monk Faxian witnessed in India in the 5th century. See the earlier post.