Buddhism in London
Did you know that Buddhism has had a presence in London for over 120 years? This article overviews the historical context of our current London Buddhist Centre at the Beaufoy.
Early Buddhist influences on London
Japanese Pure Land Buddhists (1840–1907) established the first Buddhist “mission” in the West in 1889 in the central London home of a pioneering Irish Buddhist, Charles Pfoundes. The mission however was short-lived, as Pfoundes emigrated to Japan three years later.
The next figure in the introduction of Buddhism in London was Allan Bennett (1872–1923). He was the second Englishman to become a Buddhist monk in the Theravada tradition (the first died shortly after his ordination in 1899). Bennett inspired many Londoners to explore Buddhism. A former occultist, he was a friend of Aleister Crowley, with whom he shared an interest in Buddhism. Bennett lived in a poor area of London. He was tormented by illness, which compelled him to use morphine and other drugs. He stayed with Crowley for a short time at a flat in Chancery Lane in central London, where they pursued their passion for mysticism.
After falling out with Crowley, in 1900 Bennett took a ship to Asia to dedicate himself to Buddhism. First he travelled to Ceylon, and later Burma where he received monastic vows and the name Ananda Metteyya “Bliss of Loving Kindness”. After returning to London, in 1908 Bennett started to promote Buddhism. He faced difficulties in upholding monastic rules in London, for example he was not allowed to ride behind a horse but London’s public transport was horse-drawn; he could not handle money so could never travel alone; and couldn’t share a house with a woman. However he managed to generate much attention.
Another key figure in Buddhism making its mark on London was Christmas Humphreys, QC (1901–1983), considered the most eminent of all 20th Century British Buddhists. A barrister, he prosecuted several controversial cases in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and later became a judge at London’s Old Bailey. Humphreys’ interest in Buddhism developed at Cambridge University, where he joined the Theosophical Society. He was influenced by Ananda Metteya and other early British Buddhists, such as the Pali Text Society’s founder, W.T. Rhys Davids. Humphreys organised a group that developed into the “Buddhist Lodge” of the Theosophical Society, which by 1926 had seceded to become the Buddhist Society in London, which is now the UK’s longest-standing Buddhist institution. In Humphrey’s spirit of non-sectarianism, the Buddhist Society has promoted the teachings of all Eastern Buddhist traditions, supported the development of Buddhism in London and the UK, and has hosted many prominent teachers. Of particular relevance to the history of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism was the welcoming of H.H. the 16th Karmapa at the Buddhist Society on his visit to London in 1977.
Proliferation of Buddhist Centres in London
In the latter half of the 20th Century a number of actual and nominal Buddhist organisations appeared and made their mark on London’s Buddhist landscape. Theravada Buddhist institutions such as Chithurst and Amaravati Monasteries in north London gradually emerged from the fledgling English Sangha Trust, founded in London in 1956 by the English monk Bhikkhu Kapilavaddho (William Purfurst) to provide residences for monks and establish an authentically British monastic community. Temples catering predominantly for ex-patriot Buddhist communities of Sri Lanka and Thailand took shape respectively with the London Buddhist Vihara (West London) and Buddhapadipa Temple (Wimbledon). Other smaller temples and centres have similar offerings for London’s diverse Eastern Buddhist communities.
Other Western or “modern” Buddhist organisations emerged in the late 20th Century and established their centres in London, some attracting attention to Buddhism for unfortunate reasons.
Tibetan Buddhism in London
By the early 21st Century, the popularity of Buddhism amongst those from both ethnically Buddhist cultures and Western practitioners had led to a proliferation of centres, temples and groups in and around London, offering access to virtually every brand, tradition, school or lineage of Buddhism, with Eastern roots or otherwise. Among this expansion, all of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism found representation. The Gelug School of the Dalai Lama is established in the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition’s (FPMT) Jamyang Centre in Lambeth; the teachings of the Sakya School are accessible through the Sakya Dechen Ling centre in Notting Hill of the British Buddhist master, Lama Jampa Thaye; the Nyingma School may be encountered at the Palyul Centre in Islington; and the Karma Kagyu School in the London Diamond Way Buddhist Centre in Lambeth.