Copyright © 1997 by Alexander Duncan.
Allan Bennett was an important figure in the early Buddhist movement in England at the beginning of the present century. Bennett wrote several books and many articles on Buddhism and related subjects, which were published in the Buddhist Review and elsewhere. Bennett was one of the first Westerners to accept Buddhism as a sincere and serious practitioner. He was an extraordinary man who followed an extraordinary career and deserves to be remembered today, yet his work has been almost entirely forgotten, even by many Westerners who profess to adhere to the Buddhadharma. By all accounts Allan Bennett was a true man of power, who achieved a very high degree of spiritual attainment and earned the veneration of many religious adherents in Burma. Aleister Crowley called Bennett "a tremendous spiritual force" and "the noblest and gentlest soul that I have ever known," stating that his mind was "pure, piercing, and profound."
Allan Bennett was born in London, England on December 8, 1872. His horoscope was put up for 7.23 a.m. L.M.T. by the photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn. Allan's father, an engineer, died during his childhood, and he was raised a strict Roman Catholic by his mother. Allan's interest in occult studies seems to have taken root at an early age. It is reported that the child, having heard that the devil could be evoked by reciting the Lord's Prayer backwards, proceeded to try the experiment in the back garden, and something happened which frightened him. Allan rejected Christianity at the age of 16, upon learning the facts of biological reproduction from some schoolboys. The innocent, who still believed that babies were brought to earth by angels, was so shocked that he rejected monotheism on the spot, concluding that only a devil could have invented such a repulsive means of procreation! It is also reported that the young man, at the age of 18, spontaneously experienced the trance state known as Shivadarshana, in which the universe is annihilated in an experience of blissful communion with Shiva, the Hindu god of Yoga; this experience determined his ultimate vocation, and he resolved to dedicate his life to recapturing this ecstatic state.
Bennett trained as a professional chemist, and was employed by a Dr. Bernard Dyer, Analytical and Consulting Chemist, in London in 1894, in the same year in which he was invited to participate in a scientific expedition to Africa, which he declined. Bennett was also very knowledgeable in electricity. However, chronic ill health forced him into unemployment. He spent most of his adult life in a terrible poverty, living in the Southwark or Lambeth district, a tenement slum south of the Thames. Bennett suffered from severe chronic asthma, from which his only recourse was to resort to a series of more or less continuous administrations of opium, cocaine, morphine, and chloroform, alternating between these drugs at monthly intervals, with brief respites when his body was so weakened that the symptoms abated. Yet Bennett pursued his spiritual and occult studies with sincere and intense devotion. At first Bennett was attracted to the study of Western occultism. He joined the most important occult order of his day, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which included the renowned poet William Butler Yeats, in February 1894, taking the motto "Voco" (Latin, "I call"). Bennett subsequently attained the grade of Minor Adept in May 1895, taking the motto "Iehi Aour," the Hebrew for "Let there be light!" Bennett quickly attained a reputation as a powerful magus and Cabalist, second only to S. L. M. Mathers, the Order's chief. Bennett also belonged to the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, an elite group who met with Mme. H. P. Blavatsky in private. The story is told of Bennett producing a crystal lustre in response to a Theosophist's expressing doubt concerning the power of the blasting rod; it took the incredulous individual fourteen hours to recover his senses! Bennett, with some fellow G.D. Adepts, is also reputed to have evoked the spirit of Mercury to visible appearance.
Bennett met Aleister Crowley, in the spring of 1899, and was invited by Crowley to live with him in his flat at 67/69 Chancery Lane, where the two men studied Scientific Illuminism and engaged in various courses of practical occult experimentation which resulted in tangible physical results. This association subsequently caused Bennett some grief when he was written up in the gutter press in the 1920s as a "rascally sham Buddhist monk," and accused (probably falsely) of homosexuality. Both men were very interested in the original Way which underlies all Ways, now generally called "shamanism," including the universal theme (subsequently developed by Dr. Carl Gustav Jung in his theory of the "archetype") which is described in the following quotation by Crowley:
No doubt Bennett's need for drugs to control his asthma sparked this interest. He was also interested in the hallucinogenic plant, Dictamnus fraxinella alba, for its reputed capacity to induce clairvoyant visions. In this Crowley and Bennett anticipated the discovery of the significance of psychedelics by several decades. Both Bennett and Crowley were especially interested in applying the scientific method to occult studies and the practical pursuit of illumination or enlightenment.
In addition to his occult interests Bennett was thoroughly acquainted with the classics of Hindu and Buddhist mysticism, which were just beginning to be translated into English in such massive scholarly anthologies as Max Muller's Sacred Books of the East and Sacred Books of the Buddhists series'. Bennett's devotion to Shaivite Yoga caused a major row with S. L. M. Mathers, who intensely disliked Orientalism. Mathers is said to have threatened Bennett on this account with a gun. Bennett's life was only saved, apparently, by the intervention of Moina Mathers, Mather's wife and sister of the philosopher, Henri Bergson.
The climate of England is not known for its friendliness to asthmatics, and Bennett's increasing ill health caused his friends to fear for his life. Crowley raised one hundred pounds to send Bennett to better climes, and early in 1900 he set sail for Ceylon. Here he served as private tutor to the sons of the Hon. P. Ramanathan, Solicitor-General of Ceylon, in Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo. In return, as Sri Parananda, Ramanathan tutored Bennett in the practice of Yoga. Subsequently Bennett shared a house in Kandy with Crowley, whom he instructed in Yoga. Bennett's Yogic attainments were impressive. He was able to meditate for days at a time in Padmasana, the so-called "lotus posture," which is extremely difficult to master. Crowley records one incident in which Bennett did not touch his food for three days. Concerned, Crowley entered Bennett's room, where he found him, still entranced and crosslegged, in a corner of the room, upside down! Crowley concluded that the only possible explanation of this phenomenon is that Bennett actually levitated, lost his equilibrium, slid sideways, and ended up in this position. Crowley also records that Bennett fed the leeches every morning with his own blood, and could control their ability to penetrate his skin by controlling his breathing, or vital prana. His committment to ahimsa, "harmlessness," was so profound that he refused an offer of employment as manager of a coconut plantation on the ground that he would be required to order the destruction of vermin. It is also reported that Bennett, coming across a krait, a very dangerous snake, in his path, instead of killing or avoiding it, preached to it the Noble Truths of the Buddha, until it crawled away, abased by the holy man.
It was at this time that Bennett became increasingly attracted to the teachings of the Buddhadharma. Dissatisfied with the yogic attainments of dhyana and samadhi, Bennett came to the conclusion that these ecstatic states were fundamentally distractions from the ultimate state of nibbana (nirvana), which is a state of perfect emptiness, indifference, and compassion. About 1901 he travelled to Akyab on the west coast of Burma to enter the Buddhist monastery of Lamma Syadaw Kyoung. Here he took the motto Bhikkhu Ananda Metteya, as which he became well known to the readers of the Buddhist Review and Buddhism., which he edited. Bennett acted as treasurer of the monastery and was subsequently promoted to syadaw. Here he received the veneration of many devout Buddhists and acquired a reputation as a holy man of the first water. Later he moved to Rangoon.
Bennett's devotion to the Vinaya, the rules of discipline of the Buddhist sangha, or order, caused his health to deteriorate. About 1909 Bennett led the first Buddhist mission to the West, and became a founding member of the Buddhist Brotherhood of the West and the Buddhasasana Samagama, the International Society, in Rangoon, but returning to Burma in October 1909 caused his health to deteriorate still further. When he tried to emigrate to California in 1914 to live with his sister, after meeting her in England, his health was so bad that he was refused passage, and he got caught in England, living on the charity of others. Apparently Bennett's interest in the occultism of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn revived, causing him to lose many of his Buddhist friends and allies. Bennett died young in England (date not yet ascertained), leaving behind a legacy of books and articles and the seed of what would become the Theravada Buddhist movement in the West. It is reputed that at the end he had become a Yellow Master.
Articles by Allan Bennett
Articles about Allan Bennett