Bhikku Ananda Metteya: A Pioneer Western Buddhist by Paul Brunton

To the younger generation of today, the Bhikku Ananda Metteya is little more than a half-forgotten name. It may not be amiss to give some details about the extraordinary personality and exceptional career of a man who did much to introduce Buddhism to the West and who initiated me into its study.

During earlier visits to Ceylon I was able to follow up some of the tracks of my old teacher and a recent Sinhalese contact with the learned Dr Cassius Pereira revived afresh this pleasant memory of a human flower, who shed the powerful fragrance of sincerity, purity, kindliness, humility and simplicity. More than that he was, in my belief and so far as my experience went, the most advanced Western Yogi of the first two decades of this [century].

He was born in London as Allan Bennett in 1872. His father was an engineer who died early. The orphaned boy was adopted by S. L. McGregor, who was Head of a secret society called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which was devoted to magical and Rosicruciani studies. He was educated partly at Hollesley College and partly at Bath. A precocious love of science became a great force in his nature and he took the keenest theoretical and practical interest in the subject. He decided on the profession of scientific research as the vocation of his heart and, such was his genius that even in his ‘teens he was able to earn a living by chemical laboratory work. But his knowledge of electricity and magnetism was almost as advanced and it would not be too much to say that the age of seventeen found him with a profounder and wider scientific knowledge than that possessed by any other youth in England. He developed decided inventive ability which found full scope in the then young electrical industry.

His mother had put him on the path of Roman Catholicism but he drifted away from its ornate ceremonies as he grew, and remained anchorless in agnosticism for a time. The halt was brief, however, for through the opportunities provided by his foster-father he passed thence into occult investigations and particularly those dealing with ritual magic. It was inevitable that he should be initiated into Mather’s own Order in which he was known as Frater I. A. He put his whole zest into these investigations with the result that his genius once again showed itself and he even surpassed the grade attained by the Head himself. All the members stood in awe of this astonishing young man. Thus he lived for a while amid kabbalistic utterances and spectres from the shadow-world. During his endeavours to penetrate the mystery of the subconscious and super-normal mind, he tried various drugs upon himself and from that went on to experiment with poisons until once he took a tremendous overdose which would have instantly killed another man but which left him quite unharmed!


 Even during those early days the future monk revealed his innate tendency towards simple and spartan existence by dwelling in a little room in an obscure corner of London. It was there that he read for the first time Sir Edwin Arnold’s “Light of Asia,” which filled his mind with shoreline thoughts of Nirvana, and through this beautiful portal he entered into the grand and ancient religion of Buddhism, whose study and practice thereafter gradually replaced his zest for occultism, becoming his greatest passion.

In his twenty-eighth year came the greatest change of his external life – emigration to the Orient. Two factors drove him to take this decisive step. The first was his love of Buddhism and his desire to learn the art of meditation in the continent of its origin. The second was his failing health; every fresh winter in England increased his sufferings from asthma until the doctors prescribed a change of climate as necessary.

He travelled to Ceylon in 1900. At Kamburugamuwa he made an intensive study of Pali, the language in which the Southern Buddhist texts are written. Within six months his brilliant mind had conquered this ancient tongue and he talked quite easily in its archaic accents. He paid visits to various monks, monasteries, and sacred places and familiarised himself with the general atmosphere of Buddhist Ceylon. In Colombo he met a highly-advanced yogi named Sri Parananda who was of Tamil birth. The young Englishman took a whole course of practical lessons in yoga practice from him until he succeeded in mastering the postures, breathings and mental concentrations involved in an incredibly short period. The extraordinary powers which he already possessed became augmented as a result. Years later I myself had personal evidence of this development but was forbidden to talk about it, even as he himself would smilingly turn the subject or remain silent.


The day arrived when he felt ready to renounce the world, where life seemed too purposeless and perfunctory to him, and join the Order of Buddhist Monks, for he had no ties to keep him back. Various reasons made him prefer to do this in Burma and so, after two years stay, he left Ceylon. He took the yellow robe in the monastery of Akyab, on the picturesque west of the Burmese Coast, and was ordained a Bhikku in the presence of seventy-five priests under the name of Anana Metteya. The suns which had risen over this land witnessed such a scene but once before. He was the second white man to enter the Order. The English meaning of his name was “Bliss of Loving Kindness.” It is no exaggeration to say that the Bhikku was one of the most compassionate men I had ever known. Nobody was exempt from the wide sweep of his love.

He became fascinated by Burma which was then more primitive and less spoilt than it is now. He founded the International Buddhist Society in 1903, and settled down quite cheerfully to life in various monasteries.

Annie Besant had a kindly corner of her heart for him. She gave him a standing invitation to come and stay as her guest at Adyar whenever he wished. She did not fail to recognise the sterling worth of the man although he was emphatically not a Theosophist and disagreed with her on fundamental points.

The tropical climate did little to improve his chest, however, whilst it brought him new ailments peculiar to the East. As a consequence his health completely broke down and he was sent by the doctors to California, where it was thought that the mild or drier semi-tropical air would help to preserve his life. He travelled to England as the first stage on his way to the States, but the outbreak of war in 1914 cut him off for a time from financial support (which had come from the East) and forced him to stay in his native land. Clifford Bax, the playwright, came to his rescue. He gradually got caught up in the Buddhist Society work again and for some years gave all his time and energy to it. Somehow he never got to California. Once he met Rudolf Steiner, the famous anthrophosophist, and greatly admired his character, but just as greatly disagreed with his clairvoyant views on the Christ-mystery.


 It was during this period that I met him and was at once impressed by his deep knowledge of Buddhist meditation and his lovable personality. The Bhikku could not cope with the mass work which the publication of “The Buddhist Review,” the organisation of the Society, the granting of interviews and the compilation of literature forced upon him. He requested me to assist him and out of affection for his fine person, respect for his spiritual attainment, and reverence for the name of Buddha, I gladly agreed, devoting my week-ends or evenings for the purpose.

To serve Ananda Metteya was an honour and a privilege. However I occupied an anomalous position because I could not honestly join the Society as I could never bring myself either then or now to wear a doctrinal label. So it came about that although technically a non-Buddhist I carried through some of his secretarial work, assisted the editorial preparation of the “Review,” arranged lectures and even delivered them. He lived in the same humble room which he had occupied during his youth.

There he would sit amid heavy Victorian furniture, his table covered with books and palm-leaf classics, the floor around his chair littered with a miscellaneous assortment of manuscripts, letters and scientific instruments. Some statuettes of Gautama would rest on the mantleshelf, gazing benignly down at the disorderly scene. The white yogi would lean back in the large and battered arm-chair, in which I invariably found him, through his head up and to one side, gaze reflectively through the window into the little garden and answer my questions in lengthy sentences. For the remaining few years until his death we were close friends. He taught me the lofty ethic and stern ascetic philosophy of his faith, as embodied in its central and cardinal doctrines. He helped me towards two precious possessions: a rational balanced outlook and a desire to bring some light from archaic Asia to help the adolescent West.

His work for Buddhism was not that of a scholar so much as it was to provide a living example of its meaning as well as an inspiring advocate of its value. However two excellent little books remain as his written legacy to posterity, “The Wisdom of the Aryas,” and “The Religion of Burma.”

It is now nearly a score of years since he died at the age of fifty, and vanished from our time-fronted and space-backed existence, but it will be difficult to forget the terrible agonies which he calmly and uncomplainingly endured for months at a time. Shocking spasms of asthmatic cough racked his lungs every day. Yet his serene face would immediately break into a smile the next moment and he would utter some light humorous phrase or profoundly spiritual remark, as his mood went. Here one saw how his meditation, training and Buddhistic detachment had proved their worth, for although his body was stricken his mind proved invulnerable.


His appearance was striking. He was quite a tall man but he walked with a pronounced stoop, due partly to illness and partly to long hours bent over the palm-leaf text or the laboratory table. His face constantly wore a tragic look, but it was frequently illuminated by fitful smiles. Its skin had turned quite yellow through tropical liver trouble. His hair was raven-black and was flung wild and unbrushed over his forehead. His eyes were set deep beneath heavy brows and their intensity evidenced the profound mind which dwelt behind them. In England he wore ordinary Western clothes, in order not to make himself conspicuous, but in the Orient he was clad in the monk’s robe and sandals. His sombre yet tranquil face was so unusual that it still haunts my fancies.

His knowledge of Buddhism was immense. He eagerly travelled through all the labyrinths of its psychological system, and its varied yoga practices yielded quickly to his remarkable powers of concentration. He could sit, sunk in profound meditation, for hours at will; or equally at a moment’s notice, he could busy himself in the laboratory with batteries, chemicals and instruments. Such was the perfect balance which he had achieved. He never quite gave up his scientific researches and even in the Burmese monasteries a cell was usually fitted up as a laboratory for him. Few of the Indian yogis I met could hold a candle to him. He had realised the phenomenal character of all things in this parade of flickering shadows which we call life, as most of them have never done. Moreover his Buddhist teaching could not be separated from his personality: the one expressed what the other demonstrated. I have honoured and reverenced him, as he is still honoured and reverenced by some in Burma and Ceylon, because he stimulated me spiritually and quickened my dawning determination to decipher the profound enigmas of life.

Such was the man I have storied in this brief memoir, this white Buddhist whose ship has sailed for the infinite waters of Nirvana.