Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Christmas Humphreys' "Sixty Years of Buddhism in England": Book Review

Six decades spans the coming of Buddhism as a novelty to the island into its hesitant acceptance, during the countercultural efflorescence, as a hip commodity. He compiles the movement's history, as unflagging co-founder of the Buddhist Society in 1924 that overlapped an earlier one founded in 1907.

He follows the Society's fortunes briskly, in a rapid survey of its challenges during both wars, and especially what faced its members when WWII London engulfed, literally, its situation. The men had to choose to serve or not, and Humphreys tells fairly of their decisions, and of the bravery that those in the City had to find within themselves as their Headquarters faced the flames. He learns the lesson of impermanence, to be sure.

Humphreys also shows characteristic wit. He finds at Westminster Cathedral circa 1928 a Catholic Truth Society pamphlet by one G. Willoughby-Meade, "Buddhism in Europe." It opens with a tirade against "a much more insidious foe" than even Spiritualism. Humphreys notes how: "The whole pamphlet is a fine example of the psuedo tolerance of Rome, which advises a careful examination of all other points of view on the unshakable assumption that they are all wrong." (31-2) Its condescending tone towards Buddhist adherents as "little children stumbling in the dark" will not be the last manifestation of the kind of intolerance that Humphreys and his cohorts will face in Britain.

Still, they soldier on as peaceful warriors. He promotes dharma as a harmony of religion (of a non-theistic sense) and science, a rational philosophy rather than dogmatic authority, and one offered "with humility and tolerance, yet as provably true, as tested by thousands of years of experience." (75) He strives to make it understandable for Westerners. Some later have criticized his approach as too humanist, too soft, but for his era, before the widespread transmission of Tibetan and Zen techniques over much of the West, he sought to dispel misunderstandings of a incense-wafting, nihilistic, idol-worshipping, Void-obsessed cult that repelled timid pallid inquirers.

In this, published in 1968, we find an concluding appeal for a more lasting Buddhism than a fad for instant enlightenment by chemicals or charlatans. He advises, against the fervor of that time, for a Buddhist institution to eschew "politics of any kind," but he also encourages each Buddhist to exemplify its deathless precepts in a disciplined, committed fashion. By this, he reckons, more by example than "by useless and generally harmful interference" can be done.

Arguable, but from one who lived through two World Wars and defended and prosecuted many at the Bar, he shows here as in his autobiography (1978's "Both Sides of the Circle"--also reviewed by me) a mature defense of one who sought to go beyond the introverted stance of many of his fellow British Buddhists and who took on moral causes as his own dogged radical in conformist's clothing. He and his colleagues as summarized in this report tried to put down roots within, rather than lay them across, the Western soil where they transplanted Buddha's message "against the darkness now descending on the spiritual world." (84)

Illustration: "Buddhism in England" 5:2 (June 1930) Published by the "Buddhist Lodge" in London, as an early effort of Humphreys and cohort to bring such experts as D.T. Suzuki-- via a publication later under the editorship or Alan Watts-- to the attention of Western audiences. (Posted to Amazon US 4-18-10)


Unknown said...

Christmas Humphreys and a group of leading British buddhisists from the Buddhist Society were sitting down to a meal in a London restaurant and with them was the zen roshi Jiyu Kennett, an English woman who had gone to Japan and had become a zen master, and who later went on to found the zen monastery at Mount Shasta in California and the zen retreat at Throssel Hole in Northumberland.

They ordered vegetarian meals but to the surprise of her buddhist colleagues roshi Kennett ordered chicken and chips. When asked why she had not ordered a vegetarian meal she announced "when eating eat with relish" and she promptly picked up a leg of chicken and devoured it.

See blog...

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Alan, Shasta Abbey as you may know (I've never been up that way but once at the age of ten-- California's a big state to cross) is a hotbed of New Age imagination. All sorts of legends concocted about supposed powers and alignments, similar to Glastonbury's promotion? Kennett seems to have pioneered this, however intentionally or inadvertently!

That anecdote sums up a lot about Zen, doesn't it? Thanks for the added info, and the pic of Jiyu-roshi sums up her up well.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Alan's blog entry tells more about Jiyu-roshi Kennett.