Buddhist Psychologies and Masculinity in Early Twentieth-Century Britain

  • Alison Falby
Part of the Genders and Sexualities in History book series (GSX)


In March 1934, the London playwright Clifford Bax asked the Irish nationalist poet George William Russell (‘A. E. ‘) to dinner ‘to find out what he really believes about reincarnation and post-mortem states and the Anattā doctrine’.2 Anattā is a traditional Buddhist doctrine that denies the existence of self, soul and ego. It may seem ironic, then, that many British men became interested in Buddhism as a form of self-help in the interwar years. As they debated interpretations of anattā and the existence of selfhood, British Buddhists struggled with issues of religion and identity and, through their intellectual conflict, contributed to modern Buddhism’s representation as a rational, practical religion of self-help. In the early decades of the twentieth century, British Buddhism was a diverse and contested ground with adherents engaged in the process of spiritual development and doctrinal formation.3 Two principal Buddhist associations competed for religious authority by offering different doctrines of anattā, each of which signified different types of non-Christian masculinity. The Mahabodhi Society (established 1926) offered a nationalist masculinity predicated upon South Asian ethnicity and the non-existence of a permanent self. It equated self-help with a traditional understanding of the doctrine and knowing that any sense of self is illusory.


Experiential Knowledge Interwar Period Religious Culture Buddhist Study Religious Change 
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Further reading

  1. Almond, P. C. (1988) The British Discovery of Buddhism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bell, S. (1991) ‘Buddhism in Britain: Development and Adaptation’, PhD Thesis (University of Durham).Google Scholar
  3. Bluck, R. (2006) British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice and Development (London: Routledge).Google Scholar
  4. Dean, S. T. (1998) ‘Decadence, Evolution, and Will: Caroline Rhys Davids’ “Original” Buddhism’, in J. Melnyk (ed.) Women’s Theology in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Transforming the Faith of Their Fathers (New York: Garland Publishing Inc.), pp. 209–27.Google Scholar
  5. Dixon, J. (2010) ‘Modernity, Heterodoxy and the Transformation of Religious Cultures’, in S. Morgan and J. de Vries (eds) Women, Gender and Religious Cultures in Britain, 1800–1940 (London: Routledge), pp. 211–30.Google Scholar
  6. Franklin, J. J. (2008) The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).Google Scholar
  7. Humphreys, C. (1968) Sixty Years of Buddhism in England (1907–1967): A History and a Survey (London: The Buddhist Society).Google Scholar
  8. Key, D. N. (2004) Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation (London: Routledge).Google Scholar
  9. McMahan, D. L. (2008) The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).Google Scholar
  10. Oliver, I. P. (1979) Buddhism in Britain (London: Rider and Company).Google Scholar

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© Alison Falby 2013

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  • Alison Falby

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