Book: Translocal Lives and Religion
Chapter: 7. Charles Pfoundes and the Forgotten First Buddhist Mission to the West, London 1889
The Irishman “Captain” Charles James William Pfoundes (b. Wexford, Ireland 1840, d. Kobe, Japan 1907) emigrated from Ireland in 1854 and joined the colonial navy in Australia. By the age of 23 he was a seasoned mariner with experience of captaining a Siamese naval vessel. He arrived to live in Japan in 1863 and quickly learned Japanese. Embarking on what would be a lifelong interest in Japanese customs and culture he became a well-known intermediary between Japanese and foreigners in the troubled period around the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and contributed to the new Japanese merchant shipping industry. In 1878 he returned to the UK, in the 1880s acquiring a reputation as a prolific speaker on Japan in London. In 1889 he launched, under the aegis of the newly-formed Kaigai Senkyō-Kai (Overseas Propagation Society) in Kyoto, a Buddhist mission in London called the Buddhist Propagation Society which operated until 1892. This forgotten but highly active Japanese-sponsored Buddhist mission to London, the cosmopolitan hub of the global British empire, predates by ten years the so-called “first” Buddhist missions to the West led by Japanese immigrants to California in 1899 and by almost two decades the “first” Buddhist mission to London of Ananda Metteyya (Allan Bennett) from Burma in 1908. Recent research into Pfoundes’s 1889 mission, including his confrontations with Theosophy and links to Spiritualism and progressive reform movements, offers new insights into the complex, lively and contested character of global religious connections in the late 19th century and particularly the early influence of Japan in the development of emerging “global” Buddhism(s). This chapter builds on existing published material to raise a number of issues surrounding Pfoundes’s Buddhist activities in London, with questions which may resonate for researchers dealing with other “transnational encounters” in the field of religion.