(A guest post by Dr. Laurence Cox of the University of Maynooth, Ireland)
On Saturday March 2nd 1901, a barefoot Irishman confronted an off-duty Indian police officer at the Shwedagon pagoda in colonial Rangoon, challenging his right to walk there in shoes. Shoes, then as now in much of Asia, were seen as dirty and to wear shoes on a pagoda was a mark of disrespect – the more so as Indians would take their shoes off to enter temples at home. The “shoe question”, introduced in this single act of confrontation, would become a long-running anti-colonial issue for over quarter of a century, symbolising a fundamental lack of respect for native feelings: one witness alleged that the troublesome Irishman had said that the British “had first of all taken Burma from the Burmans and now we desired to trample on their religion”.
The Irishman in question, U Dhammaloka, had been given full ordination as a Buddhist monk the previous year. Barefoot, hatless and in robes, he reversed the rules of what “whites” were supposed to wear to symbolise their difference from the “natives” who massively outnumbered them – as he did by his ritual begging and more fundamentally by his very public conversion and opposition to what he saw as the key elements of colonialism – “the Bible, the Gatling gun and the whiskey bottle” or in other words missionary Christianity, the British army and alcoholism. Fresh from a wide-ranging preaching tour and a successful debate with an American missionary, Dhammaloka was up for a challenge, and weathered the succeeding trial and probable conviction with no loss of prestige in the eyes of Burmese Buddhists.
The third and final Anglo-Burmese war had concluded in 1885, followed by a brutal counter-insurgency campaign, and Dhammaloka was pushing at the limits of how opposition could be expressed. However, Catholic nationalism in Ireland had also made it clear that there were limits to how far the colonial power could be seen to go in repressing local religious sentiment, and this offered a fertile playing field for a quick-thinking and creative individual like Dhammaloka.
A travelling life
Between 1900 and 1913 he was involved in the pan-Asian and often anti-colonial Buddhist revival from Japan to Ceylon and from Singapore to Nepal: addressing huge audiences in rural areas, founding multi-ethnic and bilingual schools, networking with Asian Buddhist reformers, ordaining other Europeans, publishing and distributing tens or hundreds of thousands of pamphlets and keeping up a lively correspondence. Not without incident, however: he was to be convicted a second time (for sedition), placed under police surveillance in Australia and intelligence observation in Ceylon; he faked his own death and ultimately disappeared.
These activist skills – sailing close to the wind, sensing the right moment for a challenge, organising in many different environments – probably came from somewhere: Dhammaloka had at least three Irish aliases as well as more obvious pseudonyms, and a full 26 years of his life prior to ordination is undocumented and unaccounted for in his own stories, suggesting strongly that he had something to hide: a past as Fenian, anarchist or labour organiser perhaps?
What we do know – insofar as it is possible to know anything with certainty – is that he was born Laurence Carroll in Booterstown, probably in 1856; with no prospects at home, he took ship for Liverpool and worked his way across the Atlantic (apparently in the ship’s pantry). After a time working on coastal shipping he became a hobo (migrant worker) and travelled across the US in the post-Civil War depression of the early 1870s, eventually winding up on the fruit-boats in Northern California. From here he found work sailing on the trans-Pacific steamers; on his own account his tendency to disorderly conduct left him stranded in Yokohama and eventually working as a tally-clerk on the Rangoon docks.
Forgotten and revived
Irish but Buddhist, Buddhist but activist, anti-colonial but not nationalist, Dhammaloka did not fit easily into later histories of the Irish diaspora, western Buddhism or Asian nationalism. Famous in his own day and widely attested in his own words and those of observers from Harper’s Magazine to the “vagabond journalist” Harry Franck, he was quietly dropped from the record, to the point where conventional Buddhist history recorded his far more genteel English successor Allan Bennett (Ananda Metteyya) as the first western Buddhist.
For the last five years a team consisting of Prof. Brian Bocking (UCC), Prof. Alicia Turner (York University Toronto) and myself at Maynooth have been putting together the pieces of this remarkable life, aided by Japanese, Thai, Burmese, Sri Lankan, Canadian and US colleagues who can shed light on some of the many worlds and contexts that Dhammaloka moved in. The digitisation of newspaper records, small periodicals and turn-of-the-century books has made it far easier to search for a name in unlikely places, and confirm many stories which we initially dismissed as too unlikely to be true.
Now Meath film-maker Ian Lawton is trying to bring this extraordinary story to the screen as a documentary, animated by Paul Bolger and with music by Mumblin’ Deaf Ro. The project is running on a new Buddhist crowdfunding site, with a very wide range of rewards, from a copy of the film for €1 and up. The site has three trailers, artwork and a music video: take a look at https://dana.io/thedharmabum.An Irish Buddhist agitator in Burma by Laurence Cox