Dhammaloka Project

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“This busy combination of mart and temple [the Shwedagon Pagoda] the Buddhist Tract Society has chosen as a rare strategic spot from which to disseminate its doctrines, and here is a stall filled with its literature.” (Missionary Francis Clark, 1910).

In 1911, a Buddhist monk named U (Venerable) Dhammaloka was tried for sedition by the British colonial authorities in Rangoon (Burma). His challenge to “the Bible, the whiskey bottle and the Gatling gun” (or in other words missionary Christianity, western culture and imperial rule) had gone one step too far – another brush with the law in a career which had seen him put under surveillance in Ceylon, the subject of an international police communication while in Australia and threatened with sedition charges in Burma once before.

Dhammaloka had had a remarkable career since his ordination in 1900, with barnstomping preaching tours in rural Burma, founding a multiracial school in Singapore and a bilingual one in Bangkok (which still exists), touring Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) under the auspices of Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala, taking part in the foundation of an International Young Men’s Buddhist Association in Japan, ordaining westerners and sending them out to Kuala Lumpur, Penang and even Australia. His “Buddhist Tract Society” used western atheist arguments to challenge Christian missionaries and distributed hundreds of thousands of copies of his tracts.

But Dhammaloka had been born in Dublin, more than half a century before, perhaps as Laurence Carroll or Laurence O’Rourke, before working his way across the Atlantic and then across the USA as a “hobo” or migrant worker in the 1870s. Later he worked his way across the Pacific and eventually found his way to Burma.

There are lots of questions as yet unanswered in the life of Dhammaloka. Perhaps 28 years of his life are unaccounted for, between his crossing the USA and his ordination in Rangoon in 1900. Was he a political activist in the States, and is this why there are so many gaps in his biography? When did he stop being a “good Irish Catholic” and become a firebreathing atheist? Why did he fake his death in Australia, and why do we have no record of the real death of a figure who was constantly in the newspapers?

What we do know sheds a very different light on the first western Buddhists to the tale which has traditionally been told. It is true that, as in the conventional story, some were unworldly spiritual figures and some were gentlemen scholars. But many were ex-sailors, “beachcombers”, “poor whites” and others like Dhammaloka who stepped across the lines of race and colour that governed imperial Asia, stood in opposition to colonialism and missionary Christianity, and “went native” in the most dramatic of ways. The Dhammaloka research project is rewriting the history of “how the Dharma came west” and uncovering some very colourful lives indeed.

The life of Dhammaloka also shows us a different side of Irish religious history. It is simply not true that all Irish people accepted “Catholic” and “Protestant” as their only choices in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Along with Theosophists and Hindus, atheists and freethinkers, there have been Buddhists in Ireland – and Irish Buddhists in Asia – since the late nineteenth century, even though the level of sectarianism was such that it took a hundred years for the first Buddhist to “come out” publicly. Under these conditions it took an unusual kind of person to go against the grain and take on such a different culture and philosophy, and the first Irish Buddhists include some truly remarkable individuals.

This website showcases some of the findings from these various research projects. It includes material directly related to the search for U Dhammaloka along with research on the broader issue of early western Buddhists in Asia and work on the history of Buddhism and Ireland. There are links to published research of various kinds, details on events and other resources covering these three extraordinary stories, as well as background on the project team and funding.

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