The Irish Buddhist: The Forgotten Monk Who Faced Down the British Empire, Reviewed

It took three authors to compile this rigorous biography of U Dhammaloka, an uneducated Dubliner who went on to become an agitator and famous Buddhist monk in early 20th-century Burma.

Not to mention the host of acknowledgements at the beginning of the book, including no less than 11 Dhammaloka studies specialists, all of which gives some indication into how elusive parts of his story are.

Born in Dublin in the 1850s Dhammaloka had at least five different aliases over the course of his lifetime — William Colvin, Larry O’Rourke, Collins, and Kelly, but the authors have narrowed him down to Laurence Carroll from Booterstown Avenue in Blackrock.

The idea of reinventing yourself was a common enough practice back then. Ted Nobody could jump on a boat in north Dublin, only to arrive on distant shore as Ned Anybody, battered suitcase and a good story in tow.

It’s no coincidence that this was a time when fingerprints and a mugshot were introduced in colonial Asia. Nor was it a coincidence that Ireland’s first railway stopped at the end of the avenue on which this far-distant voyager grew up, linking up with the mail and ferry port at Dún Laoghaire.

At one time a hobo and a sailor, with a Buddhist career that lasted more than a decade, it was said in a Singapore newspaper that “he could charm the heart of an old wheelbarrow”. After emigrating to Liverpool, Dhammaloka hoboed across the United States, “beat his way on a freight train to Buffalo”, “boarded a ‘side-door Pullman’ for Chicago” before continuing his way out west.

Still, there are 25 years missing in the aftermath of his days sailing New York and Japan to when he was ordained as a monk in Rangoon. Those years are lost to us now, and perhaps he was lost himself. Lost to the sea or the drink, the military or a steamboat career.

With his limited writing ability and skilful public speaking, maybe this was a time when Dhammaloka was developing the political organisational attributes that would stand him so well as agitator in Burma, at that time a province of British India.

At the turn of the century, the global, political, and religious landscape was shifting dramatically. Migration was commonplace. “Labour radicalism, socialism and anarchism” was growing in the UK. The national labour movement in the US was seeking an eight-hour day. Socialism and Fenian activity was on the rise. Dhammaloka could well have been involved in any one of these causes.

If anything, he was consistently critical of those in power and, in this fashion, the book opens with a court case. Dhammaloka has been accused of sedition, or conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch. At this time in Burma, a number of split groups were declaring a “revival of Buddhism” and he aligned his arguments with contemporary Western atheists to denounce the number of Christian missionaries arriving into India, while at the same time using religion as a basis to attack British rule. A thorn in the side of the British empire, he claimed that the influx of Westerners into Burma had brought with them the problem of “the Bible, the Bottle and the Gatling gun”.

A white European embracing the culture and religion of a colonised state broke the mould that the British empire was trying to enforce — the idea of class and race superiority and the notion of a “civilizing mission”, the very excuse for which colonialism expansion depended on.

Dhammaloka’s story is not just the story of an unusual monk, but reveals the hugely varied interactions among people of different ethnic, religious and class backgrounds in Asia at the beginning of the 20th century.

This Irish man was no stranger to controversy and seemed to rarely miss an opportunity at self-promotion. Dhammaloka translates as “Light of the Buddhist law”, a name which was frequently misinterpreted and misspelled in many publications.

Within Burma, the addition of the prefix “U” to a name is similar to adding the title Reverend. Perhaps he realised the power in titles because as the years rolled on, his own title grew as a string of letters and add-ons. For example, when he returned to Burma from his time in Japan he had given himself the name Lord High Abbot and wore the black robes of a Japanese abbot to show he had “precedence over every monk in South and Southeast Asia”.

The humour in all this wasn’t lost on an editor in the Singapore Straits Times. In somewhat Monty Python fashion, he once referred to Dhammaloka as – “The Right Reverend Lord Abbot U. Dhammaloka F.T.S., M.R.T., P.D.C.C.T., K.L., A.G., &c. &c., &c., Irish Buddhist Priest, General Superintendent ‘Straits Young Men’s Buddhist Association’.”

Dhammaloka was famous throughout the British colonies, attracting thousands of people on his tours. This Dubliner preached to merchants and locals, the hill tribes and the people from the kingdoms of Mon and Arakanese. He spoke about the dangers of alcohol and the threat of Christianity, touring the Delta region and those towns in the south under British rule the longest. ​

Regularly invited to regions by fellow Buddhists, he always reiterated his belief that Buddhism was a far superior religion to any other.

Although he used his position as monk to lift his status, Dhammaloka himself was a useful tool for the Buddhist revival. According to the teachings of one Buddhist elder, sponsoring a monk’s ordination is of greater importance than simply donating money.

In a spiritual context, in some part, this is why rich Chinese businessman Ing Myaing acted as sponsor for Dhammaloka. Another reason may have been that sponsoring the “first European to receive higher ordination in Burma” drew particular attention to the Buddhist revival, while Dhammaloka’s status as European enabled him to push boundaries with less consequence than most other Burmese monks.

One common custom for Burmese Buddhists was to remove their footwear at home and in their offices as a sign of respect, and more importantly when walking on the grounds of a pagoda — a structure that “typically houses Buddhist relics”.

At the Tabaung full moon festival in 1901, Dhammaloka challenged a police officer for wearing shoes on hallowed ground. The event sparked a “storm of letters” and widespread debate, pushing the issue high on the Buddhist agenda. More so, it opened the eyes of the authorities to Dhammaloka’s movements and the police began to create a legal case against this Irish Buddhist.

Dhammaloka would go on to carry out successful projects in Singapore, launching his own “English Buddhist mission”. Despite the strong possibility that he was dyslexic he opened up schools. A “savvy publicist” he took full advantage of print availability to promote both himself and Buddhism.

Dhammaloka’s significance may not grace many Burmese nationalist histories but that confrontation with a policeman wearing shoes on sacred ground and the waves that rippled from it would “set the stage for what was to become a central political conflict” for the nationalist movement some years later.

The Irish Buddhist captures a time of significant change and enterprise, one which easily resonates with the world of today.

The subtitle of the book is “The Forgotten Monk Who Faced Down the British Empire” and this biography is a fascinating, informative insight into a wonderful character who, without a decade worth of joint research, may well have been lost to the great ocean of the past.

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Daniel Seery: Daniel Seery is a writer from Dublin. A regular contributor to RTÉ’s Arena, his work has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. His stage play Eviction was a winner of the Shadow of the Rising competition in 2016, and his debut novel A Model Partner, originally published by Liberties Press, is due to be released in the US by publisher Melville House.

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