The Irish Buddhist: The Forgotten Monk Who Faced Down the British Empire, by Alicia Turner, Laurence Cox, and Brian Bocking, Oxford University Press, £25.99, 320+xvi pp, ISBN: 978-0190073084
Laurence Cox’s pioneering study Buddhism and Ireland was published in 2013 and, among the truly spectacular cast of characters it rescued from various degrees of oblivion, perhaps the most forgotten ‑ though certainly the most memorable ‑ was one U Dhammaloka (see http://drb.ie/essays/the-light-from-the-east). U Dhammaloka was the religious name of a working class Irishman from Dublin, variously described as a hobo and a beachcomber, who, as an occasional mariner, was adept at sailing under flags of convenience, calling himself, at different times, Laurence Carroll, Larry O’Rourke and William Colvin, and sporting at least two other aliases. His most common pseudonym, “(Captain) Daylight”, paid tribute to his Irish nocturnal equivalent Captain Moonlight. When Buddhism and Ireland was published, Cox had already been collaborating with Alicia Turner and Brian Bocking, each of whom had independently discovered this turbulent priest. Despite their fascination with their subject, the authors of this splendid and intriguing work have forgone the temptations of pseudonymity, each writing under her and his own name.
It is fairly certain that Dhammaloka was born in Dublin in the 1850s, possibly in Booterstown Avenue, Blackrock, and it is probable that he became a migrant worker in the United States, and a trans-Pacific sailor. He may have been a political radical and doubtless the drinking to which that led was the basis of his subsequent view of alcohol as the abomination of desolation. He lacked formal education but was highly intelligent. In the year 1900, in Rangoon, Burma, he took higher ordination as a Buddhist monk. According to the authors, as a monk “he was a highly visible and provocative critic of Christian missionaries, active in the networks that were making Buddhism a global religion and repeatedly at the forefront of religiously charged confrontations with the Colonial powers”. He was an “effective and immensely popular organiser” in Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and the countries now known as Singapore and Malaysia. He was also active in India, Japan, Australia, as well as perhaps Cambodia and China. His allies included leading Buddhist monks and laity in several countries, Indian migrant labourers, and “poor whites”. According to a Singapore newspaper, “Like most Irishmen, he has a ready tongue, a vivacious manner, and wonderful power of ‘blarney’. He could charm the heart of an old wheelbarrow.”
Dhammaloka was recognised as a genuine monk by the most senior monastic authorities and was “venerated to the point of adulation by tens of thousands of ordinary people across Burma”. But he also “forcibly” addressed Europeans in coruscating critiques of “unscientific” Christianity as against the “superior” religion of Buddhism. “More than any other European Buddhist before or since,” Turner, Cox, and Bocking convincingly testify, Dhammaloka “was accepted by the Burmese masses across the country. Indeed, he bears comparison with only the most popular and charismatic Burmese monks, then and now”. In a section entitled “More Popular than the Viceroy”, the authors recount the visit to Mandalay, within a month of one another, of two somewhat different figures, the viceroy of India, George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, and Larry O’Rourke (etc), now the widely celebrated Dhammaloka. There was a public reception for the viceroy, but it was outdone, it was claimed, by the welcome accorded to Dhammaloka. Certainly, these days, few of us can claim to have experienced what, in ancient Roman terms, would be considered a triumph rather than a mere ovation for Dhammaloka:
A double row of dark-haired maidens extended from the doors of the monastery for nearly half a mile along the dusty road. The women, after kneeling, stretched themselves at full length on the ground. Their hair, flowing unbound, was spread across the roadway, and over the silken carpet and down the human aisle strode the bare-footed American [sic] Buddhist.
In the nineteenth century, colonisation theory regarded religion as an intrinsic part of the colonial “mission”, as it was sometimes called, and Christian missionaries did not disagree. Reginald Heber, in his famous hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”, speaks of lands where “The heathen, in his blindness, / Bows down to wood and stone”. He then asks: “Can we, whose souls are lighted / With wisdom from on high; / Can we to men benighted / The lamp of life deny?” Only one answer was conceivable. Dhammaloka vigorously attacked Christian missionaries, seeing them as agents of empire and destroyers of indigenous cultures. Rather than Heber’s “light” and, we may assume, sweetness, they brought with them, in Dhammaloka’s words, “the Bible, the whiskey bottle, and the Gatling gun”. They preached the doctrine of the Sermon on the Mount, proclaiming that “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth (Matthew, 5:5).” Dhammaloka, like many another, would have agreed that even the most cursory glance at land registries and registries of deeds would provide incontestable evidence that the meek, though doubtless blessed, had never inherited the earth. For him there was an unbridgeable gap between the precept and the practice, which he illustrates by retelling an instructive story: “There is a group of natives in New Zealand called Maori. The Christian missionaries who came to them advised them to ‘look up at the sky and pray to God. Then you will be blessed.’ Maori people responded saying ‘when we look up and pray, you steal the earth below our feet’.”
The “Proclamation by the Queen in Council to the Princes, Chiefs, and People of India”, dated November 1st, 1858, announced the taking “upon Ourselves” of the government of the territories of India “heretofore administered in trust for Us by the Honorable East India Company”. This followed what was officially known as the “Indian Mutiny”, later named by others as the “First War of Independence” but wonderfully described officially by Queen Victoria in her proclamation as “the late unhappy Disturbances”. Another crucially important aspect of this document was its disavowal of the policy of converting the natives to Christianity, which subsequently became known as the doctrine of “religious neutrality”. But the toleration, acceptance, even celebration of indigenous religions, languages, laws, and beliefs and practices of various kinds, were in no sense intrinsically anti-imperial. This policy of “ruling India according to Indian ideas”, presented as an act of imperial kindness, still involved ruling India. The doctrine, subsequently applied to Ireland, was famously described as “killing Home Rule with kindness”, where the kindness was emphasised rather than the killing. But Dhammaloka was not duped by the mongers of meekness and kindness.
The authors write with penetrating insight on the modus operandi of the empire’s new ideological regime. The law was applied according to “religious identity, based on the idea that British rule enacted religious tolerance by enforcing a community’s own religious customary law”. But they add that “In fact, much of this customary law was articulated and codified only to reinforce the divisions that the British were producing”. The identification and construction of differences was crucial for the empire. Relying on the census of population, the “colonial state’s very mode of being required the construction of strict divisions between ethnic and religious communities. Cities were designed with distinct quarters for Chinese, Indians, Malays, Siamese, Burmese, and so on.” But Dhammaloka, the authors argue, “rendered boundaries of race and religion irrelevant in promoting a Buddhism for the modern age”, remarking that “Ethnic and religious intermixing were in fact the most commented-upon aspects of Dhammaloka’s projects in this period”. What they call an “exceptionally robust plebeian cosmopolitanism” was to be found in the colonial port cities, enabled by the “new connective technologies of telegraphs, railroads, steamers”. However, commentary on such cities across Southeast Asia focused on elite cultures, but Dhammaloka’s missions were “deeply embedded in poor local Asian communities”. His “wide range of non-Buddhist sponsors and allies shows how effectively Dhammaloka’s projects defied the assumed boundaries of religion ‑ exposing the myth of clear divisions between religions and ethnicities as a colonial fallacy”.
Until 1907, Dhammaloka had largely depended on friendly newspapers to promulgate his message, but subsequently he scaled down his own writing, increased the output of the Buddhist Tract Society, and republished or translated other works, especially by European freethinkers/atheists, mostly cheap reprints of rationalist texts, designed for mass distribution. It stretches credibility but, in 1909, Dhammaloka claimed to have sold more than ten thousand copies of the works of Thomas Paine. As the authors state, “Between 1908 and 1911 there was an active two-way relationship between Dhammaloka and Western freethinking journals” and he corresponded with at least three leading US freethought periodicals. He was undoubtedly resourceful, publishing a 1901 tract, “Revival of Buddhism”, by a Scottish Maha Bodhi representative, through the “Chinese Cycling Society”. He was himself an accomplished recyclist, an able cut-and-paste practitioner, and even a plagiarist on occasion where virtue demanded it. As president of the Buddhist Tract Society, he contributed as writer, publisher, and distributor. Turner, Cox, and Bocking argue that “Freethought had found an echo in Asia for decades. The London radical and secularist weekly, the National Reformer, edited by the atheist Charles Bradlaugh from 1867 to 1890, “had tied freethought to anti-colonial and anti-missionary activity, using rhetoric close to Dhammaloka’s. Promoting women’s rights, socialism, and other causes, it found Buddhism, Theosophy, and Unitarianism more acceptable than establishment Christianity.” There is no doubt but that Dhammaloka’s defining charism was his spoken word. The authorities did not gainsay the danger of his Buddhist revival rhetoric, seeing it as undermining colonial law and order. He was accused of preaching sedition, of which, indeed, he was guilty as charged.
The authors, deconstructing the facile binary of local and cosmopolitan, quite correctly characterise Dhammaloka as a “plebeian intellectual”. His enemies, they tell us,
routinely contrasted him with ‘good’ European Buddhists like Ananda Metteyya, typically portrayed as a gentleman scholar who understood Buddhism as philosophy, not politics, sought to introduce it to educated people in the West rather than use it to mobilize Burmese against empire, and wanted to see Buddhism recognised as another great world religion, rather than challenge Christianity.
Dhammaloka was frequently traduced, by the usual suspects, as “uneducated, illiterate, unpolished”, despite his “ability to defeat missionaries in debate, deliver short, powerful speeches, and publish influential pamphlets”. To the “guardians of empire, orthodoxy, and colonial privilege”, he was not “one of us”:
He was lampooned for his working-class Irish accent and unrefined behaviour, and for being an uneducated upstart who had so far forgotten his racial duty as to wear native dress and bow down to ‘idols’, utter libels on the eternal verities of Christianity, and question the probity of missionaries. Most alarming of all, he could ‘stir up the natives’.
A New York travel writer, Gertrude Adams Fisher, described the “Irish Buddhist”, whom she met in Japan, as an ex-priest, information, the authors delightfully speculate, that may have come from Dhammaloka himself. Fisher wrote of Mrs Letitia Jephson, theosophist and successful hotel proprietor in Brisbane, whose late husband’s family was seated at Mallow Castle: “The old Irish-Australian lady, advanced theosophist and incipient Buddhist and all-round crank, had in tow an Irish ex-priest, sycophant and parasite, who was ready to embrace any doctrine which meant no work and fruitful returns.” A missionary and editor of The Voice in Tokyo had denounced Dhammaloka and challenged him to an argument. Jephson told him to refuse, possessing neither the “wisdom nor the learning” to open his mouth. Fisher continued: “It was difficult to down the Hibernian fakir, but the old lady prevailed”, adding that “He looked like a cutthroat playing a saintly role”. To enhance his standing, Dhammaloka was not above conferring titles on himself, such as Bishop of Rangoon. One cannot but admire how, on occasion, he grandly subscribed himself as “The Right Reverend Lord Abbot U Dhammaloka F.T.S., M.R.T., P.D.G.C.T., K.L., A.G., &c., &c., &c”, the et ceteras being especially impressive.
In Rangoon, in March 1901, Dhammaloka challenged the authorities over an issue “that would become a strategic one for Burmese Buddhist nationalists across the next two decades: shoes”. The night of the largest and most important festival of the year in Burma, at the great Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon, the most sacred site in the country, he ordered an Indian police officer “to remove his shoes while on the hallowed ground of the Buddhist stupa”, that is, a reliquary housing underground the relics of the Buddha. The officer guilty of the desecration took offence and reported, and perhaps embellished, the incident to his European superior. The event, the authors tell us, “stirred up a storm of letters in the English and Burmese newspapers” and the police busied themselves setting up a charge of sedition. But with the trustees “reluctant to condemn the actions of a monk who had defended the sanctity of the Shwedagon Pagoda and in the face of a hostile public opinion, the police were unable to bring charges”. For the first time, Dhammaloka was opposing, not missionary Christianity, but the colonial state itself, seen as a direct threat to Buddhism.
Turner, Cox, and Bocking are adamant that by ceaselessly emphasising the superiority of Burmese Buddhist culture over Western values, Dhammaloka “helped form the vanguard of an anti-colonial movement that in a few decades would see the British leave Burma for good”. He succeeded because he combined being a charismatic leader with dedicated, systematic, organisation, because “behind the pamphlets and leaflets, the polemics and plagiarism, lay a world of purposive and organised activities: collecting funds, printing and distributing dissident texts, and engaging in preaching tours that attracted and enthralled audiences of tens of thousands”. Between August and November 1909, Dhammaloka dramatically extended his apostolate in a tour of Ceylon, organised by the famous Buddhist activist Anagarika Dharmapala. Many accounts of the tour, from various perspectives, survive, including transcripts of Dhammaloka’s speeches and other material in Dharmapala’s weekly paper and in his diaries, the latter often commenting on the difficulties of working with Dhammaloka. As one might expect, there was “hostile commentary from colonial and missionary press, statements distancing other Buddhist organisations from the tour, and records of police and intelligence involvement”. Dhammaloka gave forty-eight talks, which were “wildly popular, often attracting audiences of thousands”. According to Dharmapala’s weekly paper, “Buddhist gents of Bandarawala welcomed the reverend with lamps, torches and choirs at the railway station and escorted him to the temple by the procession of drummers. He stayed at a place specially prepared for him.”
For Dharmapala, the tour of Ceylon was to defend Buddhism against Christian missionary activity and among the titles of Dhammaloka’s lectures were, “What Has Christianity Done for the World?”, “Falsity of Christianity” and “Slavery under Christianity”. He also had a particular interest in education, reprimanding Buddhists for sending their children to Christian schools and advocating the setting up of Buddhist schools in every village. This, the authors tell us, “was the rationale for the Buddhist Theosophical Society schools where Dhammaloka regularly spoke, as well as the Buddhist schools he frequented in Burma and founded in Bangkok and Singapore”. As sedition was a growing concern for the British authorities across colonial Asia, Dhammaloka, not surprisingly, came under surveillance. One paper reported that, on his tour, he was accompanied by “an Inspector and two Constables”, not, we can assume, previously known for their interest in Buddhism. The sudden ending of his tour, and departure from Ceylon, coincided with the reported passing of a bill by the Ceylon Legislative Council “providing that open-air preachers vilifying other people’s religion were liable to imprisonment”. Dhammaloka was the obvious target.
Towards the end of the following year, 1910, Dhammaloka delivered three lectures to, as usual, a large and appreciative audience in Moulmein, Burma. On November 5th, Christian missionaries sent a “shorthand writer” to provide a verbatim account of his words. Three days later he received a summons requiring him “to attend in person at the Court of the District Magistrate of Amherst on the 18th day of November 1910 at 10 o’clock”. The charges were based on complaints brought by two missionaries, one Anglican and the other an American Baptist. He appeared in answer to the summons, but the case was adjourned until November 23rd, probably, the authors surmise, because of the “scale of popular mobilization”. The district magistrate, Ernest Neufville Drury, ruled that Dhammaloka’s preaching constituted seditious libel and could be prevented by law. He was “convicted and bound over to keep the peace for one year” on two substantial sureties of Rs 1,000. Chit Hlaing, who would become a “nationalist hero” and “one of the most famous Burmese figures of the early twentieth century”, represented Dhammaloka and immediately appealed the verdict to the Chief Court, Rangoon. The newspaper United Burma, which was associated with the radical wing of the Indian nationalist movement, its editor a close collaborator of Gandhi, called for contributions to Dhammaloka’s defence fund. Burmese, Indians and Chinese, the authors state, “all rallied to Dhammaloka’s side and created a defence fund”.
The appeal was scheduled for January 13th, 1911. That day “The Burmese stall-keepers of the Iron Bazar in Lanmawdaw, Suratee Burra Bazar and the Strand Municipal Bazar closed down their stalls and wended their way to the Chief Court to witness how their popular Irish priest was to be tried.” From Chinatown in the west to the Indian quarters, down to the riverfront, “all native commerce ground to a halt that day”. According to one newspaper, “There was a big crowd of spectators of all grades blocking the Court, and the yellow robe of the Burmese Phongyee [monk] was everywhere in evidence”, while Fytche Square “gave scant accommodation to the people that poured in from all directions”. According to one report, Dhammaloka himself “was parked in the street in a gaily decorated landau drawn by men women and children amidst great applause. That is an ovation which is very rarely accorded even to the most distinguished men.” Just as in the case of the district magistrate’s court in Moulmein, and doubtless not unconnected with the political resonances of the trial and the public display of support, the appeal was adjourned until January 20th.
Turner, Cox, and Bocking begin this book in dramatic fashion:
On Friday, January 20, 1911, two Irishmen, one saffron-robed and shaven-headed and the other black-robed and wearing an elaborate wig, faced each other in the heat of the Chief Court of Rangoon, in British-ruled Burma. The figure in black was the Chief Court Judge, the Honourable Daniel Harold Ryan Twomey, forty-six years old, a native of Carrigtwohill, County Cork, and by 1911 one of Burma’s best-known judges, with a reputation for severity.
The scene is in some ways reminiscent of a more celebrated trial, held in Melbourne on October 19th, 1880, in which “Irish” Ned Kelly (his parents were Irish) appeared before Sir Redmond Barry, who was Irish and, like Twomey, from Co Cork, from the parish of Ballyclough near Mallow. However, Dhammaloka did not suffer the fate of Kelly, nor did Twomey that of Barry, who died twelve days after Kelly’s execution. Indeed, Twomey subsequently became chief judge in Rangoon and reached the dignity of Sir Daniel Harold Ryan Twomey. He was born into the somewhat austerely named ‘Bleak House’ in Carrigtwohill, a district better known to followers of Cork hurling as the birthplace of Willie John Daly and Matty Fouhy. If people sometimes wonder why the distinguished anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her book Natural Symbols, has a chapter with what many would regard as an offensive title, “The Bog Irish”, there is an explanation and justification. Her maternal grandfather was Daniel Twomey.
The authors’ striking image of the two Irishmen facing each other in a courtroom in Rangoon remains in the memory, the one with a shaven head, the other resplendent in a wig of powdered horsehair. However, it is unlikely that a “double row of dark-haired maidens” ever provided the judge with a “silken carpet” on which to walk. As we have noted, shoes played a powerful symbolic role in Burmese Buddhism; in the courtroom, the radical disparity of power was manifest also in the presentation of the two leading figures, the calced and discalced. Judge Twomey dismissed Chit Hlaing’s arguments and observed, in orientalist mode, that a statement “may be highly inflammatory when translated into an Oriental language and served out with spicy comments to an audience of Orientals in a public address”. He backed the prosecution case and the authors claim that the “record of this case survives partly because it set a precedent for interpreting this section of the Penal Code in sedition trials against Indian nationalists”. For Dhammaloka, though he lost the case, it was something of a triumph. He wrote to an old friend in Calcutta: “My case has exercised a great stir in Burma, but my reputation has not suffered in the least by the prosecution. It in fact has given me a big boost in the eyes of the Burmese people, and Buddhists in general.”
On March 14th, 1912, John Larkins, claiming to be the proprietor of Neale’s “Temperance Hotel” in Melbourne, wrote to the Englishman newspaper in Calcutta announcing the death, from beri-beri, in his hotel, of one U Dhammaloka who, though “dead”, contrived to be the actual author of the letter. Death, of course, had no dominion over him, for he made a post-mortem reappearance in Singapore a few months later, telling the Singapore Free Press, who had earlier announced his death, that he was now “in the best of health”. For all we know he may still be alive.
For the long unsung Dhammaloka, this outstanding scholarly work is also a well-deserved song of praise. It is a magnificent contribution to the study Western involvement in Buddhism, not to mention the until recently virtually untilled field of Irish involvement in religions other than Christianity. We are greatly indebted to the splendid collaborative research of Professors Turner, Cox, and Bocking, which frequently demanded academic detective work of a very high order. They also deserve our gratitude for their superb contextualisation of religious belief and practice in terms of their relationships with the overarching determining powers of empire. Though this is a work of scholarship which will undoubtedly attract specialists, it is written with a light touch and will certainly appeal also to a wide range of readers.
Let us hope that before long we will have The Irish Buddhist: The Movie!
Tadhg Foley is professor emeritus of English at NUI Galway. He is completing a study of the life and work of Co Limerick-born Max Arthur Macauliffe (1838-1913), a judge in the Indian Civil Service and a celebrated authority on the Sikh religion.