I spent some time today reading about someone I had never heard of before – U Dhammaloka, described on Wikipedia as “an Irish-born hobo (migrant worker) turned Buddhist monk, atheist critic of Christian missionaries, and temperance campaigner who took an active role in the Asian Buddhist revival around the turn of the twentieth century.”
I am surely not the only person in the world who has never heard of this man before, as he has only recently been “discovered” by a small group of scholars (Alicia Turner, Brian Bocking and Laurence Cox) who are now researching about him. They have created a web page about their efforts, and the following video:
Why is it that we have not known anything about U Dhammaloka until now? Bocking offers several reasons in an academic article that he wrote (“‘A Man of Work and Few Words’? Dhammaloka Beyond Burma,” Contemporary Buddhism 11.2 ) for why U Dhammaloka has fallen through the cracks:
1. “As a working-class Irishman with no involvement in western religion, government, commerce or the military, he finds no place in British colonial history in Asia.”
2. “As an Irishman who left Ireland, was not a Catholic and effectively renounced his Irish name, he is lost to the no less selective Irish national memory.”
3. “As a European but not an oppressor, he easily eludes the sweep of Burmese and other Asian national historiographies.”
4. “As a European without formal education, whose Buddhist tracts were a blend of plebeian western freethought, itself a marginalized tradition and ‘dharmic’ rather than ‘transcendental’ Buddhism, his literary output falls below the western Buddhist Studies scholarly radar.”
5. “As a lone atheist and rabble-rouser against Christianity, he was of no lasting interest to Christian missiographers.”
That said, the above scholars have found plenty of information about U Dhammaloka. This was certainly facilitated by the digitization of newspapers by such organizations as the Singapore National Archives, but as Bocking points out, U Dhammaloka can fall through the cracks of the digital world as well as some of the people who wrote about him tried to imitate his Irish accent which creates words that can “defeat a search engine.” (pg. 231)
An example of this can be found in a book called A Vagabond Journey Around the World: A Narrative of Personal Experience by Harry A. Franck and published in 1910. Frank met U Dhammaloka on a train in India and wrote the following passage about U Dhammaloka’s conversation with an Indian Christian convert:
As the afternoon wore on a diminutive Hindu, of meek and childlike countenance, appeared on board, and, hobbling in and out through the alleyways on a clumsily-fitted wooden leg, fell to distributing the pamphlets that he carried under one arm. His dress stamped him as a native Christian missionary. Suddenly, his eye fell on Dhammaloka, and he stumped forward open-mouthed.
“What are you, sahib?” he murmured in a wondering tone of voice.
“As you see,” replied the Irishman, “I am a Buddhist priest.”
“Bu—but what country do you come from?”
“I am from Ireland.”
. . .
“Ireland?” he cried, tremulously, “Then you are not a Buddhist! Irishmen are Christians. All sahibs are Christians,”. . .
“Yah! Thot’s what the Christian fakers tell ye,” snapped the Irishman. “What’s thot ye’ve got?”
The Hindu turned over several of the tracts. They were separate books of the Bible, printed in English and Hindustanee.
“Bah!” said Dhammaloka, “It’s bad enough to see white Christians. But the man who swallows all the rot the sahib missionaries dish oop fer him, whin the thrue faith lies not a day’s distance, is disgoostin’. Ye shud be ashamed of yerself.”
“It’s a nice religion,” murmured the convert.
“Prove it,” snapped the Irishman. (pg. 365)
There are countless ways in which U Dhammaloka was a fascinating figure. Based in Burma, he traveled to Japan, Singapore, Siam and India and engaged in a wide variety of activities, from confronting Christian missionaries to setting up multi-ethnic schools for the poor.
What I find particularly fascinating, however, is the way in which at the same time that he was a peripheral figure (and therefore has been forgotten) he was also involved in some of the main issues of the day.
A good example of this is the “shoe controversy.” In the “orthodox/nationalist” narrative of Burmese history, the period of 1916-1919 is seen as an important moment as this was when some Burmese (successfully) protested against the British colonial government in an effort to ban Europeans from wearing shoes in Buddhist temples.
However, in 1901 U Dhammaloka caused a stir by confronting an Indian policeman (working in Burma) who was wearing shoes in the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, as unlike Europeans, Indians were supposed to take their shoes off in Burmese temples.
The Burmese nationalist narrative of the past does not give credit to a working-class Irishman for playing a role in protesting against some of the negative aspects of colonialism, but U Dhammaloka did apparently contribute to doing so.
This of course does not mean that U Dhammaloka was some kind of saint, as there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he was quite a charlatan.
But one point that is very clear is that U Dhammaloka was a typical hot-blooded Irishman, and you have to love him for that!