The Irish Buddhist Monk Who Faced Down the British Empire

Lambert here: Colonialism and identity are more complicated than we might think…

By Laurence Cox, long-time activist, teacher and editor in many different social movements and a practing Buddhist. He is Associate Professor in Sociology at the National University of Ireland Maynooth, where he researches popular struggles and anti-colonial Buddhism. Originally published at Open Democracy.

In early March 1901, a barefoot Buddhist monk challenged an off-duty colonial policeman in Rangoon, ordering him to take his shoes off while on the grounds of the sacred Shwedagon pagoda. Shoes are considered dirty in much of Asia and are normally removed in religious spaces. But a mere 15 years after the final Anglo-Burmese war, the conquerors – whether soldiers, police or tourists – wore them everywhere.

Not only would this confrontation reverberate across Burma, becoming a key symbolic issue in the development of anti-colonial resistance; but it was also an early exemplar of integrated, personal-political activism, before Gandhi and later developments such as the US civil rights movement. As such, it has much to teach us for today.

Wearing shoes was one of many distinctions used in the high imperial era to set colonising Europeans apart from, and above the Asians who massively outnumbered them, but this particular drama was heightened because the monk, U Dhammaloka, was himself white and Irish.

‘Poor whites’ – the class of working-class Europeans that empire generated in Asia as ex-sailors, ex-soldiers and skilled workers of various kinds – continually undermined the imperial establishment’s attempts to draw neat lines between themselves and the colonised.

A European Buddhist monk, barefoot with shaven head, ritually begging and subordinated to an Asian religious order, symbolised the difficulty of maintaining these boundaries of bodies, culture and race. ‘Going native’ posed a problem when power depended on maintaining strict racial hierarchies.

This was all the more true when the monk in question was Irish, like much of the British Army in India. With rising nationalism at the time in Ireland, imperial anxieties about Irish loyalty in Asia ran high, symbolised by best-selling books like Kipling’s Kim (also published in 1901), whose Irish protagonist is torn between his loyalty to the Raj and a Tibetan Buddhist lama.

Conversely, such a figure was useful to all sorts of Asian actors and networks. Ordained by leading figures in the Burmese Buddhist sangha, Dhammaloka was based in monasteries of the minority Dawei community in Rangoon and Bangkok, supported by an opium-dealing Shan chieftain and a Singaporean Chinese businessman. He was involved in Japanese efforts to develop international Buddhist networking, and was an effective organiser in today’s Malaysia, a celebrity preacher in rural Burma and a touring star in Ceylon, all between 1900 and 1913.

But beyond his symbolic value, Dhammaloka – who was probably born Laurence Carroll in Dublin in 1856 – had already remade himself several times over. One of millions of Irish emigrants after the Famine, he worked his way across the Atlantic, hoboed around the United States and worked on trans-Pacific ships before becoming a dockworker in Rangoon. But somewhere along the way, in a world of tightening racial boundaries and increasing ethno-nationalism, he made and affirmed the ethical choice not to identify in those terms.

Perhaps it was relevant that before his exposure to the racial tensions of Empire in Asia, he had moved through the racialised conflicts of Californian and trans-Pacific labour; he had been a hobo in the post-Civil War era when Irish immigrants increasingly defined themselves against black Americans; and before that, in the Catholic-Protestant tensions of Ireland and Liverpool.

His decision to become an Asian Buddhist and cease identifying as a white Irish Catholic was almost certainly a long process, developing alongside his own admissions about overcoming alcoholism and violence, his enthusiasm (as an early school-leaver and avid language-learner) for the education provided in monasteries, and his love for Burmese culture – something that he saw threatened by “the Bible, the whiskey bottle and the Gatling gun”.

This journey of personal transformation went hand in hand with his involvement in social and political conflict as a worker and a radical. There was a quarter-century of his life that he never talked about, during which he presumably learned the skills that underpinned his later activist career; years that coincided with highpoints in labour struggles, Irish republicanism, anarchism, socialism and atheism in the US. In Asia he had at least five aliases, was put under police surveillance, tried for sedition, pursued across borders, faked his own death and eventually disappeared: his activism sailed very close to the wind.

In Dhammaloka’s thirteen-odd years of activism across Asia he explored many different strategies including speaking tours, mass-publishing, media polemics, founding schools, organisation-building, and challenging individual instances of injustice – for example, the practice of colonial officials taking local wives without formal marriage, only to abandon them and their children on completion of their term of service, and returning to marry white women in Britain.

Underpinning this work, however, was the everyday plebeian cosmopolitanism of the port cities in which he was usually based: Rangoon, Singapore, Bangkok, Penang and elsewhere. Here, colonial attempts at dividing and conquering – not only dividing whites from Asians but Asian soldiers and policemen from locals, and hardening ethnic boundaries to construct client groups – routinely broke down.

When Dhammaloka was tried for sedition a decade after the shoe incident, he was supported not only by Burmese Buddhists but also by one of Gandhi’s close allies, the newspaper owner PJ Mehta, who would go on to organise Rangoon’s mostly Muslim Indian dock workers. Crowds brought him to trial in a triumphal procession normally reserved for deposed royalty and senior monks – supported by the Chinese and Indian bazaars, which closed for the day. The school he set up in Bangkok offered free modern education to “Mahommedans, Eurasians of all creeds, and of course, [Thai] Buddhists.”

All this helps us to glimpse lost possibilities in Dhammaloka’s life and the broader anti-colonial struggles of which he was a part. Before Ireland broke away from the British empire and another four European empires collapsed after WWI, it wasn’t obvious that the Asian and African future would be one of nation-states of left or right; while the ethno-religious supremacism we’re familiar with today was not as dominant as it would eventually become in many countries, not least Sri Lanka and Burma.

In 1901, it was much easier to imagine the end of empire than what might come after it, and different activists had very different visions. As Subaltern Studies has emphasised for India, if we look beneath the elite layer of organisations that eventually won out in independence struggles we find popular movements that were far more complex and diverse.

At this time, Buddhism itself offered one alternative future: a living religion from Ceylon to Japan with a long history in India. The pan-Asian Buddhist revival to which Dhammaloka’s activism contributed saw the mirage of a post-imperial but interconnected future glimmering (rather vaguely) around its edges, and formed one horizon within which anti-colonial organising could be carried out.

In 1901, an absolute majority of the human race lived in Asia, and on these grounds alone, Asian (and African) decolonisation is probably the single biggest change to have been wrought ‘from below’ in the last hundred years. Yet for those who drove this process forward, this future was simply too large and complex to grasp concretely. In 1900 pan-Asian Buddhism sat beside pan-Islamic organising; rationalist visions of a world based on science sat beside a pre-Comintern image of socialism; and nationalisms looked to restore past kingdoms as much as to create new states.

If it gradually became obvious that empire would not last forever, it took a long time for concretely possible futures to become clear. In this respect, Dhammaloka’s actual practice of plebeian cosmopolitanism – and what other activists were actually doing – is more significant, and had more impact, than the imagined futures that accompanied it.

As in many postcolonial countries (not least Ireland), the tragedy is that these more generous practices were squeezed out by narrower ethno-religious ways of doing politics, and by the strategies of elites trained by empire in the effective use of the master’s tools.

Today, we sometimes say that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But the example of decolonisation suggests rather that it is incredibly hard to concretely imagine widespread social change before we make that change ourselves, in our own movements and locales.

We cannot seriously envision a better future without having a lived, practical sense of what it means to fight for social change together with thousands of others: to challenge systems of power, construct alternatives and create different kinds of relationships.

In this sense, the unexpected solidarities, creative relationships and plebeian cosmopolitanisms of Dhammaloka’s activism are a helpful resource, not as a model for imitation but as a reminder of the need to step outside ourselves and our own assumptions – including our desire to write the ‘cookbooks of the future’ – in struggles for social change.

As his life makes clear, there is no linear relationship between our own actions and the future we hope to create, and our movements exist in a longer perspective than the urgencies and obsessive focus of mediated politics might suggest. Empires always come to an end, sometimes faster than we might expect: and this should be a source of hope.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Bill Carson

    Thank you for posting. Coincidentally, this post fits hand in glove with last night’s video by Beau of the Fifth Column, entitled “Let’s Talk About What Makes a Government…”

    He argues that in order to exist a government requires only two things: 1) the perception of authority; and 2) a monopoly on violence. He goes on to discuss the fact that the government has no obligation to protect its citizens: “[government] is not there to protect you, it is there to control you.”

    This post about the Buddhist monk goes to the first element.

    Let’s talk about what makes a government….

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Thanks, this is fascinating, I’d never heard of Dhammaloka. He’d make a great subject for a Scorsese movie.

    There is a long history, going back to the 19th Century, of a fringe of Irish catholicism being very attracted to buddhism – there are remarkable similarities to the beliefs and practices of early Celtic Christianity and many elements of buddhism and those catholics who disliked orthodoxy. One branch, the Spiritual Life Institute, has a hermitage close to where my fathers family grew up. Although most people in the area were devout catholics, they had a lot of respect for the various dreamers and oddballs who would roll up there. I’ve known quite a few catholic monks who openly talk about their deep interest in Buddhism (it seems that monasticism attracts a more open minded bunch of believers than the mainstream orders). It still applies – I was pretty amazed one time after visiting a large remote monastery in Ladakh on the borders of Tibet to find out that one of the monks was the son of my then boss back in Dublin (truly, its a small world if you are Irish).

    The Irish always had a pretty ambiguous relationship with European colonialism in Asia. A recent film, Black 47 (available on Netflix) is an indirect exploration of this. There were plenty of Irish catholic foot soldiers for colonialism, although they were generally (with a lot of justification) distrusted by the British authorities and kept out of locations where they might get too friendly with the locals. Irish protestants though were mostly enthusiastic soldiers for Empire (Roger Casement and Erskine Childers being prominent exceptions) – I recently walked around Lismore Cathedral with a Chinese friend and she was amazed at the number of monuments to fallen locals in mostly forgotten wars in China (along with Afghanistan and India, etc). But Irish nationalists were also great enthusiasts for various forms of Asian nationalism – I can’t find the link, but I recall reading that there were open celebrations on the streets of Dublin when the news came about of Japans defeat of the Russian fleet in 1908 – it was seen as a victory for small nations against the rotten big 5 colonialist nations.

    1. David

      And conversely, the British were so opposed to Irish independence in part because they were afraid of the knock-on effects on other colonial possessions. The whole history of who policed whose empire and why, and who opposed whose empire and why, is fascinating but incredibly complicated.

    2. DJG

      Plutonium Kun: Another way to think of the intermingling of Catholicism and Buddhism is that Saint Francis of Assisi is a bodhisattva. The Franciscan Movement, with its stress on attending to all of creation lovingly, has a strong hint of ahimsa. The poet of the early Franciscans, Jacopone da Todi, was more than unorthodox doctrinally and as a poet.

      I made it to Assisi not so long ago, and even as a lapsed lapsed Catholic, mainly a cultural Catholic, and not a particularly great Buddhist either, I could feel palpably the appeal of Assisi and its setting as well as the religious ideals of the Franciscans.

      1. barefoot charley

        Yes yes, and I’d add for any spirit-sojourners going there that the purest feel for St Francis’ intentions and practices won’t be found in the sky-scraping reception centers the church built on top of his reputation, but rather outside of town, down the hill where the monastic settlement he built for his friend St Clare of the Poor Clares is pretty much as she left it when she and Francis went to their rewards. Experiencing it, you may get a shiver of what Francis wished the church would just leave be. Mystical fulfillment wells from unity.

  3. notabanktoadie

    Today, we sometimes say that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Laurence Cox

    There’s no wonder there since even our perverted* system of capitalism has proven to be unbeatable.

    *e.g. government privileges for usurers – a mockery of Deuteronomy 23:19-20.
    *e.g. no limits to private land ownership – a mockery of Leviticus 25.
    *e.g. ascribing personhood to corporations – a diminishment of the dignity of the human race and thus an insult to their Creator too.

    1. Societal Illusions

      hadn’t reread Leviticus 25 in a while:

      was resonating for me until 44 ‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life…”

      the joy of the Bible.

      1. notabanktoadie

        Otoh, Hebrews could only be held as slaves for 6 years, be well-treated while so held, and sent out the 7th year well provisioned by their former masters to start their own lives.

        So the question I have is what if a non-Hebrew slave converted to the Hebrew religion? Could he still be held permanently as a slave?

        I think not. I suspect he/she could only be held for another 6 years. So slavery, like usury, was a means to subjugate and ultimately CONVERT foreigners IF I know the God of the Bible as well as I think do.

        Also, the Hebrews were NOT given permission to conquer the entire world but only a defined land grant.

        1. notabanktoadie

          So the question I have is what if a non-Hebrew slave converted to the Hebrew religion?

          And, in the case of males, circumcised. Ouch, ouch, ouch! An effective means to deter phony conversions?

          The OT is much more nuanced than people give it credit for due to ignorance of it, I’ve found. But in any case, Christians are not bound by the Old Testament but would do well to take it seriously as Jesus, the Apostles and Paul did.

  4. David

    Apologies if this is a double post:the first disappeared into outer cyberspace.
    There’s a complete untold history of alternative approaches to post-colonial nation-building; untold because it is of no interest either to colonial enthusiasts or colonial detractors.
    The model by which former colonial territories became independent western-style states was not predetermined. Indeed, it was imposed not just by the colonial powers, but also by small groups of educated, westernized local political actors, generally speaking the colonial language and sometimes educated there. As Basil Davidson makes clear in his book The Black Man’s Burden, setting up western-style nation state within former colonial borders was not something forced on African leaders: it was something they were desperately keen to do, believing that in a few decades they would have modern, industrial states on a par with those in Europe.
    In general, local people were not consulted: independence movements were drawn from urban elites, who explicitly turned their backs on local traditions and tried to import western ideas wholesale. But locals were not necessarily all content to live in the same state with its arbitrary frontiers, and in many cases either the new countries contained substantial disgruntled minorities (the Kabyle in Algeria for example) or historic communities straddled the border between notional independent states (as across the border between Angola and the DRC, for example). Whilst most colonial subjects probably wanted independence in some form (though for most of them the colonial power was distant and had little impact) they didn’t necessarily want to be part of a country as it was conceived by urban elites, themselves often linked to one ethnic group or region. Even today, it’s not really clear that majorities of local populations actually supported independence as it was proposed by elite independence movements, and the latter in turn tried to radicalise the populations by provoking the colonial authorities into over-reaction. This created a binary “us or them” situation, where local people supported the established independence movements as the lesser of two evils. But if you read the history of independence struggles, it’s striking how much it’s a history of splits, purges, civil wars and ethnic and regional division. Give the mess which the imposition of the western nation-state model has produced, it’s very natural to speculate – as in this example – about possible alternatives.

    1. xkeyscored

      I believe L’Ouverture and Dessalines had a bit of a job persuading Haitians to return to their plantations to pay off the new nation’s debts.

      1. JBird4049

        Well, Haiti was blockaded by the French navy until the Haitian government agreed to compensate the French owners of the loss of their “property”, which included the former slaves. IIRC, Haiti’s last blackmail payment was in 1947; this is the reason why the country had all its forest cut and sold.

  5. Carolinian

    The article doesn’t finish the story. After the shoe incident

    Attempts by the officer and the British authorities to bring sedition charges against Dhammaloka and to get pagoda authorities to repudiate him failed, boosting his public reputation.

    and his later trial

    In October and November 1910, Dhammaloka preached in Moulmein, leading to new charges of sedition laid at the instigation of local missionaries. Witnesses testified that he had described missionaries as carrying the Bible, whiskey and weapons, and accused Christians of being immoral, violent and set on the destruction of Burmese tradition. Rather than a full sedition charge, the crown opted to prosecute through a lesser aspect of the law (section 108b) geared to the prevention of future seditious speech, which required a lower burden of proof and entailed a summary hearing. He was bound over to keep the peace and ordered to find two supporters to guarantee this with a bond of 1000 rupees each.

    and finally

    Although, to date, no reliable record of his death has been found, it would not necessarily have been reported during the First World War, if it had taken place while travelling, or indeed if he had been given a traditional monastic funeral in a country such as Siam or Cambodia.

  6. skk

    Looking at the number of comments I’m surprised so many people got past the term “subaltern Studies”.
    Me, my instinct is to put him squarely in the traditions of turn of the century and still ongoing Western esotericism. There’s a strand of it that picked up eastern religions – Theosophy was one aspect of it – its splitoff Krishnamurti+ Annie Besant was another. My immediate reaction on reading this is to place this too in that tradition. Sure they did participate in, and even lead national independence struggles in some fashions – Annie Besant’s connection with Gandhi is known to many, lesser known is her connection to Tilak and the Indian Home Rule movement – but it is still western. So, one hundred and thirty years later I’d view this from the Orientalism ( Edward Said ) angle.

    I’m not being mean to those people. They were of their time doing what they thought was right with the information at hand to them at that time. And counter-factuals are futile. I certainly cannot calculate whether or not they hindered the national independence struggles.

    1. notabanktoadie

      Dem Irish (and I R 25% Irish) are a bit daft to be so loyal to Rome and yet be rewarded with ZERO Irish Popes.

      Reminds me of the quip: “Is the Pope Italian?”

      Found out one of my own ancestors (on the Irish side) was hung for counterfeiting – irony of ironies, imo, or maybe he understood the rigged game and thought he was justified to fight fire with fire.

      Btw, a sister was no longer interested in tracing the family tree after discovering that fact – and she a banker!

    1. Laurence Cox

      Slightly longer response!

      So this is really just a snippet (1600 words as against 105,000) of a really complicated story stretching across 14 years and a dozen different Asian countries – there’s lots more to be said about him. We’ve written a few pieces about other aspects:

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Yes, and here in the US, the Red-led (until the Cold War purges) National Martime Union was an exemplar of that. Tough, no bs mo-fo’s, all of them, and many of them world-traveled, working class intellectuals.

  7. Braden

    If you’ve visited any of the more remote early Irish monasteries, you’ll immediately notice that the pre-Norman structure of the settlement is oriented toward personal meditation. They usually had a modest stone oratory, and several stone structures for shelter. The land around it became the focus of worship, and that’s reflective of the pre-Christian belief that there were particular geographical areas where pathways existed between the people and the gods. The settlement on Skelleg Michael is a great example. This was definitely a form of Christianity that believed in finding God within. Not that any of this would be relevant to an Irish ex-pat in the 19th century, but early Christianity was likely a lot more similar to Buddhist practices then is commonly acknowledged.

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