A secular Buddhist ancestor?

March 3, 2020

An Irish atheist, working-class, anti-colonial activist … Bhikkhu: Celebrating Tom Paine in Burma

In 1909 a Buddhist monk wrote from the Tavoy monastery in Rangoon to the Kentucky freethought (i.e. secular) Blue-Grass Blade, whose founder had been jailed twice for blasphemy, saying that his own organisation had distributed 10,000 copies of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason the previous year and was organising a celebration of Paine’s birthday:

'I am sure that every friend of Truth will agree with me that it is time that we should show the bigots and the ministers of every church that Thomas Paine was the real friend of man…'

These are not the tones we usually expect from international Buddhist figures, who are typically more concerned to be recognised as respectable peers by what we now think of as 'other world religions' and keen to insert Buddhism into 'inter-faith' gatherings of various kinds. Yet this particular monk, U Dhammaloka, was not only in touch with freethinkers in the US, England, Germany and New Zealand; his 'Buddhist Tract Society' devoted itself to republishing and distributing atheist arguments against the missionary Christianity associated with the British colonial establishment in Burma and elsewhere across Asia. How can we make sense of this?

Alternatives to the 'World Religions' discourse

By the turn of the 20th century, the rise of democracy in Europe meant that Empire had to be justified 'at home' in countries like Britain as bringing the benefits of modernity and science to supposedly backward countries, but also as bringing the Christian Gospel to the 'heathen'. To challenge official Christianity was thus also a way of challenging empire (and a far safer one in a country like Burma, which had only been finally conquered after a bloody counter-insurgency campaign a few decades previously).

In a rising power like Japan, Buddhists were keen to position themselves as religions on a par with Christianity for both internal and external reasons. But in colonised Asia matters were very different: in a country like India, modernising intellectuals could explore both Buddhism and Marxism as offering rational and radical alternatives to the flag and the cross of empire. Thus while liberal thinkers in the west moved towards a discourse of 'world religions' which sought equivalence between prophetic founders, short and easily-digestible texts (the Dhammapada as an equivalent to the Gospels), a discourse of ethics and religious experience, the actual experiences of military conquest, racial divides and economic exploitation which stood between Christians and Buddhists under colonialism could not be so easily set aside.

In Asia, the dialogue with western freethought offered a different kind of internationalism, one reaching out to the western radicals who had been battling religious power at home for centuries. The London secularist newspaper National Reformer tied support for women’s rights and socialism at home with anti-colonial commitments abroad; its editor Charles Bradlaugh fought a six-year battle to sit in parliament as an atheist, and thereafter acted as an unofficial 'member for India'. Dhammaloka was not the only activist to translate and distribute western atheist texts in Asia.

A diverse world of Buddhist organising

One of the reasons this was attractive to Dhammaloka was that he himself was a working-class western radical, probably born Laurence Carroll in Dublin in 1856. Empire depended not only on its missionaries, judges and military officers; it also needed many 'poor whites' to man its ships, oversee its harbours, fill the rank and file of its armies, and run its railroads. When their terms of service were up (or when they were fired), many turned to casual labour, often 'going native' in their clothing, relationships and way of life.

Some became Buddhist monks: the American' “vagabond traveler' Harry Franck, working his way around the world in 1905, was invited to become ordained in Kandy, ran into Dhammaloka on a ferry across the Ganges and made his way to Dhammaloka’s monastery in Rangoon where he was startled to meet another ex-sailor monk whose 'bare arms were tattooed from wrist to shoulder with female figures that would have outdone those on the raciest posters of a burlesque show', as well as a black sailor seeking shelter.

This was a multi-ethnic monastery, linked to the Dawei (Tavoy) ethnic minority and close to the docks. Six years later, when Dhammaloka was tried for sedition, this poor white was supported not only by Dawei and Burmans, but also by the Chinese trading diaspora and Indian migrants, mostly Muslim dockworkers. Before the success of ethno-supremacist Buddhism in countries like Burma and Sri Lanka, we find a much more diverse world of Buddhist organising, reflecting the plebeian cosmopolitanism of these port towns, where working people of different religions and of none could ally around the shared defence of this anti-colonial Buddhist organiser.

While the 'gentleman scholar' kind of western Buddhist like his near-contemporary Ananda Metteyya tended to decide for themselves what constituted authentic Buddhism and package this for western audiences, Dhammaloka took a different and more embedded tack. In his sermons he told audiences that other monks knew more about dhamma than he did, but that he could tell them about the dangers of colonialism. More fundamentally, rather than understanding Buddhism as a philosophical position (to be backed up in later decades with meditation), we find him embodying local expectations of the monk as carefully practicing the vinaya, going on alms rounds etc. Thus, he appears as an early example of engaged Buddhism in the Asian sense rather than a western interpreter – something which explains his immense popularity among traditional peasant audiences, and his political significance.

The bible, the whiskey bottle and the Gatling gun

His trial for sedition in 1910-11 was not Dhammaloka’s first brush with the law. He had worked his way across the Atlantic, been a hobo across the States and sailed on the trans-Pacific routes … and drew a veil over twenty-five years of his life, in which he presumably learned some of the skills that later made him an effective political activist. We do not know whether he learned these as atheist, Irish republican, labor organiser, anarchist or socialist – late nineteenth-century America was full of radical movements, some of which would have been too 'hot' to be associated with even quarter of a century later in British Asia.

Like many a hobo of his day, Dhammaloka had multiple aliases; his tramping days served him well when it came to finding his feet in other countries. He was put under police and intelligence surveillance in today’s Sri Lanka, the subject of a proto-extradition request to Australia, faked his own death and eventually disappeared. But along the way he was a celebrity preacher across rural Burma, took part in transnational Buddhist events in Japan, ran Buddhist schools in Thailand and Singapore, and was also active in present-day Malaysia, India and Bangladesh among others.

With Burma specialist Alicia Turner and Japanologist Brian Bocking, I have spent much of the last ten years tracking him through recently-digitised historical sources that make it possible to uncover fragments of these histories which have been long forgotten in established accounts of the encounter between Buddhism and the west. Five years ago Stephen Batchelor was kind enough to reference our research in After Buddhism; we have now just published Dhammaloka’s biography as The Irish Buddhist: the Forgotten Monk who Faced Down the British Empire.
Dhammaloka’s international activism was possible because he found himself in the midst of a pan-Asian revival of Buddhism, in which it became a key vehicle for peasants and urban educated groups to assert themselves in the modern world and an important tool for political organising. This was also the period which saw a revival of meditation techniques suitable for the laity that was later exported to the west.

Perhaps most importantly, it was what we might now today call a decolonial movement; Dhammaloka’s talks repeatedly highlighted as key elements of colonialism 'the Bible, the whiskey bottle and the Gatling gun' – missionary Christianity, cultural destruction and military conquest. The programme he deduced from this ran from the safe (temperance activism) through the controversial (challenging missionaries) to what had to be left implicit (an end to empire).

Before Irish independence and the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires, however, it was not clear that the Asian future after empire would be what we now assume – a world of nation-states, typically based on a dominant ethnic group. Buddhism, shared from Japan to Ceylon, and with historic roots elsewhere in Asia, seemed like one possible avenue for a future which was almost too vast to imagine. Then as now, around sixty per cent of the human race live in Asia, so that decolonisation there and in Africa is the single biggest change that popular struggles from below have brought about in the last century: an important point for reflection as we seek to create social movements capable of challenging the systems that are bringing out climate crisis and driving so many people to the limits of survival.

A more democratic sense of ancestors

The rhetoric of seeking ancestors and lineages is increasingly running up against our awareness of their feet of clay, and not a decade too soon. We are now more aware of Zen’s collusion in Japanese militarism – and of Aung San Suu Kyi’s collusion in pogroms against the Rohingya. We have seen the limitations of Buddhist leaders in the west. More generally, the search for famous (usually male) figures to venerate is running up against an increasing awareness not only of the abuses of power but of the problems of power itself, and the limitations of top-down structures, even in Buddhism.

If Dhammaloka is a secular Buddhist ancestor, his hobo personality makes it impossible to venerate him in any traditional way. He happily told a dozen different stories about his life – and was too outraged by injustice to present his thoughts smoothly and beautifully. He was also too grassroots in his practice to try to be the same thing to everyone: instead what we see him doing is trying to work out, like a tramp or sailor, what was going on in a particular place and how he could contribute or fit in.

In this sense he is more of a forgotten ancestor, a reminder that Buddhism was and is not necessarily always 'religious', a matter of elites seeking recognition from other clerics and theologians – and does not necessarily mean colluding with power, or ignoring injustice. We might even (a shocking thought) disagree with him, or find different answers for ourselves. There is no simple model in his life to try to emulate, other than the fundamental ethical question facing any human being in a complex and unequal world: what should I do?

Laurence Cox Bio:

A long-time movement activist, writer and teacher, Laurence Cox has been making connections between social change and Buddhism for nearly thirty years. He researches social movements and the western encounter with Buddhism at the National University of Ireland Maynooth and is involved with the Buddhist-based activist training Ulex Project in Catalonia as well as the ecological Buddhafield network in England.



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