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.