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Why an Irish Buddhist resisted empire in Burma

On 2 March 1901, during the full moon festival at Rangoon’s Shwedagon pagoda, the Buddhist monk U Dhammaloka confronted an off-duty colonial policeman and ordered him to take off his shoes. Burmese pagodas are stupas, containing relics of the Buddha, so wearing shoes on them (as white colonials did) was a serious mark of disrespect. Choosing his target well, Dhammaloka engaged in an act of non-violent resistance that provoked a local political crisis but also launched shoes as an issue that would become central to later Burmese nationalism until 1919. The shoe controversy made respect for Buddhism a challenge to racial hierarchies and colonial power.

Religion and race also came together in the monk’s bare feet. Born Laurence Carroll in Ireland, he had crossed America as a hobo and sailed two oceans before converting to Buddhism and ordaining in Rangoon in 1900.  Yet Europeans still expected him to wear shoes, a key marker of racial difference intended to buttress colonial power. Going native—including abandoning European dress—was not only part of his required clothing as a bhikkhu but marked his defection from this symbolic racial order. So too, of course, did his ritual subordination to an Asian hierarchy and a non-Christian religion – in a world where empire increasingly justified itself at home by its capacity to bring the Christian gospel to the heathen masses.

Echoing traditionalist Burmese views, which saw the British defeat of the Burmese monarchy as a sign of the decline of Buddhism, Dhammaloka would build his career as an anti-colonial celebrity activist around opposition to what he called “the Bible, the whiskey bottle and the Gatling gun” – missionary Christianity, cultural destruction (given Buddhism’s opposition to alcohol) and military conquest. If his bare white feet undermined the racial hierarchies of empire, his monk’s tonsure challenged the military and the missionary.

Dhammaloka brought together the persona of the Irish rebel with the developing figure of the activist Buddhist monk, in a life that continually challenged power. We know of five different aliases – but little of the 25-year gap in his biography before 1900, during which he learned the skills of effective activism in one or another of the radical movements of late nineteenth-century America: freethought (atheism), labour organising, Irish republicanism, socialism, or anarchism. We find him under police and intelligence surveillance and put on trial for sedition. He seemingly dies at least twice.

Dhammaloka brought a distinctive Irish sensibility to his anti-colonialism. As the movement for Catholic emancipation had shown, if empire’s support for its own religion overstepped the mark—as on the Shwedagon in 1901—rebels could use local religion as a force for resistance, which the colonial power could not be seen to tread too heavily upon. Dhammaloka pioneered this form of symbolic confrontation in Burma, for Buddhism rather than for Catholicism; but the arguments he used against missionary Christianity were not traditional Buddhist ones but those of western freethinkers, published in huge numbers by his Buddhist Tract Society. Convicted for sedition for a version of his slogan about “the Bible, the bottle and the Gatling gun,” Dhammaloka danced out of reach and continued his provocative challenge to power.

Dhammaloka’s dramatic life helps us understand how people used religion to engage with vast processes of change. Within a generation of his disappearance, popular movements had swept the British empire out of Asia, in many cases replacing it with nation-states founded on an ethno-religious basis. Yet before Irish independence, the pan-Asian Buddhist revival contained many imagined futures, and many different actors. Burmese peasants and Sri Lankan villagers flocked to Dhammaloka’s sermons, but his Buddhist projects also involved a Singapore Chinese businessman and a Shan chieftain. We find him based in monasteries of the Dawei ethnic minority in three countries and part of Japanese elite projects for international Buddhist networking. He ran Buddhist schools in Singapore and Thailand and was also active in India, Bangladesh, China, Australia, and present-day Malaysia.

All of this reflected the deeper ethnic complexity and transnationalism of a world of port cities, migrant labourers, trading diasporas, and poor whites. It was a sort of plebeian cosmopolitanism in which the Chinese, Indian, and Burmese bazaars of Rangoon closed down in support of an Irish ex-sailor gone native, who drew on the radical literature of American and British atheism to challenge imperial Christianity on behalf of Burmese Buddhists. If this story was lost for a century because it did not fit with mono-ethnic accounts of nationhood (and sanitised accounts of western Buddhism), it now offers us a window onto these wider currents that would help to bring about the end of empire – and the rise of today’s global Buddhism.

Featured Image Credit: Shwedagon Pagoda via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. charles reesink

    Thank you for this! It certainly contributes to ongoing sorting out imperialism in its thousand and one avatars, memes, resurgences, pieces of a critical apparatus still in progress.

  2. […] Oxford University Press: “Why an Irish Buddhist resisted empire in Burma” […]

  3. Thomas Breivogel Jr.

    Fascinating subject. Thanks for the post!

  4. […] Oxford University Press: “Why an Irish Buddhist resisted empire in Burma” […]

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