Tuesday, May 17, 2011

U Dhammaloka: the first Irish Buddhist monk?

I drove out to UC Riverside yesterday to hear a professor in from Cork talk about perhaps the first Irish Buddhist monk. At least the first one we know of--who took the robes in Burma-- fighting Christian incursions, and defending dharma after his ordination appointing himself "the Bishop of Rangoon." His real name may or not be known. His birth and death, to date, remain speculative. He's a predecessor, combative if genuine, of more refined and less cantankerous Western converts. His appearance, suddenly in 1900, and his fading out by 1914, makes up a rather Zelig-like hobo boho character in Asia, where he covered considerable territory. He garnered fervent press-- some generated by alter ego/ nom de plume "Captain Daylight." He's a character worth getting to know, if we can know him.

The 2011 issue of Contemporary Buddhism featured Brian Bocking's article alongside scholars Thomas Tweed, Alicia Turner, and Laurence Cox(see an earlier version of his initial research)  See a YouTube video by Prof. Bocking; he and his colleagues hosted a UC Cork Dhammaloka Day conference Feb. 19th 2011.] It highlights their research on U Dhammaloka (?1856 - ?1914).

"A migrant worker from Dublin, Dhammaloka was an autodidact, atheist and temperance campaigner who became known throughout colonial Asia as an implacable critic of Christian missionaries and a tireless transnational organiser of Asian Buddhists from Burma to Japan and from Singapore to Siam."

Pursuing rumors of Hibernians on the prototypical hippie trail a century before the Beatles and the Maharishi, independently Turner in Canada and Cox at Maynooth learned of this Irish emigre who in late Victorian times changed his name, having "gone native" in whatever passed as a predecessor for Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac's "dharma bums" fifty years later, roaming Goa, Kathmandu, or Benares as third-gen hippies today. Bocking caught a reference to UD, contacted the other two scholars, and the result became their founding of "Dhammaloka Studies."

I've been interested in this Irish-global spin too, by my own investigation into "the invention of the concept of 'Celtic Buddhism'" in the new edition of New Religious Movements in Ireland co-edited by Laurence Cox. He and Maria Griffin contributed a fine essay on the history of Irish Buddhism, which will blossom into his book; another on Dhammaloka (his name means "Light of the World") is also in the works by the trio. This late-Victorian/Edwardian anti-colonial, freethinking counterculture leaves long traces in what Thomas Tweed, expert on American Buddhism, calls "vernacular intellectualism" which leaves fewer books behind but echoes so many chats and campfires simmering from a vibrant oral culture, a streetwise autodidactic tradition, and maybe a bit of Irish anticlerical, anti-nomian, rabble-rousing.

The talk by Prof. Bocking proved worthwhile for my sixty-mile excursion (one way, at least). It also proved remarkably entertaining, for both professor and his elusive if emphatic (he used the powers of persuasion personally and in the press well as a predecessor of today's pundits on book tours and Twitter--I imagine him on Comedy Central) raconteur told tale tales enduring a hundred years on. PowerPoint danced as this scholar shared the joy and fascination of their pursuit of this globally slippery figure, who left behind a lot of press and a lot of mystery. That poster shows what may be the only photo-- so far-- of the man who may or not be Larry O'Rourke, William Colvin, or Lawrence Carroll, born maybe in Booterstown, Blackrock, Dublin.

Much more in terms of fact and still some possible fiction can be found in the CB journal, but suffice it to say even since its November 2010 appearance, data continue to be unearthed, or surmised, about this elusive, enigmatic, but formidable and somehow perhaps rather admirable, atheist, yet sincere and determined (if by any means necessary, bending the truth of who authored some of his many pamphlets from his Buddhist Tract Society-- attributed to him was a poetic hymn sung by Japanese Buddhists in San Francisco!) contrarian.

Sitting there on the third floor of the UCR Humanities building, overlooking a track field and biscuit-brown rocky hills out of a Western stage set, just before summer melts this Inland Empire outpost into searing smog, I welcomed the chance to be among a dozen intellectual types, however briefly. My 120-mile drive kept me "driven" to hear the results of Prof. Bocking and his colleagues. It reminded me of what I was trained for at another UC campus eighty-odd miles nearer the Pacific (if still not on it, damn it), and what inspires me to continue my own small steps in researching other aspects of Buddhism and the West, including Ireland but not excluding, say, punk rock and sobriety programs and other efflorecences as novel now as UD back then.

He claimed to work on a fruit-boat on the Sacramento River, the Acme, about the time of a great invention in the southern part of the Golden State. The naval orange was born in Riverside, a bit earlier than UD's appearance as "The Missionary (for Buddhism, against Christianity) of Burma"; the seedless fruit's cheerful appearance, so orange, I wonder might have been replicated in this monk's robes. The English came to Riverside and praised its salubrious climate as a resort. A century later, it's shorthand for once exurban, now suburban sprawl and dreary weather. I welcomed the glimpse from the freeway east of San Antonio winery, the last of its kind too (founded three years after UD's disappearance from the historical record), if under the powerpoles (I've been told by my parents upon sighting these that this was the first word I ever said) next to the freeway junction. I'll make my way out of the way to patronize it the next rare time out there; I pass their downtown L.A. branch, which survived Prohibition, a few miles away from my home on my commute.

Crossing UCR for another, less familiar commute as I had to then head off to work, I found a windfall. Still, despite the sprawling postwar campus, its agricultural origins as a study station for horticulture remains as experimental groves surround the southern edge of UCR., the last remnant of what once was the world's center for this sweet orb. Near the Barn, an old theatre converted that reminded me of my beloved childhood Claremont's final days as a citrus producer, a few handsome trees flourished among cement paths. On the ground, a perfect globe in color, two leaves still attached, fresh. I picked it up and carried it back to my florescent-lit cubby at my far more humble campus, before I had to teach nights, sixty miles away the other direction in rush-hour traffic. There, I enjoyed the best orange I ever tasted.


Tony Bailie said...

I loved this combination of reportage with a mini-biography thrown in for good measure. Must try to track down more on Dhammaloka... sounds like an archetype for the peripatatic outsiders and somewhat directionless seekers who seem to fascinate us both.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Tony, belated thanks for that punk-Buddhist link: exactly the kind of connection I am pondering for future blather! For U Dhammaloka, that 2010 issue of "Contemporary Buddhism" appears to be the sole source so far, but the editors tell us a book's in the works, as new research continues. Agreed that we gravitate despite our home-boundedness to the wanderers...

Robin said...

Thanks for this in-depth discussion of a figure who is clearly as controversial today among Western Buddhists as he was then among the British ruling class. (And for much the same reason; Western Buddhism in our time is intensely bourgeois.)

I'm especially interested in your meditations on the role Dhammaloka's "Irishness" played in his practice. I too had noticed that; he seemed to be an Irish Buddhist in equal measure. This is particularly provocative for me, as I am, I confess, the same sort of Scottish Buddhist, and it definitely ruffles feathers in the Western Zen establishment.

And yet there are feathers that want rufflin', aye?

Above all Dhammaloka is a wonderful mystery; your reference to Zelig is inspired.

Thanks again,


Rusty Ring: Reflections of an Old-Timey Hermit

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Robin, speaking of Scots, bourgeois, and Buddha, check this out, soon to be on this blog, backlogged, but over at Amazon US: I reviewed Anne Donovan's novel "Buddha Da" earlier this year. Also, as to UD et al., forgive this ramble on "In search of Buddhist anarchism" from a year ago. More to consider, regarding feather-rustlers, Celtic and otherwise. All best wishes, and thanks for the post!