(Buddhist) Mission to Burma: Dhammaloka, Lokanatha, and Early Western Converts to Buddhism

I first met Laurence Cox and the figure of Dhammaloka in 2012 at a conference at University College Cork in Ireland titled “Pioneer European Buddhists and Asian Buddhist Networks.” I was there to present a paper on Salvatore Cioffi (1897-1963), an Italian immigrant to Brooklyn who earned a degree in chemistry at Cooper Union in 1922 and converted to Buddhism a few years later after a chance encounter with The Dhammapada at the New York Public Library. Cioffi left his family and sailed to Burma to be ordained a monk. He took to Buddhism with a convert’s zeal, and, renamed as Lokanatha, he spent the rest of his days as a preacher, author, and organizer throughout Asia and across the globe. His decades-long efforts trying to convert the Indian political activist Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar to Buddhism had astonishing consequences. In 1956, Ambedkar formally converted to Buddhism and half a million of the Dalits he advocated for followed suit in the largest mass religious conversion in history.

As we shared stories about Dhammaloka and Lokanatha, it started to become clear to me, Cox, and other conference-goers that the individuals we thought were singular rather overlapped with and complimented one another. Both came from Catholic countries, converted to Buddhism, and with Burma as a base, preached the Dharma throughout Asia while using their position as celebrity Western outsiders to strengthen their support of Buddhism and respective attacks on Christian missionaries and contemporary civilization. Separated by several decades, they also seemed to mark complementarily the periods that Laurence Cox mentions in his interview of the late-nineteenth century, politically and nationalistically-minded Buddhist revivals, and later pan-Asian movements that tried to assert Buddhism on a modern, global stage.

Perhaps the true shock of recognition came when two newspaper images, thirty-seven years apart, were brought together. One depicted Dhammaloka in 1911 clad as a Tibetan lama walking on the hair of devout Burmese Buddhist women in a ritual for such a “field of merit” as the converted Irish hobo. The other was a photograph taken of Lokanatha on the streets of Hollywood, a publicity stunt egged on by his host Gypsy Buys, after hearing about it from the Italian Catholic scientist turned venerable monk. Mark Twain once said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” and these two images made Dhammaloka and Lokanatha seem like adjacent lines of a single poem.

Dhammaloka 30 July 1911- Atlanta Constitution


















It would be misleading to think of the figures of Dhammaloka and Lokanatha in isolation. Behind them, there are intriguing echoes of other early— yet not nearly as well-documented— Western converts to Buddhism at the turn of the century. Cox makes mention of some of these in his excellent 2011 work Buddhism in Ireland: Sir Thomas Lipton (of tea fame) encountering an Irish Buddhist monk in central China, a medical doctor aboard a ship to Bombay catching a blue eye among a silent order of bhikkus, and the scattered mentions and rumors of other Occidental-born sons of the Buddha, at times numerous enough to be referenced offhandedly as a type.

It may only be a matter of time before many of these figures are brought out of shadows and profiled with just as much detail. As Cox alludes to in his interview and points out extensively in his book, it took recently-created digital archives and an international scholarly village of funding and collaboration (including researchers from Ireland, England, Canada, the United States, Japan, and Thailand) to excavate the history of Dhammaloka and others. This framework and the efforts of its participants are continually turning up new findings. Less than a year ago, Cox along with Professors Brian Bocking (of University College Cork, Ireland) and Shin’ichi Yoshinaga (of Maizuru National College of Technology, Japan) were able to push back the date of the first Buddhist mission to the West by a full decade to 1889 with the Irishman Charles Pfoundes representing the Japanese Buddhist Propagation Society in London.

What influence might the work of Cox and his colleagues in the Dhammaloka Project and beyond have on the wider study of encounters between Buddhism and the West? In his interview, Cox mentions a previous “textual and elite focus” within the study of Western Buddhists, and the attention placed on reformers and publishers such as Henry Steel Olcott and Paul Carus would seem to reflect the attention given to what Stephen Prothero has called “Protestant Buddhism.”[1]The emphasis on monasticism and orthopraxy displayed by Dhammaloka, Lokanatha, and others like them, combined with their often enthusiastic willingness to engage with ritual and local religious cultures, suggests that there might be a stream of “Catholic Buddhism” just as deserving of attention.

These early encounters between Buddhism and the West play havoc with many of the dominant models used to understand Buddhism in the West over the last several decades— models that by halves, thirds, or quarters have tried to separate “ethnic” Buddhism out from what converted Westerners recognize and practice as the Dharma. Joseph Cheah brought these problematic taxonomies to the forefront and noted the contemporary gulf between Burmese Buddhists and convert Buddhists in his 2011 Race and Religion in American Buddhism. Figures such as Dhammaloka and Lokanatha, who saw themselves and their Buddhism tied to the Burmese people and culture that hosted them, sharply clash with these categorical divisions. They are perhaps a historical path by which scholars might (re)introduce matters of race, colonialism, and power to be brought fully into the center of studies of Buddhism and the West.

Finally, Buddhism (and Asian religious traditions in general) is often described in its encounters with the West in impossibly discrete terms with tidy metaphors, unidirectional movement, and well-worn events— be they Buddhist swans coming to the lake, Hindu seeds being planted in Western soil, or the endless rehashing of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions as a point of emplotment. If we look long enough at figures like the Irish hobo who antagonized Christian missionaries as a Buddhist monk throughout Asia, the Italian-born, American-raised, Burmese-ordained monk who inspired the conversion of millions of Dalits in India, or whoever else is waiting to emerge from the archive, these conventions begin to seem absurd.

To repurpose Laurence Cox’s own description of early Irish Buddhists, the extraordinary lives of figures like Dhammaloka leave scholars with extraordinary choices to make and opportunities to seize.

[1] Stephen Prothero, “Henry Steel Olcott and ‘Protestant Buddhism’,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (Vol. 63, No. 2, Summer 1995), p 281-302.

What is ‘Buddhism in the West’?

There appears to be much debate regarding what defines Buddhism in the West. Particularly, when I attend Social Science of Religion conferences, Buddhism is presented as a new or exotic social cultural influential phenomenon. I often see “Buddhism in the West” lumped in with new religious movements (NRMs) or more interestingly as sources of therapeutic influence for new styles of mental health treatment such as those seen in the field of Psychology. The compulsion to lump Buddhism with new religious movements may derive from a variety of influences. For example, the mass exodus of Tibetan Buddhists following the Chinese occupation of 1949 may give scholars the impression of newness due to the large migratory movement of Tibetans to the west. This coupled with the popularity of the Dalai Lama and religious converts such as Richard Gere give credence to Buddhism as a “Western” new religious movement (Cantwell & Kawanami, 2002). Another theory could be the fascination of Buddhism for the late 19th century Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists saw value in Buddhist philosophy for understanding a suffering western society (McMahan, 2008). Such thinkers and their use of Buddhist philosophy could have led to more individual forms of belief such as “spirituality” and “universalism.” To be considered new, some scholars may see the past 100 years as “recent” where the turn of the century serves as a new chapter in religious pluralism in the West. Better still could be the free love movement of the 1960s or the fascination with alternative states of consciousness. Many people were seeking something beyond the old interpretations of transcendence (Kent, 2001). All of these are examples of competing paradigms in terms of juxtaposing a belief system called “Buddhism” within the geographic and cultural center of the “West”.

The boundaries of what defines the West are also circumspect. Some perceive the West to be North America while other scholars speak to first world cultures (including North America but also Western Europe, and Australia). Such boundaries of what defines the West are unclear but there is proximate agreement related to the cultural center of what we term the “West” (McMahan, 2008). Here, there is proximate agreement as a Euro-American center of learning. In other words, we are speaking of centers of academic discourse and authority known as the university system. One could argue that such exchanges are colonial in nature (indicating a British or American dominance of cultural norms and language) and yet these implicit assumptions reinforce the very system, which assert categorical authority. Further, using terms such as “the West” and its interaction with other traditions are synonymous with speaking from an in-group perspective of privilege.

Given these challenges related to defining Buddhism in the West, Dr. Cox’s approach is refreshing. Rather than attempting to describe Buddhism’s introduction into the West as a socio-historical event, he approaches the exchange of culture from the perspective of a historically reconstructed narrative through the story of Laurence Carroll, an Irish immigrant to Burma by way of the United States. Laurence Carroll led an adventurous life from an immigrant, to a homeless person in the US, to a seaman, and eventually taking vows as a Buddhist monk. Mr. Carroll’s experience resulted in his ordination by becoming Bhikkhu U Dhammaloka. Dr. Cox provides an interesting look by way of Dhammaloka’s narrative, at the layers of national, social, ethnic, and religious identity. For Cox, identities are tied together as one but also relational in terms of the concept of the “other.” Dr. Cox shows that Carroll’s transitions between geographies were continually met with adversity in terms of his identity. For example, the conflict of his Irish identity in Ireland in relation to British colonial influence, then his Irish identity in relation to blacks/African Americans in New York, and eventually his Irish identity in relation to the dominant Asian culture of Burma. His concept of self becomes even more complex when he converts to Buddhism, as he is no longer centered within his Irish or Caucasian identity. Such boundaries of self were not only confusing but also empowering as Dhammaloka could challenge others who attempted to proselytize the local populations in Burma.

According to Cox, Dhammaloka had social influence on the local population to defend Buddhism from what he may have seen as colonial missionary dominance reminiscent his own experience with the British in Ireland. Dr Cox’s podcast leaves me with additional derivative themes of interest. To speak in terms of cultural or social influence is to implicitly infer a social shift in the individual definition of self. As noted by Cox, deconversion was no small transition in self-identification. With one’s exit from their own enculturated tradition to an exotic, lesser-known faith came perceptions of racial as well as moral defection. Scholarly inquiry into Buddhism for the time was surely appropriate but only in as much as these faith traditions were contrasted with Christianity. The Dhammaloka case study serves as an excellent example of where the religious and cultural landscape is moderated within the domain of academic discourse. Only at this time were such intellectual pursuits blatantly colonial in agenda. Furthermore, such lively exchanges with missionaries highlight the overt assumptions of intellectual and cultural dominance but also the subversive influence on Buddhism to compete in a soon to be global spiritual marketplace. I would challenge Dr. Cox to think of Dhammaloka not in terms of his authenticity of being one of the earliest converts to Buddhism, but rather to see him as a mediating influence in what Buddhism would come to be for the West. Dare I say that Dhammaloka’s own cultural baggage and his Western approach to Buddhism might well have helped repackage Buddhist philosophy, making such transitions more salient.

In conclusion, I would like to challenge the overall paradigm of “Buddhism in the West.” The lack of synergy among scholarly inquiry coupled with the assumption of the specialness of Buddhism within the cultural or geographic context of the West lends further need for the application of critical theory. Such theory should be able to describe the specialness of the former and latter without relying on the old colonial tools of academia. While there is value in theories of sociology and religious studies, my concern is that such assumptions assume Buddhism is/was something different or special, dare I say sui generis (McCutcheon, 1997). The West’s fascination with the East goes well beyond a simple proselytizing motive or – it could be argued – colonial influence. Buddhism’s symbols, rituals, and practices seem mystical almost otherworldly from the flowing robes of monks, to the symbolism of the simplistic humble request of a monk with a begging bowl, to the teachings of the dasa pāramiyo or the ten perfections in defining one’s potential for Buddha nature. Yet given the plethora of possibilities in exploring the grand narrative of Western (European and American) Buddhism, such inquiries make some false assumptions about how Buddhism in the West is defined.


Cantwell, C. & Kawanami, H. (2002) Buddhism in Elisabeth Arweck’s New religious movements. Religions in the modern world: traditions and transformations, pp. 47-82.

Goldberg, E. (2006). Buddhism in the west In S. C. Berkwitz Berkwitz, S. C. (Ed.). Buddhism in world cultures: comparative perspectives. Abc-clio.

Kent, S. A. (2001). From slogans to mantras: Social protest and religious conversion in the late Vietnam war era. Syracuse University Press.

McCutcheon, R. T. (1997). Manufacturing religion: The discourse on sui generis religion and the politics of nostalgia. Oxford University Press.

McMahan, D. L. (2008). The making of Buddhist modernism. Oxford University Press.

L Connelly Image

Authority Online: Construction and Implications

Authority Online: Construction and Implications

By Louise Connelly, University of Edinburgh, UK

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 2 October 2013, in response to Pauline Hope Cheong’s interview on Religious Authority and Social Media (30 September 2013).

Pauline Hope Cheong is Associate Professor at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University. She has written extensively on the subject of digital religion and specifically the subject of religious authority. In a recent interview with Christopher Cotter, she provides an insight into her research on the subject of religious authority online and focuses the discussion to include: how authority manifests online, strategic arbitration, constructing tradition, performance, and this emerging research area.  In this review, I highlight some of the key points from the interview, as well as discussing Buddhist authority online.

Strategic Arbitration & Performance

Cheong argues that there is strategic arbitration by the clergy (religious leaders), as they are often having to select and interpret competing online texts, as well as negotiate texts presented by their congregation. Strategically arbitrating texts instils a responsibility and element of labour in which the religious leader needs to address both the impact of technology and the cultural shift in how people engage with technology. Consequently, the clergy need to manage this situation in order to maintain legitimacy within the organisation.

Cheong argues that some religious leaders may embrace the use of digital media, rather than shy away from it, as there are many advantages to being ‘connected’ online. An example given in the interview is the use of the micro-blogging platform known as Twitter and how tweets (140 characters or less) might serve as micro sacred texts to followers. Thus, the clergy can potentially engage with a much wider and more diverse audience (geographically and culturally) than would be possible in the face-to-face environment. Cheong refers to a forthcoming article on ‘top clergy tweeters’ and the possible explanation for their success. She argues that their success may be attributed to their willingness to share personal aspects of their life via Twitter and therefore building a more intimate relationship with their followers. Nonetheless, they often only share what is ‘culturally acceptable’. By constructing tweets which intentionally select topics and shy away from ‘less favourable’ topics, it could be argued that this is a type of online public/private performance.

New and evolving research

There are a number of disciplines which have taken an interest in the emerging area of religion online, including religious studies, media studies, and cultural studies;  to name but a few. Cheong highlights that “in the digital age, adherents, audiences, listeners, communities of shared practice and shared memory, and various ‘publics’ are now active in the production, circulation, imbrication, selection , and re-making of ‘the religious’ and ‘the spiritual’” (Cheong et al., 2012, p.xii). However, understanding how authority manifests online and is negotiated offline is an area needing further attention. Cheong proposes that future research could include an examination of religious apps and how authority is communicated through such apps (see Wagner, who proposes six categories of religious apps, 2012, p.102-105); as well as an exploration of religious authority and other cultures and languages (not just North America) use of online media. The latter would provide a comparative analysis of authority, which is a research area also proposed by Dawson and Cowan (2004, p.10-11).

Cheong’s interview provides a valuable insight into how different media platforms are being used by religious individuals and organisations. Understanding the relationship between religion, media and culture enables us to gain a greater awareness of the potential implications for religion due to cultural changes and technological developments in the twenty-first century.

Virtual Buddhism and Authority

I would now like to continue the discussion of authority on the internet by providing some examples of how Buddhist authority is manifesting online. The examination of Buddhism on the internet is an emerging area and includes a small number of studies which have addressed the issue of Buddhist authority online (see Cheong et al. 2011; Baffelli et al. 2011; Connelly, 2012). Cheong et al. focus on how Buddhist clergy use new and old media, whereas Baffelli et al. examine Japanese New Religious Movements and their use of video sharing sites as a means to instill authority.  Other research examines Buddhist ritual in the online virtual world known as Second Life and questions whether online Buddhism, or ‘Virtual Buddhism’ could result in changes to Buddhist authority, community, identity and ritual – both online and offline (Connelly, 2010; 2012).

Buddhism in Second Life can be found in a number of locations, such as the Buddha Center (, in-world address, 137, 130, 21). It is here that avatars (online personas) can participate in virtual meditation, spin prayer-wheels, or visit the temple or Deer Garden. The virtual activities, artefacts and locations at the Buddha Center often replicate those found offline, thus providing a sense of authenticity (Connelly, 2010, p.19). Many of the meditation sessions or talks are led by ordained Buddhist monks or nuns and therefore, could be said to legitimate their sense of authority online. On the other hand, the Buddha Center is not affiliated with one specific school of Buddhism and includes Zen, Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist practices and artifacts  One of the founders of the Center, Delani Gabardini (in-world name) maintains that this creates a type of “universal Buddhism” (Connelly, 2010, p.15). Examples of virtual locations, activities and individuals such as those found at the Buddha Center enable us to examine how Buddhist identity, community, ritual and authority manifests online and the possible challenges and implications which may arise, for Buddhism, both online and offline (Connelly 2012, p.134).

Buddhist religious authority online is an area which needs further exploration, so that we can truly understand how the internet is providing an opportunity for new forms of religious authority and leadership to develop, while at the same time establishing traditional religious authority. It will also help us to answer questions, such as who has the “true legitimate voice for a particular religious tradition or community” (Campbell 2012, p.76).

Additional Resources

P.H. Cheong website

Virtual Buddhism blog


  • Baffelli, E., Reader, I. & Staemmler, B. (2011). Japanese religions on the internet: innovation, representation, and authority. Routledge.
  • Campbell, H. (ed.). (2012). Digital religion: understanding religious practice in new media worlds. London: Routledge.
  • Cheong, Fisher-Nieleen, Gelgren & Ess (2012). Digital religion, social media and culture. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S. & Poon, J.P.H. (2011). “Cultivating Online and Offline Pathways to Enlightenment”. Information, Communication & Society, 14:8, 1160-1180.
  • Connelly, L. (2010). “Virtual Buddhism: An Analysis of Aesthetics in Relation to Religious Practice within Second Life”. 4.1 ed., Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet
  • ________. (2012). “Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist Ritual in Second Life” in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, H. Campbell (ed.), pp. 128-135. London: Routledge.
  • Dawson, L. L. & Cowan, D. (eds.) (2004). Religion Online. London, Routledge.
  • Wagner, R. (2012). Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. New York: Routledge.