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(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

Dhammaloka-30-July-1911

Lokanatha-1948-04-28

Lokanatha-28-April-1948

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

References

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.

Encounters Between Buddhism and the West

previously been interviewed for the RSP.

In this interview, entry to the discussion takes place through the subject of Laurence Carroll, an Irish emigrant to Burma and who was ordained Dhammaloka in Burma. Carroll, like many of his generation, emigrated to the US in the early part of the 20th century. On crossing the US, his trajectory onward to south Asia became entangled more deeply with the politics of empire and colonialism.

Dhammaloka’s story opens up a people’s history of the development of Buddhism in what we might call the West. The crossing of boundaries, which we see in the monk’s biography, points to a number of ideas around the identification of religion with nationalist projects. These are challenges to imperial authorities and is bound up in Dhammaloka’s conversion to, and acceptance by, everyday Buddhism in Burma.

In this story is a continuation of “dissident orientalism”, a conflict inherent within the colonial project wherein communities and personal trajectories become embedded within local religious contexts. A distinction made, both in Ireland and Burma, between native religion and the religion of the coloniser serves only to enhance the connection between nationalist movements and ethno-religious identity. Cox’s ideas focus on the conjunctions between race, religion and imperial power. How Buddhism becomes identified as Asian remains central to that.

**As mentioned in the interview, a slightly longer version of this interview (approx. five minutes) is available to download here**

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism, and Immigrant Buddhism in the West, and of course in the website for the Dhammaloka Project.

We hope you enjoy the sound from our new microphone setup. Thanks for listening!

Podcasts

(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

Dhammaloka-30-July-1911

Lokanatha-1948-04-28

Lokanatha-28-April-1948

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

References

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.

Encounters Between Buddhism and the West

previously been interviewed for the RSP.

In this interview, entry to the discussion takes place through the subject of Laurence Carroll, an Irish emigrant to Burma and who was ordained Dhammaloka in Burma. Carroll, like many of his generation, emigrated to the US in the early part of the 20th century. On crossing the US, his trajectory onward to south Asia became entangled more deeply with the politics of empire and colonialism.

Dhammaloka’s story opens up a people’s history of the development of Buddhism in what we might call the West. The crossing of boundaries, which we see in the monk’s biography, points to a number of ideas around the identification of religion with nationalist projects. These are challenges to imperial authorities and is bound up in Dhammaloka’s conversion to, and acceptance by, everyday Buddhism in Burma.

In this story is a continuation of “dissident orientalism”, a conflict inherent within the colonial project wherein communities and personal trajectories become embedded within local religious contexts. A distinction made, both in Ireland and Burma, between native religion and the religion of the coloniser serves only to enhance the connection between nationalist movements and ethno-religious identity. Cox’s ideas focus on the conjunctions between race, religion and imperial power. How Buddhism becomes identified as Asian remains central to that.

**As mentioned in the interview, a slightly longer version of this interview (approx. five minutes) is available to download here**

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism, and Immigrant Buddhism in the West, and of course in the website for the Dhammaloka Project.

We hope you enjoy the sound from our new microphone setup. Thanks for listening!