dharma bum


By Ian Lawton

Why am I making a film about an obscure monk that no one has heard of?

One of the first questions asked of me by Dr Laurence Cox, one of the core members of the Dhammaloka research team, when I visited him in his office on campus at The National University of Ireland in Maynooth was; of all the many interesting people in the world, why choose to make a documentary film about an obscure monk?

That is an excellent question and one I hope to answer in this article.

Its more than just that. Why would I drop most of my projects in favour of this one and dedicate possibly years of my life into telling this man’s story.

In a word: Connection.

When I first came across the story of Dhammaloka late one evening while casually surfing the internet, simply put; it woke me up. Before I had even finished reading the article I had an email composed introducing myself to one of the professors mentioned in the short article written in the BBC news website, saying that I thought this story they had discovered was a movie.

It has everything. An adventure spanning the globe over a lifetime, but more importantly a transformation.

Following Laurence Carroll’s journey from his Dublin roots, to his alcoholism that brought him to the USA and in turn left him hungover on a beach in Japan, to ultimately drying out in a Buddhist monastery in Burma then becoming the first white man to ever become a Buddhist monk. And that, dear reader, is only chapter one of this man’s tantalising story. It’s what he did as a monk that truly makes this a story worth telling.

But first we must back up a little bit.

Back in Dublin, in 1856, the year Laurence was born, Ireland was under colonialist rule by the British. Both the church and the government had a stranglehold on the populace of the country. Laurence was born on the front lines so to speak, as his home was right next door to the local catholic church. One can only speculate as to how difficult his life must have been born into these conditions but considering the fact that Carroll turned to alcohol at a very early age and left his homeland on a boat to Liverpool suggests that it wasn’t the most ideal place to spend a childhood.

In Liverpool he got a job on a ships pantry and set sail for the new world; the United States of America, landing in New York city at the tail end of Ireland’s mass exodus during The Great Famine.

From there he went west, as most people did, in search of a better life. Carroll bummed his way across the USA living hand to mouth, jumping trains, living life as a hobo, a beatnik, a bum, a free spirit. His knowledge of working on ships earned him work on the Acme, a fruit ship on the Sacramento river, which in turn brought him to San Francisco.

From there he worked the shipping route to Japan. Legend has it that on the third trip he was left on the beach in Japan. He was kicked off for drunk and disorderly conduct.

One can only imagine how it felt, that morning, hungover waking up on the beach watching your only connection to the west being severed as his boat returned to America.

Somehow, Carroll made his way from that beach in Japan, a stranger in a strange land, all the way down the coast of Southeast Asia, fueled by his lust for alcohol, till he found himself in Burma.

It was here in Burma he found work as a tally clerk, but more importantly it’s where he learned of Buddhism.

Carroll was a staunch atheist, as many Irish people had become after suffering through the harsh indoctrination process perpetrated upon the youth, yet Buddhism resonated with him. He recognised it to be more of a philosophy than a religion, very appealing to a man of such staunch beliefs and he found himself being welcomed by local monks at a nearby monastery. They took him in, he quit the bottle, dried out and took refuge in the monastery.

Five years passed where Carroll studied as an apprentice, then at the dawn of the twentieth century he shaved his head, donned the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk and was ordained U Dhammaloka in July of 1900, the first white man to do so.

Where other shipwrecked souls would ordain and disappear into a monastery and meditate for the rest of their lives, Dhammaloka was different.

Dhammaloka connected with his new Buddhist family and found a solidarity with the people of Burma as they were undergoing a similar process as he had experienced in his native Ireland. Colonisation. They were only in the country about 15 years at that point, but the British colonialists were slowly taking over the country by means of sending in missionaries to convert the populace to Christianity. The King James Bible was a powerful tool in controlling the masses and the British spared no expense in making sure their missionaries had enough to go around.

Mere weeks after his ordination, Dhammaloka published an notice in the main National burmese newspaper forbidding the British to distribute any bibles or christian materials to the people of Burma, signing it; The Bishop of Rangoon.

He wasn’t the bishop of Rangoon. He made that up!

It was a tactic he used to draw attention to himself and to the invading British. With this declaration he made his name public and people noticed. When he took to the streets he was an oddity. A blue eyed white man with a shaved head and dressed in the robes of a Buddhist monk, he quickly became a celebrity. This drew a lot of attention and he used this attention to his advantage in order to preach warnings about the invading British and Christianity used as an aggression.

For the next 11 years Dhammaloka went on to cause quite a stir as an activist in southeast Asia.

He was under constant police surveillance as he went on preaching tours spreading the dharma and opposing christian dogma. He published many atheist and freethinking authors in his own Buddhist Tract Society much to the chagrin of the British. Ultimately Dhammaloka faked his own death. Possibly in order to get the colonialists to cease their constant surveillance of his movements as they were relentlessly breathing down his neck while his fame increased.. He was put on trial for sedition after many rabble-rousing speeches he made in public to crowds of the Burmese public.

Ultimately their actions worked. They successfully erased the man from history where his story has lay dormant for over 100 years only to be discovered by three astounding professors who have managed to piece this great man’s life story together.

The film I am making is as much about their meticulous work as it is about Dhammaloka. Consider how difficult it must’ve been to trace this man’s story when he was travelling the globe in a time without passports while constantly changing his name. It truly is a remarkable achievement.

The world needs to know this story.

To be inspired by this man’s legacy. He is an example of how one can change oneself for the better.

To reject dogma and embrace the dharma.

How an addictive personality can transpose his addiction for alcohol for the addiction to the truth. For us to acknowledge and admire the courage, tenacity, and perhaps insanity of this one visionary person who was so outspoken that he was erased from history is truly is an honour.

People have approached me, in person, on Twitter, and via email who have come from alcoholism, because they relate to the parallels in their own lives. A member of the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) messaged me to thank me for trying to tell this inspirational story. A close personal friend of mine emailed me to thank me for telling him the story of Dhammaloka, prior to him committing to 28 days in rehab.

Already, before the film is even made, Dhammaloka’s story is touching people and transforming peoples lives. Changing them for the better.

THAT is why I’m making this movie.

Want to help?



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ian lawtonIan Lawton is a multi-award winning filmmaker living & working in the midlands of Ireland. His films have been seen all over the world. You can view his work by visiting Reasonably Shorts. He is currently crowdfunding for his film The Dharma Bum on the worlds first Buddhist crowdfunding platform dana.io – Even as little as $1.00 can help get this film made, for which you will receive a copy. Visit here to make a donation. More details can be found at www.thedharmabum.eu


Editor: Daniel Scharpenburg

Photo: Author’s Own