By Acharya Samaneti
What does it mean to be a convert to Buddhism?
We may often not be viewed as a whole Buddhist by those who do not study or follow the teachings of the Buddha. Many of us spend most of our lives attempting to demonstrate our integrity to the path. It can feel like we need to work twice as hard to be taken seriously by outsiders—we are constantly proving that this is not a pastime or hobby, a performance, or an “image” that we want to portray to those around us.
I myself have faced much doubt as to the seriousness of my practice and the “actual reasons” why I chose to be a disciple of the Buddha Dhamma.
So what does it mean to be one of the first converts to Buddhism? What does it mean when the path is not just a personal spiritual quest, but a radical social and political practice? How often do we hear that we should not bring politics into our spiritual practices and spaces; but how can we sit and witness greed, hatred and delusion and do nothing?
U Dhammaloka is one brave working-class Irishman.
He was an emigrant, sailor, and migrant worker, and he took on colonialism and its Christian missionaries in early 20th century Burma, to such a degree that he ended up being tried for the charge of sedition. The British crown taking on this working-class Irishman turned monk showed what made Buddhism the global tradition in the age of migration, colonialism, and empire in Asia, and the threat that it posed to the establishment.
The book, The Irish Buddhist: The Forgotten Monk who Faced Down the Britsih Emoire, written by Alicia Turner, traces the life of the first European convert Buddhist monk, which was all pieced together from intricate scraps of evidence of U Dhammaloka’s life across continents like Europe, Asia, Australia, North America to achieve a wealth of information that helps to achieve a sketch of an extremely interesting, likeable, and admirable Buddhist monk. I must show my deep appreciation and gratitude for the work of the three authors: Alicia Turner, Laurence Cox, and Brian Bocking for the ten years of they put into this great book.
You can quickly see the passion and care that was brought to this project.
This is an important story that was brought back from the forgotten regions of history. I am very grateful that this person and his life story was brought back to the collective consciousness to inspire Buddhists to continue this anti-colonial work by honouring the ancient teachings of the Buddha and the schools that have served the dhamma for thousands of years.
This Irishman quickly becomes an admirable monk that dedicates his life fighting the British colonial forces and its Christian missionaries in ways that are admirable and inspiring. The reason that he ended up being tried and charged with sedition was because he was seen as a threat to the British and the Church’s campaign of converting Buddhists on a mass scale. I think that a lot of Buddhist converts raised Catholic or Christian of some sort will resonate with some of the arguments that U Dhammaloka raises with the Christian missionaries and their practices.
Here is a taste of what you will read:
When Buddhist infants are sent to Christian schools, their soft minds are poisoned. In a very short time, those children lose feelings of nationalism and patriotism. They lose their religion too. They practice foreign habits. Do Christian parents send their children to Buddhist schools? No. So why do Buddhists send their own children to Christians’ schools? Buddhists should realise that changing the minds of children is their main means through which Christianity is spread in a country and they should set up Buddhist schools in every village.
He also offers strong examples and arguments of how Buddhists are not given the same power and liberty in colonial Burma, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) etc. It is truly a commendable life that U Dhammaloka has lived. This is an important story that I believe all Buddhist converts who are interested in social justice should check out.
Buddhism has been engaged since the time of the Buddha and with this book we get to see the continuation of this tradition of pushing against ignorance—the cause of all suffering. It has never been a more important time to learn about the history of engaged Buddhism in the current conditions of the world to inspire ourselves to be more like this Irish Buddhist and continue this Buddhist revival that has been happening this last century, which I am sure was helped by the work of this badass monk.
Acharya Samaneti is a prison chaplain, philosopher, a lover of the written word, and truth seeker. The contemplative life called him early in his life; an only child, Samanetti found comfort in silence, reflexion, and personal inquiry. Samaneti is interested in bearing witness to the oneness of suffering and the loving actions that awaken hearts; this mission draws him to work with the incarcerated and other marginalized populations.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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