New biography reconsiders how Buddhism became a modern, global religion

The Irish Buddhist
The Irish Buddhist

A new book authored by York University Associate Professor Alicia Turner, along with Laurence Cox of Maynooth University and Brian Bocking of University College Cork, follows an audacious character of history while offering a window into the worlds of ethnic minorities and diasporas, transnational networks and social movements.

The Irish Buddhist (Oxford University Press, 2020) tells the story of U Dhammaloka, an extraordinary Irish emigrant and sailor who became one of the first Western Buddhist monks and an anti-colonial activist in early 20th century Asia.

Born in Dublin in the 1850s, Dhammaloka energetically challenged the values and power of the British Empire and scandalized the colonial establishment of the 1900s. He rallied Buddhists across Asia, set up schools, published on a grand scale and argued down Christian missionaries – often using Western atheist arguments.

He was tried for sedition, tracked by police and intelligence services, and died at least twice.

His story illuminates the forgotten margins and interstices of imperial power while touching on themes ranging from the complexities of class, ethnicity and religious belonging in colonial Asia to the fluidity of identity in the high Victorian period.

Alicia Turner
Alicia Turner

According to Turner, the story of the pan-Asian Buddhist revival movement and Buddhism’s remaking as a world religion has too often been told “from above,” highlighting scholarly writers, middle-class reformers and ecclesiastical hierarchies. She says that through turns fraught, hilarious, pioneering and improbable, Dhammaloka’s adventures “from below” highlight the changing and contested meanings of Buddhism in colonial Asia.

Kate Crosby, a professor of Buddhist Studies at King’s College in London, called the book extraordinary, and not simply a gripping story. “It is an education into the lives, ingenuity and resilience of the usually undocumented, ordinary people living precarious lives on the margins of society across the globe at the height of Empire,” she said.

The Irish Buddhist was released on March 31. While the book’s publishing house is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic making physical copies unavailable, electronic versions are available and on sale.

Turner is associate professor of humanities and religious studies. She is interested in the intersections of religion, colonialism, secularism and nationalism in southeast Asia, with a particular focus on Buddhism in Burma (Myanmar) over the past 150 years.