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Beachcombing, Going Native and Freethinking: Rewriting the History of Early Western Buddhist Monastics

Cox, Laurence and Bocking, Brian and Turner, Alicia (2010) Beachcombing, Going Native and Freethinking: Rewriting the History of Early Western Buddhist Monastics. Contemporary Buddhism, 11 (2). pp. 125-147. ISSN 1463-9947

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Abstract

The article provides an introduction to the special issue of Contemporary Buddhism entitled ‘U Dhammaloka, “The Irish Buddhist”: Rewriting the History of Early Western Buddhist Monastics’. Traditional accounts of pioneer Western Buddhist monastics begin with the 1899 ordination of H. Gordon Douglas (Aśoka), and highlight gentleman scholars writing for a European audience. They consign to obscurity a pre-existing world of Western Buddhist monastics of all social classes. To open a window onto this hidden history, this issue presents new material relating to the extraordinary career of U Dhammaloka (?1856 - ?1914), widely known as "The Irish Buddhist”. A working-class autodidact, freethinker and temperance campaigner from Dublin, Dhammaloka became renowned throughout colonial Asia as an implacable critic of Christian missionaries and tireless transnational organiser of Asian Buddhists from Burma to Japan. The research described in this issue is innovative not only in content but also in method and approach, having advanced through collaborative, international research employing web-based research tools and online resources. These offer new possibilities for other translocative and interdisciplinary research projects. Origin myths are important in Buddhism, and indeed in Buddhist studies. The standard origin myth of western Buddhist monasticism normally traces its foundation to three gentleman scholars in the years around 1900: the British converts H. Gordon Douglas (Aśoka) and Allan Bennett MacGregor (Ananda Metteyya),3 and the German Anton Gueth (Nyanatiloka). Even where academic research has asked critical questions of the ways such figures constructed ‘Buddhism’, it has accepted the genealogy which highlights these figures as pioneers. As our opening quotation suggests, matters are more complex than that. The essays in this special issue of Contemporary Buddhism include three extended articles and a critical response derived from the panel on ‘Rewriting the History of Early Western Buddhist Monastics’, presented at the XXth International Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) in Toronto, Canada, on 19th August 2010. The somewhat ambitious title of that panel, which reappears as the subtitle of this issue of Contemporary Buddhism, reflects our conviction as researchers that the material we have discovered and are now presenting should provoke a comprehensive and critical re-examination of this origin myth, not simply by way of replacing one set of names with others, but more substantively by rethinking the character, history and significance of western engagements with Buddhism at the turn of the twentieth century. Our own re-examination of the myth of origin began - and continues, for this is very much a work in progress - with the study of a hitherto ignored monk known formally by his Burmese monastic name U Dhammaloka, and widely referred to in contemporary sources simply as ‘”The Irish Buddhist” or “The Irish Pongyi” (monk). Dhammaloka’s life and activities, especially during the period 1900-1911, form the main focus of this issue; more broadly, they offer a window into a world of very different kinds of early western bhikkhus from those usually acknowledged, and a window into the broader social context of Asia around 1900, highlighting imperial anxieties about 'poor whites' and 'going native', the Buddhist revival in Asia, the construction of religion and the contestation of identities. U Dhammaloka was Irish, he was working class and he had a limited formal education.4 He was also renowned in his day throughout South, Southeast and East Asia as a fully-ordained and observant Theravadin monk who attracted European, Chinese and Burmese support for his many and varied organisational and publishing projects in support of the ‘Buddhist Revival’. Dhammaloka was loved and respected by the Buddhist laity. He was less admired by the European colonial establishment, for reasons which will become clear in the other papers in this issue, and admired least of all by Christian missionaries and their converts, whose activities he energetically disrupted.

Item Type: Article
Keywords: Beachcombing; Going Native; Freethinking; History of Early Western Buddhist Monastics; Contemporary Buddhism;
Subjects: Social Sciences > Sociology
Item ID: 2298
Depositing User: Dr. Laurence Cox
Date Deposited: 09 Dec 2010 09:49
Journal or Publication Title: Contemporary Buddhism
Publisher: Taylor & Francis
Refereed: Yes
URI:

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