Laurence Carroll, the West’s first-ever Buddhist, was Irish.
I discovered this while ghostwriting a book on the first Europeans to explore Tibet. Now, considering this is a top-secret project, I cannot divulge too much about that book. I am the ghost in the machine, the soul of the story, but I must stay tucked underneath the fleshy overlay of the man who commissioned me.
In that light, ghostwriting does not seem like the best gig in the world, but when I land a job ghostwriting a minor Irish celebrity’s autobiography, I’ll know I made the right career choice.
While not naming any names, I can say that one French priest told the story of Noah’s Ark in exchange for hearing Tibetan Buddhism’s creation myth from a Lama. There was the Belgian woman whose guru could allegedly fly through the air and kill people with his death stare. All in all, these people were a remarkable cast of pioneers, scientists, tourists and enlightenment seekers.
In the book, I do touch on Laurence Carroll. And since he’s not a protagonist of that story, he can be the star of this blog post.
Laurence Carroll: The West’s First-Ever Buddhist
Now, this part is called setting the scene.
Shoes, Burma & the British
The British Empire ruled India for 200 years, and these imperialists saw Burma as a useful way to get to China. This Anglo-Sino relationship is a looming shadow in my aforementioned book on Tibet. This relationship was rarely peaceful, and it lurched into violence during the Lama Rebellion and the Boxer Rebellion.
Trying to appease the King of Burma, the British easily followed protocol. This meant that they had to take off their shoes and crawl on the floor in his presence. Naturally, given that most European colonial powers were fuelled by great arrogance, this situation was unbearable. The British did it for a while, but then they started refusing to do it. Ultimately, this stand-off led a war, which the British won. With the King removed, the Buddhist faithful lost their spiritual leader. The victorious British, free from the protocol, redefined what was acceptable. In Buddhist temples, for example, only the Burmese had to take off their shoes. The Westerners only had to remove their hats.
Thus, a system of cultural violence was put into place, underpinned by a racist sense of Western and Christian superiority. This system was challenged by one Irishman at the beginning of the 20th century.
For a more colourful, sweary retelling of this story, listen to Blindboy’s podcast.
The wandering Hobo, the alcoholic
The Belgian woman mentioned in the introduction caused a stir by high-tailing it to India, leaving her husband and dressing in orange robes. It’s hard to know which part was the most shocking for her contemporaries, but seeing a Westerner dressed like a Buddhist turned a lot of heads.
The same thing happened to Carroll. Seeing a barefooted, bald Irishman dressed as a Buddhist monk was a noticeable sight around Burma. But it wasn’t that strange – he was ordained as a monk and had changed his name to U Dhammaloka, after all. It was more noteworthy that he was the first-ever Westerner to do this. With his Buddhist outlook, he was anti-Bible, because he had grown-up under Catholic domination in Ireland; against alcohol; and an opponent of the Gatling gun. This machine gun could mow down scores of people, and until the First World War, it was never used against white people. Through its application, then, it was another tool of racist oppression.
Carroll was born somewhere in a Dublin slum. Like many Irish people before and after, his depressing lack of job prospects pushed him into an immigrant’s life. Wandering as a hobo, he rode the rails across Europe and the USA. A hobo differs from being homeless in one fundamental way: the hobo life is a choice, usually one made by someone looking to live freely, outside society.
He eventually picked up work on a steamship to China, but he got kicked off for disorderly conduct. Waking up hungover, he then found his way to a Buddhist monastery, where he studied for 7 years. He dedicated his life to giving impassioned speeches all across South-East Asia. He also had a sense of humour – not uncommon for an Irish person! – and he placed an advert in a Burmese paper offering a reward for anyone who could show him a virgin mother. He placed other, more sober, adverts too, warning Christians not to distribute bible in the country.
One fateful day, Carroll was in a pagoda. An Indian policeman walked in, wearing his shoes. It was this policeman’s right to do this, but Carroll challenged him nonetheless. A massive furore was generated, which was further complicated by the fact that Carroll, a Buddhist, was also a Westerner. The Shoe Question filled newspapers and, eventually, other monks started to follow Carroll’s example. This movement, which resulted in monks confronting Westerners in temples and putting up signs calling for everyone to remove their shoes, was successful. The British relented and obliged all people to enter Buddhist sites without their shoes.
Britain’s concession, broadly speaking, can be seen as the springboard for Burma’s drive for independence. In 1948, Burma became an independent Republic, under the present-day name of Myanmar.
O’Carroll, for his part, faked his death after the incident and soon disappeared without a trace.
U Dhammaloka/Laurence Carroll: The West’s First-Ever Buddhist
Carroll’s name is sadly now in the dustbin of history. We should know more about this great Irish hero, and celebrate him. He belongs in the same gallery as Daniel O’Connell and Michael Collins because he fiercely rejected colonialism.
U Dhammaloka, to use his Buddhist name, rejected Christianity, as well. And this is a great detail; too often, Christianity’s role as a ‘soft weapon’ in imperialism is overlooked. Strip away a nation’s language and religion, and that country becomes a vessel through which the occupying force can impose its own culture.
It’s always a pity to forget interesting characters like U Dhammaloka, people who live on the margins of history, in mad diversions from what we normally expect. It’s an even bigger shame to forget the lesson of what happens to rich cultures when they become suppressed.
For more on Irish history, check out our piece on the forgotten Olympian. Listen to our podcast for more cultural pieces, and head to our online shop for some literary-inspired fashion. You can also buy our book on Amazon and in many bookshops around Spain. The book, incidentally, was reviewed in this big paper.
Thanks for reading!