That Great Italian Buddhist

lokanatha-21f17In my studies of Buddhism over the last few years, twice I came across a reference to a certain “crazy Italian Buddhist” who was active as a Theravadin monk in the early 20th century. As an Italian who is trying to practice Buddhism (?), I found this quite intriguing, but twice failed to look him up. I finally took a minute to google him, not by looking up “Italian Buddhist monk”, but that crazy Italian Buddhist. That Crazy Italian Buddhist yielded exactly what I was looking for: Lokanatha, who was ordained as a Theravadin monk in Burma in 1925. Born in Naples, Italy, (my ancestral stomping grounds), he immigrated to America as a young boy, and grew up in Brooklyn, NY. He studied chemistry at Cooper Union and medicine at Colombia University. After graduating, he began to pursue an interest Buddhism, partly because he saw a congruence between science and Buddhism. He immigrated to Burma to begin his formal practice of Buddhism, and spent the rest of his life travelling around South Asia, studying, practicing, and teaching Buddhism. He had a grand sense of mission–his ambition was to launch a global mission to spread Buddhism around the world. In the 1930s, he became the friend and confidant of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. It was through my research into the life of Dr. Ambedkar that I found the two references to that crazy Italian Buddhist. It is said that is was Lokanatha who convinced Ambedkar to convert to Buddhism.

My interest in Lokanatha is on the personal side: how does an Italian practice Buddhism? especially an Italian with a mind like his, highly educated and cultured, who was, among other things, an accomplished violinist? How do you get an Italian to SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP? Are you kidding me? Throughout his life, he practiced the most austere forms of renunciation and meditation. But also typical of an Italian, he had ambitious plans to propagate Buddhism throughout the world, a mission captured in his book, Girdling the Globe with Truth. As a Buddhist missionary, he spread Buddhsm through South Asia, the South Pacific, and the West: the US, UK and continental Europe. On one early expedition, he walked from Italy to India on foot, walking across southern Europe and Asia Minor. Lokanatha’s life inspires me to practice Buddhism like an Italian, with tremendous energy and passion, using his gift for conversation to preach the dharma. Lokanatha sat down and shut up long enough to meditate, but he was otherwise in constant motion, going everywhere and teaching everyone.

In Brooklyn Bhikkhu, Phiip Deslippe writes of Lokanatha’s mission:

On the last day of October 1946, Lokanatha and Dr Soni organized a public meeting in Mandalay for creating a ‘world-wide Buddhist movement for promoting peace in the human family,’ and the Buddhist Foreign Mission was organized a month later. In the July of the following year, Lokanatha was sent out to travel throughout the globe as the ‘first Dhamma-Ambassador to the world in a thousand years’ by the Buddhist Foreign Mission after being honoured by five separate Buddhist organizations in Rangoon within sight of Shwedagon Pagoda. Announcing his arrival in America in advance, Lokanatha told the press in Hong Kong that his endeavour would be bringing an ‘Atomic Bomb of Love’ to the West. (Deslippe, Contemporary Buddhism, 2013, Vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 169-186)

So there ya go, Lokanatha, that great Italian Buddhist love bomb.

Wikipedia:

Lokanatha (Dec. 26,1897-May 25, 1966) was an Italian Buddhist missionary.

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6 thoughts on “That Great Italian Buddhist

    1. Omg. this is wonderful! Thanks so much for telling me about your great uncle Lokanatha. He’s a great inspiration for me. I hope they do a film about his life soon.

  1. Shaun, I take you calling Lokanatha ‘crazy’ with the best of intentions but a) he was not crazy and b) nowhere else on the net will you find any article referring to him as crazy and if google “crazy Italian Buddhist” any article (other than this post) that comes up about Lokanatha it is with the word “crazy” omitted… although I have not published any articles, other than the wikipedia page, I have researched him extensively and spoken to those who knew him before they past away.

    1. Hi Mike: “that crazy Italian Buddhist” is a quote from another source, I didn’t make that up. I don’t remember exactly where I found it; I think it was in a book on Buddhism in India, related to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. It is certainly not meant to be an insult. I’m also a ‘crazy Italian Buddhist’ (notice my last name) and I don’t think it’s an insult. ‘Crazy’ is how he was seen by others, possibly because Italians are so associated with the Roman Catholic Church that it seems “crazy” that an Italian would become a Buddhist monk. Or perhaps it was the fact that he walked from Italy to India.

      However, I changed the title to “Great” Italian Buddhist. I do care how my readers feel about what I publish.

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