Laurence Carroll – the first western Buddhist monk

Ireland has produced many remarkable characters throughout history. From great leaders like Michael Collins and James Larkin, to brilliant minds such as Oscar Wilde and Robert Mallett.
One fascinating character that Ireland does not know so much about is a man named Laurence Carroll. He lived out much of his life as a drunken wanderer, with little ambition or direction.
Laurence Carroll - the first western Buddhist monk
However, his life was transformed when he travelled to Asia, and settled in Burma and found the religion of Buddhism.
Irish film-maker Ian Lawton plans to make a documentary about Carroll’s life, and is seeking investment in the project.
Here is a brief description from Ian Lawton about the man he calls ‘the Dharma Bum.’

Ian Lawton
Ian Lawton

Ian Lawton is a film-maker currently living in the midlands of Ireland. He has written many screenplays and won many awards for his film-making achievements during his career. You can view some of his work at or follow him on Twitter at @rshorts or @DharmaBumMovie and say hi!


by Ian Lawton
Once upon a time, over a hundred years ago, there was a little boy born in the county of Dublin. At an early age he took a liking to the bottle and by the time he was a teenager he crossed the Irish sea to Liverpool where he worked on the docks.
From there he set sail to the new world and landed in America. He bummed his way across the USA, living the life of a hobo, jumping trains, living hand to mouth, on the road and living life. He worked on a fruit boat on the Sacramento river which brought him to San Fransisco. From there he worked the shipping route to Japan until he was kicked off and left on the beach.
Too drunk to work. This alcoholic homeless tramp made his way as a beachcomber all the way through southeast Asia till he arrived in Burma. It was here where he was taken in by local Buddhist monks, he dried out, shaved his head and became a monk, making him the first ever white man in the world to do so.
So what, you might say? What’s the big deal? Someone 100 years ago became a monk? Why should I care?
Well, him becoming a monk is merely the beginning of this adventure. You see, back when he was born, in the 1850s, Ireland was a colony of the British. He was exposed to, and experienced first hand, the oppression of the colonialists.
He also experienced first hand the dominance of the Church in Catholic Ireland.
Laurence Carroll was born and grew up right next door to the local Catholic Church in Booterstown, Co. Dublin. One can only speculate as to what prompted Laurence to decide to leave his home, but considering where he found himself later in life, it is safe to assume that growing up in colonialist Ireland coupled with the dominance of the Church certainly contributed to his choice to leave and also his taste for the bottle.
As a teenager in Liverpool, he was unsuccessful in getting steady work on the docks, but it was his experience of being the son of the local greengrocer back home, that qualified him for the job of working in a ship’s pantry.
It was that job that fortuitously took him to the United States of America. In the mid 1860s he found himself in New York city, the gateway to the new world. A lot of his time in the US is undocumented. He was traveling at a time without passports and he had a tendency to change his name whenever it suited him.
One morning, many years later, he woke up hungover on a beach in Japan, after being kicked off the boat that had brought him there for drunk and disorderly conduct. Bleary eyed, head pounding, he watched as the ship returned to San Francisco. Hungover and homeless, Laurence, beach combed his way through Southeast Asia as a hobo. Taking on any job that could help him maintain his preferred level of intoxication.
After months of travel, he found himself on the doorstep of a Buddhist monastery in Burma, where the local monks took him in and looked after him while he dried out. He renounced the bottle, and was seduced by the teachings of The Buddha. After five years as an apprentice, Laurence Carroll ordained as a monk, becoming U Dhammaloka in July of 1900. A first for a non Burmese person.
Burma at the time was in the process of colonisation by the British. Dhammaloka took umbrage with this. These beautiful people who had just saved his life were under threat of being destroyed. Dhammaloka was having none of it.
Soon after his ordination, a notice appeared in a local Burmese newspaper, stating that all Christian missionaries are warned not to distribute religious tracts or sell bibles in the province of Burma, by order of U Dhammaloka, the Bishop of Rangoon. And with this audacious statement, a legend was born.
He was of course not the Bishop of Rangoon, this was a self proclamation and the first of many brazen statements the man would make and would continue to make during his one man reign of terror denunciating the invading British colonialists and Christian missionaries for the next decade.
He became quite the celebrity in the process. He was very popular with the people of Burma and attracted large crowds as he went on preaching tours up and down the country, helped in part by being the unusual looking oddity of a white man dressed in the saffron robes of a monk.
He would go on to set up the Buddhist Tract Society, where he would publish the works of atheist authors such as Thomas Paine and other notable freethinkers, who were opposed to the orthodoxy of dogma, as the Christian Church attempted to soften the blow, placate the populace and “domesticate” the plebeians for the incoming colonialists.
For 10 years this man blazed a trail all across southeast Asia, causing controversy and uproar wherever he went as a outspoken activist. He ended up under constant police surveillance, and was arrested numerous times.
His first arrest was at the Shwedagon Pagoda, in the heart of Rangoon. It is sacred ground and as a mark of respect, shoes are not to be worn within its walls. Dhammaloka once confronted a British police officer walking the grounds while wearing shoes. When the officer refused to remove them, Dhammaloka angrily stated that: “You have trampled all over our country, now you are trampling all over our religion!”
His righteous indignation had him thrown in jail.
He caused such a stir that eventually he even faked his own death, and then ultimately disappeared without a trace soon after.

Shwedagon Pagoda. Photo Copyright - Ralf André Lettau
Shwedagon Pagoda. Photo Copyright – Ralf André Lettau

Laurence Carroll remained unknown, erased from history for the next one hundred years. His life story has been unearthed and meticulously put together by a team of three professors, who since 2009 have been working together trying to put together this mans life story. No mean feat considering this man travelled in a time before passports and was changing his name constantly. Most evidence of his existence was destroyed by two world wars and centuries of civil unrest.
The enormity of the work these professors have carried out is akin to those piecing together the life story of the historical figure of Jesus Christ. An extraordinary achievement to say the least. I have become obsessively fascinated with this story and their work. Which brings us to the advert part of this advertorial. (I do apologise but please bare with me).
I am an independent film-maker and I am making a documentary film about this man. I call it The Dharma Bum. I named it such, as Carroll was living the beatnik dream a lifetime before Kerouac and the beats. I reckon these guys would really have gotten a kick out of this monk, had he not been written out of the history books.
This mans life story is far too important and inspirational to be left in obscurity. I have put together a great team to help realise this film, including acclaimed animator Paul Bolger who will help recreate key moments in Dhammaloka’s life by using beautiful traditional hand drawn animation.
There is only one photograph of this man in existence and absolutely no footage. Bringing him back to life as an animated character is not only poetic but essential. We also have Choice Music Prize nominee Mumblin’ Deaf Ro on board to compose the score for this film. Plus a small team of passionate people from producers to camera operators willing to get their hands dirty for this production, all standing by. All we are lacking is the funding to get this ball rolling. That is where you, dear reader come in.
The Dharma Bum poster

If you are familiar with Indiegogo or Kickstarter, the page will look very familiar. It’s got all the usual suspects for rewards from t-shirts to posters, from soundtrack albums to even being in the film as an animated character! But even if you give just €1.00, you get a copy of the movie.
I want everyone to see this film. A lot of crowdfunding campaigns say they’ll say ‘hi’ to you on Facebook or follow you on Twitter for the minimum amount, but for me, if you are supporting the movie, you get to see it. Simple as that.
But I can’t do this by myself, I need your help! If you find this man as interesting as I do and want to see this film get made, please share this story with your friends and encourage them to give what they can.
Whether Buddhist, Atheist, Christian or none of the above, this lifelong adventure story is appealing to everyone.
I really don’t want this man to remain an obscurity. I really don’t think he should be available just to the chosen few, the academia, he was a man of the people and for the people.
I want people to sit down and turn on Netflix and there he is, available to everyone. I think he is more relevant today than he was back then. I think he’s an inspiring character and I really want the entire world to know about him and benefit from his words, from his wisdom, from the Dharma he spread, for his passion, for his convictions and for standing up for what he believed in. He’s up there with Martin Luther King, he’s up there with Lenny Bruce, he’s an important figure that deserves to be remembered. So please, I implore you, help me make this movie.