In 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.