On This Day

The Day Myanmar’s Most Esteemed Foreign Monk Passed Away

By Wei Yan Aung 25 May 2020

YANGON—On this day in 1966, the Italian Buddhist missionary U Lokanatha (born Salvatore Cioffi), who devoted his life to promoting Buddhism around the world, died in Pyin Oo Lwin. Inspired by the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s sayings, Cioffi, who received a degree in chemistry from a university in New York, took an interest in Buddhism and entered the monastic order in Myanmar in 1925 at the age of 28.

From his base in Myanmar, the monk traveled to many countries including Thailand, Sri Lanka, Italy, France and the United States, converting many to Buddhism.

When World War II broke out, the Italian-born monk, who was in India at the time, was confined by the British authorities to a prisoner-of-war camp, where he managed to convert some of his fellow inmates to Buddhism. He also staged a dramatic 96-day hunger strike to demand his religious rights as a Buddhist, until he was eventually force-fed by his jailers.

U Lokanatha walks on the hair of female admirers in Los Angeles in 1948. / Acme Photo Agency via Tricycle.org

He was later jailed for seven days in France for collecting alms.

Though he preached extensively and wrote several books on Buddhism, the vegetarian spent most of his time meditating in caves and forests. He earned greater esteem than his predecessor as a foreign monk, the English Buddhist missionary Ananda Metteyya.

U Lokanatha attracted many devotees as he traveled across Myanmar and asked religious questions of senior monks who were considered “Arhat”, or awakened ones freed from the endless cycle of rebirth.

The monk lived in Myanmar for many decades, spanning the colonial period to post-independence military rule. He died of cancer at the age of 68.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko