Buddhist history is full of tales of unusual converts, people who somehow connected with the dharma and dedicated their lives to it against all odds. But many of those remarkable biographies are all but lost in the vault of the past. One such figure was an Italian-born Brooklynite named Salvatore Cioffi, who grew up in a fervently Catholic household at the turn of the 20th century. Cioffi converted to Buddhism as a young man and later became the Venerable Lokanatha, a passionate missionary who spent decades traveling throughout Asia and around the world, preaching and converting followers. Lokanatha stood just five feet tall, but he cast a long shadow: he wielded influence over some of the most prominent and influential Buddhist leaders of modern Asia and was a catalyst of what may have been the largest mass religious conversion in human history.

The future Buddhist monk was born on the day after Christmas in 1897 in the town of Carvinara, in the southern Italian province of Campania. In 1901, when Salvatore was 4 years old, his family immigrated to America and settled in Brooklyn. Even as new arrivals, the Cioffis were relatively affluent. Salvatore grew up speaking French as well as English and Italian, and he became an accomplished violinist who once performed a 45-minute recital for national radio. (In a 1947 interview, a quarter century after renouncing the world, he still recalled how difficult it had been to part with his violin.) A cousin, the sculptor Onorio Ruotolo, who counted Isamu Noguchi as a protégé and was known as “the Rodin of Little Italy,” introduced Cioffi to the world of art and ideas; later in life, he would credit Ruotolo for igniting his love of philosophy and his search for truth.

Even as a young child, Cioffi was repulsed by meat, one of several qualities he later saw as proof that he had been a Buddhist in previous lives. At the age of 5, he found a pigeon with a broken wing and nursed it back to health. When his mother killed the bird and put it into a stew, the child refused to eat for several days until she swore never to kill a pigeon again. As a young man, Cioffi briefly enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, but withdrew because he refused to kill and dissect frogs and cats, a requirement of the program. After ordaining, he conducted lengthier hunger strikes, and he often fasted to draw attention to the cause of world peace.

For a short time after the First World War, Cioffi considered becoming a Franciscan monk. But his religious devotion had not yet gelled, and science had captured his attention. He earned a degree in chemistry from Cooper Union in Manhattan and went on to hold jobs as a chemist with companies such as Procter & Gamble and Crucible Steel.

One day, a coworker lent him a large volume of Buddhist texts. Cioffi was enthralled, particularly by the Dhammapada, and he later remarked simply, “I read the book. I became a Buddhist.” Like other American sympathizers and converts to Buddhism of the period such as Paul Carus and Eleanor Hiestand-Moore, Cioffi found that the Buddha’s teaching made moral and philosophical sense, while it also fit comfortably into a modern scientific framework. “Self-research is the highest research,” he noted decades after his conversion. “From chemistry, the science of analysis, I passed on to Buddhism, the religion of analysis.”

Embracing what he saw as the democratic and rational nature of Buddhism, Cioffi saw how it ran counter to the hierarchy and ritualism he perceived in the Roman Catholicism of his childhood. But his burgeoning interest in the dharma strained his relationship with his devoutly religious family (including his brother Raphael, a priest who eventually became an influential monsignor). Cioffi moved into an apartment of his own and began to spend all of his free time at the New York Public Library reading anything he could find about Buddhism.

By the time he was in his mid-20s, Cioffi had chosen his fate. He wrote a note to his family and boarded a steamer ship, traveling first to England, then to India. After visiting the Buddhist pilgrimage sites of Bodghaya and Sarnath, he went to Sri Lanka, where he lived as a novitiate before taking formal Buddhist monastic vows in 1925 and receiving the name Javana Tikkha. He then went to Rangoon, but (according to his letters) a combination of missionary longing and some degree of cultural discomfort in Burma led him to return to the land of his birth.

Once back in Italy, the newly ordained monk tried to live as a traditional bhikkhu, meditating in solitude and going door to door for alms. But the Italians he encountered were not prepared for a mendicant Buddhist monastic in their midst, and he was repeatedly arrested for vagrancy and deemed a “harmless religious maniac.” Eventually, authorities took him to Naples, where he was placed under the care of relatives and forced to wear Western clothes instead of robes.

In Naples, Cioffi turned to one of the only locals who might understand his aspirations—a professor of geology named Giuseppe De Lorenzo, who was also an Orientalist scholar and early popularizer of Buddhism in Italy. Cioffi arrived unannounced at De Lorenzo’s office and, in his American-accented Italian, presented himself as a Buddhist monk. De Lorenzo listened to the story of Cioffi’s conversion, travels, and current dilemma, and in the end advised him to go back to India.

Cioffi’s relatives in Italy, as well as his family in Brooklyn, hoped he might channel his religious impulses back to the Catholic Church and join a Franciscan monastery. In an attempt to prevent his departure for India, they convinced local authorities to deny Cioffi the official pass required to leave Naples. But after several months of dispute, culminating in a weeklong hunger strike during which Cioffi threatened to starve himself to death, the family relented and he left Naples.

With a convert’s zeal, the young monk resolved to travel in the manner of the historical Buddha, returning to India on foot with little more than his robes and begging bowl. His letters to De Lorenzo describe an astounding journey of 14 months and more than 5,000 miles, from Italy through Switzerland, France, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Along the way, in addition to making pilgrimage stops in Assisi and Jerusalem, Cioffi underwent numerous hardships: hospitalizations for illness, arrests by French police and Syrian soldiers, and many assaults and robberies.

On one occasion as he walked south through Turkey, a pair of thieves, convinced he was a spy, abducted him and threatened to slit his throat. He described the event to De Lorenzo in a letter: “My only weapon was metta, lovingkindness, given to me by Buddha Gotama. I sat down therefore on the ground cross-legged, plunging myself in meditation on Metta and beaming out all my compassion toward the two robbers. They continued to howl furiously, but I remained in silence.” The thieves let Cioffi go, but the event stayed with him for decades as a dramatic example of how Buddhist compassion could transform even the direst of circumstances.

By the time Cioffi arrived in India in 1928, he may have known he was not yet up to the task of a global missionary. Instead, he undertook several years of practice and study in Sri Lankan monasteries and at Buddhist holy sites near the Himalayas. He spent long periods in silence and followed some of the ascetic practices known as the dhutangas, including sleeping upright in a seated position.

During a stay in Rangoon, a monk reordained Cioffi and gave him the name Lokanatha. According to his own and others’ observations, Lokanatha emerged a different person in both name and spirit. Acquaintances alluded to his “spiritual radiance” and several accounts from travelogues to Burma mention a popular consensus that after this time Lokanatha had psychic powers. (Lokanatha himself mentioned in a speech that he had the ability to read another’s thoughts.)

For the next three years, Lokanatha organized and led missionary expeditions. His ambitious plan was the same for each: to arouse interest and gather together enthusiastic monks in different locations, then travel on foot to northern India, where they would be trained so that they could ultimately fan out across the world and spread Buddhism to humanity. In two pamphlets, “Celestial India” and “Establishing the Sangha in the West,” Lokanatha described the missions in dramatic terms: his monks were “lion-hearted,” living out the motto “Victory or Death!” They would take the dharma across the globe and thereby abolish war forever.

The first expedition to northern India began in Burma in 1933, the next in Thailand the following year (with the patronage of the king); the third and final expedition left from Sri Lanka in 1935. In interviews with the press, Lokanatha described lofty and sometimes absurd goals for his missions, predicting, for example, that he himself would convert the Italian dictator Mussolini to the dharma. But while Lokanatha had zeal and faith, he did not have the organizational skill to carry out such massive endeavors. On each of the three expeditions, the group’s numbers rapidly dwindled once they encountered the harsh realities of illness, bad weather, physical discomfort, and internal disagreements.

Although Lokanatha’s “lion-hearted monks” did not accomplish their goals, nevertheless his missions sparked considerable interest, and in the context of anticolonial Buddhist revivalism that had been active since the 19th century, a Western convert who publicly extolled the dharma was viewed by many Asians as a sign of victory. Participants and admirers of Lokanatha’s tours went on to become prominent religious and political figures including Aung San, widely considered the creator of the modern Burmese state (and father of Myanmar’s state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi); the in influential Thai jurist and politician Sanya Dharmasakti; and the Welsh-born Thai Buddhist teacher known as Ajahn Panya.

After the three unfinished tours, Lokanatha continued traveling in Asia, preaching, publishing, attempting to convert non-Buddhists, and encouraging the revitalization of Buddhist practice. In Burma, he helped revive the traditional practice of meditating in cremation grounds and converted a large group of tribal Karen people to Buddhism. Lokanatha was also a committed vegetarian, and spent considerable time dissuading people from killing or eating animals.

Lokanatha’s monks would take the dharma across the globe and abolish war forever.

In 1939, as Lokanatha was finishing an account of his Asian travels and planning a major missionary trip to the West, the Second World War broke out. Almost immediately, British authorities in India confined him to a prisoner-of-war camp. True to form, Lokanatha managed to convert some of his fellow prisoners to Buddhism. He also staged a dramatic 96-day hunger strike over his religious rights as a Buddhist and was force-fed by his jailers.

It is not known exactly why Lokanatha was imprisoned. Some speculate that his agitation on behalf of Buddhist monks in Burma made him a target for British colonial authorities. More likely, his Italian background provoked suspicion that he was a Mussolini sympathizer, loyal to the Axis powers. He pleaded with three of his siblings in New York to send an affidavit that would prove his American citizenship and enable him to return to the United States. When they all insisted that he convert back to Catholicism first, however, he remained a prisoner for the remainder of the war—a long and grueling six years that nearly killed him.

The horrors of war and the threat of nuclear destruction in its aftermath left a deep impression on Lokanatha. He became convinced that faith in science alone would only bring more suffering to the world, and that humanity needed Buddhism more desperately than ever. In the fall of 1946, just a year after the war’s end, one of Lokanatha’s converts, a Punjabi doctor based in Burma named R. L. Soni, helped organize a large public meeting for the dissemination of Buddhism. Shortly after, Soni formed the Buddhist Foreign Mission, nominating Lokanatha to be its “Dhamma-Ambassador” on a world tour.

In many ways, Lokanatha was an ideal candidate to represent Buddhism on the world stage. Though a Theravada monk, he embraced all Buddhist traditions, and between his conversion and his frequent travels, he belonged to no single country or sect but was nonetheless unquestionably Buddhist. As a Westerner by birth and education, he was adept at describing Buddhism as a modern, scientific, and rational religion. Moreover, he was profoundly enthusiastic about his mission. He frequently told Asian supporters that instead of exporting such “worthless material” as rubber and tin, they were now entering the “Truth-exporting” business of their “most valued possession”: Buddhism.

Related: Meditation en Masse 

Lokanatha’s missionary vision was rooted in two core ideas. The first was that humanity was poised to make a shift toward Buddhism; the second, that large-scale religious conversion could happen through small strategic efforts, like catalysts in a chemical chain reaction. He was convinced that “once intellectual people accept Buddhism, the masses will follow.”

At first Lokanatha set his sights on Europe as the site for mass conversion, but as time went on he pinned his hopes on the United States. “My target is America,” he said in the Philippines at the onset of his world tour. “By converting America the whole world will become Buddhist.” He had unwavering confidence in the role that he himself would play in that spiritual renaissance. He had been named Salvatore Natale—“savior is born”—in honor of his birth the day after Christmas. When he received his final ordination name, Lokanatha, which translates roughly as “lord” or “savior,” he noted with satisfaction how its meaning echoed that of his birth name.

On the “Lightning Preaching Tour,” as the first stage of this global mission trip was called, Lokanatha visited several Asian countries before traveling to northern California, where he was hosted by Japanese American Buddhist groups. From there, he went to Los Angeles, where a well-known socialite named Gypsy Buys and her husband, Jerry, invited him to stay at their Beverly Hills estate, Falcon Lair. Lokanatha believed this would be the ideal base from which to launch an American Buddhist mission.

But his stay in Los Angeles quickly turned into a public farce. Gypsy and Jerry were as eccentric as they were rich. Falcon Lair was the former home of Rudolph Valentino, and Lokanatha was drafted to participate in an elaborate séance to contact the dead screen idol’s spirit. Surrounded by some 30 mystics and mediums, Lokanatha was the guest of honor during the event, at which attendees claimed to smell Valentino’s perfume and see his dog. After hearing about a traditional Burmese custom of showing respect to Buddhist monks, Jerry staged a photo-op of Lokanatha walking across the hair of women as they knelt before him.

Lokanatha walking on the hair of female admirers, a photo-op organized by his host Jerry Buys, Los Angeles, 1948 | Acme Photo Agency
Lokanatha walking on the hair of female admirers, a photo-op organized by his host Jerry Buys, Los Angeles, 1948 | Acme Photo Agency

The less sensational newspaper clippings that Lokanatha sent to sympathetic relatives show him keeping up a frantic schedule in the United States, where he spoke to over five thousand people at colleges, civic organizations, and churches in less than three weeks. In the March 5, 1949 issue of The New Yorker, a “Talk of the Town” article described a visit to Lokanatha as he led a dozen people in meditation at the Cornish Arms Hotel in Manhattan.

Before he left America, Lokanatha gave an emphatically upbeat report to newspapers of his 18 months there. The trip was a “great success,” and after obtaining “quite a number of converts,” he declared that the United States was “ripe for conversion to Buddhism.” One reporter wryly noted that the monk’s hyperbole sounded like Soviet propaganda proclaiming the imminent collapse of the West.

Although Lokanatha did not yet know it, India, not the United States, would offer the fertile ground for the large-scale conversion he longed for. In 1935, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the Indian jurist, social reformer, and advocate for the Dalit, or “untouchable,” caste, had caused a stir throughout the subcontinent when he announced that Dalits could be free only if they severed their connections with Hinduism. “Though I have been born a Hindu,” said Ambedkar, “I will not die a Hindu.” In the wake of his pronouncement, representatives of many faiths, including Sikhs, Christians, and Muslims, made direct appeals to Ambedkar to convert to their tradition (whereby they would gain the legions of his Dalit admirers).

Related: The Great Conversion 

Lokanatha saw a golden opportunity. He made vigorous attempts to bring Ambedkar into the Buddhist fold and twice traveled to speak with Ambedkar personally, in 1935 and 1936. He even published a pamphlet entitled “Buddhism Will Make You Free!!!” in which he positioned Buddhism as a casteless alternative to “Brahmanism.” Lokanatha’s lobbying continued by proxy through his converts, including Dr. Soni, one of Ambedkar’s close associates. Finally, in 1956, after two decades of deliberation, Ambedkar chose to become a Buddhist during a visit to Dr. Soni’s home in Burma.

Back in India, in what may have been the largest mass conversion in history, Ambedkar proceeded to convert hundreds of thousands of his Dalit followers. At the time it was believed that Buddhism had largely vanished from its birthplace, surviving only in other parts of the world. The conversion of Ambedkar and his followers dramatically reintroduced Buddhism to India. Lokanatha played such a central role in the event that Ambedkar looked to him as a potential teacher and catechist for the predicted half-million new Buddhists.

Lokanatha kept up with his feverish activity for nearly another decade, but in late 1965, a sore on his forehead became cancerous, and he died the following year in the Burmese hill station town of Maymyo at the age of 69. His body was given an elaborate state funeral at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, attended by military and government leaders as well as a crowd of lay admirers.

Although he is almost entirely absent from historical accounts, the Venerable Lokanatha was one of the most significant Buddhists of the 20th century, and his missionary efforts helped shape the practice and demographics of Buddhism into the 21st century. A photograph of the short Italian American monk still hangs in a temple in Maymyo, and because of him, there are an estimated eight million Ambedkarite Buddhists in India today.

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