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.

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