The White Buddhist

Henry Steel Olcott and the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival

Stephen Prothero

Each year on February 17, Buddhists throughout Sri Lanka light brass lamps and offer burning incense to commemorate the anniversary of the death of an American-born Buddhist hero. In Theravadan temples, saffron-robed monks bow down before his photographs, and boys and girls in schoolhouses across the country offer gifts in his memory. “May the merit we have gained by these good deeds,” they meditate, “pass on to Colonel Olcott, and may he gain happiness and peace.”

OlcottDisinterested historians describe Henry Steel Olcott as the president-founder of the Theosophical Society, one of America’s first Buddhists, and an important contributor to both the Indian Renaissance in India and the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Less objective observers have allotted Olcott an even more central place in sacred history. A prime minister of Ceylon praised Olcott as “one of the heroes in the struggle for our independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national, and cultural revival.”

In the land of his birth, Olcott has been less graciously received. The New York Times denounced him during his lifetime as “an unmitigated rascal”—“a man bereft of reason” whose “insanity, though harmless, is, unfortunately, incurable.” The Dictionary of American Biography, noting that Olcott has been considered “a fool, a knave, and a seer,” concludes that he was probably “a little of all three.”

Descended from Puritans, Henry Steel Olcott was born in 1832 into a pious Presbyterian household in Orange, New Jersey. After a short stint at what is now New York University, Olcott went west toward the frontier in search of youthful adventures. In Ohio, at the age of twenty, he became a convert to spiritualism. Soon he was championing a host of other causes, including antislavery, agricultural reform, women’s rights, cremation, and temperance. He worked for a time as an experimental farmer, served a stint in the Army, and even worked as an investigator on the special commission charged with scrutinizing President Lincoln’s assassination. But he eventually returned to New York City, where he supported himself as a journalist and insurance lawyer. In 1874, while covering reports of spirits materializing at a farmhouse in Chittenden, Vermont, he struck up a friendship with Russian occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. One year later, he and Blavatsky co-founded the Theosophical Society, an organization that would soon play a major role in introducing Americans to the ancient wisdom of the East.

After moving themselves and their society to India in 1879, Olcott and Blavatsky decided it was time to visit Ceylon. They arrived in Colombo on May 16, 1880. Apparently, their reputations had preceded them, since they received what Olcott later described as a royal welcome:

A huge crowd awaited us and rent the air with their united shout of “Sadhu! Sadhu!” A white cloth was spread for us from the jetty steps to the road where carriages were ready, and a thousand flags were frantically waved in welcome.

Shortly after this reception, on May 25, at the Wijananda Monastery in Galle, Olcott and Blavatsky each knelt before a huge image of the Buddha and “took“pansil” by reciting in broken Pali the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts of Theravada Buddhism, thus becoming the first European-Americans to publicly and formally become lay Buddhists.

Later Olcott underscored the difference between what he termed a “regular Buddhist” and “a debased modern Buddhist sectarian.” “If Buddhism contained a single dogma that we were compelled to accept, we would not have taken the pansil nor remained Buddhists ten minutes,” he explained. “Our Buddhism was that of the Master-Adept Gautama Buddha, which was identically the Wisdom Religion of the Aryan Upanishads, and the soul of all the ancient world-faiths.” Even on the day of his conversion to Buddhism, Olcott was discriminating between the “false” Buddhism of the Sinhalese people, which was in his view modern, debased, sectarian, and creedal, and his ostensibly true Buddhism—ancient, pure, nonsectarian, and nondogmatic.

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