The White Buddhist

Henry Steel Olcott and the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival

Stephen Prothero

During his first visit to the island, Olcott founded seven lay branches and one monastic branch of the Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS). He was explicit about modeling his Asian work after Christian examples: “As the Christians have their Society for the diffusion of Christian knowledge, so this should be a society for the diffusion of Buddhist knowledge.” Olcott also founded, again on Christian models, Buddhist secondary schools and Sunday schools affiliated with the BTS, thus initiating what would become a long and successful campaign for Western-style Buddhist education in Ceylon.

Thanks to these efforts, Olcott and Blavatsky left Ceylon in July of 1880 as folk heroes. They had met a number of high-ranking monks, chief among them Hikkaduve Sumangala, who would soon become Olcott’s most faithful Sinhalese ally. Equally important, Olcott and Blavatsky had been embraced by a large number of Sinhalese laypeople.

Olcott had planned upon his arrival in India in 1879 to spend some time learning about Hinduism and Buddhism from Eastern experts, then to return to America, where he would devote the rest of his life to promoting Theosophy and building up the Theosophical Society. But the celebrity status that Olcott achieved during his first Ceylon tour led him to reevaluate his plans. Gradually he was coming to see himself more as a teacher than as a student. He was also coming to view India as his home. But perhaps most important, he was beginning to emerge from behind Blavatsky’s formidable shadow. Because the tour itself highlighted Olcott’s oratorical skills rather than Blavatsky’s parlor-room charisma, Olcott garnered as much influence, if not as much fame, as his traveling companion. Before their departure the Sinhalese people were praising Blavatsky, but they were also hailing Olcott as one of their own—“The White Buddhist.”

Olcott set sail for Ceylon in April 1881 for a second tour. Together with Mohottivatte Gunananda, the monk who had spearheaded the first phase of the Sinhalese Buddhist revival, he crisscrossed the western province for eight months in a bullock cart of his own design. Villagers flocked, according to Olcott, to witness the mechanical wonders of this device, complete with lockers for furniture and books, canvas roof to keep out rain, and cushioned central compartment with removable planks that could seat eight for dinner or sleep four. All testified to Olcott’s Yankee ingenuity. When not impressing the Sinhalese with his cleverness and hard work, Olcott looked the part of the anti-Christian missionary. He sold merit cards and solicited subscriptions to support his National Education Fund, wrote and distributed anti-Christian and pro-Buddhist tracts, and secured support for his educational reforms from representatives of the island’s three monastic sects.

Olcott remained disturbed by what he perceived as “the shocking ignorance of the Sinhalese about Buddhism.” This was an odd sort of judgment for a recent convert who had purportedly come to Asia not to teach but to learn. It was, however, a judgment that Olcott shared with many nineteenth-century academic Orientalists. Like Olcott, pioneering Buddhologists such as Rhys Davids (whom Olcott eagerly read) tended to reduce the Buddhist tradition to what the Buddha did and what the Buddhist scriptures said. This tendency permitted them to praise the ancient wisdom of the East and to condemn its modern manifestations—to view Asian religious traditions much like Calvin viewed the human race: as fallen from some Edenic past. It was Olcott’s uncritical and unconscious appropriation of this aspect of academic Orientalism that led him to the rather absurd conclusion that Ceylon’s Buddhists knew little, if anything, about “real” Buddhism. Like his hated missionaries and his beloved Orientalists, Olcott assumed the right to define what Buddhism really was. Unlike them, however, he assumed the duty to stir the Sinhalese masses from their ignorance, to instill in them his own creole representation of their Buddhist faith.

In devising his strategy for this didactic mission, Olcott turned yet again to the missionary example. He decided to compile for use in his Buddhist schools a catechism of basic Buddhist principles, “on the lines of the similar elementary hand-books so effectively used among Western Christian sects,” both Protestant and Catholic. Olcott’s The Buddhist Catechism, which would eventually go through more than forty editions and be translated into over twenty languages, is in many ways the defining document of his Buddhism. It first appeared, in both English and Sinhalese, on July 24, 1881. Hugely influential, it is still used today in Sri Lankan schools.

While Olcott himself characterized his catechism as an “antidote to Christianity,” a shocking reliance on that tradition was evident in its explicitly Christian questions:

Q. Was the Buddha God?

A. No. Buddha Dharma teaches no “divine” incarnation.

Q. Do Buddhists accept the theory that everything has been formed out of nothing by a Creator?

A. . . . We do not believe in miracles; hence we deny creation, and cannot conceive of a creation of something out of nothing.

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