June 04, 2010

From the Library Shelves: The White Buddhist

Last week I published a short post on the International Buddhist Flag, a flag modified by Col. Henry Olcott, a westerner who is still revered in Sri Lanka as a leader of the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival.  Today while sorting through the history books here at the Tricycle office, I came across Stephen Prothero’s book The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott. Our Fall 1996 issue featured a long passage from this book and flipping through the book’s introductory pages, I was immediately intrigued by this man who served as a intercessor between the East and West during a time when some of his famous contemporaries held that the regions were destined to remain separate entities. In doing so he was among the earliest to confront the specific difficulties and joys that accompany religious and cultural pluralism. Indeed, I agree with this sentiment of Prothero's: “In many respects, he paved the way for America’s collective glance eastward in the 1960s and 1970s and the New Age interest in Asian religions of today.”

Olcott is certainly a controversial character. The first American of European ancestry to formally convert to Buddhism, he quickly shrugged off the role of student in favor of teacher and reformer. Olcott felt entitled to reject elements he found offensive in Buddhism, introduce Western practices and values when he wished, and criticize and try to reform certain Buddhist traditions practiced by communities and individuals he encountered in Asia. While his tactics and beliefs continue to invoke criticism (and Prothero by no means exonerates him in this regard) there is truth to Prothero’s suggestion that by combining elements of eastern Buddhism and western Protestantism along with other influences, Olcott “helped to craft a new form of Buddhism that thrives today not only in Sri Lanka but also in the United States.”

The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott by Stephen Prothero is published by Indiana University Press (1996).

An excerpt from the book that appeared in Tricycle can be found here.

Image: Copyright the Theosophical Publishing House

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skatan's picture

natan, tk & grover..what mud-race do you belong to? he's white he designed the buddhist flag & etc...get over it...so fuckin what! The Greeks are white & they Not Whatever "Mudnigger Race" you 3 belong to, created the first Buddha Rupas..Go kill yourselves!

TK's picture

I agree with Nathan. Japanese and Chinese have been practicing Buddhism in America since around 1869. Japanese Shin Buddhism has a long history of blending Western views and Buddhism in order to blend in better with the community they adopted, even before WWII when the Japanese American's where taken to concentration camps because they were different.

nathan's picture

“In many respects, he paved the way for America’s collective glance eastward in the 1960s and 1970s and the New Age interest in Asian religions of today.”

What about the influence of all those Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian immigrant Buddhists that were arriving in the U.S. between 1870-1910, the period when Olcott grew to prominence? They, too, mixed in Christian elements from almost the beginning, partly to blend in better.

Olcott was an interesting historical figure worth considering, no doubt. However, both the quotes you use from Prothero act as if Buddhism's real development in the U.S. occurred less than 50 years ago, and was orchestrated primarily by white converts. This failure to respect the whole history of Buddhism in our nation is a great mistake we must stop making.