Buddhist Revival-PART III
WISDOM IS POWER
EDUCATE(BUDDHA)! MEDITATE(DHAMMA)! ORGANISE(SANGHA)!
LESSON – 11
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It is well known that the Bhikkhuni (nuns) order was introduced to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa. (BC 250 - 210) Since then this order flourished at Anuradhapura for about 1200 years. With the fall of Anuradhapura to the Cholian invaders in AD 1017 and the annexation of the Aunradhapura Kingdom to the Cholian empire the Bhikkhuni order disappeared and became defunct. The Order of Monks (Bhikkhus) also met the same fate. But was later revived after King Vijayabahu drove away the Cholian invaders. For this revival the King had to get down monks from Burma. But there were no nuns in Burma, Siam, Cambodia or Laos the other four Theravada countries. Hence the monks maintained that the Bhikkhuni order should be considered defunct and not restorable. During the time the Bhikkhuni order existed in Sri Lanka it proved to be an asset to the religion and rendered yeoman service to the Sasana. Details can be found in the Dipawansa on which was modelled the Mahavamsa - the great chronicle in Sinhala history.
After 50 years of Cholian rule, King Vijayabahu coming up from Ruhuna expelled the invaders and assumed rulership over the whole island. He shifted his capital to Polonnaruwa. During the Polonnaruwa period which followed Sinhalese Buddhism came more and more under Tamil, Hindu influence. The Tamil caste system of South India was adopted and the monks took the names of their villages as a prefix to their Pali names given at ordination. The Sangha became the preserve of one caste monopolising the temporalities in imitation of Hindu priesthood. The study of Sanskrit and secular sciences associated with it came into vogue. Anti-feminism and casteism were features entrenched in the Manu laws of Hinduism.
These features found their way to Sinhalese society and its religion. Therefore, in this milieu the revival of the defunct Bhikkhuni order became anathema to Sinhalese Buddhism. There is permission in the Vinaya Chullavagga for monks to ordain nuns. This permission could easily have been made use of if the monks were willing to restore the Bhikkhuni order. But since their wishes were otherwise and they were more interested in maintaining their monopolies, it suited to take the casteist and anti feminist line. They enabled them to avert rivalry from low caste men in the Sangha and women in to Bhikkhuni order.
Therefore, from the Polonnaruwa period right up to the British conquest of the island in 1815 no one took up the issue of admitting ‘low caste’ men to the Sangha and women to the Bhikkhuni order. Priestcraft saw to it that the Buddhist Sangha was the preserve of the high-caste and that women were debarred from leading the holy life of a Bhikkhuni as advocated by the Buddha. The majority of people were ignorant and illiterate. They took their Buddhism from the priestcraft of the Sangha and the Kings who took their advise in matters of religion from the Sangha hierarchy.
Thus, a tradition to the effect that the Bhikkhuni order is defunct and cannot be restored until the appearance of Martie Buddha in a future aeon became accepted. Thereby the teachings of the Buddha on appamada (diligence), samanatmata (egalitarianism), Karuna, Metta, Artachariya etc were lost sight of. An anti-feminist dogma prevented women from taking to holy orders in Buddhism. This was the situation from the Polonnaruwa period right up to the time the Sangha - King combine lost their control of the nation in 1815 with the betrayal of the last King to the British.
During the colonial period, under British rule, it was Anagarika Dharmapala who was the pioneer of the Buddhist revival. He opened the first nunnery in modern Ceylon at Darley Lane, Colombo. It was not a success. He was followed by Miss Catherine de Alwis who went to Burma and got ordained there as a Junior Nun without Higher Ordination. She came back to Sri Lanka in 1903 and founded the Dasa Sil Mata order of Buddhist nuns. Thus from 1903 onwards these D.S.M nuns were the vestige and the representatives of the Bhikkhuni Sangha of old. They seemed to believe in the theory that half a loaf is better than no bread. Therefore they had to be satisfied with observing the ten precepts of Junior Nuns or Samaneris.
Many Buddhist leaders among the clergy and the laity realised that the DSM status for nuns was really incongruous and incompatible with the Buddha’s concept of a four-fold division among his disciples and devotees.
He recognised only Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis, male lay devotees and female lay devotees. There is no room for a half way house between lay women devotee and Bhikkhunis such as a Dasa Sil Matas. The later term is an invention by apostates in the Sasana who wish to keep down women renunciates from their proper place as Bhikkhunis.
Among the advocates for the revival of the Bhikkhuni order was Ven. Pandit Narawala Dhammaratana Thero. He had led a delegation to a peace conference in Peking, China. He studied the Bhikkhuni order in China and found that it had been established on a firm Vinaya footing by Sinhalese nuns from Anuradhapura in AD 429.
Therefore, in his writings and teachings he advocated the revival of the Bhikkhuni Order with assistance from Chinese Nuns. Other advocates of the revival among our Maha Theras were Ven. Pandit Hedipannala Pannaloka of the Vijalankara Pirivena, Ven. Pandit Henpitagedera Gnanaseeha, Ven. Banbarende Seevali and several other progressives. Among lay Buddhist leaders, Anagarika Dharmapala, Sir D.B. Jayatillaka, H. Sri Nissanka, Dr. G.P. Malalasekera, J.R. Jayewardene and many others encouraged the movement and spoke for it. Among the living sympathizers and advocates were Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasara. Principal, Paramadhamma Chetiya Pirivena, Ven. Pandit Inamaluwe Sumangala of the Dambulla Raja Maha Viharaya, Ven. Talalle Dhammaloka, Anunayaka Thero of the Amarapura Sect, Ven Dr. Kirinde Dhammananda, Ven. Pandit Pathegama Gnanarama retired Principal Sudharmakara Pirivena, Panadura, Ven. Porawagama Soma, Ven. Deegala Mahinda, Tembiliyane Ariyadhamma etc.
While the progressive monks called for and advocated the revival there were reactionaries, conservatives and obscurantists who took the traditional stand in Sinhalese Buddhism as a dogma, equating it with ‘pure Theravada Buddhism’. Thus there was division of opinion in the two camps, the conservatives sticking to traditional anti-feminism and the progressives calling for a revision of the traditional stand and a restoration of the Bhikkhuni Order.
As a sequel to the public interest created on this question Ven. M. Vipulasara, Principal, Parama Dhamma Chetiya Pirivena and President Mahabodhi Society came forward with the assistance of the World Sangha Council and Sakyadhita International Organisation of Buddhist Women and held an ordination ceremony on 8.12.96 at Saranath Temple, India. This was a grand and historic ceremony - a red letter day in the annals of Theravada Buddhism. At this ceremony 11 selected Sinhalese DSM nuns were ordained fully as Bhikkhunis by a team of Theravada monks in concert with a quorum of Korean Nuns. Thus for the first time after 980 odd years the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order was revived in India.
For the first time since the disappearance, the Bhikkhuni Order was restored at Saranath India on 8.12.96. The Sinhalese Nuns who received their Bhikkhuni Ordination there came back to Sri Lanka after one year and two months at the invitation of the Bhikkhuni Sasanodaya Society, Dambulla. On Medin Poya Day (12/3/98) they ordained 23 selected Sinhalese DSM Nuns into the Bhikkhuni Sangha.
This ordination was confirmed and ratified by a quorum of the Theravada Sangha as required in the Vinaya. Ven. Inamaluwe was the director of the function and the master of ceremonies. He was assisted by Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasara, Galkadawela Punnasara, Pandit Tallalle Dhammananda Anu Nayakam, Ven. Prof. K. Vajira and Porwagama Soma and a few others.
Thus for the first time since the Anuradhapura days the Bhikkhuni Sasana has been revived in Sri Lanka According to full Theravada ceremonial. Sinhalese DSM nuns, Buddhist women feminists and other advocates of the restoration of the Bhikkhuni Sasana will have the satisfaction that one of their cherished dreams for the Buddha Sasana has been realised.
Sri Lanka became the caretaker and headquarters of Theravada Buddhism since it was expelled from India. Other Theravada countries such as Siam, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia has never had a Bhikkhuni Order. There are movements in these countries for the admission of women to the Bhikkhuni Sangha in the Theravada tradition to which they belong. These countries border China and they see that in China Bhikkhunis have been existing from the earliest days of the introduction of Buddhism to that land.
Hence, their aspiration for entry to the Bhikkhuni Sangha will receive a fillip on hearing and seeing that the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order has been established in Sri Lanka. Though the Bhikkhuni Order had never been introduced to any country except Sri Lanka, Burma is an unusual exception. It had originally been a Mahayana country. Therefore during the Mahayana days there were Bhikkhunis in Burma. But once it was converted to Theravada Buddhism the Bhikkhuni Order there became unrecognised. Hence there continued to be the nuns with only Samaneri Ordination under the Ten Precepts. Even today the position is the same. It is from these Samaneri nuns (called Ma-Theelas) that Sri Lanka received its DSM order of nuns.
Now that the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order has been established in Sri Lanka it should be a matter of time for women renunciates in these countries to come to Sri Lanka, or get down Sri Lankan nuns to their countries and establish the Bhikkhuni Order in their lands. Admittance to the Bhikkhuni Order to women was granted by the Buddha himself. Womens’ rights are a part of human rights in the modern world.
Therefore, the Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka should be the spearhead for the movement to establish the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order in these lands. The Bhikkhuni Order cannot function properly in poor and backward cultures which do not recognise women’s rights. That is why even in some backward Mahayana countries such as Mongolia, Kirghizia and Tibet there never has been a Bhikkhuni Order. Now that Sri Lanka is emerging from a backward Third World country with a poor record of human rights to a modern democracy which recognises women’s rights the prospects of the Bhikkhuni Order gaining its rightful place as in the Anuradhapura period are bright and full of promise.
D. Amarasiri Weeraratne.
From :”The Island” Newspaper Colombo, Sri Lanka (4th April, 1998)
Thosamling is one of the few places in the world where nuns from a variety of international backgrounds live together. Rather than belonging to the culture of a particular country, our nuns are asked to develop their own unique community culture. At Thosamling we have had nuns from Holland, Greece, Venezuela, England, Japan, Germany, Philippines, USA, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia. Nuns in Thosamling have free board and lodging. After His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit in May 2009, His Holiness is recommending newly ordained nuns without a home nunnery to start their sangha commitment at Thosamling.
Thosamling is a nunnery where all four Tibetan Buddhist Lineages are respected and represented in our practice and study. Non-sectarian practitioners develop proficiency in one of the schools of Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya or Geluk and then enhance their spiritual practice by seeking out and developing knowledge from the other schools. The various practices and lineages are not diluted or mixed. Rather, this non sectarian approach is recognition of the profoundness of each lineage and tradition.
Geshe Tsewang Nyima became a Lharampa Geshe in 1980. He was then assigned to Ki Monastery in Spiti by HH Dalai Lama. Here he implemented and taught both modern teaching programs for junior monks and traditional philosophy programs for senior monks and the lay community.
After ten years in Spiti, Geshe-la was requested to assist Drolmaling Nunnery to establish a traditional 12-year Dharma study programme. Two years later he taught Dharma to young Tibetan students in the Norbulingka Institute, as requested by the Department of Preservation of Tibetan Culture. During this time Geshe-la began to research and compile a Vinaya dictionary and he is recognized by his peers as an expert in this area.
As Geshe-la watched Thosamling being built, his interest has been always with us. He offered his teachings to the nuns and residents of Thosamling on a regular basis. Since 2007 Geshe Tsewang Nyima has set up and taught the philosophy program at Thosamling. He also kindly advises the nuns’ community and individuals as requested. With Geshe-la living amongst us we are extremely happy to receive so much support, so many teachings, and ongoing guidance from him.
Our location, near Dharamsala, India, in the quiet fields at the foot of the spectacular Dhauladar Range places us close to significant teachers from all four Buddhist lineages, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa, Khamtrul Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche to name a few. To whatever Buddhist tradition you consider yourself to belong, you will be close to significant teachers.
Joining our community may also offer you a unique opportunity. Besides the Tibetan Language courses, there is the Buddhist Philosophy course which will train you in the debating skills so common in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition. Without a good understanding of debate it is hard to explore the depths of Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy. It is therefore a must to learn how to debate. In May 2009, for the first time in Tibetan language, non-Tibetan nuns offered the traditional debate to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. These nuns, Venezuelan nun Ani Kunsang and Korean nun Ani Chonye from Thosamling debated in Tibetan for His Holiness.
The living conditions for nuns at Thosamling are simple and comfortable. We understand that for new nuns it takes time to adjust to communal living and for this reason a nun joining our community is provided with her own, single room.
Although nuns at Thosamling are accommodated within their own building and eat their meals with Geshe-la in the sangha dining room, they share the other communal areas of the nunnery with laywomen. There are also male students living off site who participate in the various programs.
We understand that the idea of signing up for a 12-20 year traditional study program could be overwhelming. At the same time we recognize that a solid foundation in study is essential to sustaining practice and progressing along the path. Thosamling offers:
Fundamentals of Debate – Providing an introduction to Tibetan Buddhist logic and reasoning .
Tibetan Language Program – Providing a range of opportunities to access Dharma in its original language and to learn to understand teaching from our precious Tibetan teachers firsthand without the need of a translator.
Philosophy Study Program – Providing nuns with Tibetan language and debate skills and the opportunity to study traditional Tibetan Monastic texts in a rare and intimate environment.
Lam Rim Class – Providing teachings for a general audience, including a broad range of students from outside Thosamling. Geshe-la currently is leading students through Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacharyavatara.
The first year introduction to debate and the Lam Rim class, while taught in Tibetan, also includes English translation.
Whether nuns are looking for a solid grounding to sustain their own further practice or for the tools they need to enter a Tibetan Nunnery’s study program, Thosamling can provide an excellent place to start.
In 2010, due to the kindness of our sponsors, nuns will be able to join our Dharma classes free of charge. Nuns will also be able to study our Tibetan Language Course and have their deposit (equal to 50% of the course fees) fully refunded to them on successful completion of the course.
Please see information about our different study programs under either the Tibetan Language Program or Philosophy Study Program.
Thosamling is an excellent place to do retreat. We always keep rooms available for this purpose. For more information about what is required in time commitments etc. and the help we can offer you, please email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Because being a nun requires a unique set of knowledge and skills, Thosamling is planning training for new nuns to learn a variety of practices. This training program will be taught by Geshe Tsewang Nyima, senior and experienced nuns at Thosamling, and a variety of visiting Sangha members.
For more information about what is required in terms of time commitment, practices, and your contribution to the nunnery, please email:
Olcott Day was yesterday:
Sri Lanka has been a leading Buddhist country. It is not quite correct to speak of the decline of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The invaders tried to vanquish it by subjugating this peace-loving land which did not believe in the rule of the arms. All our attempts were made over very many years to prevent the noble tenets from spreading in the land.
The famous debate proceedings at Panadura led by Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda were published in the Ceylon Times, later named the Times of Ceylon. Later a books was brought out on the debate which fell in the hands of Colonel H.S. Olcott, the President Founder of the Theosophical Society, in America. He and Madam H.P. Blavatsky, (H.P.B.) The co-founder both of whom had declared themselves Buddhists although they had not taken Panchasila as there was none in America to administer it.
Colonel Olcott sent a copy ‘Isis Unveiled’ written by H.P.B. to Ven. Gunananda who opened correspondence with Col. Olcott and started quoting from the book in his powerful lectures. Distressed at the plight of the Buddhists, Col. Olcott and H.P.B. arrived in Galle on May 17 1880 and were received by a large crowd led by the leading monks. They took Panchasila at Vijayananda Vihara at Galle.
After discussions with the Venerable monks and assessing the situation Col. Olcott devised a three-pronged strategy to arrest the prevailing decadence, namely, Buddhist education, well-planned propaganda and sound organization.
He was distressed at the practices enforced on faithful Buddhists, such as baptizing the child in Church (Anagarika Dharmapala was given the name Don David), Solemnizing the Buddhist Marriages by a Church Ceremony, Christian oath to be taken in the court, not to speak of cutting of Bo Trees, no holidays on Buddhist festivals like the Vesak Full Moon Day and so on and on.
There were only two Buddhist schools as against 805 run by Christian missionaries. So no wonder the educated citizens were turning against the noble Dhamma.
Col. Olcott started strenuous lecture tours, accompanied by young Dharmapala as translator, reviving in the minds of the people the glory and the magnificence of their Dhamma and started a series of Buddhist schools for which he had to bring theosophists from the West. At the time of his death in 1907 the number of the schools rose to nearly 300. A noteworthy point is that none of his schools were named Olcott School.
This is one of the examples of his self effacing character which needs to be emulated by others, giving credits to the youngsters and encouraging them. Details of many contributions by Olcott, duly authenticated are given in the book ‘Buddhist and Theosophical Movements’ published by the Mahabodhi Society of India Saranath.
Col Olcott did memorable service by forging unity not only within Theravadians but also with Mahayana Tradition as is evidenced by leaders of all the schools signing ‘Fourteen Fundamental Buddhist Beliefs.’ Col. Olcott is the only non ordained monk given the authority by high priests led by Ven. Sumangala Nayaka Thera to “Accept and Register as Buddhist Persons of any nation who may make to him application, to administer to them the ‘Three Refugees and Five Precepts.’ Col. Olcott had an invitation sent to Buddhists to send a representative to the World.
Parliament of Religions, Chicago in 1893 for which purpose the Theosophists paid fare, provided hospitality and all facilities to the 29-year Anagarika Dharmapala who led the so-called revival of Buddhism in India and elsewhere.
Out of very many remarkable contributions, two need special mention.
One is the ‘Buddhist Chatechism’ giving in brief the essential tenets suitable for youngsters and the Buddhist flag symbol of unity now adopted world over.
Dharmapala continued to appreciate the worth and value of Col. Olcott’s advice, as is evident from a letter he wrote on May 20, 1922 to the principal of the Mahabodhi College, Colombo. Lamenting that the advice of Colonel Olcott given forty years earlier to bring out a series of Buddhist readers had not been acted upon and urging that the books be brought at the earliest.
In recognition of the invaluable and selfless services rendered by Colonel Olcott to the cause of Buddhism, education and the Theosophical Society of Sri Lanka, the Parliament of Sri Lanka conferred on him the unique distinction of naming him as one of the heroes of Sri Lanka.
He is the only foreigner on the role of national heroes. Not only this, on February 17, 1967 the 60th Anniversary of Colonel Olcott’s passing away, a life size statue of him was erected at Norris Road, Colombo, which was renamed Olcott Mawatha. Another statue of Colonel Olcott was erected by the Cultural Department at Galle, where he and Madam Blavatsky accepted the five precepts in 1880.
A stamp was issued on December 9, 1967 in honour of Colonel Olcott, to mark the 60th Anniversary of his passing away by Dudley Senanayake, the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, paying tribute to Colonel Olcott on that occasion said, “At a time when Buddhism was on the wane in Ceylon, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott came to Ceylon in May 1880 and awakened its people to fight to regain their Buddhist heritage…. Colonel Olcott can be considered one of the heroes in the struggle of our independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national and cultural revival. Colonel Olcott’s visit to this country is a landmark in the history of Buddhism in Ceylon.”
Then Prime Minister R Premadasa, wrote in June 1, 1978. “The Buddhist Theosophical Society was the focal point of this movement against injustice and discrimination. With the assistance of Madam Blavatsky, and especially Colonel. H.S. Olcott, the Buddhists set up a newspaper, ‘Sarasavi Sandares,’ a Buddhist Publicity Fund and a Buddhist Educational Fund.
The Theosophical Society had many successes in these fields. They agitated on behalf of the Buddhists and won many concessions, such as the declaration of Vesak Day as a public holiday.
Prevention of cutting down of Bo Trees and celebrating Buddhist festivals.
In the fields of Education especially, they were very successful. The Theosophists were able to obtain the service of dedicated teachers like Leadbeater, Bowes Daley, Mary Musaeus Higgins and F.L. Woodward who built up prominent Buddhist educational institutions such as Ananda, Nalanda, Mahinda, Dharmaraja and Dharmashoka.
They were assisted by a band of local helpers drawn from both the Buddhist clergy and laity, outstanding among them were Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera, Anagarika Dharmapala and Sir Baron Jayathileke.”
In a message dated March 26, 1980 J.R. Jayewardene, the then President of Sri Lanka, wrote as the awakener of a nation out of a long slumber, as the crusader who campaigned to regain its due place for Buddhism, as the agitator who caused the colonial government of the day to declare the Vesak Full Moon Day a statutory holiday in Sri Lanka (1885) as the designer of the now internationally famous Buddhist flag (1885) and as the founder of national and educational institutions like Ananda College, (1886) Colonel lives forever in our memories.”
(This article was published in the Daily News a few years ago. The writer passed away recently in India)
* Colonel Henry Steel Olcott
* Born on August 2, 1832 in New Jersy
* Served as an American military officer, journalist, lawyer
* In 1875 formed the Theosophical Society
* Arrived in Sri Lanka on May 16 1880
* Pioneered setting up of Ananda College, Dharmaraja College, Maliyadeva College, and Mahinda College
* Parliament recognized him as a national hero
* Died on February 17, 1907
The White Buddhist: Henry Steel Olcott and the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival
By 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 photograph, 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.”
Disinterested 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 fanner, 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.
Madame Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott
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 modem 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 modem, debased, sectarian, and creedal, and his ostensibly true Buddhism — ancient, pure, nonsectarian, and nondogmatic.
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.
Henry Steel Olcott and Rev. Sumangala
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 Olcotts 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 handbooks 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.
Olcott’s ostensibly non-Christian Buddhism sounded like liberal Protestantism. More than an antidote to Christianity, Olcott’s Catechism was a borneopathic cure, treating the scourge of Christianity with a dose of the same. His critique of Christianity shared many elements with liberal Protestants’ critique of Christian orthodoxy, including a distrust of miracles, an emphasis on reason and experience. a tendency toward self-reliance, and a disdain for hell. Like their Jesus, his Buddha was a quintessential Christian gentleman: sweet and convincing, the very personification of “self-culture and universal love.
RETURNING TO COLOMBO on July 18, 1882, for his third Ceylon tour. Olcott discovered that the Buddhist Theosophical Society was “lifeless” and the revival was ‘at a standstill.’ Of the 13,000 rupees that had been pledged to the National Education Fund, only 100 had been collected. More ominously, a contingent of Roman Catholic missionaries had converted a well near a Buddhist pilgrimage site into a Lourdes-like healing shrine. Olcott feared “a rush of ignorant Buddhists into Catholicism.” In an attempt to break the Catholic monopoly over this crucial segment of the religious marketplace, Olcott pleaded for a monk to step forward and perform healings “in the name of lord Buddha.” But when no monk came forward, he decided to do the work himself.
Olcott’s first healing in Asia occurred on August 29, 1882. When a man said to be totally paralyzed in one arm and partially disabled in one leg approached him after a lecture, Olcott recalled his youthful experiments with mesmerism and made a few perfunctory passes over the man’s arm. The next day the man returned with reports of improved health, and Olcott began to treat him systematically Soon the man could, in Olcott’s words, “whirl his bad arm around his head, open and shut his hand,.., jump with both feet, hop on the paralyzed one, kick equally high against the wall with both, and run freely.” News of the Co]Qnel’s healing powers spread across the island “as a match to loose straw” and his fundraising tour was immediately transformed into a roadshow featuring the miraculous healing hands of the instantly charismatic “White Buddhist.” Olcott publicly attributed his healings to the Buddha. Privately he credited the German physician Franz Mesmer.
Now that Olcott possessed a gift on a par with Blavatsky’s conjuring abilities, scores of patients lined up outside the Theosophical Society headquarters in Adyar (a suburb of Madras), and on an 1882 tour of Bengal Olcott supposedly treated 2,812 patients. Soon, however, the seemingly insatiable needs of his followers overwhelmed Olcott. His popularity became a burden and when, toward the end of 1883, the Theosophical Masters (adepts with whom Blavatsky is supposed to have communicated telepathically) handed down an order to stop the healings, Olcott happily complied.
Before his healing tours of 1882 and 1883, Olcott had recruited most of his Sinhalese and Indian followers from among the English-speaking middle classes. But his celebrated cures popularized his message, especially in Ceylon, where he may have inspired messianic expectations among Sinhalese peasants.
OLCOTT SOLIDIFIED HIS ROLE as a leader of the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival in the wake of a tragic Buddhist-Christian riot that occurred on March 25, 1883, in Kotahena, a Catholic stronghold of Colombo. On that day a Buddhist procession marched through the streets on the way to Mohottivatte Gunananda’s newly decorated monastery, the Deepaduttama Vihara, where a new Buddha image was to be dedicated. When the procession approached a Roman Catholic cathedral located a few hundred yards from the temple, the cathedral bell sounded, followed almost immediately by bells in other Catholic churches in the area. As if in response to a signal, about a thousand men descended on the procession and a bloody brawl ensued. Authorities summoned eighty policemen, but their batons were no match for the clubs, swords, and stones of the mob. During the three-hour melee, one man was killed and forty others were injured.
As the Governor’s Riots Commission investigated the affair, Catholics and Buddhists took each other to court. Numerous cases were filed, but authorities eventually dropped all charges because of a lack of “reliable evidence.” After it had become clear that the Catholics would not be tried, a group of Sinhalese monks and laypeople cabled Olcott urging him to come to Ceylon. Upon his arrival on January 27, 1884, Olcott organized a Buddhist Defense
Committee, which elected him an honorary member and charged him to travel to London as its representative, “to ask for such redress and enter into such engagements as may appear to him judicious.” Thus, for the first time Olcott’s role as an intermediary between East and West became apparent, not only to himself but to Buddhists and colonial administrators alike.
Before he left for London, a group of high-ranking Buddhist monks gave Olcott a solemn farewell ceremony, in which they authorized him “to register as Buddhists persons of any nation who may make to him application, to administer the Three Refuges and Five Precepts and to organize societies for the promotion of Buddhism.” The first person of European descent to be 4iven such an honor, Olcott thus became the first Buddhist missionary to the West.
WHEN OLCOTT ARRIVED in London in April 1884, British colonial officials were already well acquainted with him. In a Woe 26, 1883, letter covering the Report of the Riots Commission, Governor Longden discussed Olcott while reviewing the root causes for the brawl. The most important such cause was, in Longden’s view, the revival of Buddhism. There could be, he wrote, “no doubt” about the “genuineness” of the revival. Signs of it were everywhere:
The outer evidence of it is to be seen in the rebuilding of old shrines, . . . the larger offerings made to the Temples. Within the Buddhist Church the revival is signalized by a greater number of ordinations held with greater publicity, the care with which the Buddhist doctrines are being taught in the Pali language in the Vidyodaya College and in the monasteries, and the preparation of Buddhist Catechisms in the native and even in the English language.
Longden appended to his report a copy of Olcott’s Catechism and remarked that the Colonel had “very warmly espoused the cause of Buddhism.” The creole nature of Olcott’s actions was not lost on Longden, who remarked that the Colonel “brought the energy of Western propagandism to [the revival’s] aid.”
In a subsequent dispatch to Colonial Secretary Derby, Longden again mentioned Olcott, but now in more ominous terms. It was only a matter of time, he wrote, before one or two individuals would arise and take control of Buddhist affairs on the island. Given the “negligent character of the Sinhalese mind,” he reasoned, it was likely that non-Asian Buddhists would fill these leadership roles.
In May of 1884, almost a year after Longden had warned his superiors about the Colonel, Olcott arrived in London. Though officials were wary of augmenting his already significant influence, he was able to meet with Lord Derby’s assistant undersecretary, R. H. Meade. Shortly thereafter he sent a memo to Lord Derby, demanding: (1) that Catholics accused of instigating the riot be brought to trial; (2) that Buddhists be guaranteed the right to exercise their religion freely; (3) that Wesak—the full moon day on which the Sinhalese commemorate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death—be declared a public holiday; (4) that all restrictions against the use of tom-toms and other musical instruments in religious processions be removed; (5) that Buddhist registrars be appointed; and (6) that the question of Buddhist temporalities (the supposedly negligent control of Buddhist properties by monks) be resolved. Olcott enclosed with his memo some accompanying documents that testified to the “discontent and despair” that had in his view gripped the island’s Buddhists following the Kotahena riots. He hinted that, if ignored, their dissatisfaction might result in a rebellion.
Only two of Olcott’s requests were speedily granted. In the fall of 1884, colonial officials agreed to pursue “more of a hands off policy” regarding the use of tom-toms and other musical instruments in religious processions; and on April 28, 1885, Wesak became an official holiday in British Ceylon.
Following the negotiations with Meade, Olcott wrote to the chairman of the Buddhist Defense Committee and informed him, over-optimistically, that his mission had been a complete success. Olcott’s Sinhalese supporters concluded that the British proclamation of Wesak as a public holiday was “primarily due to Colonel Olcott’s appeal,” and on April 28, 1885, during the first government-recognized celebration of the Buddha’s birthday’, the now-venerable name of Olcott was invoked frequently and with great devotion.
DESPITE CLAIMS THAT Olcott initiated the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival, his connection with the movement was, as he himself recognized, neither as originator (credit Mohottivatte Gunananda) nor as culminator (credit Anagarika Dharmapala) but as organizer and articulator. It was Olcott who agitated for Buddhist civil rights, and who gave the revival its organizational shape by founding voluntary associations, publishing and distributing tracts, and, perhaps most important, establishing schools. It was he who articulated most eloquently the “Protestant Buddhism” synthesis. The most Protestant of all early “Protestant Buddhists,” Olcott was a culture broker with one foot planted in traditional Sinhalese Buddhism and the other in liberal American Protestantism. By creatively combining these two sources, along with other influences such as theosophy, academic Orientalism, and metropolitan gentility, he helped to craft a new form of Buddhism that thrives today not only in Sri Lanka but also in the United States.
From The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott, Indiana University Press.
Courtesy: TRICYCLE: THE BUDDHIST REVIEW Fall 1996 pp. 13-19