The Man from New Jersey

Understanding Buddhism


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Every year on February 17, a group of Buddhist Sri Lankans make their way down Olcott Avenue and into the mad market hustle of the Pettah neighborhood of Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. They march peacefully across the street to the railway station where they pay tribute, these Buddhists all dressed in white, to an American Civil War colonel. They lay a wreath around the golden statue of Henry Steel Olcott, make offerings, and give thanks. In temples across the country, Buddhist monks hold religious ceremonies in his honor. Schoolchildren make offerings in memory of an American who most Americans have never heard of.


When Henry Steel Olcott came to Sri Lanka in the late 19th century, his goal was simply to learn more about the Eastern religions he so admired. But somehow, this Presbyterian-born Spiritualist ended up becoming a Buddhist himself and initiating a revival that would sweep throughout Sri Lanka and the entire Buddhist world. Little by little, Henry Steel Olcott became the voice of a religion that had been silenced by colonialism. He would travel to London to campaign for Buddhist rights, and to America to raise funds for his efforts. But it wasn’t just Olcott’s humanitarian efforts that made him a hero to Buddhist monks and a danger to the British government. Henry Steel Olcott tapped into a dormant volcano in Sri Lanka, and with him it began to erupt. In 1882, the British governor of what was then known as Ceylon warned London of rumors circulating among Lankans. A King of Righteousness had arrived who would help them overthrow the government. The people of Ceylon had grown restless, riots were starting to emerge. The end of colonial rule was inevitable, and would be driven, wrote the governor, by Buddhists. All they needed was a leader.

By the time Olcott died in 1907, it was clear he had played a crucial role as just such a leader. In Sri Lanka, Henry Steel Olcott would create scores of Buddhist schools, and many more would be built in his name. It was Henry Steel Olcott who initiated the design of the international Buddhist flag, and you see it everywhere in Sri Lanka, from temples to trishaws. His Buddhist Catechism has been translated into more than 20 languages and is still used in Buddhist education all over the world. And Olcott has been honored in kind. There are Henry Steel Olcott statues in Sri Lanka, and Henry Steel Olcott streets. There is a Henry Steel Olcott Memorial Cricket Tournament (perhaps the greatest honor Sri Lanka could bestow upon a man) held across the country each year.

In 1967, at a ceremony for the commemorative stamp issued in Sri Lanka to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Olcott’s death, then-Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake summed up Olcott thus: “At a time when Buddhism was on the wane in Ceylon, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott…awakened its people to fight to regain their Buddhist heritage. Colonel Olcott was one of the heroes in the struggle of Lankan independence…. Colonel Olcott’s visit to Ceylon was a landmark in the history of Buddhism.”

Saddhu! Saddhu! they cried as they waved a thousand white flags in welcome. He was a stout man with a fluffy white beard that sat atop his vest like a platter of cotton balls. Often he would doff his three-piece suit and exchange it for a set of white pajamas and bare feet, looking part Sufi, part Santa. He traveled around from village to village in a homemade bullock cart cobbled from self-described Yankee ingenuity, a wonder cabinet of books and projecting drawers that was a kitchen and a bathing room, and could host a dinner party of eight. He pedaled freedom and enlightenment with the enthusiasm of a ringmaster. But Olcott never promised to save Sri Lanka on his own; he only wanted to help bring the Sinhalese back to themselves.

The ignorance of the Sinhalese about Buddhism is shocking, Olcott wrote in his diary, though they were less ignorant than Olcott believed. But it was true that the Sinhalese relationship to Buddhism had become estranged. Buddhist practices and education had largely been outlawed by the British, and the education system was dominated by the Christian church. Missionaries had convinced the Sinhalese that Buddhism was nihilistic because it denied the existence of a personal God, Olcott wrote in The Life of the Buddha, and Sinhalese Buddhism had become corrupted by decadent, Western materialism.

The adoring welcome he received was all the encouragement Olcott needed. “The people could not do enough for us,” he wrote during his first travels, “nothing seemed to them good enough for us; we were the first white champions of their religion, speaking of its excellence…in the face of the Missionaries, its enemies and slanderers.” And so it was. He had traveled first to India in 1879 to get some firsthand teaching about Eastern religions at the source — Buddhism of course, but also Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. Olcott was frustrated by the Westernized versions of Eastern thought he found in America; he was seeking something pure, something originary, something true. His intention was to take this knowledge back to the United States, where he and his partner — a Madame Helena Blavatsky — would continue to grow the Theosophical Society: a religious, philosophical, and scientific organization they had started. But it didn’t turn out quite that way. Olcott was moved to action by the poverty of colonial India, both economic and spiritual. Never one to sit in the passenger seat, he soon began giving lectures across the south of India condemning the caste system and set to work building free schools for outcastes. He lectured on religion, too. By the time Olcott and Blavatsky arrived to Ceylon in May of 1880, word of the pair had spread. Two days later, when he and Blavatsky became among the first known people of European descent to officially convert to Buddhism, Olcott was catapulted from celebrity to hero.

Here was an American who abhorred authority, whose own country had freed itself from the chains of British rule, who was a Buddhist just like them. He traveled to the smallest villages in the country and said, I am one of you, together we can forge a new truth, a new destiny for the people of Ceylon. With the arrival of the Colonel, a Buddhist renaissance swept across the island nation. Some started calling him the Great White Buddhist.

Henry Steel Olcott began life in 1832 on a farm in Orange, New Jersey, the eldest of six children. His parents were devout Presbyterians who traced their lineage to the Puritans. Olcott would study agricultural science at what is now New York University, and then work in experimental agriculture, publishing several influential studies that gave him international renown. Olcott was a confident man and a modern man, unconventional and independent, excelling at whatever he did, an embodiment of the American ethic. He allied himself with the liberal causes of mid-19th century America: the abolition movement, the women’s movement, the temperance movement, the cremation movement. There is some evidence that a young Olcott dabbled in Spiritualism, a fad at the time. Everyone who knew Olcott thought of him as a man of principle, and also a kook, and maybe a visionary, too. When he tired of agriculture, Olcott decided he would be a journalist, writing for the New York Tribune and a few other papers. Around this time, Olcott married the pious daughter of an Episcopalian minister who bore Olcott two sons. But husband and wife were destined to grow apart, and eventually they divorced, leaving Olcott to explore his more experimental side.

At the onset of the American Civil War, Olcott joined the Union Army and served as the special commissioner of the War Department investigating fraud, corruption, and graft at the New York Mustering and Disbursement Office. By the time he was through, Olcott had achieved the rank of colonel. He became so well respected as a man who could get to the bottom of any injustice, the secretary of war appointed him to investigate the conspiracy behind the Lincoln assassination, which was accomplished in two weeks’ time. At the war’s end, Olcott decided he would leave government service and become a private lawyer specializing in insurance, revenue, and fraud.

Fueling the many professions and crusades of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott was a passion for exposing lies. But what Olcott really sought was the Truth. It wasn’t a legal truth, exactly. It wasn’t a religious truth, or even a scientific truth, or a truth that could be found in personal love. He would know the Truth when he saw it, though didn’t yet know what it looked like.

Then, one day, in July of 1874, Olcott read about a farm in Chittenden, Vermont that was the site of incredible, unexplainable phenomena — “the solidification of phantom forms,” conversations with the dead, the invisible becoming tangible and vice versa. These occurrences were causing a great controversy in scientific and religious circles across the country. Olcott decided he must investigate for himself, under the pretense of reporting for the Tribune. He went to Chittenden, he would later write, neither believing nor disbelieving but open to the facts. He would let the public decide for themselves. In fact, Olcott would travel to Chittenden not once, but again and again. For Olcott saw things at Chittenden, experienced things, things that would convince him the mysteries of Chittenden were real.

In the book he would eventually write about his time at Chittenden, People from the Other World, Olcott started with a quote from Francis Bacon’s Natural History: “We have set it down as a law unto ourselves to examine things to the bottom, and not to receive upon credit, or reject upon improbabilities, until there hath passed a due examination.” As Olcott saw it, science should not reject phenomena that did not comport with things already taken to be true. Rather, the duty of humanity was to engage all the mysteries of the world and attempt to understand them, with whatever means available, no matter how improbable.

Colonel Olcott, it should be understood, was a no-nonsense man who was a sworn enemy of humbug. And so it’s unusual that such a person would not only take interest in the Spiritualist movement, but become one of its most ardent defenders. Strangely enough, Spiritualism appealed to Olcott’s pragmatic side. It also appealed to his sense of justice. He thought someone reliable ought to be a champion for all the clairvoyants and mediums out there who were persecuted simply for being channels of forces beyond their control. Most important, Spiritualism brought Olcott closer to the Truth he’d always been seeking.

It was at Chittenden where Olcott would meet a Russian woman who called herself Blavatsky, and his life would never be the same. Blavatsky, his soul mate, became Olcott’s usher into Spiritualism. Together they would form the Theosophical Society, a “Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color,” dedicated to the study of occultism, comparative religion, philosophy, and science. The Society would “investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.” Olcott would be its first president and Blavatsky would personify its ethos.

His excitement about the Society was summed up in an article for The Theosophist, written in 1889:

What the Society has hitherto done…is to make people think. No one can for long belong to the Theosophical Society without beginning to question himself. He begins to ask himself: “How do I know that?” “Why do I believe this?” “What reason have I to be so certain that I am right, and so sure that my neighbors are wrong?” “What is my warrant for declaring this action, or that practice, to be good, and their opposite bad?” The very air of Theosophy is charged with the spirit of enquiry. It is not the “skeptical” spirit, nor is it the “agnostic”. It is a real desire to know and to learn the truth….

For Olcott, uncertainty was the starting point of wisdom — not doubt and not belief.

Unlike Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott wasn’t particularly mystical. The Theosophical Society was much more interesting to Olcott as a platform for humanitarian causes and for the genuine study of life in all its natural, religious, scientific, and miscellaneous facets. But it was Blavatsky who got Olcott thinking about Eastern religions as well as the occult. And when he learned of Buddhism, it was a revelation.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Buddha’s story, for many, is that the Buddha was just a man. A prince, actually, but in any case not a god. He never professed to be a god, never wanted to be a god. Olcott himself was moved by this fact, had always felt suspicious of religions that demanded the worship of a creator. As Olcott wrote in The Life of the Buddha:

There is an invariable tendency to deify whomsoever shows himself superior to the weakness of our common humanity. Look where we will, we find the saint like man exalted into a divine personage and worshiped for a god…. This is a mean and vile trait of human nature, the proof of ignorance, selfishness, brutal cowardice, and a superstitious materialism. It shows the base instinct to put down and destroy whatever or whoever makes men feel their own imperfections…

The Buddha, on the contrary, had found a way to lift his fellows up — at least according to Olcott. The short version is this: There was a prince named Siddhartha who had a life of power and privilege. He lived behind the palace walls, having no contact with the outside world. The prince Siddhartha married a beautiful princess; they had a son together and were happy. The prince believed that this was life, that everybody was wealthy and healthy and beautiful and happy. But the prince longed to see the city, too, and one day convinced his father he must go. In the city, Siddhartha came upon a feeble old man, and then a dead man, and then a sage. He learned about poverty and sickness and death; he realized that what he had previously understood to be true was a lie. This set Siddhartha on a path of understanding. He renounced his worldly ties, including his wife and child, and focused on the essentials: wisdom and truth. He talked to people, meditated. Siddhartha apparently knew little of religion and it’s said he was motivated by an existential concern for the human condition. Eventually, Siddhartha reached Nirvana, a state of total liberation, by becoming enlightened, which is what buddha means.

The story of the Buddha was appealing to Olcott and maybe familiar as well. Here was a man who had gathered the facts with an honest and open mind. The Buddha’s teachings did not make up a treatise, but simply a narrative of one man’s experience. Here’s what I did, the Buddha said, and here’s what happened to me as a result. I became enlightened. But anyone who follows my path can become enlightened, too. Look at my example and decide for yourself.

The Buddha’s writings were not a demand of faith but rather an invitation to discovery — to which everyone had equal access — through practice, reason, and meditation. Olcott found the Buddha’s message of life’s transience suited to his progressive ideas and fully compatible with science. Not a few contemporary scientists agreed. Buddhism taught tolerance and non-violence — the vegetarian Civil War veteran was a firm believer in respect for all life. He liked the message of self-reliance in Buddhism; it felt comfortably American. He liked, too, the emphasis on morals and will. In Buddhism, Olcott saw an Eastern philosophy entirely compatible with modern liberal Western values and thinking. Here’s what he had been looking for: a democratic, methodological, procedural path to the Truth.

The anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere calls Olcott’s Buddhism “Protestant Buddhism.” It’s not clear just how much present-day Buddhism in Sri Lanka — or Thailand or Cambodia or Laos or Vietnam or Japan or Burma or the United States, where Olcott’s influence was also profound — is “real” Buddhism, as Olcott claimed, or Olcott’s pragmatist interpretation. Regardless, Olcott’s spin was intoxicating. His presence in Sri Lanka invigorated a movement toward independence in a society that had long been dominated by Christian Western forces (colonized first by the Portuguese, then by the Dutch, and finally by the English). Obeyesekere writes of a time in Sri Lanka when Christianity looked upon Buddhism with respect, reverence even. But by the time Olcott came onto the scene, he saw a Sinhalese people who had become despondent about their own culture. Olcott tapped into the most optimistic and motivational aspects of Buddhism, became the white face of a nascent Buddhist movement already stirring in the country. He made a link between a personal independence that could be achieved through Buddhism and a national independence that could be achieved by all Sri Lankans. He promoted this message with an American talent for advertising, and went about the country performing good deeds. It was a magic mix that was destined to light a fire under the Sinhalese. The British governor of Ceylon was right. A Buddhist revival was almost inevitable.

In Sri Lanka, the spirit of Henry Steel Olcott is everywhere. And it is nowhere, too. Sri Lankans got their independence in 1948 and Buddhism has grown to dominate the country. A Buddhist temple is on every horizon and every street corner; Buddhist holidays and Buddhist education are the norm. But the name Olcott has long been supplanted, and properly so, by the names of Sri Lankans.

And today, there is another, more controversial aspect to Olcott’s legacy in the form of a Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist movement that expounds Buddhism as the country’s one true religion. This idea has proved to be less enthralling to Sri Lanka’s non-Buddhists — notably the Tamils, Sri Lanka’s majority minority, who are primarily Hindu. The connection between Buddhism and Sinhalese nationalism was a major factor in Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war that ended in 2009. Henry Steel Olcott, then, is a contentious ghost, venerated by some, reviled by others. Yet the vast majority of Sri Lankan society doesn’t think of Olcott at all.

When I approached the railway station at around 5 p.m. on February 17, the crowd was much bigger than I had expected. I read later it was a crowd of thousands. The police had cordoned off Olcott Avenue, making it impossible to pass in front of the station. I wondered how the Theosophical Society, which organized the Olcott anniversary ceremony, had managed to create all this fuss and whether its members were able to get to Olcott’s statue. I couldn’t see it from where I was standing. As I got closer, I saw the policemen were wearing gas masks. Then, there was a blast. A cloud of tear gas came toward me and everyone started to run. I realized that this was the protest I had read about in the morning paper. It had been organized by the government’s main opposition party in response to fuel price increases. At a protest the day before, the police had killed a protesting fisherman, and today’s gathering was all the more furious. I thought I might try to make my way forward toward the ceremony, but gas and chaos pushed me back. The Theosophists, I assumed, wouldn’t be paying their respects to Olcott this year.

A few days later, I met a member of parliament from the opposition party who had been part of the protest, and we struck up a conversation about Olcott. You know, he told me, I saw the funniest thing. I was standing in front of the Olcott statue, he said, and there was this group of people, all in white, making their way through the chaos. They stopped in front of Olcott’s statue and laid a garland around his neck. And nearby, even a handful of police officers paused for a moment before the statue to pray.

Though he would make periodic trips back to the United States, the country was never again to be Olcott’s home. But Olcott had long ceased thinking of any worldly place as his home. At his funeral in India in 1907, his successor as resident of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant, told the gathering of mourners that they were not to say goodbye to Colonel Henry Steel Olcott but merely to the cast-off garment that once held his spirit. In his last message, written two weeks before the end, Olcott wrote, “In the Brotherhood of Religions lye the peace and progress of humanity.” • 12 March 2012


Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at