Colonel Olcott statue, shot during a student protest.
I read Andrew Sullivan every day, thus I was chuffed to see a link to an article on Colonel Henry Olcott, a founder of modern Sri Lankan Buddhism. The article, by Stefany Anne Goldberg, is full of some interesting and surprising details. I reproduce a few here.
For one thing, Olcott was American. I’d always thought he was British.
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. (The Man from New Jersey)
What did Olcott do? The things I remember are that he designed the modern Buddhist flag and founded Ananda College. I’ve learned that he also founded Dharmaraja College in Kandy, Mahinda College in Galle, and Maliyadeva College in Kurunegala. Still, few people today think of the American that helped restore Buddhism here and, indeed, some extremists have tried to imbue that Buddhism with xenophobia.
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. (ibid)
On the whole, however, I think the Buddhist revival was both inevitable and good and remain thankful to Colonel Olcott for helping usher it in. For every bad monk making noise, there is one practicing noble silence in the jungle. For every politician yelling about Buddhism, there are ten aunties taking sil. I found this image in Ms. Goldberg’s article especially striking. She went to visit the Olcott statue in fort (pictured above) on an anniversary ceremony to find it surrounded by protestors (over the recent petrol hike). The place was full of teargas and she couldn’t go, but she heard about it later:
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. (ibid)
I think that’s cool. I generally see Olcott during protests, but he remains chill. A good Buddhist to the end.