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96th Death Anniversary of Col. Olcott - The Buddhist revivalist

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  • Chen Hsiongcai
    T HE D HAMMA T IMES - A publication bringing you the latest buddhist news and information through the internet highway ...... ...::..:: [
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 18, 2003

      THE DHAMMA TIMES - A publication bringing you the latest buddhist news and information through the internet highway......

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      96th Death Anniversary yesterday
      Col. Olcott - The Buddhist revivalist

      The Lanka Daily News  18th February 2003

      "Ah! Lovely Lanka. Thy sweet image rises before me, as I write the story of my success in warming the hearts of thy children to revere their incomparable religion and its holiest Founder. Happy the karma which brought me to thy shores."

      - Col. H. S. Olcott.

      ****


      Col. Henry Steele Olcott

      Col. Henry Steele Olcott was born on August 2, 1832, at Orange, New Jersey, United States. A Christian by birth, he became a convert to Buddhism, while in his motherland, and publicly avowed his conversion to the faith on May 25, 1880, by reciting 'pansil' (the five vows of morality in Buddhism) before the Ven. Akmeemana Dhammarama Nayaka Thera of the Vijayananda Temple in Galle. After the ceremonial welcome by the Buddhist clergy and the laity, he left for Colombo, to accomplish his mission.

      This great historic event, served as a symbolic identification of himself with the Buddhist community, and their cause for the revival of Buddhism in the island, which was at an ebb as a result of foreign dominations and Christian persecution by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British for nearly four centuries. The Baptist Missionary Society (1812), the Wesleyan Missionary Society (1814), the Church Missionary Society (1818), and other ecclesiastical organisations were competitive in opening up schools in the island, and their motive was proselytisation through the education media.

      English education

      Col. Olcott looked into the plight of the Buddhists, under the British yoke, and specially in regard to the education of Buddhist children, who were deprived of English education, which was exclusively in the hands of the Christian missionaries. He traversed through the length and breadth of the country calling for Buddhist resurgence, unity and national awareness, to overcome all adverse and debilitating effects that had a close link between Buddhism and Sinhala culture, mostly due to alien influence.

      Realising that the best protection against proselytisation, and other indirect onslaughts against Buddhism, was the need for a better knowledge of the faith than what was existent, his first move was to initiate a campaign to promote Buddhist education and its far-reaching effect was the establishment of Dhamma Schools on Sunday. In addition, a number of vernacular schools were opened throughout the country, and were managed by the Buddhist Theosophical Society, established on June 17, 1880. Col. Olcott saw the need for English eduction for Buddhist children, who were not admitted to missionary schools.

      His dream came through with the establishment of Ananda College in Colombo, Mahinda College in Ga lle, Dharmaraja College in Kandy and Vijaya College in Matale, which still preserve their prestigious state. Apart from the resurgence of Buddhism, he gave prominence to education as the best approach for the formation of intellectuals.

      Buddhist holidays

      With the establishment of Buddhist schools, a problem emerged regarding the observances of Buddhist festivals, even the Vesak Day being unrecognised officially as a public holiday. The Christians enjoyed a holiday of one week for Christmas in December. Col. Olcott met the governor Sir Arthur Hamilton Gorden (1870-1883) and requested the Vesak Day to be declared a public holiday. Not satisfied with his reaction, Col. Olcott met Lord Derby, the Colonial Secretary. The result was that in 1884, Vesak Fullmoon Poya was declared a government holiday.

      In the process of providing systematic techniques of organisation to the Buddhist Movement, Col. Olcott realised the need for a symbol of Buddhist unity. With this end in view, he designed the five-coloured flag (the Buddhist flag), adopting the colours, blue, yellow, red, white and ember, associated with the halo of the Buddha in the traditional Buddhist literature. It became the emblem of Buddhist occasions. At the meeting of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, held at the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, in 1950, it was accepted as the International Buddhist Flag.

      Rational outlook

      Those who accompanied Col. Olcott to Sri Lanka were Madame Helena Petrovna nee Hahn Blavatsky (who along with Col. Olcott founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875), W. Wimbridge, Demodar K. Mavalankar, Purushottam and Panachand Anandji (Hindus), Sorabji J. Pradshah and Ferozshah D. Shoroff (Parsis), who were Theosophists and bearers of brotherly salutations expressive of their broad tolerance to Buddhism, as a universal philosophy with a rational outlook, for the welfare of mankind and to free them from earthly bondage.

      Theosophy is the system of philosophical thought based on the direct and immediate experience of wisdom, claimed to be possessed by specially gifted men and women along with abnormal control over natural forces, specially on occultism beyond the range of sense and transcending the bounds of natural knowledge, somewhat mysterious and supernatural. It believes in 'karma' (action volitional) and in rebirth, as the two fundamental entities taught in Buddhism, which are corollary to each other.

      Col. Olcott was a great humanist and figured in the forefront of our national and religious renaissance. He was a professional agriculturist, before joining the armed services, and he strived hard to bring his own countrymen as well as the less unfortunate people in the under-developed countries in Asia, to lead moral lives.

      Arrival to Sri Lanka

      Having heard the famous 'Panadura Vadaya' (the Panadura Controversy between the Christians and the Buddhists), and having heard of the Buddhist movement, had entered into regular correspondence with the local Buddhist leaders and the clergy, particularly with the Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, the mettlesome defender of Buddhism and the eloquent debater, and on their invitation, came to Sri Lanka, at a time when Buddhism was at its ebb.

      There were five such controversial debates. They were the Waragoda and Baddegama Controversies (1865), the Udanvita Controversy (1866), the Gampola Controversy (1871), and the Panadura Controversy (1873). The last controversy received international recognition, because its entire proceedings were translated into English by the eminent lawyer Alfred Perera of Kotte, and published in the newspaper Ceylon Times by its editor John Capper.

      J. M. Feebles, an American spiritualist, got it printed into a booklet, titled "The Great Debate between Buddhism and Christianity, Face to Face", and took it into the United States for distribution among the public to show how the Buddhists won the Great Debate. Col. Olcott got a copy of it, and having read it with great interest, became a convert to Buddhism.

      Comparative study

      On a comparative study, Col. Olcott understood the true teaching of the Buddha, based on the concept that "man is his own saviour who is responsible for all his deeds". He realised that Buddhism does not put any action, either good or bad, to the Will of God or an unseen Authority up above the Heaven.

      Col. Olcott did much to awaken the Buddhists from their deep slumber when the Christian missionaries were active in spreading their religion throughout the country. As the crusader who campaigned hard to regain the lost place to Buddhism in the island, his contribution to the cause received high estimation from both the Buddhist clergy and the laity.

      The Panadura Controversy was held on land called Dombagahawatta at Pattiya in Panadura. This piece of land duly fenced, with the statue of Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda thera in the centre, could be seen to the right, when travelling by bus to Kalutara, along the Galle Road, from Colombo. This land was donated by Roslin Rodrigo, a daughter of P. Jeremias Dias of Panadura, to the Panadura Buddhist Association, on July 9, 1954.

      Anagarika Darmapala

      Co. Olcott, for the first time after the destruction of Buddhism in India, convened in January, in 1889, at Madras, a meeting of delegates of Buddhists from Myanmar, Chittagong, Sri Lanka and Japan, to consider what steps should be taken for the propagation of Buddhism in the western lands. Sri Lanka was represented by Anagarika Dharmapala, the great personality of matchless courage and fortitude, who fought to save Buddhagaya temple in Bihar for the Buddhists.

      The Anagarika, speaking of Col. Olcott, says "Never before had there been any such visitor from the West, who had avowed Buddhism and worked for the welfare of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka as well as in India". When he met Col. Olcott, he was just 16 years old, and the two united to work for the welfare of the Buddhist community, irrespective of caste, creed or rank.

      In 1967, as Minister of Communication, E. L. B. Hurulle was able to obtain a piece of land, opposite the Fort Railway Station, to erect a statue of Col. Olcott. This was done by the Olcott Commemoration Society, which still stands receiving the hallowed attention of the Buddhists. Now it is a fitting time to see, in retrospect, the services that he rendered to Sri Lanka, having been born in America.

      Born great

      Having rendered a yeoman service for the revival of Buddhism and Sinhala culture in the island, and the establishment of English schools for Buddhist children, Col. Olcott passed away at Adyar in Madras, South India, on February 17, 1907, having lived for 75 years.

      Col. Olcott compiled a Buddhist catechism (any compendious system of teaching drawn up in the form of questions and answers) for use in Buddhist schools. The copies were out on July 24, 1881, and thence forward there was a great demand for the booklet. It found its way to Myanmar, Japan, Germany, Sweden, France, Italy, Australia, America, India, like a mustard tree growing and developing into a great proliferous tree.


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