OLD DIARY LEAVES, Second Series (1878-83)
by Henry Steel Olcott
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A LECTURE on "The Occult Sciences" being appointed for the next afternoon, I spent the morning in writing it, and at 5.30 it was given in a huge circus tent, to a huger audience. It was an impressive sight —that multitude of Orientals filling every inch of available room in the canvas oval. Our party sat on an advanced staging, which gave us and the people a fine chance to see each other.
As the incessant hard work of the tour had somewhat done me up, a conference was held in my bedroom with Sumangala, Megittuwatte, Bulâtgama, and other Chief Priests, on Buddhist affairs; in the evening, the permanent organization of the Colombo T. S. was effected, and the members subscribed the sum of Rs. 1,050 towards the expenses of the Branch.
The next day was a busy one: at 8.30, the insatiable photographer; at 9.30, breakfasted out; at 1.30, a meeting at Widyodaya College for admission of priests, Sumangala, Bulâtgama, and others entering the Society at that time; at 4, a lecture at a temple, which got for the T. S. ten new members; then another capture by photographers, Sumangala, Bulâtgama, Megittuwatte, Hyeyentadûwe—Assistant Principal of
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the College—Amaramoli, a well-educated, amiable and excellent monk, and myself being taken in a group. Of the party, three are already deceased—Megittuwatte, Bulâtgama, and Amaramoli—so that the picture is historical and interesting to the Sinhalese people. At 7.30 p.m. (without having had a moment for meals) I held a meeting at our quarters and admitted twelve new members. Finally, at 9, still without dinner, we organized the Lanka T. S., a non-Buddhist Branch, composed of Freethinkers and amateurs of occult research. The closing act of the day was the listening and reply to an Address from the Colombo Buddhist community. After all, dinner and bed!
We left Colombo by train the next morning for Morotuwa, many friends seeing us off. H. P. B. received from a Buddhist lady, Mrs. Andrew Perera, an enamelled gold locket, and Damodar and I something better, in the form of a blessing from the High Priest and several other monks; they reciting Pirit—benedictory verses—and laying their hands on our breasts. H. P. B. being (ostensibly) a woman, the celibates could not touch her. She was very jolly about this all throughout the trip; at Galle, after her admission into Buddhism, she used to tease the venerable Bulâtgama—whom she nicknamed her Father in God—to smoke, and, rolling a cigarette, would pass it to him on a fan, so that he need not to be contaminated by touching her, laughing all the while, and making the old monk share in her merriment!
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Within the twenty-four hours of our last day at Colombo, we received eleven invitations for visits to various places; in fact, the whole Island would have had us visit them if time had served. At Morotuwa the Reception Committee took us in carriages from the station to Horitadûwe, where we breakfasted, and at 3 the crowd had gathered for the lecture. But I was so ill with a return of an old army dysentery, as to be unable to do more than say a few words, and Wimbridge was forced into being my substitute. To give an idea of the mental distress a novice has to pass through, in these Eastern countries, when being interpreted into a vernacular, and when knowing that the people are not getting any proper conception of what one is saying, I recall an incident of this occasion. Wimbridge, to illustrate some point he had made, said: "Now let us take a case." We discovered, later, that his interpreter had rendered it: "Now let us take a box!" In Japan, once, after lecturing at the Imperial University, Tokyo, I was pained beyond expression on learning from two Japanese-knowing English friends present that my interpreter had converted my innocent discourse on Education into a quasi-political one, embodying views that might offend the Government! Fortunately, both of these gentlemen had enough personal influence to set things right, by reporting to the Minister for Education my actual words. Many such experiences have at last made me measurably callous, and now I do not trouble myself at all as to the travesty worked on my public discourses. Always, even when I am addressing the masses who do not know English, some few
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of my audience will have understood what I really said.
After the lecture we drove to Panadure, and resumed our mosquito-haunted quarters at the hospitable old Mudaliyar's pânsâla. A delightful bath in the early morning freshened us up for the lecture at 2 p.m., in the Mudaliyar's circular dharmasâlâ. A few hours later, I received a challenge from the head master of the S. P. G. Mission School, on behalf of the Christian party, to debate the Christian religion! The note referred to my Five Minutes' challenge at Kandy and was rather insulting in tone. Now, of course, we were following out a fixed programme in which every hour of our time was apportioned, and we were compelled to be at Galle on a fixed day to meet our steamer. This was publicly known, and, of course, the challenge was a trick; the Christian party believing that it would be refused, and they thus be left free to misrepresent our motive after we were gone. I wanted to ignore it, but H. P. B. opposed the idea, and said we must accept for the above reason. Wimbridge concurring, I sent an acceptance on certain conditions. First, that the debate should be held within three days; second, that my opponent should be an ordained priest of some orthodox sect, someone whose standing was good among local Christians, and who would be acknowledged as a respectable representative of their faith. I at once telegraphed to cancel one of the fixed engagements of the tour, so that we might be free to stop at Panadure until this business was settled. My reason for the other condition was that, at Colombo, we had met one of those pestiferous
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religious parrots, whose wits are turned and whose garrulity makes intercourse with them intolerable; breeders of fads, social torments—and I suspected that he was to be my opponent. From a contest with such a person no profit or honor could be gained for Buddhism; if he were silenced, the Christian party would repudiate responsibility for his views; if he defeated me, the Buddhists would be shamed by the overthrow of their champion by one whom neither party respected, who was not an ordained priest, and whose religious opinions were most heterodox. At Colombo, this man had bored us to death with a clattering exposition of his views. He had founded—on paper—a society called Christo-Brahmo Samaj, and had presented me with a broadsheet in which the principles of the new society were explained. They were heterodox and fantastical; of which, for proof, I need only mention that he declared that the Holy Ghost must be a female, as, otherwise, Heaven would be like a cold Bachelors' Hall, with Father, Son, but no Wife!
An active exchange of notes followed the delivery and acceptance of the challenge, we trying to put the matter on a fair and honorable footing, our opponents resorting to trick and subterfuge to put us in the false position by which they hoped to profit. Our friends kept us fully advised of every step taken, including the secret discussions (overheard by listeners of both parties, the open construction of houses in Ceylon making this very easy) between the schoolmaster and the leading local Christians. Every respectable Protestant clergyman, from the Lord
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Bishop downwards, had been asked but refused to confront me, and the clever Christian advocates of the High Court had followed suit. In fact, the schoolmaster I was told—had been the reverse of complimented for putting them into such a fix. Finally, as we had suspected, it was secretly arranged with the individual above mentioned for him to stand as my antagonist. Getting this from a trustworthy source, I consulted Sumangala and the other six Chief Priests who, with him, represented the whole body of Ceylon bhikkus, and who were all present to give me countenance, and arranged what I should do. On the day before that fixed for the discussion H. P. B. and Wimbridge went as a Committee bearing my ultimatum—so annoyingly shifty had our opponents been and so determined not to put our understanding in writing. I simply refused to have anything further to do or say with them unless a definite agreement were entered into.
The actual meeting was an exciting episode. It was held at 2 p.m. in the S. P. G. schoolhouse; a nice, airy, oblong, tile-paved structure having a lofty, well-ventilated roof and two doors opposite each other in the centre of the building. The right half had been apportioned to the Christian party, the left half to the Buddhists. Two plain, square tables were placed for my opponent and myself. At one side sat my Christo-Brahmo Samaj worthy, with a huge Bible before him. The building was densely packed and the compound outside as well. As H. P. B. and I entered with our party, there was a dead silence. I bowed to both parties, and, without even glancing at my
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opponent, sat down. Seeing that the initiative was left to me, I rose and said that on all such occasions it was the custom among us Western people to choose a Chairman, who should have full authority to restrain the speakers as to time and utterances, and take the sense of the meeting at the close. The Buddhist party desiring nothing more than fairplay, were perfectly willing that the Chairman should be nominated by the Christian party: the only proviso being that he should be one known for his intelligence, good character, and fair-mindedness. I therefore called on them to name a suitable person. Their leaders conferred together for a long time and at last nominated—the most bigoted and prejudiced man in the Island, one particularly obnoxious to the Buddhists. We rejected him and asked them to try again: the same result. Another trial resulted in the same way. I then said that, as they manifestly did not intend to comply with their agreements in nominating a suitable Chairman, I should name, on behalf of the Buddhists, a gentleman who was not even a Buddhist but a Christian, yet one upon whose fairness we felt we could rely. I proposed a well-known Inspector of Schools. But that was not the sort of man they wanted, so they rejected him and re-nominated their first nominee. So this farce went on until an hour and a half had been wasted, and I then, with Sumangala's concurrence, gave notice that unless the Christians should within the next ten minutes agree upon a proper presiding officer, we should leave the building. This did no good; so, when the time of grace expired, I rose
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and read a paper which, in anticipation .of some such possible result, I had prepared. After reciting the sequence of facts, including the conditions on which the challenge had been accepted, I pointed out the obstacles thrown in our way, and the deliberate insult of putting forward as my opponent a man who was not ordained, whom they did not recognize as orthodox, whose overthrow would not be looked upon as of any consequence, and whom they had taken as a pis aller, after vainly trying to get a better champion. Then—as they evidently did not know their champion's real religious sentiments, his broadsheet being a quite recent publication, I believe—I showed the precious document and read from it the passages relating to the Trinity. The consternation among them seemed great, so much so that a silence fell upon them; amid which our party rose and left the schoolhouse, preceded by the seven great priests and followed by an enthusiastic multitude. I never saw them so demonstrative before. They would not let us get into our carriages, but we had to walk with such a pack of human flesh about us that might have made one know how it would feel to be present in the centre of a cotton-bale. They shouted; they fired shot-guns; they cracked "enormous whips—a Ceylon custom imported from India, centuries ago; they waved flags, cheered, and sang, and—a very pretty custom—tossed highly burnished brass lotahs—water-pots—containing a few pebbles each, into the air and caught them again, the sunshine making them sparkle like flashing lights and the pebbles joining in a pleasing subdued rattle and
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clink. So the joyous band took us to our quarters, or rather to the great preaching-shed adjoining, where we had to show ourselves and the Chief Priests and I to make suitable addresses. The warmest congratulations were exchanged between friends, and it seemed the general opinion that the Protestant Christians had dealt themselves the heaviest blow ever received by their cause in the Island. As I said in another place, the Catholics did not molest us. In fact, I have just come across a cutting in our Scrap Book, from the Ceylon Catholic Messenger, of 20th May, 1818, from which the following extract is taken:
"The Theosophists cannot in any case be worse than the Sectarian Missionaries, and if Colonel Olcott can induce the Buddhists to establish schools of their own, as he is trying to do, he will be doing us a service; because if the Buddhists would have their own denominational schools, as we have ours; they would put a stop to the dishonesty now practised by the Sectarian Missionaries of obtaining Government money for proselytising purposes under the pretext of grants, in-aid for education: Though it is in the education of our own people that we are chiefly interested, yet it is neither our wish nor our interest as Catholics that education should not be universal"
For the sake of the amiable neutrality herein fore-shadowed, we shall not traverse the concluding affirmation.
As for the luckless "Christian" champion, he was hustled away to the private room; of the railway
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station-master, and kept shut up there until the arrival of the next train for Colombo, for fear of unpleasant consequences, from his pretended co-religionists.
The next morning we proceeded on to Bentota via Kalutara. The trip was delightful, both by rail along the sea-beach, where the track skirts almost the wash of the surf, and by road through the continuous groves of palms, which reminded me of the alley through the palm-house at Chatsworth; save that there it was a matter of roods, while here it was one of scores of miles. Our reception at Bentota was princely indeed. There was a procession a mile long; at least ten miles of ola (split tender cocoanut leaves hung on lines supported by poles) decorations along the roads and lanes, and fourteen triumphal arches at conspicuous points. I lectured from a large decorated pavilion or platform, from which we had a fine view of the assemblage and the decorations. We passed the night at the rest-house, or travellers' bungalow, a Government affair, the managing contractor of which was a warm Buddhist and put himself out to make us comfortable. We were all agreed that we had never seen so delightful a house in the Tropics. The lofty ceilings, the floors of red tiles, the walls of laterite, thick and cool, a wide verandah at the back just over the rocky shore of the sea, the rooms at least thirty feet square, the sea-breeze sweeping through them night and day, a bathing-place' on the beach, abundance of flowers, a good table and a sympathetic landlord—we, had nothing left to desire. H. P. B. declared she should like to pass a whole year there.
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Twenty-three names of applicants were handed in that day, and in the evening we formed the Bentota T. S., which, by the way, has scarcely done anything since and up to the present time. Certainly nothing by way of Theosophy, although some help has been given to the cause of Education. This has not been for lack of good feeling but only from their semi-illiteracy. Seven priests, sent to me by Potuwila for the purpose, were accepted as members.
After an early sea-bath we left, in a special mail-coach chartered for us by the committee, for Galle, which we reached at 5 p.m. after a most pleasant drive. Ferozshah and I were laid up the next two days, and I could make no public appearance. On the evening of 25th June, at a meeting of the Galle T. S., Mr. Simon Perera was elected President. On the 26th we drove to Matara, our southernmost point, and got there at 2 p.m. Four miles from the town we were met by a procession, estimated to be a mile long, under the lead of a local Headman, who took us in charge. The quaintest and most striking features of an ancient Sinhalese perehera (procession) were included in the function, and for us it had all the attraction of picturesqueness and novelty. There were costumed sword-dancers, devil-dancers, nautchnis with ochred faces, a revolving temple on a float—a van of marionettes—for it must be remembered that the faxtoccini are of Eastern origin, and one sees them at nearly all festive gatherings in India, Ceylon, and Burma; and numberless flags and swallow-tail pennons were carried and waved by men and boys. Music played, tom-toms beat, songs composed in our
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honor were sung, and as at Bentota, some ten miles of ola decorations fringed the roads. One may imagine what sized audience such demonstrations caused to gather at the lecturing-place, where I spoke. It was in a palmgrove by the seaside, I standing on a house-verandah, the people sitting in the open. I had a trying interpreter that day, and no mistake. First of all, he asked me to speak very slowly as he "did not understand English very well"; then he planted himself right before me, looking into my mouth, as if he had read Homer, and watched to see what words should "escape through the fence of my teeth". He stood in a crouching position, and with his hands clasping his knees. I spoke extemporaneously, without notes, commanding my gravity with difficulty as I was forced to see the intense anxiety depicted on his countenance. If he did not catch a sentence he would say: "Just repeat that, if you please!" In short, I found it oratory under difficulties. However, we managed it after a fashion, and the people were very patient and good-natured.
Our quarters were in a spacious two-storey house, which had been profusely decorated with flags, bunches of green cocoanuts, palm branches and flowers, making a gay appearance. We breakfasted the next morning with Mrs. Cecilia Dias Illangakoon, a wealthy Buddhist lady of saintly piety, whose kindness towards me ceased only with her life, some years later. It was she who supplied the money for the publication of the first editions, in Sinhalese and English, of my "Buddhist Catechism," and who had prepared, at a cost of nearly Rs. 3,000, the splendid
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set of the Tripitika which adorns the Adyar Library. After breakfast she and her son-in-law, Mr. E. R. Gooneratne, of Galle, the most influential native official of Southern Ceylon and the local representative of Professor Rhys Davids' Pali Text Society, were admitted into the T.S., in. the presence of Potuwila, Wimbridge, Padshah, and Damodar.
At 4 p.m. I lectured to 2,500 people in the compound of this house, a decorated platform having been built in the doorway for me to stand upon, and the room at my back containing seventy priests of the Siam and Amarapoora sects, the only two in the Island; not exactly sects in the strict meaning of the word, for there is no difference of dogma between them: the word only means that one set of them received their ordination (upasampada) from Siam, the other from Burma. Later on, I shall have some explanation to give in this respect; the more needed since H.P. B. did not seem to get it fairly into her head that such was the case, and often wrote of them as if they were quite different theological bodies.
The 28th June was a very busy day. Initiations were going on at intervals, there was a visit from a roomful of priests, headed by the High Priest of the Siam "sect" for Southern Ceylon. Two Pali addresses were read to me, by him and by a young priest of great personal influence in this Province. At 7 the above two and five more monks and nine laymen entered the T. S.; a meeting was held, and the Matara T. S. duly organized, with thirty-two out of thirty-five local members present. Midnight saw us still at work, but at last, thoroughly fagged out, we got to bed.
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We went to Weligama the following morning and passed through similar experiences as before, of processions, music, village decorations, feux de joie, whip-crackings, flags, buntings, hymns of welcome, and huzzas. We were put up at the rest-house by the seashore, a place so charming that Pro. Haeckel, a later visitor, left an enthusiastic souvenir of his visit in the Visitors' Register, which I copied and have put away somewhere. Ceylon is really a Paradise of natural beauties for one who can appreciate them; and I do not wonder at the reluctance the Sinhalese have ever shown to venturing to foreign lands, even for profit. After tiffin I lectured from a table placed in a cocoanut grove, after which the crowd surrounded our house so densely that nearly all of us fell sick. H. P. B. and I certainly were poisoned by these emanations. We left the place at 4, and at 6 reached Galle fit only for our bedrooms, which we sought and kept to, despite all importunities. My illness continued all the next day, but on the second morning I went with Mr. S. Perera and his brothers to visit their private temple, that is to say, one that they have built mainly at their own expense, for a priest whose life was more strict and ascetic than that of most of the order. Two or three days of comparative quiet now followed, which I devoted to the preparation of an address to be read before a Convention which I had called of the two sects, with the view of creating a kindlier feeling between them, and making them equally interested in the new movement we had begun in the interest of Buddhism. The Convention met at 1 p.m. in an airy upstairs
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building on the harbor beach, belonging to Mr. S. Perera. A necessary preliminary was the giving of a breakfast to the thirty delegates—fifteen from each sect. To avoid all friction, I placed the two parties in adjoining rooms communicating by a wide door. The monks first bathed their feet, washed their faces and hands, and rinsed their mouths. They then took their places on small mats placed for them, the seniors at the far end of the parallel lines, each with his copper begging-bowl before him. The laymen-hosts then brought the huge dishes of well-cooked rice, the curry stuffs, fruits, milk, and other things from the kitchen outside, and put an ample supply of solids in each bowl. On their way from the cook-house to the dining-rooms they allowed the crowd of poor persons, gathered for the purpose, to touch the dishes and mutter some word of benediction; the belief being that the toucher thus acquires a share of the merit conferred by the charitable act of feeding the monks. Our party took refreshments in another part of the house. When all was ready I stood in the common doorway and read the call of the meeting and then my Address, which was well interpreted as delivered. I also read my Executive Notice, announcing the creation of the Buddhist Section. Remarks having been made by the seven leading priests of the two sects, a joint committee of five each of the two bodies, with Sumangala as chairman, was chosen to carry out my plan, and the meeting then adjourned sine die. This was quite a new departure, joint action having never before been taken in an administrative affair; nor would it have been now possible, but for our
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being foreigners who were tied to neither party, nor concerned in one of their social cliques more than in any other. We represented Buddhism and Buddhistic interests as a whole, and neither party dared hold aloof for fear of the popular disfavor, even if they had been so inclined. I am bound to say that I have never, during the subsequent nineteen years, had reason to complain of any change of this good feeling for our work by either sect. On the other hand, they have given a thousand proofs of their willingness to help, so far as their natural inertia of temperament permits them, the great revival movement which is destined to ultimately place Ceylon Buddhism upon the most sure and stable footing, since it is that of the goodwill of an educated and willing people. It has ever been a cause of deep regret to me, personally, that I could not have devoted my whole time and energies to the Buddhist cause from my early manhood, for I feel sure that by the time of our first visit to the Island, 1800, I could have brought about the complete unification in sympathy of the Northern and Southern "Churches"—to use an absurd misnomer—and could have planted a schoolhouse at every cross-road in this lovely land of the palm and the spice grove. However, let that pass as a " might have been": my time has not been wasted.
On 5th June I held a Convention of our newly-formed lay Branches. Kandy was represented by Mr. now the Honorable, T. B. Pannabokke; Colombo, by Mr. Andrew Perera; Pânadure, by Mr. J. J. Cooray; Bentota, by Mr. Abeyasekara; Galle, by Mr. S. Perera; and Matara, by Mr. Appuhami.
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Our subjects of discussion were the desired secularizing of schools; the rescue of Temple endowment lands from spoliation; the proper way to restore discipline of senior over junior priests—destroyed since the native Dynasty had been replaced by a Christian Government; the preparation of propagandist literature and its circulation, etc., etc.
Two days of rest, and then a trip to Welitara, where we formed our seventh new Branch T. S. under the auspices of two out of the seven most influential monks above referred to, viz., Wimelasâra Mâhâ, Terunnanse and Dhammalankâra Mâhâ Terunnanse, two splendid men of high ability and leading two great bodies of the Amarapoora sect. Eighteen juniors of the latter and twelve of the former accepted membership, and with them, about every priest of any influence in Ceylon had come into our league and pledged their loyal help to the movement. I suppose the fact is that they were borne in on a wave of popular enthusiasm and could not have held back anyhow. My greatest mistake was not to have taken advantage of this feeling to have collected—as I easily might—a fund of two or three lakhs of rupees for the founding of Buddhist schools, the printing of Buddhist books, and for propaganda generally. By delaying this indispensable business until the following year, my work was infinitely harder and the aggregate of collections infinitely less. A bad year's crop had intervened, the steamers had made Colombo, instead of Galle, their port of call, and that made all the difference in the world.
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A final meeting of the Galle T. S., on 11th July, was called for the permanent election of officers, and in Mr. Proctor G. C. A. Jayasekara as President, the Branch got one of the best possible executives. The 12th was our last day in the Island; on the 13th our steamer arrived, and at two we embarked; leaving many weeping friends behind, and taking away with us many recollections of gracious kindnesses, cheerful help, lovely journeys, enthusiastic multitudes, and strange experiences enough to fill the memory with vivid pictures, to recall in future years with delight; as I am doing now with the help of a few lines written in an old Diary.