OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fourth Series (1887-92)
by Henry Steel Olcott
TO MEET THE AMBASSADOR OF THE
THE projected journey to the provinces of Arakan and British Burma above referred to was to be made in the interests of Buddhism as represented in the Maha-Bodhi Society, and Dharmapala was to accompany me. I have been amused in looking over my papers of that period to see the reason why. The Arakanese people had heard so much of my work in Ceylon that they wanted me to come and help them in the same way, and wrote to that effect in strong and complimentary language, but—and this is the humorous part of the affair—as they had never had any religious dealings with a white man other than a missionary, and had never seen or heard of a white Buddhist before, their Oriental suspiciousness was excited and their leaders wrote Dharmapala that they wished him to come with me. At a meeting of the Buddhist community of Akyab it was “enthusiastically” decided to telegraph me to come at the beginning of October, the end of the Buddhist Lenten season.
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“The Colonel’s presence alone,” writes one of our friends to Dharmapala, “would not be enough to popularise the projects of the Maha-Bodhi Society. You have to consider that our priests and laity have had no experience whatever, whether with white or European priests or Buddhists, so you have to come and tell us how faithfully and earnestly the Colonel has worked for the Buddhist movement. Our priests have power over the people in spiritual affairs, so you have to tell Colonel Olcott to embrace every opportunity for making friends with our priests.” In another letter the writer thus describes the character of his people: “They are liberal and generous, they usually display their joy in outbursts of enthusiasm, devotion, energy, and generosity to the fullest extent, especially when it is a question of the interests of their country or their religion. On the other hand, they are suspicious and wary about strangers.”
Their invitation having been accepted, the local Arakanese editors prepared the way with fervent articles in their English and vernacular journals after this fashion: “He is well worth hearing, and has all the ancient lore of the Buddhist religion at his fingers’ ends . . . All the Poongyees (Buddhist monks) and chief priests of the town and district ought to do all they can to welcome and assist this great European High Priest of Buddhism. . . . In fact the Colonel knows more than the Brahmin High Priests about the Laws and Institutes of Manu, and all ancient Scriptures and religions of Hindustan and Burma”—which, if
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not at all true, is at least enthusiastic enough in all conscience, and carefully hides the “wary and suspicious” side of the national character! No fair-minded man could blame them for this precautionary mental attitude, since there having been no precedent to be guided by, it was but natural that they should wait for me to show them my character before taking me in their embrace.
Reaching Adyar on 1st October, I hurried through a mass of official work that lay on my desk. Among the interesting letters that awaited me was one from a learned practical psychologist in the West Indies, telling me of some researches he had been making into the spiritual life-history of a certain German mystic, about a certain book of his upon the trail of which my friend had come, and the fact that just at the moment when his effort at concentration was exhausting the last of his nervous forces, a certain messenger-elemental of the class that is used by the Adepts as messengers showed himself and said that he “had been sent by—to tell him to communicate with Olcott, as he had a part in these investigations”. My friend then made two attempts to reach me on the astral plane and succeeded in seeing me, but I was so absorbed in some pressing work that he could not get me to listen to him. He ought not to have felt surprised at that, for his experiment was made at an hour which was 10.30 p.m. to him, but to me was in the morning, after the day’s office work had begun. This difference in latitude ought to be, but usually is not, kept in mind
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by friends who wish to consult me on the super-physical plane. Yet, on the other hand, I often receive letters from acquaintances, and even non-members of the Society, giving me grateful thanks for benefits, physical or moral, received at our meetings in the watches of the night, when we are freed temporarily from the prison-house of the flesh. Among these have been a number of cases where, the correspondents say, they have been cured by me of their diseases, which, when we met in the body during my recent tour, I absolutely refused to deal with, in obedience to the injunction laid upon me by my Guru. This is interesting, as showing that what may be forbidden on the physical plane may be permissible on the astral.
On 13th October I sailed for Calcutta in the “Goorkha,” and reached there on the 16th, finding at the house of my old friend Dr. Salzer the cordial welcome which he gives habitually to his guests. The opportunity of being in Calcutta was taken to visit the museum with Dharmapala, and examine the ancient stone figures which show how intimate was once the connection between Buddhism and Hinduism. Among them is one of the eight-armed goddess Durga, in her aspect of Ashta-bhuji, and in her usual attitude of a Dea Victrix, but, carved in the royal tiara which she wears, and on the keystone of the arched frame around the statue, is the image of the Buddha, seated for meditation. Among others similarly carved, some in the collection in the Calcutta museum, some in the Brahmanical caves of Ellora, are representations of
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Indra and his spouse, Indrani. These were important discoveries, as proving the once intimate association of the sister religions of Brahmanism and Buddhism, and I am much obliged to Dharmapala for calling my attention to them.
On 17th October he and I left for Darjeeling for a meeting between the Ambassador of the Dalai Lama of Lhasa and myself, which had been arranged. Reaching there on the following day, I was received as a guest by my friend Babu Chhatra Dhar Ghose. I found at his own cottage, hard at work with a learned Tibetan lama, Babu Sarat Chandra Das, C.I.E., the intrepid and successful Indian traveller to Lhasa and Tashi Lhunpo, the seats of the Dalai and Tashi Lamas respectively. He gave us some of the Tibetan buttered tea, of which we have all read so much. Its taste was more that of weak beef-tea or bouillon than of any infusion of leaves of the tea plant that I ever drank.
The next morning we had a glorious view of the sky-piercing summit of Kinchinganga, that giant peak whose altitude is almost twice that of Mont Blanc. The morning was passed by us with Sarat Babu, whose conversation about his Tibetan experiences was most interesting and instructive. At 4 p.m. the audience with the Ambassador came off, Sarat Babu and his old colleague and travelling companion Lama Ugyen Gyatso kindly serving as interpreters. His Excellency was a handsome young man, of the distinct Mongolian ethnic type, with fair complexion, a gentle expression of face, small well-shaped hands, and a
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bearing of the personal dignity which usually marks aristocratic birth. On his head he wore a silk-covered turban with a foundation of some stiff material; it was shaped like a truncated cone, the base upward, the narrower end fitting close to his intellectual head; a bunch of silken strands hung from it, like a thick tassel, down his neck. The white crêpe under-coat which he wore showed like a collar at his throat and had very long pendent sleeves; over it was a rather close-fitting surcoat of heavy black brocaded silk, also with long sleeves. In his left ear only he wore a pendent jewel of jade and gold, some 6 inches in length; there was none in the other ear. His small feet were shod in Chinese satin shoes with thick felt soles. His bearing was dignified, his motions graceful, his voice refined. He comes naturally by his beauty and intelligence, as his grandfather was the Regent of Tibet at the time of the visit of Fathers Huc and Gabet, the missionary priests of the congregation of St. Lazarus, in the year 1845. In his book,1 Abbé Huc thus records his impressions of the statesman: “The Regent was a man about 50; his large, open countenance, the whiteness of which was remarkable, had a majestic, truly royal expression; and his black eyes, shaded by very long eyelashes, were full of gentleness and intelligence. He was dressed in a yellow robe, lined with marten fur; a diamond earring was suspended to his left ear; and his long hair, black as ebony, was gathered
1Recollections of a Journey through Tartary, Thibet, and China, by M. Huc; trans., New York, 1852.
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at the top of his head by three little gold combs. His large red cap, encircled with pearls, and surmounted by a red coral ball, lay on a green cushion by his side.”
His treatment of the missionaries during their stay of a month and a half at Lhasa was most friendly and honorable, and when they were expelled from Tibet through the intrigues of the Chinese ambassador, they parted with mutual regret. It is my opinion that his grandson, my acquaintance of Darjeeling, was a person of like character. With that instinctive regard for age which is characteristic of the Oriental peoples, he saluted me most respectfully, gave me a seat of honor, and expressed his pleasure in meeting one who had done so much for Buddhism. His reception of Dharmapala was equally friendly.
In the course of our long talk of nearly four hours, he asked me many questions about the state of our religion outside Tibet and China, and how the teachings of the Buddha were appreciated in the countries of the West. He assured me that if it should ever be my fortune to visit Lhasa I should receive an affectionate welcome; it was not within his power to arrange for such a journey, but he would report to his Government all that had been said, and it would give the Tibetans great pleasure. As an interlude, buttered tea was served to us. The plans and work of the Maha-Bodhi Society greatly interested him, and he congratulated Dharmapala on the usefulness of his labors; the Dalai Lama would be delighted to hear all he should tell him. Certain religious presents, sent through
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Dharmapala by the High Priest Sumangala and the Japanese priest-students then living in Ceylon, he thanked us for, and promised to send them on to Lhasa at once by special couriers along with his despatches. In return for something of a similar kind which I myself begged his acceptance of, he gave me a very fine gilt bronze statuette of a sitting Bodhisattva, made at Lhasa, and containing in its interior a folded strip of paper on which the Dalai Lama had himself written a mantram invoking the protection of the gods for the ambassador, from all evil influences, and stamped it with his own seal. This unique present is, of course, in the Adyar Library, together with his Excellency’s signed portrait. At the close of our interview he accompanied us to the garden gate, shook hands with us in Western fashion, and expressed his deep regret that my engagements elsewhere would prevent our meeting again.
Though so young a man in appearance, he was, I was told, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tibet, a cabinet office but recently created. His rank was that of “Kalon,” his name Sheda Pishi Pai. Among his numerous suite of intelligent-looking men was one to whom the ambassador introduced me, with the remark that he was a very learned Pandit well versed in Tibetan literature. When we saluted, he looked me square in the eyes with a look full of meaning, saying to me almost as plainly as if in words that he knew all about me and that we were old friends—on the other plane. I responded similarly, whereupon he stretched out his hand, took and pressed mine, and
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said in Tibetan—which the high-born Lama Ugyan Gyatso interpreted—that he was very sorry that we could not have had a long talk about religious matters. The next morning Dharmapala and I left Darjeeling.
We reached Calcutta on 21st October at noon, and devoted the afternoon to a further study of the Indo-Buddhist statues in the Calcutta museum. The following day was spent at the rooms of the Asiatic Society, in consultation with Pandit Haraprasad Sastri about details of Buddhist history, and the next with another learned Brahmin Pandit, Hari Mohan Vidyabhûshan, on the same subject.
There was at Calcutta, at the time spoken of, a growing feeling of hostility among the Bengal Hindus against Buddhism, which had been stirred up by the activity of the Maha-Bodhi Society, and which, in the best interests of religion, it was prudent not to allow to spread; so I had been invited to give a public lecture in the Town Hall, in the hope that a kindlier spirit might be aroused. It came off on the evening of 24th October in presence of a monster audience, which included most of the better educated and influential men of Bengal. The chair was taken by Babu Norendranath Sen, F.T.S., Editor of the Indian Mirror, the leading Indian daily newspaper, President of our Bengal T. S. from the date of its formation, and one of the oldest and staunchest Indian friends of H. P. B. and myself.
His introductory remarks about myself were most flattering, even running into exaggeration, but one might well forgive it all for the sake of what he said
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about the love-bond between the Indians and myself; and to me, that thought always sets my heart to beating. Alluding to my offer to retire from office and give way to a younger man, and to my having withdrawn my resignation at the entreaty of friends, the chairman said: “His retirement would not only have been a heavy blow to the Society, but also a serious loss to all India, for whatever of religious or spiritual progress . . . this country had made in recent years was mainly, if not solely, due to Colonel Olcott’s untiring efforts. He had been for the last twelve years the standard-bearer of light and life for the Hindus.” Now we Western people, with our cool blood, are not great admirers of Oriental superlatives, and even after ten years our Bengali brother’s sentences glow like red-hot iron; but many years of residence in this part of the world have taught me to find the sincerity which is often hidden under compliments that would make Europeans and Americans stare. The precious fact to me is that the Orientals love me and I love them, and would not now live elsewhere than in India for any consideration. In reading the chairman’s compliments, it must be remembered that Mrs. Besant’s first visit to India was made in the winter of 1893-4, and that during the previous fourteen years I had been the busiest of the Society’s lecturers in this country. Norendra Babu’s panegyric, therefore, quite antedated the present state of things, when that dearest of women and friends is being held closest of us all to the Indian heart.
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A very striking fact in connection with Mrs. Besant is that she has completely removed the uneasy feeling which had previously prevailed that H. P. B. and I were hoping to convert the Hindus to Buddhism, and that the Society was more Buddhistic than eclectic. By her splendid presentation of Indian philosophy, and her undisguised personal preference for it as a religious system, she has made the most orthodox followers of Brahmanism friendly to us, and won the practical support of many of the most important Indian princes for her Central Hindu College. If H. P. B. can still overlook the field of our activities, she must surely be astounded at what she can see going on at Benares. Thus “in a mysterious way” move the Great Ones “their wonders to perform”.
The title of the lecture under notice was “The Kinship between Hinduism and Buddhism,” and the testimony of history was invoked to prove the assertion. It was shown that for fifteen centuries the two religions had prospered side by side in sisterly good-feeling, and that the Buddha himself and his great follower the Emperor Dharmasoka had enjoined upon the professors of Ârya Dharma—miscalled Buddhism—to show equal respect to the Brahmins and to Buddhist monks. If Buddhism had practically disappeared from Hindustan, save and except in the parts bordering on Arakan, it was due to the cruel iconoclasm of victorious Muslim invaders, and to no other cause. The history of the holiest of Buddhist shrines, Buddha Gaya, was sketched, and the fact noted that for six hundred years, viz.,
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from the thirteenth century to the nineteenth, it had been left to crumble unwatched and uncared for; to fall into ruin in the wild jungle which had grown on and about the holy spot where fifty generations of worshippers had recited their five precepts, and for whom Buddha Gaya had been the objective point of pilgrimages from all countries of the Buddhistic world. Thanks to the pious liberality of the late King Mindoon Min of Burmah, and to the co-operation of the Government of Bengal, the temple grounds had been excavated, and the ruined shrines and ambulatories exhumed from under thirty feet of dust, which had buried them out of sight of man. Pilgrimages had then been resumed, and the possessor of the fief, a Saivite Mahant, seeing pecuniary profit derivable from their offerings, had vigorously asserted his proprietary rights, and more or less desecrated the images and buildings. The chief object in the formation of the Maha-Bodhi Society was explained to be “primarily to recover possession for the Buddhists of the most sacred of their shrines . . . where the Lord Gautama Buddha acquired Sambodhi, or the divine knowledge . . . In addition to this, it is contemplated to recover possession of other Buddhist shrines, to erect or purchase a Dharmasala or pilgrims’ rest-house in Calcutta, and building for a Normal College, at which Buddhist students from Japan, China, Tibet, and other Buddhist countries may be taught Sanskrit and Pali. This, together with an organised propaganda of Buddhist literature and ideas largely in Western countries, and
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the unification of the various schools of Buddhism in Buddhist nations, is the scheme of the Society in full, and without reservation”.1
One by one, the malicious misrepresentations of Buddha’s teaching and of the spirit of his followers and the falsehoods about the Ârya Dharma having been driven out of India by Srî Sankarâchârya, were exposed and confuted; the parity of the philosophies of the Vedânta and of the Buddha in certain important details was shown; the significance of the blending of the symbols of the two religions, as seen in the sculptured images above referred to, was pointed out; the distinction between the Digambaras and the Bauddhas, and the fact that all the venom of the orthodox Hindu Pandits was aimed at the former and not at all against the latter, was demonstrated by various quotations from orthodox Hindu books: in short, it was very clearly shown that the prevalent hatred of Buddhism and Buddhists was a silly mistake, unwarranted by the facts of history and revolting to common sense. I notice one paragraph in the printed report of the lecture which I am tempted to cite, because the necessity for the reaffirmation of the Society’s eclectic policy recurs from time to time. In fact, I have just received from America a vigorous protest against the latest
1 [It is perhaps worthy of note that as this volume is being made up for the press the present occupant of the presidential office, Mrs. Besant, writes in the Theosophist an account of her presence on the occasion of the handing over to the representatives of the Buddhists of Burma the recently recovered relics of the Buddha by the Viceroy of India in Calcutta. See Theosophist, April, 1910.—ED.]
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attempt to set up a dogmatic theocracy in our ranks. I might not have given the Calcutta lecture at all if some of my Hindu colleagues, and even non-members, had not tried to frighten me off from the public defence of Buddhism. In the course of the lecture I said: “That was quite enough to determine me to speak and to tell the whole truth. I have not a single drop of slave blood in my veins, and I abhor the attempt to curtail a freeman’s right to freethinking. I ask no Hindu to give up his religion, nay, I believe that religion to be so noble in its concepts and so elevating in its moral influence that I say that he who is carried away by the petty spite of sectarian bigotry into trying to make it intolerant is a false Hindu, a traitor to its indwelling spirit. The Theosophical Society has tolerance and brotherhood for its corner-stone: it is an angel of peace and good-will among men; it offers a free platform for the study and elucidation of all religions; itself as a body preserving a strict neutrality and professing no sectarian dogma. As its President, I have helped the Hindus, the Parsis, and the Muhammadans of India and the Buddhists of other countries to understand their respective creeds, and so long as I am compelled to retain office shall that impartiality be strictly preserved. The Hindu members of the Society who have wished me to abstain from discussing Buddhism in India have virtually wished me to act in a spirit of cowardly selfishness, and to dishonor my official pledge.”
During my recent tour (1901) around the world, I have everywhere battled for the same principle, and
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more than once have said that when the majority of my colleagues wish to turn the Society into a sect of hero-worshippers, to abridge personal liberty of thought and speech, and to give to some book written by somebody the character of an inspiration, they will have to find another President. The more widely known these views can be made, the better it will be for the Society, and the more stable will its foundation become. What right have we, poor pigmies, to dictate what our neighbor shall or shall not believe, or to try to make his retention of membership among us depend upon his accepting the teachings of a book or a book-writer?
Upon a paragraph in the Srimat Bhagavat, in which is embodied a prophecy, the bitterest opponents of Buddhism in India pretend to find warrant for their ill-feeling. In the course of my lecture I cited this passage (1st Skandha, Adhyâya 3), which reads as follows: “At the beginning of Kali Yuga, to throw a Moha (illusion) upon the enemies (Aúuras) of the Úuras (gods), Buddha son of Anjana will take birth at Gayâ.” Of course it will be seen that this has no reference whatever to Gautama Buddha, who was not born at the beginning, but in the 2478th year of Kali Yuga; was not the son of Anjana, but of King Suddhodana; was not born at Gayâ, but at Kapilavastu and was not named Buddha, but Siddhartha! “Remembering,” as I say in my lecture, “that the term Buddha, and the sectarian designation Bauddha existed in India long before the advent of the historical Gautama Buddha, you will observe that if there was
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any ancient prophecy such as the above, it may have referred to some other personage who may have appeared about the beginning of the present Kali Yuga.”
Happily for the information of scholars, the Vishnu Purana (book iii, 18) contains a description of the mâyâ moha or deceptive appearance assumed by Vishnu when he appeared as Buddha, and in which he is described as a naked mendicant, digambara, with his head shaven, and carrying a brush of peacock feathers. Did anyone ever see any Buddhist sculptured image which represented the Lord Buddha as either naked or carrying a bunch of peacock feathers, or can such a description be found in any Buddhist book? Certainly not: the Teacher is always represented as clothed in the ample robes of a Bhikshu, and carrying nothing in his hand save his begging bowl: why, in the Mahâvagga of the Vinâya Pitaka, he forbids his Bhikshus to even speak to a naked ascetic. A very elementary acquaintance with Indian religious history teaches us that the reference is to a Jain ascetic, who also went by the name of a Buddha, and it was between this class and the orthodox Hindus that were carried on bitter quarrels and cruel reprisals. On the wall of the sacred tank in the temple at Madura, in a series of painted panels, are depicted the contests ordered by a certain Rajâh between the Jaina priests and a Saivite sanyâsi, to test the divinity of their respective books, by the ordeals of faith-healing, of fire, and of water. The result was the overthrow and discomfiture of the unfortunate “Bauddhas,” and the painter has
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shown us what brutal punishments were visited upon them. Some were impaled and left for birds of prey to pick out their eyes; the decapitated heads of others were ground into mince-meat in huge oil-mills; many others were put to the sword. These defeated Bauddhas correspond in appearance with the descriptions of the Bauddhas given in the denunciatory passages of the Srimat Bhagavat and the Vishnu Purana, in being half-naked and carrying peacock plumes in their hands. But I need not pursue quotations from the lecture in question, which can be read by such as still entertain for the Buddhists those feelings of hatred which are due solely to ignorance; it was necessary to give as much as I have to show what remedy was needed for the state of things which existed in Bengal at the time of which we are writing, viz., ten years ago. It would be a misfortune for India if the present gratifying revival of Hinduism under the auspices of leading members of our Society should be weakened by a stirring of the old embers of hatred towards the Buddhists.
On the day after the lecture I made calls upon some of my friends, and Dharmapala and I dined at the house of a well-known and pious Burmese lady, Mrs. Oung, where we met Dr. Waddell, the author of that celebrated book on Northern Buddhism, The Buddhism of Tibet.
My rooms were thronged with visitors on the next day, and on the next, 27th October, we sailed for Chittagong in the S.S. “Kola”. The number of our saloon passengers was seven.