OLD DIARY LEAVES, Sixth Series (1896-98)
by Henry Steel Olcott
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THE King of Siam sailed away in his Royal yacht on the 22nd April, as above noted; but my connection with royalties was not yet ended: though His Majesty of Siam had gone I was now brought into close relations with an important representative of a far more powerful sovereign, the Czar of Russia.
When the Czarewitch made the tour of the world in the year 1891 he was accompanied by Prince Hespere Oukhtomsky, Gentleman of the Chamber of His Majesty the Emperor (Czar), who acted in the capacity of his Private Secretary. The Prince is one of the most highly educated men of Russia and a paramount authority on the subject of Lamaic philosophy. His family is one of the oldest and traces itself back to the time when it ruled over the whole Empire. His collection of books, images, pictures and the apparatus of religious worship
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of the Northern Buddhists enjoys the reputation of being one of the richest and finest in the world. His studies, pursued for many years, have created in him a deep interest in the subject of Buddhism, and this community of taste drew us together in correspondence. His museum has since been acquired by the Russian Government, and later, in the year 1900, Brockhaus, of Leipzig, published a descriptive catalogue, which I mention because of an Introduction by Prince Oukhtomsky, himself, in which he speaks hopefully of the prospects of a friendly mutual understanding being created between the representatives of Northern and Southern Buddhism, as an outcome of my successful attempt to get them to unite in accepting the Fourteen Fundamental Propositions common to both divisions of the Buddhistic cult. The author of this learned monograph is Herr Alfred Grunwedel, Dr. Phil., and it is entitled: Mythologie des Buddhismus in Tibet un der Mongolei.
Although it is out of the strict chronological sequence, I might as well quote a few sentences from the translation of the Introduction, kindly made for me by my friend Herr J. Van Manen, F. T. S., of Amsterdam, to show the kindly feeling of the Prince for myself. He says: “The illustrious [sic] American, Colonel Olcott, as President of the Theosophical Society, has for years energetically followed
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the plan of finding the links of the spiritual chain which binds together the countries in which Buddha is honoured as a God [sic]. He travelled over Asia, made himself acquainted with the leading native Priests, and then composed a kind of creed for the Buddhists of the whole world. All things unessential and conventional, all things narrowly national and purely casual therein, were put aside. . . . In Japan, Burma, Chittagong and Ceylon, Colonel Olcott’s platform of the Fourteen Fundamental Propositions has already been accepted. It remains to be seen how far Colonel Olcott’s efforts in connection with the solidification of the spiritual ties between the Buddhist peoples in Indo-China, in Central China, in Korea, and in Tibet will work. As far as I could find out in conversation with the Indo-Chinese Laos they are Buddhists, but probably stand nearer to Lamaism than to the Sinhalese or Siamese-Burmese form.” The Prince goes on to say: “The connection of the followers of Sakyamuni in Ceylon with their fellow-religionists in the Far East has been existing since the most ancient times. The relation existed not only by sea but also by land. Many Sinhalese went on pilgrimage across the Himalayas to China. . . The middle-ages strengthened this consciousness of the inner oneness between the countries, politically strange to each other, in which the worship of Buddha flourished. What holds good for
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Tibet also holds good for Mongolia, for our Buriats and Kalmuks; the ideas of the convinced co-workers of the deceased Madame Blavatsky find sympathy and attention also there. The moment is now not distant when the Buddhist world in its manifold subdivisions will wake from its dream and link itself together as one organic whole.”
Undoubtedly there was intercourse between the Indian Buddhists and the people of different countries; in fact, we know that the missionary parties sent out by the Emperor Asoka went to fourteen Indian nations outside the boundaries of India and to five Greek kings; it also appears from Sinhalese records that five of Asoka’s monks carried the religion to the five divisions of China. But I need not dwell upon these details as all the facts are given in the latest (40th) edition of the Buddhist Catechism. The international relations between Northern and Southern Buddhists have not been kept up and for this very reason the Buddhists of Japan sent their now historical committee to invite me to come to that country and explain the foundations of the religion; moreover, the High Priest Sumangala, in the Samskrit letter of credence which he sent by me to the Japanese High Priests, specially mentions the fact of the non-intercourse between the North and the South and the great necessity for its establishment. I cannot leave the subject without entering
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my protest against the Prince’s statement that the Buddha is “honoured as a God”, for he is not by those who know the bases of their religion.
The foregoing is but preliminary to the meeting between the Prince and myself, at Colombo, on the 23rd April, 1897, and will show the absolutely non-political character of our mutual relations. He was almost as deeply interested in the study of Buddhism as I, myself, and our meeting at Colombo on this occasion was the result of a request of his to that effect in a letter received by me from him some weeks before. As fortune would have it, my presence at Colombo in connection with the visit of His Majesty, the King of Siam, made it very easy for me to comply with his request. He arrived on a German mail steamer, in company with Prince Wolkonsky and two other gentlemen of his suite. As no hour was fixed for the arrival of the steamer, there was, naturally, no exact appointment for our meeting, so I just sent a note by the pilot-boat asking him to be pleased to wait on board until I should arrive; this he did, but his associates went ashore with the Russian Consul. His greeting to me was most cordial and at once prepossessed me in his favor. He had all that high-bred courtesy, ease of manner, and social polish which is so marked among the Russian nobility. He told me that he was on his way to China as a special
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ambassador to the Emperor, with an autograph letter from his master and numberless cases of costly presents down in the steamer’s hold. It being none of my business, of course, I asked him no further questions as to the object of his mission, but proceeded to arrange for our getting ashore.
Among the boats that encircled the ship were those curious dug-out canoes with outriggers, that are peculiar to Ceylon. I pointed to one and asked him if he had ever had the experience of riding in such a craft, and whether he would like, for the joke of it, to discard my boat and take one of these to the jetty. He said he should be delighted with the novelty of the-experience, one that would never have fallen in his way but for my happy suggestion. So we called the canoe, got in, and with great precautions adjusted the disposition of our feet to suit the exigencies of the small space left for that purpose in the hollowing out of the log. There being no keel nor centreboard, the outrigger is indispensable to prevent the upsetting of the craft. When the small sail is full, one of the crew has to sit out on the outrigger to counterbalance its pull; in a strong breeze two men are needed, and that is what is called a “two-man breeze”. As neither of us had sailed in such a contrivance before, we were equally delighted with the experience, and laughed like boys all the way to the jetty. As the steamer
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was only to remain at Colombo until the next morning there was no time to waste; so I spent the whole day with the Prince, taking him to the Kotahena Temple, to see Prince Jinawarawansa, to Mrs. Higgins’ Musæus, and the Sanghamitta Girls’ schools, and to call on the High Priest, Sumangala, with whom the Prince had a most interesting conference, through a Sinhalese interpreter. In the middle of the day we took train to Mount Lavinia where we had one of those delicious fish dinners for which the local hotel is so famous. Towards evening I accompanied him to the ship and was introduced to his travelling companions. The meeting with Prince Wolkonsky was particularly gratifying to me because H. P. B. and I, in 1884, at Lady Caithness’ palace at Nice, got intimately acquainted with his aunt, a most charming lady, who was one of the distinguished party who joined our Society during our stay there and who were deeply interested in Theosophy. She was one of the three ladies mentioned in OLD DIARY LEAVES, Volume III, p. 85, whom at H. P. B.’s request I psychopathically cured of serious diseases: one having the stubborn remnant of a stroke of hemiplegia of twelve years standing, which impeded the free use of her left hand and left foot: within a half-hour I freed both limbs from their bonds. The second, a Countess and a cousin of
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H. P. B.’s, whom she had not met from childhood, was extremely deaf but within fifteen minutes I made her able to hear ordinary conversation, and she came back from a concert later in the evening enchanted beyond measure with her restored sense of hearing. The third lady I relieved from some minor spinal trouble.
At parting, Prince Oukhtomsky expressed to me his great delight with all that he had heard and seen during the day, and carried away with him several unique images and other Buddhistic curios, given him by Sumangala and by the Prince-priest, Jinawarawansa. He was so pleased with the Musæus and Sanghamitta Girls’ Schools that he made them generous donations, while to me he gave his photograph and, the most valuable thing he had to offer, his friendship.
If I am not mistaken, it was his intention to revisit the Buddhist Lamaseries of Mongolia before returning home from his Chinese mission; at any rate, he gave me a cordial invitation to make the grand tour with him and personally discuss with the chief priests, the resemblances and differences between Northern and Southern Buddhism. He has translated into the Russian language my Fourteen Fundamental Propositions, and assures me that they have all been approved by the Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhist scholars; their only objection
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having been to Proposition IV which says: “The fourth Teacher in the present, Kalpa was Sakya Muni or Gautama Buddha, who was born in a royal family in India about 2,500 years ago. He is an historical personage and his name was Siddartha Gautama.”
They have an idea that Sakya Muni figured on earth many thousand years before the sixth century B. C.: a belief that I cannot understand, since all the Buddhist scriptures about which I know anything agree as to the correct date. In mentioning this discrepancy elsewhere, I have tentatively offered the suggestion that they may possibly have confused the date of Buddha Gautama with that of his next immediate predecessor in the Buddhist tradition.
If he was pleased with our day’s outing, I am sure that I was, for the making of so distinguished an acquaintance was one of the greatest intellectual treats that I have enjoyed.
While I was at Colombo the Spiritualist author and lecturer, Dr. Peebles, arrived there on one of his round-the-world tours, and as we were old acquaintances, I put him in the way of seeing some things which would not normally come under the notice of globe-trotters. Among other incidents was a visit to an interior village, named Walpolla, in the jungle back of the village of Rambakkana, where it had been arranged that I
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should lecture to delegates from several villages of very low caste people, something like the Indian Pariahs. Although there is no caste in Buddhism, yet, all the same, the Indian dynasties who have ruled Ceylon have left behind them marked social distinctions, and in the hill country the Kandyan aristocracy have treated the laboring classes with as much harshness and injustice as though they had been their slaves. The people in the district to which I was going had been taught next to nothing about Buddhism, and since they were made by the aristocrats to feel themselves the vilest of the vile, they fell a natural prey to proselyting agents of the Salvation Army, who told them that if they would drop this accursed Buddhism and come into Christianity, they would be free men and could look anybody in the face. It was to open their eyes to the truth that I was asked to go to this obscure hamlet in the heart of the forest.
Accordingly I left Colombo on the sixteenth of April, in the early morning, with my old colleague and friend, C. P. Goonewardene, as interpreter, a Buddhist priest to hold the service, and the indefatigable Bob Appu, my old servant, for Rakwana: Dr. Peebles, coming from Kandy, met us there and went on with us. The poor people had sent as transport one big elephant, one half-grown one, and an ox-cart, without springs and apparently
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constructed with a view to pulverizing the bones of unfortunate travellers. As Dr. Peebles had never had an elephant ride except as a boy at the circus, he gleefully accepted my benevolent offer to let him ride the big beast; without howdah or pad, be it said. Although experience had prepared me for the terrors of the ox-cart, I preferred to face them rather than the risk of being swept off the big elephant’s back by a bough of some one of the many trees of the forest that we would have to pass under. This, however, I did not mention to Dr. Peebles, for I thought that it might do him good if his pride should have a fall. He having mounted by a short ladder to the back of the kneeling elephant, and been nearly flung off when the beast rose to its feet, we entered the forest. Dr. Peebles had on, I remember, white trousers, and although his legs were long they were not long enough to bestraddle the elephant’s broad back; so, perforce, they stuck out straight athwartship, and I was nearly convulsed with laughter to see him clutching at the back of the guide who sat in front of him, and trying to balance himself so as to adjust himself to the elephant’s stride. As to myself, there was not a bone in my body that did not feel as if it had been passed through a threshing-machine. When we reached our destination it was as much as Dr. Peebles could do to get down to terra firma,
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and then his white “continuations”, after serving as a clean towel to wipe the elephant’s dusty back, were more like a crash roller that has hung all day in a machine-shop for the use of the men, than anything else that I can recall. As for his body he said that he felt as if “there would have been two of him if we had gone much farther!” A large audience had assembled to hear my lecture, which I gave after the Buddhist priest with us had given the Pancha Sila (the Five precepts). It was a beautiful landscape that spread out before us, one of broad stretches of emerald green fields, majestic forests, and encircling hills. I placed my back towards the wall of the monastic building that stood there and the people sat cross-legged on the ground in many hundreds. Of course the theme of my discourse was an indignant protest against the treatment which these hard-working peasants have received from the Kandyan higher classes on account of caste. I gave them to understand as distinctly as possible that, not only was Buddhism free of caste distinctions but that the Lord Buddha, himself, had denounced it as an unnatural and unwarrantable social injustice. I quoted to them things that he had said in various sermons, or sutras, among others, those known as the Vâsala and Brahmajála, wherein he says that it is not birth that makes a man a Brahman or a Pariah, but the
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actions of the person. “By deeds,” says he in the Vâsala Sutra, “one becomes an outcaste, by deeds one becomes a Brahman.” I illustrated the principle also by telling them the story of Prakriti, a girl of the Matanja, or Pariah, or Chandala caste, from whom Ananda, the great disciple of the Buddha, took water at a roadside well. Passing along in the heat of the day and feeling thirsty, he asked the girl to give him water to drink. She said that she dare not do it because she was of such a low caste that he, a high-caste man, would become contaminated by taking water from her hands. But Ananda replied: “I asked not for caste but for water, my sister”; and the Matanja girl’s heart was glad and she gave him to drink. The Buddha blest her for it. I told them, moreover, that in that very sermon, the Vâsala Sutra, the Buddha told the Brahmana Aggikabharadvája, who had sought to insult him by calling him an outcaste, that a certain chandala of the Sopaka caste, had become a Buddhist monk and attained to such a glorious renown “as was very difficult to obtain”, and many Kshattriyas and Brahmanas had rendered their personal services to him; whereas there were many Brahmanas born in the highest families who “are continually caught in sinful deeds and are to be blamed in this world, while in the coming (world) hell (awaits them); birth
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does not save them from hell nor from blame.” I then called up the acknowledged headman of the outcastes and, through the interpreter, asked him to bring me a drink of water. I took it, held it up before the people, and said: “I drink this water as a Buddhist who protests against the falsehoods that have been spread among you about our religion. ”
There were no more conversions made by the Salvation Army in that village, and I never saw an audience in Ceylon hang more attentively upon the lips of a public speaker than they did upon those of the Buddhist priest who had come with me and who preached to them after I had done. At their request he stopped with them some days and held religious services day and night.
It goes without saying that the carrying on of a great educational movement like ours in Ceylon and the supervision and management of some three hundred schools and three colleges involves no end of labor and large pecuniary expenses. The Sinhalese, as I have explained before, are poor and might well be excused for not denying themselves, as they have been doing since the movement began in 1880; yet they have gone on making constant sacrifices of luxuries, and sometimes even of comforts, to contribute towards the maintenance of the movement, while without pay or hope of any
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material benefit whatever, they have given ungrudgingly their best services in time and labor. The costs of the movement have been met in different ways; largely by the profits earned by our successful Sinhalese semi-weekly journal, the Sandaresa; some money has come from proceeds of annual fancy fairs; much from Government Grant-in-aid; the rest by individual subscriptions. During this visit of 1897 it occurred to me that a more than ample revenue could be derived by the voluntary imposition upon themselves of a monthly tax of one cent (one hundredth of a rupee, or one-sixth of a penny, or one-twelfth of an American cent) per capita for each man, woman and child of the Sinhalese Buddhist population. With the Sandaresa circulating throughout the whole Island and the petty postal employees and villagers all friendly, it seemed to me possible to organize an agency system for the collection and forwarding to the Central Committee at Colombo of this tax, so as to have a stream of money constantly coming in; much more than would be required to put a Buddhist school in every Ceylon village. The plan commended itself to my principal colleagues, and some small show of a beginning was made; but the novelty of the scheme rather dampened popular enthusiasm, and it soon became self-evident that it could never succeed
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unless I, myself, or some one equally in their confidence, should remain in the Island and organize the movement. This I had to refuse, as I had already refused the similar request of the Japanese in 1889, that I should take up residence in their country and develop a great Buddhist movement under the auspices of our Society. Well, at any rate, I have thrown out the suggestion and perhaps it may be taken up by my successor.