Gratitudinal Windows of 2016, II: Encountering Col. Olcott in New Jersey, USA
Posted on February 21st, 2017

by Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri, writing from Canada

February 18, 2017, 5:48 pm(This article is partly in commemoration of the death of Col. Henry Steele Olcott, in Adyar, Chennai, India, on Feb. 17, 1907, born August 2, 1832.)

If my first gratitudinal window related to the personal realm, but ended up social, the second relates exclusively to the social. Preparing for my visit to the Philadelphia, and the Washington DC area, I had gone online. And what a pleasant surprise it was to come across the following article: “The Man from New Jersey” by Stefany Anne Golberg <>. She writes, “Buddhism was waning in British Sri Lanka. Then Henry Steel Olcott came along…”. What intrigued me was when I read that a statue had been put up in his honour in the US – in New Jersey. But what was the connection to New Jersey, I wondered. I knew from my Fulbright days that NJ was not too far from Philadelphia. The photo accompanying the article had the Buddhist flag of the five-colours all around the statue. So I dearly wanted to see for myself, since I was going to be in the area. I had expected the statue to be in the public square, somewhere in Orange, Olcott’s hometown in New Jersey, as I was to find out. But guess what. I was to discover the statue to be in a Sri Lankan temple, appropriately in New Jersey.


It was at the end of the day when I got to the temple. The venerable monks had been attending a Katina ceremony at another temple. The resident monks of the New Jersey Buddhist Vihara < > were happy to meet me, and certainly happy to join me visiting the Olcott statue at the back of the temple. Standing life-size, the Colonel was in his full suit, gilded. So my mind ran to some of what I had read about him in Dr. Guruge’s book on Anagarika Dharmapala. Later, I was to come across online as well some material written by Olcott himself. Arriving in Ceylon in 1880 (Guruge, 365), the Colonel, along with Madame Blavatsky took their Buddhist vows, on May 25, 1880, under Ven.Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thero. While the first American to take the vows was Chas I. Strauss of New York, Olcott was the first to do so on Ceylonese soil. A Report of the Buddhist-Christian Panadura Debate of 1873, led by Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda on the Buddhist side, had been shown to Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky (685) by the American Dr . J M. Peebles who had happened to be in the island. It was the Report that had kindled the Colonel’s interest in Buddhism.

As I would read online, <>, Olcott was the oldest child of Emily and Presbyterian businessman Henry. In 1860, he married Mary Epplee Morgan, daughter of the rector of Trinity parish, New Rochelle, New York. They had four children, two of whom died in infancy. In the work world, he was a Military Officer, Journalist and Lawyer, who assisted in the investigation of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

But what made a name for himself in the public arena was his work as a journalist. Hearing about “the séances of the Eddy Brothers of Chittenden, Vermont”, he had made a visit to the Eddy Farms, where he would also meet Madame Blavatsky. His interest aroused, Olcott “wrote an article for the New York Sun, in which he investigated Eddy Farms. His article was popular enough that other papers, such as the New York Daily Graphic, republished it. His 1874 publication People from the Other World began with his early articles concerning the Spiritualist movement”.

What got his eyes to the East, however, was his interest in Theosophy, in the hopes of bringing together all of the worlds religions. Co-founding, along with Madame Blavatsky, the Theosophical Society in America, in 1875, and elected First President, the two of them were soon in India. The advent of the Theosophical party in Ceylon in May 1880 marked his first landing on Ceylonese soil. Interestingly, and ironically, he “delivered a series of addresses to the Sinhalese people upon the subject of their religion which profoundly moved their hearts” (365). As Goldberg was to write in her piece, “Buddhism was waning in British Sri Lanka” and so he would make representations to the British Home Office so the Buddhists could practice their religion in their country. In his pan-Buddhist thrust, he was to write a Buddhist Catechism, in consultation with Ven. Sri Sumangala, which he used in his travels to countries like Japan. While, standing in front of the Olcott statue at the Vihara, I saw no Buddhist flags, I was in for a big surprise. It was a statue of Anagarika Dharmapala, standing just beside the statue of the Colonel! I had never heard nor read about its presence there. But there he was, the Anagarika (born Sept 16, 1864; died April 29, 1933), also in a gilded vest. [Pix: Author between Olcott and Dharmapala].

We, of course, know Dharmapala as the one who helped revive Buddhism in the land of its birth, founding the Mahabodhi Society, and the Mahabodhi Journal, successfully recovering the places of pilgrimage into Buddhist hands. If he took issue with the British for colonizing his country, the Sinhala Buddhists, including the Sangha, didn’t escape his scathing attention either – for not doing enough for themselves to benefit from the Buddha’s Teachings. However, a soft side had he! Reminiscing about a “short sojourn in that Land of the Rising Sun”, meaning Japan, where he had gone in 1889 with Col. Olcott, Dharmapala says how “there exists [in the Japanese people] a conspiracy to be agreeable”! “I have experienced Japanese hospitality; and a more loveable, kind, refined, and gentle people there does not exist..” [636]

But there were other things I was to learn about the Anagarika, thank you Dr. Guruge. Did you know, e.g., that he founded the first weaving school for children (694), and that he “fasted once a month on Full Moon Day” (682)? Judging from Dharmapala’s writings, he was an erudite scholar of Pali, and the Tipitaka. And ironically, this from an expert on the Bible! As a boarding student in the Christian Boarding School at Kotte, he “had to recite prayers, learn the scripture texts..” for 2 ½ years (698-9). Rick Fields, in How the Swans Came to the Lake (p. 99) says that by the time Dharmapala met the Theosophists, “he knew Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Joshua, The Four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles by heart”. Indeed he was to deliver a lecture in London on Oct 3, 1927 on “An Appreciation of Christianity” (Guruge, 443-450).

Let’s listen to Dharmapala himself now. “From my childhood, I was inclined towards justice, ascetic life, and was on the lookout for news about Arahats and the science of Abhinna” (699) – clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy, etc. But if all this tells us of the religious persona, here is another surprise: “I still love Shelley”, showing his interest in literature, not to mention his interest in music. It was from him, in fact, that I first heard the term Sarabhanna – a way of Buddhist chanting. (See my forthcoming paper.) “At the Pettah Library .. I read everything – ethics, philosophy, psychology, art and especially biography and history” (686). If this speaks to his erudition and learnedness, he had a sharp eye, too. In a talk given in India on “the close kinship between Hinduism and Buddhism”, Olcott says that he found at the Calcutta Museum, “a number of statues of Hindu deities .. which have carved upon their foreheads, on their head dresses the conventional figure of the sitting Buddha”. And this was “brought to my notice only yesterday by Mr Dharmapala” (380). It was all this, then, in full oratorical skill, that must have kept the audience spellbound at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, USA, on Sept. 18, 1893. Topic? “The World’s debt to Buddha” (see Guruge, 3-23 for the full text). Sometime later, he was to visit the class of Prof. William James at Harvard University. Seeing him, the Professor walks up to him and says, “Take my Chair. You’re better equipped to teach Psychology than I”. After the class when Dharmapala outlines “the major Buddhist doctrines”, the Professor tells his class, “This is the psychology everybody will be studying twenty-five years from now” (Fields, 135). Well, I don’t know how far it has come true, but I do know that Mindfulness Meditation is now a ‘meme’ – something fashionable to do. Bhante Gunaratana who has written on it is a hit! So is Medical Doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn who is credited with initiating a 10-day retreat in medical and health settings, but now in many settings – Hospitals, Boardrooms, Government Departments, Educational and Police settings and so on.

But why, I still wondered, is Dharmapala standing beside Olcott in this far away land of the United States of America? For one thing, it was with Col. Olcott, and Madame Blavatsky, that Dharmapala went to India. Mention was made earlier that Olcott was to talk to the Sinhala people on their religion. But, of course, he needed a translator. Looking high and low, it was the young Dharmapala who ended up becoming not only his translator (703), but his protégé as well. Olcott must have been so impressed by him that, even though Dharmapala was underage (teenager), he was admitted to Theosophical society (701). Dharmapala has more to say of Madame Blavatsky. “Madame B one time told me that, since I was physically and mentally pure, I could come in contact with the Himalayan adepts. So in my nineteenth year, I had decided to spend a lifetime in the study of the occult science. Madame B opposed my plan. “It will be much wiser for you to dedicate your life to the service of humanity”, she said. “And, first of all, learn Pali, the sacred language of the Buddha.” (687). “Thanks to her advice, I spent my spare time in Colombo to the study of those beautiful old manuscripts..” (687). “I was drawn to Madame B intutionally, never expecting that four years later …[that she] would forcibly take me with her to Adyar [India]” against the protests of my father, grandfather, the High Priest Sumangala and Col. Olcott” (701). “That boy will die if you do not let him go. I will take him with me anyway” (687). “I owe everything to my parents, to the late Madame B and to the late Mrs. Foster of Honolulu” (768), who had supported Dharmapala financially in his public work. In gratitude, Dharmapala writes (The Buddhist, 1892), “Let the names of Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky be inscribed in the list of great missionaries who were sent out by the [President of the Third Buddhist Council], Arahanta Moggaliputtatissa” (648), who also, of course, sent Arahant Mahinda to Tambapanni, as Sri Lanka was then known.

Impressed as I was by being in the presence of two historical personae, the bigger surprise had come earlier. It was the 30 ft. sitting Buddha, all white, set against the greenery. I was now paying homage to the biggest sitting Buddha in North America. Myself introducing Wesak in Toronto in 1981, to be told that it was the first ever in North America, I confess to feeling a little nostalgic – being in the presence of another first! I was also happy to read that behind the Buddha figure project were Alumni of Ananda College, founded by Olcott with C. W. Leadbeater as its first Principal. My temple visit ended with a surprise meeting with a colleague from my Ananda College days. Of course, you would not be surprised that I took the opportunity to donate some of my books, which the Incumbent Chief Ven Bhante Hungampola Nayaka Thero was happy to receive, right in front of the Buddha [Picture here]. My musings are up and running again. I go to Philadelphia to visit the university and end up meeting Madame Blavatsky. Here I come to see Col. Olcott, but end up meeting the Anagarika. So, again, I ask, did I have anything to do with them in my past life? Am I answering a psychic call? Again, I can only ask! Hm!

[Founder, Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, and Pres., Buddhist Council of Canada, Sugunasiri is featured in Harding, Hori and Soucy (Ed.), 2010, Wild Geese: Buddhism in Canada, McGill-Queen’s University. He may be reached at]

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