Colonel Olcott Saves the East

Given the last 150 years or so of intermingling between “East” and “West,” can we even talk about the two categories as independent anymore? (Could we ever?) Surely the distinction still has its use – mistake Japanese and English much? – but on more and more levels I’m finding it problematic. My latest thoughts about it are less in the general “everything needs everything” vein (although there is a lot to be said for that!) and more historical.

Recently I read through Rick Fields’ 1981 book, How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. I’d read snippets before but confess the title has and does put me off – it rather reeks of founder-glorifying hagiography. Swans? Really? (As a friend memorably quipped about Crooked Cucumber, “It’s completely balanced – it shows not only Suzuki Roshi’s limitless wisdom but also his unsurpassed compassion.”) Swans is, as I’d suspected, delightfully and uncomplicatedly inspiring, uplifting, and informative, lacking the profound cynicism without which it seems a scholar’s work can’t really be trusted.

Of all the fascinating history that Fields pulled up about the layers of “Buddhism in America,” I was most amazed by his chapter on the nineteenth century Theosophists. I’d known something about the Theosophists contribution to Buddhism in the West, but Fields discusses their significant impact on Buddhism in the East. I can’t do the squiggles of history justice here, but the take-home point for me was that, at least in Fields’ account, the Theosophy co-founder Colonel Olcott essentially revived Buddhism in Sri Lanka (Ceylon). The Colonel then went on to travel Asia, preaching the Dharma to large audiences, many of whom saw in Buddhism a national identity that promised to be older and truer than the colonial identities that were rapidly losing viability.

Why (not to mention if, or, to what extent) it took a white American to kindle anti-colonial religious sentiments is a question I can’t really fathom, but it does point to the complexity of colonialism and culture, and to the question of what is “truly” East and what is truly “West.” Donald Lopez, in his introduction to Curators of the Buddha: the study of Buddhism under colonialism, points to the importance of seeing the history of Buddhist Studies (and Buddhist practice, I would add) in the West “under the larger categories of colonial and postcolonial cultural studies, to see the emergence of academic studies of Buddhism in America and Europe within the context of the ideologies of empire.” Buddhism needed to be re-presented, or even re-invented, in countries trying to reestablish their identities in the wake of colonialism. That re-invention took place, though, in cultures that had been thoroughly colonized, that were already beyond being “purely” East or West.

The same set of issues are involved in Robert Sharf’s discussion, which I refer to in the Two Shores introduction, of the German-American theologian Paul Carus’ influence on D.T. Suzuki and ultimately Japanese Zen.  Sharf also weighs in on Olcott and the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, writing in “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience“:

The Sri Lankan and Burmese elites responded to their colonial situation in much the same way, reasserting their traditional culture and spiritual heritage under the banner of Theravada Buddhism. Buddhism thus became the vehicle through which they affirmed their national identities, their cultural values, and their self-esteem. But the Buddhism of the new urban middle-class was far from the traditional Buddhism of the village. Like Meiji New Buddhism, Theravada was refashioned in the image of post-Enlightenment Christianity. In brief, the Theravada reform emphasized: (1) the values of individualism, which included the affirmation of worldly achievement coupled with “this worldly asceticism;” (2) a rational or “instrumental” approach to Buddhist teachings, which often involved the repudiation of the “supernatural” or “magical” aspects of Buddhism, the rejection of “empty” ritual, and the insistence that Buddhism is a “philosophy” rather than a “religion;” (3) a new “universalism,” accompanied by a rejection of the authority of the clergy; and (4) a renewed interest in the scriptural legacy of Theravada Buddhism. 

To understand “East” and “West” now, it’s becoming abundantly clear to me that we need to keep the nineteenth century in mind.  It could be said that the nineteenth century East was both straining towards and out from under the West, and that the nineteenth century West was straining to an East that had captured it’s Orientalist fantasies.  Colonel Olcott and his friends excite the East about the “East,” but the East that they are being excited about is the West’s version of East, and already the water had long been too muddied to see eastward or westward at all.

So let’s be careful.


3 thoughts on “Colonel Olcott Saves the East

  1. Excellent post! I too have been exploring the history of the immagration of Buddhism to the west. It is my contention that once Buddhism is organized in an institutional way, it looses it’s effectiveness to enlighten people. In the past 10 years or so, Buddhism in America has been institutionalized and and become just another pop cultural phase to a large extent. It seems that all sects, Zen, Therevedan, Tibetan, and Korean have attracted many westerners and have swallowed them up in ritual and unrealistic promises of enlightenment. That is not to say that there are many small groups that a serving as the Sangha. But as Buddhism spreads in the west, it is taking on the cultural patterns that are all to familiar. Consummerism is one aspect is is swallowing. “Keep up with the Jones'” is another. Dumbing down of the real simplicity Buddhism has to offer, with over questioning of its’ prime principles. Intellectual debate about “where, when, and what is the arrow that is stuck in ones’ gut. Rituals that keep Americans from being bored with life as it is. Keeping them busy with hob knobing with like minded Buddhists. And finally an air of superiority about having a new religion that is not well known by the majority.
    Good advice….”Watch out an be careful” and i will add “keep it simple”. 🙂

  2. Thanks for this. I’d forgotten or skipped over the Theosophist part of Swans. In Japanese Soto, the “back-to-Dogen” movement was kicked off by monks reacting to the incursion of the Obaku Zen Chinese monks as well as Christian missionaries … and then really got going during the Meiji reforms. Japan is so culturally colonized now that this deep hunger for cultural roots really made sense to me when I spent some time in a monastery that was leading the way in that movement, building the monks hall just like Dogen recommended and doing almost everything else too based on his writings. It makes some sense in Japan … but for Westerns, maybe not so much.



  3. Ah, those kooky, bold, intrepid theosophists. The tale of Olcott and Blavatsky’s trek to Ceylon, SE Asia and India stuck with me, too. It is amazing how they sparked a resurgence of Buddhist practice in Ceylon. After reading this book it’s impossible to feel silly for practicing an Eastern religion in the West.

    Chana – My experience is that Americans doing Buddhist practice are earnest, open and wanting to go deep. Whatever institutions that have sprung up are still relatively new and in flux. Just as in every nation it has touched, Buddhism takes on a new character appropriate to the place and people. I’m sure the things you mention are really happening, but there is much more than that.

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