Last week I published a short post on the International Buddhist Flag, a flag modified by Col. Henry Olcott, a westerner who is still revered in Sri Lanka as a leader of the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival. Today while sorting through the history books here at the Tricycle office, I came across Stephen Prothero’s book The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott. Our Fall 1996 issue featured a long passage from this book and flipping through the book’s introductory pages, I was immediately intrigued by this man who served as a intercessor between the East and West during a time when some of his famous contemporaries held that the regions were destined to remain separate entities. In doing so he was among the earliest to confront the specific difficulties and joys that accompany religious and cultural pluralism. Indeed, I agree with this sentiment of Prothero’s: “In many respects, he paved the way for America’s collective glance eastward in the 1960s and 1970s and the New Age interest in Asian religions of today.”
Olcott is certainly a controversial character. The first American of European ancestry to formally convert to Buddhism, he quickly shrugged off the role of student in favor of teacher and reformer. Olcott felt entitled to reject elements he found offensive in Buddhism, introduce Western practices and values when he wished, and criticize and try to reform certain Buddhist traditions practiced by communities and individuals he encountered in Asia. While his tactics and beliefs continue to invoke criticism (and Prothero by no means exonerates him in this regard) there is truth to Prothero’s suggestion that by combining elements of eastern Buddhism and western Protestantism along with other influences, Olcott “helped to craft a new form of Buddhism that thrives today not only in Sri Lanka but also in the United States.”
The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott by Stephen Prothero is published by Indiana University Press (1996).
An excerpt from the book that appeared in Tricycle can be found here.