|Unvelling Ceremony of the Olcott Statue|
|Monday, 12 September 2011 08:41|
H. E. Dr. Palitha T.B.Kohona
Unveiling Ceremony of the Olcott Statue
Ven Maha Sanga
It gives me immense pleasure to be able to participate in this event today, held in honour of Colonel Henry Olcott, the American spiritualist who with Madam Blavatsky, became the key personalities in the revival Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the latter half of the 19th century. At the time Colonel Olcott came to Sri Lanka, Buddhism was under considerable pressure from the colonial regime and religions introduced by different colonialists, and, was on the decline. Buddhist education had suffered and Buddhists were largely marginalized in the country where Buddhism had flourished for more than two millennia. Buddhist intellectuals had all but disappeared. Olcott and his Theosophical Society friends were very much active in the revival of Buddhism, and its restoration as a dynamic force in the country. Buddhist leaders were reinvigorated and had their confidence reignited.
You heard many good things being said about Colonel Olcott already. However, I wish to touch upon an aspect that needs to be highlighted. Olcott was an American humanitarian who took an interest in Eastern philosophy at a time when Western thinking dominated philosophical interchange. Buddhism which had nourished Asian and Eastern thinking for two thousand years, had little impact on philosophical discussion in the West. However, Colonel Olcott’s pioneering efforts contributed to bringing a balance to the philosophical interaction in Sri Lanka and mainstreaming Buddhist thought. Although he came from a non-Buddhist background, he encouraged the investigation and discussion of Eastern thinking, particularly Buddhism. He became a pillar in the revived Buddhist establishment.
In this sense, he was part of a globalization process of thinking which has had wide ramifications. Buddhism is now being accessed by the intellectual circles of the West and elements of Buddhism, such as meditation, have seeped into the Western lifestyle. Today it is very well established in Western countries and Buddhist thought is familiar to Western intellectuals. In fact in Australia, it is recognized as the fastest growing religion. Olcott, in his Buddhist Catechism highlighted the scientific rationalism of Buddhism. The emphasis in Buddhism on rationalism rather than on mere faith attracted him and many thousands of Western intellectuals subsequently. The concept of individual responsibility rather than divine retribution was also a major attraction to the scientific mind and the intellectual circles of the West. Following the wider availability of Buddhist literature in the West, we have seen outstanding scientists such as Einstein, Sir Bertrand Russell and Sigmund Freud highlighting the relevance of Buddhist thought to the modern world. In addition, Colonel Olcott’s work inspired Sri Lankan Buddhist leaders such as Anagarika Dharmapala who contributed immensely to the revival of Buddhism.
As David McMahan wrote “Henry Steel Olcott saw the Buddha as a figure much like the ideal liberal freethinker – someone full of ‘benevolence,’ ‘gratitude,’ and ‘tolerance,’ who promoted ‘brotherhood among all men’ as well as ‘lessons in manly self-reliance”.