S. M. Jayatilleke

(Summary of Convention Talk on 27.12.2006)

Let us pay our highest gratitude to Col. H. S. Olcott for pioneering various activities more than 100 years ago, with the utmost devotion and personal sacrifice to revive Buddhism and Buddhist education in Sri Lanka, the results of which have been enjoyed by several generations. We Sri Lankans owe him a deeper gratitude for his singular contribution and the sacrifice of most of his adult life to rescuing and uplifing Buddhists and Buddhism, which was at a low ebb under missionary domination. Arrangements are already being made to commemorate the 100th death anniversary of Colonel Olcott on 17 February 2007 as a state-sponsored national event presided over by His Excellency the President and other dignitaries.

It is now appropriate to look back about 100 years, perusing his own diaries, which are very well documented, to understand the colossal work he undertook and his indomitable courage, determination and spirit despite many obstacles, pain and suffering in a land far away from his own motherland.

On 25 May 1880, Col. Olcott and Madame H. P. Blavatsky took pansil at Wijayanada Temple, in Galle, and were formally acknowledged as Buddhists, Here he made an important statement:

We had previously declared ourselves Buddhists long before in America, both privately and publicly, and this was the formal confirmation of our previous profession. If Buddhism contained a slight dogma that we were compelled to accept, we would not have taken pansil or remained Buddhist for ten minutes. Our Buddhism is that of Master Adept Gautama the Buddha, which is identical with the wisdom religion of the Aryan Upanishad-s and the soul of all the ancient world faiths. Our Buddhism Is, in a word, a philosophy and not a creed.

After having discussions with many Buddhist leaders, Col. Olcott realized the prime importance of Buddhist education. In a second visit to Sri Lanka a few months later, he started the National Education Fund to promote and set up schools for Buddhist boys and girls. He says in Old Diary Leaves that this scheme had the approbation of the Mahatmas and HPB’s own concurrence, strongly expressed. Col. Olcott went from village to village on foot and in bullock carts, explaining to the villagers the importance of educating their children, and also of raising funds to set up schools.

Col. Olcott wrote a Buddhist catechism – an elementary handbook to help the teaching of Buddhism in schools, taking much time and trouble, devoting his little spare time to reading almost 10,000 pages of English and French translations. The draft was finally submitted for High Priest H. Sumangala’s approval on 7 May 1881. It was translated into Sinhala on 15 May, and approved after much deliberation. Both English and Sinhala versions appeared simultaneously on 24 July 1881. Later the Catechism was translated into 21 different languages for use in many countries in Asia and Europe to teach Buddhism, and went through many reprints.

After establishing the Buddhist Theosophical Society, Col. Olcott set up a complete printing press and commenced printing the Sarasavi Sandaresa, one of the oldest newspapers in Sri Lanka. The tremendous service this did for the Buddhist cause is amply explained by a letter dated 10 December 1896 from Mr. H, S. Perera, then Manager of the Press, to Col. Olcott:

The progress made has been beyond expectations. The major portion of the income of the press and the paper is being used for the maintenance of the schools in rural areas and to meet other expenses of the Society.

Col. Olcott visited Sri Lanka 37 times and mostly more than once a year. He created the Buddhist flag using the six colours appearing in the aura of the Lord Buddha. It is now being used in all Buddhist countries as the standard flag. He was also instrumental in declaring Wesak full moon day a holiday and appointing Buddhist registrars of marriages for Buddhists. He deployed a number of well-known Theosophists for the revival of Buddhist education in Sri Lanka, including C. W. Leadbeater and F. L. Woodward. In 1889 Mr Leadbeater organized an English-medium Buddhist high school, and C. Jinarajadasa was one of its first students. Later, this school developed into Ananda College, the leading Buddhist school in Colombo today. Mr Woodward was directed by Olcott to build a high school in Galle, and today this stands as Mahinda College, a major Buddhist institution.

There is no better way to sum up and express our gratitude and commitment to the cause Col. Olcott stood for than to quote the pledge that Dr Annie Besant made in her oration at his funeral:

We bid you no farewell, for you are unborn, undying, perpetual, and eternal. There is no such thing as death. Brave soldier of Truth, striver for good, we wish you light and peace. We pledge you our faith to bear the standard of Theosophy, fallen from your cold hand, through life to death as you have served it. So long as this Society endures through years unmeasured in the future, so long shall your name live in and with it.