Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Traditional Buddhism... Or Just Theosophy?

One focus of my academic research has been attempting to tease apart true Asian religious perceptions from distorted Western assumptions about them. As works such as J.J. Clarke's Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western Thought show, the Western perception of Asian religious traditions has often had less to do with what is "actually there" than with the desire of certain Westerners to have a foil against which they can unfavorably compare their own culture, particularly its Christianity. With perceptions of the natural world in particular, there has sometimes even been a curious exchange in which Western misperceptions are picked up and spread by Asians themselves as the "true" Asian view.

An even stranger variant of this is the deliberate seeding of Western interpretations back into Asian soil. Peter J. Leithart explores one example in When East is West. It seems some "traditional" Buddhist doctrine may have less to do with Siddhartha Guatama than with an American Theosophist named Henry Steel Olcott:

Buddhism in the West is clearly being Americanized and commercialized. But the complicating wrinkle is that Buddhism has been remade by Yankee imperialists before. To this day, schoolchildren in Sri Lanka learn about the “doctrine” of Theravada Buddhism from a Buddhist Catechism first published in English and Sinhalese in 1881 -- a book described by its author as an “antidote to Christianity” and as a bulwark against Christian missionaries invading the East. Before they finish learning the Catechism, Sinhalese schoolchildren have been instructed in the evils of slavery and the virtues of “temperance,...gun control, chastity, and women’s rights.”

In its catechetical form, apologetic content, moralistic tone, and anti-ritual polemicism, the Buddhist Catechism suspiciously echoes nineteenth-century Protestant polemics against Roman Catholicism. And that the Catechism inculcates a sort of liberal Protestant Buddhism is no accident, for its author was an American-born convert, a lapsed Presbyterian reformer, journalist, and spiritualist named Henry Steel Olcott.

Olcott embarked on a personal crusade to save Buddhism from Christian missionaries by teaching Sri Lankan youth his own interpretation of their religion:
Believing the Ceylonese were appallingly ignorant of their true religious heritage -- and that this ignorance made them vulnerable to Christian missionaries -- he embarked on a program to consolidate Sri Lankan Buddhism, becoming one of the most important anti-mission missionaries in modern history....

Not only organizationally, but also conceptually, Olcott’s work was less a revival than a reshaping of traditional Buddhism according to a liberal Protestant model. He attacked the Buddhist practice of veneration and made the distinctly Western claim that the essence of Buddhism did not lie in the rituals of the Buddhist monks but in the philosophy and texts of Buddhism, a kind of “sacred Scripture.” No one before had conceived of summarizing all of Buddhism in a single volume, much less in a set of propositions, but Olcott produced both the Buddhist Catechism and a compilation of “Fundamental Buddhistic Beliefs,” summarized in a fourteen-point Buddhist Platform by which he hoped to unify all Buddhist teaching. “His Buddha,” Prothero notes, “was a quintessential Christian gentleman: sweet and convincing, the very personification of ‘self-culture and universal love.’”

All of these interpretations should sound quite familiar to anyone who has perused the numerous Huston Smith-style introductions to Buddhism to be found here in the US. That they may in large part be the product of a 19th-century Theosophist rather than any legitimate Buddhist tradition is truly ironic.

Recommended Reading

Bruun, O., and Kalland, Arne, Eds. (1995). Asian Perceptions of Nature: A Critical Approach. Studies in Asian Topics, Vol. 18. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press.

Clarke, J. J. (1997). Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western Thought. London: Routledge.

Girardot, N. J., James Miller, Liu Xiaogan, Eds. (2001). Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent! Though, strangely, I'm not surprised.

- Tim (Random Observations)

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Ryan said...

Okay, now nobody tell the folks who like revelations where their 'lake of fire' came from. Hint; Think Magi...

I'm confused though. What does this all have to do with Theosophism?

12:22 PM  
Blogger Bernhardt Varenius said...

Ryan, did you read the Leithart article? It says more about the connections to Theosophy there, i.e. Henry Steel Olcott's background.

Blavatsky's followers strongly emphasized Asian religion, and more importantly for what's discussed here, tried to blend it (often in questionable ways) with other esoteric systems. Olcott's Catechism seems to be an example of distorting a foreign religion to fit his own Theosophic framework in this way rather than trying to present it as actually is.

1:00 PM  

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