Friday, September 14, 2007

Chaps' Dharma Talk: Henry Steel Olcott - Civil War Veteran & Buddhist Patriot

Today's hoji is about a sadly neglected figure in our American history: Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907). He was the first known American citizen to formally convert to the Buddhist faith. Today, Olcott’s name today is more often linked to the Theosophy movement of the late 19th-century, rather than Buddhism, as he was a founding member of that organization (a kind of forerunner of New Age thought); although there was a kind of “vogue” for Buddhism at the turn of the century, it gradually faded away as a popular trend, until “re-discovered” by Westerners in the 1950s and 60s (of course Buddhism was continued to be practiced in America by Japanese-Americans and other Asian immigrants). I will give reasons why I want to discuss Col. Olcott.

It is hard to summarize his life: Henry Steel Olcott was born into a Christian Presbyterian family in New Jersey. He trained as a lawyer, and served in the Union Army during the US Civil War, and may have experienced combat action. Following active service, he also served as a commissioner for the Department of the Navy, acquiring the rank of Colonel, and investigated corruption among contractors (we could use more Olcotts today)! He also took part in the investigations after Abraham Lincoln's assassination. As a young man he developed an interest in spiritualism; spiritualism, or belief in spirit communication, was extremely popular in America prior to the Civil War, an outgrowth of the Second "Great Awakening" of religious devotion. Col. Olcott was a founding figure of Theosophy but also developed a strong interest in Buddhism, particularly in the Theravada tradition. His search for Buddhism led him to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon and under British colonial rule). There, in 1880, he adopted Buddhism as his religion by taking the precepts in Pali. He campaigned against the aggressive Christian missionaries there who were trying to stamp out Buddhism, and he fought for the civil rights of the Buddhists. He gave lectures throughout the country, and founded Buddhist schools and associations for young people. In order to promote Buddhist identity he helped design the multi-colored Buddhist flag (the colors of the Buddhist flag are the colors said to have been radiated by the Buddha from his Enlightenment), which was later adopted by Buddhists worldwide. (These flags can also be seen at our Jodo Shinshu temples here in America!) He also wrote a “Buddhist Catechism” in 1881, one of the first books in English to promote Buddhism. He also visited Japan, Burma, and India. At his funeral, his coffin was draped with two flags: "Old Glory," and the Buddhist flag. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River.

It is difficult to judge Col. Olcott's legacy today; he is perhaps more known in Sri Lanka than in his own country, and even now he is mostly thought of in connection with the Theosophy movement, today considered very controversial and strange for some. Col. Olcott also interpreted Buddhism according to his own understanding, which was strongly influenced by Protestant Christianity. Like many new converts to Buddhism, he aggressively sought to understand what was "true" Buddhism as opposed to cultural "superstitions" and believed he could benefit Buddhism by applying Western critical thinking; he even hoped to re-unify Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, all of which was not accepted by Asian Buddhists.

Yet Col. Olcott was undoubtedly a pioneer of American Buddhism, although most of his work was in Sri Lanka. Especially I believe he also should be considered a pioneer, and even a role model, for Buddhists like ourselves who are in, or have had, military service. His experience during the Civil War must have influenced his later actions: when he heard of the attack on Buddhism by the missionaries, he rushed to the defense of the Buddhists, and also went on the offensive, not by physical force (although Buddhists were physically attacked by mobs of Christians), but by seeking to empower and strengthen Buddhists through education, community, and instilling pride in Buddhist heritage. He certainly was not passive. Col. Olcott was very active for the cause of Buddha-dharma in many countries, but he still respected many other religious traditions, including Islam and Christianity.

Personally, although his Buddhism and mine are different, I see Col. Olcott as a leadership example to follow. To honor his 100th-year centennial, every year on February 17th (his memorial day) I will conduct a memorial service for Col. Olcott. I hope you will also take time to lean about this Buddhist pioneer!

Unfortunately, there are not many resources out there about Col. Olcott.
There are two biographies on his life:
Yankee Beacon of Buddhist Light: Life of Col. Henry S. Olcott by Howard Murphet. This is a a very readable biography of published by The Theosophical Society (which is still around). I found my copy on Ebay.
The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott by Stephen Prothero. This is an academic biography of Olcott published by an Indian press, and hard to find.
The Web site for the Olcott Centennial can be found here:


Anonymous said...

Very good article. Olcott's contribution to Sri Lanka is beyond words, and he is fondly remembered today. We are raising a statue of Col. Olcott at the New Jersey Buddhist Vihara, in September, 2011.

Jeanette Yuinen Shin said...

Thank you, that is wonderful about your statue! Please send a photo and a short paragraph about it if you can, I would be happy to post it here on this blog!

Creative Commons License
Buddhist Military Sangha by Jeanette Shin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at