The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott

Jacob N. Kinnard

The Journal of Religion

Vol.77 No.4 ( Oct 1997 )


COPYRIGHT 1997 University of Chicago

            Henry Steel Olcott was, by all accounts, a strange and interesting 
            man. Born into a piously Presbyterian New Jersey family in 1832, 
            Olcott went on to become a New York journalist, a Civil War colonel, 
            and most famously a founding member of the Theosophical Society and 
            a major figure in the nineteenth-century Buddhist revival in Sri 
            Lanka. Although Olcott has been the subject of numerous studies over 
            the years, Stephen Prothero's The White Buddhist examines Olcott 
            from a new and unusual angle. Prothero has three specific purposes: 
            first, he presents a "sympathetic yet scholarly" interpretation of 
            Olcott's life; second, he uses that life as "an opportunity to 
            interpret the broader nineteenth-century American encounter with the 
            religions of Asia"; and third, he introduces the linguistic term 
            "creolization" as a means of understanding cultural and religious 
            This is a promising premise with which to begin; Prothero proposes 
            to view Olcott less as an individual and more as an emblem of a 
            particular moment in American religious history, a moment when 
            America was both exporting and importing religious ideas: "From his 
            mid-life passage to Asia until his death in 1907, Olcott functioned 
            as culture broker between Occident and Orient, facilitating the 
            commerce of religious ideas and practices between America and Asia 
            even as he helped to bring into the world's religious marketplace a 
            wholly new spiritual creation" (p. 3). As Prothero demonstrates, 
            Olcott viewed Kipling's "East is East and West is West" dictum as 
            fundamentally false, believing instead that the two cultures could 
            indeed meet and, furthermore, that an amalgamation of Eastern and 
            Western religions was both possible and desirable, such that the 
            best of both could be preserved in a new, hybrid tradition (this is 
            the tenet upon which Theosophy was based). 
            However, as Prothero notes, Olcott did not simply go off to Asia to 
            trade ideas. On the contrary, he went as a peculiarly Orientalist 
            reformer, with a very definite notion of what true religion should 
            be. Indeed, as Prothero argues throughout The White Buddhist, Olcott 
            was fundamentally a product of his liberal Protestant upbringing, 
            and even in his reform efforts in Asia, his notion of proper 
            religious practice was informed by his religious roots. As Prothero 
            puts it, "Olcott's encounter with the Asian 'other' reduced, more 
            often than not, to an encounter with his liberal American and 
            Protestant 'self'" (p. 12). This is perhaps nowhere more true than 
            in Olcott's activities in Sri Lanka, where he at once embraced 
            Buddhism and at the same time lashed out at some of the leading 
            monks on the island, charging them with practicing a corrupt, 
            adulterated form of Buddhism that went counter to the original 
            teachings of the Buddha. 
            The author puts the concept of "creolization," which he borrows from 
            linguistics and applies to cross-cultural interaction, to 
            particularly good use in his analysis of Olcott's hybrid Buddhism. 
            According to Prothero, the Buddhism that Olcott championed, indeed 
            that he created, "was not the tradition of the Buddhists but a 
            'Buddhism' of his own invention - a Buddhist lexicon informed by a 
            Protestant grammar and spoken with a theosophical accent" (p. 69). 
            He argues that Olcott was not, in fact, so much a cultural pluralist 
            as a kind of unwitting hegemonist; in Olcott's creole religious 
            language, the grammar of Protestant Christianity had a tendency to 
            run roughshod over the lexicon of Theravada Buddhism. Unfortunately, 
            however, the author far too often shies away from the complexities 
            and problematics of Olcott's activities. For instance, Prothero 
            points out that in his denunciation of the "decay of spiritualism, 
            the corruption of the Sangha" (p. 106) Olcott was corroborating the 
            negative stereotypes of Orientalism, but then he pursues the issue 
            no further. There is a rich and complex body of literature on 
            nineteenth-century Orientalist practices, and one wishes that 
            Prothero had engaged in a more sustained analysis of Olcott in light 
            of this discourse. Indeed, Prothero far too frequently lapses into 
            an apologetic stance just as his critique gets going. 
            Part of the problem here is tone. In chronicling Olcott's early life 
            in New York, his career as a reformist journalist, his partnership 
            with his Theosophical sidekick, Madame Blavatsky, and his travels in 
            Asia, Prothero adopts a reverential, at times almost hagiographic 
            tone. For instance, in chapter 2, "Universal Reformer," Olcott 
            emerges as a valiant captain of liberal Protestant idealism, aiming 
            "not only to reform individuals but also to uplift institutions," 
            institutions as diverse as the Army and Navy, Tammany Hall, and 
            insurance law: "If American society was an Augean stable, then 
            Olcott was its Hercules, cleansing the mess with the rivers of moral 
            decency" (p. 37). This tone unfortunately continuously crops up 
            throughout The White Buddhist, and it masks some of the serious and 
            complex issues involved in Olcott's career as a culture broker. 
            Indeed, toward the end of the book, even Prothero admits that when 
            Olcott encountered differences between his own creolized Buddhism 
            and the Buddhism actually practiced by Buddhists in Sri Lanka, he 
            insisted that the island's Buddhists conform with his invented 
            religion. Prothero writes that the "tragedy of this response is that 
            it prevented Olcott from engaging in genuine dialogue with Asian 
            religious reformers" (p. 179). Is this a tragedy, though, or merely 
            a symptom of the contingencies of the specific context? Except for a 
            brief footnote that draws attention to the issues but does not 
            address them, Prothero's analysis ends there. In this and several 
            other points earlier in the book, one is left feeling that Prothero 
            has curtailed his scholarly analysis in the name of sympathy. 
            Readers interested both in nineteenth-century American religion and 
            in broader issues of East/West cultural contact will find The White 
            Buddhist engaging and thought provoking, but many readers will also 
            find this a frustrating book in the way that it raises a number of 
            important issues without fully analyzing them.