Arya Sangha or Assembly of the Wise

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott's reforms of the 19th Century
and their Cultural Significance

Part V: Conclusion

Henry Steel Olcott
Henry Steel Olcott
Madame Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott
Madame Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott
Madame Blavatsky and Rev. Sumangala
Henry Steel Olcott and Rev. Sumangala

What I have done in this lecture is to trace the intellectual genealogy of a view of Buddhism that is dominant today, a view widely held by the intelligentsia and fostered by the school system and the media. Olcott was the main figure that introduced this view of Buddhism that I suggested is strongly influenced by the rationalist thought of the European Enlightenment.

I have only briefly dealt with the acceptance and spread of this intellectual Buddhism and the concomitant processes that resulted in the decay of its devotional side and especially the decay of the stories that nurtured that devotional side. The sociological and economic forces that assisted or contributed to these developments are extraordinarily complex and cannot be dealt with in this brief excursus.

Equally complex are the various beliefs and practices that have helped to fill the void in the emotional life of Buddhists. I have discussed some of these in the book, Buddhism Transformed. Nevertheless let me conclude this lecture with a brief discussion of some of the beliefs and practices that have taken the place of the kind of devotionalism that I sketched here.

The first is what we all know - what one might call the enormous politicization of Buddhism. Like all the other historical religions Buddhism too had had to accommodate itself to the political order and the writing that has dealt with the unfolding of that history is riddled with excessive violence, especially in the quest for succession and the maintenance of power.

This political religion that developed in post-canonical times, as we all know, has became obsessionally violent in recent times in practically every Theravada Buddhist society. In our own, the greatest amount of passion is associated with the political religion since it is locked into issues of cultural, ethnic and personal identity. Moreover one must not forget that nowadays even seemingly simple acts of piety are in effect political. Take one example: consider the large number of Buddha statues erected everywhere in public places today. The motivation for their construction and proliferation is not devotional: it is primarily political to affirm Buddhist ethnic and political identities.

In recent times there have been other attempts to fill the emotional spaces in Buddhist lives by the development of new forms of devotional religiosity or the redefinition of older forms. Perhaps the most significant are the bodhi puja rituals; but they too have succumbed to the politicization of the religious life. Some Buddhists frustrated by this very politicization have turned to meditational practices to create an inward religiosity that might provide emotional and spiritual satisfaction or consolation. Some have had to adopt an unusual solution by turning to a variety of emotional religious practices from devotional Hinduism.

Perhaps the most striking example is the adoration of the Hindu guru Sai Baba who is viewed by many Hindus as an avatar of one of the Hindu gods, but seen by some educated Buddhists as a new Bodhisattva. I must confess that I have personally little sympathy for this new turn in Buddhist devotional practice but I can at least understand the need for filling the empty spaces in the emotional or devotional or spiritual lives of Buddhists as we move on to the end of another century.

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