Sri Lankan Embassy Commemorates Olcott

Printed in the  Winter 2024 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Greenfield, Ginger "Sri Lankan Embassy Commemorates Olcott" Quest 112:1, pg 8

By Ginger Greenfield   

Ginger GreenfieldOn the evening of Wednesday, August 2, 2023, in celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Sri Lanka‒U.S. diplomatic relations, Douglas Keene, Rozi Ulics, Susanne Hoepfl-Wellenhofer, and I attended a wonderful event at the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Washington, DC, to commemorate TS cofounder Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832‒1907). Olcott is known and honored for his support of Sri Lankan independence, culture, and religion.

We all gathered around a rectangular garden pool in the embassy’s magnificent outdoor space. Behind the speakers, a statue of the Buddha was visible through the open door of a glass shrine.

A group of monks in saffron robes sat together near a panel of four other monks. The panelists offered perspectives on the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Olcott’s contribution to the revival of Buddhism there. An official from the embassy showed a video with images from Olcott’s time and telling of his history in the nation.

Douglas Keene gave a fascinating talk on Olcott’s work for the Society and in Sri Lanka. Olcott’s grandnephew Douglas Olcott attended the event with his daughter, Angelica Olcott. He spoke of Olcott from the unique viewpoint of a family member and told some of the history of his family in America.

As a part of the diplomatic nature of the event, Elizabeth Horst, principal deputy assistant secretary for Pakistan Bureau of South and Central Asia, spoke of the strength of U.S.‒Sri Lanka relations, which are based on shared democratic values and a rules-based regional and international order. U.S. policy toward Sri Lanka is characterized by respect for its independence, sovereignty, and moderate nonaligned foreign policy.

Positioned at the geographic and political heart of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is arguably the most strategically located maritime nation in the region. Since the nation’s independence in 1948, the U.S. has invested more than $2 billion in support of its agriculture, education, health, environment, infrastructure, governance, and business development.

Olcott and H.P. Blavatsky arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), on May 16, 1880. They took the Five Precepts of Buddhism at the Wijayananda Viharaya, located at Weliwatta in Galle on May 19, 1880. The precepts are:

I undertake to observe the rule

1. To abstain from taking life
2. To abstain from taking what is not given
3. To abstain from sensuous misconduct
4. To abstain from false speech
5. To abstain from intoxicants as tending to cloud the mind

                      Sri Lankan Embassy Commeorates Olcott
  The Theosophical Society presents a portrait of Olcott to Sri Lankan ambassador Mahinda Samarasinghe at the Sri Lankan embassy in Washington. From Left: Elizabeth Horst, principal deputy assistant secretary for Pakistan Bureau of South and Centra Asia; Amassador Samarasinghe; Douglas Olcott; Douglas Keene; Susanne Hoepfl-Wellenhofer; Angelica Olcott; Rozi Ulics; and Ginger Greenfield.

During his time in Sri Lanka, Olcott worked to revive Buddhism. He wanted to avoid Westernized interpretations often found in America and to discover the pure message of texts from the Buddhist, Hindu, and Zoroastrian religions so as to properly educate Westerners. In 1881 he wrote The Buddhist Catechism                                                   , which is still revered and used today. Buddhists of colonial Sri Lanka under British dominance heard Olcott’s interpretation of the Buddha’s message as socially motivating and supportive of their religion. Olcott is the only major contributor to the nineteenth-century Sinhalese Buddhist revival who was born and raised in the Protestant Christian tradition.

Olcott supported the presence of Buddhists at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. The inclusion of Buddhists at the parliament allowed for the expansion of Buddhism in the West and led to the development of other Buddhist modernist movements.

In 1885 in Colombo, Olcott acted as an advisor to the committee appointed to design the Buddhist flag. The Buddhist flag was later adopted as a symbol by the World Fellowship of Buddhists and as the universal flag of all Buddhist traditions.

Olcott’s work in Sri Lanka has earned him the enduring gratitude of the country, where the anniversary of his death on February 17 is remembered with prayers. In 1967 the government of Sri Lanka honored Olcott with a commemorative stamp. Two major streets in Colombo have been named Olcott Mawatha (Street). Statues of Olcott have been erected in front of Colombo Fort Railway Station and in the southern city of Galle. All schools that he helped found or were founded in his memory possess commemorative statues in honor of his contribution to Buddhist education. The Buddhist schools built by the Theosophical Society in Ceylon remain the leading schools in Sri Lanka to date.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Douglas, Rozi, Susanne, and I enjoyed the honor of presenting a portrait of Olcott to Sri Lankan ambassador Mahinda Samarasinghe on behalf of the Theosophical Society. The embassy offered tasty vegetarian triangle sandwiches and both hot and cold tea. The evening could not have been more lovely. I am grateful to have been a part of the event and am enriched by the friendship connections highlighted and shared between Sri Lanka, the United States, and the Theosophical Society, historically and today.

Ginger Greenfield is former president of the Ojai Valley Lodge of the TS.