OLD DIARY LEAVES, Third Series (1883-87)
by Henry Steel Olcott
FIRST VISIT TO BURMA
THE attendance of Delegates at the Convention of 1884 was double that of the preceding year, and the feeling exceptionally enthusiastic. The first gold medal of the Subba Row Fund was awarded to Judge P. Sreenivasrow, of Madras, for a very able paper on the identity of two great personages as traced in the Puranas. The Convention adjourned sine die on 31st December, and the Delegates gradually departed for their homes, some of them 1,500 miles distant. The last left on 8th January (1885), and the house settled down to its normal quiet. During the night before I was visited by Dj. K.—then an advanced pupil, now a Master—who talked with me about sundry persons and things. Mr. Leadbeater, who had at that time all his great spiritual enlightenment before him, sleeping on another charpai in the same room, heard the two voices and saw a column of light by my bedside, but could not distinguish the form of my visitor. On the following night—as my Diary entry states—"H.P.B. got from her Teacher the plan for her Secret Doctrine, and it is excellent. Oakley and I tried our hands at it yesterday, but this is much
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better." Meanwhile, the accumulation of materials for the book had long been going on. It will be news to some that this was not originally intended to be a new book, but only a recasting and amplification of Isis Unveiled, with the late T. Subba Row, B.A., B.L., as co-editor with H.P.B. As first advertised in the Theosophist, it was to have been issued in monthly parts of 77 pages each, and to have run to about twenty parts. This new scheme, given her by her Teacher, changed this programme, and the gradual building up of the present grand work was the result.
One night, about this time, H.P.B., unsolicited, produced for Dr. Hartmann a caricature sketch of a woman whose double, leaving the body, is waited for by a devil; while the divine ray of the Atma escapes." Dr. H. says "—notes my Diary—"that the picture answers a question that has been mooted in his mind for several days past, and has a significance of which H.P.B. is not aware." Just so: perhaps.
The late King of Burma, Theebaw III, having heard of my work for Buddhism from an Italian official at Mandalay, a member of our Society, had invited me, to his Court for conversation about the Ceylon Buddhist movement, and in the month of January, just after the Convention above described, I sailed for Rangoon with Mr. Leadbeater to help me in my general work. We had an easy time of it until we got abreast of Monkey Point just at the lower end of the city, where the current of the Irrawady ran like a mill-race, and our poor, broken-down old steamer, the "Asia," had
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to come to an anchor and wait for high-water. At last, however, we reached the jetty, and I was received by a Burmese gentleman on behalf of a well-known English official, one of our members. He found us hospitable quarters at the private house of the late Moung Htoon Oung, an advocate and an enlightened man. The same evening our reception-rooms were crowded with the "Elders" (I forget the Burmese name) of the Buddhist community, who plied us with questions and evinced an appreciative and friendly spirit. The next morning Oo Nyoung, Municipal Commissioner, came and escorted us to the golden-domed Shway Dagôn, the finest and most revered pagoda in the Indo-Chinese countries. It is built on a spur of the Pegu hills, and the platform is in part artificially constructed of numberless baskets of earth, brought as an act of piety by Buddhist pilgrims from all parts of the country. The bell-shaped dagoba, gilded from base to apex with gold-leaf at a cost of over a lac of rupees, given by the people, is a resplendent object to one who approaches the city by steamer. When the sun shines on it the effect is very grand indeed1: one might fancy it the pharos of the mythic Jerusalem the Golden. It stands upon the upper of two terraces which rises 166 feet from the level of the ground, and has diameters of 900 by about 700 feet. At the two sides of the foot of the grand staircase stand monster leogryphs, built of brick covered with plaster and
1 For a full description of Shway Dagohn (Dagôn) Payah, see Shway Yeo's The Burman, p. 193, and many other books on Burma.
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gaudily painted. The ascent is very tedious, but, reaching the top, one finds himself on a great flagged open space which runs all around the pagoda, and on special days is thronged by a multitude of worshippers, picturesque in costume and colors beyond any other crowd I ever saw. The dagoba stands on an octagonal plinth pierced at four sides with worshipping chambers or temples, each of which enshrines one large and many small statues of the sitting Buddha lit up by thousands of candles, and resounds with the hum of voices of devotees reciting the Five Precepts. Smaller and larger dagobas, chapels, image-houses, bells, and carved figures of lions and other animals are seen around the edges of the platform. One of the bells is so large that six men can stand inside, it being 7 feet 7½ inches across the mouth and weighs 94,628 lbs. (op cit., 197). It is the third largest bell in the world, and has a history that is worth reading.
From its eight-sided plinth springs the gold-covered pagoda, whose perimeter is 1,355 feet and height 370. Think what a grand object must be this ovoid structure or hillock of masonry enveloped with gold on a bright, sunny day! But I shall not give time to mere architectural details when they can be so easily gotten from Shway Yeo's charming volumes on Burma. The peculiar sanctity of the Shway Dagôn is due to the fact that "it is the only payah known to Buddhists which contains actual relics, not only of Shin Gautama, but of the three Budhs who preceded him in this world". In the relic chamber, in the heart of the dagoba, are
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said to be eight hairs from the head of Gautama Sakhya Muni, and the drinking-bowl of one, the robe of another, and the staff of a third preceding Buddha. Whatever be the fact, the assertion is believed throughout Burma, Siam, Cambodia, and Korea, from all which countries pilgrims swarm to pay their homage. Its actual historical date is not easily fixed, for, though Buddhist authorities assert it to have been built in 588 B.C., yet, as Shway Yeo says, it may have been sacred for cycles upon cycles, if it contains relics of the Buddha's predecessors. The pagoda is crowned with a htee, or umbrella, One of the emblems of sovereignty. It is an iron, cage-like structure, gilded and hung all over with gold and silver jewelled bells "which tinkle melodiously with every breath of air". Mr. Oo Nyoung introduced me to various important personages connected with the pagoda, and arrangements were made for me to lecture there on Buddhism.
The news of my arrival having been spread, I very soon was visited by large numbers of both Burmese and resident Hindus, coming to discuss their respective religions. January 24 was a very busy day. I had a three hour's interview with the Tha-tha-nabang, or Buddhist Archbishop, so to say, from Mandalay, and, later, the house full of Burmese and Hindus, each in a separate room, and Leadbeater and I going from one group to the other, discussing now Buddhism with one, and then Hinduism with the other party. On Sunday, the 25th, I lectured in Krishnam Koil on "Hindu Religion, its Enemies and Friends".
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A band of native Christian rowdies attended, and by their bad behaviour created great excitement. There was every prospect of a hand-to-hand fight, with bloodshed, but I managed to stop it. My throat was, however, the worse for the excessive use of my voice at the lecture and in the interminable discussions with our visitors.
I had the opportunity for seeing a number of instructive mesmeric experiments here, by a private gentleman named Moody, upon Indian subjects. I have notes of a series involving the question of thought-transference which were tried at my suggestion. They were made with a pocket-handkerchief. The operator having brought his subject into the state of suggestibility, stood before him holding a white handkerchief in his hands. Recognising its nature and normal color at first, he subsequently saw it, without any spoken orders, as red, blue, green, yellow, purple, black, brown, or whatsoever other color I whispered in the operator's ear. The color sensation underwent an instantaneous change when the mesmeriser visualise in his own mind the color designated by me. We also proved the community of taste and feeling between mesmeriser and subject, by the usual experiments of making the former, with his back turned towards the subject, taste successively sugar, quinine, ginger, salt, vinegar, etc., etc., and by pricking or pinching him, every taste and every physical sensation being immediately reproduced in the subject. To a reflective mind this field of mesmeric research produces most
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serious thoughts; there is something so awesome in the idea that two human beings can be thus identified as to mental and physical action. Such an experiment is, in fact, a key that unlocks awful mysteries.
My first lecture at Shway Dagôn was given on 27th January in a crimson-and-gold rest-house, beautifully carved outside and intoxicating with color inside. Pansil, or the Five Precepts, was first given by a Burmese priest, some introductory remarks were made, and I was then given speech. I spoke for an hour, but, as three interpreters had to translate me by turns, I very much doubt if my huge audience got a very clear idea of what I said. The scene, however, vividly appealed to my artistic sense, and I took in the whole picture piece-meal, while keeping an attentive ear upon my interpreters to see if they seemed to be rendering, if not my words, at least my ideas, correctly. For one of average intuitiveness of temperament can do so much by thought-reading, even though ignorant of the vernacular employed. My reasoned discourse finished, I was put through a public examination in Buddhistic theology and metaphysics by several priests, and pronounced satisfactory. I don't wonder at their taking precautions before giving me their confidence, considering what a marvel, almost an impossibility, it must have seemed to them that a pucca white man (that is, a pure-blooded not a mixed. blooded one) should come and, at that sacred shrine, in open day and in the presence of thousands of Burmans, avow himself a Buddhist from conviction, without
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ulterior motive. In fact, this suspicion followed us for years in Asia, and we had to live it down before we won the sure place in the confidence of the Asiatic peoples which we now hold.
At 1.27 a.m. in the following night I was awakened by a telegraph peon who brought me this despatch from Damodar: "Return at once, Upasika (H.P.B.) dangerously ill." It was a thunderclap out of a clear sky. "Poor old chum!" my Diary says. "No more sleep for me that night." I spent the time in perfecting plans for carrying on the Burma mission. At an early hour I went with Leadbeater to carry the bad news to our dear Mrs. Gordon, of Calcutta, then in Rangoon on a visit to her adopted daughter. After that to a Buddhist meeting where I was engaged to speak; then to bid farewell to the Mandalay Archbishop; and then, at 11 a.m., to the steamer "Oriental" in which I sailed for Madras. Leadbeater was left behind to go on with the work.
My older colleagues will have no trouble in figuring to themselves my state of mind while on that sea voyage. Here were we two with our vast work not yet even shaped out, the Society still staggering under the blow struck by the Missionaries; for, while we were floating along on the full tide of our co-workers' sympathy, yet outside our ship, to borrow the metaphor, the billows of angry outside hatred and suspicion were swelling, and foaming, and dashing against it all around. With us together and united, each
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supplying what the other lacked, and linked together in one intense thought of service to man, there was nothing to fear for the future, our cause had in it the spirit of victory. But with her stricken down, perhaps lying on her bed of death, perhaps doomed to die before I could get back to receive her last word and close her eyes, how heavy my heart must have been needs no seventh son of a seventh son to comprehend. No wonder I wrote in my Diary, when the ship was running through a silvery sea: "My poor Chum, and is thy life of adventure, of anguish, of violent contrasts and of unswerving devotion to Humanity, ended? Alas, my loss will be greater than if thou hadst been wife, or sweetheart, or sister; for now must I carry alone the immense burden of this responsibility with which the Holy Ones have charged us."
The transit across the Bay of Bengal was as calm as a summer yachting voyage, and passed without incident, beyond my being spied out by Hindu friends at Bimlipatam, and taken ashore and made to lecture that evening. We reached Madras at 4 p.m. on 5th February; I hurried home and found H.P.B. in a state between life and death, with congestion of the kidneys, rheumatic gout, and an alarming loss of vitality. Added to this, an enfeebled action of the heart had brought her to a crisis where her life trembled in the balance. She was so delighted to see me that she put her arms around my neck, as I came to her bedside, and wept on my breast. I was unspeakably
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glad to be there to, at least, bid her farewell and assure her of my steadfastness. Her attending physicians, Dr. Mary Scharlieb and Dr. Franz Hartmann, M.D., said it was simply a miracle that she was alive. Our Teacher had worked the wonder by coming one night when they were waiting for her last gasp, laying his hand on her, and snatching her back from death. Wonderful woman! This same thing happened with her at Philadelphia, when Dr. Pancoast told her that her leg must be cut off to Save her life; but she was out of the house the very next day, with her mortifying limb cured. Readers of the first volume of these O.D.L. reminiscences will recall the facts. She hung in this state the next four days, we at first not knowing whether she would live a year or years, or suddenly die from syncope. As her strength served we talked over the situation, and she rejoiced in my promise of undying loyalty to the cause we represented. But I was not left to commune with her in peace. Mr. Lane-Fox had returned from London, and he and Hartmann and the other new-comers had put their heads together, and hatched a scheme for what was simply my putting aside, and the transfer of the governing power to a Committee, composed mainly of themselves. It was an ungracious and ungrateful project, and I revolted at once. They had even got poor H.P.B. to sign the papers, which they formally handed me (and which, you may be sure, I have in the box of archives for that year). When I went to her with the paper, and asked her if it coincided with her sense
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of justice that I, who had watched over and built up the Society from its first germ until now, should be turned out on the road to go hang, without a word of thanks or even so much as the "chit", or character certificate, one gives to the rest-house keeper after a day's stay, or to the dhobie (washerman) or one's water-boy; she moaned out that she had signed something they had brought to her dying-bed, and which they said was very important for the Society, but she never understood it to mean what I described, and that she repudiated any such ingratitude. She told me to tear the papers, but I said no, I should keep them as the story of an episode that might be useful to the future historian. So it passed. While we two were talking, H.P.B. got a note from our Guru in a phenomenal way, saying that she might assure Subba Row and Damodar that, upon her dying, the link between the T.S. and the Master should remain unbroken. A promise which has been amply fulfilled.
By the 10th H.P.B. was about again, and so much better that, when a telegram came from Leadbeater urging my return to Rangoon as there was a very promising opening for the T.S., she consented to my going. So I sailed on the "Oriental" on the 11th. My "Chum" wept when we parted, and I should too if I had thought it was for the last time, but my mind was now completely reassured on that point. The recollection that she would not be permitted to die before her work was accomplished and somebody was ready to fill the gap she would leave, came back to me.
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I had forgotten that in my momentary grief at the: thought of parting from her.
Mr. Leadbeater, with deputations of Burmese: Elders and Hindus, received me at the jetty at Rangoon on my arrival on 19th February. On the following: day I paid my respects to the late beloved and respected Bishop Bigandet, author of The Legend of Gaudama one of the most authoritative books on Southern Buddhism. His sweet manners and noble character had earned for him the confidence and homage of all educated Burmese as well as of all Christians. We had a most agreeable talk together about Buddhism and its literature. He was past seventy and quite feeble. He expressed his regret that he should never be able to bring out another book, and, although I offered to supply him with a secretary to whom he might dictate according to his strength, he sadly shook his head and said that his work was all but finished, and the affairs of the world were receding from his sight. With that perfect courtesy of an old French courtier of the time of the Louis, he said it was now my turn to supply this want, and when I protested my incapacity, shook his finger at me and smilingly said he could not accept that excuse, since he had read my Buddhist Catechism and there was no more useful book on the religion of Sakhya Muni. Of course I put that down to his amiable politeness, but his manner was so charming that I could only answer by my blushes. He was a tall spare man of graceful carriage, with white, small hands and small feet, and wore the episcopal purple
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cassock with red buttons, a long gold chain and cross, and the ring of his episcopal rank. When I took my leave he insisted on accompanying me downstairs to the gate, and after a final exchange of kind expressions we parted—for ever, for I never saw him again.
The next day we breakfasted in the Burmese fashion, on the floor, at a Burmese rest-house, and later received the calls of several European gentlemen interested in Mesmerism, to whom I showed a variety of experiments in thought control. A large Committee of English and Pali native scholars sat the next day to complete a revision of the Burmese translation of the Buddhist Catechism, and accomplished it after some hours of work. Some 20,000 copies were subscribed for on the spot for gratuitous distribution, and the Elders showed quite an enthusiasm about the affair. After the adjournment Leadbeater and I called on Messrs. Duncan and Badelier, two new acquaintances, and I received the former into membership along with eight others. On Monday following I lectured in the Town Hall on "Theosophy No Sect" to a large audience including Missionaries, and later organised the "Rangoon T.S.," a Hindu Branch with all Tamil members. On the Wednesday we dined at Mr. Duncan's, where we witnessed and assisted in some very instructive mesmeric experiments. I recollect one which recalls some narratives in Baron Du Potêt's dassical work La Magie Dévoilée. In the centre of the drawing-room stood a large round table, and the
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company sat against the walls all around the room. The subject, a Hindu servant, being in another room where he could hear nothing of our conversation, I asked Mr. Duncan to draw on the floor with his finger an imaginary line from the table outward, and will that the subject should not be able to cross it. The company present chose the place where the line should be drawn, and then Mr. Duncan, approaching his finger tips to the carpet, but without touching it, willed that his subject should not be able to pass the invisible barrier. The subject was then sent for. On entering, he was told to walk around the table twice, after which he would be told what next to do. He began the circumambulation, and went on well enough until he came to the enchanted spot, when he suddenly stopped, tried to lift one foot to step forward, failed, shrank back, and said he couldn't go farther. Why? "Why, don't you see that line of fire; how could I get past it?" he answered. I told him there was nothing there; to try again. It was quite useless, he could not advance an inch until Mr. Duncan, who had all this while been standing silent, made a dispersive sweep with his hand and said "All right!" when "Tommy" completed the circuit of the table. He described it to me as a low wall of flames about six inches high.
Our preliminary discussions with the Burmese finally resulted in the formation of the "Shway Dagôn T.S.," a Buddhist Branch. They were very urgent that I should stop in Burma at least a couple of months to organise the movement, and it was really desirable,
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but the claims on my time elsewhere forbade it and I had to decline. I told them they must get on as best they could, on the lines I laid out for them.
Saturday, 28th February, was a great holiday with the "Burmese, as the anniversary of the Buddha's alleged descent from the Tusita heaven into his mother's womb under the form of a white elephant! We went again to Shway Dagôn and saw a great crowd of pilgrims. Meetings, talks, and Branch reunions engaged us during the next few days. Meanwhile, I was collecting the opinions of the most respectable Elders about King Theebaw, with the result that I decided that I should not accept his invitation to Mandalay, as he was a monster of vice and cruelty, and his motive in asking me was not to satisfy his thirst for religious knowledge, but only to gratify an idle curiosity to see the white Buddhist. I had too much respect for the dignity of the Society and its President to put myself on show before a debauched tyrant, and sacrifice my American self-respect by kow-towing to him, merely on the chance of getting a costly ruby ring, or a sum of money, some expensive silken cloths, or such-like toys. So I sent word to that effect to our Italian colleague through whom the King's message had been transmitted, and when, a few days later, I was urged to reconsider by King Theebaw's local agent and another "Burmese noble, I held my ground and gave my reasons with perfect frankness. I am not sure, but I think that at heart even the Burmans respected me for my independence.
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The incoming Madras Mail brought us disagreeable news. Hartmann reported that the Central Committee at Adyar had resigned, and some Branches would dissolve if H.P.B.'s case were not made good against the Padris. H.P.B., with her usual inconsistency, reproached me for having prevented her—as she said, although it was not I but the Convention who had done it—from bringing suit against them; and copies were sent me of the latest Missionary pamphlet against us. As I wrote in my Diary, there was "something hostile in the air". How true is that expression—so-and-so is "in the air"; for assuredly we are constantly acted upon by currents, mental, moral, spiritual, and physical, that are set flowing by our fellow-men. So, likewise, are others acted upon by our own thought-currents—as we now all have been taught by our advanced students in occultism. The next day came a cable from Adyar that H.P.B. had had a relapse and I must cut short my projected tour in Burma and Bengal, and come back at once. With that exhilarating intelligence on my mind, I had to lecture in the evening to an audience of 1,000 in the Town Hall. The dear Missionaries had a fellow posted at the door to sell the above-mentioned pamphlet, and I saw many in the hands of my auditors; but nothing is so bracing as a savage opposition, and nothing so stirs up all the resisting power one has in him. I took the adversary by the throat, so to say, and shook him, and made my sympathetic Burmese and Hindu hearers join together in peals of applause. I don't believe our
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esteemed enemies made much profit out of their speculation of importing this poisoned weapon to use against us.
We had already a Buddhist and a Hindu Branch in Rangoon; I had now to form one of Europeans and Eurasians interested in Mesmerism and practical Psychology in general. I gave it the name of the "Irrawady T.S."
A second urgent telegram came the next day, but I could not get a steamer until the following day, the 11th, when I sailed in the "Himalaya" for Madras. The Captain, Mr. Allen, was an old acquaintance, having commanded the "Chanda" in 1880, when H.P.B. and I returned from Colombo to Bombay. Having a day at command before sailing, I profited by a visit from Mr. Duncan to our house, to make further and better mesmeric experiments on his boy "Tommy". The boy was made to sit with his back against the wall of the room, just beside a large French window opening on a sunny verandah; his mesmeriser, Mr. Duncan, stood facing him, with a white handkerchief in his hands; I stood in the verandah, out of Tommy's range of vision, with a book of samples of bright colored papers, used by book-binders and others. Mr. Duncan would say to Tommy, showing the handkerchief: "What is this?" "A handkerchief." "Color?" "White." I would then show Duncan, say, a red paper, and he, still holding the handkerchief out to Tommy, would repeat: "Color?" "Red", the boy would answer. So color after color would be
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silently shown to the mesmeriser, and the next moment he mentally imparted it to the linen handkerchief, and it was seen by the hypnotised subject. This was, I fancy, about as fine a proof of the possibility of thought-transference as can be found on record.
While in Paris in the October preceding, Mr. Rudolph Gebhard and I had been present on the 18th at some mesmeric experiments of M. Robert, the well-known masseur-magnétiseur, on one of his clairvoyant subjects. Among other things, the latter told us that he saw us sailing in a steamer on a far-off sea; a man falling overboard; the steamer stopped; a boat put out, and the steamer sailing in a circle. That sounded queer, as neither of us recollected the evident fact that a vessel, especially a steamer, usually does sail in a circle to pick up a person who has gone overboard; however, I made a note of it at the time, and it now came vividly back to me, for, while crossing the Bay of Bengal on March 14, a Hindu deck passenger fell overboard, and the "Himalaya" sailed in a circle to pick him up. The coming event of March had, therefore, cast its astral shadow before it on the clairvoyant brain, five months in advance of its happening. I reported the fact to M. Robert by letter at the time, and he can confirm it to anybody who may have the curiosity to ask him to let them see my letter.
We touched at the usual coast ports, among them Cocanada, Subba Row's native place, where I went ashore and organised the local Branch T. S. which still survives. Our steamer landed us at Madras
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on 19th March, and on reaching Headquarters I "found Atra Cura enthroned and everything looking bad". But we need not sail into that cloud-bank just as we have reached port. Leave it for the next chapter.