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OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fourth Series (1887-92)
by Henry Steel Olcott




AS soon as I knew that a Burmese Buddhist League had raised a large sum of money to send a preaching party to Europe, and that Delegates were being sent to Adyar to urge it upon me, I telegraphed for Sinhalese and Japanese Delegates to come from Colombo to meet the Burmese. Accordingly two Japanese gentlemen, Messrs. Kozen Gunaratna and C. Tokuzawa, two Sinhalese, Messrs. H. Dharmapala and Hemchandra, and two Burmese, Messrs. U. Hmouay Tha Aung and Maung Tha Dwe, met in committee with me on the 8th of January, 1891. The European mission being put aside, I then laid before them my views and invited full discussion, which went on day by day until the 22nd, when all points of belief in the Northern and Southern Schools of Buddhists having been compared, I drafted a platform, embracing fourteen clauses, upon which all Buddhist sects could agree if disposed to promote brotherly feeling and mutual sympathy between themselves. A fair copy of this document was signed by the Delegates and myself. Besides the nations above mentioned, the Chittagong


Maghs, a Buddhist nation in eastern Bengal, concurred through a special Delegate, acting as proxy for Babu Krishna Chandra Chowdry, the leader of the Maghs, who had requested me by telegraph to appoint one for him. Unquestionably this was a document of the deepest importance, for previously no mutual ground of compromise and co-operation had been found upon which the mighty forces of the Buddhist world could converge for the spread of their religious ideas. The platform, it is now generally known, was adopted by the leaders of the Northern and Southern Sections of Buddhism; and when the time comes for me to report the action upon it taken in Japan towards the close of the year, I shall give its text in full.
My programme for that year opened with a proposed visit to Australia for the double purpose of inquiring into the circumstances of the bequest of the Hartmann estate, at Toowoomba, and of visiting our Branches in the colonies. I had intended to start almost immediately after the Convention, but when the Burmese Delegates heard of this they made me an impassioned appeal to visit first their country. They even went so far as to say that the “whole nation” expected me. Upon mature reflection, I decided to accept the invitation, as my time was my own throughout the year. The Convention had asked me to take a holiday—the first in the twelve years of my Indian service—and I had consented and put the Presidentship in temporary “commission,” giving over my responsibilities and prerogatives to Messrs. Tookaram Tatya,



Norendro Nath Sen, N. D. Khandalvala, and W. Q. Judge to manage the Society until I should be ready and willing to return to duty. So, on the 17th of January, I sailed for Rangoon with the two Burmese Delegates. The tour in Burma was so very interesting that I shall use portions of the narrative which I wrote and published at the time, while the events were fresh in my memory.
Those who have followed my narrative throughout will remember the circumstances under which my first visit to the country was made. Towards the end of the year 1884, I received from the now-deposed King Theebaw an invitation to visit him at Mandalay to discuss Buddhism. The intermediary was his Italian physician, Dr. Barbieri de Introini, now the President of our revived Branch at Milano, Italy. On the chance of getting his Majesty to help the Sinhalese Buddhists, and to bring about more intimate relations between them and their Burmese co-religionists, I accepted, and in January, 1885, accompanied by Mr. Leadbeater, went to Rangoon. A week later I was telegraphed to return, as Mme. Blavatsky was apparently dying. Leaving Leadbeater there, I returned home, only to find that, by one of those almost miraculous changes which happened to her, she was convalescent, and after a week she let me go to Burma. I found that Mr. Leadbeater had worked up so great an interest that almost immediately I was able to organise three Branches. Meanwhile, the inquiries which I made among Burmans as to the king’s character


so disgusted me with him that I determined not to go to Mandalay, and just at this time a cable from Damodar informed me that H. P. B. had had a relapse and her recovery was despaired of. So I immediately abandoned the tour, returned to Adyar, and thus ended my first visit to the fertile land over which the long line of Alompara kings had reigned in barbaric splendor.
My reception on this my second visit was most enthusiastic and brotherly. I was put up in the elegant house of a private Burmese gentleman, and called upon by many of the Elders (Lugyies) of the town. It was the season of the full moon, and, as I say in my published account, “to a Westerner it would have been a novel picture to have seen us squatted on mats on the flat roof of the house, discussing the subtle problems of Buddhistic metaphysics. They are a clever people the Burmans; and as every man of them had passed his time in a kyourg (monastery), according to the inflexible national custom, the questions they put to me were such as to require distinct and thoughtful answers.” I had made it part of my programme to win the approval of the leading priests of Burma for my compromise platform; so, as I found my Rangoon visitors so sharp and eager, I broached the subject and invited their opinions. The discussion led us far afield, and brought up the true and false views of Nirvana, Karma, and other vital questions. The discussion became very animated, and one old lugyie, a veteran wrangler, whose furrowed face, sunken cheeks, and emaciated body showed the ascetic training



to which he had long submitted himself, was particularly vehement. When a point was raised, he went at it as though he would not stop short of the complete dismemberment of his gaunt frame, and his nervous gesticulations and headshakings threw such a tangle of black shadows on the moonlit terrace as to produce a queer and uncanny effect. As it turned out, he was backing up my positions, and it was down the throats of the others, not mine, that he seemed ready to jump. “The upshot of the two nights’ talk was that my several propositions were found orthodox and according to the Tripitikas: I had no misdoubts after that as to what would happen in Mandalay when I should meet the greatest of the Burmese monks in council.”
On 23rd January I left Rangoon for Pantanaw, an inland town, situate on an affluent of the Irrawaddy, in a small double-decked sternwheel steamboat. With me were my Madras escort and a large committee of leading men of Pantanaw, headed by Moung Shway Hla, Headmaster of the Government School in that place, a genial, courteous, and kind-hearted gentleman. There were no cabins nor saloons on the little steamboat, only the open deck, crowded in every part with Burmese men, women, and children, and their personal belongings, together with a mixed cargo of sorts, including the fragrant n’pee, a condiment made of pounded shrimps, and ripened, by long keeping, up to that acute point where the Limburger cheese, the perfected sauerkraut, and. the air-tainting garlic come into odoriferous competition with the verbena and the


tuberose to subdue man’s olfactory nerves to their intoxicating influences. To a veteran traveller like myself, the prospect of a night’s sleeping on a blanket on a hard deck, in such a mixed company and such an atmosphere of spoilt fish, was a trifle—but one out of scores of experiences. So with my Pantanaw committeemen near by and Babula at my side, I got through the night very comfortably. We reached Yandoon at 8.30 a.m., and from thence went on in sampans—those buoyant, easily-oversetting, two-sterned boats, that are rowed by one man who stands to his work and faces forward. In such frail craft we crossed the wind-swept Irrawaddy, ascended Pantanaw creek, and reached that place at 3.30 p.m. At the wharf the Buddhist flag was flying in welcome, and the chief officials and elders of the town, headed by Moung Pé, the Extra Assistant Commissioner, received me most cordially.
At Pantanaw I was lodged in the upper story of the Government School building—there being scarcely any travellers’ rest-houses as yet in Burma—and was most kindly treated. I availed of some leisure time here to draft a scheme for a National Buddhist Society, with a subsidiary network of township and village societies to share and systematise on a national scale the work of Buddhistic revival and propaganda. On the 25th, at 6 a.m., I lectured at the Shwe-moindin Pagoda, the most graceful in outlines, I think, that I saw in all Burma. The next day I left Pantanaw for Wakema in a long Burmese boat, propelled by



three rowers, and with a cabin (!) made by arching across the boat some mats (chiks) of split bamboo. In that blessed place I and my party—U. Hmoay, Moung Shway Hla, and two servants—had to stop for twenty-two long hours, after which, with aching bones, we came to Wakema. We were accommodated in a suite of rooms in the Court-house. At 5 p.m. I lectured to a large audience, whose gay silken turbans, scarves, and waist-cloths made them look perfectly gorgeous. Shway Yeo (Mr. J. G. Scott), the historian of Burma, says of such a crowd, “wind-stirred tulipbeds, or a stirabout of rainbows, or a blind man’s idea of a chromatrope, are the only suggestions which can be offered.” At Wâkema I saw for the first time one of their national marionette plays, in which are represented the tribulations and final blissful union of a prince and princess, children of two kings who had had other designs in their heads for the young people. The play began at 10 p.m. and was kept up until 5 o’clock in the morning, that witching hour when the “mower is heard whetting his scythe” and Nature bathes her face in dew. The village was crowded with people come for the raising of a new temple, a congenial work to which all devote themselves with positive enthusiasm. My stay here was protracted until the 30th, as I had to wait for a steamer to take me back to Rangoon. She came at last, and on the “Syriam,” a swift and perfectly appointed boat of the Flotilla Company, I made a pleasant night passage to the city which I had left a week before in the little.


stern-wheeler. That same evening I took the train for Mandalay, and reached it on the 1st of February at about the same hour. The railway was in a wretched condition, giving one, as poor Hqrace Greely said of a similar road, more exercise to the mile than any other in the world. My head ached and my bones were weary when I came to the journey’s end, but, at any rate, here I was in Mandalay at last. And a forlorn, dusty, comfortless place it is; while, as for Theebaw’s palace, it is a gilded wooden barn, with not one comfortable room inside where one would care to live, but with a series of roofs and towers that give it a lovely architectural appearance. Seen from a little distance, the buildings composing the palace are extremely pretty, an effect due to the curved roofs and the delicately carved eaves, gable-joints, and finials, where the carver has succeeded in imitating the flickering of flames as rising from the roofs under which those sons of splendor and sources of light, the king and princes, dwelt, like so many Nats in a palace of fairyland!
The brotherly kindnesses I received at Mandalay from the elders and others were such as linger in the memory for years. Truly the Burmese are a lovable people, and a manly, self-respecting, albeit awfully lazy people. Nothing delights them more than to bestow hospitality, and all writers agree in saying that with noble and peasant, rich and poor, the same spirit prevails. I was told, that if I had but visited the capital in the time of the Min-doon-min, the pious



predecessor of Theebaw, I should have been treated right royally, and experienced what Burmese hospitality means.
The purpose of my visit being known, I had first to undergo a close questioning by the leading laymen before my visit to the Sangha Raja (Royal High Priest) could be arranged. All doubts having been removed, the meeting was fixed for 1 p.m. on 3rd February, at the Taun-do-Seya-d-Temple, the shrine and monastery where His Royal Holiness—if that is the proper title for a king’s brother turned monk—lives and officiates.
The Sangha Raja was a venerable man of 70 years, of an amiable rather than strong countenance; and with the wrinkles of laughter at the outer corners of his eyes. His head is high, his forehead smooth, and one would take him to have his full share of brains packed together under the skull. His orange robe was of plain cotton cloth like that of the poorest monk in the Council—a circumstance which made me, thinking of his, royal blood and of the show he might be expected to indulge in, recall the splendid silken brocades and embroideries of certain high priests in Japan, who are supposed to typify the Tathagatha himself in their temple processions, but who must resemble him rather as heir apparent of Kapilavastu than as the homeless ascetic of Isipatana. The old priest gave me a copy of his portrait, in which he appears seated on a gilded gadi, but still with his yellow cotton robes wrapped around him, leaving the right shoulder bare.


The other ranking priests at the Council were similarly enrobed, and I found upon inquiry of themselves that their ages ran from 70 to 80 years each. Behind the chief priests knelt a number of their subordinate monks, and the samaneras, or young postulants, filled all the remaining space to the walls—right, left, and back. I and my party knelt facing the Sangha Raja, to my right was the ex-Minister of the Interior under Theebaw, a cultured, gentleman and earnest Buddhist, who being very conversant with French from a long residence in Paris, kindly served as my interpreter, he taking my remarks in French and translating them fluently and admirably into Burmese. The Council opened at 1 and broke up only at a quarter past 5 o’clock, by which time my poor legs and back were so tired by the, to me, unaccustomed and strained position, that I felt as if I had been run over by a herd of Shan ponies.
Before reporting the proceedings of the Council, I must say a word or two about the room in which we met. Like most of the monasteries in Burma and Japan, this kyoung was built of teak wood. The lofty ceiling was supported on straight shafts of teak, without flaw or blemish, chosen for their perfection of shape and freedom from knots or flaws. They are painted or lacquered in venetian red, and embellished in parts with girdles of gold leaf laid on in graceful patterns. Ceiling and walls are panelled in cunning carpentry, and the whole thickly covered with the pure gold-leaf of Yunnan and Sou-ch’uen, whose rich tone gives a



beautiful effect without the least gaudiness or vulgarity. The various doors of the great apartment are bordered with exquisite specimens of the wood-carver’s art, which in Burma is carried to a high pitch of perfection. The planks of the floor are spread with glossy, strong, and finely-woven mats of split rattan or bamboo, which come from the jungle-dwellers of the Sthin district. I think they are the best floor covering for the tropics I have ever seen.
Speaking of kneeling, it should be observed that this is the national posture in all social as well as ceremonial gatherings, and in daily life, as the cross-legged posture is in India. Like the Indians, the Burmans learn from childhood to sit on their heels, in which position they find themselves quite as comfortable as the European does on his chair or sofa. There were three or four chairs put away in a corner; and if I had been a British official, I should, no doubt, have been given one, and the chief priest would have taken another. But, considering me as belonging to their own party and religion, they treated me in this matter exactly as though I had been a Burman born, and I took it as meant, viz., as a compliment, and sacrificed my muscles to the exigencies of custom, as the young damsel of the West does her feet and ribs to be in the fashion, and calls up her fortitude to seem to like it.
The proceedings of the Council were opened by my giving a succinct account of the work of the Theosophical Society in the field of Buddhistic exegesis and propaganda. I told about our labors in Ceylon, of


the state of religious affairs when we arrived, of the obstructive and often disreputable tactics of the missionaries, and of the changes that our eleven years of effort had wrought. As I found copies of the Burmese translation of my Buddhist Catechism in the hands of persons present, I spoke of the general adoption of this little work as a text-book in the Ceylon monasteries and Buddhist schools. I told them about our Sinhalese and English journals, the Sandaresa and the Buddhist, and about the tens of thousands of translated religious pamphlets and tracts we had distributed throughout the island. The statistics of our Buddhist boys’ and girls’ schools I laid before them. Then, as to Japan, I dwelt upon the various Buddhist sects and their metaphysical views, described the temples and monasteries, and did full justice to the noble qualities of the Japanese as individuals and as a nation. I did wish I had had some good photographer with his camera behind me to take a picture of that group of old, earnest-faced Burmese monks, as they leaned forward on their hands or elbows, with mouths half opened, drinking in every word that came from my interpreter’s lips! And above all it was a sight to see their faces where my narrative gave them points to laugh at. They share the sweet joviality of the national temperament, and anything I said which struck them as funny made them smile in the most large and liberal way—anatomically speaking.
From particulars I went to universals, and put to them very plainly the question whether, as monks



of Buddha, professing his loving principles of universal human brotherhood and universal loving kindness, they would dare tell me that they should not make an effort to knit together the Buddhists of all nations and sects in a common relation of reciprocal good-will and tolerance, and whether they were not ready to work with me and any other well-meaning person towards this end. I told them that, while undoubtedly there were very great differences of belief between the Mahayana and Hinayana upon certain doctrinal points, such, for instance, as Amitabha and the aids to salvation, yet there were many points of perfect agreement, and these should be picked out and drafted into a platform for the whole Buddhist world to range itself upon. My interpreter then read, section by section, the Burmese translation (made by Moung Shoung, of Rangoon, and Moung Pé, of Pantanaw) of the document I had prepared as a statement of “Fundamental Buddhistic Ideas”. As each section was adopted, I checked it off, and in the long run every one was declared orthodox and acceptable. I then got the Sangha Raja to sign the paper as “Accepted on behalf of the Buddhists of Burma”; and after him, in the order of seniority, twenty-three other ranking monks affixed their signatures.
The first stage having been passed in our discussion, I then submitted to their criticism a second document, consisting of a circular letter from myself to all Buddhist high priests, asking them to co-operate in the formation of an international committee of propaganda; each


Buddhist nation to be represented on the Committee by two or more well-educated persons, and each to contribute its share of the expenses. I admitted in this circular that I knew the Burmese were quite ready to take the entire work and cost upon themselves, but said that I did not think this fair, as in so important a work the merit should in equity be shared by all Buddhist nations. A brief discussion, after several careful readings of the document, resulted in the adoption of the principles sketched out, and the Sangha Raja signed and affixed his official seal to the paper in token of his approval. After some desultory conversation, the expression of very kind good-wishes for myself, and the declaration of all the priests that I had the right to call upon them for whatever help I might need at their hands, the meeting adjourned.
That night I slept the sleep of the muscle-bruised, but not before receiving the congratulations of many callers upon the successful issue of my visit.
The next morning I had my audience of farewell with the Sangha Raja in his private rooms. I wish somebody who is familiar with the luxurious apartments of Romish cardinals, Anglican bishops, and fashionable New York clergymen could have seen this, of a king’s brother, as he lives. A simple cot, an armchair, a mat-strewn, planked floor, and he kneeling on it in his monastic robes, the value of which would not be above a few rupees. He was kindness personified towards me, said he hoped I would soon get out a new edition of the Catechism, and declared



that if I would only stop ten days longer at Mandalay the whole people would be roused to enthusiasm. I could not do this, my other engagements forbidding, so he said that if we must part I might take the assurance that his blessing and best wishes and those of the whole Burmese Sangha would follow me wherever I might wander. As I was leaving, he presented me with a richly-gilded palm-leaf MS. of a portion of the Abidhamma Pitaka.
While at Mandalay, I lectured at a splendidly gilt and architecturally lovely pagoda. After my discourse, I was given for the Adyar Library a silver statuette of Buddha, weighing about three pounds, and three volumes of palm-leaf MSS. in red lacquer and gold; the former by the ex-Viceroy of the Shan States, the Khawgaung-Kyaw, and the latter by three noble brothers, Moung Khin, Moung Pé, and Moung Tun Aung.
I visited the gorgeous Arecan Pagoda, Maha-Mamuni, built by the Arecan Rajah, Sanda Suriya; also Atoo-Mashi-Kaoung-daw-gye, the “Incomparable Monastery”. It well deserves its name, for neither in Japan, nor Ceylon, nor elsewhere have I seen anything to match the splendor of the room in which sits the gigantic gold-plated, jewel-enriched statue of Lord Buddha. The image is 20 or 30 feet high, solid, and composed of the ashes of silken garments burnt for the purpose by pious Burmese of both sexes. The coup d’oeil of the whole chamber is like that of some djinbuilt palace of fairyland. Exteriorly, the building


is constructed in solid masonry, rising in terraces of lessening areas, and reminding one of the pyramidal terraced pagodas of Uxmal and Palenque. I must mention a circumstance in connection with this kyoung which redounds to the credit of the Burmese Buddhist monks. It was erected by the great and pious Alompara sovereign, Mindoon-Min, the immediate predecessor of King Theebaw, and he had given it the name it bears. He could get no monk to accept it as a gift or reside in it, because in their belief the title Incomparable should rightly be given to the Buddha alone. What do our fashionable Western prelates say to that? Yet this modesty and unselfishness is quite consistent with the whole character of the Burmese Sangha. Says Mr. Scott, the most authoritative writer upon the subject save Bishop Bigandet, whose testimony agrees with his:
“The tone of the monks is undoubtedly good. Any infractions of the law, which is extraordinarily complicated, are severely punished; and if a pohngyee, as the monks are termed, were to commit any flagrant sin, he would forthwith be turned out of the monastery to the mercy of the people, which would not be very conspicuously lenient. In return for their self-denial, the monks are highly honored by the people . . . Religion pervades Burma in a way that is seen in hardly any other country.”1
I have good warrant, therefore, to expect great results from the auspicious commencement of my work in this land of good monks and pious people.

1Burma as It was, as It is, as It will be. London, 1886.



Another thing I visited at Mandalay was the Temple of the Pitakas, the Koo-tho-daw. This is one of the most unique, and at the same time noble, monuments ever left behind him by a sovereign. Its builder was Mindoon-Min the Good. Imagine a central pagoda, enshrining a superb statue of Lord Buddha, and 729 kiosks arranged in concentric squares around it—each of the little shrines containing one large, thick, upstanding slab of white marble, engraved on the two faces with portions of the Tripitakas, in Pali, in the Burmese character. Beginning at a certain point in the inner square, the slabs contain the text of the Sutta Pitaka, running on from slab to slab in regular order until that Pitaka is finished. Then, after a break, the next slab takes up the text of the Vinaya Pitaka; and finally, the outer rows of slabs give that of the Abidhamma Pitaka, or Buddhistic Metaphysic—the life and soul of the Buddhistic religion, its enduring substance and unimpeachable reality; though this fact seems to be unsuspected by nearly all of our commentators and critics, the late Bishop Bigandet being one of the exceptions.
This Koo-tho-daw version of the Tripitakas is regarded by every one in Burma as the standard for accuracy. Before commencing the work, King Mindoon-Min convened a council of monks, who carefully examined the various palm-leaf MSS. available, and out of them selected and compiled the most accurate text for the king’s use. Copies of these were then handed over by him to the marble-cutters


for engraving. The project is entertained by Moung Shoung, F.T.S., to issue a cheap edition of this authenticated version. It would cost but Rs. 15,000, and he expects to be able to raise the money.
Setting my face homeward, I left Mandalay and its kind people on the 4th of February, many influential friends accompanying me to the station for a last farewell. Here I had to bid good-bye to that excellent friend and loyal gentleman, U. Hmoay Tha Aun, who almost wept because he could not accompany me to Madras, or Australia, or the world’s end. My party was thus reduced to Moung Shway Hla, myself, and two servants.
For the second time—the first being in 1885, as above noted—I lectured at Shway Dagôn Pagoda at Rangoon. My audience was large, influential, and attentive. It cannot be said that I was very complimentary to the priests or trustees of this world-known shrine. When last in Rangoon, I found the trustees collecting from the public a lac of rupees to pay for regilding the pagoda. Certainly it is a splendid structure, a jewel among religious edifices, but I urged it upon the attention of the trustees that a true social economy would dictate the raising of the lac for publishing the Scriptures of their religion and otherwise promoting its interests, and then a second lac for the gilt, if they must have it. This time, I found the gilt of 1885 badly worn off by the weather, and the trustees talking about going in for another large job of gilding. This was too much for my patience, so



I gave them some extremely plain talk, showing that the first thing they ought to do was to raise Rs. 15,000 for publishing the Mandalay stone-registered Pitakas, and after that a variety of things, before any more gilt was laid on their pagoda.
At Rangoon I also had the great good fortune of passing an hour in friendly conversation with the venerable and by-all-beloved Roman Catholic Bishop of Ava, Father Bigandet. The literary world knows him by his Legend of Gaudama, the earliest Western introduction to the life of the Buddha. I had had the privilege of forming his lordship’s acquaintance in 1885 while at Rangoon, and would not leave Burma this time without once more paying him my sincere homage as a prelate, a scholar, and a man. I found him physically feeble, somewhat afflicted with trembling palsy, so much so, in fact, as to make writing a very irksome task. But his mind was as clear and strong as it ever was. He told me that the first edition of his book being entirely sold out, Messrs. Trübner had received his permission to reprint it at their own risk, they to keep all the profits to themselves. I urged him to write one more such learned, exhaustive, and impartial book as his first upon Buddhism. He asked what subject I would suggest, to which I replied, the Abidhamma, as contrasted with modern philosophic speculations. He smiled and said: “You have chosen the best of all, for the metaphysic of Buddhism is its real core and substance. In comparison with it, the legendary stories of the Buddha’s personality are


nothing worth speaking of.” But, with a solemn shade coming over his kind and intellectual face, he said: “It is too late; I can write no more. You younger men must take it upon yourselves.”
I felt great reluctance to part with him, for he was evidently failing fast, and at his age, 78, one cannot count upon future meetings very far ahead; but at last, gladly receiving his blessing, I left his presence, never to meet him again, as it turned out. Living, he possessed the respect of all Burmese Buddhists who knew of his unselfishness and loyalty to conscience; and now that he is dead, his memory is cherished with affection.

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