Saturday, March 8, 2014

Stephen Prothero's "The White Buddhist": Book Review

Henry Steel Olcott's impact may be better known in Sri Lanka than his native America. It's astonishing that religious scholar Stephen Prothero's Harvard dissertation, transformed into a very smooth style atypical of such origins, is the first critical book-length examination of Olcott's impact. As he notes in the preface to this paperback 2011 edition of his 1996 work, Prothero argues for Olcott as less a Buddhist pioneer firebrand than a restless, driven, dissatisfied freethinker--to a point.

Prothero's thesis dominates: Olcott in becoming the first Westerner to accept Buddhism publicly in modern times (1870) could not shake off his liberal Protestant reform of Ceylon's natives. He wanted to replace the ritual-bound Asian version with one oriented closer to Protestant bias: for a founder's "primitivist" message, based on the scriptures closest to the original intent. Prothero distinguishes this from "the tradition of the Buddhists." (69) Olcott invented "a Buddhist lexicon informed by a Protestant grammar and spoken with a theosophical accent." This creolization, Prothero explains, kept Olcott's habitual upbringing aligned with the same underlying Protestant tendency that prevents moderns-- anymore than Theosophists or Harvard Divinity School students-- from fulfilling a reductive admission that all religions are ultimately one and the same.

Differences persist, and origins betray efforts of adults to leave behind their childhood beliefs. Even Theosophy became refashioned by Olcott; he revamped it (once he had failed to shake up some of its more gullible adherents sufficiently) to make it look less like "scientific spiritualism" in its mid-19c manifestation and more like "Asian wisdom-religion." As his biographer demonstrates from reading Olcott's propaganda and the responses of Asians (pro or con), he knew little about the faith he chose to preach. Yet he came to Ceylon determined to branch out from the formidable sway of his companion Madame Blavatsky and this began to separate his own catechetical missionizing from the effusions he had shared from Theosophy. He could not escape the deeper language of Christianity in formulating his doctrines, as he promoted his Buddhist lexicon to the Sinhalese.

Prothero attended Harvard in the company of two other influential scholars of Western responses to Buddhism. He nods to one, Thomas Tweed, who argues that a framework shifts the convert away from previous views to those of Buddhism, but he departs from his classmate, showing how Olcott failed to overcome his cognitive basis in his Puritan and Protestant past--he excoriated Christianity yet he spoke elsewhere with pride of his Puritan origins and he could not come up with a structural framework other than Protestantism to build up his counter-appeal to revive his invention of a back-to-basics version of Asian Buddhism. Still, many Sinhalese welcomed Olcott, understandably flattered by his decision to live among them and to adapt their religion, to counter Christianization. He wanted to free Buddhism from monks, and to revive its appeal on a scriptural, not ritual, basis.

Perhaps inevitably, trying to weaken some Eastern stereotypes, Olcott wound up perpetuating others. He championed Buddhism as a moral philosophy and he disliked the idolatrous perversions of a true doctrine--in this, his influence from Protestant and Theosophical sources speaks for itself. He never shook off Theosophy as his primary outlook. Prothero shows how Olcott's defense of Blavatsky (despite her wearying demands) and his habitual reduction by his "textualist" bias a compulsion that impelled him to treat as if a "sacred canopy" the belief systems of not only Buddhism but Zoroastrianism, Islam, and Hinduism as if recoverable by him--if only ritual was abandoned and the primary, earliest scriptures from the founders were restored. He linked "the essence of a religion to the inner meaning of its scriptures," (144); this "Orientalist" and "academic assumption" marked him as an American liberal Protestant no matter how far he tried to flee its formative impact upon his approach.

Prothero concludes with a judicious summary of the strengths and weaknesses of his diligent subject. This study avoids jargon and Prothero as in his later work shows his command of a learned, yet accessible and convincing ability to speak to a wider audience. Like his classmates Richard Hughes Seager and Thomas Tweed, Stephen Prothero emerged as a leading scholar of Western Buddhism in this work. However, unlike his friends he chose to edge back into Protestantism in the American ethos as his subsequent focus. And, Olcott never could leave that ethos behind. As his critic sees it, he chose Buddhism as the farthest field from his Christian background, but he never could reject his Theosophical outlook as its replacement, nor could he overturn his Protestant mentality.

He leaves us to ponder Olcott's legacy. He opened this study with his admission of a "hermeneutics of suspicion" at either conservative or liberal pieties which champion a diminishing of religious diversity in the name of zeal or tolerance or equality. "This book is informed, therefore, by a fundamental mistrust of schemes, however well-intentioned, that begin by judging all religious traditions to be true and end by determining that something is gained when the dizzying diversity of religious beliefs and practices is reduced, however imaginatively, to one core tradition." (x) He returns to this challenge of the core and the simplifying of religious expression by Olcott and his ilk, the lesson learned by we who read this. "It may be inevitable that individuals are going to capitalize on the ambiguity that lies at the core of all world religions by bending the texts and rituals of those traditions in their own peculiar direction--by conforming the lexicon of those religions to their own grammar and by speaking the resulting creole language in their own particular accent." (181)

(P.S. For comparison, I reviewed Prothero's "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know" (8/31/11) and his intriguing compilation of our nation's "core texts" from our "de facto public canon" assembled into an "American Talmud," offering speeches, songs, stories, and sayings to spark discussion and debate as primary "books": "American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation" [(5/29/12]) This review slightly altered to Amazon US 6-8-13. Author's website.

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