Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Dharma Message for FOUNDERS' DAY 2020: Olcott on Buddha, Dharma and Sangha

Excerpts from "The Buddhist Catechism" by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott

The Buddha

71. Q. Did those five companions readily listen to him?

A. At first, no; but so great was the spiritual beauty of his appearance, so sweet and convincing his teaching, that they soon turned and gave him the closest attention ...

The Dharma

 116. Q. When our Bodhisattva became Buddha, what did he see was the cause of human misery? Tell me in one word.

A. Ignorance (Avidyd) ...

111. Q. Can you tell me the remedy?

A. To dispel Ignorance and become wise (Prajna) ...

118. Q. Why does ignorance cause suffering?

A. Because it makes us prize what is not worth prizing, grieve when we should not grieve, consider real what is not real but only illusionary, and pass our lives in the pursuit of worthless objects, neglecting what is in reality most valuable.

119. Q. And what is that which is most valuable?

A. To know the whole secret of man’s existence and destiny, so that we may estimate at no more than their actual value this life and its relations; and so that we may live in a way to ensure the greatest happiness and the least suffering for our fellow-men and ourselves ...

The Sangha

269. Q. What daily routine must he follow?

A. He rises before daylight, washes, sweeps the vihara, sweeps around the Bo-tree that grows near every vihara, brings the drinking-water for the day and filters it; retires for meditation, offers flowers before the dagoba, or relic-mound, or before the Bo-tree; then takes his begging-bowl and goes from house to house collecting food which he must not ask for, but receive in his bowl as given voluntarily by the householders. He returns, bathes his feet and eats, after which he resumes meditation ...

270. Q. Must we believe that there is no merit in the offering of flowers (malapiija) as an act of worship ?

A. That act itself is without merit as a mere formality; but if one offers a flower as the sweetest, purest expression of heartfelt reverence for a holy being then, indeed, is the offering an act of ennobling worship . 

271. Q. What next does the Bhikkhu do?

A. He pursues his studies. At sunset he again sweeps the sacred places, lights a lamp, listens to the instructions of his superior, and confesses to him any fault he may have committed.


Founders' Day 2020


[On November 15, 2020, Mary Power, Lodge SFTS President, gave an important Founders' Day message providing vital context for understanding Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, illuminating who he was and what he stood for both before and after H.P.B. rocked his world. This message is of particular poignancy, in 2020, as we cope with the grim challenges of a deadly pandemic, devastation wrought by the Climate Crisis and some horrific human rights abuses against men and women of color. Before he met H.P.B., Olcott was directly and significantly engaged in America's great struggle to live up to its noblest aspiration ("E Pluribus Unum"), after he met her, he dedicated his life and work to Theosophy and the Theosophical Society, and especially to the first of our Three Avowed Objects, "To form a nucleus of universal brotherhood and sisterhood, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color." In toto, his life was a profound and unequivocal testimoney to the resonance between these two great missions. Included in this post are both an embedded video of Mary's talk and the full text with accompanying images and relevant resources. -- SFTS Lodge #NoReligionHigherThanTruth #NoPowerGreaterThan Love]

Colonel Olcott in Adyar (1903)

Founders Day 2020 presented by Mary Power, President of the San Francisco Lodge of the Theosophical Society 

(Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we give tribute to the Founders Theosophy via Facebook Live presentation on November 15, 2020.)

Since this is the year of 2020, hindsight, I’m going to refresh the historical context of America as atmospheric backdrop to the extraordinary timing and placement of origin, in the founding of Theosophy. A brief history lesson, will demonstrate the alignment of Theosophy to the American founding principles in declaration and constitution. A special emphasis on Colonel Olcott spotlights the mutual impact in our karmic histories.  Fun fact, Theosophy was founded in America first.

At the same time, we are here to celebrate the trailblazing intensity of our founders of Theosophy.  Their actions on Western thought and spirit, beyond materialism, brought new concepts like karma and reincarnation to this America, a nation saturated in materialism.

It’s no secret, or great revelation that America was born from genocide, slavery, brutality and war. The very people engaged in atrocity and revolution were among the first immigrants, refugees who fled Europe for reasons of famine, poverty, disease, tyranny both political and religious and also those seeking gold and profit, as well as indigenous people and slaves enlisted to exchange for freedom.

In 2020 more questions surface as we confront the truth about our past. The question of “who discovered America” is quaint compared to the truths regarding the “founding date” of America”.

The new world continent known as America, wasn’t new to the original people living here.  Any dispute seems entirely racist without recognition of original inhabitants living here 20,000 years before “discovery” (1).  The Indigenous people were on this continent long before sixth century A.D. Irish monk St. Brendan travelled to it (2); and long before Leif Erickson (3). The fifteenth century that marked his arrival at the northern tip of Newfoundland was 500 years before the Chinese Muslim explorer Admiral Zheng He (4) and the well-known Italian, Spanish sponsored, Christopher Columbus, both sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

But it was Columbus (5) who opened the charters to Europe. Even though Amerigo Vespucci navigated this continent and named it. Even though Amerigo was the scientific navigator, cosmographer, and astronomer.  Eventually, the King and Queen of Spain, relegated him to instruct navigation to their fleet of pilots.

But more importantly was the discovery of gold that gave Columbus (5) the mythic credits of discovering America.  Even though he landed in San Salvador and thought it was Asia.

The founding of America however upon the indigenous population, is scarred with historical land grabs through means of genocidal wars.  The American Indian Wars lasted three over hundred years, 1609-1924. And through many broken treaties, it dragged along side by side with wars of rebellion against the British tyranny and simultaneously, against the most heinous fascist-slave system in the world.

We celebrate July 4th, 1776 as the founding date of America by these wars.  The declaration of Independence signed on that day would begin our long journey toward civil rights action in America to this day.  There are volumes more to this history.

A recent national discussion surrounds the year 1619.  The 1619 Project won Nikole Hannah-Jones a Pulitzer Prize (15) for introducing interactive commentary to remind our history that the founding, the building and the profit of America began with chattel slavery.  The year 1619  “when [the first] ship arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans” (6).

These are the grounds Theosophy born out of.

The Theosophical Society in America was founded on November 17, 1875.

The San Francisco Lodge, chartered by Annie Besant, was founded August 10, 1901.  Annie Besant first met HPB through reading the Secret Doctrine tomes.  In 1889, she met Blavatsky in real life, and became a member. And Besant knew her so called freethinker friends wouldn’t agree with this. Besant was a British socialist working and organizing for labor rights, children’s rights, and she was a women’s rights activist. 

She championed freedom in Britain, Ireland and India. In 1907, she became president of the Theosophical Society at international headquarters at Adyar.  When World War I broke out in 1914, she organized and campaigned for democracy in India.  She was a spiritual seeker, lost some friends because of it and then made new ones.

There were several attempts at forming the Society. HPB tried to found a Spiritual Society in Cairo when she was there in 1871.  In New York, just five months before the set date of November 17, 1875, the Miracle Club was proposed.  It failed though because the starring medium wanted to make a business for profit out of Theosophy, and the founders vehemently opposed this. 

After the Theosophical Society (TS) was created, mistakes in collaborative attempts with Swami Dyanand were subsequently aborted. And at some point, Olcott had talked of drawing plans of rituals and levels with his brothers in Freemasonry.  Nothing stuck until the Theosophical Society rooted its own independence.

Annie Besant, Henry S. Olcott and William Q. Judge, London, July 1891

The tireless labor and selfless dedication that cultivates religious freedom, tolerance and curiosity in Theosophy is credited to Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (who preferred to be called HPB) and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott.  Others among them, but most notably was William Quan Judge. He was the Southern District of New York (SDNY) lawyer, colleague and close friend to Olcott.  It was Judge who first filled the role of TS Secretary. 

W.Q. Judge frequented HPB’s salons at 46 Irving Place and later at the well know Lamasery in NYC. The salons’ audience numbered one hundred per night, included well known dignitaries, world travelers, scientists, and inventors like Thomas Edison and Sir William Crookes (famous British physicist and astronomer).

It was the hip place to be, with cutting edge ideas of occult, philosophy and science paired with eccentric and lively discussion, altogether unimaginable within a stuffy Victorian era.  There were lecturers including Blavatsky herself. She generally stirred conversation on various topics ranging from “the phallic element in religion, recent wonders among the mediums, history, the souls of flowers, Italian character, the strangeness of travel, chemistry, poetry, Nature’s trinity, [the] Romanis, gravitation, the Carbonari, Crooke’s new discoveries about the force of light, the literature of Magic…the lost canon of proportion of the Egyptians.” (7)

Four years after founding the Theosophical headquarters in New York (America), Blavatsky and Olcott embarked to India (1879).  Over time in India, they built the international Theosophical Headquarters at Adyar. 

But before HPB left for India, she wrote Isis Unveiled while she worked to become a naturalized American citizen.  On July 8, 1878, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky became the first Russian-American woman.

HPB and Olcott joked with each other frequently with nicknames and pranks. Olcott remembers, “We used to speak of ourselves as the Theosophical Twins and sometimes as a trinity; the chandelier hanging overhead making of the third party… [leaving NY] towards India, the last thing we did was to say, with mock seriousness, ‘Farewell, old Chandelier; silent, light-giving, unchanging friend and confidant!’” (8) 

So, it was W.Q. Judge who tended the roots of Theosophy at the Lamasery, the New York headquarters after HPB and Olcott went for India. General Abner Doubleday a retired US army officer who fought against the Confederacy at Fort Sumter and at Gettysburg lent assistance, “with a few other associates”. The first two years in India thrust the founders into deeper currents and courses of Theosophical development. 

According to Olcott, the New York headquarters were in “suspended animation” for those first two years.  Fortunately, Judge was diligent and keen to incubate the seeds of occult mysticism and esoteric philosophy for the future of Theosophy to thrive in America. 

 Nevertheless, especially in the beginning, the viability of the movement derived directly from Blavatsky and Olcott.

The Colonel would return to New York only once more in his lifetime, briefly in 1906, before going back to Adyar where he died in 1907. HPB never returned.

In 1856, Henry Steel Olcott became the leading authority on the development of a sugar made of Sorgho and Imphee—a Chinese-African hybrid.  It offered a political pressure from the North with its potential to cripple the Southern plantations along with the slavery system. His lecture circuits, authorship and notoriety landed him the position of Associate Editor for the New York Tribune.

The Confederacy was well aware of the reputation of the abolitionist newspaper, the New York Tribune, with its endless assertions of the very tenets of John Brown. Confederate strategy was constantly being leaked and published in the Tribune, to the point that Tribune journalists were frequently run out of town, or worse thrown in jail.  Or worse.  One writing assignment almost got Olcott hanged with John Brown.

Pressure was building in 1859 between those who wanted slavery to spread and those who risked their lives to make it end.  Harpers Ferry held Federal munitions needed to secure safe passage of slave refugees into the mountains.  John Brown went on a suicide mission that raided the arsenal.  Although he lived and got the guns, many others died.  It only took Robert E. Lee, who was Confederate leaning at the time, and the Marines two months to recapture the arsenal and imprison John Brown.

On December 2, 1859 Charlestown was a heavily militarized camp of Confederates.  There was a bounty on any Tribune journalist coming in to write about the hanging of John Brown.  Naturally Olcott volunteered for the job.  He entered the train filled with the South’s uniformed reinforcement party.  

Rough ride because he obviously stood apart from them in his street clothes.  But when asked he simply declared himself a volunteer and held to it. Once off the train, he was spotted by a “rabid secessionist” that knew he was a Tribune man.  It was matter of life and death, so he ran for cover. Leaving his luggage behind was doom, as it would be taken hold for pick up at the Court House.  After deliberating for an hour of what he was to do, Olcott risked asking for help from of a fearless young man, confiding under Masonic Oath.

Henry S. Olcott wrote every detail about John Brown’s last glance at the Blue Ridge mountains. Later on, he added, “Now, isn’t that pitiful?  Isn’t it enough to make a stone image blush, to think of all this great army, with its flying flags and its brass guns, and its videttes and patrols all the way up to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains hailing one wounded Kansas farmer to execution?... John Brown descended, with self-possession and dignity, and mounted the gallows-steps.  He looked about at earth and sky and people, and remarked to Captain Avis, his jailer, upon the beauty of the scene…” (9)

When the American Civil War began in April of 1861, Olcott enlisted with the Union army of the North fighting for the “abolition of slavery, industrial progress, [and] the solidarity of the nation through continuation of the Union.” He was assigned with General Ambrose Burnside’s military operations.  Immediately Burnside noted Olcott’s integrity. Olcott had pointed out that the government was overspending on equipment that didn’t even work. By November 1861, Olcott received Army orders that appointed him as Special Investigator for war profiteering and fraud. The successful outcome of “cleaning out the Augean stables” (14) was recognized as winning a battle for the Union. By 1864, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton then commissioned Colonel Olcott to do the same investigations in the Navy.

Stanton later enlisted the Colonel on the manhunt and investigation of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Civil war was over in May of 1865, ending the business of slavery.  Although many of the slaves themselves didn’t get that joyous news until Juneteenth, June 19 of 1865.  

"It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." - Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was an adventuress driven by generosity, fierce altruism and her passion for arcane knowledge. She worked with great Masters from around the world, sometimes by her psychic abilities remotely through clairvoyance, telekinesis and apports, and sometimes in real life. She dedicated her entire life as ready to “dare and suffer all” for the sake of bearing Theosophy to the world. And she did. 

Speaking many languages, HPB particularly enjoyed speaking French with great ease, and found the English language choice in her prolific writings on esoteric philosophy. She wasn’t bound to European or Victorian social class.  Most women in those days were completely restricted, bound to faint, by corset.  Therefore, it’s remarkable the amounts of travel all around the world Blavatsky did solo.  Her travel stories of her as stowaway and in various disguises were dangerous, surviving death by a hair in some instances. And it’s remarkable the amount of travel that was done in her lifetime considering it was by ship, train or horse. 

She was proudest of her time in Tibet more than Egypt or India or the others.  Between 1855 and 1870, HPB spent about 7 years in Tibet and Little Tibet (Ladakh).  No other European had ever gone deep into the territories where she had gone to learn, study and prepare.  Karmically, her time spent in Tibet was on the same level of importance as meeting Olcott in America.

HPB arrived in America not knowing Colonel Olcott. They first met at the Chittenden farmhouse in Vermont. Both speaking together in French. The Colonel lighting her cigarette. It was 1874. And he was a chivalrous feminist, and adventurer.

William Rudolf O’Donovan’s Bronze medallion of HPB. (10)

A Few More Stories of Interest

O’Donovan was a distinguished American sculptor who enjoyed HPB’s company by pretending he was Roman Catholic only by birth. Then periodically, he would enrage Blavatsky feigning that Roman Catholics would eventually eradicate all traces of Buddhism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism from earth. “She would fume and swear and call him an incurable idiot and other pet names, but to no purpose; he would sit and smoke in dignified silence without changing face, as if he were listening to a dramatic recitation in which the speaker’s own feelings had no share. When she talked and shouted herself out of breath, he would slowly turn his head towards some neighbor and say: ‘She speaks well, doesn’t she; but she don’t believe that; it is only her repartee. She will be a good Catholic some day. And then, when HPB exploded at this crowning audacity, and mad as if to throw something at him, he would slip away to the kitchen and make himself a cup of tea! I have known him bring friends there just to enjoy this species of bear-baiting; but HPB never nourished malice, and after relieving herself of a certain number of objurgations, would be as friendly as ever with her inveterate teazer.” (11)

Maybe O’Donovan was the inspiration for the Key to Theosophy (12) written when she had the time in 1889. Her final response to her “inveterate teazer”, a question answer book
where she dismantles the stringency of Judeo-Christian religion in relation to Theosophy.

Henry Olcott and Buddhists (Colombo, 1883).  

In their first year in India, in 1880 Olcott supported the independence for the Buddhist people in Sri Lanka who had been forced into Christianity for 200 years. He lead Sri Lanka in reviving their oldest religion Theravada Buddhism. To counter Christian proselytizing and colonialism he worked to build Buddhist schools and helped them gain civil rights including rights to marry. As he helped restore their culture, Vesak, Buddha’s Day of Enlightenment, became a national holiday. Buddhism was once again allowed to practice without oppression. Olcott, an American, of Presbyterian beginnings was the first Westerner to become a Buddhist. He composed a question answer book in honor of the revival, Buddhist Catechism (13) published in 1881 in both Sinhalese and English. In 1967, Sri Lanka renewed their honor to him by designating February 17 as Olcott Day, designing a postage stamp in his memory of continued success of the cultural movement he began.

"Olcott celebrated on a 1967 postage stamp in Sri Lanka." - Occult American


1.   https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/10/a-brief-history-of-everyone-who-ever-lived/537942/

2.    https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2013/05/16/did-st-brendan-reach-north-america-500-years-before-the-vikings/

3.    https://www.history.com/news/the-viking-explorer-who-beat-columbus-to-america

4.    https://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/17/world/who-discovered-america-zheng-who.html#:~:text=His%202003%20book%2C%20entitled%20%221421,left%20settlements%20in%20South%20America.

5.    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/columbus-confusion-about-the-new-world-140132422/

6.    https://pulitzercenter.org/sites/default/files/full_issue_of_the_1619_project.pdf

7.   Old Diary Leaves, H.S.Olcott, 2nd Edition 1941 vol.1 page 115

8.   (Old Diary Leaves, H.S.Olcott, 2nd Edition 1941 vol.1 page 141)

9.   (Hammer on the Mountain by Howard Murphet 1972, pages 11-12)


11.Old Diary Leaves H.S.Olcott vol.1 1941 page 412



  1. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/stables.html
  2. https://nikolehannahjones.com/
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