the sri lankan buddhist from new jersey


Saddhu! Saddhu! they cried as they waved a thousand white flags in welcome. He was a stout man with a fluffy white beard that sat atop his vest like a platter of cotton balls. Often he would doff his three-piece suit and exchange it for a set of white pajamas and bare feet, looking part Sufi, part Santa. He traveled around from village to village in a homemade bullock cart cobbled from self-described Yankee ingenuity, a wonder cabinet of books and projecting drawers that was a kitchen and a bathing room, and could host a dinner party of eight. He pedaled freedom and enlightenment with the enthusiasm of a ringmaster. But Olcott never promised to save Sri Lanka on his own; he only wanted to help bring the Sinhalese back to themselves. The ignorance of the Sinhalese about Buddhism is shocking, Olcott wrote in his diary, though they were less ignorant than Olcott believed. But it was true that the Sinhalese relationship to Buddhism had become estranged. Buddhist practices and education had largely been outlawed by the British, and the education system was dominated by the Christian church. Missionaries had convinced the Sinhalese that Buddhism was nihilistic because it denied the existence of a personal God, Olcott wrote in The Life of the Buddha, and Sinhalese Buddhism had become corrupted by decadent, Western materialism.

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