Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Olcott, Strauss, and Ginsberg

Location:   Sri Lanka
Year:   1875

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), a New Jersey-born graduate of the City College of New York and of Columbia University, was the chief investigator of the assassination of President Lincoln, and a leading Theosophist. In 1875, Olcott traveled to Sri Lanka, and became the first American-born Buddhist while living in that country. 

Olcott worked with the monk Anagarika Dharmapala to rejuvenate Buddhism in that country. He is honored in Sri Lanka for doing so. Upon returning to the U.S.,  Olcott wrote The Buddhist Catechism (1881) which reflected Theravada Buddhist teachings. 


Charles T. Strauss (1852-1937), a lace curtain salesman who lived and worked at 466 Broadway in Manhattan, became the first Western convert to Buddhism on American soil during his attendance at The World Conference on Religions held in Chicago in 1893.  Strauss was Jewish by birth, but ecumenical in thought. At the Conference he became fascinated by Buddhism, and approached the Buddhist monks in attendance for more information. 

Anagarika Dharmapala, who had worked with  Olcott in Sri Lanka, administered a Sanskrit oath to Strauss, who ever after called himself a Buddhist. He never sought formal ordination but became an active member of Dharmapala and Olcott's Mahabodhi Society, and assisted Dharmapala in building the organization. He wrote one book, The Buddha and His Doctrine (1923), in which he emphasized the nonmystical, ethical nature of Buddhism.


Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) is most famous as one of the poets of The Beat Generation. Like Olcott, he was born in New Jersey and attended Columbia University (from which he was expelled for writing graffiti on a steamy window with his finger). Like Strauss, he had been raised in the Jewish faith.  

In 1948, he had his famous "Blake Vision" and not long after that met Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Manhattan (the two shared a cab). Both spiritualists and hard drinkers, they remained lifelong friends. Ginsberg used his position as a famed poet to help promote Trungpa's Vajrayana Buddhist teachings, and Buddhist themes are reflected in some of Ginsberg's poetry.    

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