That Impostor Known as the Buddha

Eliot Weinberger

  • From Stone to Flesh: A Short History of the Buddha by Donald S. Lopez Jr
    Chicago, 289 pp, £18.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 226 49320 6
  • In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint by Donald S. Lopez Jr and Peggy McCracken
    Norton, 262 pp, £17.99, May 2014, ISBN 978 0 393 08915 8

In 125 CE, Aristides, defending Christianity before the Emperor Hadrian at the celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries, divided the world into four: Greeks (which included Egyptians and Chaldeans), Jews, Christians and barbarians. In the Christian West the coming of Islam revised this list into a taxonomy that would remain in place for a millennium: Jews, Christians, ‘Mahometans’ and ‘idolaters’. Idolatry eventually included everyone in the non-white world from Aztecs to Taoists, even, during the Crusades, the Mahometans, regardless of their strict prohibitions against graphic representations of God or of the Prophet. (In The Song of Roland they are seen praying to a menagerie of idols, including Apollo and Lucifer.) Exempt from the charge of idolatry were, of course, the Christians themselves. Their Disneylands of architectural extravaganzas might be filled with colourful and thrilling, terrifying or sentimental images of Jesus and Mary and the saints, but these were not, they explained, objects of worship: they served only as didactic tools for the illiterate. Not idols for whom prayers were uttered and candles lit, they were edifying comic books.

When those who venerated the image of a grotesquely tortured man arrived in South and East Asia, they were faced with having to account for the apparent sacredness of the image of a man sitting cross-legged on a lotus, with eyes closed and a half-smile on his lips. They had little idea who or what he was, but it was plain that he was an ‘apparition from a hell’, an ‘impostor’, a ‘monster’. Leibniz, who believed the Chinese were the most supremely rational beings, thought they had been perverted by that ‘accursed idol’.

The classification of idolaters, like other all-purpose pejoratives (lately, terrorists), didn’t encourage distinctions. In India, this figure was one god in a crowd of monkey gods and elephant-headed gods, blue men and women with four arms. Moreover, he existed only in abandoned temples and neglected statuary. Buddhism had vanished from India centuries before, and the native informants, the brahmans, merely knew the Buddha, if at all, from his later absorption into Hinduism as an avatar of Vishnu. Elsewhere in Asia, the religion was thriving, but the Westerners didn’t realise it was the same religion. They misheard the regional languages and invented names for the different gods – Baouth or Budu, Xaca or Sciacchià-Thubbà (for Sakyamuni), Sommona-Codom (from the Thai), Fo (from the Chinese), Sagamoni Borcan (from the Mongolian), among hundreds of others – before they slowly discovered that these were not many, but one, and not a god, but an actual, historical man. It was a long path to enlightenment, through many incarnations of falsehoods, half-truths and bizarre speculations. Although he was first mentioned in the West by St Clement of Alexandria in the third century, it was not until 1801, according to the OED, that the word ‘Buddha’ entered the English language, and some decades after that until the portrait we now consider standard emerged.

Encountering the strange, the Christians naturally fixed on the traces of things that were familiar, inevitably concluding that they were distortions of immutable truth. According to Guy Tachard, a 17th-century French Jesuit, Buddhism was a ‘monstrous mixture of Christianity and the most ridiculous fables’. Both religions had heavens and hells (though the Buddhist ones were multiple and not eternal – merely way stations on the path to the next incarnation). Both had monks who were celibate, dressed in robes and collected alms. Both the Buddha (in some versions of the story) and Jesus were born from a virgin birth. The Japanese names for the Buddha’s parents, Jōbon Dai Ō and Magabonin, were apparent corruptions of Joseph and Mary. Buddhist prayer chants, Matteo Ricci said, sound like Gregorian, and they chant the name Tolome, not knowing that it clearly means that ‘they wish to honour their cult with the authority of the Apostle Bartholomew.’ Others thought the Buddha a decayed memory of Thomas the Apostle, who was said to have gone to India after the Resurrection. Some assumed the Buddhists were a branch of the Nestorian Christians who, exiled from Constantinople in the fifth century, had fled to Persia and later flourished in Tang Dynasty China and among the Mongols. Protestants like Samuel Purchas found the Buddhist monasteries in Ceylon ‘popish, being also gilded with gold’, with ‘saints’ in their ‘chapels’, ‘set on the Altars … clothed with garments of gold and silver’. ‘Any man that should see it,’ he wrote, ‘would think our Western Monks had hence borrowed their Ceremonies.’

Francis Xavier – whose source was an accommodating, illiterate, renegade Japanese wanted for murder, whom he met in Malacca in 1547 – initially believed that the Buddha was not an idol but, like Moses, had ordered the smashing of idols in the name of the One God. Two years later, when he arrived in Japan, Xavier changed his mind, calling the Buddha ‘the pure invention of demons’. Trying to teach the Japanese the truth, he transformed the Latin deus into the Japanese daiusu, which unfortunately sounded like dai usō, a ‘big lie’.

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