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’.

For their part, the Asians also looked for the familiar in these mysterious visitors. Some thought the Jesuits were Buddhist monks from India, but they couldn’t understand why they would wear an image of Devadatta around their necks. (Devadatta was the Buddha’s evil nemesis, who tried to assassinate him on various occasions, and ended up in the worst of the 16 hells, impaled on stakes.) It must mean that these men in robes were some sort of anti-Buddhist cult – in Western terms, satanists.

In the 17th century, with the opening of trade routes and Westerners living in Asia and learning the languages, it was finally understood that this idol was the same person in all the countries. But, given the perennial belief that ancient people in barbaric lands could never have created anything without guidance from the more advanced – in modern times this is usually attributed to Atlanteans or extra-terrestrials – it could not be imagined that the Asians had elaborated this complex religion on their own. Buddhism had to have come from one of the civilised, however idolatrous, countries – namely, Egypt. Engelbert Kaempfer, who spent years in Asia with the Dutch East India Company and whose accounts were influential into the 18th century, declared that the Buddha was a priest from Memphis, expelled by the Persian conquest of Egypt in the mid-sixth century bce, who had fled to India taking with him not only the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, but the worship of cows (like the Egyptian god Apis) and animal-headed gods. Moreover, because of the ‘woolly curls’ on his head, it was obvious that the Buddha was a Negro. Various British residents in India, including the great Sir William Jones, discoverer of the Indo-European language roots, echoed this: the Buddha had the nose and lips and the ‘crisp and woolly’ hair of Africans. (Others thought that the curls on the Buddha’s head were snails.)

Athanasius Kircher, whose name is always followed with the epithet The Last Man Who Knew Everything – including that the entirety of Chinese civilisation came from Egypt, as proved by their ‘hieroglyphic’ writing – also believed that the Buddha was originally a priest of Osiris. ‘He was a very sinful brahman imbued with Pythagoreanism’ (that is, a belief in reincarnation, not otherwise shared by the priests of Osiris), ‘an ‘impostor known all over the East’, who ‘infected the whole Orient with his pestilent dogmas’.

Kaempfer, in what became a popular theory, thought there were two Buddhas: the real one who lived many thousands of years ago, and the Egyptian priest, who was an impostor claiming to be him. Kircher and Kaempfer were modified by the Augustinian friar Antonio Agostino Giorgi, who moved the chronology one step forward: the first Buddha was the priest of Osiris, but the second was a Gnostic or Manichean who came to India after the resurrection of Christ, pretending to be Jesus.

Sir William Jones’s discovery of the Indo-European family of languages led to speculation on the mythological connections, and it soon became difficult to sort out which deity was actually, or pretending to be, whom. Louis-Mathieu Langlès, curator of Oriental manuscripts at the Bibliothèque Nationale under Napoleon, declared that the Buddha was also the Egyptian Thoth, the Scandinavian Woden, the Roman Mercury, the Greek Hermes, as well as some gods from Lapland and the Tungus. The Rev. George Stanley Faber, a preacher at Oxford in the early 19th century, added Adam, Noah, the patriarch Enoch, Janus, Hercules and the Cyclops to the list. Moreover, he argued, since ‘Buddha and Woden are the same deity … the theology of the Gothic and Saxon tribes was a modification of Buddhism’. Mindfulness, no doubt, spurred on by horns of mead.

The absence of Buddhists in India, and the (historically false) presumption that they were driven out by the brahmans, led to a kinder view of the Buddha among some of the legions of amateur scholars in the East India Company and later the colonial government. Most of them were Protestants, and the austerity of the Buddha made him a kind of Calvin to the papist excess of Hinduism they saw around them. Buddhism, after all, had eliminated all those strange gods and venerated humans who had achieved enlightenment. And it was known that the Buddha had opposed two practices which repelled the British: animal sacrifice and the caste system. A few of the colonialists speculated on the different place India would be were it still Buddhist. This Buddhism would be a pure form, unlike the one that was practised in the neighbouring countries where, they assumed, it had become corrupted by mixing with native beliefs and rituals.

This emergence of a sympathetic Buddha – or what might be called Buddhist compassion towards Buddhists – was finally brought about in the West by the reading and translation of actual Buddhist texts, a contrast to the bits of contradictory information gathered from native informants. Among the scholars was Julius Heinrich Klaproth, son of the discoverer of uranium, whose 1824 life of the Buddha, based on Mongolian texts, stated that ‘no other religion, other than that of Jesus Christ, has contributed as much to the betterment of men than that of Bouddha … The fierce nomads of Central Asia were changed by it into soft and virtuous men.’ Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, searching for the origins of his Hungarian language, ended up spending many years in a tiny, unheated room in Ladakh, wrapped in sheepskins, translating Tibetan works. (In the 1930s, the Japanese officially recognised him as a bodhisattva.) George Turnour in Ceylon was translating Pāli texts in order to write, in 1837, the most detailed biography of ‘Gotamó Buddho’ to date. Turnour’s aim was to prove the historical verity of the Buddha, whom he nonetheless considered a ‘wonderful impostor’ who had promulgated ‘intentional perversion and mystification’.

In Kathmandu, Brian Houghton Hodgson was stranded for years with little to do for his employer, the East India Company, and passed the time collecting ornithological specimens for the British Museum and Buddhist scriptures. The original, Sanskrit versions of Buddhist texts had been lost in India, and were only known to exist in translations into Chinese, Tibetan, Pāli, Mongolian and other languages. Hodgson had found them among the Newars, a Buddhist community in otherwise Hindu Nepal. Many of the books he sent to Eugène Burnouf in Paris. Burnouf, a professor who never visited Asia and never met a Buddhist, had moved from his studies of Avestan, the sacred language of the Zoroastrians, to Sanskrit, having caught from German Romanticism the fever of the time: a passionate belief that, as the study of Greek and Roman antiquity had brought on the Renaissance, so the knowledge of India would transform modern times.

Burnouf was the greatest Sanskrit scholar of the period, and his translations of the texts Hodgson sent – including the most influential of Buddhist texts, the Lotus Sutra – and his vast Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism were read by Thoreau, Emerson, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner (who left an unfinished ‘Buddhist’ opera at his death), among many others. Burnouf’s Buddha was neither idol nor god, but the teacher of a humanist philosophy which, unlike the Hindu caste system, offered a liberation that was available to all. The original Sanskrit texts offered the clearest views of the Buddha’s own philosophy – in Burnouf’s words, the ‘most ancient, the human Buddhism’. They were, he wrote, ‘of incontestable value for the history of the human spirit’.

It was remarkable how quickly the image of the Buddha had changed. In 1796, Father Paulinus, a Carmelite missionary on the Malabar coast and author of the first European grammar of Sanskrit, had proved that the Buddha was not a man, but the planet Mercury. By the 1840s, the West had more or less the image of the Buddha that we still have today. It was not, however, a complete triumph. Two years after Burnouf’s early death in 1852, H.H. Wilson, the leading scholar of Sanskrit in Britain (director of the Royal Asiatic Society, appointed to the country’s first chair of Sanskrit at Oxford), lectured that the Buddha was a fraud who had never existed, that ‘ignorance and superstition’ are the ‘main props of Buddhism’, but that fortunately it will be ‘overturned’ by the Christian missionaries ‘before whose salutary influence civilisation is extending’. Wilson, almost needless to say, found the admiration of the Buddha typically French.

All these stories, and many more, are told in Donald Lopez’s From Stone to Flesh, which ends with the birth of the ‘modern’ Buddha. Lopez is a lively scholar, always worth reading, but it’s hard to keep up with him. He’s a translator of Tibetan texts; the general editor of the wonderful Princeton ‘Religions in Practice’ series and the editor of its volumes on China, India, Buddhism and Tibet; the general editor of the Chicago ‘Buddhism and Modernity’ series; the editor of books by the Dalai Lama, collections of Buddhist scriptures, and of the book Curators of the Buddha, which brought astonishing news about some of the best-known scholars: among them, the great Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci, dressing up in fascist uniforms and editing a Buddhist-Fascist magazine during the war, or D.T. Suzuki’s Japanese nationalist agenda in promoting Zen to the barbaric West.

Lopez’s primary theme, in many of his own writings, is the transmission of Buddhism in the West. His books tend to be an expansion of a chapter or a few pages in a previous book – a lotus within a lotus, to use a traditional image. Thus Buddhism and Science (2008), on the applications of Buddhism that have been given to everything from 19th-century racial theories to contemporary neuroscience, leads to The Scientific Buddha (2012), which attempts to recover Buddhism from science. A chapter in Prisoners in Shangri-La (1998), on the Western imagining of Tibet, is expanded into The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography (2011), the story of Walt Wentz, a Theosophist from Trenton, New Jersey, who reinvented himself as W.Y. Evans-Wentz. Given some random pages from a Tibetan text by a British officer in Darjeeling, he had them translated by an eccentric local schoolteacher, erected around them an edifice of explication largely derived from Madame Blavatsky, and named the whole shebang after E. Wallis Budge’s popular The Egyptian Book of the Dead. (In brief, no Tibetan sage ever advised us to turn off our minds, relax and float downstream.)

A short section in From Stone to Flesh has now turned into a book-length study, In Search of the Christian Buddha, written with the medievalist Peggy McCracken. It’s one of the odder stories in literary and religious history; as the book’s subtitle puts it: ‘How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint’.

The biography of the Buddha, formalised centuries after his death, is well known. At the birth of Prince Siddhartha, the astrologers declare that he will either become a great ruler or renounce the world and become a Buddha. His father, afraid that Siddhartha will discover the sorrows of the world and abandon it, raises the child in a sealed-off pleasure palace where everyone is young and beautiful. At 29, curious about life, Siddhartha sneaks out of the palace and makes four trips on his chariot, one in each direction. He sees things he never knew existed: an old man, a sick man, a corpse. On the fourth trip he meets a mendicant and resolves to join him. Siddhartha’s father, the king, tries to keep the prince in the palace by sending him beautiful women to play and dance for him. He is not tempted, escapes, and spends the next six years wandering and practising terrible austerities. He finally renounces those austerities, and sits under the bodhi tree where, resisting final temptations from Mara, the god of death and desire, he achieves enlightenment. He then goes out in the world to teach the Four Noble Truths: the existence and cause of suffering and the path to the end of suffering. Siddhartha and his father are reconciled; the king accepts the Buddha.

In eighth-century Baghdad, an Arabic version of the story appeared, The Book of Bilawhar and Budhasaf, probably translated from a lost Persian text. Set in India, the prince Budhasaf (Arabic for ‘bodhisattva’), on leaving the palace, acquires a teacher, Bilawhar, who has come from Sarandib (Ceylon) to instruct him with maxims and parables, many drawn from Buddhism, including the famous one of the caskets (covered in gold but containing rubbish inside or covered in pitch but containing gold) that would later turn up in The Merchant of Venice. Budhasaf’s father is a persecutor of the ‘religion’, which has no resemblance to Buddhism, and the father-son relationship is contentious. In the end, after many twists and palace debates, the father renounces his idols to follow the son’s ascetic religion. There are no Noble Truths and no bodhi tree, but the rest of the story is generally the same. The mendicant, however, whom Siddhartha in the end did not follow – having chosen to wander alone – has now become a major character as the prince’s teacher.

The Arabic version was then Christianised and translated into Georgian as the Balavariani by monks in the Monastery of St Sabas in Palestine in the ninth or tenth century. Budhasaf is named Iodasaph, his teacher Bilawhar is now Balahvar; the ‘religion’ is the monks’ own Christian asceticism. The king is a ruthless suppressor of Christians, but finally converts. Iodasaph has ‘released the race of Indians by God’s power from their benighted devil-worship’.

The Georgian was translated into Greek in the 11th century, possibly by Euthymius the Iberian on Mount Athos, as Barlaam and Ioasaph, with a great deal of theological exegesis and scriptural citations added. Not long afterwards, the Greek was translated into Latin by monks in Amalfi. Their version, Barlaam and Josaphat, spread throughout Christendom and was adapted in one form or another into Spanish, Catalan, Occitan, Italian, English, High and Low German, Dutch and Bohemian. There were ten versions in French alone, and one of them, a heavily didactic 13th-century rendition in verse by Gui de Cambrai, has recently been translated for Penguin by McCracken, Lopez’s co-author. The setting is still India, but the king is a ‘Saracen’, despite being in India, and father and son must go to holy war before the father relents. The Buddha had become a Crusader.

Barlaam and Josaphat finally achieved absolute stardom when their tale was retold in Jacobus de Voragine’s collection of saints, the Golden Legend – for centuries the most popular book in the West, outselling the Bible after the invention of printed books. And there was even a Jewish version, translated into Hebrew directly from the Arabic in al-Andalus by Abraham ibn Hasday in 1240, complete with Talmudic emendations. Called The Book of the Prince and the Hermit, it would be translated into German and Yiddish in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The two saints were included in Pope Gregory XIII’s Roman Martyrology in 1583 for their ‘wondrous deeds’ among ‘the Indians, near the Persian boundary’. A few years later, the Jesuits brought a printing press to Japan, and among their first books was a Compendium of the Acts of the Saints, which included a Japanese translation of the complete Barlaam and Josaphat. There are no surviving records of how the Japanese felt about having familiar stories of the Buddha used to convert them from Buddhism.

It’s a modernist tale: a true (or presumably true) story turns into fiction, travels through many centuries and many languages and ends up almost where it began, still more or less the same while having turned into its opposite. And even stranger, the fiction had become real. In 1571, the doge of Venice presented a sacred relic to King Sebastian of Portugal: a bone from Josaphat’s spine. It is still in a silver reliquary in the St Andrieskerk in Antwerp.