Reviews: How the Buddha Became St. Josaphat

IN SEARCH OF THE CHRISTIAN BUDDHA: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint

By Donald S. Lopez, Jr. and Peggy McCracken
W.W. Norton & Company, 2014, 272 pages, $24.95

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a king who wished for his son to succeed him on the throne. But wise men predicted that the child might turn to religion and become a great spiritual hero instead. To forestall this, the king surrounded his son with pleasures and hid the suffering of the world from him. But the boy learned the truth and, much to his father’s dismay, became a renunciant anyway. Despite his father’s resistance, the prince renounced the royal life and, after much self-cultivation, became a great and holy individual who benefited many people.

Does this story sound familiar? To most Buddhists, this broad outline is instantly recognizable as a retelling of the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. In many Buddhist societies, in fact, this basic life story has formed an enduring template for the ideal biography for any Buddhist practitioner. Traditional accounts of exemplary Buddhist lives are often structured around these same predictable signposts of auspicious birth, renunciation (often in the face of parental resistance), spiritual exertion, and the ultimate triumph of enlightenment.

How startled we might be, then, to hear that the brief sketch above is the story of a Christian saint whose obstinate father is a pagan idolator (or in some versions, a Muslim). Or that his ultimate triumph—in some versions achieved through war against his father—is the glory of Christian sainthood. And yet, in important medieval European hagiographies that remained influential well into the nineteenth century, that is precisely what we find. The prince is a Christian saint (named Josaphat in the most widely known versions of the story), and his virtue lies in converting his father’s kingdom to Christianity and living as a Christian ascetic with his teacher, Barlaam. Barlaam and Josaphat, the story of the renunciant prince and his holy Christian teacher, was popular for centuries, translated from Georgian to Greek to Latin to Old French and other languages.

What on earth, we might ask, is the Buddha’s life story doing disguised in the tale of a Christian saint? A preliminary answer is that stories travel, even more widely than the individual human beings who tell them. Across language barriers and between civilizations, people translate stories that grip their imaginations, exchanging them along trade routes or after conquests. Tales are carried on voyages together with fashion, science, or medicine; they are included in histories of foreign lands. Stories even seep through the fierce perimeters of (supposedly) alien religious belief and practice and the mutual distrust, or worse, that may separate religious communities.

Such is the argument of In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint, a new book by Donald Lopez and Peggy McCracken. The authors guide the reader across centuries and continents as they unspool the story of a story—the travels of a tale about a moving and sometimes violent journey of spiritual search.

Excerpted from the Summer 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.

Annabella Pitkin is a visiting assistant professor of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures at Barnard College. She specializes in Tibetan Buddhism and Asian intellectual history.