Reviews: Inventing the Buddha

Photo by Mary Wallace

From Stone to Flesh: A Brief History of the Buddha by Donald Lopez, Jr.

University of Chicago Press, 2013; 304 pages; $26

Reviewed by Annabella Pitkin

Imagine opening a book about what we would today call Buddhism and reading that it is an Egyptian religion and that the Buddha was a former Egyptian priest exiled from his country during a Persian invasion twenty-three hundred years ago. Or think of reading, in a different treatise on the Buddha, that “We are compelled therefore to believe… that Buddha and [the Norse god] Woden are the same deity, and consequently that the theology of the Gothic and Saxon tribes was a modification of Buddhism…” These views—the first from a mid-eighteenthcentury Westphalian physician, Engelbert Kaempfer, employed by the Dutch East India Company, the second from the nineteenth-century Anglican biblical scholar George Stanley Faber—seem wildly improbable to us now; not only wrong but spectacularly so. Yet as Donald Lopez, Jr.’s new book demonstrates, ideas such as these are part of the history and circuitous journey to what we now think of as the correct understanding of the Buddha.

From Stone to Flesh: A Brief History of the Buddha tells a complicated tale. It is, like the author’s many previous works, fascinating, erudite, and engagingly written. Readers will come away enriched by it, often astonished, and occasionally exasperated. The book is not a biography of the Buddha in the usual sense, although it does recount many wonderfully varied biographies of the Buddha. Nor is it a history of Buddhism either, exactly, although readers will be enchanted by intriguing and little-known facts about the history of Buddhist ideas, texts, and societies. Rather, it is more properly a history of the Buddha himself, specifically of how we have come to know—or at least think we know—the historical founder of a world religion called Buddhism.

Prior to the revolutionary work of a brilliant nineteenth-century French textual scholar named Eugene Burnouf, Europeans struggled to make sense of the Asian religious communities they encountered through trade, missionary projects, empire-building, and the travel writing of other colonials. Lopez’s book recovers the long period before Burnouf’s groundbreaking work, during which Europeans had little if any ability to read or even speak Asian languages. They often had no idea that the local god they saw in one place had anything to do with the local god of another. “For them,” writes Lopez, “the Buddha was just another idol worshipped by pagans in foreign lands, an idol known by various versions of his local name… his story told as various garbled versions of his local biography, with unseemly elements often added.”

In fact, early Europeans who wrote about the carved and painted Buddhist images they encountered often could not tell if the Buddha was male or female, to say nothing of how baffled they were by the mysterious figure’s race, teachings, and historical origins. Readers may enjoy the curious, vicarious experience of approaching Asian statues, paintings, and stories through these naive colonial eyes. One of Lopez’s intentions seems to be to demonstrate that despite their prejudices, early visitors to Asia saw everything with fresh and startled vision, open sometimes to qualities we no longer fully see.

From Stone to Flesh describes the evolution of European ideas and literary images of the Buddha, beginning with the earliest mentions (Saint Clement of Alexandria in the third century CE, writing about the “precepts of Boutta”) and moving through a wildly diverse parade of missionaries, adventurers, scoundrels, colonial officials, scientists, accountants, aristocrats, priests, and scholars. Lopez traces the extraordinary arcs of cross-cultural encounter, misunderstanding, attraction, prejudice, and fantasy that shaped Western notions of the Buddha. While From Stone to Flesh does not attempt a complete history of the interactions between Buddhist societies and Western Christian ones, Lopez includes accounts of this history throughout the narrative, adding much to our knowledge of Buddhism in the colonial period.

One of the book’s charms is its use of multiple voices, many of them quite strange to our ears. Incorporating substantial excerpts from the original prenineteenth-century European authors, the book is, as Lopez writes, “in many ways… a work of ventriloquism.” Sometimes these authors’ interpretations are almost prescient in their insight into Buddhist materials; more often they are startlingly, sometimes hilariously, mistaken in ways deeply revealing of their prejudices. The Buddha chronicled in the book’s four chapters (“The Idol,” “The Myth,” “The Man,” and “The Text”) appears frequently as a dangerous Satanic manipulator blocking the spread of Christian missionizing; sometimes as a planet (Mercury), believed.


Annabella Pitkin is a visiting scholar in the Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures Department at Barnard College and a Social Science Research Council Fellow for Transregional Research in Asia. She specializes in Tibetan Buddhism and Asian intellectual history.