Reviews: How the Buddha Became St. Josaphat

Reviews of “In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint” by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. and Peggy McCracken.

By Annabella Pitkin

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.

While the first half of the book’s title might suggest that this is a work of interreligious dialogue, it is not, or at least not in the usual sense. This book does offer fascinating revelations about unsuspected episodes of communication between Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities across time, distance, and cultural divides. Yet In Search of the Christian Buddha is actually a kind of detective story. It recounts a hunt through writings in Pali, Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew, Georgian, Greek, and French for the traces of a tale about a holy prince who renounces the pleasures and pains of the world in search of what lies beyond death. To what extent this is the tale of Shakyamuni Buddha, and how, where, and why that story changes into other stories, are the questions of this book.

In their search for answers, the authors provide a glimpse the vast and little-known terrain of cross-cultural interactions in the ancient and medieval world, as well as the intellectual history of the early generations of Europeans who studied something they began to call “Buddhism.” Indeed, attentive readers will notice that this book offers a further installment in Donald Lopez’s long-running and ambitious project of mapping encounters between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and the intellectual history of the study of Buddhism. In Search of the Christian Buddha forms a kind of pair with Lopez’s other recent book, From Stone to Flesh: A Short History of the Buddha. But here, Lopez has teamed up with McCracken, a scholar of French literature, who is the translator of the Old French work called Barlaam and Josaphat, the version of the tale most widely influential among Catholics in Europe.

McCracken and Lopez take on a double task in this book. First, they lead the reader though the major translations of the story of the saintly prince. Wearing their scholarship lightly, they explain in lucid and elegant prose the cultural circumstances that seem to have made each translation possible, and suggest some of the political and social context of each translation, thus offering fascinating clues about each translator’s agenda. Second, they document the tale in reverse, describing how Europeans became aware of the connection between the story of Barlaam and Josaphat and the life of Shakyamuni, and how these discoveries fit in the longer history of encounters between Europeans and Asians during the colonial period.

The story of the transposition of the Buddha’s life into that of a Christian saint who fights idolatry—and in later versions, who fights explicitly against Muslims—begins ironically with an Arabic translation. In explaining how this was so, Lopez and McCracken remind us that we usually think of Buddhism only as existing in those parts of East, Southeast, and Inner Asia where it still flourishes today. We tend to forget the wealthy, powerful, and culturally influential Buddhist realms in places “once known by names like Scythia, Bactria, Parthia, and Sogdiana,” places that are today Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. These storied regions, whose names still evoke the romance of the Silk Routes and the glory of the Bamiyan Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, have disappeared from our present-day imaginations. Yet trade along the so-called Silk Routes, as well as war, conquest, intellectual curiosity, and religious proselytizing, led to much exchange between the emerging Islamic empires based in Damascus and then Baghdad, and the Buddhist societies of central Asia, India, and farther east. Such exchanges are apparently what led to a version of the Buddha’s life story being translated (or more accurately, rewritten) in Arabic sometime before the tenth century.

This Arabic work preserves the basic outline of the story of the Buddha’s life and seems to be based on translations of Sanskrit and other Indian language accounts of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life into Middle Persian, and from Middle Persian into Arabic. Yet despite the familiarity of the story, the Arabic text introduces new features. These new features would travel with the story into its Christian iterations in ever more dramatic form.

The first major difference is that in the Arabic story, the prince and his father do not simply disagree about the best practice of renunciation as they do (rather lovingly) in the story of the Buddha. Rather, in the Arabic story, their conflict is far more intense and even violent. In the Arabic story, the prince’s father is a pagan idolator who actively persecutes followers of the young prince’s religion, and there are gruesome references to torture and suffering. Lopez and McCracken point out that the copies we have of the text are associated with Shi’a Muslim communities, who were persecuted minorities under the Sunni Abbasid caliphate. The authors speculate that the Arabic work may be mirroring a Shi’a experience of minority status, suffering, and persecution.

Curiously, the Arabic work does not directly name the prince’s religion, referring to it only as the Religion (Din, in Arabic) and leaving the details vague, other than describing it as a path of virtue, ascetism, and saintliness. The Prophet Muhammed is not mentioned, Islam is only mentioned once, and Buddhism is not referred to at all. Lopez and McCracken suggest that intellectuals in the Islamic world of this time only had fragmentary and partial knowledge about Buddhism. Thus our tale appears here as a story that Arabic-speaking people in the Muslim world of the tenth century could appreciate as “a text by a non-Muslim writer which nonetheless illustrated values compatible with Islam.” The story seems to encapsulate both the romance of exoticism and the reaffirmation of shared values, in a kind of “intercultural grappling with difference.”

Much of this appreciation of intercultural difference would evaporate in the next round of translation. For very soon after the Arabic version of the story emerged, it was translated again, this time into the Georgian language, and reworked for a Christian audience by Georgian monks in Palestine. These Georgian monks Christianized the story’s themes in ways that reflected their own experience, which was again one of persecution and conflict. But for these translators, the enemy were the Muslim conquerors who ruled Georgia. In the Georgian version of the tale, the prince of the story, now named Iodasaph but still imagined as living in India, triumphs at the end. He converts his violent pagan father, then drives all idolators from India. One can only be awed at the irony, since just a few centuries later Europeans will describe the Buddha, on whom Iodasaph is loosely based, as the greatest and worst of all “idols.”

The Georgian translation was a great success. Iodasaph was widely venerated as a saint in medieval Georgia, and Lopez and McCracken, rather persuasively, see the Georgian reworking of the tale as a kind of Christian revenge fantasy of the time. Strikingly, the saintly prince, based on a Buddhist original and translated from an Arabic story, has now become a Christian champion invoked to defeat Muslims.

The Arabic version had made one other dramatic change in the narrative, repeated in the Georgian version and then by all the European language translations. This is the introduction of a holy teacher for the prince, a kind of doubling of the saintly hero quotient. In all the subsequent Christian translations of the story, the paired figures of saintly prince and holy ascetic teacher remain, as does the violent pagan father-king who persecutes them. In the progression of these translations, the tale becomes ever more Christianized, with translators often inserting collections of Christian parables, theological discussions, and accounts of Christian relics.

The story’s popularity really took off when it was translated from Greek to Latin in the mid-eleventh century. Collections of saints’ lives were hugely popular at the time, modeling aspirations for Christian renunciation, monasticism, and heroic virtue. Barlaam, as the prince’s teacher was now called, and Josaphat, the prince, were never formally canonized by the Catholic Church, but they appeared in the Roman Martyrology when it was published in 1583 by Pope Gregory XIII. Perhaps even more important for their enduring fame in Europe, their story was included in a famous thirteenth-century collection of saints’ lives called The Golden Legend. More widely printed even than the Bible prior to 1500, it was translated into most of the major vernacular languages of Europe.

The French author of the final major medieval translation that Lopez and McCracken describe got his version from The Golden Legend. His Old French composition, titled Barlaam and Josaphat and written in the thirteenth century during the time of the Christian Crusades in Palestine, is in some ways the most strikingly distant from the life story of the Buddha. Now Josaphat has become a soldier who defends Christianity on the battlefield during the war declared against him by his Muslim father. We have come a long way indeed from the life of Shakyamuni.

McCracken and Lopez persuasively see this most warlike take on the prince’s story as once again the result of contemporaneous circumstances. They argue that Barlaam and Josaphat’s author was writing in part to exhort his noble French audience to further Crusades. The result is a set of interlocking ironies that may astonish the reader. Not only has a figure that began as the Buddha metamorphosed into a crusading warrior prince and a Christian, but the father king (whom all versions since the Arabic have described as an idolator) is now reimagined as a Muslim. This last irony is especially striking, since Islam, arguably more than Christianity, has often fiercely rejected all religious and even artistic techniques that might hint at idolatry.

As Lopez has discussed in his other books on European encounters with Asia, idolatry became an important European polemical term for all non-Christians and was applied not only to Buddhists and Hindus but also to Muslims, however irrational this might be. The reader of In Search of the Christian Buddha gets a further sense of how medieval Christian communities, particularly in Europe, became increasingly isolated from other religions and from the rest of the world. The cosmopolitan quality we see in the early part of our story—where Arabic authors could be intrigued by a Buddhist tale in Sanskrit and render it in their own language, in a way that’s familiar but different—seems long gone.

The story that Lopez and McCracken tell has a final chapter, a last, rather delicious irony. For eventually colonial encounters, as Lopez has told us elsewhere, led to widespread European interest in Asian languages and religions and to the study of a new field called Buddhism. Before the nineteenth century, the parallels between Saint Josaphat and the Buddha were sometimes observed but never explored—perhaps, as our authors suggest, “because the Buddha was an idol and Josaphat was a saint.” But in the nineteenth century the dots were finally connected, “generating both delight and dismay.”

In the process, unsurprisingly, Josaphat lost his official sainthood. And the Buddha, Lopez and McCracken argue, became a new kind of saint: the darling of liberal humanists, who saw in him an alternative to precisely the kind of Christian triumphalism and Catholic miracle-working that the Barlaam and Josaphat tale had celebrated. Indeed, some European scholars of the Barlaam story appear in Lopez and McCracken’s reading to have positively delighted in undoing the layers of Christian and Islamic alteration to reveal the “real” story of the Buddha beneath.

Ultimately, Lopez and McCracken leave the reader to speculate on this extraordinary story of a story—not only how far and wide a tale can travel but also how, even at precisely the times when armies and religions clashed, a tale from someone else’s world might intrigue a new author enough to make it their own. Is Barlaam and Josaphat the “same” story as the story of the Buddha? Do any stories remain the same? Buddhists may not be surprised to learn that stories, like everything else, are constantly moving, always in translation.

Annabella Pitkin

Annabella Pitkin is assistant professor of Buddhism and East Asian Religions at Lehigh University. She specializes in Tibetan Buddhism and Asian intellectual history.