How Did the Buddha Become a Medieval Saint?

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In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint Book Cover In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint

W. W. Norton & Company
2014

When Saint Francis Xavier attempted to bring Christianity to Asia in the middle of the sixteenth century, he believed for a time that his mission was going quite well. With the help of a former samurai, whom he had converted at the start of his travels in Japan, he translated and memorized sections of the Gospels in order to explain himself to the locals. He told everyone he met that he was there to teach about Dainichi, the word his translator told him was a close enough approximation of God.

One of the first Jesuits, Francis was a founding father of the most successful evangelizing enterprise in history. Naturally, he spoke well of Dainichi—so well that a group of Buddhist monks took him in, surprised and intrigued by the stories he told. Yet during his stay he learned that Dainichi was, in fact, one of the many names of the Buddha. Francis had been attributing the miracles of Jesus to a teacher the Japanese already revered. Thereafter, the missionary tried out other names for God, but apparently with less success. He set off to try his luck elsewhere, in other languages, in other lands.

Conditioned as we are to think of the world’s religions as a handful of distinct belief systems that rub tectonically against each other like the lithospheric plates beneath our feet, it is easy to forget that the building blocks of beliefs—stories—pay no mind to such borders. As anyone with young children can attest, we are fascinated by stories long before we care if they are true, or whose they are. Stories are as true as they are convincing; they belong to anyone who hears them told.

In Search of the Christian Buddha, Donald Lopez and Peggy McCracken’s study of the relationships among language, religion, and the ownership of stories, centers on a tale even older than Francis Xavier’s failed mission to Japan. Beginning as early as the ninth century, stories of a Christian saint known as Josaphat began to circulate among monastic orders in Jerusalem, and later fanned out to all corners of Christendom. According to the tales told about him, which soon were translated into a dozen languages, Josaphat was the son of an Indian king but had renounced his wealth and royal status for the religious life. When the life story of the Buddha, also known as Prince Siddhartha Gautama, traveled to Europe through the writings of Marco Polo and others in the fourteenth century, it became clear that no matter the names used in each, stories about the Buddha and stories about Josaphat were most likely about the same man.

How, then, did the star of one religious tradition come to play a bit part in another tradition born six hundred years later on the other side of the world? In Search of the Christian Buddha pursues this question through compelling textual detective work that stretches across continents and centuries.

The answer, of course, has to do with language and translation. In its movement from Persian to Arabic to Georgian to Greek to Latin, and from there to all Romance languages and eventually back toward Asia dressed up in Japanese and Tagalog, a Buddhist legend took on characteristics that were first Islamic, then Christian. Arabic texts describing a figure known variously as al-Budd and Budasf (derived from boddhisatva, the Sanskrit term for an enlightened being) provide the crucial linguistic links that allow the authors to connect Buddha to Josaphat.

Lopez and McCracken chiefly provide a straightforward account of how a religious text can change as it moves like a game of theological telephone between cultures. But they also uncover elements of the backstory to the Josaphat saga that are too good to leave untold. For example, following a slight detour away from the life of the Buddha, the authors take a few pages to tell us all we ever wanted to know about the Buddha’s penis, but were afraid to ask.

In an ancient Chinese tale, we learn, the Buddha keeps his genitals “hidden in a sheath” as a sign of his detachment from the world. Yet he seems far from detached when a group prostitutes taunt that he “lacks a functioning male member.” The fifth-century text continues:

When the Buddha heard this, [his organ] gradually emerged like that of a horse king. When it first appeared it was like the bodily organ of an eight-year-old-boy, and it gradually grew into the shape of that of an adolescent. Seeing this, all the women rejoiced. Then the hidden organ gradually grew… like a cylindrical banner of lotus flowers.

Tangents like these may seem a bit off topic in a book explaining how texts are remade through association with new forms of religious tradition—but only a bit. They also serve the important purpose of reminding us that the very word “tradition” tends to sanitize stories whose original power was their immediacy and relevance to unsanitized lives.  Such details, especially when they appear in stories considered sacred, surely had something to do with the quality we think of today as  virality. It was precisely their surprising nature—Buddha Unsheathed His Penis. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next.—that sent such stories on a trek through languages and across cultures, to become something at once new and not-new.

“Our task,” the authors write, “will be to ask not how stories circulate among religions, but how religions circulate among stories.” This is a humble enough declaration, but its implications are profound. What if we have our textual understanding of how religion works precisely backwards, in thinking that religions make use of stories to convey moral lessons? What if, instead, stories make use of religions, for reasons all their own?

While particular mythologies rise and fall, the use of narrative as a meaning-making machine endures—perhaps because we’ve always believed more in language than in God by any name.

This review originally appeared in BookForum.

Peter Manseau is the author of five books including the novel Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, and the forthcoming One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History, from Little, Brown.  

  • Jim Reed

    This might explain the differences between eastern and western religions. Our Jesus myths don’t have any penis stories.

  • Saddha

    The entire New Testament narrative is Buddhist about a teacher going around speaking and training disciples. Buddhism is the first world religion and Buddhist missions were set up at Antioch as well. It’s influence can be felt in the New Testament, where Jesus several times admits the teachings are not his.
    The New Testament itself is not an eyewitness account through any disciple except for John. So many of the teachings circulating in the Middle East, which included Buddhist teachings became incorporated in the New Testament.
    The teachings of Jesus are definately more Buddhist than Jewish:
    http://threeroyalwarriors.tripod.com/jesusthewordofbuddha/id4.html

  • Saddha

    Actually Christianity does have penis stories, or the lack of a penis story. Jesus described his own celibacy in the New Testament church as that of becoming a eunuch for God. This is opposite to the wisdom traditions of the east where celibacy is a sign of manliness and potency. Followers of Buddha are called Lions Amongst Men. Their manliness is described such that even weak men who have homosexual attractions to the monks are turned into women. The Buddhist church is defined not as a bride, but as whole manly heroes (yes including the women) Purishas.

    The followers of Jesus are described in the New Testament as the “Bride of Christ” and “sheep amongst the wolves” it’s a form of effeminizing Christian males.

  • cranefly

    “What if, instead, stories make use of religions, for reasons all their own?”

    I like that.

  • joeyj1220

    Many of the renaissance painters included Jesus with erections (or paintings of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus while pointing to his penis) to highlight his humanity,

  • None
  • NelsonRobison

    Stories are the basis of many religions, especially the ancient religions that form the basis of today’s faiths. Too often the foundational aspects of religion are forgotten by the current faith majure. The acts that force the current faith to forget the past are the necessity of control of the populace, the current faith trying to provide a moral basis for their assertions and a raison d’etre that seeks to place that faith above the people.

    Now here in this article we see examples of that coming to pass, the faith majure making its way to the fore while forcing the past and even more ancient faith systems to take a back seat to the current interpretations of faith and control. The fundamentalists seek hegemony by overpowering the secular government, while restricting the rights of dissenters and giving to themselves the “freedom” of worship that has only been a part of the world’s societies for the last 100 years. The only reason that the forces of Dominionism have any rights to speak and seek to control the discourse of our nation, the 1st Amendment. This amendment to the Constitution came about because the then overarching Church of England, was the only church that the colonists were allowed to be part of if, they wanted to serve the Crown, be part of the power structure and give guidance to the other people who were “peasants” or small land owning farmers.

    While I decry the fundamentalist interpretation of faith, I have nothing against a person who is not forcing or trying to force myself or others to believe the exact way that they do. Forcing religion, forcing an interpretation on someone else, working to deny to others what they have themselves is what authoritarianism and fascism is all about. When someone becomes that sure of themselves that they seek to deny another’s rights then what they have become is religious fascists. This was the state of the Roman Church before the Enlightenment, they sought to and controlled every aspect of life for anyone not involved in a clerical way in the church. Both King and peasant, free and bond, paid homage to the clergy, whether to the lowliest priest to the Bishop of Rome, the Holy Father.

    The fact is that stories are the ground on which faiths are made. Joseph Campbell was one of those who found enlightenment in stories, stories that formed the faiths of indigenous peoples and also the newer faiths based on those ancient stories. We can only hope that forces beyond our control will cease their faith majure, cease their denial of others and find that tolerant place within themselves and without, in their stories of their saviour, Jesus Christ.

  • Barry Gabriel

    It’s virility, not virality… that would imply something else not so pleasant…