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Buddhist import?

21 November 2014

Nicholas Buxton on two November saints

In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian sage became a medieval saint
Donald S. Lopez and Peggy McCracken
W. W. Norton & Co. £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

OUR knowledge of early contact and communication between the ancient civilisations of India and the Eastern Mediterranean is sketchy, but intriguing. We know there was trade, but how much cultural exchange was there, and what influence did it have? The paucity of reliable evidence has led to a great deal of speculation. Did the arrival of Christianity in India have any impact on the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism? Did Buddhist thought permeate certain strands of Hellenistic philosophy, and thus the development of Christian monasticism?

During the 19th century, European scholars became more familiar with and sympathetic towards the teachings of Buddhism, but they still felt the need to seek Christian explanations for any apparent similarities between the two religious traditions. Most of the evidence we have, however, suggests that the direction of travel actually went the other way.

Now Donald Lopez and Peggy McCracken, respectively professors of Buddhist studies and comparative literature at the University of Michigan, have added another piece to this still very incomplete jigsaw with their detailed analysis of the popular medieval legend of Barlaam and Josaphat. In Search of the Christian Buddha is essentially the story of a story, that story being, as they put it, the story of the how the Buddha became a Christian saint.

It begins with the historical Buddha, and the various narrative strands that make up the familiar biography. Then, with the spread of Buddhist influence northwards through Bactria (present-day Afghanistan) and to the borders of the Persian Empire, so the compelling tale of how a prince renounces the world and becomes an ascetic successively captured the imaginations of Muslim writers in the eighth century, Georgian monks in Palestine in the ninth century, and Christian writers in France during the 13th century.

Only three key elements of the original narrative survive the process of translation between different languages, cultures, and religions. These are the prophecy that the king's son will renounce the world; the chariot ride during which the young prince has his eyes opened to the reality of human suffering; and an attempted seduction intended to distract him from his purpose. Not surprisingly, the significance accorded these elements varies considerably, and yet the fundamental call to renunciation remains a constant and powerful theme within the context of each retelling.

This is a fascinating account of how a story mutates as it is transmitted across time and through different cultures. The authors show clearly how the presuppositions of Muslim and then Christian translators shaped the narrative - and that in itself makes for an engrossing read. But, in the end, it still left this reader hungry to know more about how stories shape cultures, and, in particular, how and in what ways this ancient Indian story may have influenced Christian thought and praxis. But perhaps that's a story for another book.

The Revd Dr Nicholas Buxton is Priest-in-Charge of St John the Baptist's, Newcastle, and author of The Wilderness Within (Canterbury Press, 2014).

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