- In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint by Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Peggy McCracken
The "story of a story," Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Peggy McCracken's book traces the transmission history of the popular medieval tale of Barlaam and Josaphat.1 The tale spawned many translations and was made into plays. Bits were appropriated in later works, including Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Furthermore, Pope Sixtus V authorized a feast day for saints Barlaam and Josaphat. Such facts indicate the great influence of the story generally, but Barlaam and Josaphat is of special interest to Buddhist-Christian studies because it essentially recasts the legend of Siddhartha as the story of a Christian saint, Prince Josaphat. In Lopez and McCracken's work, not only do we see how the Buddhist story is Christianized, but we also see how the Christianized story continues to evolve.
This book sheds light on the ways that religions use others' resources (sometimes unawares) to convey both their own, as well as shared, truths. However, as [End Page 277] G. MacQueen has noted, the irony is that borrowing resources from others can lead sometimes, as it did in this tale's case, to using those resources against others. Once the sources used to condemn the others are recognized as deriving from those others, though, the condemnation is exposed as questionable. More positive possibilities for conceptualizing the relations among traditions and for formulating responses to others can then emerge.2 One of the watershed moments in the tale's evolution, therefore, occurs when it becomes better known in the nineteenth century that Saint Josaphat's story came from that of the Buddha.
The book's tracing of the tale's history begins long before this, focusing first on the Buddha legends as told in Asia. Chapter 2 then traces how the story of Prince Siddhartha begins to develop into the tale that is eventually called Barlaam and Josaphat. The Buddha's life story traveled on the Silk Road and was probably translated into Middle Persian in present-day Iran. Although that translation is not extant, it is believed to have been the source for the Arabic Bilawhar and Būdhāsaf. The Arabic editions, associated with Shi'a sects and composed during the Abbasid era, introduce a key new figure, Bilawhar (the Barlaam role), as a teacher of the prince, in contrast to the Indian texts in which the prince discovers nirvana on his own. The Arabic editions also insert new material in the form of lengthy debates between the prince and his father. These modifications allow this version to weave in parables and sermons from Arabic literature that urge the prince to pursue an ascetic lifestyle and accept the teaching of prophets, including one named al-Budd. (Thus, the Buddha appears in the Arabic story both as the prophet al-Budd and as Prince Būdhāsaf.) Mostly, the Arabic story uses the Buddha legend as a frame in order to include teachings that promote values thought to be compatible with Islam, including worship of God, although the religion championed is referred to only as "the Religion" (p. 61).
A son is born to a king who tries to shelter the son and prevent his religious quest (as in the Buddha legend), but here the king actively persecutes the religion that his son eventually embraces. Similar to the Buddha legend, astrologers foretell the son's future, and the son's expeditions beyond the palace have elements that resemble Siddhartha's encounter with the four sights. At one point the king attempts to use seductive women to lure his son away from his chosen religion, recalling an episode from the Buddha's story. Also similar, in the Arabic text, before the prince permanently renounces the world, he produces an heir, but here the son becomes not a monk but a ruler. The chapter concludes that the Arabic version seems to use the...