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And I tell you they say that on this mountain is the sepulchre of Adam our first parent; at least that is what the Saracens say. But the Idolaters say that it is the sepulchre of Sagamoni Borcan, before whose time there were no idols. They hold him to have been the best of men, a great saint in fact, according to their fashion, and the first in whose name idols were made.
The transformation of the Buddha—from unknown foreign god, to dangerous idol, to venerable founder of a world religion—spans fifteen hundred years. Accounts of the European encounter with Buddhism inevitably begin with Clement of Alexandria, and so shall we. In the third century CE, Saint Clement, describing gymnosophists, or "naked philosophers," wrote, "Among the Indians are some who follow the precepts of Boutta, whom for his exceptional sanctity, they have honored as a god." Elsewhere, presumably describing a stupa, or reliquary, he mentions that the holy men of India "honor a kind of pyramid under which they believe the bones of some god are resting." In 393, Saint Jerome condemned the heresies of Jovinian, a monk who came to reject asceticism. Jovinian claimed that married women and widows, once baptized, were of equal merit to virgins; he also denied the perpetual virginity of Mary. Tis led Jerome into a long discourse on virginity, where he wrote, "To come to the Gymnosophists of India, the opinion is authoritatively handed down that Budda, the founder of their religion, had his birth through the side of a virgin. And we need not wonder at this in the case of Barbarians when cultured Greece supposed that Minerva at her birth sprang from the head of Jove, and Father Bacchus from his thigh." The ninth-century Benedictine monk Ratramnus also made mention of the supposed virgin birth of "Bubdam."
Those Christians who mentioned the Buddha during the first millennium of the Common Era likely knew his name in connection with yet another of the myriad heresies attacked by the fathers of the church. One of these heretics was Mani (Manes in Latin), the third-century Assyrian prophet regarded as the founder of Manichaeism. According to a fifth-century Manichaean text, his father was a Christian, but Mani set out to find the true Christ. He is said to have traveled to India, although that reference is probably to regions of Afghanistan, where he may have encountered Buddhist monks. He returned home to declare himself the Seal of the Prophets, in a lineage that included Noah, Abraham, Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Jesus. Mani famously set forth a strict dualist philosophy, with good and evil, light and darkness, spirit and matter locked in eternal struggle. Over the next four centuries, his teachings spread widely, into Europe in the West and China in the East. They were declared a heresy by the Christians (Augustine of Hippo had converted from Manichaeism), and his followers were persecuted in Europe and North Africa in the fourth century. Here, the Buddha seems to have been condemned through guilt by association.
Also in the fourth century, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem provided an unflattering biography of Mani, explaining that Scythianus, a Saracen (by which he likely meant a pagan from Arabia) who was neither Jew nor Christian, traveled to Alexandria and imitated the life of Aristotle. He intended to go to Judea, but God smote him with a deadly disease. Terebinthus, his disciple, spread the errors of his teacher in Judea, but was driven out. He then set out for Persia, but fearing that word of his defeat in Judea may have reached there, he changed his name to Budas. While in Persia, Terebinthus lived with a widow until God cast him from the rooftop while he was performing a ritual. Te widow inherited his money, which she used to buy a slave boy named Cubricus. When she died, the slave boy changed his name to Manes.
By the fifth century, the story had been expanded to include reference to the doctrine of reincarnation. Hence, we read in the Historia Ecclesiastica of Socrates of Constantinople:
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A Saracen named Scythian married a captive from the Upper Thebes. On her account he dwelt in Egypt, and having versed himself in the learning of the Egyptians, he subtly introduced the theory of Empedocles and Pythagoras among the doctrines of the Christian faith. Asserting that there were two natures, a good and an evil one, he termed, as Empedocles had done, the latter Discord, and the former Friendship. Of this Scythian, Buddas, who had been previously called Terebinthus, became a disciple; and he having proceeded to Babylon, which the Persians inhabit, made many extravagant statements respecting himself, declaring that he was born of a virgin, and brought up in the mountains. The same man afterwards composed four books ... but pretending to perform some mystic rites, he was hurled down a precipice by a spirit, and so perished. A certain woman at whose house he had lodged buried him, and taking possession of his property, bought a boy about seven years old whose name was Cubricus: this lad she enfranchised, and having given him a liberal education, she soon after died, leaving him all that belonged to Terebinthus, including the books he had written on the principles inculcated by Scythian. Cubricus, the freedman, taking these things with him and having withdrawn into the regions of Persia, changed his name, calling himself Manes; and disseminated the books of Buddas or Terebinthus among his deluded followers as his own. Now the contents of these treatises apparently agree with Christianity in expression, but are pagan in sentiment: for Manichagus being an atheist, incited his disciples to acknowledge a plurality of gods, and taught them to worship the sun. He also introduced the doctrine of Fate, denying human free-will; and affirmed a transmutation of bodies, clearly following the opinions of Empedocles, Pythagoras, and the Egyptians.
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As we shall see, the association of the Buddha with the Pythagorean theory of reincarnation (more commonly called metempsychosis) would be a commonplace in European descriptions, extending more than a thousand years into the nineteenth century. So, too, would the apparently preposterous claim that the teachings of the Buddha—and, according to some, the Buddha himself—came from Egypt.
In 1956, archaeologists excavating a ninth-century Viking house on Helgõ Island in Sweden unearthed an Indian statue of the Buddha. The statue dates from the sixth century. No one is quite sure how it found its way to the Vikings. It is doubtful that they knew who the Buddha was; only in the thirteenth century did more detailed accounts of his life, sometimes rather garbled versions, begin to appear. One of the first and most detailed of these comes from Marco Polo. Before turning to his account, it will be useful to survey briefly what the Buddhist texts themselves say about the events of the Buddha's life.
The Life of the Buddha
The Buddhist sutras—the discourses attributed to the Buddha—contain surprisingly little that might be regarded as autobiographical, despite the fact that the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment at the age of thirty-five and died at the age of eighty, teaching the dharma (doctrine) during the intervening decades. In what is regarded as perhaps the earliest account of the Buddha's quest for enlightenment, a Pãli text called The Noble Search (Ariyapariyesana), the Buddha's description of his departure from home is remarkably spare: "Later, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessing of youth, in the prime of life, though my mother and father wished otherwise and wept with tearful faces, I shaved off my hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and went forth from the home life into homelessness."
What might be termed biographies of the Buddha did not begin to appear until some four centuries after his death. The earliest versions seem to have been included as chapters in the vinaya, the section of the canon dealing with the monastic code, eventually expanding into freestanding works. These early biographies are often more concerned with the lives of previous buddhas than with the life of Sãkyamuni Buddha, the buddha of our age, and almost always include an account of how, eons ago, a yogin vowed in the presence of the former buddha Dipamkara to attain buddhahood in the distant future. Tat bodhisattva, after perfecting himself over the course of millions of lifetimes, eventually became Sãkyamuni. In the portrayal of his lifetime, there are oten detailed descriptions of his "descent" from the heaven of Tusita, or the Joyous, into his mother's womb. However, in these early biographies the description of his life on earth rarely extends to his final days, and sometimes ends with the conversion of two particularly famous disciples—Sãriputra and Maudgalyãyana—said to have occurred in the first years after his enlightenment. A separate work, the Great Discourse on the Final Nirvana (Mahaparinibbana Sutta), describes Sãkyamuni's final days, his death, his funeral, and the distribution of his relics.
The work regarded by scholars as the oldest biography, the Mahavastu, is considered to have elements dating from the second century BCE, though it did not reach its present form until the fourth century CE. Tellingly, it contains two separate stories of the future buddha's decision to leave his worldly life as a prince and go out in search of liberation from suffering and death. In the first we find, among the Buddha's descriptions of his pampered youth, "I was delicately, most delicately brought up, O monks. And while I was being thus delicately brought up, my Sãkyan father provided me with the means of enjoying the five varieties of sensual pleasures, namely dance, song, music, orchestra and women, that I might divert, enjoy and amuse myself." Yet the prince simply concludes one day that life in the home is too full of hindrances, while the homeless life is blameless and pure. Thus, "against the wishes of my sobbing and weeping parents, I let my sumptuous home and the universal kingship that was in my hands." In the same text, however, just two chapters later, the story of the renunciation is told again, and in much greater detail, with many of the elements that would become famous in the West, such as the future buddha's four chariot rides outside the city. The most famous of the Indian biographies of the Buddha, translated into English several times, is the Acts of the Buddha (Buddhacarita) by Asvaghosa, a work usually dated to the second century CE. From the time of this text, the story of the Buddha's youth and his departure from the palace remain relatively consistent throughout the tradition. What follows is the story in brief.
An extraordinary child is born to King Suddhodana and Queen Mãyã. Then lunar months after the queen dreams that a white elephant has entered her womb, an infant emerges from her right side and takes seven steps, with a lotus flower blooming under his foot with each step. His father calls on the royal astrologers to foretell the child's destiny. All but one agree that he will become either a great monarch or a great saint. The sole dissenter declares that the prince's destiny is certain: he will become a great saint. Determined that his son not enter the religious life but instead succeed him on the throne, the king builds a palace where the prince will be protected from the troubles of the world. He is surrounded by beauty and the beautiful; no one who is sick, old, or ugly is permitted into his presence. The prince excels at all the arts and sciences, partakes of the pleasures of his harem, and eventually marries a beautiful maiden.
Finally, at the age of twenty-nine, he becomes curious about the world outside the palace walls. His father is eventually persuaded to allow him to venture out in his chariot, but only after taking the precaution of carpeting the road with flowers, stationing musicians in the trees, and removing all unsightly persons from the route. But somehow the prince notices an old man, the first such person he has ever seen. Learning from his charioteer that this is not the only old man in the world, and that old age awaits all, he becomes dejected and returns to the palace. On subsequent excursions, he sees a sick man, a dead man, and a meditating mendicant. He thus learns of old age, sickness, and death, and of those who seek to escape them.
The prince returns to the palace and asks his father to grant him permission to renounce the world. The king replies that a man should go to the ascetic grove only after having enjoyed his youth. The prince agrees to remain in the world if his father will grant him four boons: that he will never die, that he will never become sick, that he will never grow old, and that he will never lose his fortune. When his father explains that this is impossible, the prince resolves to leave. And so he escapes that night, leaving his wife and infant son behind, exchanging his royal raiment for his charioteer's clothes, cutting off his long locks, and going off alone in search of the state beyond birth and death. Six years later, sitting in meditation under a tree, he finds that state, called nirvana.
"The First in Whose Name Idols Were Made"
Perhaps the first European to tell this story was Marco Polo, the intrepid Venetian traveler who spent 1271–95 in Asia, where, among many places, he visited Shangdu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan, emperor of China and patron of Buddhism. (Shangdu is the Xanadu of Coleridge's poem, "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree.") Here is Polo's account of the prince:
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He was the son, as their story goes, of a great and wealthy king. And he was of such an holy temper that he would never listen to any worldly talk, nor would he consent to be king. And when the father saw that his son would not be king, nor yet take any part in affairs, he took it sorely to heart. And first he tried to tempt him with great promises, offering to crown him king, and to surrender all authority into his hands. The son, however, would [have] none of his offers; so the father was in great trouble, and all the more that he had no other son but him, to whom he might bequeath the kingdom at his own death. So, after taking thought on the matter, the King caused a great palace to be built, and placed his son therein, and caused him to be waited on there by a number of maidens, the most beautiful that could anywhere be found. And he ordered them to divert themselves with the prince, night and day, and to sing and dance before him, so as to draw his heart towards worldly enjoyments. But 'twas all of no avail, for none of those maidens could ever tempt the king's son to any wantonness, and he only abode the firmer in his chastity, leading a most holy life, after their manner thereof. And I assure that he was so staid a youth that he had never gone out of the palace, and thus he had never seen a dead man, nor any one who was not hale and sound; for the father never allowed any man that was aged or infirm to come into his presence. It came to pass however one day that the young gentleman took a ride, and by the roadside he beheld a dead man. The sight dismayed him greatly, as he never had seen such a sight before. Incontinently he demanded of those who were with him what thing that was? and then they told him it was a dead man. "How, then," quoth the king's son, "do all men die?" "Yea, forsooth," said they. Whereupon the young gentleman never said a word, but rode on right pensively. And after he had ridden a good way he fell in with a very aged man who could no longer walk, and had not a tooth in his head, having lost all because of his great age. And when the king's son beheld this old man he asked what that might mean, and wherefore the man could not walk? Those who were with him replied that it was through old age the man could no longer walk, and had lost all his teeth. And so when the king's son had thus learned about the dead man and about the aged man, he turned back to the palace and said to himself that he would abide no longer in this evil world, but would go in search of Him Who dieth not, and Who had created him.
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This is a relatively accurate rendering of the story of the Buddha's renunciation of the world—what the nineteenth-century American translator Henry Clarke Warren would call "Te Great Retirement"—when accuracy is measured by the degree of conformity to traditional Buddhist sources. Polo mentions only two of the "four sights," a dead man and an old man; he omits the sick man and the mendicant. Apart from this, the only substantial irregularity is the last line, and even there, "Him Who dieth not" is an understandable deviation by a Christian writer; indeed, nirvana is often called the deathless state in Buddhist works.
Marco Polo's biography of the Buddha occurs in his account of the island of Sri Lanka or Ceylon, where his ship stopped on his return voyage to Venice, possibly in 1292. Specifically, the story is found in Polo's description of a mountain on the island known to Europeans as Adam's Peak. Muslim geographers identified the island of Sri Lanka as the place where Adam and Eve lived after their expulsion from Eden (which in Islam is located in paradise). When Adam left the garden, he set foot on the mountain, leaving a giant footprint. Te Muslim scholar and dervish Ali al-Rumi, a resident of Bosnia also known as All Dede al-Bosnawi, explains: "Te first place where Adam descended was the mountain called Rãhun on an Indian island, in the kingdom of Serendip in the place called Dujnã, upon which is his footprint (peace be upon him). On the footprint is a luminosity that dazzles the eyes, which none can endure to see. Te length of his footprint in the rock is seventy spans, and on the mountain there is a light like dazzling lightning. There is no doubt that it rains there every day and washes his footprint."
Excerpted from From Stone to Flesh by Donald S. Lopez Jr.. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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