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

Overview

The fascinating account of how the story of the Buddha was transformed into the legend of a Christian saint.
The tale of St. Josaphat, a prince who gave up his wealth and kingdom to follow Jesus, was widely told and read in the Middle Ages, translated into a dozen languages, and even cited by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. Only in the nineteenth century did scholars note the parallels between the lives of Buddha and Josaphat. In Search of the Christian Buddha traces the ...

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

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Overview

The fascinating account of how the story of the Buddha was transformed into the legend of a Christian saint.
The tale of St. Josaphat, a prince who gave up his wealth and kingdom to follow Jesus, was widely told and read in the Middle Ages, translated into a dozen languages, and even cited by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. Only in the nineteenth century did scholars note the parallels between the lives of Buddha and Josaphat. In Search of the Christian Buddha traces the Buddha’s story from India to Persia to Jerusalem and then throughout Europe, as it was rewritten by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian authors, illustrating its unsuspected integration into European culture. Through a comparison of the tale’s various versions, this book reveals surprising convergences and divergences—between Christianity and Buddhism on subjects including the meaning of death, the problem of desire, and the view of women.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
02/10/2014
Western scholars have long been fascinated by similarities between stories of the Buddha and Josaphat, an early Christian saint. Lopez, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan and a prolific author, and his colleague McCracken, professor of French, tell how the legends of the Buddha’s life were transmitted west across cultures to become medieval Europe’s popular tale of “Barlaam and Josaphat.” The story was reshaped to serve various purposes (even a justification for war) as it was translated into Arabic, Georgian, Greek, Latin, and European languages. Through detailed analysis, the authors investigate “not how stories circulate among religions, but how religions circulate among stories.” The authors’ scholarly treatment of their somewhat esoteric subject includes blow-by-blow descriptions of the Arabic and Georgian versions that are too long and over-detailed for a general audience. The persistent reader, however, will find a rich exploration of the linguistic, political, religious, historical, and textual aspects of the legend’s long journey. The book’s meticulous research and broad scope illustrate the vitality with which cultures share and adapt stories as they wrestle with the question, “If life ends in death, how should I live?” (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
2014-02-06
Intriguing exploration of how the Buddha's story was appropriated across languages and cultures into a legendary Christian saint. Lopez (Buddhist and Tibetan Studies/Univ. of Michigan; From Stone to Flesh: A Short History of the Buddha, 2013, etc.) and McCracken (French/Univ. of Michigan; The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero: Blood, Gender, and Medieval Literature, 2003, etc.) do far more than trace a specific literary thread through the Middle Ages. They also explore the power of storytelling to aid peoples and cultures, as well as the ability of cultures to borrow or reinvent stories from each other. The authors demonstrate that the story of the Buddha was first utilized as the basis of an Arabic work that preserves various aspects of the Buddha's early life story without being explicitly Buddhist. Soon after, in the ninth or 10th century, Georgian monks working at a monastery in Palestine translated the Arabic story into Georgian, Christianizing the tale at the same time. It went on to be translated into Greek, Latin and even Hebrew, entering the Western European conscience through the character of St. Josaphat, a Christianized version of the Buddha. The authors work in several layers. Initially, they provide lay readers with a background in the original Buddha story. Then they offer colorful summaries of each version of the story as it moved through Arabic and into Western languages. All the while, they provide historic background on the cultural forces that brought these translations into being. Finally, they explore more modern Western interactions with Buddhism and the slow realization that the Buddha did not resemble Josaphat but vice versa. The work is a fascinating historical detective story, entertaining as a curiosity. Beyond that, however, Lopez and McCracken have done a service to scholarship by providing an excellent example of how cultures, religions and languages are able to share, appropriate and transform a story for their own needs and purposes. Solid research with wide appeal.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393089158
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/7/2014
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 986,669
  • Product dimensions: 1.60 (w) x 2.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Donald S. Lopez Jr. is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished
University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the
University of Michigan.

Peggy McCracken, the translator of Gui de Cambrai’s Barlaam and Josaphat, is a professor of French at the University of Michigan.

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