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Sunday 12 August 2012

The Buddha in Mediaeval Europe

When I was reading up about the ancient Chinese sage Fu Xi for last week’s post, I discovered that some of the Jesuit missionaries to China in the 17th and 18th century believed that Fu Xi was one and the same person as the Biblical patriarch Enoch, and that the I Ching contained “precious vestiges from the remains of the most ancient and excellent philosophy taught by the first patriarchs of the world” (see the Wikipedia article on Figurism). This is interesting in its own right, because both the character of Enoch and the philosophy of the I Ching loom large in the modern-day esoteric literature of the New Age movement.

But the Enoch—Fu Xi connection reminded me of something else that has always struck me as rather surprising. During the Middle Ages, one of the most popular books in the early days of printing was called The Golden Legend -- a huge collection of moral tales and parables about saints and other holy people. And one of the stories—the story of Barlaam and Josaphat—is derived from an old Indian legend about the Buddha.

There are countless speculations about supposed interactions and parallels between different cultures of the ancient world (the Enoch—Fu Xi speculation is one of them). Many of these speculations (as mentioned in an earlier post) take the form of rather shaky amateur scholarship based on perceived similarities which probably have no grounding in historical fact. But the Josaphat—Buddha link seems to be stronger than that. Even the ultra-conservative Wikipedia article states that “Barlaam and Josaphat or Joasaph is a Christianized version of the story of Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha”. No weasel words like “is believed by some people to be” or “has at times been alleged to be”. So it must be true.

The idea is that the story found its way to Europe from India via Persia, and that “Josaphat” is a multiply corrupted form of the Sanskrit word “Bodhisattva”. You can tell this is based on real professional scholarship, and not the amateur armchair kind, because it is all so obscure! The connection between “Josaphat” and “Bodhisattva” is not at all obvious to the eye, and apart from its setting in India there is little in the story to suggest its Buddhist origin. Josaphat is a convert to Christianity, not Buddhism!

In the context of the Middle Ages, there is nothing that unusual about one culture appropriating a moral tale from another culture and adapting it to their own teaching. As its name suggests, The Golden Legend is a book of fables -- fictitious stories with a morally instructive message. It doesn’t claim to be the literal truth, only the symbolic truth. There was plenty of room in the mediaeval world for subtle thinking of that kind, before it was edged out by the Biblical literalists and skeptical atheists of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Incidentally, the picture above has nothing to do with the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat -- it’s a painting called “Christ et Buddha” by the French artist Paul Ranson. It looks like a typical New Age composition from the 1980s or 90s, but actually it was painted in 1880!


AudioMonk said...


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Your articles we've found absolutely excellent, and would like to know if you'd be interested in writing one for the next edition of our magazine. Our magazine is distributed across all electronic platforms. The Ipad/Iphone, Android devices, Kindle, Blackberry as well as being available to view on a PC or Macintosh computer. As a result the coverage your article will get is huge and will get your name more widely known, and give you a step on the ladder toward bigger things.

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We'd urge you to take us up on our offer too as we have bigger plans for authors, and we run our own publishing service too, so who knows what may become of this.

If interested, please contact me Michael Bourne, submitting your article which should be around 2000 words. Our next edition is themed around injustice, if you want to write about an element of that, but it's not essential. If any images are used you must own the rights to these, and please send us a picture of yourself for the bio section.

We really hope to hear from you soon.

Michael Bourne
Editor Mindscape Magazine

Andrew May said...

Hi Michael - Thanks very much for getting in contact. I've just sent you an email - let me know in another comment if it doesn't arrive.