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Buddhadharma : Summer 2014
70 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY SUMMER 2014 How startled we might be, then, to hear that the brief sketch above is the story of a Christian saint whose obsti- nate father is a pagan idolator (or in some versions, a Muslim). Or that his ultimate triumph—in some ver- sions achieved through war against his father—is the glory of Christian saint- hood. And yet, in important medieval European hagiographies that remained influential well into the nineteenth cen- tury, that is precisely what we find. The prince is a Christian saint (named Josaphat in the most widely known versions of the story), and his virtue lies in converting his father’s kingdom to Christianity and living as a Chris- tian ascetic with his teacher, Barlaam. Barlaam and Josaphat, the story of the renunciant prince and his holy Christian teacher, was popular for centuries, trans- lated from Georgian to Greek to Latin to Old French and other languages. What on earth, we might ask, is the Buddha’s life story doing disguised in the tale of a Christian saint? A pre- liminary answer is that stories travel, even more widely than the individual human beings who tell them. Across language barriers and between civiliza- tions, people translate stories that grip their imaginations, exchanging them along trade routes or after conquests. Tales are carried on voyages together with fashion, science, or medicine; they are included in histories of for- eign lands. Stories even seep through the fierce perimeters of (supposedly) alien religious belief and practice and the mutual distrust, or worse, that may separate religious communities. Such is the argument of In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint, a new book by Donald Lopez and Peggy McCracken. The authors guide the reader across centuries and continents as they unspool the story of a story— the travels of a tale about a moving and sometimes violent journey of spiritual search. While the first half of the book’s title might suggest that this is a work of interreligious dialogue, it is not, or at least not in the usual sense. This book does offer fascinating revelations about unsuspected episodes of communica- tion between Buddhist, Muslim, Jew- ish, and Christian communities across time, distance, and cultural divides. Yet In Search of the Christian Buddha is actually a kind of detective story. It recounts a hunt through writings in Pali, Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew, Geor- gian, Greek, and French for the traces of a tale about a holy prince who renounces the pleasures and pains of the world in search of what lies beyond death. To what extent this is the tale of Shakyamuni Buddha, and how, where, and why that story changes into other stories, are the questions of this book. In their search for answers, the authors provide a glimpse the vast and little-known terrain of cross-cultural interactions in the ancient and medieval world, as well as the intellectual history of the early generations of Europeans who studied something they began to call “Buddhism.” Indeed, atten- tive readers will notice that this book offers a further installment in Don- ald Lopez’s long-running and ambi- tious project of mapping encounters between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and the intellectual history of the study of Buddhism. In Search of the Christian Buddha forms a kind of pair with Lopez’s other recent book, From Stone to Flesh: A Short History of the Buddha. But here, Lopez has teamed up with McCracken, a scholar of French literature, who is the translator of the Old French work called Barlaam and Josaphat, the version of the tale most widely influential among Catholics in Europe. McCracken and Lopez take on a double task in this book. First, they lead the reader though the major trans- lations of the story of the saintly prince. Wearing their scholarship lightly, they explain in lucid and elegant prose the cultural circumstances that seem to have made each translation possible, and suggest some of the political and social context of each translation, thus offering fascinating clues about each translator’s agenda. Second, they document the tale in reverse, describ- ing how Europeans became aware of the connection between the story of Barlaam and Josaphat and the life of Shakyamuni, and how these discoveries fit in the longer history of encounters between Europeans and Asians during the colonial period. The story of the transposition of the Buddha’s life into that of a Christian saint who fights idolatry—and in later versions, who fights explicitly against Muslims—begins ironically with an Arabic translation. In explaining how this was so, Lopez and McCracken REVIEWS Saints Barlaam (left) and Josaphat, St. Sophia Cathedral, Novogrod, Russia, 15th century