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Barlaam and Josaphat: A Christian Tale of the Buddha (Penguin Classics)
Barlaam and Josaphat: A Christian Tale of the Buddha (Penguin Classics)
Gui de Cambrai
Penguin Classics, 2014
224 pp., $16.00

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In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint
In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint
Donald S. Lopez Jr.
W. W. Norton & Company, 2014
272 pp., $24.95

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Terry C. Muck


A Christian Buddha

The story of a great story.

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There are touches of all these approaches in Donald Lopez and Peggy McCracken's In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint, but their major contribution is their clear delineation of how the story evolved from culture to culture and age to age. They tell a great story about a great story. In places their account is still a bit speculative (especially on the Indian origins), but for the most part scholarship has reached some firm conclusions about the story's transmission. Lopez and McCracken summarize these historical findings reliably and interestingly.

They begin by telling the story of the Buddha. Stories, actually. The search for the historical Buddha makes the search for the historical Jesus seem like child's play in comparison. But since literary heritage rather than historical accuracy is the point here, Lopez and McCracken are able to root the three salient events repeated in all the editions of Barlaam and Josaphat—the astrologers' predictions, the chariot rides, and the seduction scenes—and demonstrate that the more the story changed, the more it stayed the same. That is, the more Christian elements that are added to the story, the more one can see the Buddhist elements at its core.

From its Indian origins, the story evolved to (1) an Arabic/Muslim version; (2) a Georgian Christian version; (3) a classical Greek, then Latin set of versions; and (4) many European-language versions, of which Gui de Cambrai's French version is one of the best preserved. At each stage the story became more Christian. At each stage it became more polemical. And, yes, at each stage it is still a Buddhist story.

After brilliantly relating their story of the story, Lopez and McCracken offer their view of why the story endures, especially in the postmodern West. Their take goes beyond the fact that it is classic literature, "classic" in the sense that it touches on archetypal human themes that can be recognized across cultures and eras. And their take goes beyond Wilfred Cantwell Smith's modernist thesis of human solidarity, unity, and coherence. It is interesting, they say, that a story of an Asian sage becomes the story of a Christian saint, and it is interesting, they say, that different groups of modernists used this fact to argue their points: scholars and folklorists interested in cultural transmission, humanists interested in embarrassing the Christian church and its beatification protocols, Christian apologists (and Muslim and Jewish apologists) interested in showing their religion's superiority over Hinduism and Buddhism.

But the really interesting thing about Barlaam and Josaphat, Lopez and McCracken say, is the way growing numbers of 21st century readers take pleasure in using the story in their creation of a Christian Buddha. Now that the Buddhist origin of Josaphat is common knowledge, more and more readers jump right over scholarly pedantry, humanist pettiness, and Christian-Muslim-Jewish religio-cultural imperialisms, and read the story as a way of understanding Gautama through a Christian lens. The subtitle of their book is incomplete. It might better read, "How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint and Then Became a Christian Asian Sage."

Lopez began this fascinating journey in his Terry Lectures at Yale in 2008 (published as The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life, 2012), a story of how thinkers in the West have understood and, mostly, misunderstood the Buddha, creating the Scientific Buddha in their own image. His conclusion of that very useful examination was that "we honor the Scientific Buddha for all he has done over his short life of 150 years … and that we allow him to pass away, like a flame going out."

But doesn't the story of Barlaam and Josaphat teach us a slightly different lesson? Contrary to popular understanding, legends don't point us back—legends really only point us forward. So isn't the lesson of this legend that there is no getting back to the original Buddha? That there is no help for Christians seeing the Buddha through a Christian lens—that they can see him in no other way? That the "real" Buddha lies somewhere in the intersections of the Indian Buddha, the Muslim Buddha, the Asian Buddha, the Jewish Buddha, and so on? For Christians, specifically, the story of Barlaam and Josaphat is an illustration of God's omnipresence, of God's presence anywhere and everywhere, of God's voracious appetite for self-revelation and God's grace-filled care for all humanity.

Terry C. Muck is executive director of the Louisville Institute.

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