The Opposite of Buddhism §2

…the trouble with beginning at the beginning…

Is this “the beginning” of Europe’s contact with Buddhism?

[Reminder: this lecture was written for a Cambodian audience, and intended for translation into Cambodian.]


It is always misleading to begin with beginnings: in an important new essay, Urs App establishes the year 1756 as the first translation of a Buddhist Sutra into a European language. (App, 2010, p. 7) I would start the clock more than 700 years earlier: the first translation that I know of is in the year 1028, and if we were to speak more broadly of the earliest Buddhist sermon to come to Europe, we would need to include the edicts of Ashoka that were translated into Greek in the third century B.C. --a gesture that was likely accompanied by some other texts that were not preserved in stone.1

I do not mention this to create a controversy where none can exist, but to raise a general warning that the beginnings of Europe's engagement with Buddhism, and the imperialist engagement with Asia, are much, much earlier than many of my contemporaries choose to admit.

In debating the fall of the Pol Pot (波爾布特) regime in 1979, a member of British Parliament remarked aloud that this might be the first time the English House of Commons had ever debated Cambodia, so distant and tenuous were the relations between the two nations.2 In fact, we are now approaching the 360th anniversary of England's political and economic presence in Cambodia, starting in 1651.3 While that year has not become famous in the history of either nation, it might be a useful contrast to the tendency that I see in so many academic articles that presume the European engagement with Buddhism to have begun in the nineteenth century.4

The eleventh century translation that I have alluded to is the myth of Barlaam and Josephat, a version of the life of the Buddha that was apparently carried to Europe by Manicheans5 and then reinterpreted to suit a Christian audience. The result was one of the “smash hits” of popular literature in the middle ages: the story of the Buddha as a Christian Saint spread through translations in both prose and verse, and found its way into paintings, pageants and pontifications across the continent.

Josaphat, however, rides a horse; image c/o the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Barlaam and Josaphat” became a most popular book during the Middle Ages. In the East it was translated into Syriac(?), Arabic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Hebrew; in the West it exists in Latin, French, Italian, German, English, Spanish, Bohemian, and Polish. As early as 1204, a King of Norway translated it into Icelandic… But this is not all, Barlaam and Josaphat have actually risen to the rank of saints, both in the Eastern and in the Western churches." (Müller, 1881, p. 168 et seq.)

Thus, paradoxically, November 27th is the day when the Catholic Church pays homage to the Buddha --even if it is the Buddha as remembered in bad translation.

It is certainly true that Europeans showed very little sincere interest in Buddhism before the 19th century, but even so, we should not excuse this lack of interest as a lack of access. There never was a geographic barrier separating Europe from India: the barrier was one of religious intolerance, xenophobia and, to some extent, indifference.

By starting the clock in the 19th century, we divert attention from the fact that Europeans had been ruling Sri Lanka continuously since 1505, and thus had been standing on top of the greatest repository of Buddhist literature imaginable --without taking the slightest interest in it-- for centuries. In the sixteenth century, Theravada Buddhism had as little influence on Europeans as the religions of the Iroquois or the Arawak have presently: Buddhism was simply another heathen religion on the horizons of empire. By papal edict and popular prejudice alike, the non-Christian world existed primarily to be conquered, looted, and its people enslaved.

[Footnotes for this section:]

1 There are both further theories and further facts concerning the Buddhism's effects (or side-effects) in ancient Greek philosophy, and I omit to mention them as extraneous. However, it may be complained that there is much more to be said on the subject than is suggested in my allusion to these inscriptions. See: (1) McEvilley, 1982, (2) McEvilley, 1980, and (3) Kuzminski, 2008.

2 The source is MP Peter Shore (representing Stepney and Poplar) addressing the House of Commons at 7:24 PM, on December 6th of 1979, q.v. Hansard vol. 975 cc709-61. I made use of the digitized record:

3 Bassett, 1962, p. 35, specifies that indirect trade between the English and Cambodians commenced somewhat earlier, in 1613, but the appropriate date to use (for an English “presence in Cambodia”) is 1651. The Dutch already had a trading station in Cambodia in 1620.

4 As if it were an established fact, Shaw remarks, “Buddhism’s impact on Britain had begun in the early Victorian period…”, i.e., after 1837, when the reign of Queen Victoria commences! (Shaw, 2007, p. 2)

5 On the Manichean aspect, I'm following: Walter, 2006, p. 54.

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