Strange Tales of an Oriental Idol: by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

Strange Tales of an Oriental Idol: by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

Takes up the conversion of the Buddha “from stone to flesh” as the statues and the portraits of this venerable personage filtered into the imagination of travelers and scholars.

Strange Tales of an Oriental Idol: by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

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In any Eastern-themed gift shop or Asian-inspired garden you’re likely to see a benevolent, rotund and inevitably smiling Buddha. Imported into Western culture, the familiar icon entered popular culture as a good luck symbol and a self-satisfied sage. But less than two centuries ago, this seemingly benign teacher was considered not a cheerful presence, but something more demonic.

This shift has taken nearly 2000 years to spread, far from the homeland near the Himalayan foothills and Indian plains of the historical Buddha. Donald S. Lopez, a scholar of Buddhist culture at the University of Michigan, excerpts over eighty accounts of what the Buddha meant to the forebears of Christians (and, now and then, Muslims and Jews) who attempted to fit this acclaimed personage into their worldviews. Strange Tales of an Oriental Idol: An Anthology of Early European Portrayals of the Buddha takes up the conversion of the Buddha “from stone to flesh” as the statues and the portraits of this venerable personage filtered into the imagination of travelers and scholars. Mystified or terrified of what they knew or guessed about this fabled entity, many regarded him or it with “profound suspicion.” Until 1801, the Buddha was not recognized as the founder of what the West invented as Buddhism. For previous tale-tellers, he was known only as an idol.

Lopez records over 300 names for the Buddha between the years 200 and 1850, a litany that stretches back to church father Clement of Alexandria, who distinguishes Hindu Brahmin priests from non-Hindu followers of the “Boutta, whom, on account of his extraordinary sanctity, they have raised to divine honours.” Not bad for the first attempt at defining the change from Gautama to Sakyamuni, from a pampered prince to a wise deity bestowing favors on his worshipers.

The professor’s introduction sums up the intricate patterns of information about the Buddha as they were transmitted from the Indian subcontinent into the Middle East and across the many Christian and Islamic empires. Tellingly, for nearly a millennium, few reports of the Buddha found their way west. Marco Polo’s celebrated chronicle ranks sixth among 80-odd entries, for instance. After this report, however, versions multiplied along the trade routes set up by Christian missionaries and traders with China. Emissaries at the Great Khan’s court linked with Armenian, Persian and papal contacts visiting Mongol rulers. These East-West ties tightened in the 1600s after the Reformation.

Among these, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci epitomizes the ambition of the Catholic Church to win over the Chinese. Fr. Ricci also speaks for the dismissal of the Buddhist teachings brought to China from India as a “disaster.” Neither a “genuine record of the history of this religion” nor “any real principle upon which one can rely” exists within this faith. For it “lacks the arts of civilization and has no standards of moral conduct to bequeath to posterity.” Ricci credits the lack of knowledge of Buddhism abroad with a rationale for denigrating its doctrines. The Jesuits may have adapted Chinese customs as their own to win over the rulers, but they persisted, as with Ippolito Desideri in Tibet, to oppose Buddhism

Other Westerners added their own reactions, which tended to be negative, offering adaptations of the Buddha but often without recognizing the idol’s historical roots. Yet, Lopez cautions, no single Buddha biography is accepted across Asia. No canonical text exists.

Rather than posit a true Asian vs. false Western dichotomy, Lopez asks, “whether the Buddha, then and now, here and there, is the product of a more complex and interesting process of influence.” The author allows many texts to nestle and jostle against each other, refusing to rate them. This approach fits into Lopez’ career, spent producing learned works demystifying Buddhist tropes. While the collection of polyglot voices may daunt, he offers cogent introductions for each diverse inclusion.

Then as now, knowledge of languages varied, as did motivations. Conversion of the “pagans” led to negative attitudes such as Ricci’s, and Catholics encountering monasteries eerily like their own recoiled as if they had walked into the haunts of devils. Gradually, spurred by archaeological, linguistic and military exponents, interest in what became defined as Buddhism supplanted a terror of its teachings. Ethnographic enthusiasm grew in the 1700s and 1800s, and this anthology fittingly concludes with the 1844 monograph of Eugène Burnouf. This scholar of Old Persian and Sanskrit pioneered the presentation of a human Buddha, rather than a stone idol. From that juncture, Western sympathy began for the founding figure of a world religion and an appealing philosophy.

“The myriad idols coalesced into a single figure, who then became a historical figure, a founder of a religion, and a superstition became a philosophy.” So Lopez sums up the transformation. Textually-based Buddhism remains dominant in the West, parallel to the quest in the 19th century for an historical Jesus. Whether such pursuits have resulted in reform or regression is left up to the adept.

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