The Buddha as a christian saint: A story of ecumenism

by André de Raaij

“These ‘saints’ never existed,” says The Penguin Dictionary of Saints about Barlaam and Ioasaph (Josaphat).1 This is as questionable a statement as can be made about many of the saints, especially the early, mentioned in this listing. A Roman Catholic calendarium mentions 27th November as their festive day. The Greek Church celebrates Ioasaphat on 26th August, the Russian Church commemorates both and Ioasaph’s father Abenner on 19 November/2 December. They have not been decanonized. There is one good reason for this, if it makes any difference whether they actually existed: they did – Ioasaph at least! The historical existence of Siddhartha, generally known as the Buddha, cannot be doubted – and his right to have a place in a list of christian saints, on which his name has featured over a thousand years, should not be questioned either.

Ioasaph is a hebraized version of Bodhisatva, another name of the prince who gave buddhism its name. It has been known since the middle of the 19th century that the story of these two saints, who according to their vita were responsible for the second christianizing of India, was based on the life of Sakyamuni of Kapilavastu. Leo Tolstoy mentions this vita as one of his main religious inspirations2, and states that it brought him closer to the truth, which is christianity – though actually knowing that this prince Ioasaph is really the Buddha. It seems to show – although probably no-one who wants be an authority in either religion will like it – the hidden affinity between christianity and buddhism which is not just a theosophical invention.

Dutch christian anarchist Rev. Louis A. Bähler, who introduced buddhism to the Netherlands (and to Germany and other countries as well), openly stated that this affinity may be the result of cultural contacts. After all, there was more that could be transported along the well-known Silk Road than silk alone. He states that the Therapeuts in Egypt and the Palestinian Essenes are the spiritual offspring of buddhist mission in the hellenized world.3If this were true the affinity could be more than a parallel development of belief systems based on two separate teachings.4 But let us not tread this interesting but dangerous ground – probably we shall never know more about it anyway – in this life, to remain in style.

A short and simple version of this vita of the Buddha as a christian saint’s life has been translated from Georgian in English by Andrew Lang. The story is about the falling back of India into paganism, after having first been christianized by one of the apostles (Thomas, also called Judas – the christian presence in India in fact dates back to very early days of christianity). Secretly, christianity has been preserved, and by adopting it from the servant Barlaam, a secret believer, prince Ioasaph brings the heathens back to real faith. The story cannot mention specifics about the time of this second conversion.5

This saints’ life was in medieval times translated from Greek into Armenian, Arabic, Ethiopian, Old Slavonic, Russian, Bielorussian, Serb, French, Occitan, Anglo-Norman, High German and Norse. There have been three versions in Latin, from which Shakespeare borrowed a part of the story inThe merchant of Venice. Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca also used parts of the story. So the life of the christianized Buddha seems to have had a lasting impact on European and African culture.

The Greek version dates back to the eleventh century, and was attributed to “John the Monk” (perhaps foretelling the latter-day legendary “Prester John” who had converted India and other parts of Asia). This John has been identified by copyists with John the Damascene, to whom the vita is still attributed.

The Georgian version however, predates the Greek – and this one in its turn must have been translated from Arab versions. Muslim theologians identified most of the wisdom contained in the text as belonging to the pre-islamic “heresies” of Persia. The Persian verse rendering is still older than the Arabic “muslim” version (as mentioned before, there also is a later Arabic “christian” version). The oldest text fragments have been found in Turkic in present day Uigur-Xinjiang.

Apparently the story before being islamized or christianized passed through the hands and minds of manichaeans, who were culturally and geographically neighbours to the buddhist world of the sixth century A.D. This may be seen as an explanation for the popularity of the ascetic teachings of the vita with the Provençals of the High Middle Ages. But the most remarkable thing that can be stated about it, is that the spread of the story is truly ecumenical. In the geographical sense: from Norway to Ethiopia, from Uigur to England – and of course in the religious sense – quite probably against the will of most christian churches.

A full edition of the Greek vita is published in the Loeb Classical Library: [St. John Damascene], Barlaam and Ioasaph. With an English translation by G.R. Woodward and H. Mattingly. Introduction by D.M. Lang. Cambridge Mass. & London, 1963.

The above is broadly based on the introductions of D.M. Lang to this edition and The wisdom of Balahvar.

Notes

1 Donald Attwater & Catherine Rachel John, The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. Harmondsworth: 1983 (2nd ed.), p. 54-55.

2 ‘A confession’, in: Leo Tolstoy, A confession and other religious writings. Translated by Jane Kentish. Harmondsworth: 1987, p. 72.

3 Louis A. Bähler, Het Boeddhisme – een populair-wetenschappelijke uiteenzetting. Groningen: Noording, 19352., p. 69.

4 Vietnamese buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh stresses the parallel, and shows no sign of thinking buddhism superior in rank or time – see e.g.Going home – Jesus and Buddha as brothers. New York: Riverhead, 1999.

5 David Marshall Lang, The wisdom of Balahvar: a Christian legend of the Buddha. London: Allen & Unwin, 1957.


Published in print in Golden Horn Volume 8, issue 2 (spring 2001)

Advertisements