Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Barlaam and Josaphat/ In Search of the Christian Buddha": Book Review

Canonized unwittingly as St. Josaphat, a corruption of "bodhisattva," the Buddha, condemned as an idol worshipped by his duped followers, had his story transmitted after long centuries within the hagiography translated to convert the Japanese in the 1600s. So runs one of many twists in Barlaam and Josaphat, translated by Peggy McCracken and introduced by Donald S. Lopez, as a Penguin Classic. 

Gui de Cambrai (around 1220-25) adapted the story into French verse; McCracken renders it efficiently into modern English. Gui takes the core elements of the Buddha legend. 1) The prediction that the prince will be a saint or a king. 2) The ensuing protection by his father the king to keep him from the sights of the world. This ruse fails, as a series of chariot rides reveal mortality, sickness, age, and death to the coddled lad. 3.) Then, seductive women seek to dissuade the prince from his destiny and enlightenment as he vows to depart the palace for a life of asceticism. But first, to fulfill his duty, he fathered an heir, as a prince who is expected to carry on the royal family line.

What the medieval teller adds, Lopez in his brief introduction and McCracken in her 2014 edition (if short on footnotes) show, is an elaborate disputation between Greeks (ahistorically if entertainingly including Plato's brother and a nephew of Aristotle for good measure), Chaldeans, and pagans. They integrate fine stories in succession cobbled from ancient lore, and this transmission as with the larger storyline contains inherent interest for how this comes down through to the early eleventh century in Old French. We get clever glimpses into the culture, as when perverse sex earns condemnation in a comparison to chess. Those engaging in "a shameful game" allow themselves "to be mated from the corner." The hectoring narrator goes on: "The clerics were first to adopt it, and they taught the game to knights. The deed is base--anyone who would leave the clearing for the woods is like a base peasant." (100-101) Finally, the teller shakes free of the vice he despises, and the story later elaborates into a set-piece about the Crusades, with the characters off to a holy war. Another addition is the use of the disputation between the body and the soul, a medieval trope, to fit neatly into the frame-tale's theme of renunciation for sacrifice, and the leaving of one's family to seek a higher path.

This tale was one of many which told the Buddha's story with nobody suspecting this until the 1600s. While a chronicler of Marco Polo's journey caught on to a resemblance, modern scholars in the 19th century, investigating the sources for the misunderstood origins of Shakyamuni, or Prince Siddhartha, finally figured out the elaborate and entangled transmission gone haywire much later. Lopez, as a noted scholar of Buddhist reception in the West (see Prisoners of Shangri-La on Tibet and The Scientific Buddha for attempts to reconcile the historical Buddha with post-Darwinian science), is well-suited to convey these crossed messages. Joined by medievalist Peggy McCracken, the two seek to explain In Search of the Christian Buddha: How An Asian Sage Became a Christian Saint (also 2014) the origins of the tales told throughout the Middle Ages, as the Buddha's story was embedded into narratives and biographies which asserted often the superiority of non-Buddhist ideas.

The tale of Barlaam and Josaphat was one of many which told the Buddha's story with nobody suspecting this until the 1600s. A 1446 editor of Marco Polo's journey caught on to a resemblance. Then scholars in the 19th century, investigating sources for the misunderstood origins of Shakyamuni, Prince Siddhartha, finally figured out elaborate, entangled transmissions gone haywire.

Here's the basics. In Persia in the 8th c. a Muslim writer compiled Bilawhar and Budasaf.  Armies of Islam had begun entering northwestern India, the first home of Buddhism. They spread the stories westward. Arabic preserved some of the core tale's triple elements mentioned above. A century later, the Muslims conquered the Christian kingdom in what is today Georgia. Refugee monks fled to Jerusalem and turned the Muslim story into a Christian one, the Balavariani. A Jewish translator four centuries on took the story from Arabic and sent it west again, via Muslims, into Moorish Spain, where it would turn The Prince and the Hermit via Hebrew and much later, rendered into both German and Yiddish.

Greek and Latin stories, once attributed to John of Damascus in their beginnings, kept the idea that the prince learned about God from a hermit, Barlaam. This turned into stories as told in lives of saints, such as the very popular Latin Golden Legend or Legenda Aurea, by Jacobus de Voragine.

The authors err repeatedly on p. 139. While Franciscans are mendicants, they are not monks. Benedictines are not mendicants but they are monks. Additionally, the hagiographer of Ss. Barlaam and Josaphat and many others, Jacobus de Voragine (Jacobo de Varazze), was not a "monk belonging to the Benedictine preaching order" but a Dominican mendicant friar of the Order of Preachers.  Another aside: the book relies on paraphrases of the main texts and one loses some idea of their various styles, lengths, and flavor. Textual excerpts might have helped key in readers as to their strengths or weaknesses, cited more directly. Primarily summarized, the source texts discussed float past rather than sink in.

Back to the authors' main narrative, part of the spark of this tale comes when the stories of saints get sent to Japan by those seeking to win the natives away from Buddha to Christ. The irony is dealt with lightly by Lopez and McCracken, but it cannot be denied. Condemning idolators, the story of Josaphat is used against those supposedly worshiping false gods such as Xaca, the name garbled from Shakayamuni.

Subsequent thinkers, clued in bit by bit to such garblings, sought to deploy them differently. For some in the early 19th century, the discovery of the historical roots of Buddhism in India led them to propagate a bold claim. Buddhism and Christianity were purer as world religions open to all. Judaism and Hinduism were grounded in tribal identities, and not open to adoption by other peoples. Furthermore, the "Aryan" roots of Jesus who studied in the East were purported. Buddhism could be seen here as an attempt to detach Christian origins from Hebrew tribalism.

Others enticed by folklore found appeal in those three core stories repeated. They also liked the tale of three caskets in it, used by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. Finally, another tale of women named as "geese" to a curious boy seeing women for the first time (cited in Boccaccio's Decameron) reveal intriguing tidbits, as elements of folk narrative dispersed across time and space into tales.

Still others saw in Buddhism a palliative to other faith. In it nestled human striving, and purer motives rather than superstitious, quasi-Catholic accretions. Some sympathetic to Protestant reform or humanist progress sympathized therefore with attenuated evidence of the antiquity and durability of the Buddha's presence over so many different times and places. On the other hand, those who liked to sneer at the Church found plenty of ammunition in the ironic canonization of St. Josaphat by Buddhist persecutors. Lopez and McCracken aver some of this guilt underlies the fascination recent scholars have had in the eager reception of this tale's provenance and message. Even if the trace elements of the Buddha's coming of age story are faint by the time they are detected by recent critics, the telling manner in which critical reception "seems to dissolve in the presence of the Buddha," a theme Lopez often analyzes, may account for--if not excuse--the appeal of a sage without priests, ritual, or dogma.

As Lopez repeats a phrase from his "scientific Buddha" book in 2013: "The goal of the Buddhist path is not creation but extinction." (37) The authors here conclude that the aim of Buddhism is not perpetuation of narrative or allurements of story, but a rejection of the pleasures of palace and princes. Separation from the enticements of this world is necessary. As the editors insist, for Buddhism, "The goal is to finally stop dying." (222) Flawed by change and doom, this world is not transcended as in Christian or Muslim terms for future reward but by renunciation of family, goods and attachment to all that would impede separation from its glittering delights. The Christian story of Barlaam and Josaphat sought to lure listeners away from the secular to the spiritual realm of the Church, and to ensure princes listening took care of pious hermits. But as Lopez and McCracken hint, these durable tales also sought to keep alive the very system that Buddhism seeks to put to an end.
(Both reviews edited and revamped a bit to Amazon US 7-28-14: Barlaam and In Search.)

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