The Neverending Story

In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint BY Donald S. Lopez Jr., Peggy McCracken. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 272 pages. $24.

When Saint Francis Xavier attempted to bring Christianity to Asia in the middle of the sixteenth century, he believed for a time that his mission was going quite well. With the help of a former samurai, whom he had converted at the start of his travels in Japan, he translated and memorized sections of the Gospels in order to explain himself to the locals. He told everyone he met that he was there to teach about Dainichi, the word his translator told him was a close enough approximation of God.

One of the first Jesuits, Francis was a founding father of the most successful evangelizing enterprise in history. Naturally, he spoke well of Dainichi—so well that a group of Buddhist monks took him in, surprised and intrigued by the stories he told. Yet during his stay he learned that Dainichi was, in fact, one of the many names of the Buddha. Francis had been attributing the miracles of Jesus to a teacher the Japanese already revered. Thereafter, the missionary tried out other names for God, but apparently with less success. He set off to try his luck elsewhere, in other languages, in other lands.

Conditioned as we are to think of the world’s religions as a handful of distinct belief systems that rub tectonically against each other like the lithospheric plates beneath our feet, we easily forget that the basic elements of beliefs—stories—pay no mind to such borders. As anyone with young children can attest, we are fascinated by stories long before we care if they are true, or whose they are. Stories are as true as they are convincing; they belong to anyone who hears them told.

In Search of the Christian Buddha, Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Peggy McCracken’s study of the relationships among language, religion, and the ownership of stories, centers around a tale even older than Francis Xavier’s failed mission to Japan. As early as the ninth century, stories of a Christian saint known as Josaphat began to circulate among monastic orders in Jerusalem, and later fanned out to all corners of Christendom. According to the tales told about him, which soon were translated into a dozen languages, Josaphat was the son of an Indian king but had renounced his wealth and royal status for the religious life. When the life story of the Buddha, also known as Prince Siddhartha Gautama, traveled to Europe through the writings of Marco Polo and others in the fourteenth century, it became clear that the stories about Josaphat were most likely about the same man.

How, then, did the star of one religious tradition come to play a bit part in another tradition born six hundred years later on the other side of the world? In Search of the Christian Buddha pursues this question through compelling textual detective work that stretches across continents and centuries.

The answer, of course, has to do with language and translation. In its movement from Persian to Arabic to Georgian to Greek to Latin, and from there to all Romance languages and eventually back toward Asia dressed up in Japanese and Tagalog, a Buddhist legend took on characteristics that were first Islamic, then Christian. Arabic texts describing a figure known variously as al-Budd and Budasf (derived from bodhisattva, the Sanskrit term for an enlightened being) supply the crucial linguistic links that allow the authors to connect Buddha to Josaphat.

Lopez and McCracken chiefly provide a straightforward account of how a religious text can change as it finds new readers and listeners, like a game of theological telephone between cultures. But they also uncover elements of the backstory to the Josaphat saga that are too good to leave untold. For example, following a slight detour away from the life of the Buddha, the authors take a few pages to tell us all we ever wanted to know about the Buddha’s penis, but were afraid to ask.

In an ancient Chinese tale, we learn, the Buddha keeps his genitals “hidden in a sheath” as a sign of his detachment from the world. Yet he seems far from detached when a group of prostitutes taunt that he “lacks a functioning male member.” The fifth-century text continues:

When the Buddha heard this, [his organ] gradually emerged like that of a horse king. When it first appeared it was like the bodily organ of an eight-year-old boy, and it gradually grew into the shape of that of an adolescent. Seeing this, all the women rejoiced. Then the hidden organ gradually grew . . . like a cylindrical banner of lotus flowers.

Tangents like these may seem a bit off topic in a book explaining how texts are remade through association with new forms of religious tradition—but only a bit. They mainly serve the important purpose of reminding us that the very word tradition tends to sanitize stories whose original power was their immediacy and relevance to unsanitized lives. Such details, especially when they appear in stories considered sacred, surely had something to do with the quality we think of today as virality. It was precisely their surprising nature—Buddha Unsheathed His Penis. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next—that sent such stories on a trek through languages and across cultures, to become something at once new and not new.

“Our task,” the authors write, “will be to ask not how stories circulate among religions, but how religions circulate among stories.” This is a humble enough declaration, but its implications are profound. What if we have our textual understanding of how religion works precisely backward, in thinking that religions make use of stories to convey moral lessons? What if, instead, stories make use of religions, for reasons all their own?

While particular mythologies rise and fall, the use of narrative as a meaning-making machine endures—perhaps because we’ve always believed more in language than in God by any name.

Peter Manseau’s next book, One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History, is forthcoming from Little, Brown.