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How the Buddha became a Catholic Saint

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Recently, I bought a wood painting from Lotus Bhumipurusha_1Sculpture. The painting is by “Jack,” a Thai artist who lives in a little village near the border of Burma and Thailand. It shows the Gautama Buddha seated in the Bhumiparsha mudra; his legs are crossed, his left hand rests in the lap and his right hand’s fingers are extended to touch the earth. The Sakyamuni is calling the Earth goddess to bear witness to his having attained enlightenment.

The wood is simply a roof tile from one of those old houses being demolished all over Burma. The painting is something a child could have produced: its lines are simple, the colors basic (red and gold), and the Buddha has a cute double chin. 

I’ve never met Jack. I bought his work off the internet. According to Kyle Tortora of Lotus Sculpture, Jack has hand-like extensions where his legs should be. It seems Jack’s mother took drugs during her pregnancy, and he was born with parts of his body attached to the wrong places. The wood painting — and many others like it — was produced by those misplaced hands.

But this is not about Jack.

It is about the Sakyamuni. I found it curious that a Thai Christian should choose the Buddha as the subject of his paintings. Why not Mother Mary or Jesus Christ? Or one of the saints?

It turns out that the Sakyamuni Buddha is in fact an official Catholic saint.

The story of how the Buddha became a Catholic saint is a story about an ancient Indian diaspora. Not the diaspora of a group of people but that of a collection of south-east Asian stories: the Jataka tales.

The Jataka tales have had a particularly strange journey. The word “jataka” means birth. The Jataka tales is a collection of fairy tales, riddles, parables, humorous moral tales and biographies all loosely centered around the previous lives of the Sakyamuni Buddha. The exact number of Jataka tales depends on how one counts. Many of the approximately 550 stories in the Jataka tales have little to do with the Buddha. The Jataka tales were told long before they were written down. The tales began as an oral tradition.

In the third or fourth century B.C., about three hundred years after the Buddha’s death, the Jataka tales finally got written down. As the monks traveled, the Jataka stories traveled with them. The stories got translated, skipped languages, adapted to local conditions and became native to many different cultures [1]. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, the Pardoner tells a Jataka story. Over half of La Fontaine’s fables are actually from the Jataka tales.

Something very similar also happened to the Panchatantra (itself a secularized compendium of many Jataka tales). Arabic versions of the Panchatantra tales were set down in a manuscript called Kalilah and Dimnah (corruptions of Karataka and Damanaka, two recurring jackals in the Panchatantra stories). In the seventh and eight centuries A.D., Jewish merchants translated “Kalilah and Dimnah” into Greek and other European languages. The stories floated around in the collective Western consciousness until Planudes in the 14th century A.D. set them down as Aesop’s fables (no actual manuscript by Aesop has survived) [1].

So widespread was the influence of these folktales from the Jataka and
Panchatantra, that Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916), the famous folktale scholar and writer wrote:

… as to the source of the tales that are common to all European children … increasing evidence seems to show that this common nucleus is derived from India and India alone …. So far as Europe has a common store of fairy tales, it owes this to India. [2]

As Jacobs is careful to qualify, he is not claiming that every European fairy tale is from India; that’s plainly ridiculous. But it seems the common stories, the stories that every child seems to know in Europe, can be traced back to tales that originally appeared in the Jataka or the Panchatantra.

What was it about these tales that made them so popular? I think it is the humor. It is of a special sort. Consider. The Jataka tales have a bull named “Delight”, high-class crocodiles, monsters with sticky hair, strong-minded snakes, talkative tortoises and phony holy men. In one of the tales, Buddha works as a security guard, and in another, a queen gets laughed at by fish. Yes, fish. The humor in these tales is often droll, characteristic of British comedy. Wait. Characteristic of British comedy? Joseph Jacobs seems to think it is characteristic of the Indian storyteller:

Can we go further and say that India is the source of all the incidents that are held in common
by European children? I think we may answer “Yes” as regards droll incidents, the travels of many of which we can trace, and we have the curious result that European children owe their earliest laughter to Hindu wags. [2]

Perhaps that’s a bit much. Still, magic realism — whimsy’s pretty new dress — is still very popular among South-East Asian writers.

At any rate, it suffices to note that around the same time the Kalilah and Dimnah was being translated by the Jews, there lived in the court of al-Walid ibn Abdul Malek, the Caliph of Baghdad, a Christian monk called John of Damascus. St. John was born around 676 A.D. and died sometime between 754 A.D and 757 A.D. He wrote a series of works defending the then still-young Christian faith. The Arabs, who then ruled most of the world, were very secure about Islam (seeing it as extension of Christianity); the Caliph gave St. John a free hand. One of the good father’s books was a religious romance — the first Western one — called Barlaam and Joasaph.

The story of Barlaam and Joasaph is that of a young Indian prince, Josaphat (or Joasaph), being converted to Christianity by the arguments of Barlaam. Josaphat’s story (before his conversion) is almost exactly the story of the Sakyamuni Buddha. Indeed, “Josaphat” is nothing but a Greek-formulation of “Bodhisat.” This is fairly well established.

For example, the online Catholic Encyclopedia says (about St. Josaphat) [3]:

The story is a Christianized version of one of the legends of Buddha, as even the name Josaphat would seem to show. This is said to be a corruption of the original Joasaph, which is again corrupted from the middle Persian Budasif (Budasif = Bodhisattva).

Barlaam and Joasaph was a huge hit. It was translated into all the European languages; there’s even a version in the Spanish dialect used in the Philippines.

Now, it used to be a practice in the Catholic Church to recite the names of saints and martyrs in the most sacred part of the service (so called Canon of the Mass, just before the Host is consecrated). That is why, of course, we speak of saints as being “canonized.”

But who got to decide who was a saint and who wasn’t? For a long time, the decision was left to local parishes. Things changed in 1170 A.D. Pope Alexander III decreed that the power to canonize saints rested exclusively with the Holy See. The names of the martyrs were no longer recited in the Canon but moved to a sub-service called the Prime. Over time, it became less and less permissible to include new names into the list of saints — the Martyrology — without getting explicit approval from the Pope. Trouble was, there were still several equally official Martyrologies floating around (remember, this was before the invention of the printing press).

Pope Sixtus the Fifth (1585-1590) madeSixtusfifth2 a move to eliminate these multiple versions by commissioning a single standard list of martyrs. Cardinal Cesare Baronius was assigned to draw up the Martryologium. For obvious reasons, it was decided to make the official Martyrologium as broad-minded as possible; the idea was to merge existing Martyrologies rather than pick a correct one (for obvious reasons). On November 27, 1610, Cardinal Baronius included:

The holy Saints Barlaam and Josaphat, of India, on the borders of Persia, whose wonderful acts St. John of Damascus has described. [3]

Baronius seems to have included these names from the Catalogus Sanctorum, the fourteenth century Martyrology of Petrus de Natalibus, Bishop of Equilo (now Jesolo, Italy).

So there you have it. The Buddha is an official Catholic saint.

The Catholic Encyclopedia is resolutely unembarrassed about the whole incident. As I understand it, sainthood is a human assignation, based on our understanding of what constitutes a miracle. The Vatican claims authority, not infallibility.

Isn’t it strange how history works? A collection of stories, scattered from their letter cages, moving across languages, belief systems and time. I’m reminded of the editor’s advice in The Man Who Shot Liberty  Valance: When the legend become fact, print the legend.”

There are also strange ironies. In the 19th century, Naryanan Balkrishnan Godbole, a Sanskrit pandit, translated the so-called Aesop’s Fables of Planudes of Constantinople back into Sanskrit. The stories had returned home after almost 2000 years of wandering. I’m sure St. John’s Barlaam and Joasaph exists in Pali; if it doesn’t, it should.

I began by saying this wasn’t about the Thai artist, Jack. But perhaps it is. I think of Jack, a Christian in a predominantly Buddhist country; misplaced in space, misplaced in body. A simple story — two legs, two arms, arms connected to shoulders, legs to trunk — got told just a bit differently in his case.

And yet.

Perhaps all that matters is that a great story gets told and retold, errors and all. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her poem, The Munich Mannequins: “Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.”

St. Buddha would have agreed, I think.

References:

  1. Rhys Davids. Buddhist Birth-Stories. Srishti Publishers. New Delhi. 1998.
  2. Joseph Jacobs. Indian Fairy Tales. Illustrated by John D. Batten. G. P. Putnam & Sons. New York. 1912. web: www.sacred-texts.com/hin/ift/index.htm
  3. Catholic Encyclopedia. www.newadvent.org/cathen
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About Anil Menon

  • fourwheelinn

    Maybe just another elephant in the room