Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Commentary, Religion

Before We Loved the Buddha by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.


Before We Loved the Buddha

by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.


According to a famous Chinese legend, in 60 CE (or thereabout), the Emperor Ming of China had a dream. He dreamed that he saw a golden man flying through the sky, rays of light streaming from his head. The next day, he summoned his ministers to interpret the dream. They told him that the golden man was a sage from the west called the Buddha. The emperor immediately dispatched a delegation to find this sage. After a long journey, they returned with a scripture and a statue. And this is how Buddhism first came to China.

In 1603, the famous Catholic missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, published a book, in Chinese, in which he explained that the golden man the emperor saw in his dream was not the Buddha; he was Jesus. If the emperor’s envoys had gone farther west, they would have arrived in the Holy Land, and would have returned with the Gospels. Bringing Buddhism to China had all been a terrible mistake.

Among the “founders” of the world religions—Abraham, the Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad—perhaps the best loved (or at least the best liked) is the Buddha. He is wise, he is compassionate, he is largely unobjectionable—but it was not always thus. For most of the long history of Europe’s contact with Asia, the Buddha was widely disparaged and despised.

European travelers to Asia, whether missionaries or merchants, beginning in the thirteenth century and continuing for the next five-hundred years, thought the Buddha was an idol. From one perspective, it was hard to blame them. At that time, Europeans divided the peoples of the world into four nations: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Idolaters. Because the Buddhists of Asia fell into the “none of the above” category, they were idolaters by default. And, indeed, Europeans in Asia observed Buddhists bowing down before large golden statues. To make matters worse, the Buddha was not one idol for the Europeans, he was many idols. As Buddhism had spread across Asia over the centuries—from India to modern Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, and Korea in the north; to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in the south—it took on its own character. Each culture developed its own artistic conventions for representing the Buddha in statues and paintings; each culture had its own local name for the Buddha: he was Fo in China, Hotoke in Japan, Sang-gye in Tibet, Gotama in Sri Lanka, and Phraphuttha in Thailand. Indeed, it would not be until the late seventeenth century that someone would figure out that all the Buddhists across Asia were worshiping the same god. Credit for this “discovery” often goes to Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician in the employ of the Dutch East India Company. Kaempfer visited Japan shortly after visiting Thailand and was able to put two-and-two together. That did not cause Europeans to start liking the Buddha, however. Marco Polo knew the story of Emperor Ming and concluded from it that the Buddha had brought the practice of idolatry to Asia. Thus, the Buddha was not simply an idol, he was also a purveyor of idolatry.

As Europeans began to learn to speak the languages of Asia, they began to hear stories about the Buddha. Roman Catholic missionaries were among the first to do so, but even here, they often added their own sinister twist. According to traditional accounts, when the Buddha was born, he emerged miraculously from his mother’s right side, with neither mother nor child suffering the least pain. It was also said that the Buddha’s mother died (by some accounts, from joy) seven days after his birth. Certain Roman Catholic missionaries to Asia took these two elements and drew their own conclusion: the baby Buddha murdered his mother by gnawing his way out of her womb. That was just the first of his many sins.

Europeans would not really begin to love the Buddha until the early nineteenth century. But that, as they say, is another story.


Donald S. Lopez, Jr. is the author of From Stone to Flesh: A Short History of the Buddha, published by the University of Chicago Press.