how the West found the Buddha


Buddhism is the third largest (and quickest rising) faith in Australia with roughly half one million adherents.

The celebration of the Buddha’s birthday right here (on or round Might 15) has develop into a significant cultural occasion and the Buddhist doctrine of “mindfulness” is now part of mainstream tradition. However how and when did the West uncover the Buddha?

The information in regards to the Buddha’s life are opaque however we will assume he was born no sooner than 500 BCE and died no later than 400 BCE. He was mentioned to be the son of an Indian king, so distressed by the sight of struggling that he spent years looking for the reply to it, lastly attaining enlightenment whereas sitting beneath a bodhi (sacred fig) tree.

The Buddha’s household title was Gotama (within the Pali language) or Gautama (in Sanskrit). Though it doesn’t seem within the earliest traditions, his private title was later mentioned to be Siddhartha, which implies “one who has achieved his goal”. (This title was retrofitted by later believers.)

In response to Buddhist custom, the Buddha spent 45 years educating the trail to enlightenment, gathering followers, and creating the Buddhist monastic neighborhood. In response to the legend, upon his demise on the age of 80, he entered Nirvana.

In India throughout the third century BCE, the emperor Ashoka first promoted Buddhism. From this time on, it unfold south, flourishing in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, then shifting via Central Asia together with Tibet, and on to China, Korea, and Japan. Satirically, the enchantment of Buddhism declined in India in succeeding centuries. It was just about extinct there by the thirteenth century.

The Buddha preaches Abhidhamma to his Mom in Heaven, Chedi Traiphop Traimongkhon Temple, Hatyai. Thailand.
Wikimedia Commons

In that very same century, the Venetian service provider Marco Polo gave the West its first account of Buddha’s life. Between 1292 and 1295, journeying dwelling from China, Marco Polo arrived in Sri Lanka. There he heard the story of the lifetime of Sergamoni Borcan whom we now know because the Buddha.

Marco wrote about Sergamoni Borcan, a reputation he had heard on the courtroom of Kublai Khan, in his ebook The Description of the World. This was the Mongolian title for the Buddha: Sergamoni for Shakyamuni – the sage of the Shakya clan, and Borcan for Buddha – the “divine” one. (He was also called Bhagavan – the Blessed One, or Lord.)

In response to Marco, Sergamoni Borcan was the son of a terrific king who wished to resign the world. The king moved Sergamoni right into a palace, tempting him with the sensual delights of 30,000 maidens.

However Sergamoni was unmoved in his resolve. When his father allowed him to depart the palace for the primary time, he encountered a useless man, and an infirm outdated man. He returned to the palace frightened and astonished, “saying to himself that he wouldn’t stay on this unhealthy world however would go in search of the one who had made it and didn’t die.”

Sergamoni then left the palace completely and lived the abstinent lifetime of a celibate recluse. “Definitely,” Marco declared, “had he been Christian, he would have been a terrific saint with our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Learn extra:
How the Buddha grew to become a Christian saint

Jesuits and authors

Little extra was identified in regards to the Buddha for the following 300 years within the West. However, from the mid-Sixteenth century, data amassed, primarily on account of the Jesuit missions to Japan and China.

The Nice Buddha of Kamakura, in Japan, situated within the Buddhist temple of Kōtoku-in and relationship from roughly 1252.
Wikimedia Commons

By 1700, it was more and more assumed by these acquainted with the Jesuit missions that the Buddha was the frequent hyperlink in an array of non secular practitioners they had been encountering.

For instance, Louis le Comte (1655-1728), writing his memoir of his travels via China on a mission impressed by the Solar King Louis XIV declared, “all of the Indies have been poisoned along with his pernicious Doctrine. These of Siam name them Talapoins, the Tartars name them Lamas or Lama sem, the Japoners Bonzes, and the Chinese language Hocham.”

Portrait of Daniel Defoe within the Nationwide Maritime Museum, London.
Wikimedia Commons

The writings of the English creator Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731) show what the educated English reader may need identified of the Buddha within the early 18th century.

In his Dictionary of all Religions (1704), Defoe tells us of an idol of Fe (the Buddha) on an island close to the Pink Sea, mentioned to symbolize an atheistic thinker who lived 500 years earlier than Confucius, that’s, round 1,000 BCE.

This idol was carried to China

with Directions regarding the Worship paid to it, and so launched a Superstition, that in a number of issues abolish’d the Maxims of Confucius, who all the time condemned Atheism and idolatry.


A fairly totally different Buddha was to be encountered by the British within the later 1700s as they achieved financial, navy, and political dominance in India. Initially, the British had been reliant on their Hindu informants. They informed them the Buddha was an incarnation of their god Vishnu who had come to guide the folks astray with false educating.

Face of Lord Buddha, head of curly hair, lips, almond formed eyes, Pakistan or Afghanistan, Gandharan area, 1st–2nd century, stucco with traces of pigment.
Wikimedia Commons

Extra confusion reigned. It was typically argued within the West that there have been two Buddhas – one whom Hindus believed to be the ninth incarnation of Vishnu (showing round 1000 BCE), the opposite (Gautama) showing round 1000 years later.

And but extra confusion. For there was a convention within the West because the mid-Seventeenth century that the Buddha got here from Africa.

Properly into the nineteenth century, it was thought that representations of the Buddha, notably in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, depicted with woolly hair and thick “Ethiopian lips” (as one author put it) had been proof of his African origins.

Such observers had been mistaking conventional representations of the Buddha along with his hair tightly coiled into tiny cones as an indication of his African origins.

First use of the time period ‘Buddhism’

Two main turning factors finally sorted out these confusions. The primary was the invention of the time period “Buddhism”.

Its first use in English was in 1800 in a translation of a piece entitled Lectures on Historical past by Rely Constantine de Volney. A politician and orientalist, de Volney coined the time period “Buddhism” to determine the pan-Asian faith that he believed was primarily based on a legendary determine referred to as “Buddha”.

Solely then did Buddhism start to emerge from the array of “heathen idolatries” with which it had been recognized, turning into recognized as a faith, alongside Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

The second turning level was the arrival within the West of Buddhist texts. The last decade from 1824 was decisive. For hundreds of years, not a single authentic doc of the Buddhist faith had been accessible to the students of Europe.

However within the area of ten years, 4 full Buddhist literatures had been found – in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Pāli. Collections from Japan and China had been to comply with.

With the Buddhist texts in entrance of them, Western students had been in a position to decide Buddhism was a convention that had arisen in India round 400-500 years BCE.

And amongst these texts was the Lalitavistara (written across the 4th century CE), which contained a biography of the Buddha. For the primary time Westerners got here to learn an account of his life.

The Lalitavistara and different biographies depicted a extremely magical and enchanted world – of the Buddha’s heavenly life earlier than his start, of his conception by way of an elephant, of his mom’s clear womb, of his miraculous powers at his start, of the numerous miracles he carried out, of gods, demons, and water spirits.

A nineteenth century portray of the start of the Buddha: scene with Queen Maya.
Wikimedia Commons

However inside these enchanted texts, there remained the story of the lifetime of the Buddha with which we’re acquainted. Of the Indian King Shuddhodana who, fearing Gautama would reject the world, retains his son sheltered from any sights of struggling. When Gautama lastly leaves the palace he encounters an outdated man, a diseased man, and a useless man. He then decides to seek for the reply to struggling.

For the Buddha, the reason for struggling lies in attachment to the issues of the world. The trail to liberation from it thus lies within the rejection of attachment.

The Buddha’s strategy to the cessation of attachment was finally summarised within the Holy Eightfold Path – proper views, proper resolve, proper speech, proper conduct, proper livelihood, proper effort, proper mindfulness, proper meditation. The result of this path was the attainment of Nirvana when the self on the time of demise escaped from rebirth and was extinguished just like the flame of a candle.

This selfless Buddha, who was mentioned to have died within the groves of bushes close to the Indian city of Kusinagara, was the one the West quickly got here to admire. Because the Unitarian minister Richard Armstrong, put it in 1870,

his persona has endured for hundreds of years, and is as contemporary and delightful as now when exhibited to European eyes, as when Siddharta [sic] himself breathed his dying breath within the shades of (the forest of) Kusinagara.

Historical past versus legend

However is the Buddha of the legend additionally the Buddha of historical past? That the custom we name Buddhism was based by an Indian sage named Gautama across the fifth century BCE could be very possible.

That he preached a center strategy to liberation between worldly indulgence and excessive asceticism is very possible. That he cultivated practices of mindfulness and meditation, which led to peace and serenity, is nearly sure.

That mentioned, the earliest Buddhist traditions confirmed little curiosity within the particulars of the lifetime of the Buddha. It was, in spite of everything, his teachings – the Dharma as Buddhists name it – slightly than his individual that mattered.

However we will discern a rising curiosity within the lifetime of the Buddha from the primary century BCE till the second or third centuries of the frequent period because the Buddha transitions inside Buddhism from a instructor to a saviour, from human to divine.

It was from the primary to the fifth centuries CE that there developed quite a lot of Buddhist texts giving full accounts of the lifetime of the Buddha, from his start (and earlier than) to his renunciation of the world, his enlightenment, his teachings, and eventually to his demise.

Thus, there’s a lengthy interval of at the least 500-900 years between the demise of the Buddha and these biographies of him. Can we depend on these very late lives of the Buddha for correct details about the occasions of his life? In all probability not.

However, the legend of his life and teachings nonetheless present a solution to the which means of human life for some 500 million followers within the fashionable world.


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