Christian History

The Buddha and St. Jehosaphat

The Buddha and St. Jehosaphat (Nasir Ward) Religious syncretism was rife within and without the Roman Empire of the first two centuries of our era. Indeed, it is perhaps the only way in which a settled culture can absorb new ideas which are fundamental to it without losing its identity completely. In an age where education was confined to the few and where travel was restricted to those who had the means to pay for it, knowledge of distant lands, ancient traditions and languages was bound to be limited. As we have seen, it was the custom of the Hellenists to reduce everything to terms with which their own culture could cope; place names, linguistic terminology and the names of individuals. The Romans, as successors to the Greeks, inherited this legacy, which of course reduced ideas and concepts in the same manner. The Romans were supremely tolerant of other religions, adapting them to be absorbed within their own pantheon; most Greek and Near Eastern deities were converted by Roman names to popular worship within the temples. With the decline of the Empire in the west, the eastern half, ruled from Constantinople remained to continue the culture of the Ancient World. This Byzantine Empire, which was to last into the 15th century comprised the Greek speaking provinces of the Romans and the Hellenistic culture with which it had been endowed for several centuries. Its language was Greek; its cities were still ruled by aristocratic oligarchies along the lines of the old Greek “polis,” and education and thought had to be expressed through the traditional means of expression. There was, however, one slight difference. The Byzantine Greeks had become Christian. By the 7th century the local aristocracy which ruled the cities of the Empire had become bishops. This was the natural outcome in a world which saw itself as a Christian unity, surrounded by non-Christian foes, which included the “heretical” Arian co-religionists of the former barbarian tribes, now settled in the western provinces. To the east were large numbers of Persian Christians, mainly Nestorians, some of whom formed the courtly class of the Sassarians. Local loyalty still remained attached to the town, and with it the bishop who was the THE BUDDHA AND ST. JEHOSAPHAT 37 “patron” of this flock.1 He interceded with the Emperor’s agents, just as Senators had accepted their obligations to their “clientela.” The works of the Greek philosophers were still read, but only in the libraries of the magnates and bishops themselves. The proletariat had little time for such pre-Christian personalities and their writings, and with the closure of the academies, there was nowhere for them to learn of the ideas which had, and still did form the basis of their own civilisation. Then, in the 7th century came the event which was to shatter this rather cosy, dependant arrangement; the Arabs burst through the Byzantine defences in the south and occupied in quick succession the wealthy provinces of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, along with the great cities of the region which they were quite incapable of administering independently. Although the Arabs brought their new religion, Islam, with them, many of their tribes still retained their traditional bedouin and cultural outlook. The rulers of the new empire were staunch Muslims, but as in the case of Christianity, a surfeit of new converts within a short space of time made it very difficult to train the adherents in the conduct and belief which was essential to the religion. Islam was not a new religion; it was the continuation of one religion which had always existed for mankind. It was the latest revelation of this religion through a prophet of the Arabs themselves—Muhammad, just as his predecessors had been Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster or the Buddha. To the Muslims Jesus was one in the line of prophets who appear when religion is in a state of decay in order to revive it. He was a man, the Messiah for the Jewish religion. Islam was the successor to that religion, extending it and refining its teachings. Consequently, as all human beings were members of this universal religion, they were all brothers and sisters of the Muslims themselves. As each person was allowed to follow his own conscience, they were left unmolested to practice their own beliefs, their descendants remaining as separate communities even today. As the Arabs were unable to administer the territories themselves they had to rely on the continuation in office of the Byzantine officials. One of these was John of Damascus who held a post in the finance department under one of the Umayyad Caliphs in the second half of the eight century. John was a thorough going Greek, even under the Muslims, but he was also a staunch Christian. Just what he made of the Arabs we do not know, but he has left us with an excellent example of the way in which the Hellenistic mind adapted names and ideas which were strange to themselves. He was an example of the Greek filter at work; it was John who translated for us what became a best selling classic of the Medieval World. 1. c/f the scene of Christ surrounded by his apostles, who intercede as patrons for their clients on a 4th century Roman terracotta plage (Fig. 77. The World of Late Antiquity-P. Brown, Thames and Hudson). This developed into the later concept of the “patron saint,” associated with a particular town or occupation, a carry over from paganism. 38 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS This was the story of Barlaam and Jehosaphat, two gentlemen of the True Faith, who lived in India. John heard the story presumably while at the Caliph’s court at Damascus. The Umayyads traded mainly with the east and it is quite likely it p assed along the trade route until John hear d of it and thought it worthwhile recording for his fellow Christians. Subsequently it proved so popular as to be translated into more than sixty different languages, varying from Spanish and Hebrew, to Icelandic and Russian. It is the story of a king who lived in India but who, much to his sorrow, had no son. He had also developed the unpleasant habit of persecuting his subjects for their religious beliefs. These latter were all believers in the “true faith.” John does not specify as to what it was in India, but quite naturally to him it was Christianity. In so doing he unwittingly completed the circle of events which began with Jesus’ departure from Palestine, but this will be dealt with later. One night the wife of the king dreamed she was visited by a white elephant. This made such an impression on her that she felt compelled to tell her husband about it the next morning. The king, being unable to understand the meaning of it, sent for his astrologers and wise men, who explained that the elephant represented a son, soon to be born to the queen. Joy was tempered with anger however, when it was discovered that one of the court nobles had become converted to the “true faith.” As punishment, the offender was sent into exile. When nature had taken its course, a son was duly born to the queen, and he was given the name of Yudasaf. Unfortunately, to his father’s consternation, the astrologers worked out the child’s horoscope and forecast that in time Yudasaf would also become a follower of the true faith. This was anathema to the king and to prevent such an occurrence, he had built a special palace in a remote area, where the child was kept in seclusion. Here he was unlikely to come into contact with pervasive religious beliefs. Meanwhile the king took every precaution to see that his son met only persons approved by himself and that he remained within the palace. If this story seems somewhat like a fairy tale, it must be remembered that many such tales do contain an element of reality in them. At all events the story was believed as a completely true account, andstill is by the church up to the present day. Yudasaf had an inquiring mind, and as he grew up he discovered the reason why he had been kept in seclusion. This prompted him to demand access to a nearby town for the first time so that he could gain experience of the world. On going out, he passed on the way, a blind man, a leper, an old man and a corpse. These acquainted him for the first time with the suffering and miserable lot of his fellow human beings. He returned to the palace to consider this discovery. Shortly afterwards a certain Barlaam learned of the THE BUDDHA AND ST. JEHOSAPHAT 39 young prince’s whereabouts, and disguising himself as a beggar, visited the prince in private. This afforded him ample opportunity to promote the real reason for his coming; to teach Yudasaf the true religion. Barlaam taught in parables and he began with three of them: (a) The Trumpet of Death. (b) The Four Caskets. (c) The Sower. When Yudasaf had absorbed the meaning of these, he taught him eight more, making eleven in all.2 Yudasaf was convinced of the true religion by Baxlaam and became converted.’ While this discussion was taking place, Zardan, the prince’s guardian concealed himself in order to overhear it. Zardan then threatened to report the matter to the king, but after much entreaty, was persuaded to keep quiet. Yudasaf was so filled with zeal for the true faith that he decided to leave the palace and go with Barlaam in order to continue his studies. However, Barlaam related to him the parable of the Tame Gazelle and the prince was then persuaded to stay. After B arlaam’s departure Zardan changed his mind and informed the king of what had occurred. This placed him in a difficult position as the prophesy had now been fulfilled. The astrologers advised him as to his next course of action which might win back Yudasaf from the true faith. They suggested the king should get hold of Barlaam and have him put to death. Failing this, as Barlaam was unavailable the king decided to organise a debating contest at which his own views would be victorious. To produce the desired result, a certain Nachor was hired to impersonate Barlaam and given orders to lose the contest. Yudasaf, remaining firm in his faith, learned of the scheme and threatened Nachor with punishment if he should lose. Nachor decided it was safer to antagonise the king than Yudasaf. He won the contest, but fortunately escaped before the king could lay hands on him. Having been thwarted in his plans the king was at a loss as to what to do next. Theudas, the magician, advised him to procure a woman for the prince. This, he suggested, would keep his mind occupied and away from thoughts of the true religion. To support his scheme he related the parable of the “Youth who had never seen a woman.” The prince proved impervious to such temptations and narrated a parable of his own entitled, “The Peacock and the Raven,” which convinced Theudas of the true faith. Yudasaf was then able to escape into the wilderness to rejoin Barlaam. Mounting his horse, he rode from the city at night. The hooves of his mount were lifted magically above the ground so that the noise would not wake the population from sleep. At last he 2. These included: The man in the well; the three friends; the king of the year; the heathen king and the believing adviser; the swimmer and his comrades; the rich man and the beggar’s daughter; education by love; the man and the bird. 40 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS was re-united with Barlaam, practising the true faith in peace and harmony, and after a suitable interval they both die. The tale is much more involved than the summary which I have given here. Those who wish to study it more closely can buy a copy from any reasonable bookshop. It was extremely popular in the Middle Ages; Caxton published the English version under the title, “The Golden Legend,” and it became one of the firstbooks to be printed in the English language. The story received such wide acclaim that both Barlaam and Josaphat were made saints of the Catholic Church; November 27th is their feast day in the Roman calendar, while August 26th is St. Josaphats’ in the Greek. To commemorate the devotion of Josaphat, which is merely a Greek version of Yusasaph, a church was dedicated to him in Palermo, the “Divo Josaphat,” which still stands, complete with a statue of its favourite saint. To the great joy of their devotees a Portuguese expedition to India actually discovered the remains of these two saints and brought them to Europe. On August 7th 1672 a grand procession carrying their bones made its way through the city of Antwerp to the cloister of St. Salvator, and there they remain to this day. The key to the identity of this saintly person lies in the changes which naturally occur when a name of a story is translated from one language to another. In’this case, it is not only language which has affected a transition, it is the cultural adaptations which are involved also. John of Damascus, who is commonly assumed to have translated this story in the west, was writing from the standpoint of a Christian in a muslim country. To him the “true faith” was definitely Christianity as he knew it. Josaphat, therefore, behaved as would any Christian gentleman, albeit in a foreign land. John filtered the elements of the story which were unacceptable to him as a Greek Christian and reduced it to what was recognisable and expected. The personality of Jesus was affected in the same way, together with his teachings, so that it became familiar and acceptable to the Greek speaking converts of the eastern Mediterranean. The name “Josaphat” gives us the main clue as to what has happened here. This is a Greek form from Yosaphat or Joasaph, which in Arabic and Hebrew would be something like Yozasaf. In Pehlevi the form of the name would be Bodasaph, which lengthened becomes Bodhisattva, the man destined to become Buddha. As the tale was brought westwards from India it underwent various changes to make it comprehensible to the different ethnic groups which received it, until eventually it emerged in its present form. If we trace it back to its original source the mystery becomes unravelled. Far from being the story of two pious Christians in India, it becomes clear it is little more than a reworking of the life of Buddha, expressed of course in Graeco-Christian terms. This fact was THE BUDDHA AND ST. JEHOSAPHAT 41 obviously quite unknown to John of Damascus. If it is a simple matter to transform the Buddha into a Christian saint in the Greek mould, how easy it must have been to apply the same process to Jesus himself, converting him into the ideal of a Greek teacher and philosopher in the style of Plato or Plotinus. By the same token the Jewish aspects which were unacceptable to the Greek mind were shed along the way. If we return to the story of St. Josaphat we can see this process taking place. The defence speech delivered by Nachor at the religious debate with the king turns out to be a Greek model. It is in all essentials a text book example entitled the “Defence of Aristides,” which was supposedly delivered by the Christian philosopher of that name befor the emperor Hadrian in c. 124 A.D. In the “Acts of the Apostles” we have seen the speech of St. Paul at Athens is a concoction from the works of previous Greek philosophers. This was what made it intelligible to its Greek readers—that Paul was one of their own. A strict Jew would have, been anathema to them. The events recorded in the life of Joasaph are virtually the same as those described in any general life of the Buddha—his birth, seclusion, meeting of the four examples of human misfortunes, his fleeing on the horse whose hooves did not touch the ground and so on. In the Ethiopic version Yewasef, or so he is called in that language, has a vision of heaven: “And they brought him into a vast country wherein were many rivers, and the landscape thereof was very beautiful, and the perfumes of its flowers were exceedingly sweet. And he saw there trees of diverse kinds growing all together, and they bore strange and marvellous fruits which were pleasant to look upon and most delicious to taste. And the leaves of those trees sang sweet songs, and when they were set in motion there went forth from them delicious breezes of the sweetness of which the people could never have enough.”3 Taken as a whole, this is Sukhavati, “The hand of Bliss,” as depicted in the Mahayana Buddhist work, the Sukhavati-vyuha (Sacred Books of the East vol. XLDC). It is also very similar in concept to the Essene Paradise, where holy persons are compared to great trees. This is hardly surprising as the Mahayana Buddhists drew their inspiration from the Essene concepts and imagery, as we shall see later. 3. Reproduced from, “How the Buddhabecame a Christian Saint,” W.Hayes, 1931, British Museum Library. 42 REVIEW OB RELIGIONS “In the days of old, when the Creation was young, The earth was filled with giant trees, Whose branches soared above the clouds, And in them dwelled our Ancient Fathers, They who walked with the Angels, And who lived by the Holy Law. ‘In the shadow of their branches all men lived in peace, And wisdom and knowledge was theirs, And the revelation of the Endless Light. Through their forests flowed the Eternal River, And in the centre stood the Tree of Life. . . . The whole earth shall be a garden, And the tall trees shall cover the land. In that day shall sing the Children of Light a new song: My brother tree! Let me not hide myself from thee, But let us share the breath of life, Which our Earthly Mother has given to us. More beautiful than the finest jewel, Of the rugmaker’s art, Is the carpet of green leaves under my bare feet; More majestic than the silken canopy, Of the rich merchant, Is the tent of branches above my head, Through which the bright stars give light. The wind among the leaves of the cypress, Makes a sound like a chorus of angels. . . . Thus shall sing the Children of Light, When the earth shall be a garden again; Holy Tree, divine gift of the Law! Who have strayed from their true home, Which is the Garden of the Brotherhood.”4 “I thank Thee, Heavenly Father, because Thou hast put me, at a source of running streams, at a living spring in a land of drought, watering an eternal garden of wonders, the Tree of Life, mystery of mysteries, growing everlasting branches for eternal planting. to sink their roots into the stream of life from an eternal source. 4. “Trees’-Gospel of the Essenes-Szeckeloy.-C. W. Daniel Co. THE BUDDHA AND ST. JEHOSAPHAT 43 And Thou, Heavenly Father, protect their fruits, with the angels of the day, and of the night, and with flames of eternal light burning every way.”5 In the same way, the parables mentioned in the story of Joasaph or Josaphat, are nearly all ascribed to Buddha or form part of Buddhism. The “Four Caskets” is a parable of Buddah, which was adapted by Shakespeare to form part of the “Merchant of Venice.” Another parable, “The Man in the Well,” is to be found in the Hindu Mahabarata, as well as in Buddhist works. “The Trumpet of Death” is also Buddhist, while the “Robber’s Nemesis,” occurs in the Buddhist Jatoka Tales as well as in the Arabian Nights and Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale. “The Young Man who had never seen a woman,” is also from the Jatoka Tales. So, it becomes clear that Buddha has been reduced to Christian terms for the last 1100 years or so, and has been worshipped as a Christian Saint by the congregation of “Divo Josephat” in Palermo as well as others. An interesting theological speculation must arise from this: if the prayers of the worshippers have been answered, was it through the agency of Buddha, as St. Josaphat did not exist? They have created their saint in their own image, but the analogy does not end there. As we have begun to see, the words of St. Josaphat were largely the words of Buddha; but the ideas of Buddha were those of the Essenes. To move one step further, “Yudasaf,” translated as “Joasaph” or “Josasaphat,” is the name given to the man who represents Buddha in the story, the name itself assuming the meaning of “the man destined to be Buddha.” “Barlaam” means “Blessed One; Master.” Unknown to John of Damascus, a previous amalgamation of terms had taken place before the story actually reached him “Yudasaf’ is the name given to the teacher who travelled through Iran approximately 1900 years ago, and journeyed east through Afghanistan to Northern India. At present he lies buried in the Khanyar district of Sirinagar in Kashmir, remembered as a prophet, a teacher of parables. The name Yus Asaf is displayed on his tomb, which has been venerated for centuries by the inhabitants. He became the second Buddha, the founder of the Mahayana Buddhism, recognised as the spiritual return of the Buddha in northern India. He is also called “Maitreya” or “Messaiah” in Buddhist works. His life became fused with that of the first Buddha, Guatama who had lived some six centuries previously. But as well as being the return of Buddha, he was also the teacher of the “true faith.” This was why John of Damascus assumed he was a Christian, and of course, why so 5. From the Thanksgiving Psalms-Dead Sea Scrolls-Szekely op. cit. 44 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS many teachings of Mahayana Buddhism appear to be merely oriental versions of Christianity. Yusasaf was the name assumed by Jesus, the Messiah as he spread his Essene revitalisation of Judaism among the Jewish tribes of the Orient, many of whom had become attached to Buddhism. The name of the valley outside Jerusalem, where he often walked to the Mount of Olives and where his relatives were buried, is called by two names. One is the Kidron Valley, but the other is the valley of Josaphat, or Yusasaf. The wheel has turned full circle; Jesus, who left the west, has been re-admitted to his own church under the guise of Buddha or Yus Asaf, and is in the unique position of being both the founder and a saint at the same time. By another quirk of fate his whereabouts can be traced to three places; the heavenly realm, according to the interpretation of the gospels; the cloister of Antwerp, according to the Catholic church, and the tomb at Sirinagar, according to the rest of mankind. For those who may be in two, or three minds about it, we shall look at the evidence in the next few chapters. In seriousness, it is a good example of the way in which names and accounts change according to cultural bias and expectations. Buddha could not be admitted into the church until he became his Greek counterpart Josaphat. Similarly Jesus could not be accepted to the Greeks until he threw off his Jewish trappings and became a Hellenistic teacher or philosopher. We have made an image of both he and his teachings in our own form, and this is the Jesus who is still worshipped today. He has no connection with the real Jesus than St. Josaphat had with Buddah—his parables and details of his life only. The statues of Jesus in the churches no more correspond to him than the statues of Josaphat. For those who may be puzzled as to how this process of cultural selection occurs, they have only to ask themselves, would they be happy praying to a statue of the Buddha in their churches? The answer is obviously no; no more than could the early Greek Christians accept the Jewish Jesus into their churches, and in his place they fashioned their own Hellenistic Josaphat. That image has remained with us for the last 1800 years. In place of the Holy Law, the Tree of Life, has been pruned to fit the shape of our own gardens; what was a living religion became a code of Graeco-Roman ethics, and we, as successors to the Greeks and Romans, have kept the same form ever since.