In the middle of the 19th century, European scholars believed that “The Buddha was born in history, not in myth. He was born as a human—not a demon or a god—a man who had challenged the authority of the Hindu church of his day,” Donald S. Lopez Jr. said in a lecture about the European (mis)understandings of the Buddha at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery on May 14. “This man sought freedom from suffering, through his own efforts, without the need for God. And having found it, he taught not a religion but a philosophy, a philosophy that led to freedom,” Lopez continued. “He established a brotherhood of monks and a sisterhood of nuns, offering his teachings to members of all castes and classes, to men and to women. Liberty, fraternity, equality.”
This Europeanized image of the Buddha emerged after hundreds of years of Christian misconceptions about the Buddha, argued Lopez. During visits to Asia, Europeans had seen different images of the Buddha, represented in the various artistic styles of places such as Thailand, India, China, and Japan. In each country, the Buddha also had different names that were translations of Indian names and epithets into the local languages. Seeing different images and hearing different names, Christian writers assumed that Buddhists worshipped multiple gods, and that the representations of the Buddha were idols of several different deities.
Others found similarities between Buddhist narratives and their own Christian beliefs, and assumed that Buddhism had stolen several doctrines from Christianity. A version of the Buddha’s life narrative was translated into Greek and turned into the story of a Christian saint. Known as Barlaam and Josaphat, this story of the Buddha turned Christian saint became popular enough to be translated into many European languages (and in the Muslim world, it was translated into Arabic as Kitab bilawhar wa budasaf).
Eventually, European scholars gained the skills to translate Buddhist texts, and European readers began to have a better understanding of Buddhist thought and beliefs. At the same time, however, the Buddha became more European.
Lopez pointed out that today’s Western vision of the Buddha is the Buddha that was born in 19th-century European imagination. This representation of the Buddha is one that the Dalai Lama, for example, does not recognize. Lopez recounts a time when he invited the Dalai Lama to a seminar where students gave presentations on the Western scholarship on the Buddha. At the end, the Dalai Lama said, “If I believed what I just heard, the Buddha would just be a nice person. And I know that he is more than that.”
In the Q&A session following the lecture, Lopez was asked about the role of any museum in addressing these misrepresentations of the Buddha. Lopez suggested that museums re-exoticize the Buddha—if they make him foreign again, visitors can see the differences between each representation, and see in sculptures and images the Buddha as imagined by the Chinese, Japanese, Tibetans, etc. Rather than seeing one Buddha, the viewer might be encouraged to see Fo (the Chinese name for the Buddha), Shaka (the Japanese name), Gotama (the Sri Lankan name), Sang-gye (the Tibetan name), and so on.
For those interested in seeing the varieties of Buddha representations in Asia, the exhibit “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century” would be of special interest. It runs through July 27 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.