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Strange Tales of an Oriental Idol: an anthology of early european portrayals of the Buddha
How did word of the Buddha first reach Western ears? Over the centuries, until the first reliable introduction to Buddhism was published in France in 1844, rumors and reports of this oriental idol” and his teachings reached the West in haphazard but fascinating ways. A Jesuit missionary traveling with a Thai delegation to the court of Louis XIV spent months at sea with a Buddhist monk and asked him many questions. A Russian ship captain was held captive for three years in Japan and learned about the Buddha from his jailors. A Catholic priest in China dressed like a Confucian gentleman and learned in this way to disparage the Buddha. British army officers on surveys of India struggled to decipher monuments, inscriptions, and statues. Western references to Buddhism extend back to the first years of the third century CE, and during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, European contact with, and writing about, Buddhism was extensive. Because much of this writing is considered wrong today, it is often forgotten or dismissed, but in this anthology Donald S. Lopez Jr. shows their great importance for understanding how our view of the Buddha evolved, from an idol worshipped by heathens to the revered founder of a religion. This fascinating compendium begins with Clement of Alexandria around 200 and ends with the great French scholar Eugène Burnouf in 1844. It can be read as a companion to Lopez’s 2013 book From Stone to Flesh: A Short History of the Buddha” (forthcoming in paperback in the same season) or enjoyed on its own for its strange but instructive tales.