04/24/2013 07:14 am ET Updated Jun 24, 2013

Asian Idol


Let me begin with a question. What do the following words have in common? Jaca, Fohi, Bedou, Sejatoba, Phutta, Goodam, Somona Codom, Daybot, Xekia, Budsdo, Mahamony, Sagamoni Borcan.

For a 21st century reader, they mean nothing. It is not even clear what languages they come from or how they should be pronounced. However, a 17th-century European reader, especially one well versed in the dozens of reports sent back by travelers to the Orient, would recognize them as the names of some of the many idols worshipped by the pagans of Asia, in distant lands called Siam, Pegu, Cathay, Tartary, Barantola, Giapan and Seilan.

In the centuries since, these lands have taken on more familiar names: Siam is Thailand, Pegu is Burma (or more recently, Myanmar), Cathay is China, Tartary (or at least part of it) is Mongolia, Barantola is Tibet, Giapan is Japan, Seilan is Sri Lanka. The idols worshipped in those lands also have different names today. Or, to be more precise, the idols worshipped in those lands have one name, very familiar to us and easy to pronounce -- we call those idols the Buddha.

For in the 17th-century, and even into the 19th century, Europeans divided the peoples of the world into four religions: Christians, Jews, Muslims and Idolaters. There were no Hindus or Daoists or Buddhists; there were only idolaters. And the Buddha was an idol.

Today, we find that offensive. Today, we know better. We know that the Buddha was a historical figure who lived in India 2,500 years ago. Born a prince, he renounced his future throne and went out in search of a state beyond the sufferings of birth and death. Through the practice of meditation, he found that state, which he called nirvana. And having found it, he compassionately taught others how to follow his path. In the centuries after his death, his teachings spread across Asia, and in recent centuries, his teachings have spread around the world. This is common knowledge.

But Europeans did not learn this for centuries. When they traveled to Asia, they saw large statues, sometimes made of gold, and they saw people bowing down to the statues, burning incense, lighting lamps and placing flowers at the statues' feet. It looked to them like idol worship. Furthermore, they did not know that each Buddhist country has its own artistic conventions for depicting the Buddha; a Thai Buddha can look very different from a Chinese Buddha. They did not know that each Buddhist country has its own name for the Buddha in its local language. And so when the Europeans asked the names of the various statues that they saw, the name they heard in Sri Lanka was completely different from the name they heard in China. Thus, when they wrote about their travels, they, and their readers, assumed that Asians were worshipping many idols, rather than paying homage to a single man.

Among the European travelers to Asia were Roman Catholic missionaries, including such famous figures as St. Francis Xavier, who went to Japan in 1549 and Matteo Ricci, who went to China in 1582. They traveled to Asia in order to spread the Gospel and convert the idolaters to the Christian faith. Like Pope Francis, they were members of the Jesuit order, renowned for their learning. In order to turn the peoples of Asia away from their false gods, they sought to learn as much as they possibly could about them. The Jesuits in China even dressed as Buddhist monks in order to be more easily accepted by the Chinese. They learned that the Chinese worshipped an idol named Fo (the Chinese word for "Buddha") that had been brought from the West. Some of the Catholic missionaries, including Francis Xavier himself, said that the Buddha worshipped in Japan (or "Xaca," as he called him) was a demon.

It was only at the end of the 17th century that someone figured out that the different idols worshipped across Asia represented the same person. Two Europeans came to the conclusion independently: a Portuguese missionary to India read the reports of his fellow Jesuits about the idolatry of Sri Lanka and the idolatry of China; a German physician confined to the island of Dejima in Japan had stopped in Thailand on the way. This discovery, however, did not change European views of the Buddha and Buddhists. He was still an idol and they were still idolaters.

The Buddha would only begin to turn from stone to flesh in the early 19th century. The French Enlightenment had brought an explosion of new knowledge and a suspicion of the dogmas of the Christian Church. The discovery that Sanskrit was related to Greek and Latin inspired hope that there would be a second Renaissance, with the wisdom of India transforming Europe. As European scholars gained the ability to read, with accuracy, Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan and Chinese, the Buddha emerged as a human -- not a demon or a god -- a man who had challenged the authority of the Hindu church of his day. This man sought freedom from suffering, through his own efforts, without the need for God. And having found it, he taught the path of liberation to others, establishing 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.

And so we love the Buddha, in part because he embodied so long ago the things that we value so highly today. Still, it is important to remember that for most of the long history of European contact with Asia, the Asian idol got no votes.

Buddhas Around the World
Buddhas Around the World

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.