How the West discovered the Buddha through literature

Buddhism is the third largest (and fastest growing) religion in Australia with around half a million adherents.

The celebration of Buddha’s birthday here (on or around May 15) has become a major cultural event, and the Buddhist doctrine of “mindfulness” has become part of mainstream culture. But how and when did the West discover the Buddha?

The facts about the Buddha’s life are opaque, but we can assume that he was born no earlier than 500 BCE and died no later than 400 BCE. He was said to be the son of an Indian king, so distressed at the sight of suffering that he spent years searching for the answer, finally attaining enlightenment as he sat under a bodhi (fig tree sacred).

The Buddha’s family name was Gotama (in Pali) or Gautama (in Sanskrit). Although he does not appear in early traditions, his personal name was later said to be Siddhartha, meaning “one who has achieved his goal”. (This name was modernized by later believers.)

According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha spent 45 years teaching the path to enlightenment, gathering followers and establishing the Buddhist monastic community. According to legend, when he died at the age of 80, he entered Nirvana.

In India, in the 3rd century BCE, Emperor Ashoka first promoted Buddhism. From then on, it spread south, flourishing in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, then through Central Asia, including Tibet, and as far as China, in Korea and Japan. Ironically, the appeal of Buddhism waned in India over the following centuries. It was virtually extinct there by the 13th century.

During that same century, the Venetian merchant Marco Polo gave the West its first account of the life of Buddha. Between 1292 and 1295, returning from China, Marco Polo arrived in Sri Lanka. There he heard the life story of Sergamoni Borcan who we now know as the Buddha.

Marco wrote about Sergamoni Borcan, a name he had heard at the court of Kublai Khan, in his book The description of the world. It was the Mongolian name of the Buddha: Sergamoni for Shakyamuni – the sage of the Shakya clan, and Borcan for Buddha – the “divine”. (He was also known as Bhagavan – the Blessed One, or Lord.)

According to Marco, Sergamoni Borcan was the son of a great king who wished to renounce the world. The king moved Sergamoni to a palace, tempting him with the sensual delights of 30,000 maidens.

But Sergamoni was impassive in his resolve. When his father first allowed him to leave the palace, he met a dead man and a crippled old man. He returned to the palace frightened and astonished, “telling himself that he would not remain in this evil world but that he would seek the one who had made him and who was not dead.”

Sergamoni then left the palace for good and lived the abstinent life of a celibate recluse. “Certainly,” Marco said, “if he had been a Christian, he would have been a great saint with our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Jesuits and authors

Little was known about the Buddha for the next 300 years in the West. Nevertheless, from the middle of the 16th century, information accumulates, mainly thanks to the Jesuit missions in Japan and China.

By 1700, those familiar with Jesuit missions increasingly assumed that the Buddha was the common link in an array of religious practitioners they encountered.

For example, Louis le Comte (1655-1728), writing his memoirs of his travels through China on a mission inspired by the Sun King Louis XIV said: “All the Indies were poisoned by his pernicious Doctrine. Those of Siam call them Talapoins, the Tartars call them Lamas or Lama sem, the Japanese Bonzes and the Chinese Hocham.

The writings of English author Daniel Defoe (c. 1660-1731) show what the educated English reader might have known of the Buddha in the early 18th century.

In his Dictionary of all religions (1704), Defoe tells us of an idol of Fe (the Buddha) on an island near the Red Sea, supposed to represent an atheist philosopher who lived 500 years before Confucius, that is to say around 1000 before our time.

This idol was transported to China

with instructions concerning the worship rendered to him, and thus introduced a superstition which, in several things, abolished the maxims of Confucius, who always condemned atheism and idolatry.


A quite different Buddha was to be encountered by the British in the late 1700s as they gained economic, military and political dominance in India. Initially, the British depended on their Hindu informants. They told them that the Buddha was an incarnation of their god Vishnu who had come to mislead people with false teachings.

More confusion reigned. It has often been argued in the West that there were two Buddhas – one believed by Hindus to be the ninth incarnation of Vishnu (appearing around 1000 BCE), the other (Gautama) appearing around 1000 years later.

And even more confusion. Because there was a tradition in the West since the middle of the 17th century that the Buddha came from Africa.

Well into the 19th century, depictions of the Buddha, particularly in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, depicted with woolly hair and thick “Ethiopian lips” (as one writer put it) were thought to be evidence of his African origins.

These observers confused traditional depictions of the Buddha with his hair tightly coiled into tiny cones as a sign of his African origins.

First use of the term “Buddhism”

Two major turning points ended up settling these confusions. The first was the coining of the term “Buddhism”.

Its first use in English dates back to 1800 in a translation of a work entitled History lectures by Count Constantin de Volney. A politician and orientalist, de Volney coined the term “Buddhism” to identify the pan-Asian religion which he believed was based on a mythical figure called “Buddha”.

Only then did Buddhism begin to emerge from the range of “pagan idolatries” with which it had been identified, becoming identified as a religion, alongside Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The second turning point was the arrival in the West of Buddhist texts. The decade of 1824 is decisive. For centuries, not a single original document of the Buddhist religion had been accessible to scholars in Europe.

But in the space of ten years, four complete Buddhist literatures have been discovered – in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian and Pali. Collections from Japan and China were to follow.

With the Buddhist texts before them, Western scholars were able to determine that Buddhism was a tradition that arose in India around 400-500 BCE.

And among these texts was the Lalitavistara (written around the 4th century CE), which contained a biography of the Buddha. For the first time, Westerners came to read an account of his life.

the Lalitavistara and other biographies depict a highly magical and enchanted world – from the Buddha’s heavenly life before his birth, from his conception via an elephant, from his mother’s transparent womb, from his miraculous powers at birth, from the many miracles that he accomplished, gods, demons and water spirits.

But within these enchanted texts remained the story of the life of the Buddha which is familiar to us. Of the Indian king Shuddhodana who, fearing that Gautama will reject the world, keeps his son safe from any spectacle of suffering. When Gautama finally leaves the palace, he encounters an old man, a sick man, and a dead man. He then decides to seek the answer to suffering.

For the Buddha, the cause of suffering lies in attachment to the things of the world. The path to freedom from it therefore lies in the rejection of attachment.

The Buddha’s path to the cessation of attachment was finally summed up in the Holy Eightfold Path – good views, good resolve, good speech, good conduct, good sustenance, good effort, good mindfulness, good meditation. The result of this path was the attainment of Nirvana when the self at the time of death escaped from rebirth and was extinguished like the flame of a candle.

This selfless Buddha, who is said to have died in the groves of trees near the Indian city of Kusinagara, was one whom the West soon came to admire. As Unitarian minister Richard Armstrong said in 1870,

his personality has endured for centuries and is as fresh and beautiful as now when exposed to European eyes, as when Siddhartha [sic] he himself took his last breath in the shade of (the forest of) Kusinagara.

History against legend

But is the Buddha of legend also the Buddha of history? That the tradition we call Buddhism was founded by an Indian sage named Gautama around the 5th century BCE is very likely.

That he preached a middle way to liberation between worldly indulgence and extreme asceticism is highly probable. That he cultivated mindfulness and meditation practices, which led to peace and serenity, is almost certain.

That said, early Buddhist traditions showed little interest in the details of the Buddha’s life. It was, after all, his teachings – the Dharma as the Buddhists call it – rather than his person that mattered.

But we can discern a growing interest in the life of the Buddha from the first century BCE through the second or third centuries CE as the Buddha passed within Buddhism from teacher to savior, from human to divine. .

It was from the first to the fifth century of our era that a number of Buddhist texts developed giving complete accounts of the life of the Buddha, from his birth (and before) to his renunciation of the world, his enlightenment, his teachings and finally until his death.

Thus, there is a long period of at least 500 to 900 years between the death of the Buddha and these biographies of him. Can we rely on these very late lives of the Buddha for accurate information about events in his life? Probably not.

Nevertheless, the legend of his life and his teachings still provide an answer to the meaning of human life for some 500 million followers in the modern world.

Philip C Almond is Emeritus Professor of History of Religious Thought at the University of Queensland.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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