The Buddha wasn’t always seen as a figure of peace and compassion. Centuries before Buddhism became mainstream in the West, colonial explorers, missionaries, soldiers, and scholars who visited the East described the worship of a diabolical figure, a pagan idol. As Jesuit priest Guy Tachard (1651–1712) said of the Buddha he encountered in Thailand (then Siam), for example: “All these Idols are represented by fantastic and monstrous Figures. One of them is form’d like a Giant, and by them called Buddu, who formerly liv’d a very holy and penitent Life.”
In Strange Tales of an Oriental Idol: An Anthology of Early European Portrayals of the Buddha (University of Chicago Press, December 2016; $27.50, 257 pp., paper), Donald S. Lopez Jr., the prolific scholar and teacher in Buddhist and Tibetan studies (he is also a Tricycle contributing editor), presents translations of letters and texts from such travelers as Marco Polo, Voltaire, and St. Francis Xavier, among others, unveiling the efforts of Europeans over the course of 1,500 years to describe and understand an unfamiliar religion.
Lopez notes that Europeans regarded the Buddha with suspicion for centuries. It wasn’t until 1844 that French scholar and Orientalist Eugène Burnouf described the Buddha in Introduction à l’histoire du Buddhisme indien as a compassionate founder of a religion—and a human being. This image has held sway in the Western imagination ever since.
Strange Tales is an impressive contribution to Western intellectual history that will be relished by scholars across disciplines and readers curious about how stories evolve when passed through the lens of time and culture.
In 1849, the Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle first described economics as the “dismal science,” based on a prediction that the growth rate of the human population would forever outpace our ability to grow enough food for all. Today, a century and a half later, the effects of unregulated free-market capitalism, including the destruction of the environment and staggering societal inequality, has lent credence to this bleak vision. And yet a handful of contemporary thinkers have begun to develop new economic models that have the potential to change the reductionist nature of economics as it’s taught today.
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