Artwork by David d’Angers

In April 1837, twenty-four Sanskrit manuscripts arrived in Paris, sent from Kathmandu by Brian Houghton Hodgson, British Resident at the Court of Nepal. They were Buddhist sutras and tantras, long lost in India but preserved in Nepal. The Société Asiatique instructed two young scholars, both named Eugène—Burnouf and Jacquet—to examine the texts. Burnouf began with the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Stanzas. He had no idea of its importance; he only knew that it was one of the “nine dharmas,” the central texts of Nepalese Buddhism. But he didn’t like it, writing to Hodgson, “I saw only perpetual repetitions of the advantages and merits promised to those who obtain prajnaparamita. But what is this prajna itself? This is what I did not see anywhere, and what I wished to learn.” Burnouf kept reading.

I turned to a new book, one of the nine dharmas, the Saddharmapundarika [the Lotus Sutra], and I can promise you that I have not repented my choice. Since about April 25, I have without reserve devoted every moment that I could steal from my occupations as professor of Sanskrit and academician to this work, of which I have already read rather considerable portions. You will not be astonished that I did not understand everything; the material is very new for me, the style as well as the content. . . . Though many things are still obscure to my eyes, I nevertheless comprehend the progression of the book, the mode of exposition of the author, and I have even already translated two chapters in their entirety, omitting nothing. These are two parables, not lacking in interest, but which are especially curious specimens of the manner in which the teaching of the Buddhists is imparted and of the discursive and very Socratic method of exposition.

Burnouf had been captivated by arguably the single most influential text in the history of Buddhism, without knowing anything of its importance in India, China, Korea, and Japan. Four years later, in a letter of October 28, 1841, he informed Hodgson that he had finished printing his translation of the Lotus Sutra, “but I would like to give an introduction to this bizarre work.” This introduction would transform the Western understanding of Buddhism.

Eugène Burnouf was born in Paris on April 8, 1801, the son of the distinguished classicist Jean-Louis Burnouf. He received instruction in Greek and Latin from his father and entered the university in 1822, earning degrees in both letters and in law. He also studied Sanskrit, first with his father and then with Antoine Léonard de Chézy. A cholera epidemic struck Paris in 1832, during which Chézy died, and Burnouf was appointed to succeed his teacher in the chair of Sanskrit at the Collège de France. He became renowned for his erudition and for dedication as a teacher. In a diary entry of March 20, 1845, Friedrich Max Müller describes his first meeting with his future teacher: “Went to see Burnouf. Spiritual, amiable, thoroughly French. He received me in the most friendly way, talked a great deal, and all he said was valuable, not on ordinary topics but on special. I managed better in French than I expected. ‘I am a Brahman, a Buddhist, a Zoroastrian. I hate the Jesuits’—that is the sort of man. I am looking forward to his lectures.”

Burnouf delayed the publication of his translation of the Lotus Sutra because he felt that it would not be comprehensible to European readers without an introduction. That introduction grew to 647 pages. Or to be more precise, the book that we have today, whose title page reads “Tome Premier,” represents what Burnouf envisioned as the first volume of that introduction. He intended to produce at least one and perhaps as many as three more volumes of introduction before he published his translation of the Lotus Sutra.

Introduction à l’histoire du Buddhisme indien appeared in Paris in 1844. It would become the most influential work on Buddhism to be written during the nineteenth century, setting the course for the academic study of Buddhism far into the twentieth. Its influence extended well beyond France. It was read in America by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It was read in Germany by Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Wagner wrote, “Burnouf’s Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism interested me most among my books, and I found material in it for a dramatic poem, which has stayed in my mind ever since, though only vaguely sketched.” Wagner’s Buddhist opera, entitled Die Sieger (“The Victors”), was unfortunately never completed.

By the fourteenth century, and before the arrival of Portuguese explorers, Buddhism had all but disappeared from India. By the time that European scholars began a sustained study of the culture and history of India, Buddhism was an artifact. There were no Buddhists in India. Instead, there were stupas, cave temples, ruins, and statues. European travelers and missionaries encountered Buddhism elsewhere in Asia, and in languages other than Sanskrit: in Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Mongolian, Pali, Thai, and Burmese. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the few academic studies of Buddhism had taken the form of scholarly articles in journals like Asiatick Researches, Transactions of the Royal Asiatic SocietyTransactions of the Literary Society of Bombay, and Journal des Savants. Dr. Francis Buchanan of the East India Company drew heavily on information from the Italian missionary to Burma, Father Vincenzo Sangermano, for his essay “On the Religion and Literature of the Burmas,” published in Asiatick Researchesin 1801. Julius Klaproth’s life of the Buddha, based largely on Mongolian sources, appeared in 1824 in theJournal Asiatique. Then Brian Hodgson found Sanskrit manuscripts in Nepal.

Prior to Burnouf’s work, Buddhism was understood to have originated in India, but no Sanskrit texts had been discovered. Burnouf set out to demonstrate that the life of the Buddha and the tradition that he founded can only be fully understood as a product of Indian culture, first expressed in an Indian language. Furthermore, he argued that much about the historical development and social milieu of the origins of Buddhism can be gleaned from reading its scriptures. In doing so, he took a strong stand against a view popular in his day, that India had no history.

Burnouf divided his book into two parts, which he called “memoranda.” In the first, he demonstrated that the most important Buddhist texts preserved in Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese are in fact translations of works originally composed in Sanskrit. The second memorandum has separate chapters devoted to the Sutras, the Vinaya, the Abhidharma, and the Tantras. Here, Burnouf interspersed his descriptions and analyses with extended translations from various Buddhist texts; almost forty percent of the entire volume is composed of these translations and Burnouf’s copious notes. In addition to its sustained analysis of Buddhist Sanskrit literature, the Introduction was the first work of European scholarship to provide translations of Sanskrit Buddhist texts. One of the most consequential sentences in the Introduction is buried in a footnote about halfway through the volume, where Burnouf writes, “The present volume is dedicated in its entirety to put in relief the purely human character of Buddhism.”

Artwork by David d’Angers
Artwork by David d’Angers

The European encounter with the Buddha had passed through several phases. The first travelers and missionaries to the various Buddhist cultures of Asia knew him only as an idol, represented in different forms and known by different names. By the time Burnouf published the Introduction, most of the leading European scholars agreed that the Buddha was a historical figure, but the details of his life and teaching were sketchy. Burnouf was the first to read a large corpus of Indian Buddhist texts in Sanskrit, and it is from these sources that he paints his portrait of the Buddha.

Burnouf played a crucial role in demythologizing and humanizing the Buddha, portraying a compassionate man who preached to all who would listen, without dogma and ritual. Burnouf writes, “I speak here in particular of the Buddhism which appears to me to be the most ancient, the human Buddhism, if I dare call it that, which consists almost entirely in very simple rules of morality, and where it is enough to believe that the Buddha was a man who reached a degree of intelligence and of virtue that each must take as the exemplar for his life.”

The task that Burnouf set for himself was unlike anything he, or anyone, had previously attempted. He was not editing, translating, and annotating a single text. He was attempting something entirely new, with very few resources available to him. Furthermore, he did not have a tradition of reliable scholarship to serve as his foundation. At the time that he wrote the Introduction, there were some who were still debating whether Brahmanism or Buddhism came first, whether the Buddha was of Ethiopian or Nordic origin. Here is how he described his task:

It is necessary to browse through almost one hundred volumes, all manuscripts, written in four languages still little known, for whose study we have only lexicons, I could say of imperfect vocabularies, one of which has given birth to popular dialects even whose names are almost unknown. To these difficulties of form, add those of content: an entirely new subject, innumerable schools, an immense metaphysical apparatus, a mythology without boundaries; everywhere disorder and a dispiriting vagueness on questions of time and place; . . . I would like, nevertheless, to rely upon the indulgence of serious persons to whom these studies are addressed; and while they leave me with the feeling of my insufficiency, with which I am affected more than ever, the hope for their benevolent consideration has given me the courage to produce these rough drafts, destined to open the way to research, which, while still not having a numerous public, is nonetheless in itself of incontestable value for the history of the human spirit.

In the more than a century and a half since its publication, Burnouf’s Introduction has been superseded on many topics, topics that in many cases Burnouf was the first to introduce to Western scholarship. Yet given the state of knowledge about Buddhism in 1844 and the sources he had before him, the Introduction is a remarkable achievement; for almost every topic he considers—from the Buddha’s attitude toward the caste system to the meaning of pratityasamutpada—Burnouf provides a more informed and sustained discussion than had appeared previously in a European language. It must also be said that the Introduction is the work of a superb Sanskritist. He notes in passing, “I can assert that there is nothing in all the Sanskrit literature as easy to understand as the texts of Nepal, apart from some terms the Buddhists used in a very special way; I will not give any proof of this other than the considerable number of texts that it was possible for me to read in a rather limited time.” The “considerable number of texts” included many lengthy and (at least in the estimation of lesser mortals) difficult sutras and tantras.

Burnouf seems to have suffered from ill health for most of his short life. He left France only on two occasions, and both times for research, traveling to Germany briefly in the summer of 1834 and to England in the spring of 1835. A devoted husband and father, his life was dedicated to scholarship; he was at his desk at 3 a.m. each morning, a practice that his contemporaries blamed for his early death. He died, apparently of kidney failure, on May 28, 1852. His translation of the Lotus Sutra appeared that same year. It was dedicated, as Burnouf had instructed, to Brian Houghton Hodgson, “founder of the true study of Buddhism through texts and monuments,” an appellation that over the passing decades has come to more accurately describe its author.

Get Daily Dharma in your email

Start your day with a fresh perspective

a photo of a Buddhist meditating
Explore timeless teachings through modern methods.

With Stephen Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg, Andrew Olendzki, and more

See Our Courses

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.