Saturday, January 09, 2010

Buddha's Life Relics Found in Antwerp

Relics of the Buddha’s life have been rediscovered in Antwerp.

Not that they were ever lost, mind you, just that sometimes through lack of attention, remarkable things escape us until someone points them out to us once more. Relics are more than just reminders. And really, anything that jolts us into remembering the Buddha has to be, even if for that reason only, effective in promoting Buddhist liberation. So, if you please, save those predictable knee-jerk Calvinist reactions for a more fitting occasion. This may be the story of a quest, but it's a quest that can't be undertaken for you. You have to participate. There are so many thousands of threads connected to treasures in worlds both yours and not yours. Pick up any thread you like, and be on your way.

In reading the Christian story, keeping the Buddhist original version in mind all the while, I'm inspired to contemplate the fictions of our as-usual lives, to reflect on how illusions can trap us, and how we can attempt to trap other people in our delusions, even under the guise of 'protection.' Several times dissimulations and pretenses become transparent to the hero. It isn't simply through faith and humility that his sanctification comes about. It's partly due to cognitive events and things of his own doing. There is something familiar about this kind of innocence and experience fable. ‘How was I to know that such a thing was even possible?’  ‘Who could believe that people would be so untrue?’  If you've ever needed to ask such questions, then you know what I'm talking about.

I'll avoid insulting your intelligence, and just remind you politely that the young prince, the future Enlightened One, was carefully coddled inside the stone walls that surrounded the palace by his father, kept safe from all contact with the negative side of life. These precautions were motivated by a prophecy that said he'd either be a universal monarch or take up a life of renunciation. The king naturally wants his son to have it all, to become king. The prince feels trapped, so the king permits him, carefully supervised by his handpicked friends, to go on an excursion to a park outside the walls. There the innocent prince is confronted by a series of disillusioning meetings, with a set all Buddhists know as the four signs. The future Buddha encounters an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. And although this one is not always present immediately, he eventually meets an ascetic.

Quite similar to the Buddhist story, in the various Barlaam and Josaphat accounts the prince Josaphat comes in contact with the almost identical truth-dealing visions. In the Ismaili Arabic version, already, things had changed slightly, but not tooo much. The Prince goes out of the palace the first time and sees a sick man and a blind man. On a second excursion he meets an old man, which leads to a weighty discussion about death. Later on he learns about the existence of renunciates, and meets one by the name of Barlaam. So almost all the same elements are there, and they are very nearly identical in setting and tone.

In one version of the Buddhist story, the Bodhisattva meets the four on four successive days, each time going through a different gate of the palace.  At the eastern gate, he meets an old man, at the southern gate a sick man, the western gate a corpse, and at the northern gate a renunciate.

I'll leave you to explore the co-incidents and inter-connections, but I must say, in reading the first half of the account in The Golden Legend collection of saint stories I see India, and Indian origins, at nearly every turn.

Barlaam comes to the king offering a wish-granting jewel, one that looks just way too much like the Indian Buddhists' fabled cintamani (this Wiki entry is weak and inadequate, but's something).

The episode of the archer and the nightingale immediately reminded me of Padampa's diamond-fed bird parable. I won't go into that any more right now since I've long planned a blog on that very theme. It can wait.

The cliff hanging episode is one that has a man fleeing a charging unicorn (it had been a rutting elephant before the Christians got ahold of it) fall into a pit. He grabs a branch, stopping his downward plunge, and just hangs there... but he sees that two mice,* one white and the other black, are gnawing away at the roots of the tree... Meanwhile, now and then, honey drips and dribbles from the tree into his mouth, and he imagines he's happy. ‘My, isn't life sweet?’ Well, alright, but he's hanging over the open mouth of a hungry dragon hot to devour him. This story exists in both the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and in the Indian Buddhist Lalitavistara.  Tibetan Buddhist teachers today tell the same story as part of the introductory Stages of the Path (lam-rim) teachings. Max Müller took notice of this migrating narrative well over a century ago in his well-known article.  (*The white and black mice are the days and nights of our lives...  Tibetan versions of this story may be found in Drolungpa's extensive treatise on the Stages of the Path, in a collection of stories by Lorepa, and in a Mind Training text. For this last, see Thupten Jinpa's translation, p. 446.)

What's missing from the Christian story, and had already started fading from view before reaching the borders of Christendom, is the account of Buddha's Enlightenment. MacQueen explains how and why this happened very succinctly and nicely, so I'll just send you to his 2001 article to find out more.

It was in the middle of last year while reading Joseph Jacobs’ old and remarkable 1896 book that I ran across this passage on page xviii:

“In 1571 the Doge Luigi Mocenigo presented to King Sebastian of Portugal a bone and part of the spine of St. Josaphat. When Spain seized Portugal in 1580 these sacred treasures were removed by Antonio, the Pretender to the Portuguese crown, and ultimately found their way to Antwerp. On August 7, 1672, a grand procession defiled* through the streets of Antwerp, carrying to the cloister of St. Salvator the holy remains of St. Josaphat. There, for ought I know to the contrary, they remain to the present day.”

(*This, an out-of-date usage of the word, just means they went in single file.)

I was very much intrigued by those last words that kept echoing around inside the upper part of my ribcage and inside my skull cavity.

How to best explain this? Relics of a narrative? Corporeal relics of a literary corpus? Something like that, I suppose. Significant in a nearly intangible way. How to put a finger on it? A light goes on, goes off, goes on again...

So I fired off an electronic mail to my good friend Henricius Leidenensis (this being, in our vulgar Vulgates, Henk Blezer). Henk caught the fever, and before too long made the pilgrimage, for him not all that far, to the presence of the relics. It is entirely thanks to him and his gracious permission that I am miraculously able to present to you the amazing history of the relics as he has so far managed to trace them. Practically the only thing I would have to add to it is just the likelihood that the relics that first (?) surfaced in Venice had a prior existence in Constantinople, and before that the Holy Land. That is the way such things went — or, as they were wont to say, were translated — in those days.*

(*Over the centuries, the relics apparently have been making a very long and slow pradakshina of continental Europe, one that is not quite complete. Those who are familiar with the Vedic horse sacrifice, ideas about the Wheel Turning King, etcetera, will see the symbolism in it.)

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Henk's reports on the history of the narrative and its relics, as presented to Buddha-L on two different occasions:

The long itinerary of the legend to Europe presumably starts from Buddhist India and possibly proceeds through eclectic Manichaean hands, such as attested by documents from Turfan in Central Asia; but in any case the legends seem to have reached our earliest Christian versions, probably in the form of a Georgian text (see work by D.M. Lang), via earlier Arabic versions; and eventually continue to fan out into many, many European languages, via early Greek and further via Latin translations. Other itineraries exist for other regions of the world.

To my best present knowledge, in the Dutch language community, Philip van Utenbroeke may have first included a substantial version of the legend in his sequel to Jacob van Maerlant's Spieghel Historiael, at around 1300.  Look here, here, and here.

The itinerary incidentally may also enlighten us on the possible transformation of the name Bodhisattva to Josaphat: 
E.g.: Bodhisattva (India)/ Bodisav (Turkish) / Budhasaf (Arabic) / Yudasaf (Arabic, apparently only one diacritical dot different)/ Iodasaf (Georgian)/ Ioasaph (Greek)/ Josaphat (Latin).
Particularly N. D. may find Almond's article 'enlightening,' for instance, for appreciating how Josaphat and Bodhisattva/Buddha possibly relate.

Almond, like Wilfred Cantwell Smith, takes care first to point out the immense popularity, starting at around the eleventh century AD, of these legends and the attendant narratives in Europe. Some of the attending stories and fables equally go back to Indian origins, and some also survived independently of the Josaphat legends. The stunning amount of extant manuscripts., translations, borrowings, and references amply underline their impact.

The Josaphat legends apparently were greatly loved and thus seem to have had a profound impact in Christian 'Europe', not only on story traditions, by their apparently enchanting fables and stories (some will beg to differ, of course), but certainly also vis-à-vis the main theme: appreciation of asceticism. They indirectly or directly influenced figures such as Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

One cannot help but wonder how this matrix of Buddhist-derived and otherwise accrued narratives may have facilitated later reception(s) of Buddhism in (Christian) Europe, which indeed is the question which incited Almond to embark on his journey. As said, I (still) feel little inclination to get into comparative study of this huge, multi-lingual, literary complex, but considering the apparent appeal and wide spread of the legends, its impact may be both considerable and considerably understudied. If not the legends and stories themselves, in any case the history of them may not only be 'fascinating' but also revealing.  

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Dear Josephists,

For the Buddha-L records, the history of the relics of Josaphat in a nutshell (from easily accessible secondary sources and certainly without doing any laborious archival researches):

1571 - Doge Luigi Mocenigo of Venice donated the relics (bone and piece of vertebra) to King Sebastian of Portugal (Jacobs 1896:xviii*1* and Lang 1966:9*2*), through the Spanish Envoy Pedro Velasco*3*

1580 - Spain seized Portugal and Don Antonio, Pretender to the Portuguese crown, removed the relics (Jacobs 1896)

1595 - Don Antonio of Portugal was defeated by Alva and fled to Paris, where he passed away*3*

1633 - Relics arrived from Portugal with the Cistercians in St. Salvator, in Antwerp (plaquette at the relic shrine? I am not completely sure about the date)?

1672 - August 7th 1672, the holy remains of St. Josaphat were carried to the cloister of St. Salvator*4* in a grand procession (Jacobs 1896:xviii)

Jacobs (1896:xix) presumes that the relics may then still be in St. Salvator. But they seem to have been removed, about a century before:

1796 - December 19th 1796, some time after the French revolution, during the French occupation, the monastics of St. Salvator were led out of the Abbey, with drums beating (Cruys and Cheron 2003:7)*5*

1797 - June 16th, 1797 the Abbey and its possessions were sold (ibid.)*6*

Already fearing that the 'paper' trail might stop here, much to my surprise, I found an on-line article by Wilfried Nijs and Rudy Janssens in a publication of a local history Circle in Holsbeek,*7* which indicated that all 36 relics at around that point in time had been relocated to the St Andrieskerk (see the section on "Relieken") - serendipity now!

(Tibeto-logic's note: You can see a photo of this reliquary if you go here and then scroll down until you see the photo with the large number “36” on it. I made the search engine work very hard, but this is the only photograph I could find.  Notice the words inscribed below the angels:  "Rel. XXXVI Sanctorum," which I take to mean ‘Relics of the 36 Saints’ — Hmm. See the bibliographical listing below, under Scholem...)

That's more or less what triggered our pilgrimage.

The present silver reliquary was produced around 1846 by J.B.A. Verschuylen (quite a stunning piece of craftsmanship in fact).*8* The angels adorning it were produced by others (Lodewijk Corijn and brothers de Cuyper). The shrine is carried around yearly, in the procession of "de parochie van miserie".*3*

For the legendary Indian Saint Josaphat, who is probably intended here, see the Martyrologium Romanum (1956), at the entry on Barlaam et Josaphat apud Indos, 27 Novembris (p.297f. of my Latin edition).

The bulk of the literature on the many versions of the legend, quite frankly, I find a bit intimidating, and much also has already been accomplished in previous scholarly publication.*10* But, if I ever have more time on my hands, I would enjoy tracking those relics back in time (and also filling up some of the gaps). This might even make for a nice documentary. There is more to be said about the history of the relics, of course. Just today, I spotted a small old (1901) local publication on the topic;*9* presently on route to my Leiden office.

However, the fact that the trail leads us to Venice in the 16th century AD does not bode well in this regard. Venice was a node in major trade networks and we are looking at the aftermath of a rich history and economy in mediaeval Europe of both trade and pilgrimage relating to relics -- or what had to pass for relics anyway. I am therefore not overly confident that we will find any useful antecedent trails. DNA testing of the relics would of course be very interesting; but then, permission and funding would become major issues.

As to N. D.'s doubts, I have not much to add or detract. I presume that if we would try to fit all the teeth and other relics ever presumed to be of the Buddha into a human figure, we would probably end up with an interspecies creature that would do well in the next sequel of Alien.

BTW, a nice project for retired scientists: trying to fit replicas of all the pieces of the Holy Cross together?! They could probably build a spacious wooden retirement home for themselves from that.

If anyone has seen some interesting leads, we would be much obliged. Many thanks to D. M. for arousing my interest, with a reference to Jacob's publication, and to S. D. for his great hospitality and company in Antwerp.

Namo tassa Josaphato Arahato Sammaasambuddhassa,


*1* See Joseph Jacobs's 1896 study on Barlaam et Josaphat here (thanks to Microsoft and the University of Toronto.

*2* Lang, D.M. (1966), The Balavariani (Barlaam and Josaphat) A Tale from the Christian East Translated from the Old Georgian, Berkeley 1966.

*3* From on-line description of "Tentoonstelling 'De augustijnen, de inquisitie en het ontstaan van de Sint-Andriesparochie (1514-1529)".

*4* Note that in the 17th century, St. Salvator changed from a Priory to an Abbey (Cruys and Cheron 2003:4).*5*

*5* Marc van de Cruys & Marc Cheron 2003: De Sint Salvator Abdij, in Heraldiek van Abdijen en Kloosters (series of 8), Vol.7, Wijnegem 2003.

*6* We visited the remains of the Abbey in the Grote Pieter Potstraat (Pieter Pot, 1375? - 1450, is the patron and founder of St. Salvator charity). Only the chapel presently still remains. It was last used as rentable office space. When we visited, last Saturday, the chapel looked empty and deserted. Particularly on a dark and rainy day in November the chapel appeared sadly dilapidated.

*7* Informatieblad Gemeente Holsbeek, 3de jaargang {2003}, nr. 1, p.21-23, with an entry on the relics of another one of those 36 Saints, to wit: Saint Hatabrandus or Hatebrandus.

*8* Nieuwsbrief, "Sint Andries 2000", eerste Trimester 2009, p.2.

*9* Geschiedenis van de Reliquieën der XXXVI uitmuntende Heiligen in St Andrieskerk, te Antwerpen alsmede Broederschap ter hunner eer opgericht, en van deszelfs Plechtige Diensten van 1671 tot heden. Antwerpen, De Vlijt, 1901.

*10* See, e.g., Dr. Ernst Kuhn, "Barlaam und Joasaph, Eine bibliographisch -literaturgeschichtliche Studie", in Denkschriften und Reden der K. Bayer. Akademie der Wissenschaften, 20. Bd. 1897 [= Denkschr. Bd. 67], pp.1-88.

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My note:  I highly recommend visiting this site to view the pages of the ca. 1476 Augsburg version of Barlaam and Josaphat.  This is probably the only way you will ever be able to see it. Our blog frontispiece was (ultimately) taken from it.  It shows Josaphat outside the palace with his father, the one with the crown, inside peering over the wall. Josaphat appears to be confronted at the gate by a blind man and a man with leprosy (I think the third person standing behind them is just an attendant).

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St. Josaphat as depicted in a painted mural in Serbia.  For the source, look here.  A photo of the place where it is found, the Studenica Monastery, is here.

Read me! Read me!

You'll find more articles than books here. For books, just try one of the internet booksellers and you will find quite a lot of them in a wide variety of languages. I've picked a few things that were for myself the most interesting. It's impressive to see just how much has been written about the Bodhisattva of Christendom.

Prosper Alfaric, La vie chrétienne du Bouddha, Journal Asiatique (Sept.-Oct. 1917), pp. 269-288. Based on the discovery of a Turfan Manichaean fragment of the story Alfaric argued that it reached Europe via Manichaeans, but not before the 3rd century AD. To read it, go here, type "269" in the small box, and hit return. Also, take some time to learn how to read French if you haven't yet, since you'll need it. It's awkward to navigate, but you can find all the content of the Journal Asiatique, starting with the 1822 issue and ending with the 1938, here, 199 issues in all.

P.C. Almond, The Buddha of Christendom: A Review of the Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, Religious Studies, vol. 23, no. 3 (1987), pp. 391-406.
Enrico Cerulli, The Kalilah wa-Dimnah and the Ethiopic Book of Barlaam and Josaphat (British Museum Ms. Or. 534), Journal of Semitic Studies, vol. 9 (1964), pp. 75-99.  I found it here.
R. Chalmers, Parables of Barlaam and Joasaph, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, n.s. vol. 23 (1891), pp. 423-49.  I found an html version here.  Some of the ideas in it have passed their freshness date.
Abraham ibn Hasdai (d. 1240), Ben ha-Melekh ve ha-Nazir (The King's Son and the Monk).  This Hebrew translation/adaptation, made in early-13th-century Barcelona, is available here (click on the words next to the arrows and it will download for you in three parts if you have good karma).  It was eventually translated into Catalan...  There's a version in Occitan,  too, if you're interested: Barlam et Jozaphas.
Joseph Jacobs, Barlaam and Josaphat: English Lives of Buddha, David Nutt (London 1896). Go to the "Internet Archive" here, and download the PDF if you can. The scan is so beautifully done you can almost feel the paper.
Thupten Jinpa, tr., Mind Training: The Great Collection, compiled by Shönu Gyalchok & Könchok Gyaltsen, The Library of Tibetan Classics series no. 1, Wisdom (Boston 2006).  The story of the ‘Black and White Mice’ (byi-ba dkar nag) is found on p. 446.  One of the oldest records of it may be in the Mahabharata; look on p. 78, here.
 "To save himself from a wild beast, a traveller jumps into a dry well, but perceives at the bottom a dragon with open jaws, ready to devour him. Not daring to climb out of the well and in order not to be devoured by the dragon, the man catches hold of the branches of a wild shrub growing in a crack in the wall of the well. But his arms grow tired, and he feels that he must soon succumb to one or other of the menacing dangers. He holds on, however, when he sees two mice, one white and one black, at the foot of the shrub, steadily running around it and gnawing it through. He sees that at any moment the shrub may topple over, and he must drop into the jaws of the dragon. The traveller feels that he is inevitably lost ; he gazes around and discovers a few drops of honey on the shrub. He can reach them with his tongue, and licks them up. Thus do I cling to the branches of life, knowing that the jaws of death may close on me at any moment, and I cannot understand why I am in such torture. I am trying to suck the honey which used to comfort me, but now I do not enjoy it. The black and white mice continue day and night to gnaw the branch to which I cling. I clearly see the dragon and the mice, and cannot take my eyes off them. This is not a fable, but a clear, indisputable truth, evident to everybody."  The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy. 

D.M. Lang, The Life of the Blessed Iodasaph: A New Oriental Christian Version of the Barlaam and Ioasaph Romance (Jerusalem, Greek Patriarchal Library: Georgian Ms. 140), Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 20, nos. 1-3 (1957), pp. 389-407. Try JSTOR if you can. Notice especially on the final page the stemma that had to be redrawn to accommodate the (as of then then) newly available and lengthier 11th-century Georgian manuscript, microfilmed for the Library of Congress. The scribe's name was Davit', or if you prefer, David.
Graeme MacQueen, Changing Master Narratives in Midstream: Barlaam and Josaphat and the Growth of Religious Intolerance in the Buddha Legend's Westward Journey, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, an online journal, vol. 5 (1998). If you want to read it now, go here.

Graeme MacQueen, Rejecting Enlightenment? The Medieval Christian Transformation of the Buddha-Legend in Jacobus de Voragine's Barlaam and Josaphat, Studies in Religion, vol. 30, no. 2 (2001). Look here.

Graeme MacQueen, The Killing Test: The Kinship of Living Beings and the Buddhalegend's First Journey to the West, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, vol. 9 (2002). Download the PDF version here.

Francis Mershman, Barlaam and Josaphat, Catholic Encyclopedia. This encyclopedia entry is available all over the internet. Here, for example.

M. Pitts, Barlâm and Josaphat: A Legend for All Seasons, Journal of South Asian Literature, vol. 16 (1981), pp. 1-16.
E. Rehatsek & T.W. Rhys Davids, Book of the King's Son and the Ascetic, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (January 1890), pp. 119-155.  Translation of an Arabic version that has been in some degree Islamicized, even if sometimes it seems to me ambiguous whether 'religion' might mean Buddhism or Islam.
Gershom Scholem, The Tradition of the Thirty-Six Hidden Just Men, contained in: Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, Schocken Books (New York 1974), pp. 251-256.  I'm just wondering if these "Lamed-Vav-nikim"  otherwise known as the Hidden Tzadiks, have something to do with the "36 Heiligen" that St. Josaphat numbered among. I doubt having this common number is just a sheer coincidence, don't you?  But who started it?  Wait, I know someone I can ask.

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An Edifying Story from the Inner Land of the Ethiopians, Called the Land of the Indians, Thence Brought to the Holy City, by John the Monk (an Honorable Man and a Virtuous, of the Monastery of Saint Sabas); wherein are the Lives of the Famous and Blessed Barlaam and Iosaph. Read it at the Online Medieval and Classical Library, here. This other link seems to take you to the very same book.

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Apparently it's true, there are also St. Josaphat relics in the Vatican.  Look here, also.

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A musical program will soon take place in Vancouver under the title Barlaam and Josaphat, inspired by the legend, and resuscitating some of its actual music that was long ago inspired by it.  That's on January 24, 2010.  With 11 days remaining, there may be just barely enough time to order tickets and jump on a plane for British Columbia.  In the Ensemble Dialogos, are two musicians from Köln, the other from Croatia.  Their schedule is here.  And what do you know? Of course they're going to be in Antwerp in February 2010 (doing sacred songs from Dalmatia). I guess we understand, perhaps better than they, why that is.  Reminds me of that old quip, ‘If it's Tuesday it must be Belgium.’  The premiere of Barlaam and Josaphat took place in Köln, Germany, on June  5, 2009, by chance about the same time I noticed that passage on the relics in Jacobs' book.

Entrance to the chapel at the Monastery of the Cross, Jerusalem (lots of nice photos, if not this one, are here). This is where the wood of the Cross grew, as you may see in the painting above the doorway. It was here, too, that sometime in around the 11th century the lengthier Georgian-language Barlaam and Josaphat legend was scribed (see Lang's article and especially the stemma on p. 407). This, being the more complete legendary cycle, proved crucial to understanding the historical transmission. I'm not sure, but it may have been the very first written text of the legends in their Christian conversion. It went on to inform all the later European retellings. Also, in this same chapel you can see a tiny painted portrait of Shota Rustaveli, the most famous poet of old Georgian.

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