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From Stone to Flesh

A Short History of the Buddha

We have come to admire Buddhism for being profound but accessible, as much a lifestyle as a religion. The credit for creating Buddhism goes to the Buddha, a figure widely respected across the Western world for his philosophical insight, his teachings of nonviolence, and his practice of meditation. But who was this Buddha, and how did he become the Buddha we know and love today?
Leading historian of Buddhism Donald S. Lopez Jr. tells the story of how various idols carved in stone—variously named Beddou, Codam, Xaca, and Fo—became the man of flesh and blood that we know simply as the Buddha. He reveals that the positive view of the Buddha in Europe and America is rather recent, originating a little more than a hundred and fifty years ago. For centuries, the Buddha was condemned by Western writers as the most dangerous idol of the Orient. He was a demon, the murderer of his mother, a purveyor of idolatry.
Lopez provides an engaging history of depictions of the Buddha from classical accounts and medieval stories to the testimonies of European travelers, diplomats, soldiers, and missionaries. He shows that centuries of hostility toward the Buddha changed dramatically in the nineteenth century, when the teachings of the Buddha, having disappeared from India by the fourteenth century, were read by European scholars newly proficient in Asian languages. At the same time, the traditional view of the Buddha persisted in Asia, where he was revered as much for his supernatural powers as for his philosophical insights. From Stone to Flesh follows the twists and turns of these Eastern and Western notions of the Buddha, leading finally to his triumph as the founder of a world religion.

304 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Buddhism and Modernity

Asian Studies: General Asian Studies

History: Asian History

Religion: South and East Asian Religions


“From Stone to Flesh is a welcome contribution to our understanding of how Buddhism became known in the West. The vaguest of notions and sheer ignorance were in a relatively short time replaced by an ever clearer picture of the Buddha as a historical and religious figure, known in a wealth of detail that even now we have yet fully to digest. Donald S. Lopez Jr. tells the story very well and at the same time recollects the West’s own struggle to rethink history and religion in the eighteenth and nineteenthcenturies. Theologians too will appreciate From Stone to Flesh as we seek out the roots of the consciousness of religious diversity that so vividly marks our era.”

Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Harvard University

“Thoroughly researched and highly readable, From Stone to Flesh tells of a Buddha born of the Western mind—a Buddha created in our own image and trapped in our own preconceptions. A must read for those who think they know who the Buddha really was.”

James Shaheen, editor and publisher of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

“This book is a welcome sequel to The Scientific Buddha— or a ‘prequel,’ since it deals with the period before the discovery of the ‘historical Buddha’ in the mid-nineteenth century. It is vintage Donald Lopez: scholarly, well written, and entertaining. A must read.”

Bernard Faure, Columbia University

"The highly regarded and prolific Donald S. Lopez Jr. examines the West’s evolving understanding of the Buddha from antiquity to the mid-19th century. In approximately equal parts excerpts from historical writings and erudite commentary, which alternate, Lopez presents reports of European travelers who found what they considered merely pagan idols, later accounts from Catholic missionaries who continued to grapple with a plethora of images, and the 17th-century chronicles by soldiers and bureaucrats of Western empires who began to understand that the many deities represented but one human religious leader. . . . Highly recommended."

Library Journal

"Donald S. Lopez Jr. offers an expertly crafted history of the Buddha that has been left by the wayside and forgotten. Lopez masterfully stitches together obscure and esoteric texts from missionaries, diplomats, travelers, and others, giving them room to breathe and speak for themselves, instead of overwhelming his readers with historical analysis. There is a profound satisfaction in accompanying Lopez in his journey to find the historical Buddha, whom Westerners first denounced as an idolater and demon and, much later, came to praise his teachings. This is an exceptional and even riveting account of Western civilization’s attempts to reconcile a foreign religion with its own beliefs, as well as an insightful view into how historical development has shaped Western knowledge of the world."

Publishers Weekly

“In describing this emergence of the Buddha from the fog of confusion, misunderstanding, and ignorance, and his transformation ‘from stone to flesh,’ Donald Lopez has written a book not only of great scholarship but also of great wisdom.”

Literary Review

“From Stone to Flesh tells a complicated tale. It is, like the author’s many previous works, fascinating, erudite, and engagingly written. Readers will come away enriched by it, often astonished, and occasionally exasperated. The book is not a biography of the Buddha in the usual sense, although it does recount many wonderfully varied biographies of the Buddha. Nor is it a history of Buddhism either, exactly, although readers will be enchanted by intriguing and little-known facts about the history of Buddhist ideas, texts, and societies. Rather, it is more properly a history of the Buddha himself, specifically of how we have come to know—or at least think we know—the historical founder of a world religion called Buddhism.”


"Lopez is a lively scholar, always worth reading."

London Review of Books

Table of Contents




Appendix One: Names for the Buddha Occurring in European Sources before 1800
Appendix Two: The Buddha in Diderot and d’Alembert’s
Appendix Three: Table of Contents of Transactions of the Literary Society of Bombay, 1819

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