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Strange Tales of an Oriental Idol

An Anthology of Early European Portrayals of the Buddha

We tend to think that the Buddha has always been seen as the compassionate sage admired around the world today, but until the nineteenth century, Europeans often regarded him as a nefarious figure, an idol worshipped by the pagans of the Orient. Donald S. Lopez Jr. offers here a rich sourcebook of European fantasies about the Buddha drawn from the works of dozens of authors over fifteen hundred years, including Clement of Alexandria, Marco Polo, St. Francis Xavier, Voltaire, and Sir William Jones.

Featuring writings by soldiers, adventurers, merchants, missionaries, theologians, and colonial officers, this volume contains a wide range of portraits of the Buddha. The descriptions are rarely flattering, as all manner of reports—some accurate, some inaccurate, and some garbled—came to circulate among European savants and eccentrics, many of whom were famous in their day but are long forgotten in ours. Taken together, these accounts present a fascinating picture, not only of the Buddha as he was understood and misunderstood for centuries, but also of his portrayers.

288 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Buddhism and Modernity

Asian Studies: General Asian Studies

History: Asian History

Religion: South and East Asian Religions


“Only a true master of the field could have prepared this collection, which is at once so useful and so fascinating. Anyone with even the slightest interest in the history of religion, the rise of world religions, cultural relativism in Europe, or globalization, not to mention Buddhism, is going to want to open this chest of treasures. When they do, they will be deeply grateful for the guidance provided to the reader, which makes these sometimes curious stories accessible to the widest possible audience.”

Lynn Hunt, University of California, Los Angeles

“This is an amazing repository of research on Western writings on Buddhism from the earliest times to the mid-nineteenth century. Beautifully written, Strange Tales of an Oriental Idol will be a sourcebook for further research among scholars of Buddhism and of East-West interaction, as well as for those interested in Western intellectual history more generally.”

Judith Snodgrass, Western Sydney University

Strange Tales of an Oriental Idol presents English translations of a wide variety of early writings produced by travelers, Christian missionaries, soldiers, civil servants, and armchair and professional scholars. These sources are very important indeed, and the work that Lopez has done to assemble them is truly impressive. I can think of nothing that rivals this book.” 

Jacob Kinnard, Iliff School of Theology

"Rather than posit a true Asian vs. false Western dichotomy, Lopez asks, 'whether the Buddha, then and now, here and there, is the product of a more complex and interesting process of influence.' The author allows many texts to nestle and jostle against each other, refusing to rate them. This approach fits into Lopez’ career, spent producing learned works demystifying Buddhist tropes. While the collection of polyglot voices may daunt, he offers cogent introductions for each diverse inclusion."

Spectrum Culture

Table of Contents

Chapter One: From 200 to 1500
St. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 CE)
St. Jerome (ca. 347–420)
Socrates of Constantinople (b. ca. 380)
Anonymous (ninth century)
St. Euthymius of Mount Athos (ca. 955–1028)
King Het‘um I of Armenia (1215–1270)
Marco Polo (ca. 1254–1324)
Rashīd al-Dīn (1247–1318)
Odoric of Pordenone (1286?–1331)
Chapter Two: From 1501 to 1600
Anjirō (1511–1550?)
St. Francis Xavier (1506–1552)
Guillaume Postel (1510–1581)
Martín de Rada (1533–1578)
Bernardino de Escalante (ca. 1537 to after 1605)
Juan Gonzáles de Mendoza (ca. 1540–1617)
William Adams (1564–1620)
Cesar Fredericke
Chapter Three: From 1601 to 1700
Matteo Ricci (1552–1610)
Samuel Purchas (1577?–1626)
Nicolas Trigault (1577–1628)
Roberto de Nobili (1577–1656)
Richard Cocks (1566–1624)
Cristoforo Borri (1583–1632)
Álvaro Semedo (1585–1658)
Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680)
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605–1689)
Robert Knox (1641–1720)
Abbé de Choisy (1644–1724)
Alexandre, Chevalier de Chaumont (1640–1710)
Fernaõ de Queyroz (1617–1688)
Tomás Pereira (1645–1708)
Guy Tachard (1651–1712)
Nicolas Gervaise (ca. 1662–1729)
Simon de la Loubère (1642–1729)
Louis le Comte (1655–1728)
Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716)
Chapter Four: From 1701 to 1800
Ippolito Desideri (1684–1733)
François Valentijn (1666–1727)
Jean Frédéric Bernard (1683–1744) and Bernard Picart (1673–1733)
Jean Baptiste du Halde (1674–1743)
Adriano di St. Thecla (1667–1765)
Antonio Agostino Giorgi (1711–1797)
Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783)
Voltaire (1694–1778)
Peter Simon Pallas (1741–1811)
Guillaume le Gentil (1725–1792)
William Hurd
Jean-Baptiste Grosier (1743–1823)
Sir William Jones (1746–1794)
Thomas Maurice (1754–1824)
Louis-Mathieu Langlès (1763–1824)
Paulinus a S. Bartholomaeo (1748–1806)
Francis Wilford (1761–1822)
Colin Mackenzie (1753–1821)
Captain Mahony
Michael Symes (1761–1809)
Vincenzo Sangermano (d. 1819)
Chapter Five: From 1801 to 1844
Joseph Endelin de Joinville
Francis Hamilton (1762–1829)
Alexander Hamilton (1762–1824)
Edward Moor (1771–1848)
Francis Wilford (1761–1822)
William Erskine (1773–1852)
George Stanley Faber (1773–1854)
Michel-Jean François Ozeray (1764–1859)
Robert Fellowes (1770–1847)
Francis (Hamilton) Buchanan (1762–1829)
R. N. Golownin (1776–1831)
John Crawfurd (1783–1868)
John Davy (1790–1868)
Julius Heinrich Klaproth (1783–1835)
Thomas Abercrombie Trant (1805–1832)
Samuel Davis (1760–1819)
Horace Hayman Wilson (1786–1860)
Karl Friedrich Neumann (1793–1870)
Charles Coleman
Edward Upham (1776–1834)
Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat (1788–1832)
George Turnour (1799–1843)
Alexander Csoma de Kőrös (1784–1842)
Eugène Burnouf (1801–1852)

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