Leo Tolstoy’s Buddhist Christian Mashup

Leo Tolstoy’s Buddhist Christian Mashup November 20, 2021





Leo Tolstoy died on this day, the 20th of November, in 1910. He is one of those complicated figures, difficult, and yet shining with might be called the harsh light of the divine. 

In his Confession and Other Religious Writings, he offers something I’ve found an absolute delight. It’s sort of a mashup of Christian and Buddhist wisdom. At least as I read it…

“There is an old Eastern fable about a traveler who is taken unawares on the steppes by a ferocious wild animal. In order to escape the beast the traveler hides in an empty well, but at the bottom of the well he sees a dragon with its jaws open, ready to devour him.

“The poor fellow does not dare to climb out because he is afraid of being eaten by the rapacious beast, neither does he dare drop to the bottom of the well for fear of being eaten by the dragon. So he seizes hold of a branch of a bush that is growing in the crevices of the well and clings on to it. His arms grow weak and he knows that he will soon have to resign himself to the death that awaits him on either side. Yet he still clings on, and while he is holding on to the branch he looks around and sees that two mice, one black and one white, are steadily working their way round the bush he is hanging from, gnawing away at it.

“Sooner or later they will eat through it and the branch will snap, and he will fall into the jaws of the dragon. The traveler sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish. But while he is still hanging there he sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the bush, stretches out his tongue and licks them. In the same way I am clinging to the tree of life, knowing full well that the dragon of death inevitably awaits me, ready to tear me to pieces, and I cannot understand how I have fallen into this torment. And I try licking the honey that once consoled me, but it no longer gives me pleasure.

“The white mouse and the black mouse – day and night – are gnawing at the branch from which I am hanging. I can see the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tastes sweet. I can see only one thing; the inescapable dragon and the mice, and I cannot tear my eyes away from them. And this is no fable but the truth, the truth that is irrefutable and intelligible to everyone.

“The delusion of the joys of life that had formerly stifled my fear of the dragon no longer deceived me. No matter how many times I am told: you cannot understand the meaning of life, do not thinking about it but live, I cannot do so because I have already done it for too long. Now I cannot help seeing day and night chasing me and leading me to my death. This is all I can see because it is the only truth. All the rest is a lie.

“Those two drops of honey, which more than all else had diverted my eyes from the cruel truth, my love for my family and for my writing, which I called art – I no longer found sweet.”

Possibly you’re familiar with that story at least in broad strokes as a traditional Buddhist parable. The source for Tolstoy was the story of Barlaam and Josaphat, an ancient and much beloved hagiography with numerous versions and retellings and adaptations in assorted languages.

What Tolstoy doesn’t say, and maybe didn’t know, was that the whole of the Barlaam and Josaphat legend is a delightful melange of Buddhist and Christian teachings attached to a heavily Christianized version of the Buddha’s life.

I don’t know exactly why, but all this makes me happy…

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