When the Buddha Became a Christian Saint

When the Buddha Became a Christian Saint November 28, 2023

Barlaam & Josaphat
Varlaam & Joasaph
1680 Russian Engraving
baed upon
Simon Ushakov






It’s November 27th!

And with that, once again, the blessings of the saints Barlaam & Josaphat are upon us!

This is flat out my favorite of all Christian holidays.

And I like to remind people of the details of this original Christian Buddhist mashup. So, please forgive the repetition parts of this small sharing. It’s just that its all so cool…

In the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic church as well as for those of the Eastern Churches who follow the revised Julian calendar, today, the 27th of November is the feast of Sts Barlaam and Josaphat. The Orthodox who continue to use the Julian calendar observe this feast on 26th of August. I like to mention that when late August rolls around.

I should say they used to celebrate this day. For the most part this holiday is no longer actually observed.

The story of the prince Josaphat and his conversion to the true faith through the guidance of the hermit Barlaam appears in the West in the eleventh century, apparently composed by the monk Euthymios, although attributed to the seventh century John of Damascus.

In fact the story is quite a bit older than either the eleventh or seventh centuries. Variations on it pop up all over the place, from the Golden Legend to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. It is what one may call a classic.

However, in the nineteenth century scholars realized the true source of the story. The name Josaphat derived ultimately from the Sanskrit and means bodhisattva, “enlightenment being.” They figured out the story, through some interesting turns, was really that of the Buddha.

I do love that. So much…

While we can say with near certainty that Jesus never visited Tibet, or for those who want to quibble about distance, even to India, there was in fact lots and lots of cross fertilization. Ideas and people followed that Silk Road in both directions and for a long time. So, of course the story of the Buddha would make it West, even if only as a faint echo.

Some real juice today is found in the Buddhist and Christian dialogue. They have pretty much nothing to say to each other, and out of that nothing some beautiful things have been emerging.

So little to say. So much to experience.

But. Also. I love the mashup. And, I’ve thought a fair amount about what a Buddhist Christian church might look like. My small fantasy. But, if such a thing were ever to happen this would have to be one of the first dates to be dropped into that church’s liturgical calendar.

And with that a tip of the glass to the holy ones.

About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is the author of several books on Zen spirituality. His next, the Intimate Way of Zen, will be published by Shambhala in July, 2023. It's available for pre-order at Amazon. You can read more about the author here.
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