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Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Buddha in Europe: the Apologue of the Man and the Unicorn in Barlaam and Ioasaph


A narration of the story of the life of Gautama Buddha passed through Arabic, Persian, Georgian and Greek versions to become immensely popular in the European Middle Ages. Versions exist in Latin, Old Slavonic, Armenian, Hebrew, Icelandic, English, Ethiopic, French, and other languages. The tale found its way into the Legenda aurea and the Gestum Romanorum and from there influenced Shakespeare and Calderon. The title Bodhisattva passed through several linguistic twists to become Ioasaph (or Josaphat), and the story of this conspicuously pious individual and his guru Barlaam became so celebrated that both were recognized as Christian saints in the Eastern Orthodox as well as the Roman Churches. They were honored with feast-days, church dedications, and artistic representations for centuries. Only in recent times have scholars noted the unquestionable origins of the story and traced its westward movement.
I discuss here primarily a single image. For the reader’s convenience, I reproduce the relevant passage from Barlaam and Ioasaph and a closely analogous image from the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. [1]

“These men that have foolishly alienated themselves from a good and kind master, to seek the service of so harsh and savage a lord, that are all agog for present joys and are glued thereto, that take never a thought for the future, that always grasp after bodily enjoyments, but suffer their souls to waste with hunger, and to be worn with myriad ills, these I consider to be like a man flying before the face of a rampant unicorn, who, unable to endure the sound of the beast's cry, and its terrible bellowing, to avoid being devoured, ran away at full speed. But while he ran hastily, he fell into a great pit; and as he fell, he stretched forth his hands, and laid hold on a tree, to which he held tightly. There he established some sort of foot-hold and thought himself from that moment in peace and safety. But he looked and descried two mice, the one white, the other black, that never ceased to gnaw the root of the tree whereon he hung, and were all but on the point of severing it. Then he looked down to the bottom of the pit and espied below a dragon, breathing fire, fearful for eye to see, exceeding fierce and grim, with terrible wide jaws, all agape to swallow him. Again looking closely at the ledge whereon his feet rested, he discerned four heads of asps projecting from the wall whereon he was perched. Then he lift up his eyes and saw that from the branches of the tree there dropped a little honey. And thereat he ceased to think of the troubles whereby he was surrounded; how, outside, the unicorn was madly raging to devour him: how, below, the fierce dragon was yawning to swallow him: how the tree, which he had clutched, was all but severed; and how his feet rested on slippery, treacherous ground. Yea, he forgat, without care, all those sights of awe and terror, and his whole mind hung on the sweetness of that tiny drop of honey. This is the likeness of those who cleave to the deceitfulness of this present life, -- the interpretation whereof I will declare to thee anon. The unicorn is the type of death, ever in eager pursuit to overtake the race of Adam. The pit is the world, full of all manner of ills and deadly snares. The tree, which was being continually fretted by the two mice, to which the man clung, is the course of every man's life, that spendeth and consuming itself hour by hour, day and night, and gradually draweth nigh its severance. The fourfold asps signify the structure of man's body upon four treacherous and unstable elements which, being disordered and disturbed, bring that body to destruction. Furthermore, the fiery cruel dragon betokeneth the maw of hell that is hungry to receive those who choose present pleasures rather than future blessings. The dropping of honey denoteth the sweetness of the delights of the world, whereby it deceiveth its own friends, nor suffereth them to take timely thought for their salvation.” (Barlaam and Ioasaph, XII, 112)

A certain brahmana, living in the great world, found himself on one occasion in a large inaccessible forest teeming with beasts of prey. It abounded on every side with lions and other animals looking like elephants, all of which were engaged in roaring aloud. Such was the aspect of that forest that Yama himself would take fright at it. Beholding the forest, the heart of the brahmana became exceedingly agitated. His hair stood on end, and other signs of fear manifested themselves, O scorcher of foes! Entering it, he began to run hither and thither, casting his eyes on every point of the compass for finding out somebody whose shelter he might seek. Wishing to avoid those terrible creatures, he ran in fright. He could not succeed, however, in distancing them or freeing himself from their presence. He then saw that that terrible forest was surrounded with a net, and that a frightful woman stood there, stretching her arms. That large forest was also encompassed by many five-headed snakes of dreadful forms, tall as cliffs and touching the very heavens. Within it was a pit whose mouth was covered with many hard and unyielding creepers and herbs. The brahmana, in course of his wanderings, fell into that invisible pit. He became entangled in those clusters of creepers that were interwoven with one another, like the large fruit of a jack tree hanging by its stalk. He continued to hang there, feet upwards and head downwards. While he was in that posture, diverse other calamities overtook him. He beheld a large and mighty snake within the pit. He also saw a gigantic elephant near its mouth. That elephant, dark in complexion, had six faces and twelve feet. And the animal gradually approached that pit covered with creepers and trees. About the twigs of the tree (that stood at the mouth of the pit), roved many bees of frightful forms, employed from before in drinking the honey gathered in their comb about which they swarmed in large numbers. Repeatedly they desired, O bull of Bharata’s race, to taste that honey which though sweet to all creatures could, however, attract children only. The honey (collected in the comb) fell in many jets below. The person who was hanging in the pit continually drank those jets. Employed, in such a distressful situation, in drinking that honey, his thirst, however, could not be appeased. Unsatiated with repeated draughts, the person desired for more. Even then, O king, he did not become indifferent to life. Even there, the man continued to hope for existence. A number of black and white rats were eating away the roots of that tree. There was fear from the beasts of prey, from that fierce woman on the outskirts of that forest, from that snake at the bottom of the well, from that elephant near its top, from the fall of the tree through the action of the rats, and lastly from those bees flying about for tasting the honey. In that plight he continued to dwell, deprived of his senses, in that wilderness, never losing at any time the hope of prolonging his life.’” (Mahabharata, Book XI, sec. v)

The Greek Barlaam and Ioasaph is, more obviously than most literary works, poised in a series between predecessors from which it derives and succeeding works it influences. At the core of the tale, persistent in the transmission, are two dissimilar types of information: first, the central dramatic reversal, the great renunciation itself, the rejection of the world as the only means of corning to terms with it; and, secondly, the apologues which do not so much illustrate the argument as periodically “seal” it with epiphanic analogies. Of the apologues perhaps the most striking and relevant to the text as a whole is that called by Woodward and Mattingly “The Man and the Unicorn.” The image of human existence presented in the apologue is utterly radical in suggestion but extremely widespread in essence. [2] Its roots are clearly and unmistakably entwined with a passage of the Mahabharata. Though its explicit Biblical references are all but entirely Christian, the elements of the story have much stronger affinities to the Septuagint, the Hebrew scripture in Greek robes. In fact, the mythic material used by the Christian hagiographer palpably strains against the orthodox interpretation.
The image describes suspension between dualities, the reflex of self-consciousness, the two prongs of the dialectical pitchfork. A summary of the basic elements in the two versions under consideration demonstrates a similarity so close it can only be the result of the Greek text’s derivation from the Sanskrit.

Barlaam and Ioasaph the Mahabharata
1. a unicorn bees, lions, “elephants,” net, terrible woman
2. a pit a pit
3. black and white mice black and white rats
4. tree creepers and herbs
5. a dragon and asps snake
6. honey honey

The multiplication of monsters in the Mahabharata reminds one of the polytheistic plenitude of Hindu mythology itself. Their occupation of an entire forest within which they are the norm is an intimation of the realms upon realms of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. The multiple heads of the snake [3] and elephant point in the same direction. The frightful devouring woman invokes the power of the sexual dichotomy as a source for meditation on duality and thus mortality. The presence of the bees similarly indicates the analytical habit of the Indian version. The honey itself, “sweet to all creatures,” is attractive, but it has also its complement: the negative, menacing bees. In addition, the bees provide an image for the unfocused consciousness as they swarm in slavish confusion about their honey. Buzzing about the man they underline his dilemma in a more symmetrically meticulous way than the Greek version’s asps appearing from the wall of the pit. By contrast the lone unicorn of the Christian telling strikes the reader as a creature who, far from being one among many details of a sinister forest, stands out from his environment. His single horn suggests the exclusive singularity, the historically unique character of the Christ with whom the unicorn came to be linked. [4]

In general the honey represents pleasure rather than pain, the contrary of the threats, and the man’s response to the honey provides the point of the image. [5] In spite of the fact that the man drinks the honey in both versions, the manner and meaning of his consumption is markedly different. In Barlaam and Ioasaph the honey is effectively described as a lens through which one revalues the creation: “The dropping of honey denoteth the sweetness of the delights of the world, whereby it deceiveth its own friends, nor suffereth them to take timely thought for their salvation.” While highly impressive rhetorically — a breathtaking conclusion! — this is philosophically cloudy. It is a negative model, after all, of what one should not do; Barlaam is characterizing those who care only for bodily pleasures. Yet the man lost in the drop of honey strikes the reader as altogether unworldly and, in fact, possessing no mean contemplative powers. He is everyman, not merely the soul lost to sensuality. There is no escape in the predicament of the terms of his existence. Thus the very admirable potency of the image undermines itself. Though the author’s intention is wholly orthodox, the unicorn and the honey are radically ambiguous. The concluding moralization assigning meanings to each detail only weakens the figure.

In contrast the Mahabharata text describing the honey-drinking suggests wild energy rather than single-minded concentration. “The honey (collected in the comb) fell in many jets below. The person who was hanging in the pit continually drank those jets. Employed, in such a distressful situation, in drinking the honey, his thirst, however, could not be appeased. Unsatiated with repeated draughts, the person desired for more.” The “jets,” while difficult to conceive, convey well the virulence of the pleasure principle here, and the drinker, who persists despite his lack of satisfaction, is a type of neurotic intensity.

In Barlaam and Ioasaph the subject only contemplates the honey’s drip, focusing his mind’s eye and shutting out the turmoil of the world, while the moralizing implies the very opposite. In the Mahabharata the man is a slave to appetite, devouring the world while finding no satisfaction. Though presented in a more cluttered and fantastic setting, the Indian version is more accessible and immediately applicable to the reader. Even those who would not identify with the man’s addictive frenzy can see themselves in his “hope of prolonging his life.” The Indian version concludes entirely within the folds of maya (literally “not-that”) with time continuing to unfold as the man “continued to dwell” in the wilderness of the ephemeral illusion. More ornate, frantic, and disorderly in its elements, it concludes with a radical philosophic position: existence itself is the foe; hedonism only the grossest symptom.

The Greek version is a mosaic to the mandala of the Indian. In Barlaam the situation is poised, well-defined, static, with the emblematic elements gesturing significantly toward each other as the eye follows the rhetorical path from pursuit to description to conclusion and the absurdity of the image questions itself. Frozen in the final moment, the apologue offers a cautionary emblem. Yet could a person attached to this world forget, for even a moment, the threats of pain, suffering, and death while suspended in the void? (The point in application, of course, is that in mundane life we do forget these things. The Sri Lankan Buddhist monks avoid the peril by meditating in graveyards.) If one could, might that not be an admirable act of meditation? Apart from the ambiguity of the sweet and swelling honey, the fearful bellow of the single-horned beast, a beast that later in the Middle Ages was often identified with Christ, remains troubling.

In spite of the story’s South Asian origins, Biblical influence is pervasive in Barlaam and Ioasaph. The terms were not naturalized merely by, for instance, exchanging the elephant for a lion or some other beast familiar to the Christians of the Mediterranean and Near East; rather, the unicorn was chosen, a beast peculiarly associated with the Septuagint. Before considering the particular associations the unicorn (monokeros) brought with it, it is useful to review the general patterns of reference in Barlaam as a whole and in the unicorn apologue.

A search of the figure’s Biblical associations, however, does not resolve the thematics, but proves only to thicken the plot. The writer alludes to scriptural passages 810 times in the course of the narration, but these references are weighted toward the Greek testament. [6] Only an approximate third of the citations are to the Hebrew and, of those, not far short of half are to passages in the unique rhetoric of the Psalms. Yet the pattern is quite different when one searches the basic terms of the story. The unicorn (monokeros), mouse (mus), plant or tree (photon), dragon or serpent (drakon), asp (aspis), and honey (meli) are decidedly associated with the Greek Septuagint translation of Hebrew originals. The significant terms of the Barlaam story pervade the Jewish text while hardly appearing in the Christian testament. There are 152 references to these terms in the “Old Testament” and a scant 3 in the “New.” [7] Surely the author’s own intention was at variance with the mythological bent of his materials.

The ideological orientation of the writer is toward a Christian view with Jesus at the center yet the final passage assigning allegorical values to the terms of the story never mentions divinity at all. The apologue seeks to seize the reader’s attention (rather like the man in the Lotus Sutra [8] who calls to his children to save them from the burning house. Rather than individual salvation (or enlightenment), these stories aim to redirect attention from the trivial to the sublime. In Christian tradition a similar impulse is suggested by the image of Christ as a rooster whose crowing awakens humanity.
The specific associations of the terms of the apologue seem ambiguous, ambivalent, unwilling to assume a static value. The unicorn we see in the apologue was at the time of the story’s composition on the cusp of a transformation between two significations (neither of which has much in common with his epigones in modern fantasy art where one might see rainbows and wings and which often appears in a palette featuring pink and pale blue). The fierce beast of Barlaam closely resembles his ancestor, the unicorn or monokeros of the Septuagint translators. They used the word for the Hebrew re’em whose primary characteristic is his ferocity. This word has its own later life in Jewish lore, but it is generally thought to refer directly to the aurochs, the giant wild bovine from which domesticated cattle are descended. The Hebrew passages mentioning this beast, sixty-one in all, emphasize his strength and uncontrollable wildness, as in Job [9] where he precedes the behemoth and leviathan. In Psalm XXI the unicorn is paired with the lion (as he is in the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom). The “strength of a unicorn” appears to have been proverbial. [10] This attitude may be traced back to the bulls’ heads mounted on the walls of the Neolithic settlement at Çatalhöyük. The same tribute to the beast’s unconquerable strength lingers in the use of unicorns in heraldry as well as to my neighbor in Iowa who kept a bull corralled in what amounted to the front yard of his farmhouse.

The unicorn, though only a makeshift translation for the re’em unknown to the Alexandrian Greeks, came with altogether different associations from Greek pagan authors. The earliest specific reference in Ctesias’ Indica (late 5th century BCE) says that in India live “certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger” whose single horn is efficacious against poisons. To Pliny the unicorn is “very ferocious” with a “deep, bellowing voice,” a composite beast though in general similar to a horse. According to the Physiologus circa 150 C.E. he is small as a kid but escapes all hunters, except those who lure him with a virgin. The unicorn will lay his head in the virgin’s lap and fall asleep, allowing his capture.

The analogy between this image and those of Christ and Mary generated the identification of the mythical beast with the Savior. This association remained popular in art and writing until the 16th century Council of Trent, the same meeting at which all readings of the Bible that deviated from the Church’s teaching were heretical and that Church tradition had authority equal to Scripture. While seizing power firmly against the threat of the Reformation, the Church conceded a few obsolete points, among them admitting that unicorns do not in fact exist and thus should not be used to figure divinity.

Just as many medieval poems mingle the rhetorics of divine and human love, the unicorn as Jesus appeared in some texts as a sensual lover. In the Provençal and Syriac versions of Physiologus the unicorn is an erotic temptress, inconsistent, indeed, antithetical to the Christological reading. [11] In a more courtly manner the thirteenth century writers Thibaut of Champagne and Richard of Fournival liken the lover to the unicorn in their devotion to the lady (though the latter is sensual in its stress upon odor). In both texts love is characterized as a ruse leading to betrayal: for Thibaut “Treason” slays the unicorn while asleep on the lady’s breast; for Richard, too, the hunters kill the unicorn whose head rests on her lap.

At the time of Barlaam’s composition, the unicorn was poised between fearsome, religious, and romantic associations, some past and some latent. In this text the terrible unicorn nonetheless precipitates the subject’s (and thus the reader’s) illumination.
Honey as well can hardly escape ambiguity. Though the apologue decodes the honey as an unqualified evil causing deception and diversion, honey carries positive connotations in all its sixty-one Biblical occurrences, one third of which are in the phrase “land of milk and honey.” “Honey in the rock” is the very sign of divinity, and honey is used metaphorically again and again to convey positive values: love, prosperity, generosity, and wisdom. Only in the enigmatic formulation of Samson’s riddle is any hint of a complementary negative association latent. “Out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness.”

Out of such tensions emerge the unique multivalent terms of the aesthetic text. The story is and is not Christian; the unicorn is and is not hostile; the honey is and is not real; the subject is and is not focused on ultimate reality; the cosmos is and is not beneficent. On and on the paradoxes multiply. Yet in the end the figure with a face like one’s own remains hanging in the air.
The contradiction and symbolic ambiguity is a factor in the semiotic richness of the Greek apologue and of Barlaam and Ioasaph in general. The meaning develops over the centuries in a kind of conceptual fermentation. Medieval Christians had not the slightest notion of Hinduism and Buddhism; indeed Europeans had little access the Asian texts before the mid-nineteenth century. Yet the story spawned new ideas, new images, new symbols in a creative creolization that parallels the shuffling of genetic material in every new birth. Just as each author, taken with the gripping power of the image of the man over a precipice, could do no otherwise than to twist and refract and distort by individual illumination and darkness until producing a new-told-tale, echoing forward and backward through millennia of common human experience. This paper, too, must take a place in the transmission, and for the same reasons that had driven my predecessors – the wish to gain through words some purchase on experience. My assumptions, my style, my conclusions, may present no improvement over theirs; what strength this essay may have derives from the commonality of the gesture equally toward the alarming circumstances of life, Marvell’s “iron gates,” and toward the unknown.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
T. S. Eliot “Preludes” (1917), IV

1. Page 186 of Barlaam and loasaph with a translation by Woodward and Mattingly (Loeb Library, London: Heinemann and New York: Macmillan, 1914). For the Mahabharata I use The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa translated by Pratap Chandra Roy C.I.E. (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1974). The passage in question is found in volume VII in Book XI of the epic, called Stree Parva.

2. It appears in Buddhist sutras, in folklore, and in many other contexts. Only a few years ago in Cannibals and Christians Norman Mailer said of William Burroughs that the revelations of the novels were possible only after be had “hung his nervous system in the void.”

3. The “tessaras kephalas aspidon” reads rather like a reminiscence of the many-headed snakes of the Indian version though in the Greek they are apparently four in number, each with a single head.

4. The horn also suggests the gesture of a single finger pointing upward invented for contemporary Christians and marketed in jewelry and tee shirts, etc.

5. In a Japanese telling of this apologue (parallel even to the black and white mice) the honey is transformed to a berry and the man’s eating it triggers his illumination. This telling is easily available in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones compiled by Paul Reps (New York: Doubleday and Co., l96l), page 22.

6. For the Biblical references in the text as a whole, I rely on the marginal notations in the Loeb edition.

7. See the appended table for details.

8. Chapter 3.

9. Job xxxix. 9-12

10. Numbers xxiii. 22, xxiv. 8

11. Translated into Latin, by J.P.N. Land in his Anecdota Syriaca, Lugd. Batav., 1870, vol. IV. P. 146.


Statistical Appendix

I have not succeeded in transferring my table, but the information is included below in somewhat less convenient form. The first figure following the name of each book indicates the numbers of uses of the key words of the apologue found there; the second indicates the number of specific references to that book.

Genesis 2 21
Exodus 7 12
Leviticus 3 1
Numbers 5 5
Deuteronomy 9 5
Joshua 2 0
Judges 4 0
Ruth 0 0
I Samuel 0 1
II Samuel 0 0
I Kings 11 0
II Kings 6 3
I Chronicles 0 0
II Chronicles 1 0
Ezra 0 0
Nehemiah 0 0
Esther 2 5
Job 10 0
Psalms 19 124
Proverbs 7 13
Ecclesiastes 1 5
Song of Solomon 2 6
Isaiah 10 44
Jeremiah 6 2
Lamentations 1 0
Ezekiel 19 8
Daniel 2 13
Hosea 0 0
Joel 0 0
Amos 2 0
Obadiah 0 0
Jonah 0 0
Micah 1 1
Nahum 0 0
Habbakuk 0 2
Zepheria 0 1
Haggai 0 0
Zachariah 1 3
Malachi 0 1

I Esdras 0 0
II Esdras 0 1
Tobit0 0 0
Judith 0 0
Addition to Esther 0 0
Wisdom of Solomon 4 10
Sirach 10 4
Baruch 1 3
Letter of Jeremiah 0 0
Prayer of Az 0 0

Here the first figure represents again the occurrence of the significant terms and the second direct references.

Greek translation of Hebrew Testament” 152 296
Greek Testament 3 514

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