The Unfortunate Idol Fo: The Story of a Forgotten Buddha

In his account of his travels in service to the Emperor of China Kublai Khan, Marco Polo provides a version of the life of the Buddha, a version that is remarkably sympathetic, noting the Buddha's saintly character. Yet, Marco Polo also describes the Buddha as "the first in whose name idols were made." This view of the Buddha from the thirteenth century would long prevail in Europe. Indeed until the nineteenth century, Europeans regarded the Buddha as an idol and Buddhists were regarded as idolators. There were many questions surrounding the Buddha: about his name, about his place of origin, about whether he was a human or a demon. Focusing especially on the works of Roman Catholic missionaries to China, Japan, and Thailand, this lecture will trace the process by which stone turned to flesh and an Oriental idol was transformed into the founder of a world religion.

Discussant: James Robson, Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations

Donald S. Lopez, Jr., is Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. He was educated at the University of Virginia, receiving a doctorate in religious studies in 1982. After teaching at Middlebury College, he joined the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1989. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, which have been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Czech, Polish, Korean, and Chinese. They include Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sutra (1996), Buddhism in Practice (1995), Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism (1995), Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (1998), The Story of Buddhism (2001), A Modern Buddhist Bible (2002), Buddhist Scriptures (2004), Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism (2005), The Madman's Middle Way (2005), Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed (2008), and In the Forest of Faded Wisdom: 104 Poems of Gendun Chopel (2009). His most recent book is The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography (2011).