This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Monks and the Mishnah*

While traversing the corridors of the University of Calgary this year, several people have been taken aback by the incongruous sight of Chinese Buddhist monks, garbed in their traditional robes, absorbed in intensive study of the Talmud and works of Jewish religious law.

I confess that I had something to do this anomalous phenomenon. The monks were students in my graduate seminar on Jewish Legal Literature, preparing their assignments with characteristic diligence.

When the two exotic students made their first appearance in my classroom I was very apprehensive about the prospects of finding common ground between what I presumed were totally dissimilar religious traditions. My fears were quickly assuaged when I noted their fascination with certain themes of Jewish ethical and spiritual life, and especially the ease with which they were able to handle the intricacies of rabbinic logic. As I was to learn, the art of logical dialectic, though directed more to philosophical than to legal questions, was a central component of their religious training.

Although Jewish interest in Buddhism has usually been marginal—typically involving individuals whose inadequate Jewish educations have prompted them to seek spirituality from more exotic sources—mainstream Buddhists have taken an unexpected interest in Judaism. This has been particularly true of the Tibetans, massacred and exiled by their Chinese overloads, who have found an instructive example in the Jewish ability to maintain their national and religious identity under adversity and outside their homeland. So intense is this interest that some years ago I saw a picture of the Dalai Lama being instructed in how to wrap a set of tefillin.

Many Jews would be surprised to learn that a legend about the Buddha enjoyed immense popularity in Jewish literature in several languages.

The story in question goes under the name "the Prince and the Monk." The Jewish prototype of the story was composed by the thirteenth-century poet Rabbi Abraham Ibn Hisdai of Barcelona. The work is an example of the "makama" genre that enjoyed immense popularity in medieval Arabic and Hebrew literatures. In a typical makama, a loosely structured plot formulated in rhymed prose provided the author with an opportunity to link together heterogeneous units, many of which were composed as formal poetry.

The basic plot of "the Prince and the Monk" involves a pagan king who had been cautioned that his son would one day forsake his royal station in favour of a new religion. In order to prevent this from happening, the king placed the prince in total isolation from the world, and banished all religious teachers from his realms. In spite of all these precautions, the prince was prompted to ask a number of profound existential questions, and eventually was approached by a spiritual mentor who succeeded in secretly instructing him in his new faith, persuading him to exchange his life of opulence for that of a spiritual ascetic.

The motif of individuals turning their backs on material comforts to pursue a course of spiritual fulfillment is a common one in fact and legend; the Jewish Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos and the Christian St. Francis of Assisi are two familiar instances that spring to mind. It is clear that Ibn Hisdai's immediate source was an Arabic text, though the Hebrew version was an independent and thoroughly Jewish work in its own right. The Arabs had apparently picked up the story from the Manichees of Central Asia, who had in turn learned it from Buddhist missionaries.

For the story of the Prince and the Monk is in reality none other than the traditional tale of the enlightenment of the Buddha, the Siddhartha Gautama.

The convoluted wanderings of this story add up to one of the most extraordinary achievements of world literatures. From its origins in India, it entered just about every known Asiatic and European culture. It achieved wide circulation in medieval Europe in its Christian guise as the "Tale of Barlaam and Josaphat." The prince's Latin name, "Josaphat," is actually a variant of the Arabic "Yudasaf," which appeared in Manichee as "Bodisaf," recalling the original Sanskrit title Bodhisattava, "the future Buddha [enlightened one]." As "Saint Josaphat" the Buddha came to be acknowledged as a full-fledged Christian saint, complete with shrines and relics! The legend has exerted a powerful influence on figures like Tolstoy who was inspired by it to exchange his aristocratic life for a simple, pacifistic one.

In its Jewish version, The Prince and the Monk enjoyed immense popularity. It was reprinted dozens of times and ranked among the foremost Hebrew moralistic treatises. A Yiddish edition was published in Lublin in 1874, and reprinted several times thereafter.

Indeed, if the story of the Buddha can be accepted as a source of Jewish ethical teaching, why should we be so startled by the spectacle of my Buddhist monks poring over the Talmud?

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, February 6 1997, p. 8.
  • Bibliography:
    • W. C. Smith, Towards a World Theology, Philadelphia, 1981.
    • I. Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature, Cleveland and London, 1972.
    • H. Schirmann, Ha-Shirah Ha-'Ivrit bi--Sfarad uvi-Frovans, Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, 1960.