men’s enlightened self-realization in the early Arabic life of Buddha

Josaphat Buddha overcame temptation through a night journey

How do men best realize their distinctive human nature? Within the contemporary, real-life rubble of social constructions of gender and the pervasive buzz about “what women want,” that question flies like a brick thrown at a man’s head.  It hurts.  Kitab Bilawhar wa Budasf, an eighth-century Arabic life of Buddha, addressed men with empathy, compassion, and diverse, profound thought.[1]  It rewrote the creation of man in Genesis, explicitly acknowledged the goodness of men’s sexual desires, and re-imagined the night journey of the prophet of Islam in Islamic tradition. Kitab Bilawhar wa Budasf considered men’s enlightened self-realization in a way nearly inconceivable today.

The understanding of man’s nature comes from a specific account of nurture.  Budasf sought the ascetic life of Buddha.  Budasf’s father, King Janaysar, strove to turn Budasf toward worldly pleasures.[2]  An adviser instructed King Janaysar with the story of a boy and demons.  In that story, a king had a baby boy.  The king’s astrologer-physicians declared that if the boy saw the sun or the things of the world before reaching age ten, he would die.[3]  The king thus had the infant boy raised in a subterranean cave.  The boy grew to age ten without having seen the sun or the things of the world.

The king then arranged to give the boy knowledge of the world.  Things of the world were set out in various places for the boy to see on a tour of the world.  Whenever the boy passed by any new thing, he asked what it was.  He was told its name.  The boy thus learned the names of animals and plants and goods and merchandise.  When the boy went by finely dressed girls, he asked what they were.  The boy was told: “These are demons who seduce and agitate men.”[4]  The boy nonetheless was filled with love and admiration for the demons.  At the end of his tour of the world, the boy was presented to his father.  His father asked him what he had seen that was most beautiful and most admirable.  The boy declared:

I have never seen, O King, among all that I have encountered today, anything more captivating, more admirable, more beautiful to my eyes, than those demons!

Despite his asocial upbringing and disparaging teaching about girls, the boy loved girls.

Kitab Bilawhar wa Budasf’s story of the boy and the demons plays counterpoint to the second creation account in Genesis.  In Genesis, God formed man from moist earth.  In Kitab Bilawhar wa Budasf, the boy enters the world after being shaped from infancy in a subterranean cave.  Genesis gives man the power to name.  In the story of the boy, names precede the boy and instruct him.  In Genesis as well as in the story of the boy, creation generates natural, heterosexual love.[5]  The power to name is powerless against that love.  But that love is not the end of the story.

After being instructed with the story of the boy and the demons, King Janaysar surrounded his son with four thousand girls.  They were the most physically beautiful girls the King could find throughout his kingdom.  The King ordered the girls to wear the most splendid finery they could find, the most tempting and the most strongly exciting for men’s sexual desire.  The King ordered the four thousand beautiful girls to serve Budasf and recall him to the pleasures of the world.

The girls enacted a heterosexual male fantasy much more elaborate than those in our pornographic age.  The girls joyfully did everything that men like:

They came to him acting like men on holidays, or armed as for a day of battle, or with the clothes men wear for hunting, together with all the outfits that make women adorned and congenial.  They undressed, except for their underwear, singing and calling in chorus, then they got naked, teasing him, flirting with him, engaging repeatedly in coquetry, shy gestures, sweet words, and without ceasing to sing and play music, talking to him of love, and speaking again and again of their affection for him.  And all this was for him a severe trial.

A most severe trial it surely was.  The girls acted like guy buddies, doing guy things.  The girls also got naked and sang and importuned him for his love.  How could any man resist four thousand beautiful girls surrounding him and doing this?

These girls were no bimbos.  They reasoned with Budasf to convince him to enjoy the pleasures of the world:

Frequently, if they halted importuning him for love, they made a circle about him, and explained to him the correctness of the king’s doctrine {of enjoying the pleasures of the world} and the righteousness that was associated with it, and the weakness of his own doctrine {of Buddhist ascetic living} and the falsity of his conduct, and they did this more eloquently than men would have done.

One girl among them was a daughter of a king.  She was the most beautifully attractive and the most remarkable in intelligence, science, and judgment.  She charmed Budasf:

Budasf was seduced by her, dazzled by the beauty of her forms, the excellence of her intelligence, and sureness of her words.

She proposed to him:

let me enjoy you in bed for one year, and — I make this promise before God — I will adopt your religion, and I will live chastely with you up to the time of my death.

Budasf attempted to reason with her against this proposition.  She defeated him in reasoning.[6]  He then adopted a non-thinking defense: “He tried to guard against her by looking away from her beauty.”  But she pressed forward her proposition:

Do not forbid me, O son of the King, to enter your presence, to follow your rule, and to endure suffering next to you, in payment to me for enjoying pleasure with you for a year; or, if you don’t want that, for a month; or else, for only one night!  You cannot refuse this to a soul who you would save and make ready to adopt the religion of God.

What God-loving man, with charity for a fellow soul, could reject that proposition?

He made her swear that she would adopt the religion of God, and that she would steadfastly follow God’s commandments.  Then, having promised this to him,  she came to him for the night of her purification.  He spent the night with her, and she conceived a son.

This service to woman and God did not free Budasf from the four thousand beautiful girls besieging him.  Their presence overwhelmed him:

Budasf sought help in prayer, but the girls distracted him from it with their playing of music.  In his eyes, in his ears, in his heart, he was dazzled and delighted by what he saw of their bodies, by what he heard of their voices, and by the pleasure to him of being near to them and seeing them. [7]

Budasf was trapped in his body’s sense of women.

A night journey gave Budasf a much different vision.  One night he prostrated himself in prayer. His soul was enraptured and left his body.  Bilawhar and another ascetic master led his soul into paradise.  The basest things in paradise were assembled before him to compare with girls in their most beautiful aspect.  The basest things in paradise compared to beautiful girls looked to him like dogs and pigs would look to those girls.  Girls were presented to him in the crude physicality of human life from conception to natural death: feces, menstrual blood, white hair, old age, sickness, and infirmity.[8]  His guides announced to him good news, comforted him, and showed him his place in paradise.  Then they returned his soul to his body.

When Budasf awoke, he saw the world differently.  The girls were around him, mourning his apparent death.  They appeared ugly to him.  He was filled with repulsion for them.  His night journey made his commitment to Buddhist ascetic life invulnerable to the worldly attractiveness of girls.  The night journey in Islamic tradition (isra and miraj) provides a vision of paradise and hell.  It helps to guide Muslims in Islam.[9]  Budasf’s night journey functioned similarly for him, but in the ascetic way of Buddha.

The story of the boy and the demons described male human nature.  Budasf’s night journey remade his male human nature to direct him to the paradise of Buddha.  The truth of male human nature isn’t inconsistent with the possibility of male self-transcendence.  With guides, prayer, and willful practice, men can transcend themselves and the world.  According to the teaching of Kitab Bilawhar wa Budasf, enlightened self-realization is a matter of particular circumstances and will.

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[1] I judge the eighth century to be the most plausible time for writing Kitab Bilawhar wa-Budasf, and I presume that this or similar Arabic texts generated the Christian Barlaam and Josaphat corpus.  These are matters of some scholarly controversy.  Recently a knowledgeable scholar declared:

The archetypical recension of the Christian legend of Barlaam and Ioasaph, a remote ancestor of the Greek romance composed by Euthymius the Iberian, goes back to the Palestinian monasticism of the first half of the 7th century.

Lourié (2011) p. 178.  The early Georgian-Christian version is most probably a close adaption of an Arabic source.  Lang (1966).  The influential, late-tenth-century Greek version composed by Euthymius was surely made from a Georgian source.  See Volk (2009); Volk (2006) provides a new critical edition of the Greek text (both reviewed here).  Kitab Bilawhar wa-Budasf draws upon a wide range of material.  Lourié (2011) highlights the importance of sources and history in northern Africa.  Kitab Bilawhar wa-Budasf may also have drawn upon a prior Christian hagiography of Barlaam and Josaphat.

[2]  Lack of procreation was also a concern about the ascetic life.  The King’s adviser suggests that ascetics:

stop procreation, which is the grace by which the land is peopled, and with which the goodness of God finds its realization.

Kitab Bilawhar wa-Budasf, from Arabic trans. into French, Gimaret (1971) p. 139, my translation into English.  The story of the chivalric warrior, which immediately precedes the story of the boy and the demons, also emphasizes the social importance of sex.  In the Georgian-Christian version, the King’s adviser formulates a plan to convince Budasf/Iosaphat that:

it is good to build up his city and countries and enjoy the delights thereof, and that quitting the world, voluntarily embracing death, and dooming a man to childless extinction, is a complete fallacy.

Trans. Lang (1966) p. 123.  Budasf/Iosaphat declares to the King:

You allege that your land will be depopulated through the multiplying of monks.

Id. p. 126.  The King expresses concern that if too many men become monks, the land will be laid waste.  Id. pp. 123, 125.

[3] In the ninth-century Georgian-Christian adaptation, the boy cannot enter the world until age 12.  Twelve is an important number in Jewish and Christian scripture.  The most plausible analogical context is Jesus teaching in the temple at age 12.  Luke 2:41-47.

[4] Kitab Bilawhar wa-Budasf, from Arabic trans. into French, Gimaret (1971) p. 199, my translation into English.  All subsequent quotations, unless otherwise notes, are similarly from id., pp. 199-202.  My paraphrasing of the story follows the text very closely.

[5] Genesis 2:4-25. Genesis 1:26-30 gives humans dominion over all the animals and plants of the earth. Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa n. 22 (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, Epistle 22, “The Case of Animals versus Man Before the King of the Jinn”), an Ismaili-Arabic text thought to be from about the tenth century, is organized as a reasoned debate of that dominion.  For an English translation, see Goodman & McGregor (2009).  Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa cites and quotes from Kitab Bilawhar wa-Budasf. Gimaret (1971) pp. 36-8.

[6] In the Georgian-Christian adaptation, the girl supports her proposition by quoting Christian scripture: “Marriage is honorable to all” (Hebrews 13:4).  The copyist at this point added a note: “Christ, deliver us from the snares of the devil.”  Trans. Lang (1966) p. 146.  Budasf/Iodasaph responds:

That is so, but I should not win the grace of self-denial with those who have endured and quenched the furnace of the flesh.

Cf. 1 Corithinians 7:8-9.

[7] Buddhist stories of the daughters of Mara tempting Buddha probably were a source for the story of Budasf’s temptation.  See Guruge (1988).

[8] The text adds:

and that wasn’t even showing him all the adulteries and debaucheries, in the past or to come, all the pregnancies and all the deliveries of children.

The Georgian-Christian adaptation is less earthy and more abstractly moralistic.  In that version, Budasf is shown punishments in hell:

Afterwards they took him into hell and he saw the terrible torments suffered by each sinner there, which nobody can enumerate except God who devised them. Again he heard a voice saying: ‘This is the retribution of godless mortals and sinners, who had abandoned Christ our God and fallen in love with this world. Here they shall be tormented for ever and for all eternity.

Trans. Lang (1966) p. 147.  In the Georgian-Christian adaptation and the subsequent Barlaam and Josaphat corpus, Budasf/Josaphat doesn’t have sex with the king’s daughter.

[9] Colby (2008) reviews the relevant texts in the Islamic tradition.  Written accounts of isra and miraj from the eighth century are relatively rare.

[image] Illustration of Muhammad’s night journey to heaven (miraj). From a version of the Khamsa of Nizami.  This version was produced from 1539-43 in Tabriz and ascribed to Sultan Muhammad.  Thanks to Wikipedia volunteers.


Colby, Frederick Stephen. 2008. Narrating Muḥammad’s night journey: tracing the development of the Ibn Abbās ascension discourse. Albany: SUNY Press.

Goodman, Lenn Evan and Richard J. A. McGregor, ed. and trans. 2009. Ikhwan al-Safa.  Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. an Arabic critical edition and English translation of Epistle 22. Oxford: Oxford University Press in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies.

Gimaret, Daniel, ed. and trans. 1971. Le Livre de Bilawhar et Būd̲āsf: selon la version arabe ismaélienne. Genève: Paris, Droz.

Guruge, Ananda W.P. 1988. “The Buddha’s Encounters with Mara the Tempter: Their Representation in Literature and Art.” Sri Lanka Journal of Buddhist Studies, vol. II. Made available by the Buddhist Publication Society, Access to Insight.

Lang, David Marshall, ed. and trans. 1966. The Balavariani (Barlaam and Josaphat). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lourié, Basil. 2011. “India ‘Far Beyond Egypt’: Barlaam and Ioasaph and Nubia in the 6th Century.”  Pp. 135-180 in Gero, Stephen, Dmitrij Bumazhnov, Emmanouela Grypeou, Timothy B. Sailors, and Alexander Toepel. 2011. Bibel, Byzanz und Christlicher Orient: Festschrift für Stephen Gerö zum 65. Geburtstag. Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters en Departement Oosterse Studies.

Volk, Robert. 2006. Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos VI/2: Historia animae utilis de Barlaam et Ioasaph (spuria). Text und zehn Appendices. Patristische Texte und Studien Bd. 60. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Volk, Robert. 2009. Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos VI/1: Historia animae utilis de Barlaam et Ioasaph (spuria). Patristische Texte und Studien Bd. 61. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

One thought on “men’s enlightened self-realization in the early Arabic life of Buddha”

  1. It’s a good article, it’s helped me so much in my reading and analysis of ketab Bilawhar et Būd̲āsf
    Thanks very much,me Hala Aboulfoutoh

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