The First Western Book on Buddhism and Buddha
Wil (Switzerland) / Paris: UniversityMedia, 2017. 308 pages. ISBN 978-3-906000-27-5.
Though already the ancient Greeks received scant information about a religion that we now identify as Buddhism, its real discovery by Westerners began in 16th century Japan. But Western ideas about Buddhism remained quite confused until its sacred texts began to be translated and studied. Ozeray’s book appeared in 1817, just before such study began, and marks an important watershed in the Western discovery of Buddhism. Ozeray realized that founder Buddha was not a mythological figure but a historical person, and he described living Buddhism based not on missionary reports but on accounts by ambassadors, researchers and travelers.
Recherches sur Buddou ou Bouddou by Jean-Michel-François Ozeray was published exactly 200 years prior to our publication, in 1817. It is a work that broke new ground in many ways, most importantly by being the first ever Western book on Buddhism. Presented in the original French with Urs App’s English translation on facing pages, this book is an important milestone in the history of the Western discovery of Buddhism.
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Although the Western encounter with Asia’s largest religion may be the vastest and most consequential spiritual encounter in human history, its protagonists and historical development are still barely known. Thus it comes as no surprise that even specialists have hitherto failed to appreciate the earliest Western book about Buddhism: Michel-Jean-François Ozeray’s Recherches sur Buddou ou Bouddou, instituteur religieux de l’Asie orientale (Paris, 1817). To commemorate Ozeray’s pioneering work on the 200th anniversary of its publication, it is here presented in the original French with Urs App’s English translation on facing pages.
In his 73-page introduction App, the prize-winning author of books on the Western discovery of Asian religions, presents and analyzes Ozeray’s view of Buddhism and its founder. Tracing the author’s main sources, he explains why his book deserves to be recognized as a pioneering contribution to Western knowledge about Buddhism and to global-scale comparative religion. Published just before the onset of academic research on Buddhism in Europe, Ozeray’s work relied not on Christian missionary literature or romantic speculation but rather on figurative representations and reports furnished by ambassadors, travelers, and long-time residents in Asian countries. Due to its focus on living Buddhism as practised in numerous Asian countries, Ozeray’s pioneering study is—in spite of its inevitable flaws—in many respects more congruent with modern field work than the majority of popular books on Buddhism that bend the spiritualism and esotericism shelves in today’s bookstores.