Digitised texts

This is a selection from the wide range of online texts representing Irish knowledge of Buddhism.

  • Clement of Alexandria, Stromata (3rd century). Discusses the varieties of “Indian philosopher”, distinguishing sramanas (Buddhist and Jain monks) from Brahmins. The Alexandrian school was well-known in Irish patristic scholarship, which developed from the 6th and 7th centuries CE.
  • Aesop’s fables and Buddhist Jataka stories (e.g. comparison of the Buddhist “Fox and Crow” story with the Aesop’s version). These two collections (and the Hindu Panchatantra) have long been recognised to be substantially the same body of folktales, however the transmission or shared origin is understood. Aesop was known in western Europe by the 10th century CE at the latest, with versions in Latin followed by those in English and Anglo-Norman; Caxton’s 1484 printed edition would have been known in Ireland even if others were not.
  • Marco Polo’s Travels (late 13th century) include a chapter reproducing a relatively standard life of the Buddha. Very popular in Europe, the 1460 Irish translation Leabhar Ser Marco Polo was probably made in Lismore, Co. Waterford for Finghin MacCarthy and his wife Catharine Fitzgerald.
  • “Sir John Mandeville”, The travels of Sir John Mandeville (c. 1500). This is a collection both of made-up travellers’ tales and of plagiarised accounts, including that of Odoric of Pordenone (who travelled with James of Ireland to Sri Lanka, China and perhaps Tibet between 1317 – 1330), and the “Alexander and Dindymus” section of the Alexander legend, ultimately based on the Greek encounter with Indian ascetics in Taxila (present-day Pakistan).
  • Bernard Picart and Jean-Frédéric Bernard, Cérémonies et coutumes réligieuses de tous les peoples du monde (1739) was a ground-breaking work in its day. Produced by two Huguenot refugees in Amsterdam, it aimed to give as fair a representation as possible of the world’s variety of religious belief and practice and to encourage religious toleration. The Maynooth library (founded 1795) holds a copy, presumably donated and indicating the range of information available in mid-eighteenth century Ireland.
  • Jean-Baptiste du Halde, The general history of China: Containing a geographical, historical, chronological, political and physical description of the empire of China, Chinese-Tartary, Corea, and Thibet. Including an exact and particular account of their customs, manners, ceremonies, religion, arts and science. (1741; French original 1736). Vol. 1 Vol. 2 Vol. 3 Vol. 4. Synthesising the accounts of Jesuit missionaries and cartographers in China, a copy of du Halde found its way to the Maynooth library, including his account of the doctrine of sunyata (emptiness) and the importance of meditation.
  • Thomas Allom, China illustrated (1834). Maynooth holds a copy of this popular visualisation of China; a gallery of images and associated descriptions from the book can be seen here.
  • James Emerson Tennent, Ceylon. An Account of the Island, Physical, Historical, and Topographical with Notices of its Natural History, Antiquities and Productions (1859). Tennent was the Irish-born secretary (senior civil servant) of Ceylon from 1845-50 and the illustrator was fellow-Irishman Andrew Nicholl. Part V of book 1 collects the earlier texts about Ceylon “as known to the Greeks and Romans”, “Indian, Arabian, and Persian authorities”, “as known to the Chinese” and “as known to the Moors, Genoese and Venetians”.
  • Sir Edwin Arnold, The light of Asia (1879). This long poem on the life of the Buddha, by the editor of the Daily Telegraph, sold around a million copies in its day (comparable to Huckleberry Finn) and was turned into an opera, a Broadway play, two cantatas and a movie. While officially Ireland knew nothing of it (it does not seem to have been reviewed by Irish newspapers), unofficially the name was given to greyhounds and the book was sold on O’Connell St.
  • Col. Henry Olcott, Old Diary Leaves (1889). Includes discussion by this Theosophist-Buddhist (the first white man to publicly become a Buddhist) of his missionary activities in Ireland: conflict at his appearances in Dublin and Belfast, nearly getting lost trying to kiss the Blarney stone, and giving a talk at the behest of Limerick butter judge Robert Gibson – a leading figure in the Cooperative movement and a Buddhist eccentric whose wife became a suffragette.
  • Thomas Watters, On Yuan-Chwang’s travels in India (1904). This Co. Down Orientalist wrote the definitive work tracing this early medieval Chinese pilgrim’s travels around the Buddhist world. The travels later formed the basis for the folktales known through the Magic Monkey TV series. At the turn of the C20th this text was crucial to the archaeological treasure hunt trying to identify the historical sites of the Buddha (following Schliemann’s excavations at Troy).
  • Elizabeth Bisland, The life and letters of Lafcadio Hearn (1906) Vol 1 Vol 2. One of the first treatments of the remarkable Irish Buddhist sympathiser, author and journalist (1850-1904) who defended the cultural value of “old Japan” in the midst of the modernising Meiji era.
  • Harry Franck, A vagabond journey around the world (1910). Includes an extended and hilarious account of his 1905 encounters with Irish Buddhist monk U Dhammaloka in India and other western monks at the Tavoy monastery in Rangoon (chs. 17 – 18).
  • Bithia Croker, The road to Mandalay (1917). Popular novel by the Roscommon-born wife of an Indian Army officer, featuring an Irish deserter turned Buddhist monk who later redeems himself by re-enlisting and dying in the trenches.
  • T. Lobsang Rampa, The third eye (1959). Purporting to be the account of a Tibetan lama, the author turned out to be a Devon-born plumber (who then proclaimed that he had been possessed by the spirit of a Tibetan lama anyway). The book was a worldwide bestseller, and the author moved to Howth for some years, dedicating one of his books to the Irish people for their suffering and love of truth (!)

%d bloggers like this: