The Light of Asia: Western encounters with Buddhism – Asian and African studies blog

Although there was widespread knowledge in medieval Europe of the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, about an extraordinary prince in India who renounced the world, direct encounters of Europeans with Buddhism only took place from the thirteenth century onwards. Accounts of merchants, explorers and missionaries like those of the Franciscan friar Willem van Ruysbroeck (c. 1215-c. 1295) and Marco Polo (1254-1324) told of their contacts with Buddhist communities, perhaps with some exaggerations and misinterpretations, and early Western maps indicated important places of worship and Buddhist pilgrimage sites, which were often economic and trade centres at the same time. The travels of friars who were sent to central Asia, China and Sri Lanka aroused much interest in Europe, despite the fact that their knowledge was based mainly on observations and sometimes hearsay, and therefore very limited with regard to the Buddhist scriptures.
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