Guillaume de Rubrouck: the traveling monk who introduced Buddhism to France in the XNUMXth century

- through Henry Oudin

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July 14, 2019 was the scene of special events in Rubrouck, a small village in Nord-Pas-de-Calais adored by its inhabitants and by all those who spend their holidays there: the inauguration of the new museum dedicated to his figure emblematic local: Guillaume de Rubrouck (1215-1295) and the 25th anniversary of the twinning of this small town in Flanders with that of Bulgan in Mongolia, a unique association in France.

But who is this colorful and unclassifiable character? A simple Franciscan monk would say those who did not know him well. Certainly, but in reality, he was much more than that, "a close friend, a trusted man of King Saint Louis (Louis IX)", would specify the insiders. This proximity and the particularly troubled geopolitical context of the time led the sovereign to make him his unofficial ambassador to the Great Khan: the Mongol emperor who succeeded the famous Genghis Khan. The Mongol armies, which have occupied Moscow since 1238 and kyiv, have invaded Poland and threaten Zagreb as well as Vienna. It is also the time of the crusades against the Saracens. The rulers of old Europe need the Mongols to win a victory in Palestine. In 1244 and 1249, embassies tried to negotiate an agreement with them, but failed. It was then that Brother Guillaume intervened. He went to Karakorum, in the north of the Gobi Desert, to the court of Emperor Mongku, the grandson of Genghis Khan, where he lived from 1253 to 1255 and was the privileged witness of the life and habits and customs Mongol hordes. Back in France, he wrote the story of his odyssey, entitled Journey to the Mongol Empire, which is full of anecdotes and valuable information. This report, which remained confidential for centuries, was published for the first time in French in 1634!

The discovery of Tibetan Buddhism

Thus, twenty years before the Italian Marco Polo, it was a Frenchman, a Franciscan monk of the XNUMXth century who, the first in Europe, discovered Tibetan Buddhism while staying at the Mongol court. It is easy to imagine the feelings of this Catholic monk in contact with “these barbarian pagans”! His writings abound with anecdotes, each more fascinating than the last. We discover there, for example, that in the presence of a three-year-old child, who was able "to read and write", and "had already been reincarnated three times", he was the first Westerner to be confronted with the phenomenon of reincarnation. “A mistake,” he concludes. A little further on, he recounts with an almost admiring impulse that among the "priests of these idolatrous peoples who all have large yellow cuculles there are hermits in the forests and mountains, of an admirable life and austerity ". Finally, he recounts an event which particularly deserves our attention: during a meeting organized on the eve of Pentecost by the Khan Mongku between Muslims, Buddhists, Nestorians and Catholics, the Mongol emperor asked the participants to commit themselves to not to use "words disagreeable or insulting to their opponents nor to cause an uproar which could prevent this conference, under pain of death". During this debate, Brother Rubrouck confronted with a Buddhist representative very appreciated in the country very quickly won the dialectic... without this success of eloquence leading to the slightest conversion.

“We Mongols believe that there is only one God by whom we live and by whom we die, and we have an upright heart for him. As God gave the hand many fingers, so He gave men many ways. » Khan Mongku

The day after the controversy, Guillaume was received by Mongku at the same time as his Buddhist adversary. The Khan's words show great tolerance vis-à-vis religions: “We Mongols believe that there is only one God by whom we live and by whom we die, and we have an upright heart for him. As God gave the hand many fingers, so He gave men many ways. With these words, Mongku told the two monks that it was now time for them to return to their lands.

Do not be afraid to meet the other

As the saying goes: “no one is a prophet in his country”. And this is the sad reality that Guillaume de Rubrouck had to face on his return to France. His report duly presented to the King of France, Guillaume would have liked to leave for Karakorum, where he was invited by the Khan. But, victim of his success - his notoriety had aroused much jealousy - he was confined to a cell by his superiors and died almost in prison, forgotten by all.

We still have his essay, very little known in France, while it has long been a reference in Anglo-Saxon countries. This account testifies, among other things, that “living together” was practiced very naturally at the Mongol court of the XNUMXth century. Putting this reality into perspective is one of the priorities of the museum Guillaume de Rubrouck because, as Chantal Gobillot, the president of the association that manages it, reminds us, the example of Brother Guillaume is the testimony “that we must not be afraid of meeting others”. A legacy to prosper today.

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Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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