Like Christianity or the Jesus Movement, Buddhism took many forms. In the early Christian centuries, there was a vigorous development in Buddhist thought and visual imagery among Northern Buddhists (Mahayana, or Great Vehicle) in the empire of the Kushans -- the land of five rivers, what we know today as Punjab and Afghanistan. That region became known as a second Holy Land of Buddhism. Chinese Buddhist monks were content to study among its myriad monasteries, without pressing on to the original homeland of Buddhists further east along the Ganges. The Northern Buddhists moved from a religious outlook that had regarded escape from attachment to this world as open only to dedicated holy men, to a view that made the escape a possibility for others. The idea of the bodhisattva -- one who is capable of achieving enlightenment but chooses, out of compassion, to remain active in this world and work for the salvation of all sentient beings -- became more widespread. Buddhism became in this form a popular religion, with a pantheon of gods and goddesses. An amazingly rich culture of sermons in stone burgeoned. At a more esoteric level, a distinctive school known as the Madyamika -- the Middle Way -- is found in this period.
The "Middle" Way has nothing to do with the golden mean of the Greeks, or with finding a middle path of compromise between opposite views. Rather, it recognizes that no system of intellectual inquiry -- such as notions of materialism or idealism, of free will or necessity -- can lead to the ultimate truth. There are two levels of truth. Logic and discursive reasoning are necessary to deal with this world, but the really real must be found beyond their reach. Between and beyond two poles of thought useful in the workaday world is a superior intuition that lets one glimpse that reality. Truth is to be found above the paradoxes. Dogma is rejected.
The reality is one of No-thingness. Nothing exists by itself. And, as we have earlier noted, there is no continuing, personal Self, but only a temporary, constantly changing, aggregation of mental and physical elements.
But if there is no Self, what is there to be reincarnated? The atman or soul was central in Hinduism, and in reincarnation it carried into the new life the karma , the cumulative imprint or "perfume," of actions taken in the previous life. In classic Hindu doctrine human conception requires not only union of sperm and female "blood" but a compatible soul. To bring about conception, the atman, bearing the karma , swoops in, as it were, at the proper moment to join the male and female elements of a couple whose own karma makes them suitable.
Although early Buddhists (as distinct from Hindus) did not accept that there was a continuing soul, or self, or karma, they postulated what one scholar calls a "mental continuum" or "series of psychical states" which pass from one embodiment to another, finding a new incarnation that is compatible with the previous one. Later schools of Buddhist thought, while not acknowledging a Self, found ways of postulating a continuity in other terms.
In Northern Buddhism as a popular religion Wisdom (Prajna ) came to be personified as Prajnaparamita , Perfection of Wisdom, the Mother of all the Buddhas, and gave new emphasis to the idea of the bodhisattva. For the Middle Way, the grasp of Nothingness also requires Compassion, a recognition (along with Wisdom) of the interdependence of all things. Together Wisdom and Compassion prepare one for enlightenment. The first text of the Perfection of Wisdom appeared in China in A.D 172, translated into Chinese by a monk from the realm of the Kushans.
Edward Conze, a leading expositor of Buddhism to the twentieth-century western world, has pointed to a number of similarities between Mahayana Buddhism and the Gnosticism of the early Christian centuries. And others have found resemblances. One is the special emphasis on Wisdom. There may indeed be a central core of meaning shared by the relevant Sanskrit, Semitic, Greek, and Latin terms -- as a reference to "wisdom," "mind," "awareness," "consciousness," different from mere intellect or rationality.
All the words intended to be descriptive of Wisdom are, like "Wisdom" itself, elusive in meaning and variously nuanced. They concern questions which neither science nor philosophy nor theology can precisely phrase, let alone precisely answer. By itself the similarity in nomenclature of central ideas does not necessarily prove geographic connectedness. It is striking, however, that a particular Wisdom theme and mystical systems associated with it arose just beyond both borders of Iran in the same period. In both, "knowledge" as an intuitive revelation (Greek gnosis , Sanskrit jnana) is the key to salvation.
In both Gnosticism and Buddhism, the opposite of gnosis or consciousness is ignorance, the root evil. Drunkenness, blindness, poverty, deficiency, emptiness, were favorite Gnostic metaphors for the un-knowing state of humankind. Western thinkers and clerics almost universally deplore what they regard as the "negativism" of Gnosticism and Buddhism. The Greco-Judaic-Christian model does indeed take a more optimistic view of human possibilities: God is Good; God created this world for human beings to enjoy; and when their brief lives are ended, they will, if worthy, be rewarded in perpetuity. Buddhists speak of this life as being suffused with dukka , which is usually translated as "suffering." The Pali or Sanskrit word would perhaps mean more to the Western mind if it were seen to include such notions as incompleteness, unsatisfactoriness, frustration, anxiety.
To ignore this fundamental element of being is, in the Buddhist and Gnostic view , to be escapist and evasive of truth. For the Buddhist, dukka results from the passions of craving and its opposite, hate and aversion. Hope for escape lies in overcoming the physical and mental and emotional distractions of this life and a return to a state free of differentiations. Gnostics likewise aspired to a Return to a state of unity, beyond the reach of those entangled in this unsatisfactory world's concerns.
In both Indian and the Middle Eastern systems, there are different levels of spiritual attainment. Some Gnostics, like the Valentinians (and eventually Northern Buddhists, after about A.D.200). thought of three levels of human existence: the highly spiritually aware, destined for salvation; those blind to truth and given to self-deception who are destined for perdition; and those whose destiny is not fixed, who are open to the possibility of salvation. Mahayana, however, resisted the thought that anyone was hopelessly beyond the pale.
There are many other pointers toward mutual influence across the broad belt of Aramaic-speaking lands between the Euphrates and the Indus -- and other lands further east, along the Ganges. We have already noted the vigorous trade between the Mediterranean world and India, in part a sea trade but also commerce by caravan routes across Syria, Mesopotamia, Iran, and Afghanistan, connecting with the silk road into China. Not only fabrics and gems but also writings held to be sacred traveled these highways of commerce. Merchants and missionaries are usually found together. Manicheans were famous as traders in the East. Hippolytus, as we have seen, wrote of a Scythianus who, before Mani, had brought the doctrine of the Two Principles from India. Also in the fourth century, Ephraim had attacked Mani for letting himself be overcome by "the Lie" from India, introducing "two powers which were against each other."
There are unmistakable signs of Roman connections after the Kushans took over from the Parthians of Gundaphorus's time in the middle of the first century. Caches of Roman coins have been found in the Punjab as in southern India, although not on as large a scale. The Kushans themselves began making coins on the Roman model.
The early Christian centuries saw a flowering of Buddhist sculpture in the Kushan empire, in stone and gesso figures. In the northwest region of Gandhara the sculpture is much more distinctively Greco-Roman than Indian. The Buddha's soul-twin, Vajrapani, appearing as a naked Heracles leaning on his club (the thunderbolt), is one example. For the first time, the Buddha himself is depicted in sculpture, dressed in Roman robes, quite unlike those appearing further East along the Ganges. The techniques (and perhaps even the materials) of Kushan gesso work, involving the use of gypsum like that found in ample deposits west of Alexandria, were apparently brought by artisans from the Mediterranean world.
Early Western students of Buddhist art tended to think that the obvious Hellenistic aspects of Kushan sculpture in the Gandhara region derived directly from the conquests of Alexander the Great late in the fourth century B.C. Before the Kushans, however, any surviving traces of Greek influence on the region's art and coinage appear weak and crude. Later scholars have persuasively argued (and a discerning eye will confirm) that the Hellenistic features, especially sharply defined and naturalistic human figures and distinctive treatment of garment-folds, derived from a fresh infusion directly from the Roman world in the first two centuries. A.D.
There are other suggestive conjunctions. A visit to "India" (the Buddhist Northwest of the subcontinent) conferred a cachet on holy men, historic or legendary, among Christians and others in the Middle East. "Judas Thomas," Bardaisan, Apollonius of Tyana, and Mani were among the saintly travelers. At the age of 39 the third-century Neoplatonist Plotinus wanted to explore the thought of Persia and India. He got as far as Mesopotamia with the forces of Emperor Gordian, who was planning to invade Persia.
Plotinus had to flee to Antioch when the emperor was killed and the Roman expedition collapsed, and then he went on to Rome.
Clement of Alexandria was aware of Buddhism, praising in his Miscellanies the "Samanaeans" [from sramanas = wanderers] of Bactria for shedding the light of their philosophy "over the nations," and noting that some of the Indians also "obey the precepts of the Boutta, whom on account of his extraordinary sanctity they have raised to divine honors." Clement quoted well-known Greek historians as authority for these observations.
As we have earlier noted, the Mediterranean world had been fascinated by the philosophers of India as far back as Alexander's time (tending to confuse, as Clement sometimes did, Buddhist and Brahmin holy men, who were not naked, with Jains, who were). Dion the Golden-Mouthed was not the only educated Greek-speaker of his time to see the Indians as a people wiser than his audiences. A twentieth-century French explorer of the lore of the Thrice-Greatest Hermes (a non-Christian Gnostic system originating in Egypt) remarks -- with the note of disparagement that marks much Western scholarship -- that "the Oriental mirage had always seduced the imagination of Greece." In the first centuries of the Christian era, he says, minds weary of Greek rationalism embraced the foreign viewpoint. The barbarians were held to "have purer and more basic notions concerning the Divinity -- not because they made better use of reason than the Hellenes, but, quite to the contrary, because, neglecting reason, they were able in the most secret ways to communicate with God."
One text found in the Gnostic Coptic library at Nag Hammadi is called The Book of Thomas the Contender (Athletes in Greek = one who strives; champion; contender). It consists, in part, of a dialogue between Jesus and his twin, Judas Thomas, in the period between the resurrection and ascension, when Christ as pure spirit could reveal previously hidden truths to an inspirited apostle. Thomas asks brief questions, which give an opportunity to his master to discourse on a chosen theme.
The theme here is fire -- the fire of desire, especially carnal lust, that burns in humankind. In the beginning Jesus acknowledges that Thomas will be called "the one who knows himself," and is therefore ready to receive further illumination. Jesus soon launches into his main theme. "O bitterness of the fire that blazes in the bodies of men and in their marrow, kindling in them night and day, and burning the limbs of men." Earthly desire for the "visibles," for the perishables, for the transient and finite, leads to ruin, and those who would be saved must seek the invisible, the imperishable, the eternal and infinite.
The Buddha, too, is said to have preached a Fire Sermon, on a similar theme. All the senses are on fire with passion -- the opposing passions of desire and of hatred, attachment and aversion (the two causes, along with ignorance, of human suffering). One who seeks enlightenment must become divested of passion; only then will he be free, and "when he is free he becomes aware that he is free; and he knows that rebirth is exhausted, that he has lived the holy life, that he has done what it behooved him to do, and that he is no more for t-his world."
For many Gnostics the world is Deficiency, for the Buddhist, it is an illusion, maya , a lower form of reality than the truth. For both, gnosis will expose this world's emptiness and lead to escape. Neither is much concerned with sin in the common Western sense. For the Gnostic, attachment to worldly things carries its own punishment -- the denial of reunion with the All and, for some sects, reincarnation in which the demerits earned in the present life leave their mark on the next. Many Buddhists, even though they rejected the notion of a continuing soul or self, postulated, as we have noted, a continuing element of some sort in which one's mental states automatically carry over into a new rebirth.
From early times, and certainly by the time Gnosticism was flourishing in the West, Buddhists set forth various stages by which seekers, through meditation, could gradually free themselves not only from human passions but also from the rational distinctions that govern worldly concerns. Only in the final stage, after sloughing off all traces of the differentiations by which our vaunted rationality sets such store, would a seeker be able realize nirvana. And, along with Hindus, Buddhists were developing such yogic disciplines as control of breath, bodily posture, and physical functions that would assist meditation.
Through history and around the world, mystics have developed various techniques to help in the search for a unitive experience: dietary rules, breathing exercises, management of sexual energies, special postures for meditation, methods of assisting concentration, master-disciple relationships, liturgical formulas, and rhythmic patterns of dance, chant, and song.
Some Gnostic groups (such as the Sethians, an offshoot of Gnosticism that regarded Seth, the third son of Adam, as the forerunner of Jesus) used recitations of fantastic imagined names, repetitions of the seven Greek vowels, of the consonants, and of different combinations of vowels and consonants. The repetitious chantings, with suggestions of magical powers, resemble the mantras of India that aid in meditations. One Sethian text describes thirteen stages or "seals" in the ascent of the soul toward reunion with the Ultimate, starting with the material body and reaching at last the unknowable Silent One. The process may well owe something to the Buddhist prescriptions for stages in contemplation that lead eventually to nirvana.
Christian Gnostics developed sacramental rites, hymns, and prayers to prepare one for release from cosmic bonds. Many of the texts, both Christian and non-Christian, provide formulas by which a soul (or spirit; we cannot expect consistency in usage in these terms) can escape the archons, "toll-takers," or other powers that seek to bar its ascent to the Rest. The misadventure of creation can be reversed, the sparks of spirit that once descended through the archons can rise back home. To get through the obstacles set up by the dark powers, one must know the proper passwords. These come into play as the spirit ascends.
As we have many times noted, the formulas apparently consisted of statements about knowing whence the spirit came and where it seeks to go, and how it came to be in its present predicament -- where I came from, what is my real nature, whither I am going. Gnostic literature abounds in variations on the theme. According to the Gospel of Thomas , Jesus himself gave a formula, in Saying 70:
If they say to you, "Where did you come from?," say to them, "We came from the light, . . ." If they say to you, "Is it you?" say, "We are its children, and we are the elect of the living father." If they ask you, "What is the sign of your father in you?" say to them, "It is movement and repose."
Through the centuries the Gnostics' fivesomes of attributes of "Mind" are found among Nestorians, Manicheans, and Northern Buddhists in central Asia and China. "The five" (as we have seen) are ways of talking about "mind" in the basic Manichean myth of the contest between the realms of Good and Evil, in the thinking of Northern Buddhism, in the Acts and Gospel of Thomas, and in the Gnostic Dialogue of the Savior found at Nag Hammadi. In central Asia the Manicheans' Five Members or Messengers could become the five Buddhas of Northern Buddhism. According to seventh-century Nestorian texts in Chinese, a human being is constituted by the "five attributes" or "five skandhas," with the addition of the soul. The Five Members invoked by Thomas when he was sealing King Gondaphorus had merged, at some point, with the five Buddhist mental skandhas. Or perhaps we should speak of the re-merging of ideas and imagery that had evolved from the same source.
Few scholars command the languages needed for accurate translation and critical analysis of the surviving bible-related texts from the early Christian centuries and their interrelationship -- Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic, and others. Few scholars know the languages needed for work on the writings of lands east of Babylon, among them Persian at various stages, Sanskrit, Prakrit, and languages of central Asia and China. To learn either group is a daunting task. Understandably, very few have mastered both sets of languages and their associated literatures and systems of thought and myth and belief. And scholars concerned with one cultural grouping are likely to write for their colleagues within that group; it is professional and wise to avoid charges of being superficial and unscholarly by making forays into territory where one does not feel comfortably expert.
It is not, then, surprising to find something less than full communication between those preoccupied with the Judeo-Hellenic-Christian writings and traditions and those whose language skills and scholarly and religious interests concern Asian cultures further east. As we have just seen, however, there are links between the cultures of East and West strongly suggesting that more comparative scholarly study would be richly rewarding -- certainly disturbing to some well-settled institutionalized ideas, but rewarding.
There is much evidence pointing to a geographical and temporal connectedness between Indo-Iranian religious ideas , on the one hand, and Mediterranean ones on the other, even if it is supposed that unconscious elements in the human psyche, wherever found, underlie the similar development. Modern scholarly studies have tended to look for the roots of Gnosticism largely in Judaism, Hellenistic philosophy, and Egyptian Hermetic sects. Scholars who deal with the Gospel of Thomas almost always trace its roots to the Jewish Wisdom tradition (a notion that we will soon examine more closely). And yet it is certain that for centuries there was a great deal of east-west trafficking in what we think of as the higher thought and much development and change in systems of ideas. If the text of the Buddhists' Perfection of Wisdom could reach China from the Kushan empire in the second century A.D. it would be surprising if it and other Buddhist texts had not also moved westward and found receptive readers there --in Edessa, for example, or in Babylon, or, especially, in Alexandria.
Early Aryans in Iran and India would not have recognized their Mithra as he emerged in the camps of Roman legions and palaces of Roman emperors. Buddhists in the Kushan empire would never have dreamed that their Enlightened One would become a Christian saint. And followers of Jesus in first-century Jerusalem or second-century Edessa would have been astounded at the doctrines, power, and magnificence of the medieval Christian church in Europe.
What we look upon as the higher religious systems tend to regard salvation either as the perpetuation of an individual self (perhaps even in bodily form) in agreeable circumstances, or as the reunion of an individual self with the universal soul. Buddhism and Vedantist Hinduism share the latter goal: the No-thingness of the Buddhist is not greatly different from the Everythingness of the Hindu although Everythingness sounds more positive and cheerful. And salvation through restoration of a primal unity is what most Gnostics said they sought, as distinct from continuation of the individual. The Indian systems regard such reunion as a liberation from the round of rebirths on this earth, and in this sense take a negative view of the cosmos -- as "Thomas" frequently did and as Gnostics generally did. This is one of the surest sign of an Indian influence on Thomas and other forms of Gnosticism.
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.