By Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD
‘The first degree of humility, then, is that a person keep the fear of God before the eyes and beware of ever forgetting it.’
Rule of St Benedict – Chapter 7 ‘On Humility’ – (Doyle-1935)
‘In many respects, therefore, these Desert Fathers had much in common with Indian Yogis and with Zen Buddhist monks of China and Japan.’
Thomas Merton – The Wisdom of the Desert (1960-Page 9)
Author’s Note: Evidence suggests that the development of Christianity was directly influenced by the spread of Buddhism from India across Asia and the Middle East. This is not how the Christian Church understands its own history. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) stated that Christianity monasticism spontaneously grew-out of the influence of Origen, Clement and the teachings associated with Neo-Platonism. Early Christians – Merion contends – left what they interpreted as a ‘corrupt’ society, and went into the wilderness of the Egyptian desert during the 4th century CE to seek a direct communion with god achieved not through conventional outer worship, but rather through quiet introspection not disturbed by the usual distractions of life. Of course, Jesus went into the desert for forty days and forty nights – the time it took him to locate, confront and drive the devil out of his soul. Here, at least, is a purely Christian blur-print for an entirely ’Christian’ origination for a Christian monasticism which bears a striking similarity to the far older monasticism practiced within the Buddhist traditions. Buddhist monasticism has developed over a thousand years, with the original ascetics being a special kind of lay-person who had given-up the comforts of a home-life and gone into the wilderness to ‘live under a foot of a tree’. These ‘tree-dwellers’ simply cut their hair and took refuge in the Dhamma – later adding the ‘Buddha’, and the ‘Sangha’. Later still, as conflicts, doubts and questions arose, the Buddha’s replies were recorded and used as an ‘ideal’ answer to settle disputes arising from all similar situations. It would seem that St Benedict exercised a similar, if not identical methodology in the formulation of his monastic code. Whatever the case, whilst recognising (but not necessarily ‘subscribing’) to the internal logic of each school (which depicts Buddhist and Christian ideology as both ‘unique’ and ‘special’), I interpret the development of each school as being the dialectical manifestation of observable material processes within the continuously unfolding historical record. I am indebted for the help I have received from the Buddhist-influenced ‘White Robed Monks of St Benedict’, and the hours of peaceful contemplation spent at the Benedictine Abbey at Buckfast Leigh. ACW (18.2.2020)
‘A certain brother went to Abbot Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him: Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’
Thomas Merton – The Wisdom of the Desert (1960-Page 30)
By and large, Christian scholarship (which has evolved out of the discipline of following this monastic rule), views the Rule of St Benedict as being written during the 6th century CE, with its roots firmly planted within earlier Christian trends, practices and ideas. This means that between the death of Jesus Christ (c. 36 CE) and the writing of this rule – some 500 years of Christian development elapsed. This relatively long-time was required to see this reformist school of Judaism fully develop its own character, and distinguish itself from the Hebrew traditions from which it arose. Five hundred years seems a reasonable enough time to formulate and refine a defining theology and ideology of a new teaching which so clashed with that from which it emerged, so as to be eventually considered a ‘separate’ and even ‘antagonistic’ development.
The Theravada School of Buddhism (prevalent throughout Southeast Asia) agrees with Western scholarship by dating the life of the historical Buddha as between 563 BCE-483 BCE (or there about), with the Buddhist tradition in China stating the Buddha lived much earlier than this – between 1028/29 BCE- 948/49 BCE. All traditions seem to agree that the Buddha lived to 80 years of age. As the Buddha founded the world’s first acknowledged monastic community, it is true to say that this development preceded the writing of the Rule of St Benedict by approximately 1000 to 1,500 years. Although many Christian theologians may dismiss out of hand the possibility that Buddhist monastic teaching could have influenced early Christian practice, it would be considered very poor methodology not to examine tis possibility. What evidence is there for this assumption? Elmer R Gruber and Holger Kersten – in their 1995 book entitled ‘The Original Jesus – The Buddhist Sources of Christianity’ – provide a number of startling ‘word for word’ similarities existing between Buddhist and Christian scriptural teachings, but have this to say about the possible Buddhist origins of the Christian monastic practice (Pages 179-181):
‘Philo (20 BC-50 AD) was a contemporary of Jesus, and in his tract De vita contemplativa (On the Contemplative Life) he left a picture of the Therapeutae community. With the establishment of Christian monks and monastic communities in the fourth century AD, church historians became interested in Philo’s work and his description of the Therapeutae. Their way of life was so similar to the coenobitic rules that they were viewed as Christian monks, and in the sixth century vita therapeutica was even the Latin term for Christian ascetic monasticism. It was not known until the start of the eighteenth century that the Therapeutae existed long before Christianity came into being. That misinterpretation saved Philo’s text from destruction…
The Therapeutae were a religious brotherhood which had settled on the low hills in the area south of Alexandria near Lake Mareotis. They led a reclusive existence, completely devoted to their religious practices and studies. It seems as if they were restricted to this region. Philo reported:
1) There were male and female Therapeutae.
2) They laid aside all worldly goods, leaving their houses, brothers, children wives, parents, relatives and friends.
3) They lived away from towns in gardens, villages and remote areas, where they sought solitude – not because they hated humanity but so as to avoid people of a different kind, not mixing with them.
4) Their houses were built in an extremely modest and penurious way, concerned with only two necessities: protection from the sun’s heat in the summer and from the cold air in the winter.
5) In their huts everyone had a small sacred space, known as Semneum or Monasterium.
6) They prayed twice a day, morning and evening, at sunrise and sunset.
7) They possessed old scared writings on which they meditated a great deal. (Philo assumed that this involved works ascribed to Enoch and Abraham, who were viewed as prototypes of ascetics and hermits.) Their studies led them to compose songs and hymns.
8) On the seventh day they met together, ranked in accordance with the length of time they had spent in the community (rather than on the basis of their age). They ate only bread and drank only water. The oldest member of the order held a discourse. Men and women were separated by a high wall.
9) They only owned two robes, and constantly practised modesty.
10) They had no servants because for them all were equal from birth onwards. At assemblies’ novices served those who had belonged to the order for a long time.
11) They were vegetarian, believing that the highest degree of saintliness could only be attained by rejecting all flesh.’
Ordained Buddhist monks and nuns follow (over 200) monastics precepts contained in a body of work termed the ‘Vinaya Discipline’ (Vinayapitaka). This very strict discipline calls for the exact and minute control of the mind and body in every situation so that greed, hatred and delusion are permanently uprooted. Sukumar Dutt, writing in his (1924) book entitled ‘Early Buddhist Monachism’, makes an interesting observation when he quotes the work of Sir Henry Maine (Page 23):
‘”The earliest notion,” says Maine, “connected with the conception, now so fully developed, of a law or rule of life are those contained in the Homeric words ‘Themis’ and ‘Themistes’.” The Greek Themis, as Maine explains, was in effect nothing but “an authoritative statement of right and wrong in a judicial sentence after the facts, not one presupposing a law which has been violated”. Themistes were thus “simply adjudications on insulated states of facts, and did not necessarily follow each other in orderly sequence”. Maine regards the Greek Themistes, mentioned by Homer, as the most primitive form of enunciating any rule of life, and the fact is noteworthy that it is in this form that the rules of the Vinayapitaka are cast. Each rule purports to be a statement of right and wrong in a solemn judgement pronounced by the Buddha after certain facts have actually arisen. He is therefore set up rather as a judge than as a law-maker. He pronounces on the validity of acts done by the Bhikkhus and does not profess to prescribe general courses of conduct for them.’
There are curious similarities between certain aspects of Buddhist and Christian teaching, this fact is beyond a doubt, but as to whether this constitutes a direct developmental ‘influence’ between the earlier Buddhism upon the latter Christianity is open to debate. Certainly, the philosophical differences are stark but this does not exclude the possibility of a ‘transfer’ of influence in technique if not in ideology. Gruber and Kersten appear to be suggesting that the ‘Therapeutae’ are in fact a branch of the ‘Theravada’ School of Buddhism, and that Buddhist monasticism had taken root in Egypt certainly by the time of Jesus Christ – and possibly some time before that. The assumption is that Jewish people seeking a new way of communing with god, either ‘borrowed’ or were ‘influenced’ by the lifestyle of Buddhist monastics living nearby, taking-on the disciplined rigours of the Buddhist Ordained Sangha, whilst retaining their own Jewish belief system and purpose of worship. The logical problems to be solved are these:
a) Do the ‘Therapeutae’ represent the ‘Theravada’? If so, why the change of name? Why did the ’Teaching of the Elders’ (Theravada) become the ‘Way which Heals’ (Therapeutae)?
b) Did a sect of reforming Jews willingly absorb unfamiliar teachings from a foreign source? Although seemingly unlikely at first glance, the reality is that Christianity itself is the product of such ‘side-ways’ development.
c) Did the Christian monastic tradition, although unique in its own way, evolve out of the merging of reforming Judaism with Buddhist monasticism? When a sect decides to break away from a far older and all controlling mother religion, quite often revolutionary developments are initiated that would never usually happen due to the dire schism that has been created by the fresh thinking. Although unlikely during normal times, it is highly probable that a sect of reforming Jews would indeed ‘accept’ what amounts to ‘alien’ teachings as a means to legitimise and distinguish their new found independence and self-determination.
Due to the lack of impartial written records, and given the destructive practice of certain early Christian leaders (which saw non-Christian texts destroyed), the above issues cannot be resolved satisfactorily. However, regardless of where one happens to stand on this issue, it is a fact that Buddhist monasticism is far older than its Christian counter-part, and that despite the very real differences in ideology, the physical aspects of Buddhist and Christian monasticism remain startlingly similar.
St Benedict of Nursia [Central Italy] (480 CE-547 CE) wrote the Rule of St Benedict toward the end of his life. It is generally agreed that he existed, and that he had a considerable impact upon the development of Christian monasticism, despite the history mentioning him being only brief and arising within the Church itself. It is probably true to say that St Benedict is known primarily through his Rule and the tremendous influence this document has had upon Christian thought and the imagination of humanity. It is through the Rule of St Benedictine that the man – ‘Benedict’ – upholds a continuous dialogue with humanity, from one generation to the next. The Rule reflects the times of its construction, with an unquestioning acceptance to the status quo being its defining motivation. God is king, and for the realm to be ordered, every human-being must align their minds and bodies to the will of god (king). Failure to conform is defined as endangering the well-being of the community, as any individualistic behaviour compromises the peaceful co-existence of that community. Of course, this mirrors the totalitarian schematic of a society controlled by an absolute monarchy which rewards conformity with continued well-being (and various other rewards), and punishes deviation with the withdrawal of well-being (and the loss of support), etc. The Rule of St Benedict represents an enforced collective well-being premised upon conformity to what the author considers the ‘highest good’.
The Rule of St Benedict is a double-edged sword and shows something of the cleverness of its author. On the one hand it guarantees communal safety through conformity to the Roman State, whilst on the other, this ‘conformity’ to social law is presented as the pre-condition for the ‘worship’ of god and the opening-up of a direct communication with the divine. This dual purpose demonstrates that an emphasis upon a stringent social conformity to the ruling elite just so happens to be exactly what god wants to make him ‘happy’. By not contradicting the will of the Roman Emperor, it just so happens that the will of god is also not ‘contradicted’. Just as a distraught Emperor can make community life very difficult for those who disobey – just so, a god who has not been worshipped properly can also cause all kinds of disasters and cataclysms to occur! This explains why ‘humility’ (or acting as if one were the ‘earth’ or ‘ground’ supporting all beings) is the basis of this Rule. All worldly ambition is considered ‘bad’ as it deviates from group cohesion and collective focus. Only the Emperor (and those associated closely with him) can truly operate through the agency of ‘personal choice’. Individualism, within this context, is viewed very much as an ‘error’ of conduct and every effort must be made to avoid such thought and action. Idiosyncratic behaviour is potentially dangerous as it possesses the potential of bringing down the wrath of the Roman State upon the community – or of ‘closing-off’ all the known avenues that connect humanity to god’s grace. In the post-modern era, the popularity of the Rule of St Benedict appears to be exactly because of its denial of the validity of ‘individualism’, which is viewed as the foundation to success within the brutal system of predatory capitalism. In this regard, the Rule of St Benedict may be interpreted as advocating what Marx would term a form of ‘primitive’ (I.e. pre-capitalist’) Communism.
Although St Benedict is sometimes viewed as the founder of Western monasticism, there is no evidence that he intended to deliberately found a distinct monastic order in the modern sense of the term. Indeed, it is not until the later middle-ages that a distinct Benedictine monastic order starts to be mentioned in written records. Benedict himself appears to have been a wondering monk for a time, a monk within a community at another time, whilst also spending time in isolated contemplation. His ‘Rule’ appears to have developed in stages, as experiences presented themselves to him, with this body of work being further refined by later generations. All Benedictine monasteries are viewed as ‘self-governing’ and ‘independent’ of any direct Church control, although all tend to confirm their loyalty to the Pope and the Vatican. Such communities, although welcoming to visitors and strangers, nevertheless are isolated from society, insular and generally out of touch with broader society. As such a tight-knit community is defined through its activity of inward contemplation, this reality does not necessarily constitute a problem. Being ‘out of touch’ with mainstream society may well be considered the entire point of the Rule of St Benedict.
Christian monasticism developed in the Egyptian desert of the Eastern Roman Empire during the 4th century CE. These early Christian ‘Desert Fathers’ were under the guidance of St Anthony the Great (251 CE-356). They sat in caves or huts and ‘looked within’ in an attempt to glimpse god and be bathed in his grace. If there was any Buddhist influence in this process, it can be seen here. These early Jewish-Christians certainly adopted an entirely new and alien religious practice involving cloistered (and ‘seated’) meditation, which involved crossed legs, a straight back and hands arranged neatly upon the lap. The first ‘written’ rule (which balanced ‘prayer’ with ‘work’) was compiled by St Pachomius (292 CE-348 CE) and introduced the role of ‘Abba’ (or ‘Abbot’) as the ‘Father’ of the community responsible for the material and spiritual well-being of everyone present. Monks originally were lay-people who had to attend the nearest Church to receive the Sacraments, but this proved impractical for monasteries built in the desert with no Churches for hundreds of miles. This led to some monks being ‘ordained’ so that the community did not have to travel vast distances, a practice which developed into all monks being ordained upon entry to the order. Interestingly, at about the same time in China, when Indian Buddhism was still in the midst of being transmitted, Chinese monastic communities also consisted of groups of laymen who all adopted the surname of the community leader. As more reliable knowledge arrived, however, this practice was soon abandoned, and all Buddhist novices left lay-society, shaved their heads and donned the robes of a Buddhist monastic to forever ‘live apart’ from society.
Within a generation of the life of St Benedict, Christian monasticism spread outside of Egypt to Syria, Palestine, Jordan and beyond. It possessed two types – solitary and communal. This demonstrates St Benedict’s evolved study of monasticism from solitary to communal practice, and his ability to lead a community of diverse individuals toward a common objective. The references he gives for his Rule are the Rule of Pachomius, the Rule of St Basil, the Rule of St Augustine, the Writings of John Cassian and an obscure text known as the ‘Rule of the Master’. The Rule of the Master was compiled sometime after 517 CE, and is comprised of 95 chapters of monastic precepts. The Rule of St Benedict, which uses much of this material, however, only contains 73 chapters (albeit with many chapters further divided into numerous sub-chapters). For Buddhists and Scientific Socialists alike, there is much food for thought in the Rule of St Benedict:
‘Let us follow the Scripture, “Distribution was made to each according as anyone had need.” By this we do not mean that there should be respecting of persons (which God forbid), but consideration for infirmities. He who needs less should thank God and not be discontented, but he who needs more should be humbled by the thought of his infirmity rather than feeling important on accord of the kindness shown him. Thus all the members will be at peace.’
Gruber and Kersten are of the opinion that that works of Philo were preserved into the modern age because Christian theologians mistakenly assumed that Philo’s treatment of the ‘Therapeutae’ was preserving the origins of Christian monasticism, when in fact as texts recording Philo’s work become more complete and better translated (from the Greek) during the 20th century, it became ever more apparent that Philo was doing nothing of the kind. Despite living from 20 BCE – 50 CE, Philo makes no mention of Jesus Christ or Paul. Indeed, throughout his entire works (which are ample), not only does Philo convey reliable history, but he never mentions the name of ‘Christianity’ once! Curiously, this does not prevent Christian theologians ‘emphasising’ the study of Philo to their students as a means of gaining a true ‘flavour’ of the historical epoch within which Jesus is supposed to have lived – despite the fact that Philo appears never to have left his native Egypt – and Jesus was born in Palestine. If the early Christian Authorities had realised that the work of Philo tends to deny the existence of Jesus Christ – Gruber and Kersten assert – then in all likelihood it would have joined the thousands of other ‘non-Christian’ texts, and been ‘purged’ by being consigned to the flames. Or indeed the Vatican’s ‘secret’ library of ‘forbidden’ books. My point is not to be hostile toward Christianity, but to highlight that ‘faith’ can sometimes compromise rigorous academic protocol. Philo’s non-mentioning of Christ cannot be logically taken as confirmation that he existed. As matters stand, Christian theologians tend to skirt over this omission, and instead focus on the picture of the times that Philo paints.
In his ‘Every Good Man is Free’ (Quod Omnis Probus Liber Sit), Philo describes the group of desert-dwellers known as the ‘Essenes’ (or the ‘Holy’ ones). He implies that this is a sect of Judaism and that the adherents congregate together in what he terms ‘synagogues’ (suggesting that mainstream Judaism did not yet universally refer to their meetings by this Greek term). The area of the desert where the ‘Essenes’ lived covered Palestine and Syria. The Essenes ‘reject’ the corruption of the cities, and have nothing to do with business or money-making. They retreat into the desert so that their external lives are uncomplicated, so that they can study religious and philosophical texts and look within for profound meaning. An alternative translation of the word ‘Essenes’ is ‘Piety’, although Philo explains that the word ‘Essene’ is not quite a correct Greek pronunciation. This group rejects all violence and any activity which can be converted (or ‘perverted’) to use in times of war. They emphasis material poverty and reject all worldly wealth, considering peace of mind and physical good health to be great treasures! They consider the peddlers of logical philosophy (with their endless debates) to be nothing but ‘word-catchers’. They sit quietly in their meditation cells and contemplate the existence of god and how he created all of existence. Nature in its untended state, is viewed as the true will of god, with everyone being brothers and sisters, even though those with more experience are tasked with helping those with less experience. The ordinary world of greed, hatred and delusion only serves to ‘obscure’ the manifestation of the divine in the mind and must, therefore, be given-up to clarify the inner vision. Slavery is rejected, and every man, woman and child is declared both ‘free’ and ‘equal’. The Essenes place a great emphasis upon everyone being able to read and write, as their community evolves around the study of sacred books. Private property is abolished with the general area (and dwellings), in theory at least, owned by the entire community. Natural law replaces contrived law. Philo considers these people to be of the highest virtue and interestingly, likens them (in temperament and practice) to the ‘gymnosophists’ (I.e. ‘Yogis’) encountered by Alexander the Great in India! This association, quite casual in its expression by Philo, suggests that perhaps the methods being practiced by the Essenes are either ‘Indian’ in origination, or of Indian ‘influence’. As Buddhism was dominant in India during the time of Alexander the Great and Philo, then it is reasonable to tentatively assume a Buddhist influence for the Essenes.
In his text entitled ‘On the Contemplative Life’ (De Vita Contemplativa), Philo describes the sect known as the ‘Therapeutae’, or ‘Therapeutrides’. This is a straightforward Greek term which translates as the ‘Healers’, or ‘Those Who Provide Healing’. Philo does not associate this group explicitly with Judaism, but it can be argued the assertion is implicit (as his treatment of the ‘Essenes’ immediately precedes this chapter). Whatever the case, the ‘Therapeutae’ are examined as if existing ‘outside’ of Judaism, practicing an unfamiliar religion or spiritual path. Whereas some Jews joined the Essenes and committed themselves to what seems a ‘foreign’ spiritual practice, the practitioners of the equally ‘foreign’ Therapeutae’ path are themselves ‘foreign’, or so Philo’s phraseology suggests. Again, like the Essenes, there is the rejection of the cities, business and any worldly activity that might obscure the clarity of vision in the mind, and corrupt the purity of the body. The ‘Therapeutae’ speak of two kinds of medicine, one which cures only the outer body (common in cities), and one which cures the inner ‘psyche’ or ‘mind’ – which is rare and only found in remote areas, away from the influences of greed, hatred and delusion. (It is a habit of Western scholars to render the Greek word ‘psyche’ as ‘soul’, but this is a misnomer of Christian habit. ‘Soul’ is probably of much later Germanic origination and borrowed by the Christian Church to describe the permanent spiritual entity said to inhabit all human life. The Greek ‘psyche’, however, quite literally means the ‘breathe of life’ and refers to the quintessential beginning of both physical and conscious existence). The Therapeutae are masters of inner medicine (what might be called ‘alchemy’ or ‘neidan’), but there is the implication that they may well also be practitioners of conventional medicine as well. Philo specifically states that the Therapeutae ‘reject’ the neo-Platonic concepts of the ‘One’, the ‘Good’ and the ‘Unity’ in favour of directly contemplating, comprehending and integrating with the highest realisation of god from within – a process of meditational training considered ‘superior’ to Greek, Jewish and Egyptian religious teaching. The Therapeutae sit and continuously concentrate their attention upon the essence of the mind – which they corelate with ‘god’. They do this twice a day – a practice which includes reading the ‘foreign’ teachings of unknown holy teachers. Again, like the Essenes, Philo’s description of the Therapeutae contains a number of curious parallels with Buddhist teaching and practice, although it is odd that the term ‘Buddha’ appears unknown to either sect. On the other hand, as Thomas Merton describes Christian monasticism as being built upon Neo-Platonism, the Therapeutae rejection of the Greek tradition suggests that a) Christian monasticism evolved out of Essene and Therapeutae practices (a position the Christian Church denies due to its implicit association with Indian Buddhism), or b) Christian monasticism only developed incidentally in exactly the same desert areas that the Essenes and Therapeutae lived and practiced, but evolved independently at a later date, out of completely different and unrelated philosophical underpinnings.
What are the chances of Buddhism having penetrated the Egyptian, Palestinian and Syrian regimes by the time of the 1st century CE? In his 1966 book entitled ‘Buddhism in East Asia’, Sukumar Dutt explains that the so-called ‘Nine Buddhist Missions’ ascribed to the Indian Emperor Ashoka (304 BCE-232 BCE) are probably a myth developed by the Theravada School in an attempt by that sect to retain doctrinal and dogmatic domination. These missions were tasked with spreading Buddhism to 7 remote boundary areas of the newly conquered empire of India, with only 2 directed to countries ‘outside’ of India, namely Sri Lanka and Burma. Despite the official story, Dutt explain that Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka through Indian migrants continuously travelling backwards and forwards, whilst Emperor Ashoka placed diplomatic pressure upon the Sri Lankan King Tissa to convert to Buddhism (to strengthen his rule), adopt a grander title and declare Buddhism the State religion! This King Tissa did exactly this, and the process of Buddhism being consolidated on that island was begun. The diplomatic links between Sri Lanka and Burma enabled Buddhism to travel freely between the two areas, although it is unclear exactly ‘how’ Buddhism spread to Burma. When Buddhism was under threat of dying-out in Sri Lanka, it was Burma who sent senior ordained Buddhist monks to assist in its revival (during the 11th century). Regardless of how Buddhism was spread, it did not penetrate China until between the 1 BCE-1 CE – and did not properly take root in that country until around the 5th or 6th centuries CE. Given these facts, is it likely that Buddhism could have spread into North Africa and the Middle East by the 1st century CE? At this time, the Emperor of China had heard of Buddhism, but still possessed no real understanding of it.
This situation would suggest that a substantial transmission of Buddhist teaching and practice had travelled westward from Indian-controlled Gandhara (present day Afghanistan), in a more or less straight line to Syria (passing through Iran and Iraq en route). A land journey of some 1,633 miles. It is possible that Buddhist ideas spread across this landmass over 500 years, particularly as for a time, Gandhara was a cultural power-house of Buddhist influence (the British Museum – in London – holds a small portrait of a Buddhist monk who is clearly ‘European’ in ethnicity). As the Empire of Alexander the Great (356 BCE-323 BCE) – via the Greek presence in Bactria – interfaced with Gandhara, it is probable that Buddhist teachings were taken deep into the heart of Greek and Roman life at an early date, and moved relatively quickly due to diplomatic friendship, commerce, communication and cultural exchanges, etc. Certainly, Philo new all about Alexander’s experiences in India and was familiar with his description of ‘gymnosophists’ (i.e. ‘Yogis’). Furthermore, it is reported that an Indian holy-man (probably a ‘Buddhist’) named ‘Zarmanochegas’ visited Antioch (in Turkey), before moving on to Athens where he lived for some time before ‘self-immolating’ during a public ceremony around 14 BCE. Witnesses recorded that he sat cross-legged and did not cry-out, show any signs of pain, and did not move until his body ‘fell to pieces’. The Greek people were generally impressed with this display of stoicism, even if they did not quite understand its purpose. Sukumar Dutt explains that the spread of Buddhism was generally slow due to a lack of linguistic and cultural familiarity, but of course, these facts do not in themselves prevent ‘Buddhists’ from travelling. Self-immolation is a rare event in Buddhism and not always accepted as part of normal practice. When it has happened, it is usually in protest to a great injustice operating within society and is not an act undertaken lightly. The circumstantial evidence appears ‘strong’ for a Buddhist influence in 1st century CE Egypt, Palestine and Syria, and I would add that a Buddhist influence in the development of early Christian monastic practice is equally likely. To prove this assertion ‘wrong’, the Christian Church would have to honestly ‘assess’ the evidence and weigh up its implications – rather than ‘ignore’ any contradictions that might prove the ‘official’ history ‘incorrect’.
Finally, Sukumar Dutt – in his 1957 book entitled ‘The Buddha – and Five After Centuries’ – describes how Buddhism, as a living spiritual tradition, has never stopped evolving, adapting and changing. Even after the Buddha’s death, it is recorded that the monks split into at least 18 schools all agreeing on the ‘Dhamma’ the Buddha taught, but all disagreeing and drawing upon different interpretations premised upon the authority of direct instruction received from the Buddha (when he was alive). Even the apparently ‘strict’ and ‘unbending’ Theravada School has experienced these changes, whilst many of its head monks have attempted to present their interpretation as ‘orthodoxy’. History reveals that the Theravada and Mahayana Schools all effectively developed out of those original 18 schools. Indeed, no one can be exactly sure what the Buddha taught, or rather how he explained or emphasised what he taught. Whilst Theravada dogma assumes a monk is karmically superior to a nun, and a layman to a laywoman, the Buddha clearly states (in the Pali Suttas) that monk and nun, man and woman are all ‘equal’ in worth (and ability) when practicing the Dhamma. Whereas Theravada dogma asserts that only an ordained monk can realise enlightenment – the Buddha in the Pali Suttas states that there is no difference whatsoever between the enlightenment experienced by a monk, and the enlightenment experience by a layman and a laywoman. All these contradictions (and many others) exist between Theravada dogma and their own Pali Suttas (and other texts) preserved within that tradition. The Mahayana acknowledges the validity and importance of the Theravada School, but does not accept or recognise the various ‘limiting’ or ‘restricting’ dogmas of this sect. Generally speaking, adherents of the Theravada School ‘reject’ the Mahayana out of hand, and accuse it of corruption and heresy, etc. This doctrinal dispute need not distract us here. What is interesting is whether anything about Early Buddhism can be gleamed from either Essene or Therapeutae practice, assuming a Buddhist influence? The Essenes could be ‘Mahayana’, whilst the Therapeutae could be ‘Theravada’. The people of both groups do not seem to ‘ordained’ or to have ‘shaved’ their heads (like a Buddhist monastic), and yet all leave the worldly life and go and live on the edge of society so as to attain peace and quiet – as if they are ‘empowered’ lay-people. It could be at this time that the differences now assumed between the ordained and the laity, were not yet as ‘pronounced’ as they are today. Whilst ‘looking into their minds’, Philo – an Egyptian Jew brought-up as a Greek scholar – interprets their unusual behaviour as ‘looking into their minds to realise god’. In other words, exactly how a Jewish scholar brought-up in the Greek tradition is likely to conceive such a behaviour.