Tuesday, July 12, 2005

yvette rosser: on buddhist influence on christianity

jul 11th

yvette rosser has some more light to throw on the generous 'borrowings' from buddhism in christianity. she's referring to a lecture she gave some years ago.

... a lecture that I delivered in 1994 about the
Buddhist influence in Palestine and Greece during the
two centuries prior to the birth of Christ.

The following is an extract from that lecture:

In India, around 270 B.C., the great king Ashoka
ascended the throne, and after his conversation to
Buddhism, he sent missionaries around the world to
preach the word of the Lord Buddha. There are
records, left by Ashoka, that indicate "his missions
were favorably received" in countries to the West.
There are also records from Alexandria, which indicate
that a steady stream of Buddhist monks and
philosophers who, living in that area--at the
crossroads of commerce and ideas--influenced the
philosophical currents of the time.

There are strong similarities between Buddhist
monastic teachings and Jewish ascetic sects, such as
the Essenes, that were part of the spiritual
environment of Palestine at the time of Christ's
birth. The Essenes were a monastic order that did not
marry. They lived in the desert and were very simple
in their life styles. They did not believe in animal
sacrifice and were vegetarians. They believed in the
pre-existence of the soul and in angels as divine
intermediaries or messengers from God. They were
famous for their powers of endurance, simple piety and
brotherly love. They were interested in magical arts
and the occult sciences. John the Baptist was an
Esscene. His time of preparation was spent in the
wilderness near the Dead Sea. Jesus was greatly
influenced by his stay with John the Baptist. Many of
the basic tenets found in the teachings of Jesus can
be traced back to the ideas flourishing among groups
such as the Essenes. Were these groups influenced
through several centuries of dialogue with Buddhist
monks who traveled through Palestine?

Before, during, and after the death of Christ, there
were Buddhist missionaries who visited Greece, Egypt
and other countries in the Mediterranean area. One
such visit is documented in 20 B.C. in Athens. In
this account an ambassador from India was accompanied
by a Buddhist philosopher who burned himself (to prove
some point of impermanence?). His tomb became a
famous tourist attraction and is mentioned by several
historians. It has been argued that in St. Paul's
first letter to the Corinthians, he alludes to this
well-known event when he writes that "though I give my
body to be burned, and have not love, it profits me
nothing."

It is well documented that there was commercial trade
between the Indian Subcontinent and Mesopotamia,
Syria, Egypt and the countries of the Fertile
Crescent, for almost 2500 years before the birth of
Christ. Cuneiform records dating from 2400 B.C.
describe shipments of cotton cloth, spices, oil,
grains, and such exotic items as peacocks. Ideas as
well as merchandise had been exchanged between the
Middle East and India for centuries. Pythagoris is
said to have been influenced by Oriental ideas and a
Greek prince, Seleucus Nikator, shortly after the time
of Alexander the Great, gave his daughter in marriage
to the Indian sovereign and sent an ambassador,
Megasthenes, to the court of Chandragupta, who was the
grandfather of Ashoka. There were practitioners of
Buddhism, living in the western parts of Askoka's
empire, who were from Greece and also from Palestine.
This is known because one of the famous edicts of
Ashoka, carved on a pillar in what is now western
Afghanistan (Bactria), is written in both in Greek and
in Aramaic, the languages spoken in Palestine at the
time.

Stories of Buddhist origin, and some of the basic
concepts of Buddhism, were known in the West prior to,
during, and after the time of Jesus. The most famous
Buddhist story that made its way into Christendom is
the tale of "Barlaam and Josephat," which enjoyed
considerable notoriety during the Middle Ages and
ultimately resulted in the canonization, in the
sixteenth century, of Buddha, as a Catholic saint. In
the story of Barlaam and Josephat, Josephat, which is
a corrupted version of the word "Boddhisattva", was an
Indian prince who was heir apparent to a throne
occupied by his father, a tyrannical idolater who
persecuted Christians. At Josephat's birth prophets
predicted his future greatness as successor to the
king, but one wise man said that the prince would
achieve greatness not as a worldly king, but because
he would convert to Christianity. To shelter his son,
and prevent his conversion, the king kept him locked
in the palace. Eventually, the young prince was
allowed to leave the palace and saw a crippled man, a
blind man and a senile man, and so learned of life's
darker side (that life is suffering?). Josephat soon
met a monk named Barlaam, who converted him to
Christianity. The story continues that when Josephat
went to search for Barlaam he had to suffer
austerities and was tempted by the devil to give up
his faith. He eventually found Barlaam and the two
lived as hermits until their deaths. Relics of these
saints were worshipped in Europe and there were
several churches built to Josephat in Russia, one in
Vienna and in Portugal--they were canonized by the
Catholic Church in the 16th century... Saint Josephat,
the Boddhisattva.

Anyone who knows the story of the life of the Buddha
will see the exact repetition of the tale in the story
of Barlaam and Josephat: The fact that he was an
Indian prince even provides the correct setting, the
predictions at his birth of spiritual greatness, his
early life spent locked in the castle and finally his
exposure to people in pain and old age which led, in
the case of the Boddhisattva, to enlightenment and in
the case of Josephat to conversion. Even the
austerities and temptations that they had to endure
are parallel. There is no doubt that this is a
Buddhist story transplanted and retold within a
Christian context. The Buddhist origins of the story
were obscured when the tale was retold in Europe, but
earlier versions of the story exist in Arabic, which
do not refer to Josephat's conversion, but which
testify to the story's Buddhist roots. The fact that
Saint Josephat was very popular in Europe, where his
relics were worshipped, is an ironic aspect of
Buddhist influence on Christianity .

Alexandria was an important center of early Christian
thought. There is mention of a teacher called
Ammonius Sakka, who had a great influence on the
thinkers of the first century of the common era.
Some scholars speculate that Ammonius Sakka could be a
reversed form of "Sakya - Muni", one of the names of
the Buddha, which means "the sage of the Sakya clan".
(Sakya was Buddha's family name.) This
philosopher-teacher who believed in reincarnation, has
been called a Neo-Platonist. He was the teacher of
Plotinus and Origen. Origen who was one of the early
philosophers of the Christian church whose writings
were later expunged at the Council of Nicea.

What are some other points of convergence between the
practices of Christianity and Buddhism? There is a
wealth of similarities: shaving or cutting of the
hair of monastic initiates, ringing of bells, domed
basilicas, shared legends, the practice of confession,
relic veneration, celibacy, rosaries, monasticism, and
the burning of incense. A comparison of the Sermon on
the Mount with verses from the Dhammapada yields a
rich collection of interconnections and similarities.
Even if some of these similarities are synchronistic
in nature and are not borrowed, nonetheless, there are
still many elements that have distinctive Buddhist
overtones and which are not found within the
predominant Jewish practices of the time. There are
many stories about the life of Jesus and Buddha that
are so similar that it is hard to believe that there
was not some borrowing or merging of myths that
occurred.

The story of the conception and birth of Christ in the
Gospel of Luke has an uncanny resemblance to the birth
stories of Buddha. In both cases the mother was a
pure woman who had a vision and from this vision
became pregnant with a extraordinary child, without
the help of sexual intercourse. At their birth, each
baby was surrounded by persons and events that marked
them for greatness. Each was delivered outside while
the mother was on a journey. Their births were both
announced by angels in the heavens. It may be hard
for us creatures of the twentieth century to
appreciate the role of angels, but previously, they
played an important part in the scheme of things:
bringing messages, making great spiritual
announcements with pomp and splendor. After the birth
of Buddha, a hermit sage, who had heard the
celebrations of the angels, was told by them with
great rejoicing that "In the city of Kaplilavastu, to
king Suddhodana, a son is born. This boy will sit on
the throne of enlightenment and become a Buddha." In
the Christian story, the angels appeared in great
awe-inspiring beauty and told the shepherds that a
child was born that day who is Christ the Lord. Both
narratives stress the fact that at the birth of the
infant, along with the angels, holy people came to pay
homage to the savior who had descended into the world
of humans.

In the Bible there is a story about the righteous man
Simeon, who was informed by the Holy Spirit that he
"should not see death before he had seen the Lord's
Christ." Inspired by the Spirit, he came to the
temple on the day that Jesus was brought in for his
naming ceremony, where he took the child into his arms
and said that he was destined for greatness. Mary and
Joseph marveled at the words of this old sage. In the
Buddhist story the hermit Asita performed the same
role in announcing to the amazed parents that this
child was destined for spiritual greatness. In both
stories an elderly wise man was the first to inform
the parents that their sons were no ordinary boys.

The Biblical accounts of the birth of Christ are
somewhat different in Luke and in Matthew. In Matthew
the account of the visitation by the Magi is dealt
with in great detail. These Magi were astrologers
from the East, where astrology had been a developed
science for centuries. They represented the pinnacle
of foreign scholarly achievement; and it was they,
rather than the Hebrew, who were able to discern that
the baby who lay in the manger in Bethlehem was a very
special child. The word "Magi," is a Persian word
that named a class of learned men who sought to master
the occult sciences. This is the root of our word,
Magic. Only later were they referred to as kings,
initially they were called Holy Men. References to
Magi in the Palestine of Jesus's day usually had
negative connotations, but in Matthew's account, the
reference is quite positive. Similarly, the infant
Gautama was first adored by four divine archangels who
presided over his birth in the wooded grove near
Lumbini. Later, sages came to pay homage to the child
and amazed his father. In both stories there is a
reference to a star that announces the birth of the
great child.

There are other similarities in the lives of these two
great beings. Some may say that this type of
comparison is inevitable when great spiritual leaders
come into the world. However, I will relate some of
the events in their lives that bear resemblance. Both
Buddha and Christ were precocious youths who
confounded their teachers with their gifted knowledge.
Both began their spiritual quest at about the age of
thirty. Both fasted and prayed in the wilderness and
both were tempted by the devil while practicing these
austerities. The setting of these two accounts is
almost identical as are the events. Both men were
fasting when tempted by the devil, who tried to entice
them into worldly pleasures and trick them into using
the magical powers that they possessed. Both men
overcame the temptation and soon left their seclusion
and took up the mission of a life of teaching and
traveling. Jesus's life at this time seems very much
like the age-old life of an Indian mystic or holy man.
He traveled from village to village and lived off the
hospitality of the people of the village. There are
some differences, but, nonetheless, both Buddha and
Christ got into trouble with the ruling aristocracies
by their deliberate blindness to social status and by
taking food and refuge from courtesans and
prostitutes.

Both masters told their disciples to leave behind
their homes and families and to follow him. Both
sent his followers out to preach their message. Both
were social revolutionaries who reacted against the
conservative elements of their time. Both put an end
to animal sacrifice, which was popular in both
Hinduism and Judaism at that time. There are many
similarities in the lives of these two great beings.
Both forgave evil doers, both conquered death in a
metaphysical sense. The earth shook when each of them
died. Their messages are also similar: they told
their followers to overcome anger, to practice
non-violence, to "turn the other cheek" to be pure of
mind and body.

There is a school of thought that says that Jesus
traveled to India during the lost years of his youth.
Supposedly, there is a temple in the state of Kashmir
that is dedicated to Saint Issa. The priests there
say that Jesus traveled there two thousand years ago.
Many of the miracles performed by Jesus are similar to
miraculous powers possessed by holy men in India.
Jesus even taught his disciples to perform these
miracles such as Peter walking on the water. There is
a work by a Russian who lived at the end of the 19th
century, Nicolas Notovitch, who claims to have seen an
ancient document that told the story of Saint Issa and
his return to his home in the West and his subsequent
violent death. These tales are unsubstantiated and
somewhat fanciful, however it is said that the priests
at the Kashmiri Temple to Saint Issa are devout and
completely believe in the story. There are also
visionaries such as Edgar Casey who had similar
visions of Jesus. Jesus did adopt a remarkably
Indian-like approach to wandering, begging and
preaching immediately upon beginning his public
career.

There is, of course, documented evidence that
Buddhists traveled to the region where early
Christianity was developing. It must be remembered
that Christianity did not become the established
religion for several hundred years and actually it was
not the accepted religion of the European masses for
almost a thousand years. During this period, when
church theology was being formulated, there was much
discussion about the true nature of the savior and
many of the early ideas of the church were discarded
in favor of ideas that would support the establishment
of a centralized Church. These factors are a
discussion for another time, but suffice it to say
that many scholars have tried to prove that the
Councils at Nicea expunged all references to
reincarnation from the words of Jesus. He was after
all, influenced by the Essenes, who did believe in
transmigration of souls.
---end of excerpt---

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