Monday, November 22, 2010

Contagious Ideas

Buddhism is arguably the most attractive religion on the planet to anyone willing to give it a chance. Sure, there are hurdles in its reality that I can’t bring myself to jump over, but there is something fundamentally different about Buddhism.

For one thing, Buddhism is the first salvation faith (though I imagine this is not what a Buddhist would call it). It was the first major world religion to really coin the idea of death as something that could be overcome by the average person. Other major religions shared this basic concept to some extent, primarily the Egyptians, but their religion was highly focused on the nobility and monarch. The average person was not mummified and prepared for their transport into a blissful afterlife.

Instead of relying heavily upon rituals of appeasement, Buddhism is a path defined by one’s personal search for knowledge. What’s more, Buddhism likely had a heavy influence on the salvation faiths that followed.

It is a fairly well known fact at this point that Eastern religion found its way into Mesopotamia centuries before the time of Jesus. It’s also accepted by most scholars that Christianity could have been influenced by Buddhism. Even devout Christians are obliged to admit that Buddhism is particularly influential in the Gnostic sects and Manichaeism.

While much of Buddhism’s influence is found in the apocrypha, some found its way into biblical canon. Both Buddha and Jesus were conceived to virgins by divine means. The birth of both was preceded by a bright light in the sky. Both abandon their lives and families to practice ascetic lives of wandering with disciples, preaching in towns and staying in the homes of strangers. While Buddha calls himself the great father with sons of light, Jesus calls himself the son of the great father and “the light of the world.” Both call their ideologies “the way” or “the path.”

The evidence continues to mount when looking at the historical iconography. Early Christianity used Buddhist imagery. The wheel with eight spokes (a symbol of the Buddhist eight-fold path) is seen in this satellite view of St. Peter’s Plaza in Vatican City:

This seems quite comparable to the Buddhist eight-spoked wheel:

But The Vatican might just be a coincidence, right? A little harder to simply write-off is this piece of graffiti from the ancient city of Ephesus:

Written next to the Greek word “ichthys,” meaning “fish,” this links early Christianity (of an undetermined sect) with Buddhist iconography.

In fact, it is likely that Jesus knew of this connection. Those three wise men who were so eager to meet him at his birth go largely unexplained in the Gospels. Why would Persian magi have any interest in a Jewish Messiah?

In all likelihood, the magi were Zoroastrians who had been in contact with Buddhists. Jesus was born roughly 500 years after some estimated years of Buddha’s death, and many believed this was when the Buddha would return. They were likely looking for Maitreya, the reincarnation of Sakyamuni (the Buddha). Would it be such a stretch to suggest these Zoroastrians, who are attested even in the canonical gospels, may have played some role in the formation of Jesus’ ideology?

There is also the small matter of many early Christians believing in reincarnation. Origen and Augustus of Hippo believed in reincarnation for a time (or their work was redacted by later theologians to appear as though they changed their opinions). Many Gnostic sects not only believed in reincarnation (Sethians and Valentinians, for example), they sought a personal need to attain the knowledge that makes one capable of transcending the material world… which is awfully reminiscent of Buddhist enlightenment.

Nor was the influence one-way. Indian religion (for example, Mahayana Buddhism) was influenced by Christian missionaries (like St. Thomas) who set up Christian communities in the East. There are even radical and unfounded (though entertaining) claims that Jesus himself travelled to India during the decades of Jesus’ life that are undocumented by the gospels.

At this point, it is important to note that some of the underlying claims are speculation, as the life (or very existence) of Jesus are subjects of extreme historical controversy, bias and tampering. Centuries of suppression make any analysis of early Christianity sketchy at best, and direct influence is difficult to prove or disprove.

It is possible that two groups of human beings experiencing the same world independently came to the same philosophical conclusions. Mathematicians in both Mayan and Indian cultures came up with the concept and representation of “zero,” and the Aztecs and Egyptians both built pyramids worlds apart. However, we know with certainty that ideas (along with goods) passed between the less disjointed ancient worlds of the East and West, compared to the largely isolated New World.

Mani is one particular figure who perfectly exemplifies an attested East-meets-West thinker. A 3rd century Iranian philosopher who wrote in Syrian Aramaic and Persian, Mani’s theology was the basis for Manichaeism.

Even later, medieval Norse mythology was heavily influenced by Eastern theology. The Norse Aesir and Buddhist/Hindu Asura are linguistically linked, as are many of the names and functions of various gods. They also share a belief in reincarnation which can be escaped (Buddhists seek Enlightenment, Norse seek to die in battle… a slight divergence).

I suppose my point is that ideas are catchy, or as the Buddha would put it: a single flame can light an infinite number of candles.


  1. Interesting points. I never considered that Buddhism might have influenced Christianity in such a way.

    I considered Buddhism when I was between Christianity and atheism. It was very attractive at the time.

  2. Buddhism gets really weird if you try to practice it as an organized religion, but I imagine it's largely logical sounding if you just read about it and try to practice it how you imagine it would work.

  3. Hmmmm . . . funny, I never thought of it much as an organized religion. Just from a loner's perspective. But, I guess I'd have to find a group of monks to live with, huh?

  4. I never realized that St. Peter's plaza was in the shape of a wheel with eight spokes. Pretty awesome. But I do believe that several events and plot points of the story of the life of Jesus are plagiarized from the story of the life of Siddhartha Gautama. As far as I'm concerned, if Jesus really existed, he was a buddhist. Christians got the whole thing wrong.


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