Saturday, November 30, 2013

East meets West meets East

Merging East and West
Some days ago I wrote in a post (Journey thru Hell to Heaven), “I stand between the two worlds of East and West and my challenge is to fuse the two just as they were for me…” That comment created a misunderstanding of my intent causing some to think I was deprecating either the East or the West, with some responding that the movement from West to the East had corrupted the East (and some the reverse). My response was that it wasn’t a matter of who started what since my intention was to promote unity without concern for the initiation of the exchange. What few seem to recognize is this exchange is nothing new. The truth is it began as far back as the 6th century BCE following the death of The Buddha, due to the Diaspora of Buddhism out of India along the Silk Road to the West (and also throughout Asia). What even fewer recognize was the influence Buddhist thought had on the development of early Christianity. Today I want to put this issue into the proper framework by connecting a few important historical events of this exchange.

The latest archeological discovery of the Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini, Napal (the birth place of the Buddha) establishes The Buddha’s life in the 6th century BCE. When he died his teachings moved out of India to the West along the Silk Road, through Asia Minor, Central Asia and eventually as far to the West as the Balkans. At that time in history the Balkans included ancient Greece and philosophers who accompanied Alexander the Great during his conquests to the East carried Buddhist thought back to Greece.

Alexander’s conquest ended in India at the battle of the Hydaspes River in 326 BCE and he died three years later. During his eastern conquest several Greek philosophers, such as Pyrrho, Anaxarchus and Onesicritus, were allegedly selected by Alexander to accompany him and thus the exchange commenced. Pyrrho then returned to Greece and became the first Skeptic and the founder of the school named Pyrrhonism.

Upon the death of Alexander a struggle for succession of power began ending when General Seleucus defeated his adversary in 312 BCE and started the Seleucid Empire that lasted for 259 years, ranging from northern India to the Balkans. The nature of the culture in this empire was a blend of Greek philosophy and Buddhism known as Greco Buddhism. Meanwhile Buddhist thought was being well established back in Greece and is documented by quotes of philosophers of the time:

“Nothing really exists, but human life is governed by convention, and nothing is in itself more this than that” (Diogenes Laertius IX.61)

Another of these philosophers, Onesicritus, a Cynic, is said by Strabo to have learnt in India the following precepts: “That nothing that happens to a man is bad or good, opinions being merely dreams. The best philosophy is that which liberates the mind from both pleasure and grief.” (Strabo, XV.I.65)

The Allegory of the Cave (also known as Plato’s Cave, or the Parable of the Cave) was presented by the Plato in his work The Republic: a major work that reflects the fundamental understanding that perceptible life is like a shadow whereas real life occurs by those perceiving the shadows.

The next critical step along this path of exchange occurred between educated Jews and the syncretic blend of Greco Buddhist thought. The Apostle Paul, more than any other person is responsible for the writing of the New Testament and because he was reared in a Greek and Roman environment, he received thorough education in the Greek language, history, and culture. It is highly unlikely that he didn’t absorb this blend, even though he may not have been aware of the roots. By the time of his life the syncretism had become common coin.

What has never been established is the impact this had on Jesus but what has been established is the effect on the emergence and proliferation on a branch of early Christianity known as Gnostic Christianity. During the nascent development of the official church, the Gnostics were considered as a heretical threat to the political development and eventually were destroyed. However, before their movement was brought to an end they hid their scrolls in a cave which were then discovered in December 1945, in the Upper Egyptian desert by an Arab peasant. The discovery has radically changed our understanding of the early Christians and shown the correspondence between what Jesus was recorded as having taught and fundamental Buddhist tenets. It is thus not surprising to grasp that the essential message of Jesus was the same as that of The Buddha: Unconditional, non-discriminate love.

It is a gross mischaracterization of basic Christianity as being different from basic Buddhism since they both teach the same thing. What has unfortunately occurred is for modern Christians to have blended a distorted understanding of the teachings of Jesus with Old Testament Judaism resulting in a mismatch between an “eye for an eye” conflict versus universal acceptance and brotherhood among all people.

So much for the history lesson concerning of the exchange between the West and the East. The whole point is not who started what but rather to be aware that the foundation of both is a view of life that acknowledges an imperceptible, transcendent unity. It is the reality of the seer (e.g. consciousness) not the seen that should govern our lives. At that transcendent level everything is indiscriminate and unified. We are all that unconditional consciousness that lies hidden beneath the perceptible dimension of relative life.
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