Greek Buddha, part I

Greek BuddhaI often say that Stoicism is the Western equivalent of Buddhism, since there are many similarities between the two philosophies, based on what little I have read about Buddhism, and what I am told by friends and colleagues who know much more about it than I do. But could it be that some of these similarities are not the result of convergent cultural evolution, but rather of direct historical influence? It is not a crazy idea, given that we know that the Greeks came into extensive contact with Indian culture at the least in the time of Alexander the Great, and likely significantly earlier.

It is thus with more than a little curiosity that I tackled the reading of Christopher I. Beckwith’s intriguing Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia.

The book is not about Stoicism, which gets mentioned a total of seven times, but rather about Pyrrhonism, that is a particular form of skeptic philosophy that — Beckwith contends — is significantly different from everything else the Greek produced, with the difference being explained by the influence that early Buddhism had on Pyrrho, who was in fact part of the retinue of Alexander. Since Pyrrhonism did, in turn, influence Stoicism, as well as other Hellenistic philosophies, this is an intriguing suggestion, well worth exploring.

I should acknowledge at the beginning that I’m in no position to evaluate the more technical claims made by Beckwith in the book, especially those concerning academic disputes about the doctrines of early Buddhism. I have read some criticism of the book in that respect, and I’d like readers who are better acquainted with that scholarship than myself to chime in.

That said, let me start with a discussion, in this post, of the Preface to Greek Buddha, where the author makes some interesting general historical and philosophical claims. In the next post I will examine Beckwith’s broader discussion of the phenomenon of Greek enlightenment (his chapter 4) and its relationship to both Pyrrhonism and Buddhism.

Beckwith begins his story with the Scythians, who built a large empire in Central Asia, stretching to China, in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. Eventually, they came into conflict with the Persian empire, and it is this particular clash of civilizations that provides the basis for the author’s main argument regarding the relationship between Buddhism and Pyrrhonism.

We are introduced to two great Scythian philosophers. The first one was Anacharsis, whose mother was Greek and who traveled to Greece around the time of the 47th Olympics (592-589 BCE). He eventually became so well known as to be counted as one of the mythical Seven Sages, and Sextus Empiricus describes Anacharsis’ treatment of the so-called Problem of the Criterion, one of the fundamental problems in epistemology: What do we know? How are we to decide in any particular case whether we have knowledge? Interestingly, Anacharsis’ discussion appears to be very similar to the one found in the Chinese Chuangtzu, and Beckwith suggests that the similarity is no accident, but rather the result of a possible transmission to China via the Scythian empire.

The second Scythian sage to which we are introduced is none other than Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha. We don’t really know the exact dates of his life, though his personal name, Gautama, is recorded in the above mentioned Chuangtzu.

According to Beckwith, “the Buddha is the only Indian holy man before early modern times who bears an epithet explicitly identifying him as a non-Indian, a foreigner. … Buddha has been identified as Śākamuni ~ Śākyamuni ‘Sage of the Scythians’ in all varieties of Buddhism from the beginning of the recorded Buddhist tradition to the present.”

The next intriguing piece of the puzzle concerns the conquest of Central Asia by the Persian king Darius, who introduced Zoroastrianism to the area. This was a strongly monotheistic religion, which incorporated both the idea of absolute truth and that of the accumulation of “credits” for good or bad behavior (which later became the concept of “karma”), the balance of which determined whether a person would be “reborn” in Heaven. Indeed, “Zoroaster was … the first to teach the doctrines of … Heaven and Hell, the future resurrection of the body … and life everlasting for the reunited soul and body.” (Sounds familiar? It should, since these ideas also greatly influenced the Abrahimic faiths, and particularly what later became known as Christianity.)

Why is this of any concern for our story? Because Beckwith contends that there were two diametrically opposite Indian reactions to Zoroastrianism: early Brahmanism embraced the basic concepts of the foreign faith, while early Buddhism decidedly rejected them.

It is that rejection that eventually influenced Phyrro and his philosophy. He joined the entourage of Alexander, but he heard his teacher, Anaxarchus, being chastised by an Indian philosopher for pandering to Alexander. That reminded Phyrro of a poem he wrote in praise of the Macedonian conqueror, which in turn led him to isolate himself in shame. During his isolation, Diogenes Laertius tells us, he met a number of Iranic and Indian philosophers, who influenced his thinking.

Pyrrho “taught about ethics, specifically about the causes of pathē ‘passion, suffering’ and a way to be apatheia ‘without passion, suffering’, and thus achieve ataraxia ‘undisturbedness, calm’. … He urges us therefore to have no views, and to have no inclinations for or against any interpretations or views on ethical matters.”

Here the influence on Hellenistic philosophy is obvious. Apatheia is what the Stoics strove for, while ataraxia was the goal of the Epicureans (for the difference between the two see here).

Beckwith points out that no modern scholar has been able to explain the Pyrhhonian system as a whole in terms of its relations with other Greek philosophies, and adds that “Richard Bett has shown that the key distinctive point of Pyrrho’s thought that is unprecedented in Greece and sets it apart from all other Greek philosophy is that having ‘no views’ and choosing to ‘not decide’ leads to the goal of undisturbedness, peace,” adding that that take on the relationship between having no views and undisturbedness is an early Buddhist concept.

The Stoics, of course, very much did develop opinions and views in ethics, but they also retained the core idea that there are many things from which we need to detach ourselves in order to achieve apatheia. Those things are called (preferred and dispreferred) indifferents, and include everything that is not in our power, i.e., all things external to our will and judgment.

18 thoughts on “Greek Buddha, part I

  1. I posted this over on FB but thought it should probably go here as well: Johannes Bronkhorst, one of the few real experts on early Buddhism, has a pretty scathing review of this book that can be accessed here:

    One key point is in regards to the supposed link between the Scythians and the Buddha. Beckwith makes this claim based upon a tendentious reading of Śākyamuni as “Śākamuni”. As Bronkhorst points out though, the former spelling is never encountered in the texts. So the link seems fanciful at best.


  2. Scholars do not consider the Buddha to have been foreign to the area in which he taught. Śākyamuni means “safe of the Śākya clan” which is a clan understood to have been residing in the general area of what is today NE India/Nepal.


  3. FWIW I also think Bronkhorst is correct in noting that early Buddhism did not deny a self, or self-identity, so the claimed philosophical link to Pyrrho just isn’t there either. This seems to be rather a dog’s breakfast.


  4. “Interestingly, Anacharsis’ discussion appears to be very similar to the one found in the Chinese Chuangtzu, and Beckwith suggests that the similarity is no accident, but rather the result of a possible transmission to China via the Scythian empire.”

    That’s a lot of influence to attribute to a guy who supposedly murdered by his own brother for being too Greek. If Herodotus was right in his account of Anacharsis, it doesn’t sound like the guy would have been very popular among the Scythians, let alone that they would carry his message to China.

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  5. Douglass – I know very little about Buddhism, but enough to know that most of the books I have read, despite claiming to be true to early Buddhist teachings are not. I went on Amazon to see what Johannes Bronkhorst has written – its a lot. Can you recommend one of his books that speaks of truly early Buddhism. I am used to reading Christian literature with some critical apparatus of what is early and what is late, and most of the devotees of Buddhism I have spoken to are not interested in early/late issues. Rob


  6. Robin, for early Buddhism, good intro-ish sources would include Bronkhorst’s Buddhist Teaching in India, Richard Gombrich’s Theravāda Buddhism and What the Buddha Thought, Rupert Gethin’s Foundations of Buddhism, Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught.


  7. Rahula’s is a classic, but considered a bit out of date as far as scholarship goes.

    There is a severe paucity of study in Buddhism on early material. Partly I think this is a sectarian problem; much scholarship in the west involves later schools such as Zen and Tibetan.

    Most of the early scholarship at this point is essay rather than book. Would recommend Anālayo’s long paper on the origins of the Bodhisattva ideal as an example. You should be able to find it with a Google search.


  8. I’ve tended to assume that the Sakyas were Sanskrit speakers and if that’s true, then anyone would be on nearly rock-solid ground to hold a cultural convergence with proto-Greek speakers somewhere back in time as they are both Indo-European.
    Both on that basis, and the simple basis that the same truth can be discovered in many places and times, I have tended to think there’s something to the relationship between Stoic thought and Buddhist thought, and even beyond that, to Greek philosophy in general. Pythagoras, kinda sounds like “Pitta guru”, Ammonius Saccas could be heard to be “Sakyas”.
    Having said all of that: until now I’ve never heard that Siddhārtha Gautama was Scythian – and I’m no expert but I have read enough that it says something that that comes as news to me. Would be cool, – fascinating really – if true, but I’ve never heard it before.


  9. The Śākyas would not have spoken Sanskrit. They would have spoken a local Prakrit dialect, probably somewhat similar to Pāli. But since Prakrits are sanskritic dialects, the Buddha would have spoken an Indo-European language. That said, roots linking that Prakrit to Greek would have extended back thousands of years. There is no reason to believe any particular philosophical convergence, aside perhaps from the (IMO) striking similarity in argument and reasoned clarity. But even that is little more than speculation.


  10. This sort of tenuous connections seem completely unnecessary when it is already well known that Buddhism was proselytized in the 3rd century BC in the West. It obviously did not produce any religious communities as it did in the East, but it surely had an influence.


  11. I dunnoh.
    For one – I don’t think there’s much evidence of a connection between Pali dialects and the language of the Sakyas – there’s a geographic difference to account for to start with. What’s more probable is that the Sakyas spoke a dialect of Aryan and the Pali canon arose out of any of the number of areas that the Buddha proselytized.
    But more importantly: it matters because it says quite a bit. If we know – and I think we do – that the Sakyas spoke a dialect of Indo-European, then we know that they were ethnically / linguistically of the same cultural stock that gave rise to the Greeks and the Latins – and we may conjecture a common origin around 4000 YBP, or roughly in the realm of 2000 BCE, which is not so remote IMO especially considering that the Sakyas first show up on the scene around 1500 BCE and the Mycenaean Greeks were not far behind, but in the other direction.
    More : look at what that tells you is ** not ** so:
    The Sakyas were not : Dravidian, Chinese, Turkic, etc.
    And we can say we ** know ** that – it’s not conjecture.
    Rather, they were of the same extract from which we also received the Latins and the Greeks. That’s sound linguistic and ethnic historicity – and historicity that is likely at odds with the unexamined assumptions people are likely to make about Siddhārtha’s clan.

    The criticism I’d wage is that by looking for a more recent connection with the Scythians that seems tenuous, the author missed out on a far more defensible, and interesting connection with common Indo-European origins.


  12. Sounds interesting but I am not sure what scholars would say about some of this. The connection between the Saka and Shakya seems a bit far fetched to me. It is known that some Saka entered India during some time of their history (from the 2nd century BC on, as far as I know, so some time after Shakyamuni) and also that some of them becam Buddhist (there are Buddhist texts in what is thought to be Saka language), but the Shakya seem to be a different group and the word has some Sanskrit ethymology.


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