Dear Brothers and Sisters,
 
This post is in response to Celeste's recent question about possible
similarities or links between Gnosticism and Buddhism. She is quite
right to point to a Buddhist "flavor" to the language and concepts I
have been using to discuss Gnostic morality. This is actually quite
deliberate – and although we are trained by our post-modern culture
to value only things that are purely "original" and to view
derivation from anything else as a point of conflict, we should
remember that even the canonical Gospel of Matthew shows Jesus
saying, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom
of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his
treasure what is new and what is old" (Matt. 13:52). In an
inclusive and somewhat syncretizing religion such as Gnosticism,
other religious traditions offer a rich storehouse of language,
concepts, and liturgical practices, from which we can draw – not,
indeed, in the sense of stealing someone else's identity, as with
mainstream Christianity's stance toward Judaism, but in a way that
venerates the traditions of our religious predecessors, and our
religious fellow-travelers in the contemporary world. Let me
explain a little more about what I mean.
 
Of all the things we can learn about early Gnosticism from the Nag
Hammadi and other texts – cosmology, speculative theology,
christology, sophology, concepts of God, and so on – what is perhaps
least easy to recover is the details that may have comprised various
Gnostic moral theologies. In part, this is probably because what
was saved by the monks or scholars who buried the Nag Hammadi
writings were what we might call the "ubertexts" of Gnosticism, on
which secondary writings such as those concerning moral theology
were based. These secondary writings, being less precious in the
eyes of the Gnostic community, were probably more likely to have
fallen into Christian hands and been destroyed, or even to have
simply been lost in all the turmoil surrounding the Roman Empire's
embrace of mainstream Christianity. The few explicit references we
do have about the moral lives of Gnostics are almost exclusively in
polemical Christian anti-Gnostic texts, like Irenaeus' various
tirades against Gnosticism from the second century. These are, to
say the least, to be suspected of some degree of bias, because their
purpose was to portray Gnosticism, as it were, as the evil ugly
stepsister of Christianity.
 
Because of that, our work in moral theology is above all rooted in a
deeply reflective "exegesis," or "reading outward" of
those "ubertexts" that do provide the most basic theological points
for constructing a moral system. So, as a preliminary example, we
might ask the question of whether Gnosticism should propound any
sort of morality at all, or whether everything should just be a kind
of free-for-all. But we quickly see, as in the Gospel of Thomas,
that we are indeed called to a certain way of life and a certain
form of relationship to ourselves and our fellow human beings,
for "Whoever has ears, let him hear. There is light within a person
of light, and that one lights up the whole world. If she does not
shine, she is darkness" (Gos. Thom. 24, gender exclusion dropped by
me).
 
Of course, though, our moral reasoning cannot consist solely of
this, because many of the early Gnostic texts were quite broad and
vague (perhaps deliberately so), and could be subject to widely
varying interpretations. It is here that we turn to other spiritual
systems that seem to be resonant with our own in terms of basic
worldview or fundamental theology. We go to these other religions,
as it were, to "ask for advice" about how we should put together our
own moral system.
 
There are indeed profound points of resonance between Gnosticism and
Buddhism. We both begin with what we critics might call a
great "cosmic pessimism," but what I would call a healthy awareness
of the reality of innocent suffering in the world that we dwell in,
and of the contradictory experiences that seem endemic to the human
condition (life and death, pain and joy, suffering and beauty, and
so forth). Some have even gone so far as to say that Gnosticism
is "Buddhism for the West." I would not go that far, but it is not
stretching it too much to say that the first three of the Four Noble
Truths could function perfectly well in my estimation as a
description of the most basic theological precepts of Gnosticism.
 
The one difference that is profound, and cannot be glossed over, is
that we are a pronouncedly, we might even say aggressively theistic
religion. We believe and seek the divine, and not merely as some
sort of speculative "God up in the sky," but as the ultimate reality
and final destination of our inmost experiences. It is union with
the divine that is sought by gnosis, whereas the concept
of "nirvana" in Buddhism, which is certainly the result of a kindred
process of enlightenment, is however above all a condition of
emptiness, once experience has been "hollowed out" so to speak, of
the many attachments that cause suffering. So, to put it another
way, if we ask what is "underneath it all" (conceptually, not
spatially), I think the Buddhist answer would be closer
to "Nothingness" and our answer would be closer to "God."
 
On the other hand, the great Gnostic teacher from Alexandria, St.
Basilides, also expressed a theology of God as the "ouk on theos,"
the "no-being God," which is to say, at least in the way that I and
my own work have contributed a very small amount toward modern neo-
classical Basilidean thinking in the past few years, that because
human language is incapable of comprehending God, God functions in
relation to physicality and physical formalism in ways that are, so
to speak, more like a penultimate negation than an affirmative
quality. Thus, we say God is Love, we say God is Peace – but
ultimately, the only thing we as humans can mean by those words is
that God is greater than the greatest human Lover, that God is more
peaceful than the most peaceful human moments, when in reality God
is not some kind of "Super-Man or Super-Woman in the Sky," but
utterly transcendent in a way that can only be adequately expressed
at some point by linguistic negation. We are reminded of this in
texts such as the Gospel of Philip, which challenges us to refute
our conditioned beliefs in a anthropomorphized "God" -- "That is the
way it is in the world - men make gods and worship their creation.
It would be fitting for the gods to worship men!" (Gos. Phil.)
 
Nevertheless, having said all that, I think a significant difference
on this question remains standing between the two systems.
 
At any rate, in articulating the three major principles of Gnostic
morality – Moderation, Right Intention, and Non-Harm – we draw from
the so-called Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, particularly the
second, fourth, and seventh principles (Right Intention, Right
Action, Right Mindfulness). However, we owe at least as much to
other moral systems as well. In the area of Moderation, we draw
from the many classical Graeco-Roman philosophers and scholars who
propounded the idea of the "via media" or the "middle road" as a key
part of a moral consciousness. In the area of Non-Harm, our
concepts are probably guided more than anything else by neo-pagan
and "Wiccan" ideas about the same principle, and with Right
Intention, while Buddhism provides the name for us, we also draw on
many Christian and Jewish moral philosophers who have explored the
interrelationships between intentionality, the will, and moral
responsibility for our actions and inaction.
 
Since this post has become quite lengthy, I will add a shorter one
that responds to the question about direct or formative links
between the two religions.
 
In Christ and Sophia,
 
Matthew

 

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
 
In an earlier post, I responded to our sister Celeste's question
about the relationship between Gnosticism and Buddhism by talking
about the general moral and conceptual affinities, but now I would
like to very briefly address the possible direct or formative links
between the two religions. This post can be brief because,
unfortunately, we have very little evidence that would help us make
a determination on this either way. I will, however, take this
opportunity to offer my personal thoughts about it, which are more
in the nature of preliminary speculation than firm theorizing.
 
As I am sure many of you are aware, various Gnostic and quasi-
Gnostic groups have, from the very earliest times, seemed to feel a
particularly affinity for certain apostles, particularly St. Thomas
and St. Mary Magdalene. It seems likely that after their experience
of the resurrection, various influential disciples including perhaps
Thomas, Peter, John, Mary, and later Paul, began to spread the
message of Christ by first forming small groups of their own
disciples. These may have eventually grown into larger "schools"
that identified with the particular teachings of a certain apostle,
whether or not the school was directly envisioned or actually
initiated by the legendary "founder." This "school
theory" is fairly common among liberal Christian theologians and
scholars today, because it explains, for example, why some of the
letters ascribed to Paul seem, for historical and literary reasons,
not to have been written by Paul himself. Such literary creations
were not understood at all in our modern sense of "plagiarism,"
because they were considered to be a kind of veneration of the
master and in some sense a continuation of the master's work, even
once he or she had passed on. This seems to be relevant as well to
the way that Plato used Socrates as a kind of voice for his own
philosophy in the many dialogues he "recorded."
 
Thus, it may be that one, or perhaps one of several schools
dedicated to the teachings of St. Thomas may have produced the
Gospel of Thomas and then been influential in the subsequent
development of pre-Gnostic and Gnostic thought in the late first and
second centuries. This would explain the important presence of
Thomas as a "character" in Gnostic writings – not merely
as the author of the Gospel of Thomas, but as an interlocutor who
asks extremely pertinent and piercing questions of Jesus in
conversation. We see this in the Nag Hammadi texts in, for example,
the Sophia of Jesus Christ, but even more strikingly the fascinating
Book of Thomas the Contender.
 
If you can put those thoughts on hold for a moment, let me mention
another part of early Christian legend – the idea that various
apostles and followers of Christ, after receiving the so-
called "Great Commission" of Jesus, went around the world
spreading the message of "The Way." Thus, Peter went to evangelize
Rome, Andrew to Greece, Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene to
Gaul (France) or perhaps even to Britannia (England) and Hibernia
(Ireland). Some of these claims, such as the martyrdom of Peter in
Rome, have received a degree of scholarly affirmation and certainly
seem plausible; others, especially those involving disciples
traveling huge distances at very old ages are clearly ridiculous if
one interprets them as literal truths. However, they may contain or
cover a kernel of greater truth, which is that perhaps disciples OF
the disciples made these journeys – perhaps Christians who looked
back to Joseph of Arimathea did make their way to Gaul and England;
perhaps followers of Andrew did focus on the evangelization of
Greece.
 
Now, I know most of you are very astute, and you can already see
where this is leading. Where was St. Thomas legendarily supposed to
have gone? That's right: INDIA, where he was said to have gone
and formed the first Christian communities before being martyred by
spearing. Here is where we get into pure speculation, and lots
of "if's," so please remember that this is only a very
preliminary and sketchy hypothesis that likely never can be
historically proved. IF followers of Thomas were in fact
influential within early Gnosticism, and IF followers of Thomas did
make journeys toward India, and IF those followers returned or had
some means of communicating with their fellow believers, is it not
possible that there could have been some connection between Buddhism
and the nascent religion of Gnosticism? It is, of course,
impossible to say whether such a connection, if it occurred, may
have led to Buddhism influencing Gnosticism, or Gnosticism or quasi-
Gnostic Christianity influencing Buddhism, or perhaps both at the
same time.
 
Certainly it is clear that the most immediate influences on
Gnosticism, outside of Christianity, were Egyptian religion, Jewish
Wisdom literature, Graeco-Roman cults such as those of Athena and
Artemis, mystery religions such as Orphism and Mithraism, and
Mesopotamian traditions of the great goddess Astarte/Ishtar, a
mediatrix of knowledge (and many other gifts) in a way that
uncannily prefigured the Gnostic Sophia. However, we should by no
means exclude the remote (or perhaps less remote) possibility that
some form of Buddhism did come in some kind of contact with some
form of Gnosticism at some time or other prior to the suppression of
Gnosticism in North African and the West.
 
Having said this, let me reemphasize again what I said in an earlier
post. I share, for once, the feelings of Paul, who wrote, "I am
a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, to the wise and to the
foolish...I have become all things to all men and women, that I
might by all means save some." We are heirs to many traditions,so
let us approach them in love and respect and veneration for the many
truths that they have brought before the human family for its
enlightenment. We do not, in the end, have to seek historical
verification or indulge in flights of hypothetical fancy to know
that Christ and Sophia call us to a radical and all-embracing
syncretism in our religious formation. This is, after all, what it
means to be a Gnostic in the world – to heal what has been
divided; to put together what has come asunder; to cross the abyss
by an invisible bridge of love, without falling into the chasm; to
straddle the divisions of material existence and thus break through
these dichotomies – so that we temper our inner femininity with
masculinity, and purify our inner masculinity with femininity; that
we fill our actions with passivity and our stillness with perpetual
motion; that we shine as an inextinguishable light to the world even
as we enter into the absolute darkness of mystical ascent; that we
become water to the world's fire, and rivers to dissolve the
rocks of the world's hatred and bitterness and pain; that we speak
when the world tells us to stay silent, and stay silent when the
world commands us to speak. We are the reversers, we are the
contradictors, we are the paradoxes. We are the disturbers of the
peace. We are the little blinking letters that hack their way into
the computers of the world's consciousness and say, "Wake
up!" So, let us seek out everything that can help us in our quest,
in
veneration and in thankfulness.
 
In Christ and Sophia,
 
Matthew

 

Further: Buddhism and Gnosticism

 

 

The Eightfold Path of Christianity

In Ephesians 6 Paul says “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so
that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground,
and after you have done everything, to stand.”

1. Stand firm with the belt of truth buckled around your waist
2. Put on the breastplate of righteousness
3. Your feet be fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of
peace
4. Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the
flaming arrows of the evil one
5. Put on the helmet of salvation
6. And the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God
7. Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all prayers and requests
8. Be alert and always persevere in praying for the holy ones

This is an eightfold armor, an eightfold path. Paul’s classification
differs slightly from the Buddha’s, but in essence the contents are the
same. The classification has to vary from time to time, because the
nature of our physiology and our mortal souls are continually subject to
change and crystallization. So the way of the eightfold path must always
change in order to adapt to changing times.

 

……………

 

 

 

The Noble Eightfold Path is sometimes divided into three basic divisions, as follows:[6]

Division Eightfold Path factors Acquired factors
Wisdom (Sanskrit: prajñā, Pāli: paññā) 1. Right view 9. Right knowledge
2. Right intention 10. Right liberation
Ethical conduct (Sanskrit: śīla, Pāli: sīla) 3. Right speech  
4. Right action  
5. Right livelihood  
Concentration (Sanskrit and Pāli: samādhi) 6. Right effort  
7. Right mindfulness  
8. Right concentration  

 

According to the bhikkhu (monk) and scholar Walpola Rahula, the divisions of the noble eightfold path “are to be developed more or less simultaneously, as far as possible according to the capacity of each individual. They are all linked together and each helps the cultivation of the others.”[7] Bhikkhu Bodhi explains that “with a certain degree of progress all eight factors can be present simultaneously, each supporting the others. However, until that point is reached, some sequence in the unfolding of the path is inevitable”.[8]

According to the discourses in the Pali and Chinese canons, right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness are used as the support and requisite conditions for the practice of right concentration. Understanding of the right view is the preliminary role, and is also the forerunner of the entire Noble Eightfold Path.[9][10] The practitioner should first try to understand the concepts of right view. Once right view has been understood, it will inspire and encourage the arising of right intention within the practitioner. Right intention will lead to the arising of right speech. Right speech will lead to the arising of right action. Right action will lead to the arising of right livelihood. Right livelihood will lead to the arising of right effort. Right effort will lead to the arising of right mindfulness.[11][12] The practitioner must make the right effort to abandon the wrong view and to enter into the right view. Right mindfulness is used in order to constantly remain in the right view.[13][14] This will help the practitioner restrain greed, hatred and delusion.

Once these support and requisite conditions have been established, a practitioner can then practice right concentration more easily. During the practice of right concentration, one will need to use right effort and right mindfulness to aid concentration practice. In the state of concentration, one will need to investigate and verify his or her understanding of right view. This will then result in the arising of right knowledge, which will eliminate greed, hatred and delusion. The last and final factor to arise is right liberation.

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