Book Review: Greek Buddha

IMG_7923Four centuries lie between the time the Buddha lived and the time the earliest known Gandhari and Pali Buddhist texts were committed to writing. Since religions are never static affairs, these texts undoubtedly diverged to some extent from the Buddha’s original teachings, but exactly how far and in which ways is uncertain; our knowledge of the gap between the earliest Buddhist teachings and early canonical Buddhism is basically a vast, empty chasm. Unfortunately for us, the Buddha’s Indian contemporaries lacked both a written language and an understanding of how history differs from mythology and hagiography.

Indulge me in a thought experiment: Imagine that you and I live in a preliterate society. Imagine that nothing Abraham Lincoln ever said or did was written down, either at the time or subsequently. Imagine that there are no photographs or drawings of him. Imagine that there were no documents pertaining to the Civil War – no quartermasters’ inventories, no Mathew Brady photographs, no slave diaries, no rosters of those who served, no records of Lincoln’s speeches. Imagine too that there is no written record of the presidents who served before or after Lincoln.  All that exists is our memory of what our parents and teachers told us face to face, based on their memory of what their parents and teachers told them.

If this was so, how accurate would our knowledge of Lincoln be today? How much of what he said would be accurately remembered and generally agreed upon?

Think of all the apocryphal Lincoln “quotes” that currently float through the Internet in all their glorious inaccuracy.


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Now imagine that another three hundred years passes before the orally transmitted “knowledge” of Lincoln is finally set down on paper.  How much more inaccurate would those ideas about Lincoln be?

This is the state we find ourselves in when in comes to the Buddha.

Christopher Beckwith’s new book, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (2015, Princeton) is a fascinating attempt to fill this historical void with educated speculation. Beckwith urges us to make his own mental experiment. He suggests that we bracket off almost everything we think we “know” about early Buddhism from canonical sources, and instead invites us to follow him as he attempts to reconstruct early Buddhism from sources closer in time to when the Buddha actually lived, namely the stone edicts and pillars of the Mauryan kings, the records of ancient Greek travelers, recent archeological findings, and the earliest Chinese Taoist texts.

Beckwith pays special attention to one such Greek traveller: Pyrrho of Elis, a young artist who travelled with Alexander the Great to Gandhara in the years 327-325 B.C. where Pyrrho met with and was influenced by a group of early Buddhist practitioners. Pyrrho returned to Greece espousing a radical new philosophy—“Pyrrhonism”—which bore more than a surface resemblance to the Buddhism he encountered in Gandhara (as has been noted previously by scholars like Georgios Halkias). For example, Pyrrho cultivated apatheia (passionlessness) in order to develop ataraxia (inner calm). He made explicit use of the fourfold negation of the tetralemma [five centuries before Nagarjuna!]. He was celibate, lived in simplicity, engaged in meditation, and was regarded by his neighbors as a holy man. He recommended  an attitude of “not-knowing” in regards to pragmata, ordisputed ethical questions.” Pyrrho viewed pragmata as having three primary characteristics: they were inherently adiaphora (undifferentiated by logical differentia—possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “anatta”), astathmeta (unbalanced—possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “dukkha”) and anepikrita (indeterminate — possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “annica”). The degree to which Pyrrho’s three qualities of pragmata actually map one-to-one onto the Buddha’s three marks of existence is a question I’ll leave to better philologists and philosophers than myself, but I found Beckwith’s argument intriguing. 

Beckwith then takes his argument a step further. He notes that concepts like “karma” and “rebirth” are mentioned by neither Pyrrho nor Megasthenes (another traveling Greek who served as Seleucus Nicatator’s ambassador to Chandragupta from 302 to 298 B.C.). Based on this, Beckwith asserts that these ideas weren’t a part of early Buddhism. This seems like an awfully big assumption to make, especially since Pyrrho himself wrote nothing—we only know of his thoughts through the writings of his contemporaries and students.  In addition, while Pyrrho’s philosophy may have been based on Buddhism, he may not have adopted all of Buddhism’s tenets; he may have picked and chosen those ideas that were most consonant with his Hellenic background.  While Beckwith is correct that we’ve no hard evidence that karma and rebirth were Buddhist beliefs prior to 100 B.C., absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence. The most we can say is that he may be right.

Beckwith also speculates on the Buddha’s ethnicity. He argues against the canonical assertion that the Buddha was a native Magadhan born in Lumbini, and argues instead that the name “Śākyamuni” (“Sage of the Śākyas”) suggests that the Buddha was a Śākya, i.e., an ethnic Scythian (a Central Asian people who dominated the steppes). Of course the epithet “Śākyamuni” doesn’t necessarily imply that the Buddha himself was actually “foreign-born.” Alternatively, the Buddha could have been descended from Scythians who migrated to Magadha somewhat earlier, perhaps as early as 850 BC as Jayarava Attwood has speculated. One interesting implication of the Buddha’s possibly Scythian origin is that he may have developed the Dharma, at least in part, in response to Zoroastrianism, the religion of Darius’s Achaemenid Empire which stretched from the Balkans to the Indus Valley. If so, Buddhism can be understood, in part, as a rejection of Zoroastrian monotheism and cosmic dualism.

Beckwith suggests, following the controversial chronology suggested by Johannes Bronkhorst, that early Buddhism preceded the Upanishads and, then goes off on his own to suggest that it also preceded Jainism. He believes that these allegedly later religious traditions adopted aspects of Buddhist teachings and then projected their own origin stories into an imaginary pre-Buddhist past to lend them greater authenticity, in much the same way that the Mahayana would later claim greater antiquity for its own sutras. Beckwith can find no support for the early existence of Jainism in the kinds of data he deems acceptable. The Greek travelers, for example, fail to mention it. The earliest datable references to Jainism are found in the post-100 B.C. Pali literature. Beckwith believes that those Pali Suttas that treat the Buddha and Mahavira as contemporaries are useful fictions designed to address Buddhist-Jain disputes that were current during the era in which they were actually composed.

Even more fascinating is Beckwith’s speculation that Laotzu and the Buddha were one and the same person, and that Taoism grew out of very early Chinese contact with Buddhism. Beckwith does a linguistic analysis of Laotzu’s “actual” name (“Lao Tan”) as recorded around 300 B.C. in Chuangtzu.  He argues that “Lao” is the same as “K’ao,” and that K’ao-Tan could plausibly have been pronounced “Gaw-tam” in certain old Chinese dialects, making it intriguingly close to “Gautama,” with the final /a/ being dropped due to canonical monosyllabicization. This is a linguistic argument far beyond my powers to evaluate.  If true, it makes for a wonderful story of how Buddhism first influenced the formation of Taoism, and then several hundred years later, Taoism returned the favor in coloring how the Chinese translated and understood the Mahayana Sutras. What goes around comes around. In any case, Beckwith believes it to be no accident that similar theories arose nearly simultaneously in Greece, India, and China during the Axial Age, and that there was a greater degree of intercourse between these cultures than has previously been thought. 

There is much more to Beckwith’s book, including discussions of Pyrrho’s influence on David Hume, the provenance of the Mauryan stone edicts and pillars, the linguistic facility of Alexander’s entourage, and Pyrrho’s place in the stream of Greek philosophy.  Beckwith’s discussion of the connection between Pyrrho’s quasi-Buddhist philosophy and David Hume’s examination of the problem of logical induction serendipitously coincides with Alison Gopnick’s recent speculation about how Hume may have become familiarized with Buddhist thought during his stay at the Royal College of La Flèche. Like the parallel emergence of novel philosophies during the Axial Age, the parallels between Hume’s philosophy and Buddhist insights may be due to more than mere coincidence.

There are problems with the Beckwith’s book, to be sure.  As mentioned above, it’s impossible for a non-scholar like myself to evaluate Beckwith’s claims. While some seem plausible, others seem more of a stretch. I suspect it’s better to think of them as hypotheses which can spur future research than to think of them as strongly supported facts. I should also note that  Beckwith could have benefited from a better editor to help him eliminate some of his repetitiveness—he can, at times, worry a point beyond all endurance.

Some readers might be tempted to dismiss Beckwith’s theses as being largely irrelevant to Buddhist practice.  They might think, “What does it matter, in the end, whether the Buddha was really a Scythian or one-and-the-same person as Laotzu?  What matters is how one is coming along in one’s practice and realization.”  While I’m sympathetic to that point of view, I think it’s a mistake.  Our hypotheses about who the Buddha actually was and what the Buddhist project is ultimately about deeply inform our approach to practice. Consider, as one example, Stephen Batchelor’s recent historical reimagining of early Buddhism and his proposal that doctrines of karma and rebirth weren’t nearly as central to it as some contend. Beckwith’s arguments buttress Batchelor’s, and together their ideas  have the potential to significantly inform the future dominant direction of Western Buddhist practice.

Even if Beckwith’s arguments turns out to be deficient in many of their particulars, Beckwith successfully points to the limitations of taking the Pali Canon’s account of Buddhist history at face value. Buddhist texts need to be read with a certain degree of suspicion. They need to be read alongside contemporaneous Greek and Chinese sources, checked against emerging archeological findings, and understood within the context of our growing understanding of Central and Southern Asian history. I’m incapable of doing this myself and I have no way of judging the ultimate worth of Beckwith’s arguments.  On the other hand, I look forward with interest to whatever lively discussion ensues.

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: Greek Buddha

  1. Hi Seth, I found the review of ‘the Greek Buddha’ interesting. A few years ago I picked up a book called ‘Buddhist existentialism’ by Robert Miller and it touches on these themes, on page 53 it says; the sceptics goal is ataraxia, and that as regards things that are unavoidable , it is having moderate pathe (i.e. metriopatheia)……for when the sceptic set out to philosophise….he landed in a controversy between positions of equal strength, and being unable to resolve it, he suspended judgement. But while he was suspending judgement there followed by chance……ataraxia.

  2. Thanks for the article – enjoyable as always – and another example of how, in that Wittgensteinian sense, we constantly re-describe ourselves and our world in order to make sense of things. I don’t think that means we have fallen into the trap of ‘knowing’ but instead demonstrates our creative enquiry and poetic imagination. Thanks 🙂

  3. This might sound far-fetched, and it’s certainly counterintuitive, but the fact that the Buddhist canon was transmitted orally for centuries before it was committed to writing almost makes it seem more reliable, rather than less. As your example of Lincoln “quotes” appearing as memes on the Internet suggests, the very ease with which text can be replicated using electronic media makes it especially susceptible to mischief in our own era. Conversely, the more difficult it is transmit information, the less likely it is to be tampered with. Because it would have taken a monumental effort to commit the key teachings of the Buddha to memory, and because this would necessarily have involved the cooperation of many individuals, the temptation to get “creative” would probably have been minimal. Of course, some oral traditions (such as the retelling of fairy tales and ancient legends) thrive on such creativity; but in the case of the preservation of the Buddha’s teachings (a task undertaken soon after his death, according to all schools of Buddhism), it is clear that interpretive liberties were not encouraged. (The sheer repetitiveness of the phrasing of the suttas points to an obsessive concern with mnemonic accuracy, even to the point of an almost maddening monotony, at least to our modern ears.)

    Incidentally, Gandhara’s role as a breeding ground for some of the iconography we now associate with Buddhism (including images of the Buddha himself) shows that the cultural influence went both ways. It makes me wonder if any Hellenistic ideas also filtered into Buddhist thought during the early centuries.

    • A number of readers have suggested that oral recitation practices accurately preserved and transmitted information in preliterate societies. While that’s no doubt true to a certain extent, we have no way of knowing the extent of “errors” that crept in over the centuries through various psychological processes affecting memory like leveling and sharpening. We have no idea of how many of the Pali Suttas were fabricated 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 or 300 years after the Buddha lived. Beckwith suspects, for example, judging from the archeological record, that the geography of the Suttas is surely wrong, and that the cities the Buddha allegedly taught in were still non-existent during the Buddha’s lifetime. The vast number of Suttas also makes it unlikely that all are accurate accounts of the Buddha’s teachings — think of all Suttas concerning devas and brahmas, or the fantastical descriptions of the Buddha’s physical “marks,” etc.

      • There is no evidence that Buddhists used special techniques to preserve their texts. In fact it looks more like a story telling tradition in which the basic outline was preserved, but the details changed according to who was telling the story. The Pāḷi suttas, for example, frequently contain versions of a story with varying details. They also contain a large number of fragments consistent with a rather haphazard preservation. Also there are a number of obvious edits – obvious because they were kak-handed and marred the text. The different recensions of the Sūtras also have differences both in content and organisation. Nothing suggests precision.

        This is in stark contrast to the Vedic tradition, which had a number of mnemonic techniques for accurately preserving their texts. Young Brahmins would memorise the Veda syllable by syllable and word by word, before even learning Sanskrit.The oral traditions precisely match the written texts once they emerge, and in some cases the oral tradition is more accurate than the texts.

  4. A small point of clarification. Śāka is a local name and Scythian is an Anglicised form of the Greek name for the local people (via Herodotus). So in effect the Śāka and the Scythians were probably the same people.

    To the best of my knowledge there has been no reaction from academics to the thesis put forward by Michael Witzel and myself on the Iranian origins of the Buddha’s tribe. But nor have I yet to see a better explanation of the evidence that I presented for it in my JOCBS article: http://www.ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/26

    • Thanks for clarifying, Jayarava. By the way, what did you think of Johannes Bronkhorst’s dismissive discussion of this book, in this article, “Was there Buddhism in Gandhara at the time of Alexander?” It seemed pretty devastating to me.

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