In his book “Greek Buddha” Christopher I. Beckwith discusses Pyrrho, a philosopher who went along with Alexander the Great on his world tour of conquest in the late fourth century BCE.
It seems Pyrrho went native and studied with Buddhist masters. One story is that he made a lot of money as a court poet and then he was called to task by some wise guy, maybe some Buddhist sage. Was Pyrrho just singing for his dinner or was he for real? Pyrrho took the challenge! He went after ‘for real.’
When I say he studied with Buddhist teachers, I mean he practiced. His life was transformed. When he returned to his home island he lived his life as practice. He was beloved. He lived to keep it simple, keep it real.
We have later records of his teachings. He taught things (pragmata) are:
- Adiaphora: ‘without a self-identity.’
- Astathmeta: ‘not measurable’ (I would say without beginning or end), unstable (as in unbalanced, unsettling, pulling this way and that, per Beckwith)
- Anepikrita: unjudged, unfixed.
Those of us familiar with Buddhist terminology will see there is a connection with dharmas as what we perceive, and pragmata, though the latter may have some other, more ethical or philosophical, connotations. Beckwith compares these three with the very basic Buddhist teachings of the Three Characteristics:
1. Anatman: no (innate) Self (Identity) [Beckwith has as third but it seems more like #1 to me]
2. Dukkha: uneasy, unsatisfactory, unsteady
3. Anitya: impermanence, unfixed.
He suggests that Pyrrho’s terms are in effect a direct translation into Greek of the Buddhist terms.
Beckwith also points out that since Pyrrho was writing and studying and practicing Buddhism around 300 BCE, his form of Buddhism is probably closer to the true teachings of the Buddha than many of the even earliest written Buddhist texts. Of course it’s not like we have the original writings of Pyrrho either, we have later versions and descriptions, and the early Buddhist writings are based on a vibrant and robust oral tradition. But Beckwith does have a point. Pyrrho’s philosophy is certainly based on very early Buddhist teachings as understood at least by some Buddhists who lived maybe a bit more than a century after the Buddha died. The fact that in what the Sutras call the ‘first sermon’ by the Buddha, as well as in many versions of Buddhism 101, the four “noble” truths (as I have done in earlier blogs) are used to introduce Buddhist thought, does not mean they were necessarily the original core teachings. It may be that is how it was later perceived or that it fit later understandings of the Buddha’s teaching (or agendas of later teachers and practitioners, as Beckwith suggests). Beckwith goes a lot further though, and you can read his book if you care about such things. If you are Buddhist, you may take exception to some of his theories. But to me, that makes it fun!
There is a great section in Beckwith’s book on the names Lao Tzu and Gautama being the same. That intrigues me. Clearly Zen/Chan is Daoism (or Taoism; pick your spelling!) meets Indian Buddhism. Not the later Daoism of gods and demons and alchemy and immortals, but the early Daoism of Chuang-Tzu and Lao-Tzu (author of the Dao De Ching). Sometimes I think Chan/Zen is as much a form of a Chuang-Tzu’s Daoism than it is a form of Indian Buddhism! Of course Chan and Zen tradition don’t quite see it that way. And the Chinese Chan masters certainly relished texts from India and the Buddhist kingdoms of the Silk Road like the Lankavatara and Diamond Sutras (they are really great stuff, read them if you haven’t and if you have any interest in Buddhism at all. Red Pine has done great translations).
Interestingly, Chuang-Tzu may have lived about the same time as Pyrrho. Of course they wouldn’t have met. Lao-Tzu lived earlier, it seems more about the time of Gautama Buddha (though dates are controversial for both)! One story in Daoist lore is that near the end of his life Lao-Tzu was said to have left China to travel west. Is Lao-Tzu and Gautama the same name as Beckwith suggests using a linguistic analysis?What does that imply? Very odd for someone who is Chinese to purposely go off to die far away in foreign lands. Very intriguing. Again, read Beckwith if you are interested in the argument.
Anyway, back to the core teachings, however they fit into the historical scheme of things. These core teachings are very scientific. Not only because they can be inductively arrived at by observation and confirmed by experience (the original meaning of the term “experiment”; same root word and that was on purpose), but in their essence.
Regarding impermanence certainly no composite “thing” lasts forever.
Modern physics does not have a permanency of things as an essential, verifiable teaching. Not particles, not universes. Quite the opposite. There are neither fixed particles (atoms and subatomic particles are basically forms of energy) or a fixed time and space. I am not only talking about relativity theory, which does imply that time and space are not separate, fixed entities, but more basically. Much has been written and discussed on the physics and metaphysics (that is the interpretation of physics, not the study of ghosts and goblins) about time and space. We do not know the extent of time and space, or even if these things are really distinct entities, if the in fact exist other than as illusions of mind. Robert Lanza talks about this in his book Biocentrism, as do others, and I understand Dr. Lanza is writing another book about time, space and the ‘illusion of death.’
Regarding the lack of innate existence we have seen particles themselves are just perturbations of energy, of the ‘quantum field.’ Modern biology and the earth sciences teaches us that evolution is contingent on the environment just as the earth and its atmosphere has been shaped by life. It is the environment that determines “fitness.” Most of the minerals on earth were made possible by the oxygen released by photosynthesis and exist nowhere else in the solar system. Neither the earth or the life on it, no individual, species, or life itself for that matter is fixed and innate, a fixed separate definable entity.
And while science is about measurement, we don’t know the extent of what can be measured. Is there an eternal set of multiverses and dimensions? Were there “big bangs going back and forward forever? Again, if time and space are illusions, what could a beginning and end possibly mean?
As for “unstable,” that is why there is anything at all from a scientific and mathematical point of view. I’ve written before about breaking symmetry. An ideal circle encompasses all and everything perhaps, it is certainly infinitely symmetrical by definition, but to have change there can’t be perfect symmetry. I have quoted the quantum field theory text that says that we are perturbations in a field. This is related to impermanency of ‘created things’ (is the field permanent? Is it a “created thing’?) as well. If the field were stable, there would be no things, no dharmas, no pragmata. For anything to change, to come into existence and then as it must eventually not exist, if there is to be what we experience that gives rise to the thought and perception of time and space, the system by definition must be unstable. It can’t be a system with an innate unchanging stability, a concrete thingy-ness.
There is change, evolution. There is the evolution of universes, particles, atoms, minerals, solar systems, planets, sentient beings.
As for Dukkha, unease (including but not limited to ‘suffering’ as in old translations into English), that does seem to be the nature of what happens if you yearn for the safety and reassurance of permanence, which is an illusion at best.
So science is quite compatable with anatman, dukkha and anitya.
I enjoy being challenged in my view of history by Beckwith. I enjoy seeing in the practice, writings and teachings of a poet philosopher who travelled with Alexander, a bit of confirmation that these core Buddhist/proto-scientific views were very ancient and proximate and core to the ancient teachings that underpin my practice.
Not that it really matters, I guess. Reality is reality, my practice is my practice, science is science, we live and die, however you conceive of it or dress it up or whoever may have glimpsed it before. Just kind of cool.