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Cited in Not in His Image, Ch. 16, p. 217.

Greek Buddhas

Gnostic Sages in Buddhist Art

The realm of compassion/means is for the Mahayana a realm of magical intervention and transformation, so Tantric practices, as practiced concerned with means, are seen in Tibetan Buddhism as in the broadest sense magical practices for transforming mundane reality into a form most suited to help others.
- Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism - The Doctrinal Foundations

In discussing the origins of the Gnostic movement (Gnostics or Illuminati?), I used a map to show the hidden navel of ancient civilization: the Urmian Plateau in northwestern Iran. The above map is a section of a larger version showing how latitude 38 N runs directly east and west from that locale. To the East, latitude 38 N runs into the region of the Hindu Pamirs where Gandharan culture arose following the penetration of Alexander the Great into that region. The brown line shows the probable route of Gnostic dissemination toward Asia. (Apologies for the blurriness of the image.)

Historian Paul Williams has pointed out the strong probability of "Mediterranean and Greek influences at work in the changes occurring in Buddhism during the Mahayana period" (Mahayana Buddhism - The Doctrinal Foundations, p. 40).Gandharan art offers clear evidence of the close merge of Greek and Buddhist cultures, as in the above image showing Buddha seated on a lotus, draped in a Greek toga.

All images from Gandhara, an Australian site with good textual material on the history of the region.

Buddhism and Hellenism

Close examination of the Gandhara art reveals that the physiognomy of many sculpted Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is classically Greco-Latin, rather than Asian. Typical features of Asian Buddhist iconography, such as streamlining of the body and ideal-mystical figuration of the head, are hardly present. Instead, there is a marked emphasis, especially in the heads, on Greco-Latin features, as seen in the frontal view to the left, and the profile of a different head, below.

The topknot is typical of Asian shamanic traditions, often seen in the figure of Shiva, the hunter-shaman of Dravidian India. To this day, wandering sadhus wear the top-knot, called the ushnisha. (For my personal interpretation o the ushnisha, based on a spontaneous mystical experience, see Honeycomb Light of the Christos.)

Seen in profile, another top-knotted head is purely Greco-Latin with no trace of Asian physiognomy. The elaborateness of the hairdo is unique and reflects local cultural customs in the Hindu Kush, as well as ancient Greek hair-braiding techniques.

Another striking feature of the Gandhara heads is the moustache, thought to be taken from the custom of Scythian tribes who moved constantly through the region. Scythia was a cultural region that reached its apex in the 4th century BCE, when the Mysteries were still intact and thriving, and declined 300 years later. Its inhabitants spoke a variety of Iranian dialects. The Urmian Plateau lay right on the border between Scythia and Parthia to the south, which comprised what is now modern Iran. The extent of Scythia to the east reaches Gandhara.

Significantly, Scythia extended northward to the Ural mountains, a region associated with the entheogenic shamanism using the amanita muscaria mushroom, or fly-agaric (R. Gordon Wasson, Soma: Mushroom of Immortality). Scythians were nomadic hunter-shamans, and Parthians were the most highly skilled archers of the ancient world. Consistent with the hunter-shaman complex, some Gandharan sculptures show Scythian warriors with mustaches, usually depicted as soft and rippling. Curiously, Padma Sambhava, the supreme figure of Tibetan Buddhism, who is said to have lived in the 9th Century CE, is always portrayed with a mustache, albeit a rather meager, closely trimmed one. Is this iconic detail an atavistic remnant of the Scythian warrior shamans of Gandhara.

This may well be the case, because the first images of the historical Buddha appeared in Gandharan art and must have provided the prototype for later versions. No other Buddha or Bodhisattva figures display this feature, except Padma Sambhava, however.

In his definitive work, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, David Snellgrove says that "the first biographies of Shakyamuni, telling his story from the events up to his birth right through to the final nirvana, were written in Gandhara presumably for a more realistically minded people who wanted to know more about Shakyamuni as a person (Vol. I, p 48). Thus, not only the first sculptural images of Buddha, but also the first textual biographies, derive from the same region in the same period, around 150 CE.

Snellgrove asserts that "it is very likely that the initial inspiration [for both the sculptures and stories] came from converts to Buddhism whose background was Hellenistic" (Ibid.). "If the original inspiration of creating an image of the Buddha in human form was non-Indian, as would seem to be almost certain, then the Hellenistic Buddha must surely have come first" (Ibid.). 150 CE was the precise moment that the early Church ideologues began to attack Gnostics and the Mysteries in a flagrant and violent manner. At that moment the dissemination of Gnosticism toward Asia had been ongoing since the time of Alexander (330 BCE), if not much earlier.

The Bodhisattva Ideal

Snellgrove explains in detail how the Bodhisattva ideal emerged in Mahayana Buddhism around 150 CE. I maintain that this concept was compatible with the Gnostic phoster, "illuminator," an enlightened teacher - with this difference, however: the Gnostic illuminator did not merely teach enlightenment but fostered the creative and adaptive potential of human genius as it is understood by enlightened people. The tendency of Buddhism is overwhelmingly to teach the path of enlightenment, rather than the path of enlightened coevolution. The latter was the motive or telos of the Mysteries.

Additional to the Bodhisattva ideal, the Gandharan efflorescence also produced an elaborate scheme of Buddhas who appear in world ages, with an emphasis on the Maitreya, the "Benevolent Friend" who was due to appear in the future age. Maitreya was "very popular in Gandhara," Snellgrove notes. I maintain that the future Buddha was a version of the universal "messiah" or world-teacher called Chrestos in Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. Until the Christos was indemnified as a divine authority by Constantine in 325 AD, the alternative name Chrestos, "Benevolent One," was widely used by many proto-Christian sects, as well as by other messianic groups who anticipated the coming of an avatar for the Piscean Age.

In fact, a 19th century inventory called Blockh’s Christian Inscriptions contains 1,287 entries showing that "there is not a single instance of an earlier date than the third century wherein the name Christ is not written Chrest or Chreist" (Lloyd M. Graham, Deceptions and Myths of the Bible, p 411). Numerous passages in the Nag Hammadi writings use Chrestos for Christos, showing that the divine avatar or messiah-messenger awaited by many people in the first centuries of the Common Era, was conceived as a fully human teacher, an embodiment of goodness, a gifted friend and model of humaneness, like Maitreya.

Magic and Evolution

The Avatamsaka Sutra is the longest and most elaborate Buddhist scripture. It presents a visionary overview of myriads of interpenetrating worlds, recalling the multiple Pleromas of Gnosticism. The three surviving Chinese versions were translated from a lost Sanskrit or Prakrit original in the second century CE, the key moment in Gandharan culture when Mahayana Buddhism was formulated. The last chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra is called the Gandavyuha Sutra, clearly alluding to Gandhara. It describes the world we inhabit as a place that "can be transformed at will by the mental acts of Buddhas and advanced Bodhisattvas" (Paul Williams, Buddhist Thought, p 208).

The Buddhas of the world ages and the Revealer Cycle of Gnosticism are both examples of an intervention scenario: that is, they are mythical and pseudo-historical narratives that promote the expectation that gifted and enlightened beings will come and assist humanity to find its way. Only gradually was the Buddha elevated to a supernatural level. Originally, in the Gandharan biographies, he was depicted as a spiritually evolved being who reincarnated for the benefit of others, but not as a supramundane deity. Mahayana Buddhism, and later Tantric Buddhism, elaborated closely on how such beings would operate in the world, or upon the world.

The Carya Tantras are a small class of scriptures in the Tibetan Kanjur that contain specific instructions on magic morality, as it might be called. Although it is a non-Tantric text, the Gandavyuha Sutra also treats of these esoteric practices, often centered on the figure of the lightning shaman, Vairocana:

For the Gandavyuha Vairocana is the Buddha, residing in a transcendent world of luminosity, fluidity, and magical transformation, while simultaneously being present at all levels in all things. From this perspective, Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, is a magical transformation produced for the benefit of suffering sentient beings... The idea of the tantric practitioner developing intensive meditative identification with the deity being evoked appears to develop during the period of the Carya texts. Practitioners identify themselves, visualize themselves, as an awakened deity occupying a luminous universe that can be magically transformed, precisely in the way that it can be transformed in the Gandavyuha Sutra. (Paul Williams, Buddhist Thought, p. 208)

This citation, and the one at the top of this article, exemplify some of the most esoteric and spiritually glamorous of Buddhist Tantric teachings. It is difficult to say, however, how or if such theories are actually put into practice. In Not in His Image, I suggested that the theurgia (literally, "god-working") of the Mysteries might be compared to "Jungian active imagination, or, more aptly, advanced practices of visualization in Tantra and Dzogchen" (p. 6). Deity yoga, as described in the above paragraph, belongs to the development stage of Dzogchen, but I would suggest that Gnostic theurgia was more akin to the perfection stage in which the practitioner goes beyond make-believe rites of visualization into the hyperception of full-body ecstasy. The streaming of supervitality through the rlun or nadis (subtle channels of the body, said to be 72,000 in number) is typical of the psychosomatic illuminism of Gnosis. In the Mysteries the initiates stood upright, as certain Gandharan Buddhas do (above). Tradition came to favor Buddhas in the seated position or full lotus, but standing Buddhas in Greek style come as close as we will ever get to three-dimensional sculptural representations of Gnostic initiates.

In a sense, Gnosis is Buddhism stood on its feet and inserted into nature. The Dzogchen-like practices of theurgy mastered by Hypatia and a few other Gnostics whose names are historically known were not exercises in self-deification. Rather they were, "magical practices for transforming mundane reality into a form most suited to help others" (Williams, opening citation). I suggest that for Gnostics such acts of magical transformation were intimately involved with sensing the presence of the Wisdom Goddess, Sophia, and communicating with Her. By downloading from the planetary intelligence, the telestai of the Mysteries would have been able to see deeply into human potential as it relates to Gaia's transhuman purposes. Thus, they would have been adepts of coevolutionary arts and sciences, which all the evidence says they were. Rather than transforming the world by acts of magic exerted upon it, they would have put their trust in the innate genius of the human species to be as good as any magic and, if lovingly cultivated, produce a humane and sustainable world.

Such are a few insights that can be drawn from the Buddhist-Gnostic merge at Gandhara. To date, no scholar has explored these parallels (except perhaps Buddhist scholar, J. M. Reynolds, who has written an unpublished ms. on Buddhism and Gnosticism). The main surviving text on theurgy is On the Mysteries by Iamblichus. It contains many passages that warrant close comparison with Dzogchen instruction on the development and perfection stages of Ati Yoga.

Maitreya from Gandhara

As noted, all images (except the above) are from Gandhara, an Australian gallery site with good textual material on the art and history of the region. The map of Scythia is from Wikipedia.


jll: October 17, 2006 Flanders




Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.