H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 6)

Note: This post continues an analysis of the Therapeutae, as reported by Philo of Alexandria. Before proceeding, you may want to click here to open a new window containing the 23 points describing the Therapeutae listed in the preceding post. Having both windows open on your desktop will facilitate reading, as I refer to those points often in what follows.—René Salm

The Therapeutae—Pt. 2
Extensive parallels between the Therapeutae and Buddhism

The preceding post closed by pointing out a number of interesting parallels between Philo’s description of the Therapeutae and heterodox (Jewish) Christianity. On the other hand, we found very few (if any) parallels with what would become orthodox (gentile) Christianity. This is rather surprising. But far more remarkable is that of the numerous characteristics described by Philo, half are fully compatible with Buddhism, six more are at least partially compatible, and only two—points (f) and (t)—are clearly incompatible. In short, 21 of the 23 points signaled by Philo in his description of the Therapeutae resonate wholly or at least partially with Buddhism. What this means is that the Therapeutae were far more compatible with ‘distant’ Buddhism than with orthodox Christianity, heterodox Christianity, or Judaism.

There is not space here to discuss each of the 23 points individually, and we’ll touch only on the highlights. The most important may be the very first point (a): both the Therapeutae and Buddhists are “meditative.” It is well known that Buddhism is the religion of meditation. At the same time, neither Christianity nor Judaism has any special interest in meditation.

Point (e) is related to meditation and may be even more revealing: the Therapeutae “are trained in insight.” This is most interesting, because training in insight has always been one of the two major pathways of Buddhist meditative practice—known as vipassana. The other major pathway is samatha (calming the mind). In Theravada teaching (that is, in the oldest school of Buddhism to survive), samatha is preliminary to vipassana. That is, calming the mind is a necessary prerequisite to insight.

Asceticism. Four points on the list can be grouped together under the rubric “asceticism” (h, q, r, w). Points (q) and (r) closely mirror Buddhist praxis and read like paraphrases directly from the Buddhist sutras. According to Philo’s point (r), the Therapeutae wear simple clothing “just stout enough to ward off cold and heat” (Vita 38). The Buddhist equivalent is: “Here a monk, reflecting wisely, uses the robe only for protection from cold, for protection from heat…” (Majjhima Nikaya 2.13). In the same paragraph Philo writes that the Therapeutae “are not decorated with any ornaments.” This mirrors the eighth precept in Buddhism: “I undertake the precept to refrain from wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.”

In Philo’s words, the Therapeutae “eat only so far as not to be hungry, and they drink just enough to escape from thirst, avoiding all satiety as an enemy of and a plotter against both soul and body” (point q). With the same color coding, here is the standard passage, oft repeated in the Buddhist scriptures:

Reflecting wisely, [the monk] uses alms food neither for amusement nor for intoxication nor for the sake of physical beauty and attractiveness, but only for the survival and continuance of this body, for ending discomfort, and for assisting the holy life… (Majjhima Nikaya 2.14)

A traditional Jewish Passover meal.
Note the wine and meat.

The ascetic point (w) is also very Buddhist: the Therapeutae reject wine (“the medicine of folly”) and meat (Vita 73). The parallel Buddhist tenth precept is as follows: “I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.” In Buddhism, then, the avoidance of intoxicants and meat is in order to foster correct behavior (avoid “carelessness”) and, ultimately, mental focus. This seems to parallel Philo’s reason for the Therapeutic lifestyle:

… for just as right reason commands the priest to offer up sober sacrifices, so also [the Therapeutae] are commanded to live sober lives, for wine is the medicine of folly, and costly seasonings and sauces excite desire, which is the most insatiable of all beasts. (Vita 73–74, emphasis added)

Thus, we have here a double parallel: both in content and in motive. This similarity between the Therapeutae and Buddhism is only half of the equation, however. The other half is the remarkable dissimilarity to both Judaism and normative Christianity. One simply does not encounter a wholesale rejection of wine and meat in Judaism (apart from the temporary vow of the Nazirite). Fundamentally, the abstinence of Buddhists and Therapeutae runs counter to the basic Jewish love of life and acceptance of all things God has created as good. Dr. Detering will argue that the Therapeutae were “Jewish Buddhists”—and I will agree. But what we are clearly dealing with are “Jews” who have moved far from normative Judaism! Furthermore, in considering the various “Jewish Christian” sects, we must now potentially view them from this new Buddhist perspective. For (as we saw in the preceding post) the elements that separate Jewish Christianity from both orthodox Judaism and normative Christianity are precisely those ascetic elements that link them to Buddhism: (q) “given to fasting”; (v) esteeming chastity; and (w) rejection of wine and meat.

Point (h) is also non-Jewish yet very Buddhist: the Therapeutae “leave their possessions to their sons and daughters” (Vita 13) and consider that “an undue care for money and wealth causes great waste of time” (Vita 15). With all due respect, one can only smile at the profound non-Jewishness of considering care for money and wealth a “great waste of time”! On the other hand, such abstemiousness is profoundly Buddhist: “I undertake the precept to refrain from accepting gold and silver (money).” In such ways, then, Judaism and Buddhism are fundamentally opposed.

Encratism. This is related to asceticism. Encratism (< Gk. egkrateia, “continence”) stems from the view that passion is to be avoided. In Buddhism, passion and desire (tanha) are directly opposed to mental insight (vipassana). Philo notes three characteristics of the Therapeutae that fall under the encratite rubric:

(d) they are free from passion, and hence “completely happy” (Vita 6)
(k) they are pure “even in their dreams” and speak oracles even in sleep (26)
(v) they esteem chastity and their women are virgins “out of an admiration for and love of wisdom” and “hating the allurements of pleasure with all their might” (68-69)

All this is quite un-Jewish—yet also quintessentially Buddhist!

Healers. Philo notes that the Therapeutae “are healers of both body and soul.” It is not well known that the Buddhist missionaries that King Asoka sent westwards c. 250 BCE were charged with healing both man and beast (Rock Edict 2). This, of course, may have some link to the name “Therapeutae.”

Realized eschatology. Buddhism has no belief in the afterlife, nor in an enduring soul. The goal of enlightenment is here, in this life. Gnosis is to be realized through vipassana. Philo may intimate something along these lines in point (g): the Therapeutae think “that their mortal life has already come to an end.” In other words, the Therapeutae have already ‘crossed over’ to a better, transcendent existence. This view will be expanded by certain Gnostic sects who believed that even in his physical lifetime one can enter the kingdom by conceiving the light within. This is, of course, baptism in the ‘water’ of gnosis (sometimes represented as the sacrament of the bridal chamber or holy marriage, hieros gamos).

Emptiness of materiality. Philo writes that, for the Therapeutae, the outward senses and world “mean nothing to them” (Vita 26). Once again, this view is not at all Jewish. In Buddhism, however, the material is fraught with seductive danger and should be viewed as a great decoy. I offer one citation (from Buddhist and Christian Parallels, chp. 8):

Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and tangibles,
Yea, all impressions and ideas thereof—
These are the direful bait that draws the world,
Therein the world lies infatuated.
If they go beyond all this, leave it behind,
The Buddha’s followers with mind aware
Pass beyond the range of the devil’s might.
Like the glorious sun do they shine
Filling the world with light.      (Sam.Nik. 1.4.17)

Other. To the above may be added several possible parallels between the Therapeutae and Buddhism (points c, j, n, m, o and u). In these cases, Philo does not furnish enough information for certainty.

In only two cases does Philo signal clearly non-Buddhist attributes of the Therapeutae. One has to do with the overnight singing and dancing that Philo ostensibly witnessed on the ‘fiftieth day.’ Remarkably, this ceremony has proto-gnostic roots predating even Buddhism. We will examine those roots in the next post.

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