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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Shape of Ancient Thought 5: The Link Between Pyrrhonism and Madhyamaka School of Buddhism

Guru Rinpoche
Guru Rinpoche: TIbetan Buddhism is Madhyamaka inspired Buddhism.

Thomas McEvilley on 'The Shape of Ancient Thought' (POST)

Shape of Ancient Thought 2: Similarities btwn Buddhism/Hinduism and Greek Philosophy (POST)
Shape of Ancient Thought 4: Ningishzida, Lord of the Underworld (POST

Pyrrhonism (wiki)
Madhyamaka (wiki)

Around page 400, McEvilley makes his move and posits that Pyrrhonism, a "a school of skepticism founded by Aenesidemus in the first century BC" is ultimately responsible for inspiring the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, which is the earliest recorded evidence of logically rigorous philosophical thought. I think probably the essential weakness in his argument is the lack of chronology among documents pertaining to the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism. The central premise of his argument is that Pyrrhon, through his historically documented travels to Indo-Greece, diffused to the thinkers who laid out the tenets of Madhyamak Buddhism, which then diffused to Hinduism in the Upanshadic period (I think.) McEvilley also has another one of those great lists he generates,this one comparing Stoic/Cynic era Greek/Roman philosophy and Madhymak Buddhism:

1) Overhwelming emphasis on teaching by example rather then discourse
2) Frequent use of perverse, irrational or violent examples.

3) A requirement of total dedication and of signs of total dedication, from the student
4) The use of shocking and enigmatic verbl fomulae as teaching devices.
5) An emphasis on hardihood, indifference to pheomena and extreme simplicity or frugality of phycical milleu.
6) A mirthful attitude which expresses itself as ridicule of convention.
7) Extreme self possession, a mental balance impossible to disturb
8) A tendency to reject or neglect inherited doctrines such as reincarnation and purification, preferring the emptiness of no-doctrine.

To me this is like the ingredients of a religion. The elements, if you will.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Shape of Ancient Thought 4: Ningishzida, Lord of the Underworld

Ningishzida: The god itself is the two (copulating) snakes entwined around an axial rod.

                I'm half-way through Thomas McEvilley's(wiki) half amazing/half crazy book about the ancient world called "The Shape of Ancient Thought."  McEvilley is making the case that 1) ALL civilization draws influence from the ancient Sumerian's, because they were "first" as they say in the blogosphere.  2)  Greek & Indian civilization basically bore the same fruit of this influence, and then swapped it back and forth through the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Empires for about a thousand years till you ended up with Western civilization, Buddhist civilization and Indian civilization.  This is a discussion that is fraught with colonialist issues (Western civilization is superior to Eastern civilization) and post-colonial issues (Indian civilization didn't need ANY HELP from ANYONE to create it's religions etc.)  So you have to read books like this with a jaundiced eye, even when they claim to be cognizant of the debate, because we are talking about stuff people feel passionately about i.e. which came first, western civilization or eastern civilization? It's important to a lot of people, even if it isn't to me.  I think I probably agree that Sumerian math and religion inspired both India and Greece, but I'm less sure about the "continuing dialogue" part of the argument.  He still has 300+ pages to win me over.

        Probably the best illustration of this hypothesis is the graphic above, which is of Ningishzida, an ancient Mesopotamian god of the underworld AND, as it would turn out the god of MEDICINE. Here is the symbol we in the west equate with medicine:

That is from Greece, and it is derived from the representation of Ningishzida. There are also similar symbols in the form of fertility statues in the Indus Valley area. Anyway- that's pretty uncanny. I don't see any other way to explain the coincidence (intertwined snakes meaning the same thing in ancient Sumerian and ancient greek civilization.

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