Did Socrates Have Jhana? Buddhist Influence and Resonance Throughout History

"Was Socrates Buddhist?: Dhammic Influence in the Ancient and Modern World"

We recently had a fascinating interview with Ajahn Sona, in which he spoke of numerous threads of Buddhist influence and resonance he has found or suspected throughout history. These include:

  • The name “Saint Josephat”, referring to a figure admired by the Christian desert fathers in Egypt around 2nd century A.D. seems to have been simply an altered pronunciation of “Bodhisatta”, and his sufferings for faith simply the jataka tales. This indicates the presence of Buddhist ideas and stories in the near East and Mediterranean very early in history, and suggests they may have influenced early Christian thought and monasticism.

  • David Hume, who’s radical skepticism questioned even the existence of the self and resonate deeply with Buddhist ideas of anattā , seems to have actually spent a year in a French seminary with a Jesuit priest who’d spent a great deal of time in Thailand and imbibed Buddhist ideas.

  • Dante’s Divine Comedy presents a vision of the cosmos foreign to the Bible and almost perfectly aligned with Buddhist conceptions. Was he a genius poet, or simply a writer who had a book on Buddhist cosmology?

  • While Socrates, Plato, and many of the other early Greek philosophers have been interpreted from the rationalist “Enlightenment” perspective of later European philosophy (and yes, this is an ironic turn of phrase), a closer reading of their teachings reveals numerous elements resonant with Buddhism and Eastern thought, including a belief in rebirth, the idea that the goal of existence was to get off the wheel of rebirth, descriptions by Socrates of a deathless state reminiscent with descriptions of Nibbāna and stories of him standing unmoving for forty-eight hours in what was probably a deep state of concentration. While these may not be an instance of direct influence, as Socrates and the Buddha lived at a similar time, they nonetheless reveal a fascinating resonance. In The Shape of Ancient Thought, Thomas McEvilley presents strong evidence that Indian philosophy, including a belief in rebirth, had already made its way over to the Mediterranean with the Orphic missionaries prior to Socrates.

The interview goes into more detail on these points, and also traces Buddhist influence through the lineage of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, and eslewhere.

So, anyone else have other leads? When a seed as potent as the Buddha’s teaching gets dropped into the world, its ripples travel farther than we might initially think. Where else do you find the thread?


I definitely see indications that people have had experience of deep mind states and/or Jhanas, outside the Buddhist context. I actually don’t think this is due to ‘Buddhism’ existing in some way, but rather indicates the natural, universal laws that the Buddha expounded. What made him a Sam Buddha is that he went through to the end and understood what was happening, (seeing things as they actually are apart from delusion and not based on ignorance) while others ‘papancha’ their experience as best they can, given the information and conditions available to them.

A good example of this is Carl Jung and his ‘Red Book’…

Added: Now - when we have access to the Buddha Dhamma, our attention can be focused in specific ways to enable us to follow in the Buddhas footsteps, via the Noble 8 fold Path. This is the greatest gift, as we can follow the Path to the Exit… Those without access to the Dhamma have no guide for knowing where to look for the exit - (full penetration of ‘non-self’ and Dependent Arising /Dependent Cessation) - and continue stumbling around samsara with attention directed to all kinds of places (no map). Homage to the Sam Buddha for sharing this knowledge and the map to Liberation :pray: :smiley:


Buddha did go to the very end. During His initial ascetic practice He stayed at various hermitages, and surpassed every Teaching and Meditation He was given, asking “is there something more?” While one of His early Teachers told Him that even He, Gautama, had surpassed Him in Meditative ability, and that there was nothing more He could teach Him. So Gautama in turn went off to do arduous practice, to eventually find the Middle-Way that led Him to Enlightenment. Meditation is the method that was used, and whether one Meditates through Mantra or psychic vibration, turning to the Jhana Meditation brings one closer to Enlightenment. We often say that Buddha was the first to find the Path in this era. But remember He first didn’t want to teach it, thinking people would not be receptive of His message, and Mahabrahma coming to the place of Enlightenment begged the Buddha to pave the Way for the Dhamma to be taught, and so came a new era! Let us be receptive to His Teachings.

specially with Ashoka and in further times, it seems quite Buddhist monks were send to many lands in the known world. It can be impossible to trace that activity, although some cases like that of Zarmarus are well known:

Also it happened in the reverse direction, from Greece to India:


some more things:

This is really interesting: the possibility of many bhikkhus and bhikkunis under the ancient strange sect of the “Therapeutae”:


Well, well, some or those are quite interesting. But on the case of Zarmanochegas, the Buddha denied naked so called “asceticism”, never participating in such a thing, obviously, because of clear moral implications that really amount to what our laws call indecent exposure. The Noble Eightfold Path is a Path of strict morality, and even those loose in morals rarely expose their naked bodies in public, and the strict moralist who condemns such nonsense puts such people in jail where they belong.

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yes, it can be like you writes. These histories are fragmented. It seems he was buried like an Sramana instead a Brahmin, and according some sources these differences were known. Although perhaps not in all places:

"The early church father Clement of Alexandria (died 215 AD) was also aware of Buddha, writing in his Stromata (Bk I, Ch XV): “The Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sarmanæ and others Brahmins. And those of the Sarmanæ who are called “Hylobii” neither inhabit cities, nor have roofs over them, but are clothed in the bark of trees, feed on nuts, and drink water in their hands. Like those called Encratites in the present day, they know not marriage nor begetting of children. Some, too, of the Indians obey the precepts of Buddha (Βούττα) whom, on account of his extraordinary sanctity, they have raised to divine honours.”[18]
Nicolaus of Damascus, and other ancient writers, relate that in AD 13, at the time of Augustus (died AD 14), he met in Antioch (near present day Antakya in Turkey just over 300 miles from Jerusalem) an embassy with a letter written in Greek from the Southern India Pandya Empire was delivered while Caesar was in the Island of Samos. This embassy was accompanied by a sage who later, naked, anointed and contented, burnt himself to death at Athens.[19] The details of his tomb inscription specified he was a Shramana, “his name was Zarmanochegas”, he was an Indian native of Bargosa, and “immortalized himself according to the custom of his country.” Cassius Dio[20] and Plutarch[21] cite the same story."


Yes, I am so glad we have a clear Dhamma and a wonderful Sangha. Buddhism in practice is still in pretty good condition, if not the best in comparison with some of the problems other current traditions are having. Jainism was corrupted such people that I mentioned in a strict tone, after there was a heretical schism in the tradition a long time ago. And it is sad because of how much the modern Jain values non-violence, and because of betrayal of a clean tradition, one cannot really turn to Jainism even if they value it’s precepts, sadly and especially, because of the reality of naked false practitioners corrupting the tradition and the nonsense that comes with it. Good Buddhists can study some of their ancient tenants from a distance for some kind of specific knowledge, but the Science of the Dhamma wins over the Seeker to Buddhism. Because of our moral structured Dhamma. The Dhamma makes me rejoice. Thank you for your time. I wish everyone in the world were receptive to Buddhadhamma, for the sake of all sentient life.

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Thank you @Puerh ! Great resources. And yes - this thread is meant as a chance to throw out some fun ideas rather than pursue with scholarly standards any specific thread. For example, in "Buddhist Psychology vs. Modern Psychology", Ajahn Sona draws another interesting line:

William James (Principles of Psychology) established Psychology as an official discipline at the new Harvard Psychology Department in 1880. James, and therefore psychology, may have been deeply influenced by Buddhism. He encountered it at the World Parliament of Religions (Chicago, 1893), where Swami Vivicananda and Anagarika Dhammapala attended. The stream of consciousness paradigm along with the concept of mindfulness and mental control possibly introduced there, influenced one of his students, Gertrude Stein who in turn became a writer, invented the “stream of consciousness style” (which she got from the class and William James instructing them to “observe the stream of consciousness) and became the mentor of Picasso, Hemingway, and all the left-bank Paris artists.

Once again, the throughline relies on several assumptions and would need far more evidence to substantiate any of the links, but many of them don’t strike me as unlikely. These are powerful ideas. But once more, this is simply a chance to see what rises from the community.


I think Jesus Christ had a lot of similar characteristics to Gautama Buddha. I have seen comparisons between the values or the Pali Suttas and certain things Jesus Christ said. I think if Jesus was to decide to reincarnate and enter Buddhist life in the mode of a Bodhisattva, He would have no objection! Such a statement is important, because we have to truly Realize how wonderful Buddhism is as a permanent platform for sharing the values of Metta and Karuna with all sentient beings.

that’s very interesting. I have now in my list the book you quote before, “The Shape of Ancient Thought”.
Thanks :pray:

Not only this, most if not all of the late Medieval, Renaissance and later mystical Catholic saints were heavily influenced by a text called the Cloud of Unknowing, and a follow up text known as the Letter of Privy Counsel. The meditative methods described in these texts are essentially Buddhist techniques draped in Christian garb. If you read Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross, the Buddhist influence fairly leaps off the page and slaps you in the face


One key principle of modern history, and of serious philology and hermeneutics, is to explain things within their own context (be it a book, an era, a society or an archaeological site), and fetch an explanation elsewhere, only if the data give no reasonable alternative. Anything beyond this is speculation (deriving consequences from insufficiently grounded assumptions).

It is a well documented fact that Buddhism influenced Greek culture in India. The Greco-Macedonian settlers in India massively converted to Buddhism, and probably one of the missionaries Ashoka sent to the four corners of Asia, a certain Dhammarakkhita, was a Greek convert (Mahavamsa XII, Dipavamsa VIII.7). This happened at the beginning of the Hellenstic erea, when also major Greek philosophical schools were being founded. And indeed, all the philosophies of the Hellenistic era (Stoicism, Epicureanism, scepticism) show remarkable doctrinal similarities with either Buddhist or Hindu doctrines. Likewise, the rise of monotheism (semitic or else) in the ancient West starting from the 3rd century CE, may have made western high culture more receptive to Indian doctrines anticipating Advaita Vedanta, which seems reflected in Sacca’s Neoplatonism.
Contacts were frequent on any level. There are at least 12 documented embassies from Indian kings in the three hundred years between Augustus and Constantine (but Augustus alone says that they were saepe missae “frequently sent” to him (Res gestae 31), so there were certainly many more). Outside politics we have instances of casual encounters from the 5th century BCE (the episode – probably fictional, yet significative even as a fiction – of the brief dialogue of Socrates and a brahmin, told by Aristoxenus but saved in Εusebius Praep. Evang. 3.8.1-9.3), and up to the 5th CE, when brahmins again seem to have visited the West on an unspecified mission (the episode is told by Damascius, saved in Photius, Bibl. 242.340a.31-340b.13 Bekker, with a curious specification that these were not τῶν ἐν ὄρεσι διατριβόντων Βραχμάνων “the brahmans staying in the mountains”… but ἀμφίβιοι τοῖς Βραχμάνοις ὑπηρετούμενοι τὰ πρὸς τὰς πόλεις εἴ που δεήσειεν, καὶ ταῖς πόλεσιν αὖ τὰ πρὸς τοὺς Βραχμᾶνας. “leading a double life, serving the brahmins in the affairs of the city, when there was need of it, and in turn the cities in the affairs of the brahmins”; Photius doesn’t explain what these “affairs” or “things” (τά) were practically).
Even so, I think that the point here is not if there were contacts, but how any “influence” from abroad would have been filtered by local cultures. I have read a insane amount of literature, ancient and modern, about these relations and supposed “influences”; I could give dozen instances and a massive bibliography, but in my experience, every time there seems to be a clue to something interesting, deeper inspection and an honest assessment of the content (I mean, free from religious bias), confirms the picture already outlined by all previous cases: The two worlds remained largely self-absorbed, and viewed each other with a mix of indifference and provincial curiosity. Any mutual influence was reworked locally in ways that were entirely functional to local cultural processes, whose logic and ultimate sense had nothing to do with those of the foreign contribution. A paradigmatic case is the depiction of the Indians in the Charition parody (P.Oxy. III 413).
Explaining aspects of western culture through “Indian influence” is like explaining Thai Buddhist iconography through classical apollinean and dionysian art (from which it genealogically derives). It just makes no sense. Thai iconography is a purely south-Asian phenomenon.
Even considering documented cases of western philosophers travelling to India many centuries apart from each other, like Pyrrho of Elis and Apollonius of Tyana (but not Pythagoras), or cases that have arisen the suspicions of many serious scholars, like that of Ammonius Saccas, generally the western culture has elaborated foreign contributions in a largely independent and original way. In my best knowledge, there is no sufficient indication that any Indian religion of philosophy ever played a meaningful influence in the development of western culture on any level.
As for Buddhist influence in particular, I see even less favourable indications . All the sources we have, show a very vague and superficial knowledge of it. Clemens of Alexandria (Strom. is by far the most reliable and accurate of all those sources, and all he knows can be summarized in a single sentence.