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?