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.

1 Like

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.

1 Like

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


Ajahn Brahm once spoke of St. Augustine and his disciple Saint Teresa, how meditation was practised in early Christianity and the similarity of their meditative experience to that of Jhana.

“Teresa, who became a celebrity in her town dispensing wisdom from behind the convent grille, was also known for her raptures, which sometimes involved levitation. It was a source of embarrassment to her and she bade her sisters hold her down when this occurred.”

Source: Teresa of Ávila - Wikipedia

Found this picture online; I’m not sure whether it’s edited or real.

Mysticism was an early tendency in some forms of Christianity before the Medieval era, not so much after it. The meditative prayers Teresa de Avila for instance formulated, as well as her major work, were contemplative. Christian contemplation is a meditative perspective on theism which is much more influenced by Plato (neoplatonism) than by Buddhist teachings. I would not say that Teresa de Avila was so much influenced by Buddhism. If you’d know her history, you’d understand that’s not the case. As a whole, Western Buddhist monasticism is much more influenced by Christian monasticism than the other way around. It all starts with language and our perspective on religion and monasticism: a monastery and a monastic is Christian terminology, not Buddhist. Also, the way we define the spread of the Buddha’s teachings as a religion, is a very Western, colonial and Christian perspective.

Yeah, you can find anything online.
Online does not mean really true :slight_smile:
This is a photoshopped image.

I am an ex Carmelite Secular, I know plenty of her history. I studied it for years.

I wasn’t speaking in the sense of Teresa picking up a copy of the Sutta Pitaka, I was speaking more of the sense which Buddhism has influence Christian mystic practices historically, right up to the present day, such as with Thomas Merton.

Nah. If you look at the way Teresa framed oracion mental, her primary activity, especially how she describes it in her mature works and letters, the modern descriptions of it like “mental prayer” become fairly flaccid. It’s much more akin to the Buddhist concept of sati. It’s mindfulness, but there’s an attempt to conceal that under the less accurate term of “contemplative”, which is really just a distinction without a difference. If you look at Teresa’s cotemporaries, like Cisneros, or her influences, like De Osuna, they use it in the same way.

Mindfulness didn’t originate with Buddhism, sure, but it was most definitely transmitted to the West by Buddhism.

Oh yeah. I wonder if Paul before seeing Jesus was in a meditation state.