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Gnosis and the Law, Bodhi and the Dharma

Saint Paul is a well-known figure in Christian history.

Paul of Tarsus supposedly taught a student named Theudas. Theudas taught a man named Valentinus, which brings us to this post and hopefully the relevance of the matter at hand.

Valentinus taught Ptolemy, a Gnostic exegete, who wrote a letter to his follower, Flora.

Look at the way Ptolemy, a Hellenized Jewish Gnostic Christian, interfaces with “the Law (Torah),” the sacred writing of his tradition, and tell me if you see any similarities with approaches to Buddhadharma and Buddhavacana. In particular, the threefold sources he lays out: from God, from Moses, from the elders. I would say perhaps there is a parallel in Buddhism: from the Buddha, from the students near the Buddha (the arhats/saints), from the community of monastic (and lay) practitioners (over time).

The entire Law contained in the Pentateuch of Moses was not ordained by one legislator - I mean, not by God alone, some commandments are Moses’, and some were given by other men. The words of the Savior teach us this triple division. The first part must be attributed to God alone, and his legislation; the second to Moses - not in the sense that God legislates through him, but in the sense that Moses gave some legislation under the influence of his own ideas; and the third to the elders of the people, who seem to have ordained some commandments of their own at the beginning. You will now learn how the truth of this theory is proved by the words of the Savior.

In some discussion with those who dispute with the Savior about divorce, which was permitted in the Law, he said Because of your hard-heartedness Moses permitted a man to divorce his wife; from the beginning it was not so; for God made this marriage, and what the Lord joined together, man must not seperate. [Matt 19:8] In this way he shows there is a Law of God, which prohibits the divorce of a wife from a husband, and another law, that of Moses, which permits the breaking of this yoke because of hard-heartedness. In fact, Moses lays down legislation contrary to that of God; for joining is contrary to not joining.

But if we examine the intention of Moses in giving this legislation, it will be seen that he did not give it arbitrarily or of his own accord, but by the necessity because of the weakness of those for whom the legislation was given. Since they were unable to keep the intention of God, according to which it was not lawful for them to reject their wives, with whom some of them disliked to live, and therefore were in the danger of turning to greater injustice and thence to destruction, Moses wanted to remove the cause of dislike, which was placing them in jeopardy of destruction. Therefore because of the critical circumstances, choosing a lesser evil in place of a greater, he ordained, on his own accord, a second law, that of divorce, so that if they could not observe the first, they might keep this and not turn to unjust and evil actions, through which complete destruction would be the result for them. This was his intention when he gave legislation contrary to that of God. Therefore it is indisputeable that here the law of Moses is different from the Law of God, even if we have demonstrated the fact from only one example.

The Savior also makes plain the fact that there are some traditions of the elders interwoven in the Law. For God, he says, said, Honour your father and your mother, that it may be well with you, But you, he says addressing the elders, have declared as a gift to God, that by which you have nullified the Law of God through the tradition of your elders. Isaiah also proclaimed this, saying, This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, teaching precepts which are the commandments of men. [Matt 15:4-9].

Therefore it is obvious that the whole Law is divided into three parts; we find in it the legislation of Moses, of the elders, and of God himself. This division of the entire Law, as made by us, has brought to light what is true in it.

(Ptolemy, Letter to Flora , ~100 A.D.)

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Interesting, like ancient text analysis. Do you see a similar reformist movement (stratifying dhamma and vinaya) in early (maybe Chinese) Buddhism as well?

I always thought Law was a pretty good translation for Dharma. I know it was used by older translators and then people stopped using it and now it sounds archaic, but if you think about it in terms of the way “laws” are used in scientific discourse, regular patterns in nature which can be discovered through observation and study, then it really matches well with Dharma.

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I love Ptolemy’s letter to Flora! It’s such an underrated early Christian work.

The problem is that “law” in the Biblical sense is completely different from the Dharma. Biblical law is more like the definition of “law” in the legal sense — namely, a set of rules to follow. More like the Vinaya than the Dharma. In fact, when I first read a translation of the Dhammapada that used the word “law”, I was genuinely confused about whether it was referring to the Dharma or the Vinaya.

When Paul was writing that Christians don’t need to follow the Law, he wasn’t saying Christians shouldn’t believe in God or that they should stop reading the Torah. He was just saying they didn’t need to follow some of the precise legalistic requirements, like keeping kosher and getting circumcised.

Well, there are a few I see. There is EBT studies and it’s forerunners, there is also Tiāntāi, which tried to do the same thing to different result at a different time ~500AD.

I was reading the Bahudhātukasutta at Majjhimanikāya 115, the standard narrative, It’s impossible for a woman to be a perfected one, a fully awakened Buddha. But it is possible for a man to be a perfected one, a fully awakened Buddha.

Then I was reminded of the gāthā in the Yasodharāpamukhāṭṭhārasabhikkhunīsahassāpadāna from Therīpadāna 30, these nuns who have mastered the “four analytical modes, […] eight deliverances, [and] six special knowledges,” from whom “past is thoroughly destroyed, and the present and the future.”

Reading this wonderful hymn also reminded me of the Bahudhātukasutta again, wherein “it’s impossible for a woman to perform the role of Sakka, Māra, or Brahmā. But it is possible for a man to perform the role of Sakka, Māra, or Brahmā.”

From Therīpadāna 30:

Worshipping the Sambuddha, they
showed the Teacher superpowers.
They displayed great superpowers,
diverse, having various forms.

Body big as the universe,
they made the continent up north
their heads; both other islands wings;
and made India their torsos;

tail feathers: the southern ocean;
other feathers: varied rivers;
their eyes were the moon and the sun,
their crests were cosmic Mount Meru.

In their beaks, mountain at world’s end,
they carried a tree with its roots.
Coming up to him, fanning him,
they’re worshipping the World’s Leader.

Then they made themselves elephants,
likewise horses, mountains, oceans,
the moon and the sun, Mount Meru,
and Śakra, the king of the gods.

There are a good number of cases where law works well as a translation. The trouble I have is that Dharma is used a few different ways, and context often doesn’t help. It’s an interesting case of a word that was well understood and used for several different meanings, but we don’t have any sort of word like it in English.

The Chinese used the word for law throughout and just learned to understand the different meanings by context. That is, they hijacked a native word and gave it new meanings rather than translate it in several ways or transliterate it. So, in their texts, mental objects are “laws,” teachings are “laws,” and phenomena are also “laws”–they just translate it mentally. That’s one reason why some older English translations from Chinese have Dharma as law throughout–it’s a literal translation of the East Asian text.

It is interesting, though, how the concept seems to have been a universal notion that began with religious and philosophical systems and then was borrowed by early scientists. The Chinese had their own concepts before Dharma arrived, like Dao, which is like a natural order or pattern to the world prior to humans thinking about it. Secular laws were a weak copy that attempted to order human life with coercion, but Dao was a more sublime law seen in the natural world as well as human world.

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Interesting indeed. Also, I thought (perhaps mistakenly) that early translations used “Dao” for Dharma. Can you confirm/deny?

Actually, the concept of Dao was used for bodhi because understanding and following Dao was the way to become a sage in pre-Buddhist Chinese thought. Dao is a noumenal principle that underlies the world, so if you realized it and applied that intuition to your daily affairs, you avoid the problems that happen when you go against it in ignorance. A Daoist sage accomplishes things without apparently having any goals because he follows the Dao. A Confucian sage can govern a country with minimal effort or conflict because he uses heaven’s Dao.

Early Buddhist translators found it to be a good parallel with the Buddhist concept of awakening that overcomes karma and mental affliction.

The basic meaning of dao 道 is “path” or “way,” and it’s ordinary usage is for roads. So, Buddhist translators used it for marga, too.

Dharma was instead translated with fa 法, which is the Chinese word for rules and laws, typically secular legal systems or the rules of organizations, that enforce social order.

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There are 50-odd pages in The Bahudhātuka-sutta and its Parallels
On Women’s Inabilities
which argue that that line in particular is a late addition to the text – by comparing it with the corresponding agama.


I thought of mentioning that in Some inauthentic passages in the Early Buddhist Texts but the system warned against posting in such an old topic.

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Not too dissimilar from the use of “Dharma” in India no? I mean, a lot of the Manusmriti has to do with secular law.

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Yeah, that’s why there was really no disagreement. I think Dharma might be transliterated rarely, but throughout Chinese translation dharma is 法. Bodhi, on the other hand, is translated in several different ways or transliterated quite often.

Do these rather pedestrian contexts mean that for the Chinese of old fa would have been a term quite lacking in the sort of numinous connotations that accompany dharma?

And if so, has it come to acquire any such associations as a result of long use by Chinese Buddhists?

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Chinese Buddhists understand it to mean dharma in the context of Buddhist writings, but literally their texts say “law.” The effect is the same as if it were transliterated. I treat it as such when I translate it to English.

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