In the wake of a thrilling conversation with my good friend and collaborator on this site (Epicurus of Albion) the other day I decided to dive deep into the mystical interpretations of the life of Jesus with the idea that it might make a good article. This is not that article, but along the way, I rediscovered the fascinating world of the now-extinct Cathars and the interesting parallels that their beliefs have with Buddhist teachings/philosophy.
I don’t tend to write explicitly about religion on this site for the simple reason that the focus of theology tends to be the correct preparation for the afterlife, should one be available… In contrast, philosophy concerns itself with the life that we’re living right now, focusing its efforts on how we can get the best out of it. The one thing that we can all agree upon is that we’re all alive right now and that this life is real, that not only can it be both good and bad but it’s in our own gift to make the best of it. Hence philosophy is a powerful discipline that seeks to answer the age-old question, ‘how do I live well? How do I live a good life?’
So who exactly were the Cathars and why are they philosophically interesting?
The Cathars were a Christian, dualist or gnostic movement that thrived in Southern Europe, mostly northern Italy and Southern France between the 12th and 14th Centuries AD. It is likely that their systems of belief originated in Persia or the Byzantine Empire and differed radically from the mainstream of Catholicism of that time which made them a target of church persecution.
The Cathars considered themselves to be adherents of the true form of Christianity and as such identified themselves as ‘The Pure Ones.’
So what did this ‘true form’ of Christianity look like?
The Cathars believed that reality was the work of an imperfect God, who was not the true God but was closely analogous to the devil as well as the Old Testament God of the Jews. The entire material world is the work of this ‘Rex Mundi,’ or King of the World who in the distant past had tempted the angelic souls of human beings away from the non-material and perfect realm of God into the real world.
Souls were neither male or female, making both men and women equal participants in Cathar society, souls would continue to be reborn over and over again in the flesh until they renounced the material world and the material self completely, at which point the endless cycle of reincarnation would cease and the soul would return to heaven fully restored as an angelic being.
The act of Killing was anathema to the Cathars who abstained from all animal foods (sometimes exempting fish), whilst war and capital punishment were also forbidden. It was simply wrong to take a life, no matter what the circumstances.
Cathars also shared their possessions and lived in strong communities taking care of each other, believing that the path to redemption was to undertake good deeds and to act in a loving and benevolent manner, keen to help anyone they could, living their lives in a way similar to Jesus whom they venerated whilst denying his physical incarnation. To a Cathar, Jesus wasn’t born in a human body, and neither did he incarnate again after his death on the cross, but rather he occupied the human form of an angel whose body was only an appearance.
What’s striking about all of this are of course the parallels with Buddhist teachings, in which human souls are locked in an eternal cycle of samsara, or infinite rebirth, until the day comes that they can give up their attachments to desire, at which point the cycle is broken and enlightenment is attained.
Like the Cathars Buddhists also believe that it is both spiritually good and desirable to serve others with good deeds and unselfish living, that killing is wrong and that eating foods derived from the flesh of animals was also wrong. To a Buddhist all living things are caught up in the cycle of life, death and rebirth making all souls equal.
Jesus was considered by the Cathars to have been a great teacher, an emissary of the one true God that existed beyond the material realm of the ‘Rex Mundi,’ who came to earth to show us the way to reunification with God in a holy realm.
To the Buddhists, the Buddha is considered to have been the greatest teacher, who having discovered the cause of all suffering as attachments to desire, gave us all a way out of the endless cycle of reincarnation by simply letting go.
As someone who has tried both Christianity and Buddhism, I can appreciate the validity of this message. Personally, I stand in the middle of all realms as a mystic, this makes all realities equally true. Reality in whatever form springs forth from a mental model of the observable universe and its behaviours that we hold in our own minds.
Reality gives nothing, offers nothing, demands nothing, yet for all of that we engage ourselves in the constant battle to understand it, and to live well within it. Reality is true, unashamed in its nakedness, yet our models of it are all flawed, merely being a point of view that is limited by our senses, our intelligence and our tools. If I study a mountain from the north and you study it from the south it will look remarkably different to each of us, yet its underlying reality is the same. That’s how I see religions and different branches of philosophy, yet this shouldn’t stop us from taking all that we find to be good.