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The Desert Fathers as the First Christian Buddhists

  • History and Hermits - The Desert Fathers of Egypt by Derek Bickerton
    "The Desert Fathers' most striking innovation – if indeed it was an innovation – was that of contemplative prayer. There are striking similarities between the practices of the Desert Fathers and those of Buddhist monks and hermits; both sought to quiet the constant inner chatter of the mind so as to achieve closer union with the divine.

    Historically, there are tantalising hints of possible contact between Christians and Buddhists on the fringes of the Empire, but so far these remain no more than hints. What is certain is that the Desert Fathers were the originators of this type of spiritual quest within the Christian community."
  • Christian Meditation by Brian Ruhe
    "The Desert Fathers were the first Christian monks and they lived in the period of the third to the sixth centuries A.D. They practiced a form of prayer which could be described as meditation. In Buddhist terms, this ancient Christian meditation practice included both mantra meditation and non conceptual meditation. They would take a word, sentence or phrase from the Bible and repeat it over and over again. St. John Cassian, the Roman was based at a monastery in Bethlehem. He made a great contribution to world literature by producing two sets or collections of writings. These were the Institutes which recounted the practices of the monks of Egypt and adapted them for use in the colder, Western regions. Then later, Conferences given by various great Fathers of the Desert."
  • Coexisting With Buddhism By Fr. Brendan Pelphrey
    "Buddhist ascetical communities have much in common with the life-style of the early Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Church, a fact which was beautifully drawn out by the Japanese scholar and artist Yushi Nomura in his book, Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers. Nomura used Zen-style illustrations and brief quotes from the Fathers to demonstrate the similarities. Both seek to extinguish the passions and to tame the flesh. Both seek tranquility (in Greek, hesychia). Both advocate radical simplicity of lifestyle and a total acceptance of what the day might bring."
  • Contact with Buddhism (Wikipedia)
    "Merton was perhaps most interested in — and, of all of the Eastern traditions, wrote the most about — Zen. Having studied the Desert Fathers and other Christian mystics as part of his monastic vocation, Merton had a deep understanding of what it was those men sought and experienced in their seeking. He found many parallels between the language of these Christian mystics and the language of Zen philosophy."
  • Hermit (Wikipedia)
    "From a religious point of view, the solitary life is a form of asceticism, wherein the hermit renounces worldly concerns and pleasures. This can be done for many reasons, including: to come closer to the deity or deities they worship or revere, to devote one's energies to self-liberation from saṃsāra, etc. This practice appears also in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism. Taoism also has a long history of ascetic and eremetical figures. In the ascetic eremitic life, the hermit seeks solitude for meditation, contemplation, and prayer without the distractions of contact with human society, sex, or the need to maintain socially acceptable standards of cleanliness or dress. The ascetic discipline can also include a simplified diet and/or manual labor as a means of support."
  • Gnostic Elaine Pagels
    "The lost gospels of the desert fathers: The Nag Hammadi scrolls also called the Gnostic Gospels, portray a very different picture of the mission of Jesus."

    "The 52 texts discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt include 'secret' gospels poems and myths attributing to Jesus sayings and beliefs which are very different from the New Testament."

    "Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from Its creator: God is wholly other. But some of the gnostics who wrote these gospels contradict this: self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.

    "Second, the "living Jesus" of these texts speaks of illusion and enlightenment, not of sin and repentance, like the Jesus of the New Testament. Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding. But when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master: the two have become equal--even identical."

    "Third, orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is Lord and Son of God in a unique way: he remains forever distinct from the rest of humanity whom he came to save. Yet the gnostic Gospel of Thomas relates that as soon as Thomas recognizes him, Jesus says to Thomas that they have both received their being from the same source:

    Jesus said, "I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out.... He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him."

    "Does not such teaching--the identity of the divine and human. The concern with illusion and enlightenment, the founder who is presented not as Lord, but as spiritual guide sound more Eastern than Western? Some scholars have suggested that if the names were changed, the "living Buddha" appropriately could say what the Gospel of Thomas attributes to the living Jesus. Could Hindu or Buddhist tradition have influenced gnosticism?"

    "The British scholar of Buddhism, Edward Conze, suggests that it had. He points out that "Buddhists were in contact with the Thomas Christians (that is, Christians who knew and used such writings as the Gospel of Thomas) in South India." Trade routes between the Greco-Roman world and the Far East were opening up at the time when gnosticism flourished (A.D. 80-200); for generations, Buddhist missionaries had been proselytizing in Alexandria. We note, too, that Hippolytus, who was a Greek speaking Christian in Rome (c. 225), knows of the Indian Brahmins--and includes their tradition among the sources of heresy:

    There is . . . among the Indians a heresy of those who philosophize among the Brahmins, who live a self-sufficient life, abstaining from (eating) living creatures and all cooked food . . . They say that God is light, not like the light one sees, nor like the sun nor fire, but to them God is discourse, not that which finds expression in articulate sounds, but that of knowledge (gnosis) through which the secret mysteries of nature are perceived by the wise."

    "Could the title of the Gospel of Thomas--named for the disciple who, tradition tells us, went to India--suggest the influence of Indian tradition?"
  • Bart D. Ehrman...Lost Christianities
    "No form of lost Christianity has so intrigued modern readers and befuddled modern scholars as early Christian Gnosticism. The intrigue is easy to understand, especially in view of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library.... When that group of field hands headed by Mohammed Ali uncovered this cache of books in Upper Egypt, the world was suddenly presented with hard evidence of other Christian groups in the ancient world that stood in sharp contrast with any kind of Christianity familiar to us today. There was no Jesus of the stained glass window here, nor a Jesus of the creeds--not even a Jesus of the New Testament. These books were fundamentally different from anything in our experience, and almost nothing could have prepared us for them"...
General Guidelines for Contemplative Prayer of all kinds
  • Pick a quiet, comfortable place to pray and treat this place as sacred. Arrange a pillow or chair to sit on. Have a bible or other sacred reading at hand. Adorn your place with a plant, a candle, or other things that please you.
  • Keep a spiritual journal. Write down dreams, feelings, and impressions from your prayer time, and anything else that seems important in your life. Date your entries.
  • Sit up straight to make room for the breath. Breath naturally and slowly.
  • Pray regularly. Treat this time as you would an appointment with a valued friend. 20 minutes is a standard prayer period. This is about the amount of time the body and mind need to become receptive and able to listen. Doing this twice a day will boost your spiritual growth.
  • Focus on your relationship with God or on being receptive. Do not become attached to gifts such as visions or feelings of ecstasy and closeness to God. Neither be disturbed by trials such as aridity, loud thoughts, disruptive feelings, and the like. Both gifts and trials come and go. They are not a sign of how well your prayer is going, only that you are being changed. Look for the fruits of your prayer in everyday life, not in the prayer period itself.
  • Pick a practice that suits you and stick with it. Be prepared to move beyond that practice as you are called to do so.
  • Suspend the judging mind, but make room for the spirit to act within you. Expect to be transformed, but do not grasp after it. Rest and be intentional in your practice and the work will be done in you.
  • A spiritual friend is someone you can talk about your practice and spiritual life with. It is good to have companionship along the way. A good spiritual director may be hard to find, though they are more common now than they were 10 years ago. Seek such a person if you feel called to do so or your inner way becomes hard and you need direction. A good spiritual director is someone who has prayed for many years. Consider asking at your local Catholic Church for monks or nuns who are experienced in prayer or spiritual direction. Teachers from the Eastern traditions such as Buddhism may be helpful to you. Many are highly skilled. Remember above all, "if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him (James 1:5)
  • Be gentle with yourself. You are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and God is seeking you as eagerly as you are seeking God
The Way of Mediation and Contemplation by Teresa Tillson
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