Pyrrho's Way sample chapter

Buddhism around the World Buddhist Studies History Psychology Sumeru Books

Pyrrho's Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism, by Doug Bates, the founder and moderator at, is almost ready for publication. Editing, design and pagination are complete. Here's chapter 1...

Pyrrho’s Journey to the East

"…[Pyrrho] even went as far as the Gymnosophists, in India, and the Magi. Owing to which circumstance, he seems to have taken a noble line in philosophy…." Diogenes Laertius, Life of Pyrrho

"…whatever Greeks acquire from foreigners is finally turned by them into something nobler…." Plato (or more likely his student, Philip of Opus), Epinomis

Even in antiquity Westerners looked to India for wisdom. We know the Neoplatonist philosopher, Plotinus, tried to go to there but had to turn back. Some people even claim – on scant evidence – that Jesus went there. But there’s only one Westerner from antiquity whom we know not only went to India, but who brought back something that profoundly influences Western thought to this day. His name was Pyrrho. He was a priest at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and a philosopher in the tradition of Democritus. Pyrrho successfully made the trip because he was a member of Alexander the Great’s court during Alexander’s conquest of everything from Greece to India. Alexander had assigned the several philosophers in his court to learn everything they could about the philosophies of his newly conquered lands. Pyrrho spent a year and a half in India (327 – 325 BCE) doing exactly that.

Pyrrho carried with him to India two problems. In the decades following Democritus’ death (circa 370 BCE), two key elements of Democritean philosophy had come under attack, first by Plato, and then forcefully and persuasively by Aristotle.

Democritus had outlined a philosophical system for achieving a happy and fulfilling life, based on strategies for eliminating unpleasant and unhelpful mental states and cultivating positive ones such that the resulting peace of mind would lead to a life of virtue. Aristotle countered with a detailed system based on the virtue ethics conceived of by Socrates: that acting in accordance with virtue leads to peace of mind – the inverse of Democritus’ formula.

The other problem was worse. Aristotle had persuasively argued that Democritus was wrong about the fundamental nature of knowledge, again starting with ideas conceived of by Socrates. Since the validity of any philosophical system rests upon its epistemology, Aristotle’s attack was an existential threat to the entirety of Democritean philosophy.

The Greeks had for long noted a distinction between appearance and reality, based on observations such as how when an oar is put into water it appears bent, and how square towers seen from a distance look round. As appearances were known to deceive, the great epistemological question was about how much they could be relied upon to lead us to the truth about reality. Democritus built upon the views of earlier Greek philosophers, particularly Heraclitus, Xenophanes, and Parmenides, all of whom argued that obtaining the truth about reality was either impossible or highly limited. Aristotle rejected this. In his Metaphysics he declared that Democritus and these earlier philosophers were wrong, and he laid out his theory about how truth was accessible.

In India Pyrrho found a unified solution to both of these problems. He brought it back to Greece and built a new school of philosophy on it: Pyrrhonism, which flourished along with other schools of pagan philosophy until they were exterminated as part of the Christianization of the Roman Empire.

In the 19th Century, when Buddhist texts were starting to become available in European languages, scholars began noticing uncanny similarities between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism. Nietzsche even called Pyrrho “a Buddha.” But it would not be until the early 21st Century that it was finally proven by Christopher I. Beckwith, a philologist specializing in the ancient languages used on the Silk Road connecting trade between the ancient civilizations of the East and the West that the solution Pyrrho found involved repurposing key ideas from Buddhism.

Among the Buddhist ideas that identifiably influenced Pyrrho were nirvana, enlightenment, the Three Marks of Existence, the Three Poisons and their Antidotes, and the idea that the root cause of our mental suffering is delusion – all of which he reshaped to make them compatible with Greek thought and useful against Aristotle. On top of this Buddhist philosophical foundation, Pyrrho built an innovative technology. For reasons we can only speculate about, he did not bring back to Greece the Buddhist technology of meditation. Instead he took techniques that already existed in Greek thought – principally from Democritus, Protagoras, Gorgias, and the Megarians – synthesizing them and repurposing them to achieve ends that meditation achieves, all the way to the point of there being a Pyrrhonist version of kensho (enlightenment experience).

Around all of this – due to the fact that the schools of philosophy of ancient Greece criticized each other – subsequent Pyrrhonists built a thick shell of philosophical armor around Pyrrho’s nucleus of Buddhist ideas. They repositioned Pyrrhonism as an anti-philosophy philosophy, much as how some people view Zen Buddhism to be.

Nearly all of Western philosophy serves the end of building up of the ego. Look at how clever we humans are for figuring all this stuff out! We are like gods! Pyrrhonism, like Buddhism, is an assault on the ego. To be successful in that assault, Pyrrhonism was built to breach the philosophical conceits of the Western ego. Pyrrhonism turns rationality onto itself, using the same tools we use to build up our sense of who we are and what our world is to dismantle those constructions, leaving each of us with what is known in the metaphorical language of Zen as our original face: the face we had before our parents were born. As a consequence, Pyrrhonism has induced viscerally negative reactions from other philosophers, from antiquity to modernity. Pyrrhonists so riled the Stoic philosopher Epictetus that he thought they should be tortured. One modern so-called “expert” in Pyrrhonism, Professor Jonathan Barnes, called them “quacks” and advertisers of falsehoods. Between these two are countless more who have misunderstood, mischaracterized, and maligned Pyrrhonism.

Unlike Buddhism, Pyrrhonism doesn’t come in a warm and fuzzy wrapper. It’s not a religion. Its approach isn’t mystical. Meditation is not one of its techniques. It’s not joined at the hip with an ethics of compassion. Pyrrhonism is a philosophy. Its approach for producing peace of mind is as coldly technical as the assembly instructions for a Japanese bicycle. Its message about the nature of ethics acts like an acid, not a balm.

These are features, not bugs. Pyrrho did something wise and innovative. He reformulated the active ingredients of Buddhism for improved effectiveness in the conditions of the rationalistic Western mind. Pyrrhonism works on minds that are as fully conditioned to adhering to the law of non-contradiction as they are to the law of gravity. Instead of using meditation to launch the mind beyond the sphere of the mundane, producing an experience that grants a new perspective, Pyrrhonism pours rationality onto the ground we think we’re standing upon, dissolving it until the ground beneath us disappears, producing a similar experience.

But how do you say “enlightenment” in ancient Greek?

Older Post Newer Post