It has helped me throughout my life to examine the similarities and differences between various things, so I have become increasingly fascinated by the Cathars, a mysterious Christian sect at their peak in the Middle Ages in western Europe, and how similar their beliefs were to my own.
I believe that everything we encounter in our lives is embedded with crucial messages for our spiritual progress. Imagine a comprehensive curriculum devised for your development throughout the whole of your life, laid out before you. It is a blueprint, and if we or someone follow/follows its dimensions, we can become a strong enlightened being who has transformed negative karma and shortcomings, and been liberated from samsara, the human world of the 4 sufferings : birth, illness and suffering, old age, death.
As you can see, I fully believe that we find ourselves in the midst of the human world of suffering because we are being given a golden opportunity to liberate ourselves from that suffering view of life. It is probably our only chance, because we are taught that being born a human is exceedingly rare, so we need to make the most of it. In my case, I am filled with gratitude that my spiritual partner had the means and wisdom to make my blueprint a reality on my behalf.
Almost 20 years ago, I had the great privilege to live for several years in a tiny village in the remote eastern Pyrenees, on the Mediterranean side of the mountain frontier between France and Spain in Europe. It was a simple life, mostly sequestered away from the media and other such worldly distractions. I was a practising Buddhist but entirely on my own, without either teacher or sangha. It was a heavenly location, with unhindered views of untouched primeval forests and stunning peaks. The village was medieval, largely abandoned by young people who had moved to the cities to make a living, and mostly in ruins. Climate change had caused water sources to dry up so it was quite difficult to survive the long hot summers there. In the hottest times, people’s kitchen gardens, often their main source of food, suffered unmercifully, and water had to be brought up the mountain in tankers on a daily basis.
My long days were spent restoring and cultivating a huge medieval garden to try to provide all the food we needed, and making the carcass of an old farmhouse more habitable. Early mornings were spent exercising on the sandy roads once trodden by Les Bons or Les Parfaits, the good, known by medievalists as the Cathars, and nowadays used as short cuts by shepherds and vineyard workers.
In forest clearings, beautifully preserved Roman Chapels could be found. In the cliff faces of deep gorges, hermitages were perfect shelters. And from the valley floors, fortresses expertly balanced on high crags would intermittently come into view against the cloudless sky. The whole environment had once been dedicated to religious devotion, and now I found myself, a religious devotee also, in an ideal position.
As I looked more closely at the beliefs of this mysterious Christian sect viewed as heretics by the mainstream Roman Catholics of the time, I realized that their practice was not dissimilar to the Buddhist way. At this moment, I remember being so relieved that I didn’t need to jump on the sectarian wagon along with everyone else, because to me, all spiritual pathways are valid and share the same values. It just depends on your karma as to which guise your practice takes. I am certain all faiths long for the sacred to again occupy the waking and dreaming moments of human beings, as it once used to, and that all faiths battle with samsara, or what has become know as the ‘secular world,’ the realm of the human desires and self-selected suffering.
I would go so far as to say my spiritual blueprint had designated that I was transported to these mountains to tread the footsteps of the Cathars as they fled from the relentless hounding of the Church of Rome, or ‘of Wolves’ as they saw it. I dreamed many Cathar dreams, both subtle and gross, during my stint there, and came firmly to believe that my ancestors had been Cathars. As it was for them, reading the various famous accounts of their lives, each of my own days became a triumph of good over evil, and the thin veil of my death, which they believed was the sole thing separating beings of flesh from the spiritual world, threatened to blow away at any moment. I will soon publish an ebook about this period of my life called ‘The Veil of Death.’
One of the things which reduced the Cathars to heretics in the eyes of the inquisition forces sent to the mountains to accuse and dispose of them, was the belief that men and women were equal. The Roman church has always excluded women from key positions, and perhaps always will, but many eminent Cathar leaders were women. Buddhism has become similarly gender aware, though in ancient India, women were somewhat whimsically excluded from enlightenment, and are still treated with caution by many Hinayana sects. My present Nirvana guru is a woman, and despite her rank as overall spiritual leader of a huge world-wide sangha, certain predominantly male Hinayana sects in Thailand and Myanmar are not allowed to touch her!
So, in this series of articles I would like to examine and compare the Cathars and Mahayana Buddhist beliefs. Their origin remains mysterious, recent research showing that they probably hailed from central Asia or perhaps further east. My spiritual instincts tell me that they were likely Buddhist propagators en route from India traveling along the Spice and Silk Roads, who found their way west, and ended up in direct confrontation with the monopolist Catholics of Europe.
As hinted at above, one of their most striking beliefs is that the world is a battle place between the forces of good and evil, and that as humans we have to make our choices about which side we are on. As noted many times, Buddhists call this world samsara – something which flows on relentlessly until beings attain Nirvana, or the extinguishing of and freedom from all cravings. Cathars rejected the crucifixion and baptism outright, believing in the laying on of hands and that everyone was fundamentally good instead.
The Mahayana Buddhist teachings focus on emptiness. They express human life as a projection from the mind of the individual, like a constant replay of a video, and train us to turn off that video so we can find reality. I believe the Cathars had a very similar approach to living in the human world. Using prayer and contemplation as Buddhists use mantra and karmic cleansing, the Cathars took refuge in the pure and positive light of god as Buddhists take refuge in the three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
In the next article, I will describe the Consolamentum, the only formal rite the Cathars conducted. It was the means whereby a believer could become a ‘Perfect,’ absolved from all sins and removed from all evil. It was moving during my time in the remote foothills of the Pyrenees to realise that many of the ancestral lines there had taken this transforming blessing in 11th and 12th centuries.