As mentioned in the previous article, the Cathars had many fundamental beliefs which are in essence similar to Buddhist beliefs. Their history is slowly being uncovered, but researchers are still not certain of their exact origin. I was born a Christian and brought up with Christian ideas and training in Britain, and I have to say that I believed devoutly in Jesus Christ, and still do. It is certain that I could not have taken the Buddhist path without my Christian sensibilities. However, I was always deeply touched by the original teachings of Jesus Christ, and not so impressed by how they had been adjusted as they spread throughout the world. Of course, this distortion happened in Buddhism too, after the death of the Buddha Shyakyamuni. Nowadays, I believe we should always go back to the original teachings, and have the Buddha’s life as our main inspiration, as the Cathars had Christ’s life as theirs.
So, what were their main beliefs? The OED defines them as, ‘a heretical medieval Christian sect which professed a form of Manichaean dualism and sought to achieve great spiritual purity.’ (OED, 2nd edition, 2003) What is Manichaeism? Briefly, it was a religious system of beliefs with Christian, Gnostic and pagan elements, founded in Persia in 3rd century by Manes (c216-c.276) and based on a supposed primeval conflict between light and darkness. It was widespread in the Roman Empire and Asia, and survived until 13th century.
The light represents the goodness of God and all compassion and love, and the darkness represents the world as created by the devil or Satan. In other words, the Cathars believed that the Devil’s work provided a habitat for humans which was basically flawed and evil, and that God provided all the love and compassion which made it possible to survive in such a habitat. So, unlike the mainstream Christians, Satan was a very real entity for Cathars, and thus their practice was openly dualistic. Cathars denied the validity of baptism; they believed that Christ did not suffer on the cross, and they basically rejected the human body as crude and contaminated.
Another parallel here with Buddhism is how we constantly reflect on the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. During 6 days of struggles, in which he was determined not to move until he was enlightened, he was besieged by Mara’s temptations and delusions. But was able to cease all craving and so become enlightened. Buddhists see evil as a projection of the individual ignorant mind, so if we resort to serene meditation as the Buddha did, we can overcome all cravings and become eternally happy. There is no dualism because we are in one heart with the Buddha, our guru or spiritual guide, and with all sentient beings. There is no separation in Buddhism, which is perhaps one of the major differences between theistic and non-theistic belief systems. We Buddhists have all the resources we need to become enlightened and permanently happy inside us, because we create the world with our minds.
Cathars, on the other hand, considered that humans were angels trapped in vile bodies, and that only the thin veil of death was needed to be removed before they could escape back into their spiritual home. Thus procreation was not allowed by those who had taken vows, because it represented the creation of yet more trapped angels. More of this later, but perhaps you can see that there is a similarity with the idea of Samsara, the suffering world, and Bodhi, the aspiration to reach the shore of Nirvana, the place of no cravings or suffering. Most Buddhists work hard to subdue the physical and sensual desires of the body, and to get control of the mind or to polish their innate Buddha Nature until there are no blemishes. Of course, both belief systems have moral codes: the commandments for Cathars, and the precepts for Buddhists.
Cathars were lay practitioners who lived normal lives in communities. They were taught to be in the world but not of it, and to follow the gospels of the New Testament (they rejected the Old Testament outright), to love one another, and to live a life seeking God. They had no churches or sacraments, but the most evolved of their members, known as ‘the Perfect,’ were thought to embody the church itself.
The Consolamentum, a kind of baptismal rite either given to those who aspired to become a perfect, or to be liberated in the face of death, was the way to permanently escape from the Devil’s material world in this life, and in future incarnations also (like Buddhists, Cathars believed in many lives for the spirit). It contained the Lord’s Prayer, which all Christians know and respect, and had been scrupulously preserved by the Perfect from the time of the apostles of Jesus. This pure stream of Christianity stretching back to the original teachings of Jesus is very similar to how the Dharma Stream or current has been handed from Master to pupil since the Buddha Shyakyamuni’s time in Buddhism.
The Consolamentum was very simple and after receiving it the aspirant was basically absolved of all their sins. The rite ended with the kiss of peace which sealed the consolation, and he or she was pronounced a Perfect. They would be expected to keep their vows for the rest of their lives, to pray 15 times every day, to fast on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and once a year for 40 days to imitate Christ’s experiences in the wilderness.
The Perfect were distinguishable by their robes, which were black or sometimes dark blue or dark green, with a cord tied round the waist. They lived wherever they could, often in deserted and remote chapels, or fortresses built on crag tops as in the case of the Pyrenees. I feel so privileged to have experienced the very environment, mostly unchanged since the Middle Ages, in Roussillon and Languedoc, which they knew. When I was there, Cathar energy was palpable in the mountains, and as I walked the sandy pathways in the forests, and sat in quiet contemplation in the beautiful Roman chapels, I could feel their presence. Their lives gave me the courage and stamina to practice my own Buddhist teachings while alone. They had the kind of passion and commitment, the ability to stake their lives for their beliefs, which I aspire to, and the will to purify themselves so that their goodness could shine out in the satanic darkness.
Finally, the Consolamentum has a positivity about it that is present in Buddhist practice. We humans are not perfect because of either our own or our ancestor’s unmeritorious acts, which are referred to as karma in Buddhism, and so we always have the opportunity to repent and start again. In other words, if we are mindful we can avoid repeating the same mistakes, and so polish our Buddha Nature. Then we can do something positive in our lives to pay back for all the millions of blessings and kindnesses we have received to make our lives possible.
Buddhists take refuge in the Three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Cathars took refuge in the light, compassion and goodness of Christ. Both types of refuge allow the refugees to shelter from the suffering of a world which is flawed by evil and materialism, in order to increase their light and intrinsic goodness. As well as being a purification, the Consolamentum was a kind of protection like the many mantras we Buddhists use and the empowerments we receive. The Cathars based their beliefs on the realities and struggles of human life, utilized them to polish away their impurities, and therefore human life was their training ground.
Today, in Japan, I belong to a lay order, which has no monastic retreats. Our training is directly in everyday life, and I believe this is the only place we can truly elevate spiritually.
In Article 3 of this series, I will describe the records collected by Catholic cardinals and friars from the inhabitants of a Pyrenean village, Montaillou, during the inquisition to oust out the Cathars. These testimonies are taken directly from the mouths of people many of whom had received the Cosolamentum and so taken refuge in the Cathar faith. I believe this will give true insight into their faith, and so the faith of Buddhists and other belief systems.