The Cathars were persecuted unmercifully for many years, their lack of materialistic concerns and their adaptability leading them to flee easily across central and western Europe. Like the Jews, they seem to have been the scapegoat for mainstream European societies dominated by Catholicism and Christian Orthodoxy. It seems that both groups sought no public support or approval, but instead followed their faith, and did not indulge in chasing power or political interests.
This has also been the case with Buddhist groups throughout history. Buddhists who travelled the Silk Roads to spread the Buddhist teachings eastwards from India were persecuted, their images destroyed by Muslims, their monasteries destroyed forcing them to take up lay lives. As recently as 2001, the giant Buddhist statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan were dynamited by Muslims because they were deemed idols and Islam forbids the worship of any idols. Tibet and Vietnam, formerly Buddhist countries, continue to be persecuted to this day – Buddhist property confiscated, monks thrown into prison and left there for decades. I could write a book about Buddhist persecution, and may well do so soon.
I believe this ferocious discrimination is due to two characteristics, which Cathars and Buddhists have in common. First, both groups are pacifist, believing passionately in the preservation of all living things and the indivisibility of the invisible world of spirits and the visible world. Second, their faith is pure, unadulterated, and they are willing to stake their lives for it; in other words, they are completely unafraid of death and pain. We know that the intensity of prayer practiced by the Cathars eventually caused them to own up to their faith and be burned at the stake. Buddhists even today (several examples in Tibet and Vietnam) are willing to self-immolate themselves rather than renounce their Buddhist faith. Both religious groups practiced /practise without disturbing those who were/are not interested and were/are undeterred by disappointments or threats.
As an engaged Buddhist myself, I can state here and now that I would stake my life for my faith. I could not live without it and I see no point in keeping it a secret. Why you may ask? This is a huge question, but briefly I will stake my life because of my vows to lead all sentient beings to liberation, and because I put that commitment at the very centre of my life every moment, placing my own needs and comforts in second place. It is a scientifically proven fact that our human bodies are 90% water and entirely expendable. But our spirits, souls, call them what you will, are completely indestructible. Pain is a sensation that exists only in the intellectual/cognitive mind, so if we work to subdue and empty ourselves of ego, we empty ourselves of all suffering.
The Cathars were hounded until several hundred of them were trapped in Montsegur (nowadays in Ariège, south-western France) one of the hilltop fortresses. They were surrounded by troops and eventually given the choice of renouncing their faith and converting to Roman Catholicism, or burning at the stake. One famous Perfect, Peter Autier, spent 9 months in prison in Toulouse, but was defiant to the every end. Once tied to the stake he asked if he may convert and console all those present to Catharism. His request was denied and he died. William Belibaste, a perfect remembered for his excellent sermons, evaded being caught and led a double life in order to keep the faith alive, in Catalonia. But a newcomer, Arnold Sicre, joined his community, and after a year asked for help in finding his rich aunt and sister to console them. Belibaste helped him, but it was a trap and Belibaste was quickly arrested. Sicre continued to betray other Cathars for the rest of his life.
In Chapter 19 of the Mahaparinrivana Sutra, the final teachings of the Buddha, Kashyapa, a disciple of the Buddha who is preparing to spread the final teachings after the Buddha’s physical death, says:
O World-honoured One! I will peel off my skin to use as paper, draw my blood as ink, extract my marrow as water, and splinter my bone for use as a pen. I will then transcribe the Mahaparinirvana sutra.
This attitude is indicative of the determination of people of faith. They do threaten shallow and corrupted believers, bringing out the fear of the passionless, the indecisive, the weak, or those whose spiritual background is darkened and intransigent. Sadly, there are people who are spiritually asleep or consumed by evil spirits, which lead them to destruction and condemnation of the intrinsic good in all people.
On a personal note, during my time practicing as a Buddhist in the land of Cathars, I encountered persecution. The local people were devout Catholics and so were not open to my strange practices. And my partner at the time, a rather fearful agnostic, was extremely hostile towards my practice. I too was interrogated and told to snap out of my stupidity, and in extremis, my sutras were destroyed and my shrine damaged. It was as if we were living in a microcosm of the crusade against the Cathars. Eventually, despite working hard to generate loving kindness and tolerance, I was forced to leave the Pyrenees and the relationship.
Again the final teaching of the Buddha, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, chapter 5 says,
One who neither gains the acquaintance of a king, minister, or wealthy person for their own benefit nor excessively praises those who make offerings, but behaves appropriately and does not tolerate those who break the precepts or act in a way contradictory to the Dharma, can thus be called a master who abides by the precepts and protects the Dharma.
It is simple to stake one’s life for the great good of humanity. In Buddhism, the precepts are all-encompassing, as are the rules of moral discipline of all religious teachings:
I vow to refrain from killing
I vow to refrain from stealing
I vow to refrain from sexual misconduct
I vow to refrain from lying
I vow to refrain from becoming intoxicated
If we abide strictly by these moral codes while filling our lives with loving compassion for all sentient beings, regardless of whether they are friend of foe, then we aim to respect and preserve all life.
The Cathars lived according to the 10 commandments which are very similar to the above. St Bernard of Clarivaux (1090-1153) a famous Catholic leader of the period said of them:
- If you question the heretic (the Cathar) about his faith, nothing is more Christian; if about his daily converse, nothing more blameless; and what he says he proves by his actions….. As regards his life and conduct, he cheats no one, pushes ahead of no one, does violence to no one. Moreover, his cheeks are pale with fasting; he does not eat the bread of idleness; he labours with his hands and thus makes his living. Women are leaving their husbands, men are putting aside their wives, and they all flock to those heretics! Clerics and priests, the youthful and the adult among them, are leaving their congregations and churches and are often found in the company of weavers (Cathars often took up this craft) of both sexes.
Indeed, the Perfect detested killing of any kind, were wholly vegetarian apart from eating fish sometimes, and they avoided in principle eating any by-product of sexual reproduction. War and capital punishment were condemned, most unusual in medieval Europe where peacetime was rare, and in a world where few could read, they rejected oath-taking.
If you accept that your spirit is indestructible and that therefore it could be said that you are an angel temporarily residing in a vessel of flesh, it is easy to stake your human life on the glorious nourishment provided by faith. After all, how can we become obsessively attached to our bodies of flesh when it is certain that they will decline and perish like all things born or seeded. It is only the ignorant ego mind that views the impermanent as permanent. The heart beating inside each of us is wise and knows its fate.
Once we accept the reality, truly putting aside the phantasy of reality we have each created in our minds, then we will be truly and enduringly happy, and can live out our human days with joy, devotion and humility.
Finally, as we are each the culmination of our ancestors and their achievements, we need to remember that we living are the ancestors of those to come. Every moment needs to be spent in deep meditation so that we are sure to hand down our pure nature to our descendants both of the flesh and of the teachings that we follow. The good Buddhist does not worry about mistakes made in the past as much as the potential mistakes of the future. Thus, the way we live, the detail of our morality and sincerity, is vital to our karmic lineage. After all, good is good. It’s that simple.