The whole concept of heresy can only come about when there is a system of external rules. The etymological root of the word heresy is ‘choice,’ in other words, disobeying the rules, choosing something different from the compulsory way. It seems that the Cathars were seen to make a choice between the Catholic Church or Orthodox church, forming a well-organised underground church for hundreds of years, and very suddenly emerging into the light at the beginning of the 2nd millennium. By contrast, the evolution of Buddhist history is very different, because each practitioner works to reach enlightenment within themselves before ministering to others. Of course, there are rules and precepts, but Buddhists do not depend on the compassion or wrath of the Buddhas in the same way that monotheists, like Christians and Moslems, do. We do not submit to a god because we each have the potential to become Buddhas and generate Bhodicitta to lead all beings to spiritual liberation.
So when did this phenomenon of heresy first appear in Europe? At the end of the first millennium, a peasant named Leutard in the north-east of France, had a dream in which a swarm of bees entered his body. Instead of screaming and waking up the whole village, he fled to the local church, destroyed the cross above the altar and violated the image of Jesus Christ. He then forced out his wife from their house insisting on living in celibacy, and refused to pay any taxes to the Church. The cannons heard of this and set out to exterminate him, but he committed suicide before they could. It would seem that this man was part of a group, but this is not certain at this point, and that he was the first heretic in Europe.
At around the same time, the first French Pope of the Catholic church, at the time of his consecration, made a strange edict. He vowed to believe in both New and Old testaments, he emphasized the importance of marriage in the eyes of the church, supported the consumption of meat, and confirmed the presence of an evil spirit that was lesser than God in the world. Later, the Cathars rejected faith in all of these. Was he making an outward show of his orthodoxy because he was suspected of heresy, or was he making preliminary measures to control and exterminate the Cathars?
A little later, during the Church reforms, Pope Gregory VII announced that the established Church was the only way to God, and the Pope the highest human authority. It seems clear that the Church elders knew that some unrest was growing, so were making preparations to deal with it. As mentioned earlier, the Cathars did not tolerate the established church in any way, calling it the Church of Satan and Wolves. This, according to recent research, was the first occasion on which such an underground church had been detected, and heresy became a new scourge used liberally by the establishment.
The charge of Heresy has always exacted severe punishments and torture, ending in death, usually by fire. What does this kind of behavior say about the Christian Church, a religious organization meant to be focused on unconditional love and good deeds? In my spiritual progress through my life, I have always been appalled by bloodshed and notions of revenge. That is perhaps one of the principal reasons I turned away from Christianity, and started to practice Buddhism. Buddhists avoid the deliberate or premeditated killing of any form of sentient being. However, throughout history, Christians seem to have relished slaughter in the name of their God. Still today, certain sects of Islam are capable of committing unthinkable acts of violence, and fundamentalist Christians appear to think nothing of the random firing of guns at helpless children.
So, the Church of Rome used all their force to eradicate the gentle Cathars. They even retained their troops from marching to the crusades in order to make certain they could overwhelm the heretics and stamp them out. Their fervor is mysterious to peace-loving Buddhists who will offer themselves as food for the female mosquito, and spare the life of a cockroach while others around are beating it and spraying it with dangerous chemicals. Where des such fervor to destroy come from? I suspect that psychological fear is the root of such desperation to destroy a sentient being, but of course there are other underlying karmic reasons.
Perhaps the established Christian Church, in both eastern and western Europe, was afraid of the sincerity and courage of the Cathars and their forerunners the Bogomils, and so on: Threatened by their confidence in administering the Consolamentum and guaranteeing the consoled a place beyond all sin, by their quiet goodness and dedication to an invisible God. They needed no church, no exotic sacraments or instruments, no wine, communion host, incense or candles imported at great expense from Rome. In the inhospitable high mountains, the Cathars could thrive and fulfill their mission with stealth; whereas the indulged friars and dissipated cannons were intolerant of harsh conditions and deprivation of any kind.
Human beings have a tendency to always search for something outside themselves, beguiled by other places and envious of other people, when all the time we have all we need for complete happiness inside us. It simply needs activating. It is surely simple to love unconditionally, and live to the full; finding joy in the joy of others, and supporting them in their sorrow. Buddhism is about joy and living morally. It is all about accumulating virtue with every breath, and constantly repenting for our mistaken deeds and thoughts, and those of our ancestors. Buddhism is about preparing for the future in a realistic way, as the Cathars did. Future lives depend on the causes we are making in this very second with our thoughts, our words, and our actions.
There is no choice for us, so there can be no heresy. When you are able to hear the voices of the Dharma in all that surrounds us, you can start to live in a Buddha-centred way. The Buddhist teachings empower us humans to balance out our karma. They endow us with certain mystical power through practice and focus with which we can help to make the world of humans a better place. The Cathars were beings of pure love as are evolved Buddhists. Their love enabled, and today enables them, to transcend all the complex boundaries thrown up from attitudes of fear, power-seeking and ignorance.
The so-called ‘heretics’ despised the world of matter, preferring to focus their energy and their entire existence on the invisible world and preparing all beings for death and after death. In Buddhist terms, the world of matter is called Samsara, which in Sanskrit and Pali means ‘flowing on,’ indicating the cycle of rebirth and death individuals undergo until they attain Nirvana, or the extinction of all cravings. Buddhists also strive towards release and escape from Samsara and all its sufferings brought about by the three roots of evil: greed, hatred and delusion. Mahayana Buddhists, like the Cathars, vow to delay their own death or enlightenment until all sentient beings are liberated.
I am certain that the devil or Satan does not exist in actuality, but only in the deluded mind. If we cannot hear the Dharma or the true teachings of a god, we create our worlds inside our own minds filled with manifestations of greed, hatred and other negative views. In this way, Cathars and Buddhists trained and continue to train in the same way, but sadly the Catholic church acted in diabolical ways in order to eradicate this pure sect.
I am now certain that my ancestors were among the Cathar martyrs, and that I am continuing on their eternal mission wearing the simple robes of a Buddhist.