ARTICLE 1: BUDDHISM AND CATHARS
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.
ARTICLE 2: CONSOLAMENTUM
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.
ARTICLE 3: MONTAILLOU: OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF CATHARS
In Article 2 in this series, I described the Consolamentum, the ultimate blessing given by Cathars to cleanse them of all sins so that they could join the ranks of the Perfect, (Fr:les Parfaits). In Article 3, I hope to go beyond the theories of historians and ethnologists about the Cathars to show you testimonies from the inhabitants of a Pyrenean village very close to where I myself lived. These are no theories, but instead carefully recorded interviews between Jacques Fournier, the Bishop of Palmiers in southern France (present day Ariège) between 1318-1325, and villagers under suspicion of having received the Consolamentum.
The Roman Catholic church was in hot pursuit of the Cathars at this stage, determined to wipe them out. They had retreated to the mountains, so the Bishops and cardinals systematically occupied villages and interrogated the inhabitants in order to locate Les Parfaits and exterminate them. It seems that their pure faith was a great threat to the monopolist Roman church, which Les Parfaits referred to as the ‘Church of wolves.’
Although the world today is full of oppression and discrimination despite our best efforts, direct religious persecution, which proliferated in the Middle Ages in Europe, is happily under more control thanks to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. It is hard for us to imagine the secrecy and fugitive life the Cathars led, even deep in the high mountains. As mentioned, I have walked their secret pathways, as they moved around receiving alms and administering the Consolamentum, and I have known villagers whose families were certainly converted. The wild mountains with their primeval untouched forests populated by bears, wild deer and hogs, battered by colossal winds, baking sun and 5 metre snow-drifts, was certainly the environment in which to shake off the lust and greed of the Roman clergy luxuriating in the sheltered valleys below.
The Cathars taught metempsychosis, the belief that at the moment of death a soul could migrate into another body or animal to go on learning lessons it had not yet succeeded in. This concept has many links with the Buddhist system, which I will explore in a future article in this series. Of course, the villagers of Montaillou believed in fate and largely accepted that they were not in charge of their destinies because of the omniscience of God who controlled all things, and the Cathar doctrine fitted in well with this position. The following is an explanation of Bernard Bélibaste’s acceptance that he had no free will – (Bélibaste was a well-known Cathar who was later burned in the crag-top chateaux):
‘When a man steals away someone else’ possessions or commits evil, that man is none other than an evil spirit which enters into him: this spirit makes him commit sins and makes him abandon the good life for the wicked. Everything is full of souls. All the air is full of good and evil spirits. Except when a spirit has been dwelling in the body of a dead person who when he was a live was just and good, the spirit which has just escaped from a dead body is always anxious to be reincarnated. For the evil spirits in the air burn that spirit when it is among them; so they force it to enter into some body of flesh, whether of man or beast; because as long as a human spirit is at rest in a body of flesh, the evil spirits in the air cannot burn it or torment it.’
(pp288, Montaillou, E.L.Ladurie, 2008, Penguin – this is the only book on the topic I will quote from for the purposes of this article)
Béatrice de Planissoles, a minor aristocrat, who had fled to the mountains and eventually became a Parfait, confessed to the Fournier Inquisition,
‘Pierre Clergue (known as a Parfait) told me that both man and woman can freely commit any sin they like during their life. And do whatever they please in this world. Provided only that at the end they are received into the sect or into the faith of the good Christians (les Parfaits). Then they are saved and absolved of all the sins they have committed in their life….thanks to the laying on of hands of these good Christians, as it is received on the brink of death.’ (p327)
At that time, the Roman church ruled that all Catholics made donations or ‘indulgences’ for the salvation of their souls in the face of death, and many people in this village of Montaillou strongly resented this. Many villagers concluded that giving alms to ‘the poor of faith,’ the goodmen, (the Parfaits) was the best. Rixende Cortil of Ascou said,
‘The goodmen, thanks to the heretication (consolamentum) they bestow, can send a soul directly to the Kingdom of the Father after death; to give alms to them is to obtain a great reward in exchange, far superior to what one obtains when one gives to other men.’ (p338)
and Arnaud Vital expressed a similar view,
‘Alms for the goodmen, yes. For the Catholics, no.” (p338)
Alazais Maurine said,
‘Poor as we are, my husband and I give alms to the goodmen. We abstain from food in order to give it them. We send them flour, the best flour.’ (p338)
Many of these Cathars devotees were later imprisoned or burned at the stake along with all the Cathars. They staked their own lives on their beliefs. This was such a strong inspiration to me, and still is. If I can live my daily life being prepared to die for what I believe in, then I will live beautifully and sincerely. Buddhists believe strongly that keeping the irrefutable knowledge of death constantly in mind, helps us to live in a meaningful and compassionate way. We also believe in accumulating virtue by giving even and especially when we have little to give.
Cathar devotees were a group of true practitioners of the original Christian teachings. Of course, like most Christians and most people, there is fear of death, and so they will go to extreme lengths to soothe their passage into the invisible world, prepared to buy their salvation. Buddhists also give generously without a thought for their own welfare and are close to death, and it would seem that the Cathars were not afraid of death or deprivation. We think of people of monotheistic faith as god-fearing, living by the grace of an omnipotent often wrathful god, but the Cathars had the ability to overcome all fears and save the souls of sentient beings. Their way of life out in the community without the need for church or outward display of their faith, is reminiscent of Buddhists around the world whose faith has enabled them to practice alone without sacraments or religious communities.
It seems that they moved to where they were needed most and provided models of moral discipline while living in society. I encountered many such people during my time in the Pyrenees. They professed to be devout Roman Catholics, but they had no need of stone churches and sermons, of regular confession and other such dependencies. People with a certain light in their eyes who were strong and incorruptible, and a shining beacon of pure faith for its own sake instead of seekers only of benefit. They lived very simply in their family houses without needing to move away from our village, without cars or modern conveniences, moving quietly with radiance and utter humility. I feel so privileged to have shared their lives briefly and received blessings from their existence, as well as to share the same pathway with them for some miles.
Based on my experience and as homage to this amazing sect and all the survivors of their eradication, I am writing a novel entitled ‘Consolamentum,’ which will be published this year on Amazon. This following passage is the meeting of the protagonist, Fabrisse de Caramany, a householder of the village, and an itinerant Parfait called Father August. I have tried to capture the qualities of pure faith or Buddha Nature, I have attempt to describe in this article:
The floor of the threshing yard was strewn with perfectly winnowed barley that day. The first harvest. Its ripe creamy grains gathered in the thick flounces of sunshine. Mmmmm! Do you know that dry earthy scent which comes off it?
Father August went on squatting, the wet-earth black of his robes perfectly at home in the enclosed courtyard full of our crop. He could not resist playing with the grains, watching them intensely as if a thousand rosaries had been broken there. And in a silence between us, as I brushed aside a strand of hair which had blown into my eyes, and he ran his lengthy olive fingers over an arc pattern of grains he was making, he said, “Each grain has an original blessing,” and looked at me full, his head slightly bowed, “like you.”
He trained his rustling eyes down again on the grains saying, “and me.” Behind him a pair of grey and white wagtails boldly pecked, and I shooed them away by a sharp intake of breath, which unnerved him.
“Those wagtails are real scavengers,” I said, irritated by them. You know, I was irritated by their opportunism, always ready to rush in and thieve, and I felt my cheeks hotter then usual.
He smiled and said, “You have done the work of removing the husks for them. Look! They are pleased!” And at that moment a single hen wagtail moved towards him and pecked at a grain he offered her in the palm of his hand. He looked for many moments deep into the eyes of this twitchy silvery bird, in a kind of trance like soothsayers lapse into.
Then he said, “God is here in this flapping feathery spirit.” He continued in silence to scrutinize it, and then turned to look at me sideways again.
“And God is here in these full lips, and on the sweet breath of Fabrisse of Caramany.”
(p81, Consolamentum, Linden Thorp, to be published in 2013)
I wonder could this be an evocation of the Dharma? All people of faith, according to their karma and imprints from former lives, are travelling along the network of sandy secret pathways. Their human forms are simply vessels to house their spirits, and death is a diaphanous veil they wear. In Cathar parlance, they are angels trapped in bodies eagerly awaiting their return to their spirit homes, just as Buddhists mediate between the visible and invisible worlds.
ARTICLE 4: CATHARS AND BUDDHISTS
The Cathars had an unusual view of consoling or being consoled which greatly inspired me during my time living and training in Roussillon. The Consolamentum was extremely liberating for those who received it, purifying them entirely so that they could live an angelic life liberating others. They had no doubt whatsoever that the body was a temporary resting place for the spirit which provided refuge and time to learn to love unconditionally, and to allow the ego to lose its dominance over the spirit.
Buddhists likewise train hard to realize that although the body is temporary, it can be used skillfully to work to liberate others. A favorite Burmese Buddhist teacher of mine, Ajahn Chan, taught the following:
When the body is born it doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s like our meditation hall. After it’s built spiders come to stay in it. Lizards come to stay in it. All sorts of insects and crawling things come to stay in it. Snakes may come to live in it. Anything may come to live in it. It’s not only our hall; it’s everything’s hall.
These bodies are the same. They aren’t ours. People come to stay in and depend on them. Illness, pain and aging come to reside in them and we are merely residing along with them. When these bodies reach the end of pain and illness, and finally break up and die, that is not us dying. So don’t hold on to any of this.
These direct words somehow give permission for us to become one with the Universe, with god, Buddha, Paul McCartney, or whoever your spiritual source is. We are not separate in any way. It is pure love, our natural essence, which amalgamates with that of all sentient beings, and this emptiness or consoled state is the key to total and lasting happiness. We should lavish every moment of our human refuge on purifying our body speech and mind so that we can lead all sentient beings to the other shore of Nirvana.
For the Cathars, death was simply a veil marking the end of the human part of the eternal journey of the spirit. And for me as a Nirvana Buddhist in the Shinnyo line of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, I practise with my ancestors, consoling them constantly, and increasing their comfort and happiness. If they are eternally happy, then so am I. It is moving to realize through special veneration of my ancestors and related spirits that I would be nothing without their wisdom and human lessons learned, and that they are ever-present, watching over me intensely.
In Japan, it is fairly normal for people to revere and celebrate their ancestors, though they may not be on any particular spiritual pathway. This has been greatly inspiring coming originally from a Christian background in which the dead are usually kept at arm’s length, and life revolves around the vibrance of youth. In Japan, as in other Asian countries, ancestors are never forgotten. Their passing to the spiritual world is celebrated at regular intervals with formal ceremonies and warm-hearted gatherings of family members. Even the younger generation believe fully in their ancestors and want to show their gratitude in numerous ways. (Please see previous article:
Westerners are often reluctant to allow their feelings about ancestors free, somehow denying that their human form and spirituality emanates from their lineage. When I first started to pracitse as a Japanese Buddhist, I was roughly awoken when my devotion to the Buddha was directly attributed to the devotion of my Roman Catholic grandmother. It was at this moment that I became moved to care for the spirits and lovingly accept the merit of all my ancestors back to the beginning of time, as we know it. This gave new depth to my faith, and made me able to empty my ego as waves of incredible gratitude for their sacrifices and kindness consumed me.
On 4th December, I will be ordained as a Shinnyo priest. It has been indicated that without the religious devotion of my Christian, Buddhist and pre-Buddhist ancestors, along with my other lives as spiritual seekers, I would not have been able to encounter this destiny. In the same way, for the Cathars, their virtue handed down through the ages, enabled them to elevate spiritually and to get increasingly closer to god until the veil could be lifted and they would become one.
To express this in a more mundane way, I believe that we not only inherit our DNA from ancestors, but also their merit and negative karma. The merit can easily be polished by embodying a religious teaching or following a spiritual guide, and the negative karma can be systematically purified by working to liberate all sentient beings at the same time as having immense gratitude for our human lineage. Sincere gratitude and renunciation leave little time for pursuing human desires and being contaminated by ignorance, greed and hatred.
ARTICLE 5: STAKING YOUR FAITH
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.
ARTICLE 6: METEMPSYCHOSIS: THE CHURCH OF LOVE
If we come into contact with people at large during each day, packed on to commuter trains, or standing in queues because of the delays of seasonal rushes and peak times, it is easy to become irritated or even enraged. We can be indignant and incredulous that people around us are behaving so badly, in such a self-centred way. We wonder why they cannot be like us, civilized, considerate, ‘normal.’ These dramatic differences we perceive distance us from humanity, isolate us inside the world we create in our heads with all its synthetic standards and bars to jump. We make judgments, and in so doing place ourselves above others and outside the field of love.
The medieval Cathars of Languedoc were so focused on their practice of faith out in the community that they could easily accept and have compassion for all the excesses and ‘fascist’ attitudes around them. They helped as many people as they could, and put themselves at risk of being discovered and captured while administering the Consolamentum so that people could be saved from damnation. Corruption and deception were a way of life in medieval Europe, and the friars and cardinals leading the interrogations against the Cathars were merciless, torturing and imprisoning at will, and other atrocities. Betrayal of the trust of the Perfecti was common too.
Some say that medieval European society was as bleak as today’s, but as the Perfecti believed that evil spirits could jump into other bodies – metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls or rebirth)- they could accept that people behaved badly, driven by their occupying spirits. Metempsychosis is one of the oldest beliefs in the history of humans in all parts of the world, Orient and Occident alike, and it is thought nowadays that it may be almost a natural or innate beliefs native to the human mind. As Christianity spread steadily across Europe, the eternal nature of the soul was a seminal belief retained by the Manichaeans and Cathars, and other gnostic sects, but the mainstream Catholic church rejected it as heretical. They put enormous defensive energy into eradicating such beliefs, and in a way maiming their own roots of Christianity in the process.
Cathars believed that Jesus was the manifestation of a pure spirit unbounded by matter. The God of the old testament was Satan, while the God of St John’s gospel in the new testament was the all-loving compassionate God. The human figure of Jesus was simply a messenger, an emanation of the true God, which could never be made manifest in the Devil’s world. Cathars thus attached no importance to the crucifixion and nativity due to their material nature. In this respect, they were indeed a highly spiritual and mystical sect.
My own upbringing was fairly strict, mainstream Christian, and although I felt deep reverence for the holy beings and saints, I was always rather scared of the suffering evoked by the crucifix and crown of thorns, the dark corners of musty churches, the negative emphasis on sin and guilt because Jesus died for humanity on the Cross. On the other hand, if I had had access to the faith of the Perfects, I would have aspired to become a Perfect and eventually to join the compassionate God in the celestial realms. Christian practices were too materialist for me, too dark, to oppressive, so I turned to Buddhism as an older teenager, which surprised my family and seemed to be a betrayal of the faith into which I was baptized.
When I encountered the Cathars of Languedoc, I was so thrilled to find a meaningful Christianity that was so similar in essence to Buddhism. Siddhartha, the privileged Prince who became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, was also perhaps only a messenger manifest as flesh and blood. After his death and Parinirvana at the age of 84 or so, after his final teachings of Nirvana which I devote myself to today, he shifted to the spiritual source, the Dharmakaya (see previous article at https://lindenthorp.wordpress.com/2013/09/01/dharma-kaya-the-body-of-truth/) and so in various emanations can eternally guide and protect those who take refuge in him. Engaged Buddhists connect themselves to the faultlessly transmitted Dharma Lineage, which stretches back to Shyakyamuni Buddha who became enlightened. Our commitment is beyond the narrow intellectual concepts of time and space, and we know that as we approach or turn back from Enlightenment, we will transmigrate into other realms, either higher or lower. In fact, most Buddhists practice specifically to break the perpetual cycle of rebirths so that we can return to the spiritual source.
Some scholars refer to the Cathars as ‘Western Buddhists.’ This is ironic as Buddhism is quite widely practiced in the west these days, and has, as in my case, superseded Christianity. This is not to say that the original teachings of the messenger or prophet Jesus are not superb, but with time and cultural distortion, and the tightening of the material grip on societies, they seem to have been outgrown. In contrast to the Christian, the approach Buddhists make to the spiritual world, the invisible world, with the correct protections and aspirations, is positive. There may be dark corners in our spirits, which need to be sluiced with the lights of virtue and merit, with purification, but our appreciation of karma, the injurious actions of our ancestors and of our own, motivates us to cleanse our negative karma. The Cathars too believed in karma necessarily because of rebirth, and worked to purify themselves during their human sojourn.
In 1244, after the Albigensian Crusade, which lasted 9 months and claimed the cities of Beziers, Narbonne, Carcassonne and Toulouse, the Cathars surrendered. That year, on March 16th, over 200 of them were brought down from the hilltop fortress Montsegur and thrown on to a huge pyre to be burned. On March 14th before they surrendered, they held a religious ceremony and made the prophecy that the ‘Church of Love’ as they referred to it would be proclaimed in 1986, 700 years later. Their own words on that occasion best describe their creed:
The Church of Love
It has no fabric, only understanding. It has no membership, save those who know that they belong. It has no rivals, because it is non competitive. It has no ambition; it seeks only to serve. It has no boundaries for nationalisms are unloving. It is not of itself because it seeks to enrich all groups and religions. It acknowledges all great teachers of all ages who have shown the truth of love. Those who participate, practice the truth of love in all their beings. There is no walk of life or nationality that is a barrier. Those who are, know. It seeks not to teach but be and, by being, enrich. It recognizes that the way we are may be the way of those around us because we are the way. It recognizes the whole planet as a Being of which we are part. It recognizes that the time has come for the supreme transmutation, the ultimate alchemic act for conscious change of the ego into a voluntary return to the whole. It does not proclaim itself with a loud voice but in the subtle realms of loving. It salutes all those in the past who blazed the path but have paid the price. It admits no hierarchy or structure, for no one is greater than the other. Its members shall know each other by their deeds and being, and by their eyes and by no other outward sign save the fraternal embrace. Each one will dedicate their life to the silent loving of their neighbor and environment and the planet, while carrying out their task however exalted or humble. It recognizes the supremacy of the great idea, which may only be accomplished if the human race practices the supremacy of love. It has no reward to offer here or in the hereafter save that ineffable joy of being and loving. Each shall seek to advance their cause of understanding, doing good by stealth and teaching by example. They shall hear their neighbor, their community and the Planet. They shall feel no fear, feel no shame, and their witness shall prevail over all odds. It has no secret, no Arcanum, no initiation save of the true understanding of the power of love and that, if we want it to be so, the world will change, but only if we change ourselves first.
Today, there are many Europeans, born in the 40s and 50s, who feel that they are the martyred Cathars of Languedoc reborn. They believe that they exist now as the result of a powerful commitment made at the end of a previous life to return to make a significant contribution towards the spiritual rehabilitation of this planet and its people. As mentioned in an earlier article, during my time living in Languedoc, I had many mystical dreams and feelings, which I could not ignore. I was born in the 50s and lived in Languedoc in the nineties at the commencement of the new era of Catharism!
Three years ago as a result of elevation and spiritual guidance as a Nirvana Buddhist, I received a strict chastisement from my spiritual superiors for neglecting and criticising my Christian origins. I was so shocked, immediately repenting with remorse. Now, a little more wisdom and research into the community of present-day Cathars, leads me to accept that perhaps I was critical of the Roman Church (the basis of modern Christianity) because it has distorted the original teachings of God. Now, I strongly believe my origins to be Cathar, and my affiliation, the Church of Love. This embracement of all original faiths was a huge realization handed to me by my compassionate Buddhist gurus and guides. My main mission nowadays as a Buddhist is to bring all original and true faiths into the stable light of harmony. The Buddha in his final teaching, the Mahaparinirvana sutra, said,
All rivers of faith flow into the great Ocean of Nirvana.
ARTICLE 7: MAKING BONDS WITH THE UNIVERSE
The Buddha made it clear that we should create and maintain bonds with the universe even though we have been born into human life. The Cathars also were constantly connected to the spiritual or invisible world, regarding death, the ending of human life, as a simple veil that could be easily removed. The halo (a circle of light around the head of a holy being depicted in Christianity) and the aureole (a circle of light around the head and/or body of a deity in Buddhism), were and still are used as reminders of the spiritual origin of all things manifest in the material plane. In both systems of living out the lessons and struggles of human life (Christianity) or samsara (Buddhism), we aspire to make the transition back into the spiritual, formless world, taking all sentient beings with us.
Cathars, who were vegetarians apart from eating fish occasionally, prescribed the endura, a form of ritual suicide, as a practitioner approached death, preceded by the administering of the consolamentum. (see post Consolamentum https://lindenthorp.wordpress.com/2013/11/17/consolamentum/ in this series on the Cathars) In Buddhism, the diet is always important as it is important to allow the subtle inner winds (vayu– in Sanskrit) to blow naturally through the channels of the body, the body and mind being unable to function at subtle levels without these winds being balanced. So, in both cases, the awareness of what substances from the earth we put inside our bodies is central to the way we use them. These rules about living allow us to connect with mystical knowledge, to be able to be a channel for such energy, to fine tune in order to receive the countless messages and signs from invisible sources.
The mystical has always drawn me personally since being a young child. I could never accept that worldly achievements were the pinnacle of all existence, always being certain there was much more than that. Of course, children are usually not yet conditioned as adults are: they are pure and still close to the universe before their intellectual capacities develop. I always dreamed of touching the mystical and my dream came steadily true through the Buddhist pathway and gnostic traditions such as Catharism and Sufism. Indeed, in my present practice, the Nirvana Teachings of Shinnyo-en, it is possible to become a spiritual medium so that through intense training and empowerment, one can channel messages from the Buddha and other deities, which will touch the hearts of those receiving them. I am almost at the end of such a training now, and so looking forward to devoting myself to being that empty pure channel to help guide people to true and lasting happiness in Nirvana.
In Esoteric Buddhism, the mandala is the traditional way of mapping out the Dharma Lineage passed down through the ages from Buddha Shyakyamuni. It represents the whole universe, and if you are correctly connected to the Dharma Stream, there is nothing and no-one outside you, no ‘us’ and ‘them,’ you are actually in the centre of that universe.
Buddhists strive to release themselves from attachment to objects and people because attachment means separation: attachment requires the attached and the attacher. Once we are truly one with the universe and all sentient beings, then we have realized emptiness and the native silence and stillness of the heart. All cravings are extinguished, and it is said that we have crossed the great Ocean of Nirvana to the other shore.
In Japan, there is a strong tradition of mountain asceticism, shugendo in Japanese. Yamabushi in Japanese (one who likes mountains) follow a special doctrine, which combines esoteric Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto. They are usually solitary and today mostly lay practitioners. Emphasis is placed on physical feats of endurance in the open air where the aspirants live in the primeval forests of rural Japan, and their goal is to find supernatural powers through such practices.
Shingon Buddhism, which my own practice is connected to, emphasizes enlightenment through isolation, the study and contemplation of oneself and nature, and of mandalas. Yamabushi can often be seen engaged in waterfall training – standing under waterfalls in freezing winter, ridding themselves of their ego so that they can receive the esoteric. My own masters did this practice regularly, as did many other key teachers in my lineage of Shinnyo Buddhism.
The Cathars also had a strong reverence for and involvement with nature. The sacred caves of Sabarthes in Languedoc are known as the ‘doors to Catharism.’ Part of initiation as a Parfait was to climb a steep path leading up to these caves (a practice common in shungendo) to the cave of Bethlehem. There were four important elements inside the caves involved in this initiation before receiving the consolamentum, or making the final vow: first, a square niche in the wall which could have conceivably contained a mandala or manual of some kind; second, a rough granite altar; third, a pentagram carved into the wall, possibly symbolizing the 5 elements of the universe (a common symbol in Esoteric Buddhism); and finally, the telluric currents emitted from the rock walls and cave floor. The atmosphere in these caves fills one with awe. I was particularly sensitive while inside, and after visiting had a series of Cathar dreams which have recurred since that time.
Buddhists work to achieve emptiness and liberation from all attachments. If you step out of the enclosure of your mind, the view of the world you construct with your intellect, then you step into the Buddhafield or mandala where you are protected and qualified to receive by oral transmission the wisdom of the Dharma stream. At this moment, you become unified with the universe, and this is reality. You can take refuge in this powerful mandala whilst struggling in samsara to liberate all sentient beings and bring them to enlightenment with you.
It could be said that the notion of making ‘bonds with the universe’ began with the young Prince Siddartha’s first experience of meditation. He was 7 years of age and already showing promise in his training to succeed his father and become King of the Shyakya clan. One day, he accompanied his father and entourage to an agricultural festival dedicated to the earth deity. While there, the young prince noticed a small bird pecking at a worm that had been turned up by a plough. He felt such compassion for the worm that he was inspired to sit in a nearby grove under a jambu (roseapple) tree and soon entered into an advanced meditative state. The sun was high in the sky, but the shade provided by the surrounding trees stood still, keeping the young child cool and sheltered from the hot sun. This first meditation inspired by nature demonstrated the highest respect and reverence for the treasures of the universe.
In my own meditations, I often use the image that everything inside me, beneath the thin membrane of my skin, can amalgamate with everything outside. That my heart can beat in unison with all the hearts in the universe, that I can breathe as one with all in the universe. It is easy to transcend the thin membrane of skin and realize deeply that this is all that makes me a physical individual being, acting in the world, fulfilling my own unique mission.
The Universe is the Spiritual Source. The Moon and Sun are our protectors. We climb the mountains, flow into the oceans down wide rivers, swing from stars and planets. It is only the mundane mind that sequesters us in its synthetic reality, away from the glory of the great Universe.
ARTICLE 8: COURAGE IS ONE OF THE PILLARS OF FAITH
The Cathar Perfecti needed great courage and determination to stand by what they believed in during the medieval crusades to eradicate all heretics. Religious persecution has always existed and probably always will, as it is during periods of great stress or antagonism that we humans appear to make our greatest commitments. Looking at it from a spiritual point of view, this kind of struggle attracts unparalleled merit, which can be accrued to propel us from human existence into other higher realms.
In epochs when faith was a natural condition and the divine walked among us, persecution was not required to test our faith. There were no choices to be made between the secular or the sacred, spiritually aspiring or refusing to aspire, as there are today. But later, when the intellectual mind accelerated out of control and human pride blazed, the power to become a god without divine qualifications was hotly pursued, and it was then that discrimination became commonplace.
This phenomenon, this switch made in the thinking of humans, lies outside the historical perspective, as the concepts of time and space are man made. Persecution is part of the dualist human personality which brings about the separation of humans from gods. It originates in the struggle between good and evil, between belief and no-belief, the validity of the resurrection of Christ or its denial, the clergy and the laity, between mind (samsara) and no mind (emptiness).
If we believe in something or someone without reserve or concern for our physical well-being, we are capable of generating the courage to stand up to established heavyweight groups and break away. In my lifetime, I have experienced both directly and vicariously, three striking examples of this degree of courage and breaking away: the Cathars, H.H. ShinjoIto, and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.
The Cathars were determined to stay fixed to their beliefs despite cruel persecution, which resulted in their eradication. My own present guru, H.H. Shinjo Ito, though ordained and awarded the highest rank of Great Achariya in the Japanese Shingon School of Esoteric Buddhism, refused to commit exclusively to the monastic community. He passionately believed that all sentient beings should have access to the teachings of great salvation, regardless of their spiritual rank. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, the leader of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) based in Tibetan Buddhism, whose members are in a 5-10% minority because they refuse to remove the practice of their protector deity Dorje Shugden, outlawed by the Dalai Lama, from their doctrine. His precious life has been threatened as a result of this refusal.
In each case, the immovability of their faith has brought them close to destruction or annihilation. The last remaining Cathars were annihilated, burned at the stake, in the 13th century; Master Shinjo Ito was thrown into prison for 40 days, all his sacred documents and priestly implements confiscated, and his sangha disbanded in 1950; and Geshe-La Kelsang has been forced into retirement in exile, his location kept secret even from his ordained sangha members, in 2013. Religious persecution goes on, complacency often allowing us to be swept along in the rip tide of mediocrity and tradition if we are not sufficiently awake.
The Cathars were determined that their faith was pure, and that the Roman Catholic church was corrupt, referring to it always as the ‘Church of Wolves.’ As mentioned previously, the mainstay of Cathar faith was the simple idea that everything that manifests on the physical plane is the work of the devil. In other words, that gods and spiritual beings would never materialize in base human form. Thus, they did not focus on the birth and familial relationships of Jesus Christ, communion, baptism or confession, his crucifixion or resurrection, as the Church of Rome did. Instead, they believed God was entirely composed of spirit, an angel, and all humans also were angels wearing only a flimsy veil of death for their human incarnation.
The only sacrament in the Cathar faith was the Consolamentum, which the Perfecti administered to as many humans as possible. They were not at all afraid of death, in some ways longing to return to their spirit home. Their whole approach to life enabled them to live purely with few worldly needs, entirely focused upon liberating as many sentient beings as possible. They were both revered and despised, even though their purity was evident and their practices efficacious and authenticated according to the original teachings of Jesus Christ.
In fact, the Church of Rome was seemingly made to feel insecure by Cathar determination, as was Pontius Pilate, 5th Roman Prefect of Judaea AD 26-36, when he granted official approval for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ based on tenuous and spurious charges.
Recently, in research into Christianity in 21st century, a question about Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection has been posed. This question threatens to seriously undermine Christianity if the answer points to the idea that he did not actually die on the cross, and, more importantly, he did not rise again after three days. Most schools of Christianity recite the Credo in either spoken or sung form in which they avow that they believe wholly in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his ascent into heaven. In fact, It is perhaps deemed the most important event in the life of Jesus, representing the taking back by God of his only living son in this sensational and mysterious way. However, the earliest accounts of the crucifixion, which appear in the first recorded gospel of St Mark, state that Christ’s tomb remained empty and makes no mention of the ascension.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; He descended into hell; on the third day he arose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
Resurrection? Can people only believe in something if it is visible, provable? Will the whole Christian faith fall apart if they discover that history indicates that Jesus may not have died on the cross? If the magic is being dismantled, then what is there left to believe in – the torture, the violence of the crucifixion, the betrayal by Judas, etc? Perhaps such sensationalism and drama acted as a distraction from the practice of pure faith demonstrated by the Cathars?
It is now a possibility that the human pronounced as ‘Jesus Christ, son of God,’ did not die on the cross. That he was brought down and revived by medicinal herbs in a cave, and then escaped, leaving his tomb empty. That he fled to Kashmir in India, or southern France, where his relics have been apparently discovered. It is comforting to me to imagine that the prophet Jesus lived secretly in the mountains of the Pyrenees as I did, and that the Cathars worked closely with him, or his descendants. Or that he travelled to Kashmir, the land of the Buddha, and was embraced into Himalayan wisdom. Marvelous to think that a divine being walked among humans and at the moment of his physical death, like the Buddha, he shifted back to the spiritual source and bequeathed the body of his teachings to all beings for eternity.
In Buddhism, we do not need the drama of a resurrection to keep our faith strong. Perhaps the resurrection is another example of the separation required by the intellect: the physical and the spirit. The Dharmakaya or Dharma body, the ‘body’ of the teachings left by the Buddha at his Parinirvana, is part of each sentient being, whether they proclaim themselves Buddhist or not.
The historical sequence or location of the events leading to the making eternal of such a ministry is of no real import to us, because those are dimensions created by the intellectual mind. And we strive to erase all separations because all sentient beings are Buddhas in the making, not ruled by an omniscient conqueror or King, but only by their own hearts. The figure of the conqueror, the King, the victorious crusader, seems to have been a required image of Rome, and Christianity has clung to it to this day, thus rendering Christians passive slaves to the will of God.
Master Shinjo had the courage to step away from mainstream Buddhism to found a new lay order, Shinnyo-en. In the month of December, 78 years ago, he mysteriously came into possession of a Buddha image in the aspect of Achala, the strict wheel body of the Buddha. This led him to found a new third type of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism based on the final teachings of the Buddha as he lay dying.
After the Buddha Shyakyamuni’s physical end, his relics were divided amongst eight groups each of which set about disseminating the Buddhist teachings. Of course, there was great grief, but no fear because the Buddha had moved into the Dharmakaya, which consists of many Buddha emanations manifested to guide his disciples in any and every situation. In addition, the Buddha and the teachings could never be destroyed, and in this way, his ministry was perfected for all beings and all time.
To perfect the Shinnyo teachings, Master Shinjo had to bear the tragic loss of his two sons, aged 18 months and 15 years, as children, and his wife at the age of 55. There was no desire for resurrection of his beloved heirs and wife because they were to provide the spiritual foundation of the Shinnyo teaching. They are eternally working for and with us in the Shinnyo spiritual world alongside the various emanations of the Dharmakaya. They lived in human form, but their spiritual strength was needed to enable Master Shinjo to perfect the doctrine and spiritual wonders of Shinnyo Buddhism.
Finally, Geshe-La Kelsang, had the courage to found the New Kadampa Tradition in order to satisfy the spiritual needs of modern people in the west. He established this new movement in 1991 in England. Nowadays there are 200 centres, 900 study groups in 40 different global locations. It is an entirely independent Buddhist tradition with no political affiliations or ties with Tibet. This bold move to reposition Buddhism outside the complexities of Tibetan politics and to adapt Tibetan Buddhist wisdom for the modern world has brought much criticism, and especially so because the Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden has been retained as the authentic protector of the NKT.
This decision means that Ven.Geshe Kelsang is now at the top of a list of monks and scholars who are seen to betray Tibet and H.H. Dalai Lama. Despite placing himself in such a vulnerable position, he is determined that this practice will endure, while in Tibet those who continue to embrace Dorje Shugden are experiencing radical apartheid.
Shinjo Ito and Geshe Kelsang are courageous visionaries. They had the holy courage to stand up for what they believed was appropriate for modern practitioners. While I was without a sangha in the Pyrenees, in the land of the brave Cathars, I practiced NKT doctrine using Geshe-La’s detailed instructions which lead all sentient beings to enlightenment. At that time, I had not yet heard of Japanese Shingon Buddhism or Shinjo Ito, but I believe these dazzling examples of courage in beliefs, were part of my preparatory training for entering the Shinnyo Nirvana mandala.
I first encountered Geshe Kelsang Gyatso at Manjushri Meditation Centre in north-western Britain as he was laying the foundations for NKT. The connection continues as I have a strong friendship with the NKT as it establishes itself here in Osaka, Japan.
Courage is one of the pillars of building faith. We may think that such courage belongs to other eras and is the responsibility of other people. But there is no doubt that now and here we can each generate the courage to put our faith at the centre of our lives, and so become beacons of perennial light to show the way to countless other people.
Dedication: to Matthew Lucas for his constant support and interest in my research, and BBC video documentary ‘Jesus was a Buddhist Monk.’ – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAaW6BYhfNM
For further information about Shinnyo-en go to shinnyoen.org and NKT kadampa.org
ARTICLE 9: HERESY
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.
ARTICLE 10: THE SAME PATHWAY
This is the last article in the present series which looks at the Cathars, a mysterious Christian sect at their peak in the Middle Ages in Europe, from a Buddhist perspective, and attempts to express my direct experience of living in Cathar territory while practicing as a lone Buddhist. I have had a good response to these articles and plan to turn them into a book as soon as I can. There is a need in this age for written accounts of spiritual experiences, and for authentic ‘voices’ as opposed to academic tracts. I would like to be able to breathe life into spiritual traditions in this plural and secular epoch, or as Buddhists refer to it as, ‘The Last Days of the Law of Dharma.’
As mentioned earlier, I had many dreams and spiritual experiences in the Lands of the Cathar, high in the Pyrenean Mountains forming the frontier between Spain and France. I will attempt to describe them here so that you can read a more abstract portrait and superimpose them upon some of the historical facts, as far as they go, I have provided. In this way, I hope your experience of these two traditions is more than cerebral and reaches deep into your unconscious mind. It is no accident that you are reading this article. Everything is pre-destined if we listen to the guides.
Following are several extracts from a novel I will soon publish as an ebook entitled ‘The Veil.’ Some of it was written in situation there among the secret pathways and crag-top fortresses where Cathar martyrs were finally thrown on the fires, some later when I had assimilated the incredible experience and become more spiritually evolved. I believe it is impossible to see the greater spiritual multi-dimensional design as it is happening. It is only later and with training that we can see all implications.
This first passage describes logging in a tree graveyard island, bisected by fierce mountain streams of snow melt from the peaks, close to the village where I lived.
This had become our island, a flippant possessive notion, although it was certain that we were beings closely watched by more legitimate ‘owners. It took us some time to be able to see our audience on the mainland as we worked, because our eyelids had become veils to protect our eyes from pollution and urban chaos. They must be lifted now. And the thundering of torrents from the high peaks drowned out the shallow breathing of the invisible spectators as they stared at their enemy.
By the river, green lizards stood transfixed on rocks, posing as fallen mimosa leaves. Male red deer concealed their spindly legs in a nearby birch copse. Their eyes were undistinguishable from tree bark, and their antlers like miniature trees. Only the flicking of their tails revealed them to us fleetingly. Gaily dressed Hoopees, their chestnut, grey and white plumage, their black combs, cocked their disbelieving heads at us. Then one day, we suddenly noticed a tall monk in a rough black habit, a simple rope around his narrow waist. He was kneeling on a rock drinking icy water from the cup of his dark hands. These wandering religious were known by the villagers as ‘les Parfaits,’ the good.
Later, I, for ‘The Veil’ is of course autobiographical, go to bed and sense the ancient atmosphere of the silent village.
The shutters have been closed earlier to try to keep in some of the latent heat created during the day by the sun. When the high winds blow, it is this tall exposed bedroom, which resembles a lighthouse. It is completely exposed to the silent unlit mountains without moon. I sit back and let my mind slow down, smiling until it ceases completely. Then I turn to listen out here. There is nothing to distract me from the silence inside despite the roaring of the rogue winds. I am merely a little bundle of energy deposited on this wild hillside, but I am certain that I am meant to be here. My mind had long ceased to fret and chew at problems of doubt and the unknown future, or the spoiled past; it no longer dwelled in a souse of fear either.
As I only listened, the devil wind played with the openings of the room as if they were drums, and I could feel the energy of the stars on the baked clay of roof tiles. I had tossed aside my scant knowledge of the power of the heavens, and instead vowed to have only direct experience of them out here where comets and shooting stars were wallpaper. They seeped in under the carefully overlapped edges of the terra cotta tiles. Then tumbled around the elderly cobwebs and warm corners borrowed by scorpion families and squirrels during this indoors period of cold. As I drifted into sleep, stars caught in the attic slipped quietly through the lath and plaster of the ancient ceiling and soft-landed on the down quilt. They were not completely silent, but gently fizzed and fingered in the sky.
I reveled in the hot smolder of a planet on my cheek, a comet flying between my toes, the eternal vibrating of the universe singing out in every pore of my skin. I was part of the Cosmos, the whole universe fitted inside me.’
And later, a Cathar convert called Fabrisse de Caramany, tells of her conversion to the Parfait to a large Rock called Ram Rock, which she can crawl inside the huge curled horn of. She must not divulge to anyone what miracles have come into her life for fear of being imprisoned and tortured by the Fat Cardinals from the valley who hound the Cathars and mean to wipe them out.
‘Oh Rock. The floor of the threshing yard was strewn with perfectly winnowed barley that day. The first harvest. Its creamy grains gathered in the thick flounces of sunshine. Mmmmmm. You know that dry earthy scent which comes off it. Father August went on squatting, the wet-earth brown of his robes perfectly at home in the enclosed courtyard full of our crop. He could not resist playing with the grains, watching them intensely as if a thousand rosaries had been broken there. And in the silence between us, as I brushed aside a strand of hair which had blown into my eyes, and he ran his lengthy olive fingers over an arc pattern of grains he was busy with, he said, “Each grain has an original blessing,” and looked at me full, his head slightly bowed, “like you.” He trained his rustling eyes down again on the grains saying, “and me.”
Behind him a pair of grey and white wagtails boldly pecked, and I shoed them away by a sharp intake of breath which unnerved him. ‘Those wagtails are real scavengers,’ I said, irritated by them. You know Rock, I was irritated by their opportunism, always ready to rush in and thieve, and I felt my cheeks hotter than usual.
He said smiling, “You have done the work of removing the husks for them. Look! They are pleased!” And at that moment a single hen wagtail moved towards him and pecked at a grain he offered her in the palm of his hand. He looked for many moments deep into the eyes of this twitchy silvery bird, in a kind of trance like soothsayers lapse into. The he said, without removing his eyes, “God is here in this flapping feathery spirit.”
He continued in silence to pour his being into this creature, and then turned to look at me sideways again with the same deluge of love. And I knew him to be Love in flesh, a divine being. That grain-filled yard, once a commonplace, had become a heart place into which I could step whenever I wanted. It had become my own courtyard chapel filled with the grains of God, with an irritating winged thief transformed into a blessed creature, and with a child of the invisible world.
We sat and talked on and on in the hot sun, and he said, ‘We in the mountains find different routes to God, in the way we find pathways over the mountain passes. We are quiet here. Each of us like a mountain.”
His eyes were no longer dried leaves tossed in my direction on a chance breeze, but moist mossy lights looking deliberately behind my heart and searching my soul.’
There is no single doubt in my mind that the past is a construct of the mind! The heart lives now. But outside the intellectual mind, we can contact the invisible world. During my time in the country of the Perfect, I myself experienced persecution as they had. I was surrounded by Catholics, but in fact I was persecuted by my partner, a lapsed Jew agnostic. As my Buddhist beliefs surged deeper through both passionate practice and study, my partner was unable to comprehend what I was experiencing, and so we parted ways. There was great antagonism and endless interrogations to find why I had “deserted.” I wrote the following poem at this time when my sutras were defiled and my shrine destroyed, my Buddhist images hurled around!
Sipping Rhone wine under the flounces
of the massive Lime-flower tree
aroma and scent trouble me.
The wine at its best, the flowers at their peak
and yet my habitual absorption in the sensory
is being tugged at
its tension overstretched like used muslin
its once overwhelming newness wearing thin.
The perfection of sky balanced on untouched forests
almost eludes me at this time
but the gist of your abstract words has already dropped
in the fine covering of flowers at my feet.
For someone is calling me from the white marble of Montpellier.
A dream in our shuttered salon
the logs in the stove like alpine witness wands
compels me to descend our mountain hairpins
on the weekly bus alive with grape-pickers
my suitcases slotted between their stained baskets
to the other North African haven of Montpellier.
You demand why and who and how I must go
down from this ultimate haven of Cathars
Catholics, shepherds, but the gist of your question
disappears in the evening sizzle of biftek
buried in an armful of bay leaves and vine twigs.
For someone is calling me from the vivid painted timbers of Montpellier.
The fierce row on the boards at bedtime
your coarse tears extinguishing the candles and
unbalancing the stable slab of incense
propel me out of your faithless fleshy cloisters.
You hurl bells, burn sutras in your ashtray
demand and denounce my path to this ‘borrowed’ deity
making last-ditch interrogations under a strong light.
But the gist of your spite is sucked into the Lama’s Himalayan eyes
dredged over the ample of his saffron robes
as he welcomes me to the wooden temple in an orchard
its specifications exact, my mission specific.
He has been waiting with his butter lamps and words.
‘‘You heard my calling. I knew you would come soon.’’
I left the high mountains as described and soon took up my place as a temple keeper in a tropical Montpellier Garden. The Tibetan Lineage of Kagyupa was my refuge for the next year, but I longed to go back to the Cathars, and realize now that my Buddhist persuasion is a perfect match with my Cathar inheritance. It has been confirmed that I am descended from Cathars, and I am now certain they were deeply connected to the Buddha’s path.