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.

swarm of bees

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.

French Pope

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.

future lives

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.

Buddhist robes

5: Staking your life for your faith

Cathar martyrs

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.

Bamiyan BuddhasDharma crisis

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:

Bernard de Clairvaux

Bernard de Clairvaux

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.