Monday, April 8, 2013

The Interconnected Ancient World IV: Coptic Buddhism

As an undergraduate, I noticed the tendency among academics to specialize in smaller and smaller corners of a field of knowledge. There was a spoof article circulating about Inca ruins in the Yucatan that read simply, “There are none” followed by a two page footnote. Along the idea that one might specialize in the intersection of two fields that did not actually intersect and thus have nothing that one might actually study, I imagined at the time that since Coptic was essentially a Christian language that Coptic Buddhism would be a similarly empty field. In graduate school, however, I discovered that the intersection of the two fields was not as empty as I had imagined.

In the latter half of the third century A.D., the Manicheans became popular in Egypt, although they seem to have disappeared from Egypt by the end of the fourth century. They had a program of translating their works into Coptic. One of these works was a document containing the basic doctrines of the Manicheans, called the Kephalaia. It contained a brief biography of the Buddha:
“When Buddha himself came also [. . .] about him that he himself also taught [. . .]  much wisdom. He chose his congregation [and] perfect his congregation. He revealed to them his hope. Yet he just did not write his wisdom in scrolls. His disciples who came after him, when they remembered any wisdom that they heard by the hand of Buddha, wrote it in scrolls.”[1]
According to the Manicheans, the gospel was taken
“to the east [by] Buddha and Aurentes and the others [. . .] who were sent to the east from the coming of Buddha and Aurentes until the coming of Zarathustra to Persia, the time that he came to Hystaspes, the king, and from the coming of Zarathustra until the coming of Jesus [Christ], the son of the Highest.”[2]
While we know of not a single convert to Buddhism among the Copts, it is clear that even what might be thought a Coptic backwater knew something about Buddha. This example shows that even cultures that one might be inclined to say were not in contact might know something about each other.

[1] Kephalaia, ed. H. J. Polotsky (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1940), 1:7-8.
[2] Kephalaia, 1:12.