Mark Vernon: Did Socrates and the Buddha ever meet?


Gosh – here’s an interesting thought. There are scholars who now put the date of the Buddha’s birth so that he and Socrates are roughly contemporaries of each other. And the same scholars find some evidence that the Buddha was exposed to Greek thought early in his studies.

As Mark Vernon writes:

“What does this mean for Buddhism today? Well, it might be one way of re-making Buddhist concepts for the West. For example, duhkha – usually translated as ‘suffering’ – might better be thought of as indicating the tragic state of existence, the fact that human life is marked by transience, impermanence and death. The point is that duhkha is not always painful, as the term suffering implies. However, it must be fully understood if an individual is to ‘wake up’ and see things clearly.

If that is right, I wonder whether anything might be learnt about duhkha from the ancient Greek conception of tragedy. Roughly, in the tragedies of the great playwrights, the hero is the individual who is able to face the fate the gods have decreed for them. They are the ones to be admired; they are the focus for the catharsis provided by the action. You might say they are the ones who understand reality as it has come to them, with all its transience and impermanence. They are able to let go of the craving for life and are, thereby, typically honored by the gods – escaping the cycles of joy and sorrow that usually characterizes the life of mortals. Might that be a model of Buddhist ‘heroism’?

The most scholarly text on these links, Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought, doesn’t push the parallels between ancient Greek and Buddhist ideas back to the life of Gautama and Socrates themselves. Rather McEvilley focuses on how, say, Platonic philosophy helped to shape early Buddhist thought. Platonic Ideas, for example, are like Buddhist dharmas – the ‘really real’ of which phenomena are but shadows. Alternatively, Buddhist practice seems not unlike what Plato has Socrates say in the Republic: ‘We must be able to discern the presence of Ideas themselves and also of their images in anything that contains them.’ Wisdom is a kind of right seeing.”

Read the full article here.

Very interesting. I’m not nearly as familiar with Buddhist thinking as I am with Platonic – but if Vernon is right and there is a different lens that can be used to view this, perhaps it’s worth taking some time to read up on.

Plato has been interesting especially to me as a help to contrast more clearly the surprising message of Christianity and the ways it parallels and the ways it refutes traditional Greek thought.

Perhaps it’s worth reading some Buddhist thought to see how it, by contrast, might make clearer what the Fathers are responding to in their writings as Christianity pushed East.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Plato was certainly a pivotal figure for so many reasons. His “Timaeus” – seemingly inspired by Moses and, in turn, it definitely inspired the Hermetic Texts – was a significant bridge for dialogue between Greeks and Jews, and a foothold for Christianity entering the intellectual life of the Pagans. Philo, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and so many more, wouldn’t have bothered with Greek thought without Plato’s apparent blessing of Monotheism. He was also one of the very earliest writers to advocate clearly the spherical Earth, plus a whole range of proto-scientific ideas Platonic scholars are still arguing about (e.g. was he a heliocentrist or a geocentrist?)
    That the Buddha might’ve had contact with Platonic ideas isn’t utterly crazy – if the ideas weren’t entirely original to Plato to start with. He was a great synthesiser and it’s possible he was influenced by Zoroastrian ideas, who also could have influenced the Buddha’s own development of thought. There’s something dualistic about the early concept of Mara as “King Death”, and the light/dark imagery of Tibetan Buddhism seems to have been derived from some dualistic syncretism of the Zoroastrian and Manichean concepts. The Zoroastrians also had religious concepts akin to the Platonic Ideas.
    I’m not sure the directions of arrows of influence can ever be disentangled, but the timing (c.400 BC) is awfully close together. With so much that the Greeks had wrestled from the Persians over the century of 500-400 BC is it any wonder that their religio-philosophical ideas could have followed too? And that the Persians had heavily influenced northern India shouldn’t be in any doubt either.

  2. Thanks Adam. The whole idea that there are these cross-influences such as you describe is new to me, and yet in hindsight sort of obvious. Thanks for pointing out some of the other possibilities.
    And if I was still grading things, your lovely use of of the metaphor of disentangling arrows of influence would get you at least an extra 20 points. Grin.
    I asked my father repeatedly to let me change my major from Physics to Philosophy back when I was in college. Didn’t happen obviously. But I thinking seriously about going back to get a degree in the field when I eventually decide to retire (or run out of things to occupy my time.)

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