- Neither Scythian nor Greek:A Response to Beckwith's Greek Buddha and Kuzminski's "Early Buddhism Reconsidered"
I. Two Narratives
According to an intriguing Chinese narrative, Laozi, founder of Daoism, did not restrict his teaching activities to his own countrymen. After entrusting his Daodejing to Yin Xi, the Keeper of the Pass, Laozi traveled west into the wilderness. Perhaps with the aid of supernatural powers, Laozi reached India and began to teach. There he came to be known as the Buddha. In this way, the striking similarities between Daoism and Buddhism are the result of these two traditions having had the same founder; and the equally striking differences are the result of the failure of the Western barbarians to understand the depth and subtlety of Laozi's thought.
Amused by the story? Here's another. In this second narrative, the historical Buddha was a Scythian, a Central Asian steppe nomad. He traveled to Magadha, where he made a wonderful discovery at Bodhgayā: that freedom from views is the key to tranquility. He then went to Gandhāra and taught this to others. He also traveled to China and contributed to the Daoist tradition. We know he did, because Laozi's alternate name 老聃, which occurs frequently in the Zhuangzi and is today read Lao Dan in Mandarin, was pronounced in Old Chinese as *Gotama!1 The Buddha then returned to South Asia and died somewhere in Magadha.
It is difficult to know much about the teachings of this Scythian Buddha, as the texts purporting to describe his life and message are so late and distorted that we can safely ignore them for most purposes. But there is one available source that is a reliable witness of Gotama's teachings: a passage preserved by the Christian historian Eusebius about the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho. This passage demonstrates that the Scythian Buddha knew and rejected Zoroastrianism; it also shows that Pyrrho was one of his followers.
The first of these narratives is a Daoist legend, from a text composed during the Western Jin dynasty (265–316 c.e.) and known as the Huahujing, the "Classic on the Conversion of Barbarians."2 The second, more elaborate narrative summarizes the views stated or clearly implied by Christopher Beckwith in his book Greek Buddha. It is this narrative which, for Kuzminski, potentially "opens the doors to new understanding" and may [End Page 984] even contribute to "a quiet revolution … in our understanding of Early Buddhism, Pyrrhonism" and much else besides.
Kuzminski distances himself from some of Beckwith's claims, observing—as well he might—that much of the second narrative above is an "imaginative reconstruction." But Kuzminski also repeatedly asks us to reflect on the implications of Beckwith's conclusion that we should "take Pyrrhonism as our earliest evidence of Buddhism." If we wish to know how seriously we should take the results of such reflection, we must undertake a thorough examination of the specific results Beckwith reaches, the details of the evidence he adduces for them, and the overall methodology he employs. Once this examination is complete, I will then discuss a few of Kuzminski's ideas, considering them as substantive philosophical proposals.
Is an inquiry of this kind worth the trouble? As it happens, some parts of Beckwith's account, as also of Kuzminski's intellectual project, have quite a bit to be said for them. There is good evidence that Pyrrho did indeed travel to Gandhāra. More generally, as Steven Batchelor shows in his powerfully argued review of Greek Buddha,3 some people in the ancient world did manage to travel across astonishingly vast distances.
Moreover, an ideal of freedom from views is crucial to many forms of Buddhism, as it is to Pyrrhonism. So it makes sense as a philosophical research program to think about Buddhism through the lens of Pyrrhonism, and about Pyrrhonism through the lens of Buddhism. Though I will call into question several theses of Kuzminski's article, I regard that overall project, generally conceived, as very much worth pursuing.
The most valuable work that Pyrrhonists can do for the rest of us is often to impel us to think through whether and how we...