The Buddha on the Orient Express: cultural encounters in the development of Buddhism

The doors between East and West have always been open, enabling communication and dialogue. And this relationship between East and West is fundamental to understanding how Buddhism, or rather Buddhisms, have constantly encountered and  creatively adapted to different cultures since Gotama, the historical Buddha, formed the first sangha. In the various cultural contexts in which Buddhism has developed, it has proved capable of responding to the deepest questions of the soul of, whether centuries ago or in our contemporary world.

It is in this light that the important historical discovery in Pakistan in 2021 by the Italian archaeological mission led by Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East, at Barikot in the Swat Valley, should be understood. Archaeologists have uncovered the oldest Buddhist religious monument ever, dating back to the 3rd century BC. This unprecedented discovery sheds new light on the architectural organisation and life in this ancient Pakistani city, on the ‘links’ between the Greek rulers of the time and Buddhism, but also on the expansion of the religion throughout the region. The discovery of a large religious monument founded in the Indo-Greek period undoubtedly points to a large and ancient centre of worship and pilgrimage, and the confirmation of such an ancient age for Buddhism in this region is of enormous importance not only from a historical point of view but also because of the consequences for our views of the development of Buddhism.

Along the Silk Road

It is now well known that not only goods but also ideas and knowledge travelled along the ancient Silk Road throughout antiquity, and that the boundaries between the two great cultural and geographical areas known as East and West have always been blurred and uncertain. In fact, from the earliest times, these seemingly distant worlds spoke to and influenced each other more frequently and more prolifically than we are used to thinking. On both sides of the Mediterranean, Buddhist monks, Brahmins and mystics met Greek philosophers in the retinue of Alexander the Great, and for eight centuries after that meeting, the steppes and plains stretching from the foothills of the Himalayas to Turkey, from the Caucasus to the Black Sea, were to host one of the most original melting pots in history, so extraordinary as to make modern, globalised societies envious. But the roots of this embrace are even more ancient and reach into myth, cloaked in that mixture of mystery and mysticism typical of shamanism. It is precisely this variegated spiritual culture that has dialogued with and left an indelible mark on both Western and Eastern traditions, of which Buddhism is also a part.

The Greeks ‘invented’ the Buddha

There is a boundless region, straddling two continents, which goes by the name of Gandhara to the south-east, towards India, and Bactria to the north-east, towards the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the true cradle of this encounter of cultures and civilisations. Epic battles were fought here. but, above all, it is in these places that Buddhism came into profound contact with very different cultural and spiritual traditions, which influenced not only its forms but also its very deep religiosity. For example, it was the Greeks who first attempted a sculptural representation of Buddha. Once they had expanded into India, it was only natural for the new Hellenic conquerors, accustomed to the cult of artistic forms, to try to create a single common divinity that would represent both the image of a Greek god, Apollo, familiar to them and the traditional physical characteristics of Gotama. Thus, we discover that some of the main stylistic elements of the statues adorning altars in Eastern temples and monasteries are in fact influenced by Hellenism. The himation, the cloak worn to fall from the shoulder, the standing position, such as the erect Buddhas of the Gandhāra art of the 1st-2nd century, the stylised curly hair and the oval protuberance on the top of the skull: all these are traits derived from the Alexandrian style of the Apollo of Belvedere, dated 330 BC. But the influence does not stop with sculptural representations. It is precisely the monks from this region, where what is now known as “Greek Buddhism” was the most influential form of culture, who played a key role in the development and subsequent transmission of Buddhist ideas to northern Asia for a good eight centuries, until the conquest of the White Huns, as well as bridging and assimilating practices and visions of clear shamanic origin.

The Mongols arrive

And it was at this point that the portrait of the Mongol of Taranto arrived like a bolt of lightning to illuminate the oblivion of this obscure past, representing a revolution in studies not only on the origins of our culture, but also on its relationship with the Buddhist East, influenced by shamanism. The image was made in the 5th-4th centuries BC on a protolucan ceramic vase from Magna Graecia, now housed at the University of Heidelberg. The painting depicts a kind of Great Khan, the king of the Mongols, with a pointed beard, the cheekbones typical of the people of the steppes and almond-shaped eyes. That portrait on a vase is irrefutable proof that there were not only commercial, but also cultural and, above all, spiritual relations between Magna Graecia and the far north-east of Europe and Asia. The Mongol of Taranto would be, so to speak, the evolutionary link, the proof of a deep relationship that united Mediterranean traditions with Hyperborean shamanism and the regions of so-called Greek Buddhism. It is clear that, like the Buddhist monks, the Greek sages and philosophers also travelled: we know of Pythagoras’ journeys to Egypt and Babylon, Plato’s to Egypt, Pyrrho’s to India alongside Alexander. For these courageous and open-minded men, it was not unusual to cross the lands where, for example, the Scythians rode freely, barbaric and precious at the same time, another link between the northern fringes of Greece and the Mongolian steppes.

Apollo on the Orient Express

It is precisely the figure of Apollo, with his characteristics as a healer and prophetic god, that plays a key role in the intersection of these ancient spiritualities. Also linked to Apollo is the figure of Abaris, a legendary shaman, soothsayer, thaumaturge and priest of the Hyperborean god himself. This mythological character, who dates back to the dawn of time, is linked to archaic Greece, Eastern Siberia, Mongolia, China and Tibet. Abaris, however, takes on a role that goes far beyond his own person, so much so as to make one think of a collective name, an archetypal character who embodies the spirit of an entire people, the Ávari. The Ávari were archers and shamans from Mongolia, called Hyperboreans, who lived on the far eastern borders of Europe. From the remote Hyperborean land, Abaris is called to Greece as a purifying shaman and ambassador to fight the plague and this Mongolian hero comes holding a golden arrow. The golden arrow is the instrument of his ecstasy and shamanic concentration in the sign of Apollo, the god with whom he went to work. But the figure of Abaris becomes even more significant when he comes into contact with Pythagoras. It is Abaris himself who recognises Pythagoras as the incarnation of Apollo, and gives him the golden arrow as a sign of this recognition. This is the gesture that seals a connection between Western and Eastern spirits and wisdom traditions at the dawn of our civilisation, because the arrow, as well as becoming a ritual object for Tibetan Buddhism, was a sacred symbol for the Hyperborean peoples. The recognition of Apollo’s reincarnation as a shamanic practice enters into the imagination of steppe Buddhism and clearly recalls the recognition procedures of the reincarnated Lamas.

Cults and divinities intertwine

The persistence of these deep connections in that border area influenced, if not laid the foundations for the development of what is now known as Mahayana Buddhism. Many of the practices and ritual forms of this tradition received popular influences from Hindu devotional cults, such as bhakti for example, from Persian cults and deities, and from Greco-Roman theologies that filtered into India from the north-west. It is perhaps more than a coincidence that it was Apollo, the god of medicine, who chose to incarnate as a wise man and healer to put an end to human suffering. And that this transmigration represents a perfect analogy with the vow of the Buddhist Bodhisattvas, the earthly expression of the ideal of compassion, who renounce entering Nirvana to remain in the world and act for the benefit of all beings, however infinite they may be and wherever they may be. It is no coincidence that the Bodhisattva is the main figure on which the vision and teaching of the Mahayana revolves, the one most in contact with the cultural mix of these peoples and with the mystical and magical thrust of Hyperborean shamanism. The cultural and iconographic overlap was so strong and long-lasting that, for example, the demigod Hercules wearing a lion skin, the tutelary deity of King Demetrius I of Bactria, served as an artistic model to portray Vajrapāni, one of the Buddha’s protectors. The influence then went so far that in Japan this expression of full furious pride and muscular strength was transferred to the Nio, standing guardian deities of the Buddha, which can be seen to this day at the entrance to many temples.

Prophecy and the awakening of the Buddha

In the Upanishads the figure of the sage is connected to Brahma. The word Brahma itself, in its original meaning, means both prayer and spiritual power. Obviously, there is a deep connection between Vedic spirituality and Buddhism. Abaris and Hyperborean shamanism are as contemporary with the Upanishads as are the Hebrew prophets whose works were preserved by Amos and the early Greek didactic poetry. There is a curious similarity between Amos and Hesiod, whose prophetic characteristics we also find in the account of the Buddha’s awakening: Hesiod and Amos were shepherds and accessed prophetic wisdom when inspired and in contemplation. There they came into contact with the divine dimension, just like the ancient shamans of the Hyperborean steppes. Hesiod also recounts that he had full memory of past myths concerning the formation of the cosmos, a knowledge that was propitiated by his daily experience in the solitude of the pastures where he waited for the moment when the muses allowed him to expound the content of this cultural heritage. The similarities with the story of the Buddha’s awakening are striking, as is the appearance of the divine eye capable of accessing wisdom and healing the world. This shamanic wisdom has passed through the flow of time and its traits can be read in different spiritual and cultural traditions from East to West. Today, the singers of the Kyrgyz people who inhabit the vast Hyperborean steppes still tell us: ‘I can sing any song, for God has implanted his gift in my heart. He gives me the word on my tongue, without my having to search for it. I have not learned any of my songs. Everything flows from my soul’.


This article continues the research work that is at the heart of Stefano’s latest book:

L’ABBRACCIO DEL MONDO

Coltivare l’eleganza dello spirito per costruire la mente ecologica

Collana Oscar Mondadori Spritualità – Giugno 2021

In English,  the book is called ‘The Embrace of the world: cultivating the elegance of the spirit to build the ecological mind’. The theme is the ecological mind, i.e. the role that our attitude, our approach to reality, our vision of the world, our cultural identity and, above all, our ability to imagine the future and read the present, can play in social dynamics and in the choices we make. Similarly, the book explores how our frameworks and perspectives, the narrative we elaborate on facts, can be a reason for inclusion or division, community or separation. In this new book too, there are important philosophical insights, suggestions drawn from culture and a profound dialogue between West and East.

The road to the ecological mind is indicated to us by the many other thinkers and philosophers who, over the course of time, have sought a practical, concrete response to transform thoughts and behaviour into an ecological mind. These thinkers are capable of a true, sustainable revolution and practical, effective wisdom like that of the Stoics. What are the characters, what flavour will enable us to recognise this energy of change? The ‘rebellion’ can only be the transformation towards an existence characterised by kindness, awareness, compassion, balance and an ethic of profound integrity


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