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Book review: Greek Buddha, by Christopher I. Beckwith

This book challenges many or even most of the ideas about the origin of Buddhism that I have had for a long time. According to the conventional picture, Siddartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, was an upper-class Indian who lived in the fifth or possibly fourth century BCE. He was born at Lumbini, in modern-day Nepal. He had a luxurious upbringing and was married, but he renounced all this to become a wandering ascetic in search of enlightenment. At first he was unsuccessful but eventually he found his own path (the Middle Way) and became Awakened; the epithet 'Buddha' refers to this. Following his Awakening he began to teach and founded the monastic system which still exists today. The central doctrines he taught are known as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

While there has long been much debate about all the details of the Buddha's life, Beckwith goes a lot further than most and challenges almost every accepted feature of the story. So it's important to say at the outset that he is well qualified for his contentious role, being a professor in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. He has academic qualifications in Chinese and Tibetan and teaches Old Tibetan, Central Eurasian languages, and Central Eurasian history; his research interests include a number of other languages.

Beckwith makes an important distinction between Early Buddhism (the ideas of the Buddha himself and his immediate followers) and 'Normative Buddhism'—the Buddhism largely based on the collection of scriptures known as the Pali Canon, which was compiled 500 years after the Buddha's death and is still the foundation of Theravada Buddhism. Beckwith believes that this contains a lot of material that is later than what was taught by the Buddha.

The doctrines of karma and rebirth, for example, were not part of the Buddha's message and reflect ideas that were included in Buddhism as late as the first century CE. (Incidentally the 'rebirth' which appeared at this time was thought of as occurring in Heaven or Hell, which were temporary states.) Monasticism, the development of a monastic rule, and the building of monasteries were also late. Beckwith distinguishes what he calls Normative Buddhism (the Buddhism of the Pali Canon) from Early Buddhism, for which we have no contemporary evidence.

Much of this is admitted by many scholars of Buddhism. But Beckwith goes considerably beyond the general consensus in what he asserts, starting with the Buddha himself. Probably his most startling suggestion is that Gautama was not Indian but Scythian. (The Scythians were a people who lived in the western and central Eurasian steppes and probably spoke a form of Iranian language.) Another name that is applied to the Buddha, Shakyamuni, refers to this, meaning he was a 'Saka', a type of Scythian.

Beckwith also revises the background against which Buddhism arose. It is usually thought to have been a reaction against Brahmanism, but Beckwith suggests that Buddhism is older than Brahmanism. It is also older than Jainism. If anything, Buddhism was a reaction to Zoroastrianism (which implies a later date for Zoroastrianism than is usually quoted). And Beckwith finds evidence that Taoism in China was closely connected with Buddhism; the concept of the 'tao', he thinks, is practically the same as the Indian 'dharma'.

The reference to Greece in the title is a little misleading. It doesn't imply that Buddhism came from Greece (as is sometimes claimed); in fact, rather the reverse. It has often been remarked that Buddhist artwork was influenced by Greek forms and this is supposed to reflect the arrival of Alexander, but Beckwith is concerned with currents flowing in the opposite direction. Among the Greek scholars accompanying Alexander was Pyrrho, who is usually credited with founding the sceptical school of Greek philosophy known as Pyrrhonism. His ideas were radically different from the general trends of Greek philosophy but were virtually identical with those found in 'the earliest known bit of doctrinal Buddhist text [emphasis in the original].

And it wasn't only philosophy that Pyrrho seems to have taken from Buddhism; he also learned the characteristic Buddhist type of meditation known as 'insight meditation', although Beckwith approaches this from a intellectual rather than any kind of mystical angle.

The Buddha says that in meditation he reached the fourth and highest state in which he abandoned both bliss and pain. He describes this in the Mahasacca Sutta.

What the Buddha is abandoning here is the distinction between the opposite qualities or antilogies that are mentioned [in the text]. This is Pyrrho's adiaphora state of being 'undifferentiated, without (an intrinsic) self-identity, which is identical to the Buddha's state of being anatman without (an intrinsic) self-identity. It is equated with nirvana…'extinguishing (of the burning of the passions)' and the peace that results from it. [Emphasis in the original]


As others have done, Beckwith finds many parallels between Buddhism and the philosophy of David Hume, who was strongly influenced by Late Pyrrhonism

All these revolutionary ideas and have not been welcomed by most scholars of Buddhism. But they are not idle speculation; Beckwith supports them with abundant references to the earliest available documents and inscriptions. This is a scholarly work that seems to be aimed at a professional audience; almost every page has footnotes, which are often quite lengthy and may include quotations from Chinese and Greek texts in the original. So it is by no means light reading. Still, the actual writing is informal and quite readable, with occasional flashes of dry humour.

For example, in discussing the date of certain inscriptions that are supposed to provide evidence for the Buddha's date, Beckwith writes: 'However, as Härtel has effectively shown—with extreme care not to make the significance of his points easily grasped—the inscriptions…cited by nearly everyone as crucial data are at best much later than [others of known date] and at worst forgeries.'

Some have objected that the Greek scholars accompanying Alexander would not have been able to communicate effectively with the people they met and so could not have formed a clear idea of their beliefs. But Beckwith dismisses this claim.

It is entertaining to imagine Alexander the Great and his men as mental weaklings who bumbled their way around Asia conquering a huge empire largely by accident, like Inspector Clouseau solving a case, but the Court was in the territory of the Persian Empire for ten years, five of them in Central Asia and India, and the ancient Greeks were hardly mental weaklings. After years of exposure they must have learned Persian at least, and some undoubtedly picked up other local languages, while the local people would have been powerfully motivated to learn Greek, the language of the invaders, and many local people in formerly Persian-ruled "India" knew at least some Persian.


There is in fact plenty of documentary evidence to show that communication would not have been a problem.

Beckwith is careful to say that the ideas he discusses in this book in no way detract from the value of Buddhism as we know it today. And it is true that Buddhism does not attach the importance to the historical events of the Buddha's life that Christianity, say, does to the life of Christ. Even so, this is an important book for anyone with a serious interest in the development of early Buddhism.

Should we treat mild hypertension?

More from the BMJ, this time Minerva (BMJ 2018;l362:k821). The trend these days is to start treatment at ever lower blood pressure levels, but is that really beneficial? A survey of nearly 40,000 electronic records of people in the UK aged less than 75 with mild hypertension but no symptoms or evidence of cardiovascular disease suggests not. Over 6 years the mortality of those who were treated was no lower than that of those who were not, but they did have an increased incidence of unwanted effects, including fainting and acute kidney injury.

Guidelines that recommend treatment for anyone with a blood pressure above 140/90 mm Hg may not he in the best interests of people at low risk of cardiovascular disease.

Book review by Anthony Campbell: All Hell Let Loose, by Max Hastings

Hastings has written eight books on various aspects of the Second World War previously. In this one he presents an overview of the whole conflict, with particular emphasis on the experiences of people who were alive at the time. To do this he draws extensively on contemporary records…memoirs and letters from both combatants and civilians.This makes for a sense of immediacy and drama, so the book, although long, is never dull. It isn't light reading, however; there is no shortage of horrors. In fact, I couldn't read continuously but had to break off at times to read something lighter, otherwise the succession of tragedies became too overwhelming.

But I don't want to give the impression that the book is just a collection of reminiscences; these serve merely to illustrate the story of the war, which Hastings tells with considerable skill. To do this he has had to knit together events in three very different theatres of conflict: Western Europe and the Mediterranean, Russia, and the Pacific and Far East. There are also two different enemies to consider, German and Japanese (the role of the Italians was minimal). Although Germany and Japan were allies, each largely pursued their own agenda and there was little direct collaboration between them.

The beginning of the war, leading up to the Dunkirk evacuation, was a disaster for Britain. Invasion seemed imminent (although it probably wasn't) and only Winston Churchill's coming to power averted collapse. (Incidentally, Churchill is three times referred to as having been First Sea Lord; he was in fact First Lord of the Admiralty, which is not the same thing.)

Paradoxically, we owed our survival and ultimate victory over Germany to Hitler; his decision to invade Russia ultimately led to his downfall. But the Japanese also played their part by making an equally big mistake that brought America into the war when they attacked Pearl Harbor. The role of Britain amid these events was of secondary importance, although that was not how it was perceived here.

A recurring theme in the book is Hasting's admiration of German military professionalism. Time and again the Wehrmacht out-manoeuvred and out-fought their opponents both in Europe and in Russia, at least to begin with. They also had better tanks and fighter planes, at least in the early years of the war. After the Normandy campaign one of Montgomery's ablest staff officers wrote of the Germans, for whom he had boundless admiration, 'I have often wondered how we ever beat them.' So why didn't the Germans win?

There seem to have been two main reasons, according to Hastings. One was that although the Germans repeatedly succeeded tactically on the battlefield, their strategic planning was poor. In part this was due to the generals, who were mostly less competent and imaginative than their divisional commanders; but a major contribution to defeat came from Hitler. Time and again he made bad decisions, especially in Russia. He also repeatedly forbade strategic withdrawals and insisted that units should fight to the last man, thus wasting enormous amounts of human and material resources.

Even if the Germans' strategic planning had been better, however, they would most probably have lost the war—certainly after the USA came in. This was because Germany was economically weaker than the Allies realised and was unable to replace its losses in sufficient numbers. It was also short of fuel after Romania fell to the Russians.

This may seem surprising, but Hastings isn't averse to discounting widely held opinions about events and personalities. The ultimate Allied success in the North African campaign was significant in that it provided a much-needed boost to morale at home, but its strategic importance was not as overwhelming as it appeared at the time. Neither Rommel nor Montgomery, Hastings finds, merits the great reputations they have acquired. Among the Americans Douglas MacArthur comes across as a 'vainglorious windbag'. Eisenhower was not a great strategist but his success lay in coordinating the forces of different nationalities under his command. The ablest British general, Hastings finds, was William Slim, who led the recapture of Burma from the Japanese in 1945.

The war in the Pacific had greater importance in American than in British minds; the Americans hated the Japanese but had little dislike of the Germans. I found Hastings' account of the defeat of Japan particularly interesting because I knew relatively little about it, probably because initial Japanese success against the British in Burma, Singapore and elsewhere appeared so inexplicable and shameful that we heard relatively little about it. In fact, the Japanese won thanks to British incompetence as much as to their own fighting ability. This was publicly admitted at a reckless press conference by a British field commander.

Allied censors smothered publication of his remarks, but they reflected the defeatism, incompetence, and incoherence prevailing among British commanders in the East. Churchill minuted the chiefs of staff: 'I am far from satisfied with the way the Indian campaign is being conducted. The fatal lassitude of the Orient steals over all these commanders.'


The role of the 'Chindits'—British forces that operated behind Japanese lines—was much trumpeted in the Indian and British Press, but they had little practical importance, as one survivor later confirmed: 'we had achieved absolutely nothing'.

Plenty of other little-known facts emerge in the course of the book. For example, when troops were brought from North Africa to take part in the invasion of Normandy there was nearly a mutiny among the 3rd Royal Tanks. And when troops did arrive in Normandy to liberate the French there was a fair amount of looting.

I was a boy during the war so many of the events narrated here are familiar to me, at least in outline, but I'm glad to have had the opportunity now to set them in their narrative context, as well as to know what was going on in other parts of the world while we in Britain were relatively spared, in spite of rationing and the Blitz. I read this in the kindle version, but it would have been better to have the printed version because in kindle the maps are so difficult to see as to be practically useless.

So was the war worth fighting. In a word, yes, but with qualifications.

Allied victory did not bring universal peace, prosperity, justice or freedom; it brought merely a portion of those things to some fraction of those who had taken part. All that seems certain is that Allied victory saved the world from a much worse fate that would have followed the triumph of Germany and Japan. With this knowledge, seekers after virtue and truth must be content.


In 1920 a book appeared with the title The First World War. It was a best seller but the title was considered to be sinister and in poor taste because it implied there would be another.

To call this book The Last World War might tempt providence, but it is at least certain that never again will millions of armed men clash on European battlefields such as those of 1939–45. The conflicts of the future will be quite different, and it may not be rashly optimistic to suggest that they will be less terrible.


Let's hope he's right.

19-11-2018

Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin D health benefits?

More than half the adults in the USA take dietary supplements for health and the figures are probably similar in other wealthy societies. This is certainly good news for the manufacturers of these supplements but do they actually work? Increasingly, claims of this kind are being shown not to be supported by evidence.

The latest instance of this comes in the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine,, which carries articles looking at omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer in the light of two large trials (VITAL and VITALD). (Incidentally, these are all free to read.). Ths significance of the research is discussed in an editorial.


Thus, in the absence of additional compelling data, it is prudent to conclude that the strategy of dietary supplementation with either n?3 fatty acids or vitamin D as protection against cardiovascular events or cancer suffers from deteriorating VITAL signs.


The same issue of NEJM also has an article looking at whether low-dose methotrexate can reduce cardiovascular disease. Methotrexate is a drug used to treat cancer and also some autoimmune disorders. It reduces inflammation, which is important in cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately it didn't work.

A chair of astrology at Harvard?

Is the strange interstellar object that has been ,named 'Oumuamua' perhaps an alien artifact? Apparently this idea is being considered by Professor Loeb, chair of the department of astronomy at Harvard University. In this morning's Today programme one of the presenters, Nick Robinson, introduced Loeb as chair of the department of astrology. I don't know if this is an indication of how seriously we are supposed to take the idea.

'Informer' on BBC1: 'Dirty Old Town'

I found the rendition of 'Dirty Old Town' on BBC1's 'Informer' particularly attractive but I couldn't see anything in the credits to show where they got it. I spent much of a day learning how to extract and edit the sound track from the programme (an interesting and probably useful exercise) but eventually I located what seems to be the source on Youtube. If you've looked for it yourself you can find it at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMT6WaSEy5U

There are other versions of the song by the same singer, Esther Ofarim, on Youtube but I preferred this one.

In memoriam: Dr Peter Fisher

I 've just received the sad news of the death of Dr Peter Fisher in a cycling accident in High Holborn, near The Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, where he had been a leading clinician for many years.

Peter was a good friend and colleague in my years at the hospital, where he was consultant physician and Director of Research, as well as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Homeopathy. He was a convinced homeopath but always took an evidence-based approach to the subject; for example, he criticised opposition to vaccination on the part of some homeopaths as unscientific (and contrary to homeopathic principle).. Nevertheless he was largely responsible for changing the name of the hospital from The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital to its present form in 2010. This was a wise move which reflected the fact that the hospital now offers a range of complementary treatments, always in the wider context of modern clinical medicine.

Peter's death will be an irreplaceable loss to British homeopathy.

The history of the RCT

Many of us probably think of the randomised controlled trial (RCT) as a largely British invention dating from shortly after the second world war, but an interesting short paper in the NEJM shows that its antecedents go back much further (The Emergence of the Randomized, Controlled Trial: Laura E. Bothwell, Ph.D., and Scott H. Podolsky, M.D. N Engl J Med 2016; 375:501-504 August 11, 2016 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1604635).

RCTs thus represent the most recent outgrowth of a long history of attempts to adjudicate therapeutic efficacy. Their immediate ancestor, alternate-allocation trials, emerged as part of a trend toward empiricism and systematization in medicine and in response to the need for more rigorous assessment of a rapidly expanding array of experimental treatments. Alternate allocation represented a significant advancement for addressing clinical research bias -- but one that had limitations as long as it allowed foreknowledge of treatment allocation. Concealed random allocation merged as the solution to these limitations, and RCTs were soon supported by crucial public funding and scientific regulatory infrastructures.

This open-access paper is well worth reading.

Brexit and the tyranny of the old

On 22 June The Economist had an article with the title Hoping that demography is not destiny. This included a graph, "The tyranny of the old, showing the probability of voting "Remain" for different age groups with an A-level education. This showed a clear correlation with age.

The data suggest age is the primary cleavage in the electorate (see [graph]). Looking specifically at middle-class adults with an A-level education, 70% of 18-24 year-olds in the English hinterland are expected to vote to “remain”, compared with just 30% of adults over 65 in the same region.


These estimates were borne out by the actual vote. I find it very depressing that the desire of many young people to remain was negated by the desire of many older people to leave. Like them,I shall no longer be around by the time the results of the vote take full effect, but my grandchildren will be and they will live with the results. The demographic consideration was a main part of what caused me to vote to remain.

David Cameron made two mistakes in planning the referendum; one was deciding to have it in the first place and the other was not allowing 16-year-olds to vote.



Paypal acting as a literary censor

14 March 2012

Good news! Paypal have now reversed their previous decision and there will be no restriction on payment for legal fiction. Congratulations to Mark Coker and all who supported him - and to Paypal.

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Mark Coker, the managing director and founder of Smashwords, has been told by Paypal that they will not process payments for books dealing with incest, rape, bestiaility, child abuse or other sexual topics they disapprove of. This ruling would exclude Nabokov's Lolita, not to mention the Bible.

Moving payments to a different payments processor is not an option, Mark says. He is therefore trying to negotiate a more sensible arrangement with Paypal but he is not certain that he will succeed.

This is an appalling affair, The books in question are legal so Paypal is setting itself up as a moral censor which it has no right to do. And what will come next? A ban on books that are critical of Christianity or religion in general? I'm not affected by the present ban but I would be by the exclusion of religious criticism. The fact that Paypal has a virtual monopoly of processing online payments is potentially disastrous. Time for protests.