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Connections between Zoroastrianism and Mahayana Buddhism

Copyright: @2013 John Easter.

Connections between Zoroastrianism and Mahayana Buddhism

John Easter

Yasna 19.6, outside of the Gathas, says that Ahura Mazda will help any soul pass over the Chinvat Bridge to Heaven who says the Ahuna Vairya prayer. It seems that later just saying Ahura Mazda, or calling out to God for help, was considered just as effective.

“Further, it is also said in the Zoroastrian text that whoever recites the ‘Ahuna-Variya formula'(see Yasna 19.6 & Yasna 27.13), his soul would be led by Ahura Mazda to ‘the lights of heaven.’ The repetition of Ahura Mazda’s name is repeatedly reported to be efficacious enough to lead the person to paradise.”
-Buddhism in Central Asia p. 144 by B.N. Puri

Yasna 27.13: The Ahuna Vairya manthra/mantra/prayer in Gathic Avestan
Yatha Ahu Vairyo atha Ratush
Ashat chit hacha;

Vangheush dazda Manangho
Shyothananam angheush Mazdai;

Kshathrem cha Ahurai
A yim daregobyo dadat vastarem.

Yasna 27.13: The Ahuna Vairya manthra/mantra/prayer in English
Just as the Lord [Ahu] is all-capable [Vairya] and worthy of veneration [Vairya], so also the Prophet [Ratu]-by reason of his great store of Truth and Righteousness [Asha].

The gifts of the Loving Mind [Vohu Mano] are for those who perform deeds for the Great Lord of Existence.

The Power [Kshathra] of the Almighty is indeed his, who makes himself a protector of the poor, the needy and the meek.
-Zarathushtra pp. 72-74 translated by Ardeshir Mehta

Many near death experience testimonies report a Great Being of Light that generates love and it is usually identified with God. However many reports also state that there are actually numerous beings of light, that includes Jesus and the angels, who are the emissaries of God constantly saving souls from ending up in the Abyss like a rescue operation.

In Yasna 46.10 Zarathushtra states that he himself will be with and comfort the souls of good people who cross the Chinvat Bridge.

“Whoever, man or woman, does what Thou, Ahura Mazda, knowest to be the best in life; Whoever does right for the sake of right; Whoever in authority governs with the aid of the Good Mind… I shall cross with them the Bridge of Separation.”
-Yasna 46.10 by Zarathushtra Spitama

It seems Zarathushtra was saying that he was going to become one of these helpers of light over 3700 years ago.

“All around these lost souls were Beings of Light just waiting to assist them out of their hellish state.” “Both the Northern Buddhist and Universalist Christian traditions have saviors (Amida Buddha and Jesus) who rescue people from hell (Vincent, 2005, p. 8).”

“They believe that the Amida Buddha is a “savior god” who can rescue you from hell and take you to the pure land of bliss. Once there, you can work out your final ascent to Nirvana under blissful conditions. “A butcher is dying. He first has a vision of hell, whereupon he was terrified into chanting the name of ‘Amida;’ He then had a vision of the Amida Buddha offering him a lotus seat and passed peacefully away.”
-Scientific Investigation of the “Dark Side” by Dr. Ken R. Vincent

Parallels to the Ahuna Vairya prayer and Zoroastrianism in Mahayana Buddhism

Saying the Ahuna Vairya to cross the Chinvat Bridge in Yasna 19.6, as mentioned before, is mirrored and echoed by the reciting of another mantra called the Nianfo(in Chinese) or Nembutsu(in Japanese) in Pure Land Buddhism which is a major branch of Mahayana Buddhism. The entire mantra is Namo Amitabhaya in the original Sanskrit, Namo Emituofo(or Amituo Fo) in Chinese, and Namu Amida Butsu(buddha) in Japanese.

Pure Land Buddhism, mostly in the form of the schools called Jodu Shu and Jodo Shin Shu, is the largest version of Buddhism in Japan. The basic Pure Land practice itself is a major part of Mahayana Buddhism within other East Asian countries as well such as Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

The Buddha, specifically Siddhartha Gautama or Shakyamuni, said that there are many other buddhas besides himself in the Theravada & Mahayana texts. One of these other buddhas is called Amitabha who was said to create a buddha field or special realm called Sukhavati which means land of bliss.

It is meant for sentient beings that couldn’t become enlightened and obtain Nirvana while alive so that after death they could avoid both aimless rebirth and going to Naraka(the Hell realms) and the good but temporary deva(god) realms of Buddhist/Jain cosmology.

Parallel to Ahura Mazda in Mahayana Buddhism

Namo means homage or hail and Amitabhaya(Amitabha) literally means infinite light. It is a phrase that can just as easily and equally be applied to Ahura Mazda. The reason is because Ahura Mazda is so greatly associated with light that he has actually been identified as light itself even though Yasna 44.5 implies that he created light instead. Ahura Mazda’s dimension, or Heaven, is even called Endless Light in later texts.

From Handbook of Japanese Mythology p. 49 by Michael Ashkenazi
“Amida(Amitabha) is barely mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, and his worship probably originated in central Asia, perhaps based on an Iranian original. He may well have emerged from Zoroastrian scriptures, which worship him in a similar way to the Amidists.

In Zoroastrianism, those who pray to Ahura-Mazda and rely on his mercy will end in the Paradise of Boundless Light, which they may attain if they repeat the proper formula(The formula is the Ahuna Vairya prayer. See Yasna 19.6).”

From Buddhism in Central Asia pp. 143-144 by B.N. Puri
“According to the Tibetan historian of Buddhism, Taranath, Amitabha’s worship could be traced back to Saraha or Rahulbhadra, a great magician, and reputed to be the teacher of Nagarjuna, who saw Amitabha in the land of Dhingkota and died with his face turned towards Sukhavati.

The name Saraha does not sound Indian, probably a Sudra represented in Tibetan scrolls with a beard and top knot and holding an arrow in his hand. Thus, the first person whom tradition connects with the worship of Amitabha was of low caste and bore a foreign name. He saw the deity in a foreign country, and was represented as totally unlike a Buddhist monk.

While it cannot be proved that he came from the lands of the Oxus or Turkestan, there seems little difficulty, according to Eliot, in accepting Zoroastrian influence on this cult or worship. The main principles of Amidist doctrine are that there is a paradise of light belonging to a benevolent deity and those good men invoking his name would be led to that region.

The highest heaven (following after the paradises of good thoughts, good words and good deeds) is called ‘Boundless Light’ or ‘Endless Light’. In this connection reference might be made to this region and its master, Ahura Mazda, who are constantly spoken of in terms implying radiance and glory. It is also a land of song, like that of Amitabha’s paradise re-echoing with music and pleasant sounds.”

General parallels to Heaven in Mahayana Buddhism

It is thought that the residents of the Pure Land use the good environment to either practice under Amitabha in order to obtain Nirvana with him or instead become his bodhisattvas(buddhas in training) that plan on eventually being reborn on Earth or other worlds in order to bring more sentient beings with them into the Pure Land through their good influence and teachings.

There are many other Pure Lands created by other buddhas besides Amitabha’s Western Pure Land(Sukhavati) such as the Eastern Pure Lands which include Akshobhya’s Abhirati, Bhaisajyaguru’s Vaiduryanirbhasa, and Manjusri’s Vimala. However there are indications that all the different Pure Lands are closely interconnected through the Dharma-kaya(body) and are accessible between each other so it is like one Pure Land.

Other special realms in Buddhist lore that are functionally similar to the Pure Lands are Avalokitesvara’s Mount Potalaka, Maitreya’s Tushita(technically just a regular deva/god realm of Buddhist cosmology) and Kalki’s hidden Shambhala kingdom mentioned in the Tibetan Kalachakra Tantra.

Incidentally the Shambhala of Tibetan lore might be related to Airyanem Vaejah, which is the original homeland of all Iranian peoples mentioned in the later Avesta. Airyanem Vaejah and Shambhala are also both described as a Garden of Eden like area.

Parallel to Vohu Manah/Loving Mind in Mahayana Buddhism

Amitabha is thought to be very closely assisted by a high level bodhisattva called Avalokitesvara in bringing beings to Sukhavati. Avalokitesvara literally means lord who looks down in the original Sanskrit. He is also called Guanyin in Chinese, Kannon in Japanese, and Chenrezig in Tibetan. He is additionally considered an embodiment of the omnipresent compassion aspect of the Dharmakaya or Adi-Buddha(Primordial-Buddha).

The great compassion for all sentient beings of Avalokitesvara in Mahayana Buddhism may distantly reflect the third part of the Ahuna Vairya mantra where it says that the real power of God goes to whoever is a protector of the poor, needy and meek. Also similar is Vohu Manah, literally meaning loving/good mind/purpose, who is both an independent arch-angel and an aspect of Ahura Mazda. Vohu Manah is even associated with animals.

His Guanyin(in China) and Kannon(in Japan) depictions represent his female manifestations mentioned in chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra. Their statues have been depicted similarly to the Virgin Mary in Catholic Christianity. He is also claimed to have composed the Heart Sutra about shunyata(emptiness). It is a major text in both Chan(in China) and Zen(in Japan) Buddhism, which are also branches of Mahayana Buddhism.

Maha-sthamaprapta, also known as Vajrapani, is another high level bodhisattva that assists Amitabha. He represents power or the power of wisdom. This is somewhat similar to Khshathra Vairya who is the arch-angel of power or dominion of Ahura Mazda. However he is also loosely similar to Mithra in the Mihr Yasht and Indra in the Rig-Veda.

It is also similar to the wisdom aspect of Ahura Mazda’s name. However it is actually Manjusri who is the high level bodhisattva that represents wisdom itself. Vajrapani, Manjusri, and Avalokitesvara are a trinity of bodhisattvas that represent power, wisdom, and compassion.

The rejection of God by the Buddha in Theravada texts

The staunch rejection of a creator god in the Theravada Pali Canon, as well as its extreme view of the physical world as entirely negative, are 2 very major points of difference between Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. Particularly in the Brahmajala Sutta text of the Digha Nikaya within the Pali Canon and in the Bhuridatta Jataka text of the later Theravada literature. The Pali Canon also has many stories with references to gods or spirits who falsely think or state that they are creator gods as well as the human teachers who worship them but these tend to have an almost humorous feel unlike the Brahmajala Sutta.

However there are aspects in the Mahayana Buddhist texts that agree with the spirit of Zoroastrianism. Apparently understanding that there is a primordial and omnipresent, but not omnipotent, sentient power of compassion within the Dharmakaya(roughly the Mahayana Buddhist equivalent of the Hindu Brahman) is an acceptable view in Mahayana Buddhism. Not as a creator but as an emanator. However the sentient aspect may only just reflect the enlightened minds of beings that became buddhas in the past.

The Gathas by Zarathushtra Spitama however are crystal clear in expressing that humans, animals, and ultimately all sentient beings emanate from God. While the main focus in the Gathas appears to be on the planet Earth it is also clear that the Universe in its entirety(meaning all planets, worlds, dimensions and universes) is regarded as Ahura Mazda’s good creation or emanation.

Jainism and the Shramana movements

Early Buddhism started out as one of the many different Shramana movements in India opposed to the Hindu brahmins/priests like Jainism. Early Buddhism and Theravada texts share many similarities with Jainism and Jain texts such as the Jain Mahapurana text written by Jinasena who was a Jain monk. The Mahapurana also staunchly rejects a creator god similar to the later Theravada Bhuridatta Jataka text. Even the basic story of Mahavira, the founder or last reformer of Jainism, is very similar in detail to the Theravada story of the Buddha. In fact Mahavira was an older contemporary of Buddha according to Theravada texts.

I personally think that the ascetic and world rejecting Shramana movements and the traditions that they influenced, Jainism, early Buddhism, and even later Hinduism, and their texts such as the Brahmajala Sutta, Bhuridatta Jataka, and Mahapurana, have all been afflicted by the Druj(the lie or malicious falsehood) as all religions are.

Including the theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and even Zoroastrianism as can be seen in their records of both needlessly violent and also psychologically cruel expressions. While Jain, Theravada, and even Mahayana texts sometimes contain atheistic like statements and philosophical positions that feel opposed to the Zoroastrian understanding, and theism in general, they also contain positive ideas and teachings too.

The diffusions of the Universalist Light

As Buddhism was starting to grow and become a major influence on the Eastern world it was apparently influenced, to some degree, by Zoroastrianism through the compositions of some of the Mahayana sutras by way of Central Asia(Afghanistan, Tajikistan, etc.).

These texts may indeed really contain some influences and reflections of the Zoroastrian Universalist Light of Greater Iran. The main specific texts are the 3 Pure Land sutras about Amitabha and his Sukhavati, the Lotus Sutra, and possibly the Mahayana Maha-Pari-Nirvana Sutra or Nirvana Sutra. Both the Lotus Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra express ideas similar to Universalism.

The practice of expressing Bhakti(loving devotion) to a form of Brahman(God) in Hinduism, itself possibly influenced by Zoroastrianism through the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, may of also been an influence on the development of Pure Land Buddhism. Vishnu, Vishnu’s avatars of Rama & Krishna, Shiva, and Maha-Devi(Great Goddess) in the Bhakti movements provide the same functional role as Amitabha and Avalokitesvara.

“Not even Buddhism has escaped Zoroastrian influence, for the region around Afghanistan and Bactria, where Zarathushtra lived many years,” “was at a crucial time in history one of the main centres of the development of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy.”
-Zarathushtra by Ardeshir Mehta