Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume IV/Manichaean Controversy/Introductory Essay/The Relation of Manichaeism to Buddhism

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Chapter VI.— The Relation of Manichæism to Buddhism.

The extent of Mani’s dependence on Buddhism is a matter that has been much disputed.  The attention of scholars was first directed to this possible source of Manichæism by the discovery of important features that are radically opposed to Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity, and by the traditional historical connection of Mani with India and Turkestan.  The antagonism of spirit and matter, of light and darkness, the mixture of spirit and light with matter and darkness in the formation of the world, the final catastrophe in which complete simplicity shall be re-established, only inert matter and darkness remaining to represent the Kingdom of Darkness, abstinence from bloody sacrifices, from marriage, from killing or eating animals—points in which Manichæism differs widely from the other systems with which it stands historically related—find their counterpart in Buddhism.  It is certain, moreover, that they were fully developed in Buddhism centuries before the time of Mani.  Baur,[1] though not the first to suggest a connection of the two systems, was the first to show by a somewhat detailed comparison the close parallelism that exists between Manichæism and Buddhism.  Baur’s reasonings were still further elaborated and confirmed by Neander.[2]  External grounds in favor of Mani’s dependence on Buddhism are the traditions of Mani’s journey to India and China, and of his prolonged stay in Turkestan, where Buddhism flourished at that time.  But it is on internal grounds that we chiefly rely.

If space permitted we could illustrate the close parallelism that undoubtedly exists between Manichæism and Buddhism, from Buddhist documents which have been made accessible through Professor Max Müller and his collaborators in The Sacred Book of the East, far more completely than was possible to Baur and Neander.  It is certain that parallels can be found in Buddhism for almost every feature of Manichæism that is sharply antagonistic to Zoroastrianism.  The Buddhist view of matter as antagonistic to spirit is fundamental.  It is the world of matter that deludes.  It is the body and its passions that prevent the longed-for Nirvana.  Buddhist asceticism is the direct outgrowth of the doctrine of the evil and delusive nature of matter.  The Buddhist doctrine of metempsychosis has its precise counterpart in Manichæism, but it should be said that this doctrine was widely diffused in the West, through Pythagoreanism, before the time of Mani.  The Buddhist tenderness for animal and plant life is paralleled by the Manichæan.  But there is considerable difference between the views on which this tenderness is based.  The Buddhist feeling was based, in part at least, upon the doctrine of metempsychosis, animals and plants being regarded as the abodes of human spirits awaiting their release into Nirvana.  The Manichæan looked upon the elements of light (life) contained in animals and plants as particles of God, and any injury done to them as a hindrance to the escape of these elements, to be conveyed away into the Kingdom of Light.  Both looked upon sexual intercourse as among the greatest of evils, though the theory in the two cases was slightly different.  So of the drinking of wine, the eating of animal food, etc.  The final state was conceived of in substantially the same way in the two systems.  Nirvana, the blowing out of man’s life as an individual entity, is quite paralleled by the Manichæan view of the gradual escape of the imprisoned particles of light into the Kingdom of Light.  In both cases the divine pleroma is to be restored in such a way as to destroy individual consciousness.

The Buddhist Bhikkhus (or ascetical monks) correspond very closely with the Manichæan Truthful Ones (Elect), and the relations of these to ordinary adherents of the parties was much the same in the two cases.  Both systems (like Christianity) had the proselyting spirit fully developed.  The position of Mani as a preacher or prophet corresponds with the Buddhist idea of the manifestations of Buddha.  The statement is attributed to Mani that "as Buddha came in the land of India, Zoroaster in the land of Persia, and Jesus in the land of the West, so at last in the epoch of the present this preaching came through me [Mani] in the land of Babylonia."  In the interest of his theory, which makes the old Babylonian religion the chief source of Manichæism, Kessler has attempted to detract from the significance of the Buddhist influence.  Yet he grants that the morality of the Manichæans (including many of the features mentioned above) was Buddhist.  The close connection of the two systems cannot, it would seem, be successfully gainsaid.[3]


  1. Das Manichäische Religionssystem, p. 433 sq.
  2. Church Hist. vol. I.
  3. Cunningham, St. Austin and his Place in the History of Christian Thought (1886), has these remarks on the relation of Mani to Buddhism:  "Mani was indeed a religious reformer:  deeply impregnated with the belief and practice which Buddhist monks were spreading in the East, he tried with some success to reform the religion of Zoroaster in Persia [i.e. the Persian Empire], his native land.  While his fundamental doctrine, the root of his system, was of Persian origin, and he figured the universe to himself as if it were given over to the unending conflict between the Powers of Light and Darkness, in regard to discipline his system very closely resembles that founded by Buddha; the elect of the Manichæans correspond to the Buddhist monks:  the precepts about abstinence from meat and things of sense are, if not borrowed from the rules Gotama gave for the conduct of his followers, the outcome of the same principles about the nature of man."  Harnack, art. Manichæism in Ency. Britannica, follows Kessler in attaching slight importance to the Buddhist influence on Manichæism, preferring, with him, to derive nearly all of the features ascribed by Baur, Neander and others to Buddhist influence, to the old Babylonian religion, the precise character of which, in the time of Mani, is imperfectly understood.  Harnack’s (and Kessler’s) statements must therefore be taken with some allowance.  There is no objection, however, to supposing that Mani derived from the old Babylonian party or parties with which he came in contact religious principles which were wrought out in detail under the influence of Buddhism.  This is in fact what probably occurred.