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Buddhism and Gnosticism

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Buddhologist Edward Conze (1966) has proposed that similarities existed between Buddhism and Gnosticism, a term deriving from the name "Gnostics" given to a number of Christian sects. To the extent that the Buddha taught the existence of evil inclinations that remain unconquered, or that require special spiritual knowledge to conquer, Buddhism has also qualified as Gnostic.


Edward Conze claimed to have noted phenomenological commonalities between Mahayana Buddhism and Gnosticism,[1] in his paper Buddhism and Gnosis, following an early suggestion by Isaac Jacob Schmidt.[2][a] Conze explicitly compared Mahayana Buddhism with "gnosis," that is, knowledge or insight, and not with "the Gnostics," because too little was known about the Gnostics as a social group.[2] Based on Conze's eight similarities, Hoeller gives the following list of similarities:[4]

  • Liberation or salvation can be achieved by a liberating insight, namely gnosis or jnana
  • Ignorance, or a lack of insight, called agnosis or avidyā, is the root cause of entrapment in this world
  • Liberating insight can be achieved by interior revelation, not by external knowledge
  • Both systems give a hierarchical ordering of spiritual attainment, from blind materialism to complete spiritual attainment
  • Wisdom, as the feminine principle personified in Sophia and prajna, plays an important role in both religions
  • Myth is preferred over historical fact; the Christ and the Buddha are not mere historical figures, but archetypal primordial beings
  • Both systems have antinomian tendencies, that is, a disregard for rules and social conventions in higher spiritual attainments
  • Both systems are intended for spiritual elites, not for the masses, and have hidden meanings and teachings
  • Both systems are monistic, aiming at a metaphysical oneness beyond the multiplicity of the phenomenal world.


Influences from Buddhism

Manicheism was directly influenced by Buddhism. Mani himself aimed for nirvana like Buddha and used this word showing the significance of Buddhist influences. He further believed in transmigration of souls, sangha, and used various Buddhist terms in his teachings.[1] Mircea Eliade noted similarities in the symbolism of light and mystic knowledge, predating Manicheism, and possibly going back to an early common Indo-Iranian source. Mani considered himself to be a reincarnation of Buddha. He also claimed that he was preaching the same message of Buddha.[5] Verardi notes that Manicheism is the prime source for comparisons between Buddhism and Gnosticism, Manicheism representing "the same urban and mercantile ambience of which Buddhism was an expression in India."[6] When the mercantile economy declined, with the decline of the Roman empire, Manicheism lost its support.[7] The Manicheists were hostile to the closed society of farming and landownership, just like the Buddhism conflicted with the "non-urban world controlled by Brahman laymen."[8][b]

Mani, an Arsacid Persian by birth,[10][11][12] was born 216 AD in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), then within the Persian Sassanid Empire.[13] According to the Cologne Mani-Codex, Mani's parents were members of the Jewish Christian Gnostic sect known as the Elcesaites.[14]

Mani believed that the teachings of Buddha, Zoroaster, and Jesus were incomplete, and that his revelations were for the entire world, calling his teachings the "Religion of Light."[15] Following Mani's travels to the Kushan Empire[e] at the beginning of his proselytizing career, various Buddhist influences seem to have permeated Manichaeism:

Buddhist influences were significant in the formation of Mani's religious thought. The transmigration of souls became a Manichaean belief, and the quadripartite structure of the Manichaean community, divided between male and female monks (the "elect") and lay followers (the "hearers") who supported them, appears to be based on that of the Buddhist sangha.[16]

According to Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, evidence of the influence of Buddhist thought on the teachings of Mani can be found throughout texts related to Mani.[17] In the story of the Death of Mani, the Buddhist term Nirvana is being used:

It was a day of pain
and a time of sorrow
when the messenger of light
entered death
when he entered complete Nirvana

Influences on Buddhism

Following the introduction of Manichaeism to China, Manichaeans in China adopted a syncretic, sinified vocabulary borrowed primarily from Chinese Buddhism. Between 9th and 14th-centuries, following centuries of pressure to assimilate and persecution by successive Chinese dynasties, Chinese Manichaeans increasing involved themselves with the Pure Land school of Mahayana Buddhism in southern China, practicing together so closely alongside the Mahayana Buddhists that over the years Manichaeism came to be absorbed into the Pure Land school making the two traditions indistinguishable.[18] Through this close interaction, Manichaeism had profound influence on Chinese Maitreyan Buddhist sects such as the White Lotus Sect.[19]


  1. ^ The paper was presented at the conference Origins of gnosticism: colloquium of Messina, held 13–18 April 1966. Conze: "The topic of my paper has a fairly long ancestry. Already in 1828 Isaac Jacob Schmidt, a German living in Russia, published a pamphlet entitled Über die Verwandtschaft der gnostisch-theosophischen Lehren mit den Religionssystemen des Orients, vorzüglich dem Buddhaismus."[3] ("About the relationship of Gnostic theosophical teachings with religious systems of the East, especially Buddhism").
  2. ^ Note that Buddhism declined in India after the end of the Gupta empire (c. 320–650 CE), which was related to the decline of the Roman Empire and the decline of sea trade. Power was decentralised in India, and Buddhism lost its support from royal courts, being replaced by Brahmanical Hinduism.[9]
  3. ^ "He was Iranian, of noble Parthian blood..."
  4. ^ "Manichaeism was a syncretic religion, proclaimed by the Iranian Prophet Mani."
  5. ^ Several religious paintings in Bamiyan are attributed to him.[citation needed]



  • Ball, Warwick (2001). Rome in the East: the transformation of an empire. Routledge. p. 437.
  • Barnstone, Willis; Meyer, Marvin W. (2005). The Gnostic Bible.
  • Bennett, Clinton (2001). In search of Jesus: insider and outsider images.
  • Boyce, Mary (2001). Zoroastrians: their religious beliefs and practices. Routledge. p. 111.
  • Conze, Edward (1967). "Buddhism and Gnosis". In Bianchi, U. (ed.). Origins of Gnosticism: Colloquium of Messina, 13–18 April 1966.
  • Coyle, John Kevin (2009). Manichaeism and Its Legacy. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-17574-7.
  • Foltz, Richard (2010). Religions of the Silk Road (2 ed.). Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-62125-1.
  • Hoeller, Stephan A. (2012). Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. Quest Books.
  • Koenen, L.; Römer, C., eds. (1988). "Der Kölner Mani-Kodex. Über das Werden seines Leibes". Papyrologica Coloniensia (in German) (Critical ed.). Abhandlung der Reinisch-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. 14.
  • Ma, Xisha; Meng, Huiying (2011). Popular Religion and Shamanism. Brill. ISBN 978-9004174559.
  • Michaels, Axel (2004), Hinduism. Past and present, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press
  • Verardi, Giovanni (1997), "The Buddhists, the Gnostics and the Antinomistic Society, or the Arabian Sea in the First Century AD" (PDF), AION, 57 (3/4): 324–346
  • Werner, Sundermann (20 July 2009). "Mani". Encyclopaeia Iranica.
  • Yar, Char (2012). Monijiao (Manichaeism) in China (Speech). Lecture presented at the Worldwide Conference for Historical Research. Beijing.
This page was last edited on 1 January 2022, at 07:59
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