Buddhologist Edward Conze (1966) has proposed that similarities existed between Buddhism and Gnosticism, a term deriving from the name Gnostics, which was given to a number of Christian sects. To the extent that 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

Main article: Buddhism and Christianity

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, Stephan A. Hoeller gives the following list of similarities:[4]

According to Conze, these commonalities were not by chance, but inherent to the essence of both religions.[1] How these similarities came into existence was unclear for Conze,[1] but according to Verardi they may be related to the sea trade between the Roman Empire and India, which was intense at the time.[5] Verardi further notes the similarities between the social-economic base of both Gnosticism and Buddhism, namely merchants, which both had to compete with the "great organised powers," of Rome and the Christian Church, and of the Brahmans.[6] Both communities represented "an open economy and society lacking the defenses (and the vexations) of nomos," the law and institutions of the establishment.[7]

Conze's suggestions were noted by Elaine Pagels as a "possibility," in the introduction to The Gnostic Gospels,[8][9][b] but Pagels' and Conze's suggestion has not gained academic acceptance or generated significant further study.


Influences from Buddhism

Main article: Manichaeism § Influences

Manichaeism was directly influenced by Buddhism. Like Buddha, Mani aimed for nirvana and used this word, showing the significance of Buddhist influences. He further believed in the 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 Manichaeism, 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.[10] Giovanni Verardi notes that Manichaeism is the prime source for comparisons between Buddhism and Gnosticism, Manichaeism representing "the same urban and mercantile ambience of which Buddhism was an expression in India."[11] When the mercantile economy declined due to the decline of the Roman Empire, Manichaeism lost its support.[12] The Manichaeans were hostile to the closed society of farming and landownership, just like the Buddhism conflicted with the "non-urban world controlled by Brahman laymen."[13][c]

Mani, an Arsacid Persian by birth,[15][16][17] was born 216 AD in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), then within the Persian Sassanid Empire.[18] According to the Cologne Mani-Codex, Mani's parents were members of the Jewish Christian Gnostic sect known as the Elcesaites.[19]

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."[20] Following Mani's travels to the Kushan Empire[f] 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.[21]

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.[22] In the story of the death of Mani, the Buddhist term nirvana is 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

Main article: Chinese Manichaeism

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.[23] Through this close interaction, Manichaeism had profound influence on Chinese Maitreyan Buddhist sects such as the White Lotus Sect.[24]


  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. ^ Bennett: "Pagels does not rule out Buddhist and Hindu influence on the Gnostic corpus. She cites the eminent Buddhologist Edward Conze (1904-79): 'Buddhists were in contact with Thomas Christians (that is, Christians who knew and used such.'"[9]
  3. ^ 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 with the Romans. Power was decentralised in India, and Buddhism lost its support from royal courts, being replaced by Brahmanical Hinduism.[14]
  4. ^ "He was Iranian, of noble Parthian blood..."
  5. ^ "Manichaeism was a syncretic religion, proclaimed by the Iranian Prophet Mani."
  6. ^ Several religious paintings in Bamiyan are attributed to him.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c d Verardi 1997, p. 323.
  2. ^ a b Conze 1967.
  3. ^ Conze 1967, p. 651.
  4. ^ Hoeller 2012, p. 180.
  5. ^ Verardi 1997, p. 334-336.
  6. ^ Verardi 1997, p. 337-338.
  7. ^ Verardi 1997, p. 339-340.
  8. ^ Pagels 1979.
  9. ^ a b Bennett 2001, p. 68.
  10. ^ Verardi 1997, pp. 323–324.
  11. ^ Verardi 1997, p. 332.
  12. ^ Verardi 1997, pp. 332–333.
  13. ^ Verardi 1997, p. 333.
  14. ^ Michaels 2004, p. 42.
  15. ^ Boyce 2001, p. 111[d]
  16. ^ Ball 2001, p. 437[e]
  17. ^ Werner 2009.
  18. ^ Coyle 2009.
  19. ^ Koenen & Römer 1988.
  20. ^ Coyle 2009, p. 13.
  21. ^ Foltz 2010.
  22. ^ Barnstone & Meyer 2005.
  23. ^ Yar 2012.
  24. ^ Ma & Meng 2011.


  • 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.
  • Pagels, Elaine H. (1979). The Gnostic Gospels. Random House. ISBN 978-0-394-74043-0.
  • 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". Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  • Yar, Char (2012). Monijiao (Manichaeism) in China (Speech). Lecture presented at the Worldwide Conference for Historical Research. academia.edu. Beijing.