St. Augustine knew of the Buddha!

St. Augustine is a very influential figure in Western Christianity. Partly this is surely due to the fact that the Latin Church favored a doctor who was of their own cultural persuasion, schooled in their mores and folkways, as opposed to the ‘logic-choppers’ of the Greek world. In the intellectual Protestant tradition his influence on Martin Luther and John Calvin is well known.

But it was only recently that I realized St. Augustine may have been moderately familiar with the Dharmic tradition. If you recall, he was a Manichaean for some years in his youth. This religion of Persian provenance is relatively well known has having an expansive geographic reach. The last self-conscious Manichaeans probably lived in China in the years around 1500 AD. But in Late Antiquity Manichaeanism apparently had a presence in the Western Roman Empire.

In any case, though notionally a dualistic religion, Manichaeanism acknowledged a strong influence from the Dharmic tradition, in particular Buddhism. Buddha is explicitly mentioned in Manichaean , and noted as a one of the prophets. This is not surprising, as the religion emerged in a diverse and pluralistic Late Antique Persian Empire which ruled over many Buddhist and Hindu peoples on its northern and eastern fringes.

I am not claiming that Buddhism had any direct impact on St. Augustine. But simply putting this into the record to remind ourselves that the extent of what we know about the ancients is pretty limited.

8 thoughts on “St. Augustine knew of the Buddha!

  1. Good catch. I’ll have to pass that on to my medieval history prof who has translated many of St. Augustine’s works from the original Latin.

  2. I have always been struck by the parallels between Christianity and Buddhism, e.g. monasticism. Would that have been through Manichaeanism?

  3. i think it’s even earlier than that. remember buddhism was around at least several centuries before christ. but it might have been with various religious and mystery cults in late antiquity….

  4. If I may hazard an old Zen riddle as a joke, are the Saint and the Buddha the same? If you can get the inflection just right, which only happens when you really understand, the answer is mu.

  5. Can’t say much right now since I got to go to work, but what elements of the Dharmic traditions he’d have acquainted with would have been filtered through a Zoroastrian interpretation, and then a Neo-platonist and Gnostic one by the time it got to him, so I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t completely alien to any interpretation that exists today after that long doctrinal game of telephone.

    I don’t think that the Dharmic traditions of eremitism had much influence on the development of Christian ones, with some caveats regarding the Church of the East and the Syrian traditions, but I’m speaking from pretty distant memory right now. I’d have to hit a library to cite it, but it’s a pretty interesting confluence of certain previous trends, some local traditions, and a bunch of de novo stuff.

    Sorry if this doesn’t make much sense, really dashing it off, but the origin of Christian monasticism is fascinating stuff. Buddhist monasticism as well, but there’s a lot more informational gaps there.

  6. I do not think it is much of a subject whether Augustine was influenced by Buddhism. We have little evidence either way.

    What is more fascinating is what the late Thomas Mcevily brought to light. You have referenced his book numerous times but have never broached the main subject of that book.

    It seems very clear that the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophy has been influenced by Indian philosphy right at its very birth. The fountainhead of Greek philosophy and Western philosophy in general is very fundamentally and deeply influenced by Indian philosophy. That is a most fascinating subject. In front of that, whether Augustine knew of Buddha or not is really small change.

  7. It seems very clear that the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophy has been influenced by Indian philosphy right at its very birth.

    the emphasis on the book is a little later, though it seems likely to have been there earlier. also, at least by the persian period it was probably reciprocal.

    there are comments to common influences from mesopatamia on both greece and india which might induce parallelisms (though more in imagery than substance). this is the most novel aspect of the book (for me).

  8. Of course, we can’t have this discussion without at least mentioning SS Barlaam and Josaphat. The transmission of the story of their life is an excellent example of that “telephone game” you talked about; I believe in this case it was Buddhism -> Manichaeanism -> Islam -> Christianity.

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