Mani, who came to be considered himself to be the seal of the prophets, named Buddha, Zarathustra, and Jesus as his forerunners. His knowledge of Buddhism has long been debated, but most scholars seem to agree that Christianity, Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism played more dominant parts in the early history of Manicheism than did Buddhism [There can be no doubt, however, that Mani had ample opportunity to become familiar with Buddhist doctrines. The Parthians had close geographical and cultural ties with the Kushans, among whom Buddhism was well established, and certain Manichean texts reflect the adoption of Indian vocabulary into eastern Parthia, indicating that Buddhism could have infiltrated into the eastern part of the Arsacid Empire (Sims-Williams, 1983, p. 132). Moreover, Mani’s own journey to India in 240-242 CE would have enhanced this opportunity (Sundermann, p. 11).

By far the most discussed Buddhist element in Manicheism is metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the soul. The concept is present in both Western and Eastern Manichean sources as well as in Arabic texts dealing with Mani and his followers. It is described as the souls appearing before the Judge of Truth. From this point there are three roads, one leading to Death, one to Life and one to Mixture. Death means eternal condemnation while Life is the final goal, salvation. Mixture means rebirth, i.e.. Another chance to liberation (Kephalaia, p. 83, 5-8; Šābuhragān, pp.504-509, 45-130; Ebn al-Nadim, ed. Flügel, pp. 335, 27-29. Cf. Olsson). Earlier scholars, such as de Beausobre and F. C. Baur concluded that the metempsychosis was borrowed from Buddhism, and later studies have in the main followed their line of thinking, but alternative explanations which derive the concept from Greek theology and the philosophy of the Orphisms in the teaching of Pythagoras and Plato have also been suggested ([please provide author’s name], p. 38).

The monastic life of the Manicheans also leads one’s thoughts to Buddhism. The division of the Manichean community into the Elect and Hearers resembles the division of the sańgha into the monks and laymen. Furthermore, the commandments of the Elect, among which abstinence from sexual activities, meat and wine is found, resembles the commandments for monks in Buddhism. The similarity has been denied by N. Sims-Williams (1985, p. 572 with n. 2), however, who points out that while Buddhism enjoins ten commandments for the monks, only five of which are usually obligatory for laymen, Manicheans laid down five commandments for the Elect and ten for the Hearers. A noteworthy difference between the two systems is that unlike Buddhist monks, the Manichean Elect did not go out alms seeking, and the Hearers brought them their meals.

The origins and function of the monasteries in the two systems are also controversial. Some (e.g. Asmussen, pp. 254, 260-61) maintain that the Manichean monasteries, in Central Asia often called mānistānān, were created in imitation of Buddhist monasteries. Others see them as Mani’s own establishment (for literature see Lieu; Utas, p. 655). Aspointed out by Bo Utas (pp. 663-64), it seems likely that the original meaning of mānistān was’dwelling place’ and that from the beginning they functioned as temporary lodgings for the believers of the faith. Moreover, the meaning of mānistān changed as time passed, and it may have acquired different connotations in different areas where Manicheism prevailed. (For a description of the only remaining Manichean monastery situated in South China, see Bryder).

The Manichean ‘confession of sins’, as described in the Turkish Xuāstvānīft, has long been considered to be borrowed from Buddhism, but recently an opposite direction has been urged (Klimkeit; Nattier).

When Mani claimed, as documented in some Central Asian texts, that he was Maitreya, the future Buddha to come, this cannot be explained as due to later Buddhist influence. Already in the texts concerning Mani’s travel to India, Mani is described as a Buddha (=Maitreya?). This may be interpreted as a Manichean missionary convention, but it may also be taken as a genuine Manichean idea, which could not easily be explained in a Western cultural environment and was therefore omitted.

A number of other elements, such as ‘the three worlds’ and ‘the three seals’, have also been claimed to be of Buddhist origin, but these and other presumed influences need further investigation. One hindrance to such studies is the fact that the Pre-Islamic Central Asia was a melting pot in which religious interactions afforded multiple reversible influences.


Jes P. Asmussen, Xuāstvānīft, Studies in Manichaeism, Copenhagen, 1965.

F.C. Baur, Das manichäische Religionssystem, nach den Quellen neu untersucht und entwikelt, Göttingen, 1831.

I. de Beausobre, Histoire critique de Manichée et du Manichéisme, 2 vols, Amsterdam, 1734-1739. A. Böhlig ed., Die Gnosis, III, Zürich, 1980.

P. Bryder, “...Where the faint traces of Manichaeism disappear,” AoF 15, 1988, pp. 201-8.

Kephalaia, Manichäische Handschriften der Staatlichen Mussen, Berlin, Bd. 1:1, ed. H.J. Polotsky and A. Böhlig, Stuttgart 1934-1940; Bd. 1:2, ed. A. Böhlig, Stuttgart, 1966.

H.-J. Klimkeit, “Manichäische und buddhistiche Beichtformeln aus Turfan. Beobachtungen zur Beziehing zwischen Gnosis und Mahāyāna,” Zeitschrift für Religions-und Geistesgeschichte, 29, 1977, pp. 193-228.

S. N. C. Lieu “Precept and Practice in Manichaean monasticism,” Journal of TheologicalStudies, N.S., 32, 1981, pp. 153-73.

J. Nattier, “Buddhist-Manichaean Encounters in Central Asia: A New Look at the Confession Fragments from Turfan,” Paper read at American Academy of Religion meeting, Anaheim Calif., 30 November 20 1989.

T. Olsson “The Manichaean Background of Eschatology in the Koran,” Manichaean studies, ed. P. Bryder, Lund, 1988, pp. 273-82.

Šābuhragān: D. N. MacKenzie, “Mani’s Šābuhragān,BSOAS, 42, 1979, pp. 500-534 and 43, 1980, pp. 288-310.

N. Sims-Williams, “ Indian Elements in Parthian and Sogdian,” Sprachen des Buddhismus in Zentralasien, Veröffentlichungen der Societas Uralo-Altaic, Bd. 16, Wiesbaden, 1983, pp. 132-41.

Idem, “The Manichaean Commandments: A Survey of the Sources,” Papers in honour of Professor Mary Boyce, II, Acta Iranica 25, Leiden, 1985, pp. 573-82.

February 17, 2005

(P. Bryder)

Originally Published: July 20, 2005

Last Updated: July 20, 2005

Cite this entry:

P. Bryder, "MANICHEISM iv. BUDDHIST ELEMENTS IN," Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2005, available at (accessed on 27 May 2015).