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Buddhism and Europe

Interactions between Buddhism & Ancient European culture

Pre-Christian Europe had more contact with Buddhism than what is generally presumed. The precursor for these contacts was the creation of the ancient Persian Empire (ca 500 BCE), which resulted in economic, diplomatic and philosophical connections between central Asia, Persia, and the Mediterranean.
Till the year 393 AD (the year when Emperor Theodosius prohibited any non-Christian religious customs in the Roman Empire) religious interactions between these regions were also manifold. It is for example documented that Buddhist monks were present in Alexandria.
After the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the 4th century and the Islamic conquests of Persia & India in the 7th century, the connections that existed in the ancient world were largely lost and Buddhism and Europe became cut off from each other. It would take until the 13nd century before contacts were made again.

The Persian Empire and the Buddha

The Achaemenid Empire (or Ancient Persian Empire / 550-330 BCE) was the largest empire of ancient history, stretching from Thrace & Macedon in the Balkan till Bactria and Gandhara near the Indus. At it’s peak it ruled over 40 to 45% percent of the world’s population, the highest percentage under one nation in history.
Under the Pax Persica, there was freedom of movement and religion, which made trade and exchange of ideas possible from Europe to the Indus. The Persian Royal Highway went from Lydia all the way to Susa (see map), connecting the Aegean Sea with the Gulf of Persia. 

“The Persian Empire was also the world’s first multinational empire. For unlike the few comparable empires before it – such as the Assyrians – the subject people were allowed a large degree of autonomy, often under their own governors and kings. Local institutions and religions were respected, even encouraged: the gods of Babylon were restored and protected, the exiled Jews were allowed to return and the Temple of Jerusalem rebuilt with the aid of imperial funds. A massive new system of organisation and administration was instigated: provincial governments, roads, taxation, banking – all solid new institutions that survived the eclipse of this empire.” (Warwick Ball, Towards One World, Ancient Persia and the West, East & West Publishing Ltd, London, 2010, p 22-23)

Persian Empire lib.utexa.edu historical maps

The First Persian Empire
(map: University of Texas Libraries / click on map to enlarge)

Every year, representatives from all peoples of the empire would meet at the Royal Seat of Persepolis: “Many empires were content to receive their taxes and allegiance simply by remissions or through their agents sent out from the centre to the peripheries to either receive or seize them. But Persia imposed obligatory annual travel from all corners upon its peoples (or at least their representatives): for the first time in history a Nubian would rub shoulders with an Indian and a Scythian (and a whole lot of others) – and not at a once in a lifetime chance meeting, but on a regular basis.
This was true internationalism. Even under the Roman Empire, such internationalism did not exist: a subject king, such as Herod, might only visit Rome once in a lifetime, and the governors were always sent
from Rome.” (Ball, op. cit., p25)

Most Greek city states were spread around the Aegean sea. The Persians called the Balkan Greeks (Athens & Sparta for example) ‘Ionians beyond the sea’ and Greeks living in Asia Minor (Miletus & Ephesus for example) ‘Ionians by the sea’. The time of the Persian Empire was the Golden Age for the Greeks in Asia Minor: “It is not often appreciated, for example, that such great figurers of Greek culture as Anaximander, Hecataeus, Hippodamus, Pythagoras, Mausolus, Ctesias, Anaxagoras, Hippocrates, Herodotus and Heraclitus, were either born under Persian rule in Asia Minor or spent much of their lives as its citizens… of the twelve Greek historians writing before the Peloponnesian War, all but one were from east of the Aegean – usually writing under the Persian Empire.” (Ball, op. cit., p39)

Due to the Persian Empire, Northern India was familiar with the Ionian/Greek culture in the time of the Buddha:

“In the year of the Buddha’s birth, 480 BCE, there were Indian soldiers from Gandhara fighting at the Battle of Thermopylae, which took place 150 miles north-west of Athens. The expansionist Persian empire thus brought Indian and European peoples into contact at the time of the Buddha. There is a passage in the Pāli canon where the Buddha explicitly mentions Greek communities and their form of social organization, which he compares to that of the caste-system in India.” 
(Stephen Batchelor, A Buddhist Voice for Europe, EBU AGM, 2010)

Alexander the Great & Pyrrho of Elis

After the Macedonian conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), new Greek cities like Alexandria in the Caucasus and Alexandria on the Indus were founded in the eastern part of the previous Persian Empire, creating a large area of Hellenistic culture in present day Afghanistan/Pakistan/North-West India (Punjab). This eventually resulted in the Indo-Greek kingdom in the Hindu Kush (Caucasus Indicus) and North-West India, and was the start of a more intense and abiding interaction between Buddhism and Hellenism.


Greek cities founded by Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) near the Indus and the Hindu Kush (Caucasus Indicus).
(map: Wikimedia – click on map to enlarge)

Philosophers, such as Pyrrho of Elis (ca 360 – ca 270 BCE) and Anaxarchus, travelled with Alexander all the way from Greece to India. In 327 BCE Alexander reached eastern Gandhara, the south-easternmost corner of Central Asia and the north-westernmost corner of India. Pyrrho stayed there for two years and then travelled back to Greece, where he spent a great part of his life in solitude. He taught a practical philosophy of life, which ultimately leads to undisturbedness/tranquility (ataraxia, ἀταραξία), for which he was admired by his contemporaries. Epicurus had different philosophical views but also recommended and practiced ataraxia.

Pyrrhonism (or Pyrrhonian skepticism – a branch of classic skepticism, similar but not identical to the better known Academic skepticism) was a philosophical tradition based on Pyrrho’s teachings to which Sextus Empiricus (160-210 AD / late Pyrrhonism), and David Hume (1711-1776 AD / neo-Pyrrhonism) belonged, and was directly influenced by Early Buddhism. There is no consensus to what degree Pyrrho was influenced by his Greek teachers or by Buddhism. Christopher Beckwith thinks there is a clear parallel between Pyrrho’s teachings and the Trilaksana: 

The most important part of Pyrrho’s basic teachings reported by Aristocles, his strikingly unusual declaration about the three characteristics of all things, is clearly his interpretation of the Buddha’s statement of the Trilaksana  ‘three characteristics’ of all dharmas.”
Christopher I. Beckwith, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central AsiaPrinceton University Press, 2015, p. 220)

“Pyrrho’s version of the Trilaksana is so close to the Indian Buddhist one that it is virtually a translation of it: both the Buddha and Pyrrho make a declaration in which they list three logical characteristics of all discrete “(ethical) things, affairs, questions”, but they give them exclusively negatively, that is, “All matters are non-x, non-y, and non-z.” …

This passage about the three characteristics is thus the absolutely earliest bit of Buddhist doctrinal text. It is firmly dated three centuries earlier than the Gandhari texts. 

Now, the Trilaksana is not just any piece of Buddhist teaching. It is at the center of Buddhist practice, which is agreed to be the heart and soul of living Buddhism of any kind.” (Beckwitch, op. cit, p. 31)

(You can download the first chapter of ‘Greek Buddha’ for free here.)


The first known European to be ordained as a Buddhist monk lived in the 3rd century BCE, and was a Greek called Dharmarakshita. He is recorded as having been an envoy of the Indian Emperor Ashoka (304-232 BCE). The interaction of European and Buddhist culture flourished especially in the Graeco-Indian Kingdoms in today’s Afghanistan / Northern Pakistan / North-West India.


Picture: The Buddha, with features of Apollo, flanked by Heracles (Latin: Hercules) in the role of Vajrapani, protector of the Buddha. 
(picture: British Museum, London
Graeco-Buddhism was a syncretism between Mediterranean Hellenistic culture and Indian Buddhist culture, and flourished for several centuries.

The Greek king Menander 1 Soter of the Indo-Greek kingdom Bactria/Gandhara (reigned from ca 165 BCE, and +130 BCE) became a famous patron of Buddhism.

King Menander is known in the Pali language as king Milinda. The book ‘Questions of Menander’ (in Pali: ‘Milinda Panha‘) is a part of some Theravada Pali canons, and reports the dialogues between king Menander and the Buddhist sage Nagasena, that ultimately resulted in Menander’s conversion. The Milinda Panha mentions that Nagasena’s teacher was the Greek Buddhist monk Dharmarakshita (Pali: Dhammarakkhita). 

The Roman Empire.

Sarmanaioi: Buddhist monks in the Mediterranean

The Romans had good economic and diplomatic contacts with India. It is also documented that Buddhist monks were present in Alexandria, and Buddhist gravestones from this period have been found in Alexandria with depictions of the dharma wheel.

The 2nd century church father Clement of Alexandria wrote the oldest known referral in the West to the Buddha: “Among the Indians, there are those philosophers who follow the precepts of Boutta (Βούττα)” (Stromata, book 1, chapter 15). He also mentions Buddhist monks from the Graeco-Indian kingdom of Bactria when he makes a list of those ancient philosophies that influenced Greek philosophy. He refers to them as Bactrian Sarmanas (Σαρμαναίοι Βάκτρων). (Note that “all of the dated and datable accounts of Indian religious-philosophical beliefs (most of which are in foreign sources), from Antiquity well into the Middle Ages, use the word sramana (also spelled sarmana, samana, saman, etc.) to refer specifically and exclusively to Buddhist practitioners.” (Christopher Beckwith, Greek Buddha, p. 94))

Manichaeism: introduction of the Buddha to a large number of Europeans

In the fourth century AD, the main rival of Christianity in the Roman Empire was the very popular Manichaeism, once one of the most widespread religions in the world. This syncretistic, missionary religion was founded by the Persian prophet Mani (216-274 AD). Via Manichaeism, Europeans were familiar with the existence of the Buddha, as Mani considered his revelations to be a combination and fulfilment of the teachings of Zoroaster, Buddha and Jezus.  Manichaeans identified Mani with the Buddha of Light.

There were flourishing Manichaean communities in Rome and Carthago. The Roman general Sebastianus was a Manichaean who nearly became the Roman Emperor.
Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo (present day Algeria) and one of the most influential church fathers in Western Christianity, converted to Christianity from Manichaeism in the year 387 AD (shortly after Emperor Theodosius issued a decree of death for Manichaeans in the Roman Empire). Manichaeism became the state religion of the Turkish Uyghur Khaganate in Central Asia in the 8th century, and survived in China till the early 20th century.

Statue of Mani from Wang Lianmao Return to the City of Light Fuzhou 2000 p130

Statue of the prophet Mani as the Buddha of Light (shrine on Huabiao Hill near Quanzhou, Fujian, South China). This temple is the only Manichaean monument on the UNESCO World Heritage list (1991), and was the last active Manichean temple (probably in use till the early 20th century). The temple is still in use as a place of Buddhist worship and is staffed by some Buddhist nuns. It has therefore also been described as “a Manichaean temple in Buddhist disguise”.

(picture: Wang Lianmao, Return to the City of Light (Fuzhou, 2000) p. 130) 

Due to the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the 4th century and the Islamic conquests of Persia & India in the 7th century, the connections that existed in the ancient world were largely lost and Buddhism and Europe became cut off from each other for many centuries. With Muslim invasions, both Graeco-Buddhism and Indo-Buddhism got largely destroyed.

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