Whats the earliest recorded instance of Buddhist thought in a European context - say a translation. I know that Schopenhauer (1788-1860) read the Bhagavad Gita - but this is a Hindu text and not a Buddhist one.

However we also have,

In Understanding Buddhism, by Jacobson:

A more ambiguous example is found in the remark of the sinologue, Joseph Needham, that in Liebniz's monadology we have "the first appearance of organisms upon the stage of occidental theorizing. That things should not react upon one another but all work together by a harmony of wills was no new idea for the Chinese; it was the foundation of their correlative thinking."


A discourse of over 14,000 words on the "natural theology of the Chinese" by Leibniz [1646-1716] was translated from the original French [...] in 1966, [...]

which possibly explains this claim:

First, in recent years, Japanese Buddhist scholars have repeatedly called our attention to the similarity between the teachings of Fa-tsang and Leibniz.

and which is affirmed in Jacobson, who writes:

The metaphor of mirroring the universe [in the Monadology] reproduces Fa-tsang's interpretation of Buddhism to the Empress Wu.

  • 2
    It would appear that Schopenhauer did in fact study Buddhist thought as well.
    – commando
    Apr 30, 2014 at 2:15
  • You made a relatively large number of mistakes/typos in copying the Jacobson quotes.
    – user3164
    Apr 30, 2014 at 8:26
  • Perhaps this counts: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashoka#Global_spread_of_Buddhism
    – user3164
    Apr 30, 2014 at 9:37
  • @Glen the Udderboat: To say 'who remarked of Liebniz Monadology' rather than 'that in Liebniz Monadology', and 'upon another' rather than 'upon one another' are hardly large mistakes, and nor had they changed the sense of the quote - I've fixed them. Apr 30, 2014 at 22:04
  • The Buddhist influence makes The Monadology more comprehensible - it looks like an attempt of synthesis between two world-views but in language of the Western philosophical tradition. Apr 30, 2014 at 22:11

3 Answers 3


The earliest example that I have heard being advanced is that of Pyrrho the ancient Greek skeptic. He travelled with Alexander the Great and would have had access to Eastern Philosophy though I don't know of any specific evidence linking him with Buddhist though.

However his form of noncognitivism skeptism does seem to relate to Buddhist thought on this matter. The Buddha refused to engage with questions such as the eternity of the universe which seems to me to be a similar attitude. The book The Shape of Ancient Thought gives a fuller discussion of this area. I've heard good things about it but I haven't (yet??) read it myself

Not strictly related but there is firm evidence of Buddhism in contact with the Greek world in the canonical Buddhist text The Questions of King Milinda - a debate between a Buddhist monk and an Eastern Greek king. To be fair it would be surprising if they didn't come into contact as the Greek empire next door to the India.

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    I haven't read the shape of ancient thought yet either - and it seems that 'Milinda has been identified with considerable confidence by scholars as the Greek king Menander of Bactria' Apr 30, 2014 at 12:17

There is an argument that David Hume studied Buddhist thought. He certainly was in a French provincial city which had a library with translations of some Buddhist texts into Latin.

  • 1
    There is an excellent (and short) podcast on Humes relation (if any) to Buddhist thought - philosophybites.com/hume. If anyone is interested Apr 30, 2014 at 13:01
  • Jacobson mentions a possible line of influence of Chinese thought through Quesney, a close friend of Humes; and 'its difficult to avoid the conclusion that Hume had been reading Mencius, possibly through his Jesuit friends as La Fleche'. Apr 30, 2014 at 22:18

I have seen comments in different readings over the years that said early Buddhist monks reached as far as Alexandria and the Greek world. There are many references. Read the heading History of Buddhism in Wikipedia. From the Wikipedia article -

"Furthermore, according to Pāli sources, some of Aśoka's emissaries were Greek Buddhist monks, indicating close religious exchanges between the two cultures:

"When the thera (elder) Moggaliputta, the illuminator of the religion of the Conqueror (Aśoka), had brought the (third) council to an end (...) he sent forth theras, one here and one there: (...) and to Aparantaka (the "Western countries" corresponding to Gujarat and Sindh) he sent the Greek (Yona) named Dhammarakkhita". (Mahavamsa XII).

Aśoka also issued edicts in the Greek language as well as in Aramaic. One of them, found in Kandahar, advocates the adoption of "piety" (using the Greek term eusebeia for Dharma) to the Greek community:

"Ten years (of reign) having been completed, King Piodasses (Aśoka) made known (the doctrine of) piety (Greek:εὐσέβεια, eusebeia) to men; and from this moment he has made men more pious, and everything thrives throughout the whole world." (Trans. from the Greek original by G.P. Carratelli)

It is not clear how much these interactions may have been influential, but some authors[citation needed] have commented that some level of syncretism between Hellenist thought and Buddhism may have started in Hellenic lands at that time. They have pointed to the presence of Buddhist communities in the Hellenistic world around that period, in particular in Alexandria (mentioned by Clement of Alexandria), and to the pre-Christian monastic order of the Therapeutae (possibly a deformation of the Pāli word "Theravāda"), who may have "almost entirely drawn (its) inspiration from the teaching and practices of Buddhist asceticism" and may even have been descendants of Aśoka's emissaries to the West. The philosopher Hegesias of Cyrene, from the city of Cyrene where Magas of Cyrene ruled, is sometimes thought to have been influenced by the teachings of Aśoka's Buddhist missionaries."

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