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Celtic Spirituality - Buddhists, Christians and Druids in ancient Britain and Ireland

In 'The Celtic Alternative, a Reminder of the Christianity We Lost' [1], Shirley Toulson argues that the religion that flourished in the islands of Britain during the Dark Ages had more in common with Buddhism than with the institutional Christianity of the West. This was the religion taught by the Celtic Church, which, over the early centuries of the Christian era, gradually moved into confrontation with Rome - a confrontation which officially ended with Rome's victory at the Council of Whitby in 664 AD, though some elements of Celtic Christianity persisted in remote areas long after this.

Shirley Toulson examines the history, teachings and customs of the Celtic church, linking them culturally and spiritually with the religion of the Druids which was predominant in Britain and Ireland during its early years.

However, the book does not satisfactorily explain the similarities between Buddhism and Celtic spirituality, beyond seemingly coincidental beliefs about the pre-existence of the soul prior to conception, as held by such early Christians as Origen Adamantius and Evagrius Ponticus - beliefs which happen to be in accordance with Buddhist teachings on rebirth [2].  

But examination of other sources suggests that there may be two fundamental historical reasons why Celtic Christianity was so similar to Buddhism. These are discussed below:

(i) Lost Years  - The original form of Christianity was heavily influenced by Buddhism. Jesus Himself may have journeyed to India. This is known as the 'Lost Years of Jesus' hypothesis' [3]. It was only when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the late Roman Empire that it gradually moved away from its Buddhist origins and became inflexible, intolerant and dogmatic.

(ii) Celtic Buddhism -   Buddhism was already established in pre-Christian Britain in the form of Druidism. According to this hypothesis the later Druids had been influenced by teachings of the Buddhist missionaries sent westwards by the Indian emperor Ashoka.

The two hypotheses - 'Lost Years' and 'Celtic Buddhism' - are not mutually exclusive, and in fact could be synergistic. Certainly the Celtic Church represented a very pure and authentic version of Christ's teachings, as it had been established at Glastonbury by St Joseph of Arimathea, probably before 50 AD.

As the 'Lost Years Hypothesis' is well represented on the net I will not discuss it beyond providing links [3].  However the 'Celtic Buddhism' approach seems to have been largely forgotten since the publication of Buddhism in Pre-Christian Britain [4] in 1928.

Celtic Buddhism
For the moment, I will briefly summarise the evidence that Buddhist teachings in some form or other were present in pre-Christian Celtic Britain. I hope to revise this page in the near future to review the evidence in greater detail. The main points are:

  • The Indian emperor Ashoka sent out Buddhist missionaries to the West as far as Macedonia.  This would have taken them well within the Celtic cultural area (the Celts at that period extended eastward to Galatia in what is now Turkey)
  • The Druids were influenced by or adopted the Buddhist teachings they encountered.

  • The Druids were pan-Celtic and travelled unhindered from one end of the Celtic world to the other, ie from Galatia in the east, westward through Balkans, Austria, Helvetia, Gaul, Galicia, Britain and Ireland.

  • The main Druidic college was in Britain on the Isle of Anglesey. It drew teachers and students from Ireland, Britain and Continental Europe.

  • Origen attributed the rapid and unobstructed growth of Christianity in Britain to the foundations laid by the teachings of the Druids and Buddhists [5].

  • The Gundestrup bowl, a beautiful piece of pre-Christian Celtic craftsmanship, clearly shows a meditating Buddha.

  • Celtic mystical art often displays elaborate knotwork designs, which symbolize the interconnectness of all phenomena. Similarly Buddhist philosophy is concerned primarily with interconnectness. In fact, it is the relationships, the interdependencies that are the reality, since objects or subjects are nothing but their connections to other objects and subjects.

  • The Celtic theologians Pelagius and Johannes Scotus Erigena demonstrate an understanding of human nature that has more in common with the Buddhist view of innate Buddha-mind clouded by animal delusions and misdirected will, than with the Christian doctrine of total corruption of the soul by Original Sin.
  • The Buddhist teaching on Dependent Relationship states that phenomena exist in three fundamental ways. Firstly, phenomena exist by dependence upon causes and conditions. Secondly, phenomena depend upon the relationship of the whole to its parts and attributes.  Thirdly, and most profoundly, phenomena depend upon mental imputation, attribution, or designation. According to John Michael Greer, Druid philosophy has a similar division into three 'elements' which are known in old Welsh as Gwyar (change, causality), Calas (structure) and Nwyfre (consciousness).



If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?


Christian versus Buddhist worldviews




Notes and References

[1] Toulson, Shirley (1992) The Celtic Alternative, a Reminder of the Christianity We Lost, publ Rider/Random House, London    ISBN 0-7126-1478-8

[2] It isn't just early Christians and Buddhists who believed in rebirth. For example Wordsworth was clearly of that opinion:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star
Has had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar.
                             - Ode, Intimations of Immortality (1807)

Belief in rebirth or reincarnation was not finally declared heretical until AD 553, see

Nevertheless, the issue remains controversial, with the Anglican priest Geddes MacGregor (among others) regarding reincarnation as still being compatible with Christian teachings:


[3] The 'Lost Years of Jesus' hypothesis is discussed on the following sites:

[4] Mackenzie, Donald A. (1928), Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain, publ. Blackie and Son Limited Glasgow

[5] ibid p 42