Buddhists and Druids in pre-Christian Britain and Ireland

The Druids got a bad press in the later middle ages. The Catholic Church invented many tales of evil Druids being overcome by miraculous actions of Christian saints. The Druids were portrayed as performing human sacrifices and being sunk in heathen barbarism, superstition and ignorance.

But is this really a true picture? Modern evidence suggests that Druidism was one of the foundations of the Celtic Church which flourished in Western Britain and Ireland during the first few centuries after Christ. It could well be that the Roman anti-Druid propaganda was part of the Roman establishment's attempt to discredit Celtic Christianity and its liberal thinkers such as Pelagius and John Scotus Eruigena.

Consider the following:

-    Saint Columba is reported to have referred to Christ as his Druid [1] , which would have been sacrilege if the Druids really were a bunch of murderous baby-blood-drinking demon-worshippers. Nearer to our own day, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, sees no conflict with being both a Christian and a Druid. (Despite some mutterings from evangelicals who don't seem to understand the primarily cultural and philosophical functions of Druidry)

-    Julius Caesar [2] states 'As a class the Druids take no active part in war … In their schools they are said to learn by heart an extraordinary number of lines, and in consequence sometimes to remain under instruction for as many as twenty years. Although for most other purposes, in both their public and private accounts, they have adopted the Greek alphabet, yet they still retain a superstitious objection to committing the secrets of their doctrine to writing…. With regard to their actual course of studies, the main object of all education is, in their opinion, to imbue their scholars with a firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul, which according to their belief, merely passes at death from one tenement to another; for by such a doctrine alone, they say, which robs death of all its terrors, can the highest form of human courage be developed. Subsidiary to the teaching of this main principle, they hold various lectures and discussions on astronomy, on the extent and geographical distribution of the globe, on the different branches of natural philosophy, and on many problems connected with religion'

-    'Druidism is not a sect or a single religion but a philosophy arising at a relatively late period, and suppressed in its prime by Roman imperialism, out of the diverse Celtic and pre-Celtic religions. This philosophy, which embraced all aspects of universal awareness, physical and metaphysical, was developed and presented by specifically trained orders, within a caste of what we might today call priests and priestesses. Such definitions are used with caution and reserve, as Druids merged several functions that are nowadays quite separate' [3].

-'The currently unimaginable completeness to which all things are ultimately destined is called Gwynwyd.
There is no anger which will not at last be pacified
There is nothing beloved lost which will not at last be returned
There is no soul born which will not at last attain the perfection of Gwynwyd [4]

- 'The ancient Britons, whose high code of chivalry, as revealed in the Celtic manuscript tales, was as foreign to both the Romans and the Greeks as were their lofty religious ideas regarding the destiny of the human soul' [5]

- ' On many occasions the Druids made peace between armies - apparently Celtic tribal armies - drawn up for battle. Diodorus Siculus states in this connexion that often when two armies met, and swords were drawn and lances levelled to attack, representatives of the Druidical class - he mentions particularly the bards in this connexion - would throw themselves between the opponents and pacify them.' [6]


The Truth about the 'Evil Druids'
So the evidence from modern sources suggests that the Druids taught a code of ethics which was compatible with early Christianity, they believed in reincarnation or rebirth, they were pacifists and peacemakers, and were philosophers who preferred debate to dogma. They also believed all sentient beings would eventually be brought to salvation, and all anger pacified.

It's obvious why the Romans vilified them so much - the Druids did not believe in eternal damnation and the Angry Samsaric God who rejoiced in torturing the sinful/ unbaptised/ heretics /infidels. The thought-control apparatus of the Roman Empire and Roman Catholic church could not operate in the Celtic lands of Western Britain and Ireland as long as Druidical vestiges such as Pelagianism remained.

It's also apparent from the preceding analyses that the only religion existing to the present day which resembles Druidism is Buddhism.

So were the Druids actually Buddhists?

Probably not in any orthodox sense. Ashoka's missions never converted ancient Britain and Ireland in the way that they did with Sri Lanka, Burma etc [7]

What may have happened is that the Buddhists influenced the Druids, who were philosophers rather than rigid dogmatists, and the Buddhist teachings gradually became prevalent in the Celtic lands by integrating with Celtic Culture [8]

Alternatively, the Druids may have had a pre-existing mystical Celtic philosophy which acknowledged the intertwined nature of all phenomena. Such a process philosophy would have been non-essentialist and consequently compatible with Buddhism, which would explain Saint Origen's statement that Buddhists and Druids co-existed in pre-Christian Britain [9]

The metaphysical bases of Buddhism and Druidism are very similar. Buddhist teachings on Dependent Relationship state 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).

The Druids' main teaching centre was on the island of Anglesey off the coast of Wales, and it is likely that this served as an academy for the exchange of philosophical and theological ideas. The Anglesey college attracted teachers and students of Druidry from Britain, Ireland and the Continent of Europe.

Buddhism is a broad church and tolerant of other belief systems. Christianity was brought to Celtic Britain and Ireland very early in a pure and authentic form close to its Buddhist roots, and uncontaminated by Roman power politics. As Saint Origen [9] states, Christianity was helped in its spread by the teachings of the Druids and Buddhists already present in Britain.

Related links

Symbolism, Visualization and Ritual in Buddhism, Paganism and Christianity

Ashoka's missions to the West | Buddhist philosophy |

Buddhist Druid interactions in Ancient Ireland

Do not go for refuge to Samsaric Gods

Buddhism returns to Ireland | Celtic Buddhism

Notes and References

[1] Toulson, Shirley (1992) The Celtic Alternative - A Reminder of the Christianity We Lost, publ Rider, London ISBN 0-7126-1478-8 p.26

[2] Caesar, Julius (1911) De Bello Gallico tr. Long, F.P., publ Oxford pp 175-176

[3] Stewart, R. J. and Williamson, R. (1996) Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids , ISBN 0-7137-2563-X, publ . Blandford, London, pp. 19 - 20.

[4] ibid. p 32

[5] Mackenzie, Donald A. (1928), Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain, pub Blackie and Son Ltd, Glasgow, Preface p. xx

[6] ibid p. 22

[7] 'The evidence of Buddhist activities in Western Europe here provided must make certain Buddhist scholars revise their views regarding the pillar and rock inscription of the famous Asoka (sic = Ashoka), the Emperor-monk of India who flourished in the third century BC. Asoka sent out Buddhist missionaries to distant lands east and west. They not only preached the Buddhist faith, but established hospices for travellers, cultivated medicinal herbs and dug wells. No one doubts the accuracy of Asoka's claim with regard to the activities and influence of his missionaries to Ceylon and eastward across the ocean to the Malay Peninsula, Burmah (sic), and Java. It is otherwise, however, with his claim that he achieved conquest " not by the sword but by religion" in the West'
- ibid p. xv

[8] 'The loose confederacy of Celtic states and states tributary to the Celts, extending from Asia Minor to Ireland, may not have constituted an empire in the Roman sense of the term, but they appear to have constituted an avenue along which for centuries 'flowed' or 'drifted' those alien cultural influences which can be traced in Celtic religious complexes and Celtic sociology'
- ibid p vii.

[9] ibid p. 42

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