It is not uncommon for a nomadic community of people to incorporate into its own traditions the various cultural aspects of the nations that it comes into contact with. With Manichaeans having a large presence in China in early times, it should not be surprising that the Manichaean communities there adopted some of the traditions of the ancient Chinese people that were not seen as being in opposition to the Religion of Light revealed to the Holy Prophet Mar Mani.
When Manichaean missionaries began adapting Mar Mani’s writings in a context that would be more palatable to the local people, later Manichaeans were able to use the same materials written or provided by their predecessors for their own use. This was not a new idea, for the Manichaeans had already been adopting ancient Chinese sutras (sacred books) for use among new converts. These groups of believers already knew the basics of the Faith. Later missionaries and scribes continued to adapt sacred writings and distributing them to the people for their edification.
As a result the scribes produced countless books and writings adapted from various sacred books of the different communities in which they met in their missionary work throughout China, Tibet, Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere.
Some, especially in the West, might claim that this is a form of syncretism – or mixing of one religion with another such as Manichaeism with Buddhism. However, although certain aspect of our faith in China might have similarities in words and phrases, as well as customs, the Religion of Light does not contain the doctrinal understanding of other religions within it.
Borrowing terms or phrases from one spiritual community or another is not syncretism. As Prof. J. Foster of the University of Glasgow says, “Rather it is a borrowing of terminology, and a relation of doctrine to a familiar background of thought, as the only way of expressing [the faith’s] truth in its Far-eastern environment.” In other words, in order for the Chinese to be able to fully appreciate the Religion of Light and what it stands for, the ancient Manichaean missionaries adapted stories from the sacred texts into the language of the people along with certain ideas and concepts that do not run foreign to the Three Pillars of the Manichaean Faith.
While there are many unique and expressive forms of our faith – there is still only one Religion of Light. The ideals expressed through the Manichaean Faith are firmly grounded in the Three Pillars of the Holy, Ancient and Apostolic Church and its doctrines (Scripture, Tradition, Revelation), so no matter who sees it from whatever culture or expression, that they are saying the exact same thing, just in different ways.
Over the centuries Manichaeans have been severely persecuted by peoples of various religions. Facing such opposition often caused entire communities of Manichaeans to be destroyed, families separated, murdered or displaced. The Manichaean Church not only lost precious lives of innocent people, but much of her Sacred Writings. Unfortunately, many of these manuscripts, wood carvings and other relics are extremely damaged. However, not all is lost. Many of the Sacred Books have been rediscovered and revealed once again.
In modern times, by the grace of God, Manichaeans will soon receive the Holy Book of Light in a single volume.
May God bless you with true vision for unity and the betterment of all peoples. May He open the eyes of all seekers of Truth, as He has my own.
By Jon Ming
Elder and historian for the Religion of Light