EARLY HISTORY OF BUDDHISM

EARLY HISTORY OF BUDDHISM

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Kushan coin from 100 BC,
earliest surviving Buddha image
Buddhism like Christianity was embraced by many people early in its history because of its promises of salvation and an afterlife. In its early days Buddhism was often practiced in conjunction with Hinduism and local animist beliefs and people said prayers to Buddha and their gods, and this was not considered a contradiction. Another appeal of Buddhism is that like Christianity it was open to everyone: men and women, members of all castes, clans and families. Members of other religions and sects were welcomed.

Buddhism arrived in most places as a foreign religion. Rather than attempting to make inroads by condemning existing religions it took a more diplomatic approach and borrowed elements of the existing religions and was gradually absorbed. Tibetan Buddhism for example, incorporated elements of the local shamanistic bon religion. Ironically, Buddhism has all but died in its birthplace in India.

It is difficult to reconstruct exactly how Buddhism was created after Buddha's death, the same way it is difficult to say exactly how Christianity evolved after the death of Jesus. For centuries after his death, Buddha's disciples and followers orally passed down facts and legends about Buddha’s life, dialogues, sayings, deeds and teachings and these were in turn passed down from generation to generation.

Websites and Resources: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ;

Books: Buddhism by Christmas Humphrey (Pelican); Buddhism Explained by Phra Khantipalo; Buddhist Dictionary by Mahathera Nyanatiloka; Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Also recommended are books by the Dalai Lama, Robert Thurman, a respected Buddhist scholar and former Tibetan Buddhist monk; and Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam who has been involved with various anti-war activities. Film: Little Buddha

Websites and Resources on Buddhist Art: buddhism.org/board/main.cgi?board=BuddhistArt ; Buddhist Images buddhistimages.co.uk ; Religion Facts Images religionfacts.com/buddhism/gallery ; Buddhist Symbols viewonbuddhism.org/general_symbols_buddhism ; Buddhist Artwork buddhanet.net/budart/index ; Buddhism Images freewebs.com/buddhaimages ; Wikipedia article on Buddhist Art Wikipedia ; Buddha Images http://www.buddha-images.com/ ;Buddhist Art artlex.com/ArtLex/b/Buddhism ; Huntington Archives Buddhist Art kaladarshan.arts.ohio-state.edu ; Buddhist Art Resources academicinfo.net/buddhismart

Development of Buddhism after Buddha's Death

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Asoka rock edict
According to tradition, the first Buddhist texts were collected a few weeks after the Buddha’s death, when 500 arhants gathered at Rajagaha for what was effectively the First Council of the Buddhist faith. During the period that followed there a great deal of scholarly debate on philosophical and religious issues, many of which were not addressed or purposely avoided by the Buddha. This debate resulted in the schism of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.

About four centuries passed between the time of Buddha’s death and when his Sayings, Utterances and Discourses were written down. One of the main reasons for this is that there were no materials used for writing or even engraving in India until that time.

Buddha never claimed to be anything more than a human being who had found a path to truth and enlightenment. By the 1st century B.C. he had essentially been deified. Power struggles took place in Buddhism while The Buddha alive and after his death. His scheming cousin Devadetta tried to rest leadership from him. There were also many power struggles, divisions and rebellions among monks after his death.

Early Buddhists are thought to have practiced their faith by making visits to places the Buddha had been or see relics such as teeth or bones. Perhaps because he put so much emphasis on self-denial no images were made him for some time and when they were made they were not true likenesses.

In the early era of Buddhism there were three primary paths for the devotee. He or she could become 1) an arahat , a worthy person who has achieved the goal of a Buddhist life by gaining insight into the true nature of things: 2) a paccekabuddha , one who reaches enlightenment by living alone as an “isolated Buddha”; and 3) a fully awakened Buddha

Development of Buddhist Cannon

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5th century Lotus Sutra fragment
Buddha appears to have written little or nothing himself. The earliest Buddhist writing that we have today date back to a period 150 years after Buddha's death. Early Buddhist literature consisted mostly of records of sermons and conversations involving The Buddha that were recorded in Sanskrit or the ancient Pali language.

According to tradition, the first texts were collected between the Council of Rajaharha, which took place after Buddha’s cremation, and the first Buddhist schism in the 4th century B.C. These texts consist primarily of orthodox doctrines and discourses and rules recited by the highly respected monks Ananda and Upali. They became the Vinaya Piataka and the Sutra Pitaka .

Concerns about different interpretations of Buddha’s teachings emerged early. The main goal of the council at Rajagaha was to recite out loud the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) and the Vinaya (a code of conduct for monks) and come to some agreement on what were the true teachings and what should be preserved, studied and followed. Their guiding belief was that “Dharma is well taught by the Bhagavan (“the Blessed One”)” and that it is self-realized “immediately,” and is a “a come-and-see thing” and it leads “the doer of it to the complete destruction of anguish.”

The Vinaya-Pijtaka (the rules for monastic life) was developed at the First Council from a question and answer session between the Upali and the Elder Kassapa. The Sutra-Pijtaka (“Teaching Basket”) is a collection of teachings and sayings from Buddha, often called the sutras . It came about from the dialogue between young Anada an the Elder Kassapa about Dharma. A third basket, the Abhidhamma Pitaka (Metaphysical Basket) was also produced. It contains detailed descriptions of Buddhist doctrines and philosophy. Its origin is disputed. Together these made up the Tipitaki (Three Baskets of Wisdom), the foundation of Buddhism, and sometimes called the Pali Cannon because it was originally written in the ancient Pali language.

Development of Buddhist Schools

Without Buddha or an authoritative hierarchy around to settle disputes or divergences of a opinion different groups with different viewpoints were formed. Within two or three centuries after Buddha’s death 18 major schools or sects had appeared. Some of them became associated with specific monastic centers and places.

About a century after the First Council was held a Second Council was held at Vesali to deal with a rebellious minority that refused to accept the decisions of the orthodox majority. The rebels were know as the Mahasanghikas. They rejected certain positions in the Pali Canon and saw The Buddha as a kind of mysterious figure who only appeared in earth in a phantom-body. Their beliefs influenced the Trikaya (three bodies) doctrine of the Mahayana school. Periodically other Theravada Council have been held with the aim of “purifying” the record of what Buddha originally said. The sixth was held in Rangoon in 1956.

Emperor Asoka and Buddhism in India

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Asoka lions
Emperor Asoka (274-236 BC), the greatest ruler in Indian history, was the man who ensured Buddhism success as a world religion. After Asoka conquered the kingdom of Kalinga, in one of most important battles in the history of the world, he was so appalled by the number of people that were massacred (perhaps 100,000 or more) he converted himself and his kingdom to Buddhism and sent Buddhist missionaries to the four corners of Asia to spread the religion. The wheel Asoka used to symbolize his conversion to Buddhism is the same one pictured on India's flag today.

Ashoka and his descendants created the largest ever Indian empire’stretching from present-day Myanmar (Burma) to Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Ashoka is regarded as the first leader to conquer a large chunk of the world "in the name of religion and universal peace."

The conversion process from Hinduism and Buddhism was easy in many places because Buddhism borrowed so many ideas and doctrines from Hinduism. When Asoka converted to Buddhism he simply changed Hindu stupas representing Mount Meru into Buddhist stupas that also represented Mt. Meru.

Buddhism and Jainism had a profound impact on Indian and Hindu culture. They discouraged caste distinctions, abolished hereditary priesthoods, made poverty a precondition of spirituality and advocated the communion with the spiritual essence of the universe through contemplation and meditation.

Centuries later Hinduism made a comeback namely at Buddhism’s expense. Vedic traditions were combined with the worship of a multitude of indigenous gods (seen as manifestations of Vedic gods), the caste system was reintroduced and Buddhism gradually disappeared. Before its final decline in India, Buddhism developed the popular worship of enlightened beings (heavenly Bodhisattvas), produced a refined architecture (stupas and shrines) at Sanchi. By the 11th century Buddhist had disappeared from India. . The Muslim invasions may have played a role in its demise there

Spread of Buddhism Out of India

Perry Garfinkel wrote in National Geographic: “As Buddhism migrated out of India, it took three routes. To the south, monks brought it by land and sea to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. To the north, they spread the word across Central Asia and along the Silk Road into China, from where it eventually made its way to Korea and Japan. A later wave took Buddhism over the Himalaya to Tibet. In all the countries, local customs and cosmologies were integrated with the Buddhist basics: the magic and masks of demon-fighting lamas in Tibet, the austerity of a Zen monk sitting still as a rock in a perfectly raked Japanese garden. Over centuries Buddhism developed an inclusive style, one reason it has endured so long and in such different cultures. People sometimes compare Buddhism to water: It is still, clear, transparent, and it takes the form and color of the vase into which it's poured.” [Source: Perry Garfinkel, National Geographic, December 2005]

And yet from the start, the spread of Buddhism---a peaceful process in itself---has periodically met with hostility. In China, in A.D. 842, the Tang Emperor Wuzong began to persecute foreign religions. Some 4,600 Buddhist monasteries were annihilated, priceless works of art were destroyed, and about 260,000 monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life.

Buddhism in Pakistan

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Kushan-style Buddha
2nd century AD
Pakistan is where Buddhism survived between the time it evolved in India and the time it spread across Asia. Gandhara, occupying present-day Pakistani districts of Swat, Puner and Bajaur, was the main center of Buddhism in Pakistan. Located about 700 miles north of present-day Karachi, it was the easternmost region of the Persian Empire and the westernmost region of the Indian Empire and was a key center of trade between Persia, central Asia and India.

Buddhism was brought to what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan in the third century B.C. by Asoka. Gandhara came under strong Buddhist influence when it was absorbed into the Bactrian empire by King Menander, (155-130 B.C.), who converted to Buddhism. Between the 2nd century B.C. and the A.D. 7th century Gandhara was an important Buddhist learning and the religion continued to be practiced there until the 16th century. There were over 1,400 monasteries in the Lower Swat alone. Gandhara was also a major center of Buddhist art. Great Gandhara reliefs and sculpture were produced between A.D. 1 and 400 A.D.

Scattered around the Swat Valley today are ruined stupas, monasteries as well as rock carvings and statuary. Among the more important sites are the Butkara Shrine in Saidu Sharif, dated to 3rd century B.C. and consisting of a main shrine surrounded by 215 smaller stupas and fine carvings; the Seated Buddha at Jehanabad; and Calgain Cave, with some relief carvings.

Takht-i-Bahi (130 kilometers north of Peshawar) is regarded as one of most beautiful Buddhist monuments left from the Gandhara period. Situated on a slope above the plains and built between the 1st century B.C. and the A.D. 7th century, the monastery contains groups of structures called the Court of Main Stupa, the Assembly Hall, the Court of the Three Stupas, the Low Level chambers and the Open Courtyard.

Fragile birch-bark scrolls with Buddhist writing, dated to A.D. 1st century and written in the extinct Gandhari language, were found a region near the eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan border. "The worn-out texts were so sacred that they weren't discarded but were buried in clay pots," Richard Salomon of the University of Washington told National Geographic. Some have described them as the Dead Sea scrolls of Buddhism.

Buddhism and the Kushans

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Gandhara Buddha with Greek
influences from 2nd century BC
The Kushans established a kingdom that embraces parts of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Central Asia and ruled it from about A.D. 1 to A.D. 300. Originally nomadic horsemen, they were enamored with Greco-Roman culture and converted to Buddhism in the 1st century B.C. When the Kushan was its beak in first three centuries after Christ, it ranked with Rome, China and Parthia as one of the great powers off the world. When the Kushans were at the peak of their power it ranked with Rome, China and Parthia as one of the great powers of the worlds. They empire they ruled that stretched from the Oxus River in present-day Uzbekistan to the Ganges.

The Kushans established what is regarded as the first Silk Road kingdom. Operating out of their winter capital of Pursapura, near Peshawar, and a summer capital in Gandhara, they extracted duties from caravans and traded a variety of goods and art work. The Kushans grew wealthy on trade between East and West--- that included trade between China and Rome---and helped to spread Buddhism and Buddhist Culture through out Asia.

When the Kushans became powerful they showed a great tolerance towards religion, particularly Buddhism, which prospered during their rule. The first Chinese Buddhist art and the famous Bamiyan statues destroyed by the Taliban were made during this era.

The Kushans rulers appear to have been Zoroastrians but they had a great many Buddhist subjects. Buddhism reached its peak in the region under King Kanishka in the A.D. 2nd century. Under him Pakistan and Afghanistan became a cradle of Mahayana Buddhism. Numerous stupas and monasteries were built in Gandhara. Attracting pilgrims from as far away as China, they were decorated with statues of Buddha and bodhisattvas and scenes from the life of the historical Buddha and his previous lives. As Mahayana Buddhism developed, Buddha himself became the object of worship.

The Swat Valley was a major center of Tantric Buddhism. Many tantras (manuals for mystical acts) were developed here. From Gandhara Buddhism was carried by traders and pilgrims along the Silk Road into China, Tibet and Central Asia. Buddhist engravings dating back to these period can be seen on rock faces along the Karakoram Highway. Buddhism took hold in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan where it remained strong until the A.D. 10th century.

Kushan art was a unique fusion of Indian, Central Asian, Buddhist and Greco-Roman styles. Particularly noteworthy were the representations of Buddha in the human form. The most famous of these is the famous Fasting Buddha---with its exposed rib cage, skeletal limbs and emaciated features---from Taxila. Earlier Indian styles represented Buddha in the forms of symbols such as a lotus, a tree, a footprint, a wheel or a stupa. Some Gandharan Buddhas have Western features.

Giant Buddha Statues of Bamiyan

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Bamiyan Buddha
Bamiyan (100 miles west of Kabul) is an isolated and breathtakingly beautiful high mountain valley in central Afghanistan. Situated at the western limit of the Buddhist world, it was the home of the towering Buddhist statues that were blown up by the Taliban in 2001. Bamiyan was located on the Silk Road and has been a major center of Buddhism since the 2nd century B.C. When the Chinese monk-explorer Hsuan-Tsang visited the region in A.D. 632, he described “more than 10 monasteries and 1,000 priests.” At that time tens of thousands of pilgrims visited the site and meditated in the rock caves.

The Giant Buddha Statues of Bamiyan(in the Bamiyan Valley) were among the largest statues ever made and among the oldest surviving representations of Buddha. Carved into towering limestone cliffs, they also represented a unique fusion of Buddhist and Grecian art. The smaller of the two Buddhas was 125 feet high and was originally said to have been carved in the A.D. 2nd century but is now recognized as being carved in A.D. 507. Known as Shahmama, “king mother,” it had breasts and was believed to be a representation of a woman. It had elements of a Greco Roman style and was badly disfigured.

The larger of the two Buddhas rose 180 feet high and was carved in A.D. 554. Known as Salsal meaning “Year After Year,” it was more sophisticated, in better condition and believed by some scholars to have been made as improvement of the first statue. Before being destroyed by the Taliban it was also the tallest standing Buddha statue in the world. Hsuan-Tsang described it as “glittering with gold and precious objects.” A steep staircase beside the statue is still there. In the old days visitors used to climb up to the top of the head where there was enough room for 10 people to sit and have tea.

The half mile space between the two Buddhas and the areas around them are honeycombed with around 750 caves connected by miles of tunnels . The caves were once inhabited by a thousand Buddhist monks. Some are reached on precipitous, rough-hewn staircases carved into the rock.

Many of the Bamiyan caves are filled with the remains of frescoes of Buddhas, Greek gods and goddesses such as Athena, Hindu deities such as Garuda and Surya and noblemen in Persian clothes and pomegranate headdress. The best caves were around the smaller Buddha. Over the years they have been badly damaged, mainly by people who lived in the caves.

Rise of Mahayana Buddhism

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Ajanta Buddha of the 4th century AD
Mahayana Buddhism arose around the A.D. 1st century with the development of the first Mahayana scripture, the Sutras on Perfect Wisdom and teachings of Nagarjuna, the greatest early Mahayana philosopher. But Mahayana’s roots go back centuries earlier, arguably to the time of The Buddha himself.

Factors that are thought to have contributed to its rise are: 1) pressure from the laity; 2) disappointment with the monk ideal for achieving nirvana; and 3) the view that monks were becoming increasingly self-centered and corrupt. Mahayana Buddhism responded by paving the way for more participation by the laity in Buddhist life and encouraging monks to deal with lay people---outside their traditional roles as begging monks---as astrologers, physicians and counselors.

Most of what is known about early Mahayana Buddhism come from the extensive amount of literature that was produced over 2,000 years. Although much has been lost enough remains to give great insight the belief. There is so much in fact that much of it has never been read. Most of it is the form of Sutras, Sastras and Tantras (See Buddhist Texts).

The two main early schools of Mahayana Buddhism were: 1) the Madhyamikas school of Nagarjuna and Aryadeva, founded about A.D. 150; and 2) the Yogacarins school of Vasubandhu and Asanga, founded around A.D. 400. They engaged in many disputes of scripture and authority. But otherwise Mahayana has proved itself to flexible and adaptable and has often tended to absorb viewpoints that threatened it rather than rejecting them.

Spread of Mahayana Buddhism

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Gupta Budda, 3rd to 7th AD
Mahayana doctrine was much more flexible than Theravada doctrine and this allowed it to spread as far and wide as it did. Theravada Buddhists, for example, took the command for monks to wear cotton robes quite literally and this made it difficult for them to expand into places with a cold climate. Mahayana Buddhists on the other hand had no qualms about wearing robes made of wool or other materials and were able expand easily into China, Tibet and northern and central Asia.

Ways were also found to get around restrictions on eating meat so that nomadic, pastoral cultures in central Asia could embrace Buddhism. Prohibitions on serving as doctors were also ignored and many missionaries served as healers and physicians.

Mahayana doctrine proved to equally flexible and was able to adapt itself to local conditions and even adopt elements of local religions and beliefs, even incorporating astrology, magic and fortune telling and morphing local figures and gods into Bodhisattvas. See Tibetan Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhists worn support from ordinary people by 1) promising to bring about things like bountiful harvest and good health to children through magic; 2) making Enlightenment more attainable through rebirth in the Buddha-lands of Amitabha in the West and Aksshbhya in the East; 3) giving a prominent place to Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, who promised to bring salvation to many; and 4) promoting the belief that merit will bring a better life in the future.

Mahayana Buddhism and Christianity

Mahayana Buddhism evolved roughly at the same time that Christianity was developing in the Middle East and Europe. Some scholars have suggested that the evolution of Mahayana Buddhism from Theravada Buddhism parallels the emergence of Christianity from Judaism, namely in that: 1) an emphasis was placed on love and compassion; 2) the similarities between Bodhisattvas and Christ as figures who sacrificed themselves for the welfare of others; and 3) excitement over the second coming of The Buddha as the Maitreya Buddha (“Future Buddha”). The are also Some scriptural similarities between Buddhist scripture that appeared at this time and the Gospels.

Mahayana Buddhism arose in 1) southern India, which scholars who make the Christian links, like to point had trading relations in contact with the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean; and 2) Kushan kingdom, which kept alive its contacts with Greek and Roman empires.

Nalanda University

Nalanda University in India is regarded as the world's oldest university by far. Describing by the Xuan Zang's 7th century record of his journey to the West, it flourishing for centuries before it was destroyed by Afghan invaders in the 12th century. For over 700 years, it was a center of learning for a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, science, mathematics and public health. In 2011, the Indian Parliament passed a bill reestablishing Nalanda University as an international university.[Source: George Yeo, Global Viewpoint, April 12, 2011]

Jeffrey E. Garten, dean of the Yale School of Managment, wrote in the New York Times: “Founded in 427 in northeastern India, not far from what is today the southern border of Nepal, and surviving until 1197, Nalanda was one of the first great universities in recorded history. It was devoted to Buddhist studies, but it also trained students in fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, politics and the art of war. [Source: Jeffrey E. Garten, New York Times, December 9, 2006]

“The university was an architectural and environmental masterpiece. It had eight separate compounds, 10 temples, meditation halls, classrooms, lakes and parks. It had a nine-story library where monks meticulously copied books and documents so that individual scholars could have their own collections. It had dormitories for students, perhaps a first for an educational institution, housing 10,000 students in the university’s heyday and providing accommodations for 2,000 professors. Nalanda was also the most global university of its time, attracting pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey. [Ibid]

“The university died a slow death about the time that some of the great European universities, including those in Oxford, England, and Bologna, Italy, were just getting started, and more than half a millennium before Harvard or Yale were established. Its demise was a result of waning enthusiasm for Buddhism in India, declining financial support from successive Indian monarchs and corruption among university officials. The final straw was the burning of the buildings by Muslim invaders from what is now Afghanistan. [Ibid]

UNESCO Description of Nalanda University

According to UNESCO World Heritage website: “Nalanda is one of the most ancient international centers of education and learning equivalent to modern universities, with a very rich library. An inscribed seal written "Sri-Nalandamahavihariy-Arya-Bhikshu-Sanghasya" identifies the site as Nalanda Mahavihara. Nalanda has a very ancient history and goes back to the days of Mahavira and Buddha in sixth and fifth centuries B.C. Many references in the Pâli Buddhist literature mention about Nâlandâ. It is said that in course of his journeys Buddha often halted at this place. It is also the place of birth and nirvana of Sariputra, one of the famous disciples of Buddha.[Source: UNESCO World Heritage website]

“The place rose into prominence in 5th Century A.D. as a great monastic-cum-educational institution for oriental art and learning in the whole Buddhist world, attracting students from like Hiuen Tsang and I-Tsing from China and other distant countries. The galaxy of luminaries associated with it includes Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Vasubandhu, Dharmapala, Suvishnu, Asanga, Silabhadra, Dharmakirti, Shantarakshita. Another important mention in history, is that around second century, Suvishnu built one hundred and eight temples at Nalanda to prevent the decline of the Hînayâna and Mahâyâna schools of Buddhism. [Ibid]

“Various subjects like theology, sabda-vidyâ grammar, hetu-vidyâ (logic), astronomy, metaphysics, chikitsâ-vidyâ medicine and philosophy were taught here. The accounts of pilgrim state that Nâlandâ was bustling with literary activities. Nâlandâ had now acquired a celebrity spread all over the east as a centre of Buddhist theology and educational activities. This is evident from the fact that within a short period of thirty years following Hiuen Tsang's departure, no less than eleven Chinese and Korean travelers are known to have visited Nalanda. [Ibid]

“Life lead by Nalanda monks is regarded as the ideal to be followed by the Buddhist all over the world. This celebrity status persisted through ages. It is also attributed that a detailed history of Nalanda would be the history of Mahayanist Buddhism. The institution was maintained by the revenue collected from the villages bestowed specifically for the purpose by the contemporary rulers as evident from inscriptions. Royal patronage was therefore the key note of the prosperity and efficiency of Nâlandâ. [Ibid]

History of Nalanda University

According to the UNESCO World Heritage website: “Nalanda has a very ancient history going back to the days of Mahavira and Buddha 6th Century B.C. According to the Jain text Mahavira spent as many as 14 rainy seasons over there . Nalanda acquired sanctity as having being the birth place of Sariputra one of the disciples of Lord Buddha . Taranath a buddhist philosopher states that Asoka worshipped at the chaitya of Sariputra and erected a temple here. Taranath also connects Aryadeva with Nalanda. Further Asanga a buddhist philosopher of great repute (5th Century A.D.) is said to have spent 12 years of his life and was succeeded by his brother Vasubandhaa as the high priest of Nalanda. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage website]

“Nalanda not only enjoys a special place in the history of Buddhism but also in the history of art, religion, architecture and scriptures as it is a great monastic - cum educational institution for Buddhist art and learning in the whole world and has attracted students from distant countries like China, Korea etc from 5th Century A.D. onwards. [Ibid]

“The real importance of Nalanda began during the Gupta rule in the 5th Century A.D. The monasteries of Nalanda were the creation of the Gupta emperors beginning with Kumaragupta I. Harshavardhana of Kanauj (606-647) also helped the development of the Institution by his munificence. He built a monastery of brass here as has been recorded by the great traveler Hiuen Tsang in his chronicler. As has been recorded by Hiuen Tsang that a long succession of kings continued the work of building using all skills till the whole is a marvelous creation. In the time of the Palas, Nalanda rose even to a greater importance. They established other monasteries such as Vikramshila , Somapura, Odantapuri and Jagaddala which must have created a diversion in the activities of the Buddhist scholars. It was during this period that celebrities like Padmasambhava, a great luminary of Nalanda visited Tibet. [Ibid]

“There were many renowned scholars who by their deep learning and excellence of conduct maintained the dignity which Nalanda enjoyed. Early Mahayana philosophers Nagarjuna, Aryaveda Asanga and Vashubandhu were the high priests of Nalanda. Next in point of chronology comes the name of Dinnaga who also received the title "tarka -pungava". Dharmapala Silabhadra, Dharmakriti were some of the famous scholars of Nalanda whose excellence used to attract best students from different corners of the world. The fame of these scholars spread to distant countries and persisted through ages. [Ibid]

“From the record of Ising in 673A.D. we get a detailed picture of the subject studied in Nalanda. His work not only records the minute details about the kind of life he led in Nalanda but also talks about the curriculum which besides the Buddhist scriptures included logic , metaphysics and a very extensive study of Sanskrit grammer. The monks used to follow a strict rule of discipline. [Ibid]

“Towards the close of the 12th Cent. A.D Nalanda fell a prey to the destructive hands of the muslims when Dhramasvamin visited the place in 1235-36 A.D. the establishment was a shadow of the past. The skeleton establishment disappeared shortly but not before14th Century A.D. before he went to Srilanka.As Dhyanabhadra of a Korean inscription who was a native of Magadha is said to have studied in this institution before he went to Srilanka.

Buddhism in Sri Lanka

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Nalanda Buddha from
Bihar, 8th century AD
Buddhism has had a strong presence in Sri Lanka for 2,200 years. A key element of the identity of the Sinhalese, the dominant ethnic group there, it took hold very quickly and has evolved hand in hand in with Sri Lankan culture, literature and art. Sri Lanka is where the Theravada School of Buddhism originated.

Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka in the third century B.C. as part of the expansion of the northern Indian Mauryan kingdom under the emperor Ashoka (272-232 B.C.). According to ancient chronicles Buddhism was introduced by a monk named Arahat Mahinda who came to Sri Lanka from India in 247 B.C. He converted King Devanampiya-Tiss who in turn converted his kingdom. Before that time Sri Lankans worshipped pagan gods similar to the Hindu deities in India.

At the time Buddhism entered Sri Lanka it was also widespread in India and found as far west as Afghanistan. But in the centuries that followed Buddhism declined these places was largely dead there by the A.D. 8th century. But in the meantime Buddhism went through rough periods in Sri Lanka but for the most part remained alive and well.

Theravada Buddhism got its start in Sri Lanka and helped re-energize Buddhism as a whole at a time when it was declining in India. Theravada Buddhism did not have a lasting impact in India but it spread from Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia, where it remains the dominant religion in Burma, Thailand and Laos today

Theravada Buddhism was once one of many schools that existed in the early years of Buddhism. It stayed close to the original Pali canon. Pali is the language that Buddha spoke 2,500 years ago. There were attempts to introduce Mahayana Buddhism and rivalry developed between two school of thought. Dominance seesawed back and forth depending on the sect the ruler belonged to . Theravada won out in the A.D. 4th century and has remained relatively unchallenged since then.

Introduction of Buddhism to Southeast Asia

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Pala Buddha, 11th century
Buddhism reached Sri Lanka about the middle of the 3rd century B.C. From there and from India, some centuries later, it spread to Southeast Asia, reaching Cambodia, Sumatra and Java by the A.D. 3rd century and Burma by at least by the A.D. 5th century. It also took hold to a lesser extent in Malaysia and Borneo and remained strong in there and in Indonesia until the massive conversion to Islam in the 15th century.

Buddhism may have arrived earlier. According to Buddhist tradition, Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to Suvanaphoum (the Golden Land) is the 3rd century B.C. Suvanaphoum was an emerging area of Indian and Chinese culture is thought to have embraed southern Myanmar, Thailand and eastern Cambodia.

Mahayana Buddhism was the first form of Buddhism to arrive ib Southeast Asia. It arrived in northern Burma from India and remained there from the 5th century to the 11th century as was the case in India. Buddhist monks from India and China also brought with the knowledge of medicine and science from those cultures.

In the 8th century the powerful Shri-Vijaya kingdom in Sumatra introduced a mixture of Hinduism and Mahayana to the Khmers in present-day Cambodia. The Khmers were originally Hindus. They converted to Buddhism in the 12th century under king Jayavarman VII (See Javyavarman VII, Cambodia) but continued to acknowledge Hinduism and worship many Hindu gods, particularly Shiva and Vishnu. The Khmers spread Mahayana Buddhism across Southeast Asia until their kingdom collapsed in the 14th century.

The Buddhism brought to Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand owes little to China because it was carried their by monks from India. The texts were in the Pali language and derived from Sanskrit.

Spread of Theravada Buddhism to Southeast Asia

The Buddhism that was introduced to Cambodia initially belonged to a now dead sect of Mahayana Buddhism called Sarvastivada. Theravada Buddhism did not appear there and in Laos until the 14th century. In Thailand, there is little evidence of it until the 13th century.

Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and was introduced to Southeast Asia in southern Burma, when it was inhabited by people known as Mon, by way of eastern India and Sri Lanka. The religion took hold in Burma in A.D. 1040, when the Burmese monarch King Anawratha converted to it. Theravada Buddhism mixed with indigenous beliefs (particularly the belief in spirits called nats) and was spread with the help of rich patrons who supported the monasteries and established new monasteries across country that educated the people. In the process, Mahayana Buddhism disappeared.

In the 13th century the Thai people arrived in northern Thailand from southern China. They absorbed Buddhism from the Mons in the central plains. In the 14th century Thai monks schooled in Sri Lanka returned with reformed concepts of Theraveda Buddhism, and helped spread the religion to Laos and Cambodia.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Brooklyn Collage, Onmark Productions

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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