Ashoka Buddhist Missions

Buddhism originated in northern India and Nepal and split into major schools — Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism — early in its existence and as well as many other school. As Buddhism spread, the Theravada school (sometimes called Southern Buddhism) became particularly well established in in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia --- Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Cambodia. The Mahayana school (sometimes called Northern Buddhism) spread north first to China and then to the rest of East Asia. These two major divisions in turn divided into many different subgroups and schools, adapting to local conditions.[Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

It's been said that Buddhism appealed to so many people at the outset because it addresses death more frankly, and at length. Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, wrote: “In less than two centuries after his death, his teachings had spread not only in India but over large parts of Asia. Some people have associated the Buddha’s teachings with an excessive intellectualism and agnosticism; others have charged that Buddhism is a form of quietism. However one may view the subsequent history of Buddhism, it is clear that the teachings of the Buddha constitute one of the eminent chapters in the spiritual and intellectual history of humankind. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA. sscnet.ucla.edu]

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion

Ashoka and the Spread of Buddhism Outside of Asia

Emperor Ashoka (274-236 BC), the greatest ruler in Indian history, was the man who ensured Buddhism success as a world religion. After Ashoka 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 Ashoka 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 Ashoka converted to Buddhism he simply changed Hindu stupas representing Mount Meru into Buddhist stupas that also represented Mt. Meru.

Ashoka organized missionaries to spread Buddhism beyond the borders of India. Some of these missionaries reached as far as Egypt and Greece. 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]

Development and Diffusion of Theravda and Mahayana Buddhism

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: "The earliest form of Buddhism is called the Theravada (Way of the Elders). It adheres strictly to the Buddha’s teaching and to his austere life of meditation and detachment. Theravada Buddhists believed that very few would reach nirvana. Initially, in this system, the Buddha was represented in art only by symbols, but in the first century A.D., under the Kushan rulers, the Buddha began to be depicted in human form. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

"At about this time, a new form of Buddhism emerged called the Mahayana (the Great Way), which held that the Buddha was more than a great spiritual teacher but also a savior god. It was believed that he had appeared in perfect human form to relieve suffering with the message that, by performing good deeds and maintaining sincere faith, everyone could reach nirvana through means less strict and arduous than in Theravada (which Mahayana Buddhists called the Hinayana, or Lesser Way).

"A whole pantheon of Mahayana Buddhist deities began to appear to aide the devotee—Buddhas of the past, bodhisattvas such as Maitreya (Buddha of the Future), and Vajrapani (“thunderbolt bearer”), who had evolved from the chief Vedic god Indra. Most appealing and approachable of all is the gentle Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion, who can be called upon to help people in all kinds of trouble. A bodhisattva is a being who has reached the moment of spiritual transcendence but foregoes nirvana in order to guide all beings in their quest to attain enlightenment. The Mahayana faith became the more popular form of Buddhism and was carried by mer- chants and monks across Central Asia along the trade routes to China, and from there to Korea and Japan."

Peter A. Pardue wrote in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: Despite their stark contrast in doctrine and practice, the divergent missionary movements of Theravada Buddhism into the lands of southeast Asia and of Tantric Buddhism into Tibet hide similarities which reveal the deeper potency of Buddhist universalism. In both cases Buddhism became the official state “church” and provided the religious base not only for evolutionary advances but also for long-lasting and relatively stable societies. In both cases Buddhism was introduced under favorable ecological, cultural, and political circumstances by rulers who controlled relatively small, homogeneous land areas and polities grounded on primitive and archaic religions. They saw in Buddhism an opportunity to innovate and to provide a broader religious base for legitimation and social integration. [Source: Peter A. Pardue, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

With respect to the church–state relationship however, in Tibet this evolutionary movement finally took the form of a theocracy based on a unique rationalization of Mahayana and Tantric incarnational theology; while in southeast Asia the Theravada — with its class division between celibate monk and layman and its highly routinized, orthodox version of the classical tradition — was able to maintain a structural distinction between church and state which had important consequences for later institutional developments.

Buddhism Arrives in Sri Lanka

20120430-nalanda_sm Buddha from Bihar 7th 8th c AD.jpg
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.

Arrival of Buddhism in Southeast Asia

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. 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.

Mahayana Buddhism may have been the first form of Buddhism to really take hold in 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. Mahayana Buddhism is believed to have arrived in southern Southeast Asia via the Kingdom of Srivjaya in Indonesia or Funan, where it was practiced in the A.D. fifth century.

Buddhist Expansion

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. In the late 12th century, Jayavarman VII made Mahayana Buddhism the state religion. Mahayana was compatible with the form of Hinduism and the god-king concept that existed in Cambodia at that time. It was expressed in Sanskrit. The Khmers 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.

Buddhism had all but died out its homeland of India when took hold in Southeast Asia. It provided a philosophical and oral framework for people that extended from Tibet to Vietnam. Even though Buddhism became the predominate religion, Hinduism and animism and local religions remained alive and fused together in a way that was unique to the region, embracing some Hindu deities and cult practices and absorbing some animist spirits. Many legends that became part of local folklore have both Hindu and Buddhist elements. Sometimes even different elements of the same religion came together in unique ways. The god Hara-Hara, popular in Khmer art, was a combination of Shiva and Vishnu.

Arrival of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia

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.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. 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.

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. Theravada Buddhism arrived in Cambodia slowly in beginning in the 11th century from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma. It offered a new ideology and undermined the Hinduism and the god-king elements of Khmer rule. Theravada Buddhism gained a stronger foothold in Cambodia when the Thais conquered Angkor in 1431 and was the dominate form of Buddhism by the 15th century. It was expressed through the Pali language.

geographical location of the Buddhist sects

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka; “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: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.