ORIGIN AND HISTORY OF BUDDHISM

EARLY HISTORY OF BUDDHISM

20120430-kushana_sm coin, 100 BC oen fo eraliest surving Buddha image.jpg
Kushan coin from 100 BC,
earliest surviving Buddha image
Buddhism originated in what are now north India and Nepal during the sixth century B.C. It was founded by a Sakya prince, Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 B.C.; his traditional dates are 623-543 B.C., also called the Gautama Buddha), who, at the age of twenty-nine, after witnessing old age, sickness, death, and meditation, renounced his high status and left his wife and infant son for a life of asceticism. After years of seeking truth, he is said to have attained enlightenment while sitting alone under a bo tree. He became the Buddha--"the enlightened"--and formed an order of monks, the sangha, and later an order of nuns. He spent the remainder of his life as a wandering preacher, dying at the age of eighty. [Library of Congress *]

Buddhism began as a reaction to Hindu doctrines and as an effort to reform them. Nevertheless, the two faiths share many basic assumptions. Both view the universe and all life therein as parts of a cycle of eternal flux. In each religion, the present life of an individual is a phase in an endless chain of events. Life and death are merely alternate aspects of individual existence marked by the transition points of birth and death. An individual is thus continually reborn, perhaps in human form, perhaps in some non-human form, depending upon his or her actions in the previous life. The endless cycle of rebirth is known as samsara (wheel of life). Theravada Buddhism is a tolerant, non prescriptive religion that does not require belief in a supreme being. Its precepts require that each individual take full responsibility for his own actions and omissions. Buddhism is based on three concepts: dharma (the doctrine of the Buddha, his guide to right actions and belief); karma (the belief that one's life now and in future lives depends upon one's own deeds and misdeeds and that as an individual one is responsible for, and rewarded on the basis of, the sum total of one's acts and omissions in all one's incarnations past and present); and sangha, the ascetic community within which man can improve his karma.*

The Buddha added the hope of escape--a way to get out of the endless cycle of pain and sorrow--to the Brahmanic idea of samsara. The Buddhist salvation is nirvana, a final extinction of one's self. Nirvana may be attained by achieving good karma through earning much merit and avoiding misdeeds. A Buddhist's pilgrimage through existence is a constant attempt to distance himself or herself from the world and finally to achieve complete detachment, or nirvana. *

In his first sermon to his followers, the Buddha described a moral code, the dharma, which the sangha was to teach after him. He left no designated successor. Indian emperor Asoka (273-232 B.C.) patronized the sangha and encouraged the teaching of the Buddha's philosophy throughout his vast empire; by 246 B.C., the new religion had reached Sri Lanka. The Tripitaka, the collection of basic Buddhist texts, was written down for the first time in Sri Lanka during a major Buddhist conference in the second or first century B.C. *


Great Sanchi stupa, the world's oldest Buddhist structure, dating back to the 3rd century BC

By the time of the conference, a schism had developed separating Mahayana (Greater Path) Buddhism from more conservative Theravada (Way of the Elders, or Hinayana--Lesser Path) faction or Buddhism. The Mahayana faction reinterpreted the original teachings of the Buddha and added a type of deity called a bodhisattva to large numbers of other buddhas. The Mahayana adherents believe that nirvana is available to everyone, not just to select holy men. Mahayana Buddhism quickly spread throughout India, China, Korea, Japan, Central Asia, and to some parts of Southeast Asia. *

According to the Venerable Pang Khat, Theravada Buddhism reached Southeast Asia as early as the second or third century A.D., while Mahayana Buddhism did not arrive in Cambodia until about A.D. 791. In Southeast Asia, Mahayana Buddhism carried many Brahman beliefs with it to the royal courts of Funan, of Champa, and of other states. At this time, Sanskrit words were added to the Khmer and to the Cham languages. Theravada Buddhism (with its scriptures in the Pali language), remained influential in Sri Lanka, and by the thirteenth century it had spread into Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, where it supplanted Mahayana Buddhism. *

Emperor Asoka who embraced Buddhism after he heard and understood the Buddha’s dharma. held the Third Buddhist Council. Maha Thera Ashim Moggalana Putta Tisa presided over the Council. At his advice. the Council with the royal patronage and support of Asoka sent out religious missions to nine places and nine countries to spread the Dharma. Buddha’s Teachings.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; 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 ; 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 ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index


rekief of "foreigners" visiting the Sanchi Supa from the stupa's Northern Gateway

Websites and Resources on Buddhist Art: Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Buddhist Symbols viewonbuddhism.org/general_symbols_buddhism ; Wikipedia article on Buddhist Art Wikipedia ; Guimet Museum in Paris guimet.fr ; Buddhist Artwork buddhanet.net/budart/index ; Asian Art at the British Museum britishmuseum.org ; Buddhism and Buddhist Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Buddhist Art Huntington Archives Buddhist Art dsal.uchicago.edu/huntington ; Buddhist Art Resources academicinfo.net/buddhismart ; Buddhist Art, Smithsonian freersackler.si.edu

Early History of Buddhism

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.

World's Oldest Buddhist Shrine — Dating to the Buddha’s Time — Found in Nepal

In November 2013, AFP reported: “The discovery of a previously unknown wooden structure at the place of the Buddha’s birth suggests the sage might have lived in the 6th century B.C. — two centuries earlier than thought — archeologists said. Traces of what appears to have been an ancient timber shrine were found under a brick temple that is itself within Buddhism’s sacred Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, southern Nepal, near the Indian border. In design it resembles the Asokan temple erected on top of it. Significantly, however, it features an open area, unprotected from the elements, from which it seems a tree once grew — possibly the tree under which the Buddha was born. “This sheds light on a very very long debate” over when the Buddha was born and, in turn, when the faith that grew out of his teachings took root, archaeologist Robin Coningham said. [Source: AFP-Jiji, November 26, 2013]

It’s widely accepted that the Buddha was born beneath a hardwood sal tree at Lumbini as his mother, Queen Maya Devi, the wife of a clan chief, was traveling to her father’s kingdom to give birth. But much of what is known about his life and time has its origins in oral tradition — with little scientific evidence to sort out fact from myth. Many scholars contend that the Buddha — who renounced material wealth to embrace and preach a life of enlightenment — lived and taught in the 4th century B.C., dying at around the age of 80. “What our work has demonstrated is that we have this shrine (at Buddha’s birthplace) established in the 6th century B.C.” that supports the hypothesis that the Buddha might have lived and taught in that earlier era, Coningham said.


ruins within Maya Devi Temple Complez


Radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques were used to date fragments of charcoal and grains of sand found at the site. Geoarchaeological research meanwhile confirmed the existence of tree roots within the temple’s central open area. The team’s peer-reviewed findings appear in the December issue of the journal Antiquity, ahead of the 17th congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies in Vienna in August next year.

Lumbini was overgrown by jungle before its rediscovery in 1896. Since it’s a working temple, the archeologists found themselves digging in the midst of meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims. It’s not unusual in history for adherents of one faith to have built a place of worship atop the ruins of a venue connected with another religion. But what makes Lumbini special, Coningham said, is how the design of the wooden shrine resembles that of the multiple structures built over it over time. Equally significant is what the archaeologists did not find: signs of any dramatic change in which the site has been used over the ages. “This is one of those rare occasions when belief, tradition, archaeology and science actually come together,” he said.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Buddhism attracted many people for whom caste and the Brahmins’ exclusive control over worship were problematic. Even before the Buddha’s death, many of his followers had become monks and nuns and were settling into monasteries provided by wealthy laity as merit-producing gifts. Gradually the monks spread his teachings across northern India in peaceful conversions. The main focus of worship became stupas, hemispherical mounds containing relics of the Buddha or other transcendent beings and often decorated with scenes from the Jatakas (folk tales about the past lives of the Buddha). The faithful also made pilgrimages to important places in the Buddha’s life, including his birthplace, the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya where he reached enlightenment, and the Deer Park at Sarnath where he preached his first sermon. As the centuries passed, pilgrims throughout Asia came to visit these sacred sites. There they learned about the Buddha’s life and his teachings.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Development of Buddhism after Buddha's Death

During the centuries following The Buddha's death, Buddhism evolved into an institutional religion. Monastic orders were formed and worship of the relics of the Buddha, and the Buddha himself, became popular. 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.


Buddha's death

The teachings of the Buddha were recorded by his students and then codified. 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. . The Buddha's sermons are regarded by scholars as as largely authentic.

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

Reasons Buddhism Took Hold

Gregory Smits wrote that “Buddhism arose in response to the problem of human suffering. More specifically, if we are all destined to become ill, grow old, and die, what is the point of life? Of course, this is the basic issue with which most religions grapple...After trying various approaches, the original Buddha came up with a core insight that life is infused with suffering because of our insatiable desires. As a result, we should strove to eliminate our desires, which will eliminate the suffering. This proposition may sound reasonable and simple, but putting it into practice is terribly difficult.” [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“Recall that enlightenment cannot be described in words. Although the Buddha himself had become enlightened, not even he was able to enlighten others. All he could do was set them in the right direction. The personal charisma of the Buddha after he became enlightened attracted followers. After his death, however, these followers did not always agree on their master's teachings. A few months after the Buddha died, his disciples assembled the First Buddhist Council. The purpose of this assembly was to establish a formal canon, true to the Buddha's teachings. ~

“Buddhism developed within the context of other religious and metaphysical ideas, one of which was reincarnation. Early Buddhists took for granted that we are reborn endlessly, and the quest to put an end to suffering was functionally equivalent to the quest to end the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Death, in other words, is not the end, but not in the sense of a soul traveling to some mysterious afterlife beyond earth. Instead, our deaths are just preludes to more births here on earth (as a human or some other creature). The trials, tribulations, sufferings, joys, and accomplishments of a lifetime never last.” ~

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.

Second Buddhist Council and the Theravada-Mahayan Split

A Second Buddhist Council was convened in roughly 334 B.C. in another effort to unify Buddhist teachings. According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The participants in this council also compiled a biography of the Buddha. Soon after the Second Council, the Buddhist community split up over disagreements regarding issues of doctrine, canonical texts, and monastic discipline — the specifics of which need not concern us here. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]


Tibetan Buddhist Parable of the Arhats


“At this time, Buddhism split into two major varieties: Mahayana and Theravada. Theravada means "Teaching of the Elders," and, at least according to the claims of Theravadins, remained closest to the teachings of the original Buddha. Theravada Buddhism stressed liberation of the individual by retracing the steps Shakyamuni had walked. Geographically, Theravada spread to southern India and across the sea to Southeast Asia. Today, it thrives in places such as Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. Because Theravada Buddhism had little influence on East Asia, we do not deal with it in this course.” ~

Sanskrit scholar R.P. Hayes wrote: “Between 100 to 200 years after the passing away of the Buddha, the Sangha (the monastic community) split over the political question of 'Who runs the Sangha?' A controversy over some monastic rules was decided by a committee of Arahats (fully Enlightened monks or nuns) against the views of the majority of monks. The disgruntled majority resented what they saw as the excessive influence of the small number of Arahats in monastery affairs. From then on, over a period of several decades, the disaffected majority partially succeeded in lowering the exalted status of the Arahat and raising in its place the ideal of the Bodhisattva (an unenlightened being training to be a Buddha). Previously unknown scriptures, supposedly spoken by the Buddha and hidden in the dragon world, then appeared giving a philosophical justification for the superiority of the Bodhisattva over the allegedly 'selfish' Arahat. This group of monks and nuns were first known as the 'Maha Sangha', meaning 'the great (part) of the monastic community'. Later, after impressive development, they called themselves the 'Mahayana', the 'Greater Vehicle' while quite disparagingly calling the older Theravada 'Hinayana', the 'Inferior Vehicle'. [Source: R.P. Hayes, Buddhist Society of Western Australia, Buddha Sasana]

Origin of Buddhism and the Early Indian Worldview

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The propositions of Buddhism were articulated originally in the context of traditional Indian cosmology in the first several centuries B.C., and as Buddhism began to trickle haphazardly into China in the first centuries of the common era (CE), Buddhist teachers were faced with a dilemma. To make their teachings about the Buddha understood to a non-Indian audience, Buddhist teachers often began by explaining the understanding of human existence — the problem, as it were — to which Buddhism provided the answer. [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]

“Reincarnation and the Forms of Life. The basic elements of the early Indian worldview are worth reviewing here. In that conception, all human beings are destined to be reborn in other forms, human and nonhuman, over vast stretches of space and time; the process of reincarnation is without beginning or end; and life takes six forms, listed here in hierarchical order: 1) gods; 2) demigods; 3) human beings; 4) animals; 5) hungry ghosts, who wander in search of food and water yet are unable to eat or drink; and 6) hell beings -- denizens of the various hells suffering a battery of tortures but who will all eventually die and be reborn again.

“Gods of Buddhism. Like the gods of ancient Greece, the gods of Buddhism reside in the heavens and lead lives of immense worldly pleasure. Unlike their Greek counterparts, however, they are without exception mortal, and at the end of a very long life they are invariably reborn lower in the cosmic scale.


1st century BC depiction from the Sanchi Stupa abd 5th century BC Kushinagar, the place where Buddha died


“Karma. The logic that determines where one will be reborn is the idea of karma. Strictly speaking the Sanskrit word karma means “deed” or “action.” In its relevant sense here it means that every deed has a result: morally good acts lead to good consequences, and the commission of evil has a bad result. Applied to the life of the individual, the law of karma means that the circumstances an individual faces are the result of prior actions. Karma is the regulating idea of a wide range of good works and other Buddhist practices.

“The Cycle of Existence. The wisdom to which buddhas awaken is to see that this cycle of existence (sasara in Sanskrit, comprising birth, death, and rebirth) is marked by 1) impermanence — because all things, whether physical objects, psychological states, or philosophical ideas, undergo change; they are brought into existence by preceding conditions at a particular point in time, and they eventually will become extinct.; 2) unsatisfactoriness — in the sense that not only do sentient beings experience physical pain, they also face continual disappointment when the people and things they wish to maintain invariably change; and 3) lack of a permanent self (or “no self”), which has a long and complicated history of exegesis in Buddhism. In China the idea of “no-self” (Sanskrit: anatman) was often placed in creative tension with the concept of repeated rebirth.(1)

“The Buddha provided an analysis of the ills of human existence and a prescription for curing them. Those ills were caused by the tendency of sentient beings to grasp, to cling to evanescent things in the vain hope that they remain permanent. In this view, the very act of clinging contributes to the perpetuation of desires from one incarnation to the next. Grasping, then, is both a cause and a result of being committed to a permanent self.

“The Path to Salvation. Traditional formulations of Buddhist practice describe a path to salvation that begins with the observance of morality. Lay followers pledged to abstain from the taking of life, stealing, lying, drinking intoxicating beverages, and engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage. Further injunctions applied to householders who could observe a more demanding lifestyle of purity, and the lives of monks and nuns were regulated in even greater detail. With morality as a basis, the ideal path also included the cultivation of pure states of mind through the practice of meditation and the achieving of wisdom rivaling that of a buddha.

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Asoka lions
“The Buddha. It is important to consider what kind of a religious figure a buddha is thought to be. One can distinguish two separate but related understandings of what a buddha is. In the first understanding the Buddha (represented in English with a capital B) was an unusual human born into a royal family in ancient India in the sixth or fifth century B.C. He renounced his birthright, followed established religious teachers, and then achieved enlightenment after striking out on his own. He gathered lay and monastic disciples around him and preached throughout the Indian subcontinent for almost fifty years, and he achieved final “extinction” (the root meaning of the Sanskrit word nirva?a) from the woes of existence.

“This unique being was called Gautama (family name) Siddhartha (personal name) during his lifetime, and later tradition refers to him with a variety of names, including Sakyamuni (literally “Sage of the Sakya clan”) and Tathagata (“Thus-Come One”). Followers living after his death lack direct access to him because, as the word “extinction” implies, his release was permanent and complete. His influence can be felt, though, through his traces — through gods who encountered him and are still alive, through long-lived disciples, through the places he touched that can be visited by pilgrims, and through his physical remains and the shrines (stupa) erected over them.

“buddhas. In the second understanding a buddha (with a lowercase b) is a generic label for any enlightened being, of whom Sakyamuni was simply one among many. Other buddhas preceded Sakyamuni’s appearance in the world, and others will follow him, notably Maitreya (Chinese: Mile), who is thought to reside now in a heavenly realm close to the surface of the Earth. Buddhas are also dispersed over space: they exist in all directions, and one in particular, Amitayus (or Amitabha, Chinese: Emituo), presides over a land of happiness in the West.

“Bodhisattvas. Related to this second genre of buddha is another kind of figure, a bodhisattva (literally “one who is intent on enlightenment,” Chinese: pusa). Bodhisattvas are found in most forms of Buddhism, but their role was particularly emphasized in the many traditions claiming the polemical title of Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle,” in opposition to Hinayana, “Smaller Vehicle”) that began to develop in the first century B.C. Technically speaking, bodhisattvas are not as advanced as buddhas on the path to enlightenment. While buddhas appear to some followers as remote and all-powerful, bodhisattvas often serve as mediating figures whose compassionate involvement in the impurities of this world makes them more approachable. Like buddhas in the second sense of any enlightened being, bodhisattvas function both as models for followers to emulate and as saviors who intervene actively in the lives of their devotees. Bodhisattvas particularly popular in China include Avalokitesvara (Chinese: Guanyin, Guanshiyin, or Guanzizai); Bhais?ajyaguru (Chinese: Yaoshiwang); Ksitigarbha (Chinese: Dizang); Mañjusri (Chinese: Wenshu); and Samantabhadra (Chinese: Puxian).”

Emperor Asoka and Buddhism in India

20120430-asoka well_prserved_rock_edict_from_Gujarat.jpg
Asoka rock edict
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


Asoka Buddhist Missions

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.

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. The emperor Ashoka, who was to establish the greatest empire India was to know until the advent of the Mughals in the sixteenth century, himself became a convert to Buddhism. 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]

There is evidence that Buddhism reached as far west as western Iran. In 2008, scientists from Kyoto University found markings unique to Buddhism in statue niches of a non-Buddhist temple eight kilometers south of Maragheh in northwestern Iran, The scientists, led by Prof, Takashi Irisawa, theorized Buddhism was brought to the region in the A.D. 13th century by the Mongols. They found dents in a pillar and walls indicating they at one time held Buddhist statues but no Buddhist statues or murals were found. It was originally thought that Buddhism only spread as far West as Merv in Turkmenistan. [Source: Kyodo, November 2008]

Buddhism in Present-Day Pakistan

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Kushan-style Buddha, AD 2nd century,
from present-day Pakistan
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.


emaciated Buddha from Gandhara

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.

Ancient Buddhist Monastery in Afghanistan

Mes Aynak, located about 25 miles (40 km) east of Kabul, contains an ancient Buddhist monastic complex. A recently discovered stele from Mes Aynak, dating back at least 1,600 years and possibly earlier, depicts a prince and monk and is believed to show a young Gautama Siddhartha Sakyamuni, The Buddha, at a time when he was still a prince living in a palace. The stele was found beneath the decorative arch of a secondary stupa, a commemorative monument. A rich copper deposit is located in the area and excavations are underway to explore the site, and rescue the artifacts, before a mine is built. Artifacts unearthed so far include a piece of stamped pottery with a depiction of a pomegranate, a tiny oil lamp and architecture from a room what is believed to be a monk’s quarters. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, June 6, 2012 ==]

Owen Jarus wrote in Live Science: “So far the finds include three or four monasteries and an ancient mine, with associated habitations, going back to the time of the Kushan Empire. There are also at least two small forts. This image shows the corridor of the Tepe Kafiriat monastery. A reclining Buddha, whose feet are still visible, is located at the Tepe Kafiriat monastery. There are several stupas at the site. The newly discovered stele was found beside one of them. Another stele found at Mes Aynak appears to depict a Buddha (can’t tell if it’s Gautama) in robes. It was put on display, along with other artifacts from the site, at an exhibit at the Afghanistan National Museum in Kabul. ==

Giant Buddha Statues of Bamiyan

Buddhism took hold in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, home of the famous giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban, where it remained strong until the A.D. 10th century. Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang visited the site on 30 April 630 AD, and described Bamiyan in the Da Tang Xiyu Ji as a flourishing Buddhist center "with more than ten monasteries and more than a thousand monks". He also noted that both Buddha figures were "decorated with gold and fine jewels" (Wriggins, 1995). Intriguingly, Xuanzang mentions a third, even larger, reclining statue of the Buddha. A monumental seated Buddha, similar in style to those at Bamiyan, still exists in the Bingling Temple caves in China's Gansu province. [Source: Wikipedia]

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.

20120430-407px-Afghanistan_Statua_di_Budda_1.jpg
Bamiyan Buddha

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.

Development of Theravda and Mahayana

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."

Development of Tibetan Buddhism

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: "Another form of Buddhism, called Esoteric and also known as Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism, grew out of Mahayana Buddhism beginning in the late sixth or early seventh century. Esoteric Buddhists accepted the tenets of the Mahayana but also used forms of meditation subtly directed by master teachers (gurus) involving magical words, symbols, and practices to speed the devotee toward enlightenment. They believed that those who practiced compassion and meditation with unwavering effort and acquired the wis- dom to become detached from human passions could achieve in one lifetime a state of perfect bliss or “clear light,” their term for ultimate realization and release. Their practices paralleled concurrent developments in Hinduism. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

"Many new deities appeared in the Esoteric Buddhist pantheon who, in their poses, gestures, and expressions, visualize philosophical ideas. For instance, male and female deities shown in embrace express the union of wisdom and compassion. Wrathful deities symbolize protection, and their violent and horrific appearance helps devotees to overcome the passions that hinder salvation. Also central to Esoteric thinking were the five celestial Buddhas (the four directions and the zenith), who represent both the energy of the universe and the potential for wisdom within the psychological make- up of the individual.

During the Kushan Kingdom (135 B.C. to A.D. 375), the Swat Valley in present-day Pakistan,. 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."

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

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. 20120430-Gupta Budda 3rd to 7th c AD.jpg
Gupta Budda, 3rd to 7th AD
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


ruins of Nalanda University

Nalanda University was one of the world’s first universities. Some say it was THE first. Founded in the third century, it gained an international reputation, drawing pilgrims and visitors from all over Asia, including some famous one from China, who cross the Himalayas to reach it, before being sacked by Turkic soldiers in 1193 - when Oxford University was only just coming into existence. The Turks burned the university’s vast library. Piles of red bricks and some marble carvings are all that remain at the site, 55 miles (90 kilometres) from Bihars state capital of Patna. [Source: AFP, September 13, 2010 +++]

Historians believe that the university once catered for 10,000 students and scholars from across Asia, studying subjects ranging from science and philosophy to literature and mathematics. “Nalanda was one of the highest intellectual achievements in the history of the world and we are committed to revive it,” said Amartya Sen, the renowned economist and Nobel laureate. “The university had 2,000 faculty members offering a number of subjects in the Buddhist tradition, in a similar way that Oxford offered in the Christian tradition.” +++

Nalanda University was described in 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 Management, 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]

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.

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.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand: “Theravada Buddhism was flourishing and may have entered the region during India’s Ashoka period, in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, when Indian missionaries are said to have been sent to a land called Suvannabhumi (Land of Gold). Suvannabhumi most likely corresponds to a remarkably fertile area stretching from southern Myanmar, across central Thailand, to eastern Cambodia. Two different cities in Thailand’s central river basin have long been called Suphanburi (City of Gold) and U Thong (Cradle of Gold). [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand]

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.

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 it arrived 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.


Buddhist Expansion


Arrival of Theravada Buddhism in 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.

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.

Decline of Buddhism in India and Its Rise in the West

By the twelfth century, Buddhism was mainly dead on India, concentrated mainly in northeastern India, where the Buddha lived and preached. Its near extinction seems to have been caused by Muslim invaders who destroyed the Buddhist monastic universities. Teachers and monks fled to Nepal, Tibet, and Burma. Today only a small percentage of India’s population is Buddhist.

As for the West, National Geographic reported: "A few European intellectuals embraced Buddhism in the 1800s but the numbers remained small and mostly European until immigrants began arrive in the late 1900s. Chinese seeking gold and work on America’s railroads brought Buddhism to the United States in the 1840s and 50s. Japanese sent to Hawaii to work on sugar cane plantations brought the ideas about Buddhism with them. The religion really took hold in the U.S. after the 1960s when large numbers of immigrants arrived from Southeast Asia. About three quarters of American Buddhists are of Asian descent."

History of Buddhism in China, Tibet and Japan. See Separate Articles on History Buddhism in China, Tibet and Japan


Number of Buddhist around the world, based on percentage by country


Buddhism Today

Perry Garfinkel wrote in National Geographic: “Around the globe today there is a new Buddhism. Its philosophies are being applied to mental and physical health therapies and to political and environmental reforms. Athletes use it to sharpen their game. It helps corporate executives handle stress better. Police arm themselves with it to defuse volatile situations. Chronic pain sufferers apply it as a coping salve. This contemporary relevance is triggering a renaissance of Buddhism — even in countries like India, where it had nearly vanished, and in China, where it has been suppressed. [Source: Perry Garfinkel, National Geographic, December 2005]

Buddhism is no longer just for monks or Westerners with disposable time and income to dabble in things Eastern. Christians and Jews practice it. African Americans meditate alongside Japanese Americans. In the U.S. alone, some experts estimate, there are roughly three million practicing Buddhists. And according to a 2004 study, more than 25 million Americans believe that Buddhist teachings have had an important influence on their spirituality.

Some like the complex rituals of Tibetan and Japanese Zen Buddhisms, others seem to prefer the simplicity of Southeast Asia's Theravada Buddhism. From that tradition, I practice vipassana, "insight" or "mindfulness" meditation. This has not brought me enlightenment — yet — but it has helped bring into sharper focus some of the questions I grapple with: Who am I? Why am I here? How can I achieve lasting happiness?

Buddha Boy in Nepal

Reporting from Bara, Nepal, Raekha Prasad wrote in the Times of London: ‘some closed their eyes and clasped their hands in prayer, others knelt and touched their foreheads to the cool earth beneath a canopy of trees deep in the forest of southern Nepal. By early morning hundreds of people had already reached this hidden spot at the end of a mist-shrouded mud track. All had come to see the teenage boy they believe to be a reincarnation of Buddha, sitting silently beneath a peepul tree. [Source: Raekha Prasad, The Times, December 5, 2005]

‘since word spread that Ram Bahadur Bamjan, the 16-year-old son of a maize farmer in a nearby village, has not eaten or drunk in the six months that he has been meditating in the lotus position, tens of thousands of devotees from across Nepal and India have flocked to Char Koshe jungle to worship him. The teenager sat in an alcove of exposed peepul roots. His closed eyes were framed by a messy mop of hair, and a brown robe draped over one shoulder exposed his right arm and hand. [Ibid]

“Having heard that early morning was the time to witness light emanating from the boy’s brow and hand, the pilgrims had set off before dawn to walk miles over a rocky path before removing their shoes and shuffling in a snaking crowd to a fence strewn with marigolds, candles and burning incense. Around the enclosure, local people touted picture postcards, booklets and CDs telling the story of the boy’s life. Makeshift food and tea stalls run by villagers had sprung up. Allowed no closer to Ram Bamjan than 50 metres after concerns that the huge crowds were disturbing his concentration, the devotees stood on tip-toe, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the distant figure.


geographical location of the Buddhist sects


“I saw a reddish-yellow light on his forehead. A few minutes later I saw it on his hand. It’s real. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Dhanbaha Durgurung, 60, a retired Gurkha in the British Army, said. He had made the ten-hour journey from his home in Pokhara, in central Nepal, after hearing a BBC radio report about the boy. “I had to see it for myself,” he said. “I believe he’s the reincarnation of Buddha. I’m going to come back in a week and bring my whole family.” The spectacle resembles an episode in the life of Buddha, who found enlightenment more than 2,500 years ago after 49 days under a peepul tree. He was born only 257km (160 miles) from Bara in 540BC.

In the nearby village of Ratanpur, Maya Devi, 50, the mother of Ram Bamjan, said that her son had changed after spending almost two years in Buddhist monasteries in India, including Bodh Gaya, the spot in the state of Bihar where Buddha gained enlightenment. “He had always been a loner, but when he returned from India he just stayed at home and would chant and study Buddhist scripts,” she said, opening a cupboard in her son’s sparse bedroom that was filled with his red, satin-bound religious books.

Maya Devi was sad to see the sixth of her nine children go. He did not tell his family that he planned to live in the forest and crept out during the night to avoid being followed. She said: “I didn’t want him to stay away from home at night in the jungle. It’s a dangerous place. If he had not been called there by God, he would not have survived for so long.” Villagers say that last month Ram shook off the effects of a poisonous snake bite. He apparently told an older brother that he did not want to be followed into the forest and that he was not a Buddha. He said: “I’ve got my education directly from God, but what I’ve learnt I’m not revealing now. I need six years of meditation.”

Local officials have asked scientific and religious bodies in Nepal to investigate whether the claims about the boy are true. In particular they want to know what happens when a curtain screens the boy from observers at night. There have been suggestions that the boy is part of a plot by left-wing guerrillas to collect money from gullible villagers, but officials are hampered by a group of minders who refuse to allow anyone to disturb him. Santa Raj Subedi, the chief government official in Bara, said: “The strength of religious belief means our hands are tied. We can’t just march in and interfere. Besides, being able to meditate is a human right. We can’t stop anyone doing it.” Maya Devi is undecided about whether her son is the reincarnation of Buddha. “He’s certainly extraordinary,” she said. “But I’ll wait until after his six years of meditation to decide whether he’s a god.”


proposal for the new Nalanda University


Rebuilding Nalanda University

In September 2013, a proposal was approved by the Indian government to rebuild Nalanda University. AFP reported: “Indian academics have long dreamt of resurrecting Nalanda University. Now the chance of intellectual life returning to Nalanda has come one step closer after the parliament in New Delhi passed a bill approving plans to re-build the campus as a symbol of Indias global ambitions. It has been estimated that 500 million dollars will be required to build the new campus, with a further 500 million to improve the surrounding infrastructure in what is one of Indias poorest regions. [Source: AFP, September 13, 2010 +++]

“The new Nalanda University has been allocated 500 acres (200 hectares) of land near its original location, but supporters who have lobbied for the cause for several years admit that major funds are needed if Nalanda is to rise from the ashes. “Income from a number of villages, and funds from kings, supported the ancient Nalanda. Now we have to look for donations from governments, private individuals and religious groups,” the renowned economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen said. +++

“Nalandas backers believe it could help reverse the tide so that one day foreign students compete to attend Indian universities. “The idea of setting up Nalanda again is brilliant but we need to understand the real essence of Nalanda. It embodied universality,” said Phagun Pathak, a educationalist based in Delhi. “Nalanda should be Indias chance to open doors to international faculties and students,” he told AFP. Among those on the board of the Nalanda Mentor Group is Singapores Foreign Minister George Yeo, who has said Buddhist groups in the wealthy city-state have shown interest in raising funds. Other Buddhist groups in Japan and supporters in China are also being targeted for financial support. +++

“For intellectuals, any new university bearing the Nalanda name will have a lot to live up to. “In the history of universities and learning, Nalandas name is sacred and its end was a tragic episode,” said Ravikant Singh, a professor of history in a private college in Bihar. “Everything was burnt down but its illustrious legacy has remained forever.” Other academics say the plans for Nalanda look to the future as much as to the past. “Engaging with our neighbours through education and culture is the right way forward,” said Chitra Sengupta, an international relation analyst at the Delhi University.” +++

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Brooklyn College, Onmark Productions

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 afe.easia.columbia, Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org , “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com “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); “ National Geographic, 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.

Last updated September 2018


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