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History of Buddhism

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The History of Buddhism spans the 6th century BCE to the present, starting with the birth of Buddha Siddhartha Gautama on the Indian subcontinent, in Lumbini, Nepal. This makes it one of the oldest religions practiced today. The religion evolved as it spread from the northeastern region of the Indian subcontinent through Central, East, and Southeast Asia. At one time or another, it influenced most of the Asian continent. The history of Buddhism is also characterized by the development of numerous movements, schisms, and schools, among them the Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions, with contrasting periods of expansion and retreat.

Siddhartha Gautama

The Aśoka Chakra, an ancient Indian depiction of the Dharmachakra and depicted on the national flag of India.

Siddhārtha Gautama was the historical founder of Buddhism. He was born a Kshatriya warrior prince in Lumbini, Nepal, in 623 B.C. His particular family of Sakya Kshatriyas were of Brahmin lineage (Sanskrit: gotra), as indicated by the family name "Gautama". 19th-century scholars, such as Dr. Eitel, connected it to the Brahmin Rishi Gautama. In many Buddhist texts, Buddha is said to be a descendant of the Brahmin Sage Angirasa. For example, "In the Pāli Mahavagga "Angirasa" (in Pāli Angirasa) occurs as a name of Buddha Gautama who evidently belonged to the Angirasa tribe...". Scholar Edward J. Thomas too connected Buddha with sages Gautama and Angirasa.

After asceticism and meditation, Siddhartha Gautama discovered the Buddhist Middle Way—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment sitting under a peepal tree, now known as the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India. Gautama, from then on, was known as "The Enlightened One ," the Samyaksambuddha.

Buddha found patronage in the ruler of Magadha, emperor Bimbisāra. The emperor accepted Buddhism as his personal faith and allowed the establishment of many Buddhist vihāras. This eventually led to the renaming of the entire region as Bihār.

At the Deer Park near Vārāṇasī in northern India, Buddha set in motion Wheel of Dharma by delivering his first sermon to a group of five companions with whom he had previously sought enlightenment. Together with the Buddha they formed the first Saṅgha, the company of Buddhist monks, and hence, the first formation of the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha) was completed.

For the remaining years of his life, the Buddha is said to have traveled in the Gangetic Plain of Northeastern India and other regions.

Buddha attained parinirvāṇa in the abandoned jungles of Kuśināra.

Just before Buddha died, he reportedly told his followers that thereafter the Dharma (doctrine, teaching) would be their leader. The early arhants considered Gautama's words the primary source of Dharma and Vinaya (rules of discipline and community living), and took great pains to formulate and transmit his teachings accurately. Nonetheless, no ungarnished collection of his sayings has survived. The versions of the canon (accepted scripture) preserved in Pāli, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan are sectarian variants of a corpus that grew and crystallized during three centuries of oral transmission.

Early Buddhism

Early Buddhism remained centered around the Ganges valley, spreading gradually from its ancient heartland. The canonical sources record two councils, where the monastic Sangha established the textual collections based on the Buddha's teachings and settled certain disciplinary problems within the community.

1st Buddhist council (5th c. BCE)

The first Buddhist council was held just after Buddha's Parinirvana, and presided over by Gupta Mahākāśyapa, one of His most senior disciples, at Rājagṛha (today's Rajgir) during the 5th century under the noble support of king Ajāthaśatru. The objective of the council was to record all of Buddha's teachings into the doctrinal teachings ( sutra) and Abhidhamma and to codify the monastic rules (vinaya). Ānanda, one of the Buddha's main disciples and his cousin, was called upon to recite the discourses and Abhidhamma of the Buddha, and Upali, another disciple, recited the rules of the vinaya. These became the basis of the Tripiṭaka (Three Baskets), which is preserved only in Pāli.

2nd Buddhist council (4th c. BCE)

The second Buddhist council was held at Vaisali following a dispute that had arisen in the Saṅgha over a relaxation by some monks of various points of discipline. Eventually it was decided to hold a second council at which the original Vinaya texts that had been preserved at the first Council were cited to show that these relaxations went against the recorded teachings of the Buddha.

Aśokan proselytism (c. 261 BCE)

The Maurya Empire under Emperor Aśoka was the world's first major Buddhist state. It established free hospitals and free education and promoted human rights.
Fragment of the 6th Pillar Edict of Aśoka (238 BCE), in Brāhmī, sandstone. British Museum.
Great Stupa (3rd century BCE), Sanchi, India.

The Mauryan Emperor Aśoka (273–232 BCE) converted to Buddhism after his bloody conquest of the territory of Kalinga (modern Odisha) in eastern India during the Kalinga War. Regretting the horrors and misery brought about by the conflict, the king magnanimously decided to renounce violence, to replace the misery caused by war with respect and dignity for all humanity. He propagated the faith by building stupas and pillars urging, amongst other things, respect of all animal life and enjoining people to follow the Dharma. Perhaps the finest example of these is the Great Stupa in Sanchi, India (near Bhopal). It was constructed in the 3rd century BCE and later enlarged. Its carved gates, called toranas, are considered among the finest examples of Buddhist art in India. He also built roads, hospitals, resthouses, universities and irrigation systems around the country. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics or caste.

This period marks the first spread of Buddhism beyond India to other countries. According to the plates and pillars left by Aśoka (the edicts of Aśoka), emissaries were sent to various countries in order to spread Buddhism, as far south as Sri Lanka and as far west as the Greek kingdoms, in particular the neighboring Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, and possibly even farther to the Mediterranean.

3rd Buddhist council (c.250 BCE)

King Aśoka convened the third Buddhist council around 250 BCE at Pataliputra (today's Patna). It was held by the monk Moggaliputtatissa. The objective of the council was to purify the Saṅgha, particularly from non-Buddhist ascetics who had been attracted by the royal patronage. Following the council, Buddhist missionaries were dispatched throughout the known world.

Hellenistic world

Some of the edicts of Aśoka describe the efforts made by him to propagate the Buddhist faith throughout the Hellenistic world, which at that time formed an uninterrupted continuum from the borders of India to Greece. The edicts indicate a clear understanding of the political organization in Hellenistic territories: the names and locations of the main Greek monarchs of the time are identified, and they are claimed as recipients of Buddhist proselytism: Antiochus II Theos of the Seleucid Kingdom (261–246 BCE), Ptolemy II Philadelphos of Egypt (285–247 BCE), Antigonus Gonatas of Macedonia (276–239 BCE), Magas (288–258 BCE) in Cyrenaica (modern Libya), and Alexander II (272–255 BCE) in Epirus (modern Northwestern Greece).

Buddhist proselytism at the time of Emperor Aśoka (260–218 BCE), according to the edicts of Aśoka.
"The conquest by Dharma has been won here, on the borders, and even six hundred yojanas (5,400–9,600 km) away, where the Greek king Antiochos rules, beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander rule, likewise in the south among the Cholas, the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni (Sri Lanka)." ( Edicts of Aśoka, 13th Rock Edict, S. Dhammika).

Furthermore, according to Pāli sources, some of Aśoka's emissaries were Greek Buddhist monks, indicating close religious exchanges between the two cultures:

"When the thera (elder) Moggaliputta, the illuminator of the religion of the Conqueror (Aśoka), had brought the (third) council to an end (...) he sent forth theras, one here and one there: (...) and to Aparantaka (the "Western countries" corresponding to Gujarat and Sindh) he sent the Greek ( Yona) named Dhammarakkhita". ( Mahavamsa XII).
Bilingual inscription (Greek and Aramaic) by Emperor Aśoka, from Kandahar. Kabul Museum (click image for full translation).

Aśoka also issued edicts in the Greek language as well as in Aramaic. One of them, found in Kandahar, advocates the adoption of "piety" (using the Greek term eusebeia for Dharma) to the Greek community:

"Ten years (of reign) having been completed, King Piodasses (Aśoka) made known (the doctrine of) piety (Greek:εὐσέβεια, eusebeia) to men; and from this moment he has made men more pious, and everything thrives throughout the whole world."
(Trans. from the Greek original by G.P. Carratelli)

It is not clear how much these interactions may have been influential, but some authors have commented that some level of syncretism between Hellenist thought and Buddhism may have started in Hellenic lands at that time. They have pointed to the presence of Buddhist communities in the Hellenistic world around that period, in particular in Alexandria (mentioned by Clement of Alexandria), and to the pre-Christian monastic order of the Therapeutae (possibly a deformation of the Pāli word " Theravāda"), who may have "almost entirely drawn (its) inspiration from the teaching and practices of Buddhist asceticism" and may even have been descendants of Aśoka's emissaries to the West. The philosopher Hegesias of Cyrene, from the city of Cyrene where Magas of Cyrene ruled, is sometimes thought to have been influenced by the teachings of Aśoka's Buddhist missionaries.

Buddhist gravestones from the Ptolemaic period have also been found in Alexandria, decorated with depictions of the Dharma wheel. The presence of Buddhists in Alexandria has even drawn the conclusion: "It was later in this very place that some of the most active centers of Christianity were established".

In the 2nd century CE, the Christian dogmatist, Clement of Alexandria recognized Bactrian Buddhists ( śramanas) and Indian gymnosophists for their influence on Greek thought:

"Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; and the Druids among the Gauls; and the śramanas among the Bactrians ("Σαρμαναίοι Βάκτρων"); and the philosophers of the Celts; and the Magi of the Persians, who foretold the Saviour's birth, and came into the land of Judea guided by a star. The Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called śramanas ("Σαρμάναι"), and others Brahmins ("Βραφμαναι")." Clement of Alexandria "The Stromata, or Miscellanies" Book I, Chapter XV

Expansion to Sri Lanka and Burma

Sri Lanka was proselytized by Aśoka's son Mahinda and six companions during the 2nd century BCE. They converted the king Devanampiya Tissa and many of the nobility. In addition, Aśoka's daughter, Saṅghamitta also established the bhikkhunī (order for nuns) in Sri Lanka, also bringing with her a sapling of the sacred bodhi tree that was subsequently planted in Anuradhapura. This is when the Mahāvihāra monastery, a centre of Sinhalese orthodoxy, was built. The Pāli canon was written down in Sri Lanka during the reign of king Vattagamani (29–17 BCE), and the Theravāda tradition flourished there. Later some great commentators worked there, such as Buddhaghoṣa (4th–5th century) and Dhammapāla (5th–6th century), and they systemised the traditional commentaries that had been handed down. Although Mahāyāna Buddhism gained some influence in Sri Lanka at that time, the Theravāda ultimately prevailed and Sri Lanka turned out to be the last stronghold of it. From there it would expand again to South-East Asia from the 11th century.

In the areas east of the Indian subcontinent (modern Burma and Thailand), Indian culture strongly influenced the Mons. The Mons are said to have been converted to Buddhism from the 3rd century BCE under the proselytizing of the Indian Emperor Aśoka, before the fission between Mahāyāna and Hinayāna Buddhism. Early Mon Buddhist temples, such as Peikthano in central Burma, have been dated to between the 1st and the 5th century CE.

Mons Wheel of the Law ( Dharmachakra), art of Dvaravati, c.8th century.

The Buddhist art of the Mons was especially influenced by the Indian art of the Gupta and post-Gupta periods, and their mannerist style spread widely in South-East Asia following the expansion of the Mon kingdom between the 5th and 8th centuries. The Theravāda faith expanded in the northern parts of Southeast Asia under Mon influence, until it was progressively displaced by Mahāyāna Buddhism from around the 6th century CE.

According to the Aśokāvadāna (2nd century CE), Aśoka sent a missionary to the north, through the Himalayas, to Khotan in the Tarim Basin, then the land of the Tocharians, speakers of an Indo-European language.

Rise of the Sunga (2nd–1st century BCE)

The Sunga dynasty (185–73 BCE) was established in 185 BCE, about 50 years after Aśoka's death. After assassinating King Brhadrata (last of the Mauryan rulers), military commander-in-chief Pusyamitra Sunga took the throne. Buddhist religious scriptures such as the Aśokāvadāna allege that Pusyamitra (an orthodox Brahmin) was hostile towards Buddhists and persecuted the Buddhist faith. Buddhists wrote that he "destroyed hundreds of monasteries and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Monks": 840,000 Buddhist stupas which had been built by Aśoka were destroyed, and 100 gold coins were offered for the head of each Buddhist monk. In addition, Buddhist sources allege that a large number of Buddhist monasteries (vihāras) were converted to Hindu temples, in places like, but not limited to, Nalanda, Bodhgaya, Sarnath, and Mathura, among many others.

Modern historians, however, dispute this view in the light of literary and archaeological evidence. They opine that following Aśoka's sponsorship of Buddhism, it is possible that Buddhist institutions fell on harder times under the Sungas, but no evidence of active persecution has been noted. Etienne Lamotte observes: "To judge from the documents, Pushyamitra must be acquitted through lack of proof." Another eminent historian, Romila Thapar points to archaeological evidence that "suggests the contrary" to the claim that "Pusyamitra was a fanatical anti-Buddhist" and that he "never actually destroyed 840,000 stupas as claimed by Buddhist works, if any". Thapar stresses that Buddhist accounts are probably hyperbolic renditions of Pusyamitra's attack of the Mauryas, and merely reflect the desperate frustration of the Buddhist religious figures in the face of the possibly irreversible decline in the importance of their religion under the Sungas.

During the period, Buddhist monks deserted the Ganges valley, following either the northern road ( uttarapatha) or the southern road (dakṣinapatha). Conversely, Buddhist artistic creation stopped in the old Magadha area, to reposition itself either in the northwest area of Gandhāra and Mathura or in the southeast around Amaravati. Some artistic activity also occurred in central India, as in Bhārhut, to which the Sungas may or may not have contributed.

Greco-Buddhist interaction (2nd century BCE–1st century CE)

Silver drachm of Menander I (reigned c. 160–135 BCE).
Obv: Greek legend, BASILEOS SOTEROS MENANDROY lit. "of the Saviour King Menander".

In Bactria (today's northern Afghanistan), the areas west of the Indian subcontinent, neighboring Greek kingdoms had been in place since the time of the conquests of Alexander the Great around 326 BCE: first the Seleucids from around 323 BCE, then the Greco-Bactrian kingdom from around 250 BCE.

A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE, Gandhara.

The Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I invaded India in 180 BCE as far as Pātaliputra, establishing an Indo-Greek kingdom that was to last in parts of northern India until the end of the 1st century BCE. Buddhism flourished under the Indo-Greek kings, and it has been suggested that their invasion of India was intended to show their support for the Mauryan empire and to protect the Buddhist faith from the alleged religious persecutions of the Sungas (185–73 BCE).

One of the most famous Indo-Greek kings is Menander (reigned c. 160–135 BCE). He apparently converted to Buddhism and is presented in the Mahāyāna tradition as one of the great benefactors of the faith, on a par with king Aśoka or the later Kushan king Kaniśka. Menander's coins bear the mention of the "saviour king" in Greek; some bear designs of the eight-spoked wheel. Direct cultural exchange is also suggested by the dialogue of the Milinda Pañha between Menander and the monk Nāgasena around 160 BCE. Upon his death, the honour of sharing his remains was claimed by the cities under his rule, and they were enshrined in stupas, in a parallel with the historic Buddha. Several of Menander's Indo-Greek successors inscribed "Follower of the Dharma," in the Kharoṣṭhī script, on their coins, and depicted themselves or their divinities forming the vitarka mudrā.

A coin of Menander I with an eight-spoked wheel and a palm of victory on the reverse ( British Museum).

The interaction between Greek and Buddhist cultures may have had some influence on the evolution of Mahāyāna, as the faith developed its sophisticated philosophical approach and a man-god treatment of the Buddha somewhat reminiscent of Hellenic gods. It is also around that time that the first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha are found, often in realistic Greco-Buddhist style: "One might regard the classical influence as including the general idea of representing a man-god in this purely human form, which was of course well familiar in the West, and it is very likely that the example of westerner's treatment of their gods was indeed an important factor in the innovation."

Central Asian expansion

A Buddhist gold coin from India was found in northern Afghanistan at the archaeological site of Tillia Tepe, and dated to the 1st century CE. On the reverse, it depicts a lion in the moving position with a nandipada in front of it, with the Kharoṣṭhī legend "Sih[o] vigatabhay[o]" ("The lion who dispelled fear").

The Mahayana Buddhists symbolized Buddha with animals such as a lion, an elephant, a horse or a bull. A pair of feet was also used. The symbol called by the archaeologists and historians as "nandipada" is actually a composite symbol. The symbol at the top symbolizes 'the Middle Path,' the Buddha Dhamma. The circle with a centre symbolizes chakra. Thus, the composite symbol symbolizes 'Dhamma Chakra.' Thus, the symbols on the reverse of the coin jointly symbolize Buddha rolling the Dhamma Chakra.In the 'Lion Capital' of Saranath,India, Buddha rolling the Dhamma Chakra is depicted on the wall of the cylinder with lion, elephant, horse and bull rolling the Dhamma Chakras. Buddhism Is One Of The Most Practiced Religions In The World Today. On the obverse, an almost naked man only wearing an Hellenistic chlamys and wearing a head-dress rolls a Buddhist wheel. The legend in Kharoṣṭhī reads "Dharmacakrapravata[ko]" ("The one who turned the Wheel of the Law"). It has been suggested that this may be an early representation of the Buddha.

The head dress symbolizes 'the Middle Path.' Thus, the man with the head dress is a person who adheres to the Middle Path. In one of the Indus Valley seals also, we find similar head dress worn by 9 women!

Thus, on both sides of the coin, we find Buddha rolling the Dhamma chakra.

As no scientific study on literary and physical symbolization of Buddha and Buddhism was conducted by the archaeologists and historians, imaginary and false interpretations were only given on coins, seals, Brahmi and other inscriptions and other archaeological finds.

Rise of Mahāyāna (1st century BCE–2nd century CE)

Coin of the Kushan emperor Kanishka, with the Buddha on the reverse, and his name "BODDO" in Greek script, minted circa 120 CE.

The rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism from the 1st century BCE was accompanied by complex political changes in northwestern India. The Indo-Greek kingdoms were gradually overwhelmed, and their culture assimilated by the Indo-Scythians, and then the Yuezhi, who founded the Kushan Empire from around 12 BCE.

The new form of Buddhism was characterized by the idea that all beings have a Buddha-nature and should aspire to Buddhahood, and by a syncretism due to the various cultural influences within northwestern India and the Kushan Empire.

In the Kanishka coin, the composite symbol placed by the side of the enlightened Buddha symbolizes 'the Four Noble Truths that emphasize the Middle Path, the Buddha Dhamma.'

The Two Fourth Councils

The Fourth Council is said to have been convened in the reign of the Kushan emperor Kaniṣka around 100 CE at Jalandhar or in Kashmir. Theravāda Buddhism had its own Fourth Council in Sri Lanka about 200 years earlier in which the Pāli canon was written down in toto for the first time. Therefore there were two Fourth Councils: one in Sri Lanka (Theravāda), and one in Kashmir (Sarvāstivādin).

Extent of Buddhism and trade routes in the 1st century CE.

It is said that for the Fourth Council of Kashmir, Kaniṣka gathered 500 monks headed by Vasumitra, partly, it seems, to compile extensive commentaries on the Abhidharma, although it is possible that some editorial work was carried out upon the existing canon itself. Allegedly during the council there were altogether three hundred thousand verses and over nine million statements compiled, and it took twelve years to complete. The main fruit of this council was the compilation of the vast commentary known as the Mahā-Vibhāshā ("Great Exegesis"), an extensive compendium and reference work on a portion of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma.

Scholars believe that it was also around this time that a significant change was made in the language of the Sarvāstivādin canon, by converting an earlier Prakrit version into Sanskrit. Although this change was probably effected without significant loss of integrity to the canon, this event was of particular significance since Sanskrit was the sacred language of Brahmanism in India, and was also being used by other thinkers, regardless of their specific religious or philosophical allegiance, thus enabling a far wider audience to gain access to Buddhist ideas and practices. For this reason there was a growing tendency among Buddhist scholars in India thereafter to write their commentaries and treatises in Sanskrit. Many of the early schools, however, such as Theravāda, never switched to Sanskrit, partly because Buddha explicitly forbade translation of his discourses into what was an elitist religious language (as Latin was in medieval Europe). He wanted his monks to use a local language instead - a language which could be understood by all. Over time, however, the language of the Theravādin scriptures ( Pāli) became a scholarly or elitist language as well, exactly opposite to what the Buddha had explicitly commanded.

Mahāyāna expansion (1st century CE–10th century CE)

Expansion of Mahāyāna Buddhism between the 1st–10th century CE.

From that point on, and in the space of a few centuries, Mahāyāna was to flourish and spread in the East from India to South-East Asia, and towards the north to Central Asia, China, Korea, and finally to Japan in 538 CE and Tibet in the 7th century.


After the end of the Kushans, Buddhism flourished in India during the dynasty of the Guptas (4th-6th century). Mahāyāna centers of learning were established, especially at Nālandā in north-eastern India, which was to become the largest and most influential Buddhist university for many centuries, with famous teachers such as Nāgārjuna. The influence of the Gupta style of Buddhist art spread along with the faith from south-east Asia to China.

Buddha and Bodhisattvas, 11th century, Pala Empire.

Indian Buddhism had weakened in the 6th century following the White Hun invasions and Mihirkulas persecution.

Xuanzang reported in his travels across India during the 7th century of Buddhism being popular in Andhra, Dhanyakataka, and Dravida, which area today roughly corresponds to the modern day Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. While reporting many deserted stupas in the area around modern day Nepal and the persecution of Buddhists by Ssanka in the Kingdom of Gouda in modern day West Bengal, Xuanzang complimented the patronage of Harṣavardana during the same period. After the Harṣavardana kingdom, the rise of many small kingdoms that led to the rise of the Rajputs across the gangetic plains and marked the end of Buddhist ruling clans along with a sharp decline in royal patronage until a revival under the Pāla Empire in the Bengal region. Here Mahāyāna Buddhism flourished and spread to Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim between the 7th and the 12th centuries before the Pālas collapsed under the assault of the Hindu Sena dynasty. The Pālas created many temples and a distinctive school of Buddhist art. Xuanzang noted in his travels that in various regions Buddhism was giving way to Jainism and Hinduism. By the 10th century Buddhism had experienced a sharp decline beyond the Pāla realms in Bengal under a resurgent Hinduism and the incorporation in Vaishnavite Hinduism of Buddha as the 9th incarnation of Vishnu.

A milestone in the decline of Indian Buddhism in the North occurred in 1193 when Turkic Islamic raiders under Muhammad Khilji burnt Nālandā. By the end of the 12th century, following the Islamic conquest of the Buddhist strongholds in Bihar and the loss of political support coupled with social pressures, the practice of Buddhism retreated to the Himalayan foothills in the North and Sri Lanka in the south. Additionally, the influence of Buddhism also waned due to Hinduism's revival movements such as Advaita, the rise of the bhakti movement and the missionary work of Sufis.

Central and Northern Asia

Central Asia

Central Asia had been influenced by Buddhism probably almost since the time of the Buddha. According to a legend preserved in Pāli, the language of the Theravādin canon, two merchant brothers from Bactria named Tapassu and Bhallika visited the Buddha and became his disciples. They then returned to Bactria and built temples to the Buddha.

Central Asia long played the role of a meeting place between China, India and Persia. During the 2nd century BCE, the expansion of the Former Han to the west brought them into contact with the Hellenistic civilizations of Asia, especially the Greco-Bactrian Kingdoms. Thereafter, the expansion of Buddhism to the north led to the formation of Buddhist communities and even Buddhist kingdoms in the oases of Central Asia. Some Silk Road cities consisted almost entirely of Buddhist stupas and monasteries, and it seems that one of their main objectives was to welcome and service travelers between east and west.

The Theravādin traditions first spread among the Iranian tribes before combining with the Mahāyāna forms during the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE to cover modern-day Pakistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan, eastern and coastal Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. These were the ancient states of Gandhāra, Bactria, Parthia and Sogdia from where it spread to China. Among the first of these states to come under the influence of Buddhism was Bactria as early as the 3rd century BCE (see Greco-Buddhism). It was not, however, the exclusive faith of this region. There were also Zoroastrians, Hindus, Nestorian Christians, Jews, Manichaeans, and followers of shamanism, Tengrism, and other indigenous, nonorganized systems of belief.

Various Nikāya schools persisted in Central Asia and China until around the 7th century CE. Mahāyāna started to become dominant during the period, but since the faith had not developed a Nikaya approach, Sarvāstivādins and Dharmaguptakas remained the Vinayas of choice in Central Asian monasteries.

Various Buddhist kingdoms rose and prospered in both the Central Asian region and downwards into the Indian sub-continent such as the Kushan Empire prior to the White Hun invasion in the 5th century where under the King Mihirkula they were heavily persecuted.

Buddhism in Central Asia started to decline with the expansion of Islam and the destruction of many stupas in war from the 7th century. The Muslims accorded them the status of dhimmis as "people of the Book", such as Christianity or Judaism and Al-Biruni wrote of Buddha as prophet "burxan".

Buddhism saw a surge during the reign of Mongols following the invasion of Genghis Khan and the establishment of the Il Khanate and the Chagatai Khanate who brought their Buddhist influence with them during the 13th century; however, within 100 years the Mongols who remained in that region would convert to Islam and spread Islam across all the regions of central Asia. Only the eastern Mongols and the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty would keep Vajrayāna Buddhism.


Buddhism expanded westward into Arsacid Parthia, at least to the area of Merv, in ancient Margiana, today's territory of Turkmenistan. Soviet archeological teams have excavated in Giaur Kala near Merv a Buddhist chapel, a gigantic Buddha statue and a monastery.

Parthians were directly involved in the propagation of Buddhism: An Shigao (c. 148 CE), a Parthian prince, went to China, and is the first known translator of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

Tarim Basin

Blue-eyed Central Asian and East-Asian Buddhist monks, Bezeklik, Eastern Tarim Basin, China, 9th-10th century.

The eastern part of central Asia ( Chinese Turkestan, Tarim Basin, Xinjiang) has revealed extremely rich Buddhist works of art (wall paintings and reliefs in numerous caves, portable paintings on canvas, sculpture, ritual objects), displaying multiple influences from Indian and Hellenistic cultures. Serindian art is highly reminiscent of the Gandhāran style, and scriptures in the Gandhāri script Kharoṣṭhī have been found.

Central Asians seem to have played a key role in the transmission of Buddhism to the East. The first translators of Buddhists scriptures into Chinese were Parthian (Ch: Anxi) like An Shigao (c. 148 CE) or An Hsuan, Kushan of Yuezhi ethnicity like Lokaksema (c. 178 CE), Zhi Qian and Zhi Yao or Sogdians (Ch: SuTe/粟特) like Kang Sengkai. Thirty-seven early translators of Buddhist texts are known, and the majority of them have been identified as Central Asians.

Central Asian and East Asian Buddhist monks appear to have maintained strong exchanges until around the 10th century, as shown by frescoes from the Tarim Basin.

These influences were rapidly absorbed, however, by the vigorous Chinese culture, and a strongly Chinese particularism develops from that point.


According to traditional accounts, Buddhism was introduced in China during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) after an emperor dreamed of a flying golden man thought to be the Buddha. Although the archaeological record confirms that Buddhism was introduced sometime during the Han dynasty, it did not flourish in China until the Six Dynasties period (220-589 CE).

The year 67 CE saw Buddhism's official introduction to China with the coming of the two monks Moton and Chufarlan. In 68 CE, under imperial patronage, they established the White Horse Temple (白馬寺), which still exists today, close to the imperial capital at Luoyang. By the end of the 2nd century, a prosperous community had settled at Pengcheng (modern Xuzhou, Jiangsu).

The first known Mahāyāna scriptural texts are translations into Chinese by the Kushan monk Lokakṣema in Luoyang, between 178 and 189 CE. Some of the earliest known Buddhist artifacts found in China are small statues on "money trees", dated c. 200 CE, in typical Gandhāran drawing style: "That the imported images accompanying the newly arrived doctrine came from Gandhāra is strongly suggested by such early Gandhāra characteristics on this "money tree" Buddha as the high uṣniṣa, vertical arrangement of the hair, moustache, symmetrically looped robe and parallel incisions for the folds of the arms."

Maitreya Buddha, Northern Wei, 443 CE.

In the period between 460-525 AD during the Northern Wei dynasty, the Chinese constructed Yungang Grottoes, it's an outstanding example of the Chinese stone carvings from the 5th and 6th centuries. All together the site is composed of 252 grottoes with more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes.

Another famous Buddhism Grottoes is Longmen Grottoes which started with the Northern Wei Dynasty in 493 AD. There are as many as 100,000 statues within the 1,400 caves, ranging from an 1 inch (25 mm) to 57 feet (17 m) in height. The area also contains nearly 2,500 stelae and inscriptions, whence the name "Forest of Ancient Stelae", as well as over sixty Buddhist pagodas.

Buddhism flourished during the beginning of the Tang Dynasty (618–907). The dynasty was initially characterized by a strong openness to foreign influences and renewed exchanges with Indian culture due to the numerous travels of Chinese Buddhist monks to India from the 4th to the 11th century. The Tang capital of Chang'an (today's Xi'an) became an important centre for Buddhist thought. From there Buddhism spread to Korea, and Japanese embassies of Kentoshi helped gain footholds in Japan.

However, foreign influences came to be negatively perceived towards the end of the Tang Dynasty. In the year 845, the Tang emperor Wuzong outlawed all "foreign" religions including Christian Nestorianism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism in order to support the indigenous Taoism. Throughout his territory, he confiscated Buddhist possessions, destroyed monasteries and temples, and executed Buddhist monks, ending Buddhism's cultural and intellectual dominance.

However, about a hundred years after the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, Buddhism revived during the Song Dynasty (1127–1279).

Pure Land and Chan Buddhism, however, continued to prosper for some centuries, the latter giving rise to Japanese Zen. In China, Chan flourished particularly under the Song dynasty (1127–1279), when its monasteries were great centers of culture and learning.

In the last two thousand years, the Buddhist have build The Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism, they are Mount Wutai, Mount Emei, Mount Jiuhua, Mount Putuo.

Today, China boasts one of the richest collections of Buddhist arts and heritages in the world. UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in Gansu province, the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang in Henan province, the Yungang Grottoes near Datong in Shanxi province, and the Dazu Rock Carvings near Chongqing are among the most important and renowned Buddhist sculptural sites. The Leshan Giant Buddha, carved out of a hillside in the 8th century during the Tang Dynasty and looking down on the confluence of three rivers, is still the largest stone Buddha statue in the world.


Buddhism was introduced around 372 CE, when Chinese ambassadors visited the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo, bringing scriptures and images. Buddhism prospered in Korea - in particular Seon ( Zen) Buddhism from the 7th century onward. However, with the beginning of the Confucian Yi Dynasty of the Joseon period in 1392, a strong discrimination took place against Buddhism until it was almost completely eradicated, except for a remaining Seon movement.


Tile with seated Buddha, Nara Prefecture, Asuka period, 7th century. Tokyo National Museum.

The Buddhism of Japan was introduced from Three Kingdoms of Korea in the 6th century. The Chinese priest Ganjin offered the system of Vinaya to the Buddhism of Japan in 754. As a result, the Buddhism of Japan has developed rapidly. Saichō and Kūkai succeeded to a legitimate Buddhism from China in the 9th century.

Being geographically at the end of the Silk Road, Japan was able to preserve many aspects of Buddhism at the very time it was disappearing in India, and being suppressed in Central Asia and China.

From 710 CE numerous temples and monasteries were built in the capital city of Nara, such as the five-story pagoda and Golden Hall of the Hōryū-ji, or the Kōfuku-ji temple. Countless paintings and sculptures were made, often under governmental sponsorship. The creations of Japanese Buddhist art were especially rich between the 8th and 13th century during the periods of Nara, Heian and Kamakura.

From the 12th and 13th centuries, a further development was Zen art, following the introduction of the faith by Dogen and Eisai upon their return from China. Zen art is mainly characterized by original paintings (such as ink wash and the Enso) and poetry (especially haikus), striving to express the true essence of the world through impressionistic and unadorned "non-dualistic" representations. The search for enlightenment "in the moment" also led to the development of other important derivative arts such as the Chanoyu tea ceremony or the Ikebana art of flower arrangement. This evolution went as far as considering almost any human activity as an art with a strong spiritual and aesthetic content, first and foremost in those activities related to combat techniques ( martial arts).

Buddhism remains very active in Japan to this day. Around 80,000 Buddhist temples are preserved and regularly restored.


Buddhism arrived late in Tibet, during the 7th century CE. The form that predominated, via the south of Tibet, was a blend of mahāyāna and vajrayāna from the universities of the Pāla empire of north India. Sarvāstivādin influence came from the south west (Kashmir) and the north west ( Khotan). Although these practitioners did not succeed in maintaining a presence in Tibet, their texts found their way into the Tibetan Buddhist canon, providing the Tibetans with almost all of their primary sources about the Foundation Vehicle. A subsect of this school, Mūlasarvāstivāda was the source of the Tibetan Vinaya. Chan Buddhism was introduced via east Tibet from China and left its impression, but was rendered of lesser importance by early political events.

From the outset Buddhism was opposed by the native shamanistic Bon religion, which had the support of the aristocracy, but with royal patronage it thrived to a peak under King Rälpachän (817-836). Terminology in translation was standardised around 825, enabling a translation methodology that was highly literal. Despite a reversal in Buddhist influence which began under King Langdarma (836-842), the following centuries saw a colossal effort in collecting available Indian sources, many of which are now extant only in Tibetan translation.

Tibetan Buddhism exerted a strong influence from the 11th century CE among the peoples of Central Asia, especially in Mongolia and Manchuria. It was adopted as an official state religion by the Mongol Yuan dynasty and the Manchu Qing dynasty that ruled China.

Southeast Asia

Statue of the Bodhisattva Lokesvara, Cambodia, 12th century.
Cambodian Buddha, 14th century.

During the 1st century CE, the trade on the overland Silk Road tended to be restricted by the rise in the Middle-East of the Parthian empire, an unvanquished enemy of Rome, just as Romans were becoming extremely wealthy and their demand for Asian luxury was rising. This demand revived the sea connections between the Mediterranean and China, with India as the intermediary of choice. From that time, through trade connection, commercial settlements, and even political interventions, India started to strongly influence Southeast Asian countries (excluding Vietnam). Trade routes linked India with southern Burma, central and southern Siam, lower Cambodia and Champa, and numerous urbanized coastal settlements were established there.

For more than a thousand years, Indian influence was therefore the major factor that brought a certain level of cultural unity to the various countries of the region. The Pāli and Sanskrit languages and the Indian script, together with Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism, Brahmanism, and Hinduism, were transmitted from direct contact and through sacred texts and Indian literature such as the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata.

From the 5th to the 13th century, South-East Asia had very powerful empires and became extremely active in Buddhist architectural and artistic creation. The main Buddhist influence now came directly by sea from the Indian subcontinent, so that these empires essentially followed the Mahāyāna faith. The Sri Vijaya Empire to the south and the Khmer Empire to the north competed for influence, and their art expressed the rich Mahāyāna pantheon of the bodhisattvas.

The graceful golden statue of Avalokiteçvara in Malayu- Srivijayan style, Jambi, Indonesia.

Srivijayan Empire (7th–13th century)

Srivijaya, a maritime empire centered at Palembang on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, adopted Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism under a line of rulers named the Sailendras. Yijing described Palembang as a great centre of Buddhist learning where the emperor supported over a thousand monks at his court. Yijing also testified to the importance of Buddhism as early as the year 671 and advised future Chinese pilgrims to spend a year or two in Palembang. Atiśa studied there before travelling to Tibet as a missionary.

As Srivijaya expanded their thalassocracy, Buddhism thrived amongst its people. However, many did not practice pure Buddhism but a new syncretism form of Buddhism that incorporated several different religions such as Hinduism and other indigenous traditions.

Srivijaya spread Buddhist art during its expansion in Southeast Asia. Numerous statues of bodhisattvas from this period are characterized by a very strong refinement and technical sophistication, and are found throughout the region. Extremely rich architectural remains are visible at the temple of Borobudur the largest Buddhist structure in the world, built from around 780 CE in Java, which has 505 images of the seated Buddha. Srivijaya declined due to conflicts with the Chola rulers of India, before being destabilized by the Islamic expansion from the 13th century.

Khmer Empire (9th–13th century)

Later, from the 9th to the 13th centuries, the Mahāyāna Buddhist and Hindu Khmer Empire dominated much of the South-East Asian peninsula. Under the Khmer, more than 900 temples were built in Cambodia and in neighboring Thailand. Angkor was at the centre of this development, with a temple complex and urban organization able to support around one million urban dwellers. One of the greatest Khmer kings, Jayavarman VII (1181–1219), built large Mahāyāna Buddhist structures at Bayon and Angkor Thom.


Buddhism in Vietnam as practiced by the Vietnamese is mainly of Mahāyāna tradition. Buddhism came from Vietnam as early as the 2nd century CE through the North from Central Asia via India. Vietnamese Buddhism is very similar to Chinese buddhism and to some extent reflects the structure of Chinese Buddhism after the Song Dynasty. Vietnamese Buddhism also has a symbiotic relationship with Taoism, Chinese spirituality and the native Vietnamese religion.

Emergence of the Vajrayāna (5th century)

Vajrayāna Buddhism, also called tantric Buddhism, first emerged in eastern India between the 5th and 7th centuries CE. It is sometimes considered a sub-school of Mahāyāna and sometimes a third major "vehicle" (yāna) of Buddhism in its own right. The Vajrayāna is an extension of Mahāyāna Buddhism in that it does not offer new philosophical perspectives, but rather introduces additional techniques (upaya, or 'skilful means'), including the use of visualizations and other yogic practices. Many of the practices of tantric Buddhism are common with Hindu tantricism: the usage of mantras, yoga and the burning of sacrificial offerings.

Early Vajrayāna practitioners were forest-dwelling mahasiddhas who lived on the margins of society, but by the 9th century Vajrayāna had won acceptance at major Mahāyāna monastic universities such as Nālandā and Vikramaśīla. Along with much of the rest of Indian Buddhism, the Vajrayāna was eclipsed in the wake of the late 12th century Muslim invasions. It has persisted in Tibet, where it was wholly transplanted from the 7th to 12th centuries, and on a limited basis in Japan as well where it evolved into Shingon Buddhism.

Theravāda Renaissance (11th century CE– )

Expansion of Theravāda Buddhism from the 11th century CE.

From the 11th century, the destruction of Buddhism in the Indian mainland by Islamic invasions led to the decline of the Mahāyāna faith in South-East Asia. Continental routes through the Indian subcontinent being compromised, direct sea routes developed from the Middle-East through Sri Lanka to China, leading to the adoption of the Theravāda Buddhism of the Pāli canon, introduced to the region around the 11th century CE from Sri Lanka.

King Anawrahta (1044–1077); the historical founder of the Burmese empire, unified the country and adopted the Theravādin Buddhist faith. This initiated the creation of thousands of Buddhist temples at Pagan, the capital, between the 11th and 13th century. Around 2,000 of them are still standing. The power of the Burmese waned with the rise of the Thai, and with the seizure of the capital Pagan by the Mongols in 1287, but Theravāda Buddhism remained the main Burmese faith to this day.

The Theravāda faith was also adopted by the newly founded ethnic Thai kingdom of Sukhothai around 1260. Theravāda Buddhism was further reinforced during the Ayutthaya period (14th–18th century), becoming an integral part of Thai society.

In the continental areas, Theravāda Buddhism continued to expand into Laos and Cambodia in the 13th century. From the 14th century, however, on the coastal fringes and in the islands of south-east Asia, the influence of Islam proved stronger, expanding into Malaysia, Indonesia, and most of the islands as far as the southern Philippines.

Nevertheless, since Suharto's rise to power in 1966, there has been a remarkable renaissance of Buddhism in Indonesia. This is partly due to the requirements of Suharto's New Order for the people of Indonesia to adopt one of the five official religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism or Buddhism. Today it is estimated there are some 10 millions Buddhists in Indonesia. A large part of them are people of Chinese ancestry.

Expansion of Buddhism to the West

Saint Josaphat preaching Christianity. 12th century Greek manuscript.

After the Classical encounters between Buddhism and the West recorded in Greco-Buddhist art, information and legends about Buddhism seem to have reached the West sporadically. An account of Buddha's life was translated in to Greek by John of Damascus, and widely circulated to Christians as the story of Barlaam and Josaphat. By the 14th century this story of Josaphat had become so popular that he was made a Catholic saint.

The next direct encounter between Europeans and Buddhism happened in Medieval times when the Franciscan friar William of Rubruck was sent on an embassy to the Mongol court of Mongke by the French king Saint Louis in 1253. The contact happened in Cailac (today's Qayaliq in Kazakhstan), and William originally thought they were wayward Christians (Foltz, "Religions of the Silk Road").

In the period after Hulagu, the Mongol Ilkhans increasingly adopted Buddhism. Numerous Buddhist temples dotted the landscape of Persia and Iraq, none of which survived the 14th century. The Buddhist element of the Il-Khanate died with Arghun.

The Kalmyk Khanate was founded in the 17th century with Tibetan Buddhism as its main religion, following the earlier migration of the Oirats from Dzungaria through Central Asia to the steppe around the mouth of the Volga River. During the course of the 18th century, they were absorbed by the Russian Empire. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, Kalmyk cavalry units in Russian service entered Paris. Kalmykia is remarkable for being the only state in Europe where the dominant religion is Buddhism.

Interest in Buddhism increased during the colonial era, when Western powers were in a position to witness the faith and its artistic manifestations in detail. The opening of Japan in 1853 created a considerable interest in the arts and culture of Japan, and provided access to one of the most thriving Buddhist cultures in the world.

Buddhism started to enjoy a strong interest from the general population in the West following the turbulence of the 20th century. In the wake of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, a Tibetan diaspora has made Tibetan Buddhism in particular more widely accessible to the rest of the world. It has since spread to many Western countries, where the tradition has gained popularity. Among its prominent exponents is the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. The number of its adherents is estimated to be between ten and twenty million.

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