The Spread of Buddhism in Asia
Originally published as part
Berzin, Alexander. Buddhism and Its Impact on Asia.
Asian Monographs, no. 8.
Cairo: Cairo University, Center for Asian Studies, June 1996.
Although Buddhism never developed a missionary movement, Buddha's teachings
nevertheless spread far and wide on the Indian subcontinent and from
there throughout Asia. In each new culture it reached, the Buddhist
methods and styles were modified to fit the local mentality, without
compromising the essential points of wisdom and compassion. Buddhism, however, never
developed an overall hierarchy of religious authority with a supreme
head. Each country to which it spread developed its own forms, its own
religious structure and its own spiritual head. The most well-known and
internationally respected of these authorities at present is His
Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet.
There are two major divisions of Buddhism. The Hinayana, or
Modest Vehicle, emphasizes personal
while the Mahayana, or Vast Vehicle, stresses working to
become a fully enlightened Buddha in order to be best able to help
others. Each has many sub-divisions. At present, however, three major
forms survive: one Hinayana, known as Theravada, in Southeast Asia, and
two Mahayana, namely the Chinese and Tibetan traditions.
The Theravada tradition spread from India to Sri Lanka and Burma in
the third century BCE, and from there to Yunnan in southwest China,
Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, South Vietnam and Indonesia. Pockets of Indian
merchants practicing Buddhism were soon found on the coast of the
Arabian Peninsula and even as far as Alexandria, Egypt. Other forms of
Hinayana spread from that time
to modern-day Pakistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan, eastern and coastal Iran,
Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. These were the ancient states
of Gandhara, Bactria, Parthia and Sogdia. From this base in Central
Asia, they spread further in the second century CE to East Turkistan
(Xinjiang) and further into China, and in the late seventh century to
Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. These forms of Hinayana were later combined
with Mahayana aspects that also came from India so that Mahayana
eventually became the dominant form of Buddhism in most of Central Asia.
The Chinese form of Mahayana later spread to Korea, Japan and North
Vietnam. Another early wave of Mahayana, mixed with Shaivite forms of
Hinduism, spread from India to Nepal, Indonesia, Malaysia and parts of
Southeast Asia starting in about the fifth century. The Tibetan Mahayana
tradition, which, starting in the seventh century, inherited the full
historical development of Indian Buddhism, spread throughout the
Himalayan regions and to Mongolia, East Turkistan, Kyrgyzstan,
Kazakhstan, northern Inner China, Manchuria, Siberia and the Kalmyk
Mongol region near the Caspian Sea in European Russia.
The expansion of Buddhism throughout most of Asia was peaceful and
occurred in several ways. Shakyamuni
Buddha set the precedent. Being primarily a teacher, he traveled to
nearby kingdoms to share his insights with those who were receptive and interested.
Likewise, he instructed his monks to go forth in the world and expound
his teachings. He did not ask others to denounce and give up their own
religion and convert to a new one, for he was not seeking to establish
his own religion. He was merely trying to help others overcome the unhappiness and suffering that they were
creating for themselves because of their lack of understanding. Later
generations of followers were inspired by Buddha's example and shared
with others his methods that they found useful in their lives. This is
how what is now called "Buddhism" spread far and wide.
Sometimes the process evolved organically. For example, when Buddhist
merchants visited and settled in different lands, some members of the
local populations naturally developed interest in these foreigners'
beliefs, as with the introduction of Islam to Indonesia and Malaysia.
Such a process occurred with Buddhism in the oasis states along the Silk
Route in Central Asia during the two centuries before and after the
common era. As local rulers and their people learned more about this
Indian religion, they invited monks from the merchants' native regions
as advisors or teachers and, in this manner, eventually adopted the
Buddhist faith. Another organic method was through the slow cultural
assimilation of a conquering people, such as the Greeks into the
Buddhist society of Gandhara in present-day central Pakistan during the
centuries following the second century BCE.
Often, however, the dissemination was due primarily to the influence
of a powerful monarch who had adopted and supported Buddhism himself. In the mid-third century
BCE, for example, Buddhism spread throughout northern India as the
result of the personal endorsement of King Ashoka. This great
empire-builder did not force his subjects to adopt the Buddhist faith.
But by posting edicts engraved on iron pillars throughout his realm
exhorting his people to lead an ethical life and by following these
principles himself, he inspired others to adopt Buddha's teachings.
King Ashoka also actively
proselytized outside his kingdom by sending missions to distant lands.
On some occasions, he acted upon the invitation of foreign rulers, such
as King Tishya of Sri Lanka. On others, he sent monks as envoys at his
own initiative. These visiting monastics, however, did not forcefully
pressure others to convert, but simply made Buddha's teachings
available, allowing people to choose for themselves. This is evidenced
by the fact that in such places as South India and southern Burma,
Buddhism soon took root, while in others, such as the Greek colonies in
Central Asia, there is no record of any immediate impact.
Other religious kings, such as the sixteenth century Mongol potentate
Altan Khan, invited Buddhist teachers to their realm and proclaimed
Buddhism the official creed of the land in order to help unify their
people and consolidate their rule. In the process they may have
prohibited certain practices of non-Buddhist, indigenous religions and
even persecuted those who followed them, but these heavy-handed moves
were primarily politically motivated. Such
ambitious rulers never forced their subjects to adopt Buddhist forms of
belief or worship. This is not part of the religious creed.
If Shakyamuni Buddha told people not to follow his teachings out of
blind faith, but to examine them carefully themselves before accepting
them, how much less so should people accept Buddha's teachings out of
coercion from zealous missionaries or royal decree. Thus, for instance,
when Toyin Neiji in the early sixteenth century CE tried to bribe
Eastern Mongol nomads into following Buddhism by offering them livestock
for each verse they memorized, people complained to the highest
authorities. In the end, this overbearing teacher was punished and