The Spread of Buddhism in Asia

Originally published as part of
Berzin, Alexander. Buddhism and Its Impact on Asia.
Asian Monographs, no. 8.
Cairo: Cairo University, Center for Asian Studies, June 1996.

Brief History

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 liberation, 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 Manner in Which Buddhism Spread

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 exiled.