The Expansion of Buddhism

In India, Buddhism began to wane in the sixth and seventh centuries CE when devotional Hinduism replaced Buddhism in the south and Hephthalite Huns invaded and sacked monasteries in the north. By the thirteenth century, repeated invasions by the Turks ensured that Buddhism had virtually disappeared. By this time, however, Buddhism was flourishing in many other parts of Asia. As early as the third century BCE the Indian emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism, is said to have established the tradition on the island of Ceylon, or Sri Lanka. By the fifth century CE Buddhism had spread throughout what are now Myanmar and Thailand. By the thirteenth century, one of the early Buddhist schools, called the Theravada, “the way of the elders,” had become the dominant tradition of South and Southeast Asia.

As early as the first century CE, Buddhist monks made their way over the “Silk Road” through Central Asia to China. By the seventh century, Buddhism had made a significant impact in China, interacting with Confucian and Daoist cultures and ideas. By this time the tradition was also firmly established in Korea. In the sixth century, the Buddhist tradition was also introduced into Japan, where it developed in a milieu shaped by both Shinto and other indigenous traditions. This form of Buddhism that first developed in India and later flourished in East Asia is known as the Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle.”

In the eighth century, Buddhism, shaped by the Tantric traditions of northeast India, spread to the high mountain plateau of Tibet. There, in interaction with the indigenous Bon religion, and with forms of Buddhism that had traveled to Tibet from East Asia, a distinctive and vibrant form of Mahayana Buddhism emerged known as Vajrayana, the “Diamond Vehicle.”

These streams of Buddhism are differentiated to some extent by their interpretations of the Buddha and the Buddha’s teachings, the scriptures they hold in special reverence, and the variety of cultural expressions they lend to Buddhist life and practice. It would be a mistake, however, to identify these streams of tradition too rigidly with either specific ideas or specific geographical areas.


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