Buddhism in the World

 563 BCE Birth of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha

Although the dates of the Buddha remain a point of controversy within both the Buddhist and scholarly communities, according to one widely accepted traditional account, Siddhartha was born as a prince in the Shakya clan in 563. After achieving enlightenment at the age of 36, the Buddha spent the remainder of his life giving spiritual guidance to an ever-growing body of disciples. He is said to have entered into parinirvana in 483 at the age of 81.

c. 480 BCE The First Council

A group of the Buddha’s disciples are said to have come together shortly after the Buddha’s parinirvana in hopes of establishing guidelines to ensure the continuity of the Sangha. According to tradition, as many as 500 prominent arhats gathered in Rajagriha to recite together and standardize the Buddha’s sutras (discourses on Dharma) and vinaya (rules of conduct).

c. 350 BCE The Second Council

It remains unclear if what is known as the Second Council refers to one particular assemblage of monks, or if there were several meetings convened during the 4th century BCE to clarify points of controversy. It also remains unclear precisely what matters of doctrine or conduct were in dispute. What is clear is that this council resulted in the first schism in the Sangha, that between the Sthaviravada (in Pali, Theravada) and the Mahasanghika.

269-232 BCE The Spread of Buddhism Through South and Southeast Asia

After witnessing the great bloodshed and suffering caused by his military campaigns, Emperor Ashoka Maurya converted to Buddhism, sending missionaries throughout India and into present day Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia.

200 BCE-200 CE Emergence of Mahayana Buddhism from “Hinayana”

Differing interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings developed into two main schools. One, which referred to itself as Mahayana or “Great Vehicle,” disparagingly referred to the other branch as Hinayana or “Small Vehicle.” Today, Theravada, the “Way of the Elders,” is the only surviving example of the 18 schools that had been lumped under the rubric “Hinayana.” Theravada Buddhism is followed in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Mahayana traditions may be found in China, Korea, and Japan.

65 CE First Mention of Buddhism in China

Han dynasty records note that Prince Ying of Ch’u, a half-brother of the Han emperor, provided a vegetarian feast for the Buddhist laity and monks living in his kingdom, indicating that a Buddhist community had already formed there.

c. 100 CE Ashvaghosha Writes Buddhacarita

Among the early biographies of the Buddha was the Buddhacarita, written by the Indian poet Ashvaghosha. Buddhacarita, literally “Life of the Buddha,” is regarded as one of the greatest epic poems in Sanskrit, or any language.

200s CE Nagarjuna Founds the Madhyamaka School

Based on his reading of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, Nagarjuna argued that everything in the world, even its most fundamental elements, is sunya, “empty,” that is, without inherent existence. This idea that the world is real, yet radically impermanent and interdependent, has played a central role in Buddhist philosophy.

372 CE Buddhism Introduced to Korea from China

In 372 the Chinese king Fu Chien sent a monk-envoy, Shun-tao, to the Koguryo court with scriptures and images. Although all three of the kingdoms on the Korean peninsula soon embraced Buddhism, it was not until the unification of the peninsula under the Silla in 668 that the tradition truly flourished.

400s CE Buddhaghosa Systematizes Theravada Teachings

Buddhaghosa played a formative role in the systematization of Theravada doctrine. After arriving in Sri Lanka in the early part of the fifth century, this South Indian monk devoted himself to editing and translating into Pali the scriptural commentaries that had accumulated in the native Sinhalese language. He also composed the Visuddhimagga, “Path of Purity,” a very influential treatise on Theravada practice. From this point on, Theravada became the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and eventually would spread to Southeast Asia.

402 CE Pure Land Buddhism Established in China

Hui-yuan was the first Chinese monk to form a group specifically devoted to reciting the vow to be reborn in the Western Paradise, founding the Donglin Temple at Mount Lu for this purpose. Subsequent Pure Land practitioners regard him as the school’s founding patriarch.

520 CE Bodhidharma, First Patriarch of Ch’an (Zen), Arrives in China

The Ch’an (Zen) school traces its establishment to the arrival of the monk Bodhidharma in Northern China. There he is said to have spent nine years meditating in front of a wall before silently transmitting the Buddha’s Dharma to Shen-Kuang, the second patriarch. All Zen masters trace their authority to this line of transmission.

552 CE Buddhism Enters Japan from Korea

In 552 the king of Paekche sent an envoy to Japan in hopes of gaining military support. As gifts, he sent an image of Buddha, several Buddhist scriptures, and a memorial praising Buddhism. Within three centuries, the tradition would become the major spiritual and intellectual force in the country.

700s CE Vajrayana Buddhism Emerges in Tibet

Buddhist teachings and practices appear to have first made their way into Tibet in the mid-7th century. During the reign of King Khri-srong (c. 740-798), the first monastery was founded and the first monk ordained. For the next four hundred years, a constant flow of Tibetan monks made their way to Northern India to study at the great Buddhist universities. It was from the university of Vikramasila that the yogin-magician Padmasambhava is said to have carried the Vajrayana teachings to Tibet, where they soon became the dominant form of Buddhism.

1044-1077 CE Theravada Buddhism Established in Burma

Theravada Buddhism was practiced in pockets of southern Burma since about the 6th century CE. It was not until King Anawrahta ascended the throne in 1044, however, that Shin Arahan, a charismatic Mon monk from Southern Burma, convinced the new monarch to establish a more strictly Theravadin expression of Buddhism for the entire kingdom. From that time on, Theravada would remain the religion of the majority of the Burmese people.

c. 1050 CE Development of Jogye Buddhism in Korea

The Ch’an school, which first arrived to Korea from China in the 8th century, eventually established nine branches, known as the Nine Mountains. In the 11th century these branches were organized into one system under the name of Jogye. Although all Buddhist teachings were given their place, the kong-an (koan) practice of Lin-chi Yixuan gained highest stature as the most direct path to enlightenment.

1100s CE Pure Land Buddhism Established in Japan

Following a reading of a Chinese Pure Land text, the Japanese monk Honen Shonin (1133-1212) became convinced that, in his degenerate times, the only effective mode of practice was nembutsu, chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha. This soon became a dominant form of practice in Japan.

1100s CE Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism Established in Japan

The monk Eisai returned from China, bringing tea and founding the Rinzai school of Zen. In the form of meditation practiced by this school, the student’s only guidance is to come from the subtle hint of a raised eyebrow, the sudden jolt of an unexpected slap, or the teacher’s direct questioning on the meaning of a koan.

1203 CE Destruction of Buddhist Centers in India

By the close of the first millennium CE Buddhism had passed its zenith in India. Traditionally, the end of Indian Buddhism is identified with the advent of Muslim Rule in Northern India. The Turk Muhammad Ghuri razed the last two great Buddhist universities, Nalanda and Vikramasila, in 1197 and 1203 respectively. However, recent histories have suggested that Muhammad Ghuri’s razing of these monasteries was a military action, not one necessarily motivated by religion.

1200s CE True Pure Land Buddhism Established

Honen’s disciple Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) began the devotional “True Pure Land” movement. Considering the lay/monk distinction invalid, Shinran married and had several children, thereby initiating the practice of married Jodo Shinshu clergy and establishing a familial lineage of leadership, traits which continue to distinguish the school to this day.

1200s CE Soto Zen Founded in Japan

Dogen (1200-1253) spent most of his two years in China studying T’ien-t’ai Buddhism. Disappointed by the intellectualism of the school, he was about to return to Japan when the Ts’ao-tung monk Ju-ching (Rujing) explained that the practice of Zen simply meant “dropping off both body and mind.” Dogen, immediately enlightened, returned to Japan, establishing Soto (the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese graphs for Ts’ao-tung) as one of the pre-eminent schools.

1253 CE Nichiren Buddhism Established in Japan

As the sun began to rise on May 17, 1253, Nichiren Daishonin climbed to the crest of a hill, where he cried out “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,” “Adoration to the Sutra of the Lotus of the Perfect Truth.” Nichiren considered the recitation of this mantra to be the core of the true teachings of the Buddha and was convinced that it would eventually spread throughout the world, a conviction sustained by current sects of the school, especially the Soka Gakkai.

1279-1360 CE Theravada Buddhism Established in Southeast Asia

With Kublai Khan’s conquest of China in the thirteenth century, ever greater numbers of Tai migrated from southwestern China into present day Thailand and Burma. There they established political domination over the indigenous Mon and Khmer peoples, while appropriating elements of these cultures, including their Buddhist faith. By the time that the great King Rama Khamhaeng had ascended the throne in Sukhothai (central Thailand) in 1279, a monk had been sent to Sri Lanka to receive Theravadin texts. During the reigns of Rama Khamhaeng’s son and grandson, Sinhala Buddhism spread northward to the Tai Kingdom of Chiangmai. Within a century, the royal houses of Cambodia and Laos also became Theravadin.

1881 CE Founding of Pali Text Society

Ever since its founding by the British scholar T.W. Rhys Davids, the Pali Text Society has been the primary publisher of Theravada texts and translations into Western languages.

1891 CE Anagarika Dharmapala Founds Mahabodhi Society

Anagarika Dharmapala played an important role in restoring Bodh-Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, which had badly deteriorated after centuries of neglect. In order to raise funds for this project, Dharmapala founded the Mahabodhi Society, first in Ceylon and later in India, the United States, and Britain. He also edited the society’s periodical, the Mahabodhi Journal .

1930 CE Soka Gakkai Established in Japan

Soka Gakkai was begun in 1930 by an educator named Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. Soon after its founding, it became associated with Nichiren Shoshu, a sect of Nichiren Buddhism. Today the organization has over twelve million members around the world.

1938 CE Rissho Kosei-Kai Established in Japan

This movement, founded by the Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, is based on the teachings set forth in the Lotus Sutra and works for individual and world peace. Rev. Niwano was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1979 and honored by the Vatican in 1992. The Rissho Kosei-Kai has been active in interfaith activities throughout the world.

1949 CE Buddhist Sangha Flees Mainland China

With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Buddhist monks and nuns fled to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. Many of these monks and nuns have subsequently immigrated to Australia, Europe and the United States.

1950 CE World Fellowship of Buddhists Inaugurated in Sri Lanka

The WFB was established to bring Buddhists together in promoting Buddhist goals. Since 1969, its permanent headquarters have been in Thailand, with regional offices in 34 different countries.

1956 CE Buddhism Returns to India

On October 14, 1956 Bhim Rao Ambedkar (1891-1956), India’s leader of Hindu untouchables, publicly converted to Buddhism as part of a political protest. As many as half a million of his followers also took the three refuges and five precepts on that day. In the following years, over four million Indians, chiefly from the castes of untouchables, declared themselves Buddhists.

1959 CE Dalai Lama Flees to India

With the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, and other Vajrayana Buddhist leaders fled to India. A Tibetan government in exile was established in Dharamsala, India.

1966 CE Thich Nhat Hanh to U.S. and Western Europe

The Fellowship of Reconciliation invited Thich Nhat Hanh to tour the U.S. in 1966 to explain to the American public the meaning of the Buddhist-led demonstrations against the American-supported Saigon government. As the result of his outspoken appraisal of the Saigon government’s policies during this tour, Nhat Hanh faced certain imprisonment upon his return to Vietnam. He therefore decided to take asylum in France, where he founded Plum Village, today an important center for meditation and action.

1975 CE Devastation of Buddhism in Cambodia

Pol Pot’s Marxist regime declared Year Zero upon coming to power. In the next four years, most of Cambodia’s 3,600 Buddhist temples were destroyed. The Sangha was left with an estimated 3,000 of its 50,000 monks. The rest did not survive the persecution.

1989 CE Founding of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)

INEB began in Thailand as a conference of 36 monks and lay persons from 11 countries. Today, it has expanded to 160 members and affiliates from 26 countries. As its name suggests, INEB endeavors to facilitate Buddhist participation in social action in order to create a just and peaceful world.

1989 CE Dalai Lama Receives Nobel Peace Prize

Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless work spreading a message of non-violence. He has said on many occasions about Buddhism, “My religion is very simple–my religion is kindness.”

2010 CE Western Buddhist Teachers called for U.S. Commission of Inquiry to Burma

Prominent Buddhist teachers in the U.S. signed a letter to President Barack Obama demanding that the U.S. press Burma on crimes against humanity on ethnic nationalities, in light of the upcoming Burmese election.