Posted on October 9th, 2020


Revised 13.10.20

 Buddha wanted to spread his ideas   beyond the locality he lived in, and he sent sixty disciples in all directions. This was the start of Buddhist missionary work.

300 years later Emperor Dharmasoka (268 – 232 BC) took over the missionary task. He sent Buddhist missionaries to Syria, Macedonia, Cyrene, Epirus, Kashmir, Gandhara, Lower Burma and Thailand. Thanks to king Dharmasoka, Buddhism which till then, had covered only a few thousand square miles in north eastern India during the first two hundred years of its existence, became a world religion, said Guruge.

Buddhism spread in east, south, and central Asia. It did not go to the north, which was Siberia and it did not take root in west Asia. In Central Asia, Buddhism   spread to Gandhara, Tibet and Turkestan. In East Asia, Buddhism spread to China, Japan, Korea and Mongolia.   In South Asia, Buddhism spread to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. In South East Asia, Buddhism spread to Burma, Thailand,     Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia.

These Buddhist countries practiced all three major schools of Buddhism, Mahayana, Theravada and Tantra.  China, Tibet, Mongolia, Korea and Japan, were Mahayana.  Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka were Theravada. Tibet was Tantra. In addition, Buddhism allowed local religious beliefs and customs of the host country to continue unimpeded. Some to these beliefs became part of the Buddhist way of life.

The first indication of Buddhism in Indo-China peninsula is the arrival of the Burmese of Sino-Tibetan origin to lower Burma in 10th century, and the arrival of Thai from Yunnan to Central Thailand in 12th    century. But it is difficult to chart the history of Buddhism during this period since these Mon, Khmer, Thai groups were moving about and the centers of power kept    shifting, said experts.

Eventually, the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati with Nakon Pathom, Lop Buri as its cultural centers had nurtured Theravada Buddhism in Thailand.  The Mon kingdom of Haripunjaya at Lamphun also was Buddhist. There was Mahayana influence as well in Thailand.  Thai monks had studied at Nalanda.

In Burma, the kingdom of Ava and the Mon kingdom of Pegu unified in 14th century and accepted Theravada Buddhism. Pagan became a renowned centre of Theravada Buddhism. The monks of Burma specialized in Abhidamma while Thailand and Sri Lanka   focus on Vinaya and Sutta respectively, said Guruge.

Vietnamese Buddhismbecame well known because of the publicity given to monks who set themselves on fire during the Vietnam War. Vietnam’s Buddhist monuments included the Lokesvara statue in Huong Qua (7-8 century) the monastic complexes of Dong Duang (10-11 century) and towers of Binh Dinh (12 century). 

Muslim influence eliminated Buddhism in Central Asia, India and the Malaysian archipelago, but evidence of Buddhist influence can still be seen in the ruins of these countries. Indonesia and Maldives is Muslim today, but both were Buddhist earlier.   Fourteen Buddhist monasteries have been found in Maldives.

Indonesia followed Mahayana and Vajrayana. Singasari in Eastern Java   was a centre of Tantric Buddhism. The best known Buddhist monument in Indonesia is Borobudur, but there are other monuments too. Indonesia had the oldest Buddhist art in Southeast Asia, said experts. A bronze image of Buddha in Amaravati style of 3-5 AD was found at Celebes. 

Buddhism had   entered Malaysia and Philippines. Neither is Buddhist today, but there is evidence to show that Malaysia had Buddhist influence.  In the Philippines, archaeological findings indicate the presence of Buddhism.

Buddhism first took root in India. Gautama Buddha lived   in India. Buddhism started in the republics near the Ganges delta, but spread to the west as well. Pakistan has many Buddhist monuments. Buddhism also took root in south India, in Orissa, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Amaravati and Nagarjunikonda are in Andhra Pradesh.

Buddhism had a troubled existence in India. The decline of Buddhism in India took place over a period of three to four hundred years.  Buddhism was opposed by Jainism and Vedic Brahmanism.  In Karnataka Buddhism was ousted as a result of the growing popularity of Jainism.  

 The public in India had been vacillating between Buddhism and Hinduism for several centuries. There are numerous records of donations by wealthy persons and kings to both Hindu and Buddhist institutions at one and the same time. Buddha was accepted into the Hindu pantheon as the incarnation of Vishnu on par with Rama and Krishna.  But trouble was brewing.

Hindu resurgence which began in the Gupta age, reached its zenith in the time of Sankaracharya (788-820 or 700-750). Sankaracharya established the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy. One reason for doing so was to combat the influence of Buddhism,   which Sankara deeply disliked. Buddhism was strong in India at that time, said Guruge.

Between 7th and 13th century there were a few recorded instance of persecution of Buddhists. Buddhist monks were not treated with respect and the Sanskrit dramatic literature it full of derogatory reference to and representations of Buddhists, reported Guruge. 

However, Buddhism continued as a monastic religion for several centuries after the public had ceased to follow Buddhism. In spite of an unfavorable climate Buddhist monasteries continued their scholastic and religious activities. Buddhist institutions thrived in Bihar and Bengal with the support of the Pala kings. These institutions were Mahayana but recognized Tantra as well.

Buddhism was destroyed in   Bihar and Bengal by the Muslim ruler Muhammad Ibn Bakhtiyar who took over Bihar and Bengal in 13 century. Buddhism disappeared completely from India. Hardly any monuments of the Buddha’s own period are to be seen today. The ruins at Saheth Maheth are considered to be those of the original monastery which the Buddha lived in for nearly 20 years of his life.

The British rulers re-discovered Buddhism and its monuments and elevated them. As a result, India today uses Buddhist symbols like wheel of Dhamma and the Asoka capital as symbols of sovereignty.  Anagarika Dharmapala and his Mahabodhi Society attempted to revive Buddhism in India in the       20th century.

Buddhism went to China along the main Asian trade route. Evidence of Buddhism is found as early as 65 AD, in Buddhist observances by a prince of Chu. There were Buddhist monks in the capital Han in 130 AD. This is mentioned in a poem.  In 191 AD a temple was built in Kiangsu  . Around 300 AD there were 180 Buddhist establishment and 3700 monks and nuns  in the two capitals of Chang An and Loyang. In 286 AD, Dharmaraksa of Tun Huang had brought out translation  of Buddhist scriptures.

Buddhism needed to adapt to  the two  existing  systems of Chinese thought,  Confucianism and Taoism. China  employed  certain strategies for this, such as Ko-yi” which paired Buddhist teachings  with the local systems. Buddhism was presented as a complementary  system of thought, not an opposing one. Around 6 century AD, Chinese developed their own school of  Buddhist thought. A typically Chinese version of Buddhism allied to Mahayana took firm root in China   and several impressive  monastic centers such as Tun Huan  were established.

At least fifty Chinese pilgrims went to India  in search of sacred books. Fa Hsien, who travelled widely in India Sri Lanka and Java (399-478). Huien Tsang  spent 15 years in India (629-645) and took  back several hundred books and I-Tsing was in India from  671-695 AD. Chinese pilgrims  also came to countries like Sri Lanka  in search of books for translation.

Indian monks   helped Buddhism in China. Some went to China to propagate  Buddhism. There was Kumarajiva, the greatest of missionary translators (5th century ). Gunavarman associated with Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Java who translated Sanskrit works into Chinese. Vajrabodhi of Nalanda and his disciple Amogavajra  were sent by Sri Lanka to present Buddhist scriptures and sacred objects to the Chinese king in  8th century.

Buddhism in China did not always enjoy popular patronage, but  it still continued. Buddhism was patronized by the last Chinese dynasty,  the  Manchu dynasty (1644-1912). Today, China’s   leaders take an interest in propagation of Buddhism and work together with Buddhists of other countries and the legacy of Buddhism is constantly  invoked, remarked Guruge.

Buddhism  was   introduced to Tibet in 7th century as a result of marriage   alliances  between the Tibet  royal family  and  the royal families of  Nepal and China. Tibet followed   Sarvastivada  and Tantra. 

Tibet  eventually developed its own brand of Buddhism, a blend of  these two  schools and  Tibet’s own local beliefs.  A Council was held in Lhasa in 794 AD where they discussed doctoral issues. In the 10th  century 21 young men were  sent to India to study Buddhism  and translate Buddhist books.  The  Sangha laid much emphasis on good handwriting. The monks trained using copy books. There is a rich Tibetan Buddhist literature, which includes translations of Sanskrit and Chinese writings, also works from India ,Nepal  and Central Asia.

Mahayana Buddhism found its way to Korea in 5th century AD, and was firmly established in the peninsula  due to the  enthusiastic support of king Chin-ji-wang (546-656) Queen Sonduk (7th century) King Sunjong (982-997) and King Munjon (1047-82). The sixty roll  Koryo Tripitaka was printed in the time of King Munjon. Korea helped in the spread of Buddhism by its invention of wood block printing in 8th century and type casting with metal in the 12th century.

Prince Kudara of South Korea sent the first Buddhist mission to Japan in 552 AD.  The mission got a mixed reception. Opponents resisted it for nearly fifty years but by end of the  6th century Buddhism was established in Japan. 

The greatest patron of Buddhism in Japan was Prince Shotuku who became regent in 593 AD and ruled for 30 years. He made Buddhism the state religion, established institutions for the propagation of Buddhism and for the implementation of Buddhist ideals of service to the sick and destitute. He put forward ‘the Constitution of Seventeen articles’ which combined political principals with the ethical ideas of Buddhism. Buddhism became the foremost religious and cultural force in Japan for the next few centuries.

 In 7th and 8th century six schools of Buddhism were introduced to Japan, said Guruge. Japan itself established two powerful schools of Buddhism, Tendai which came from China and Shingon Buddhism which was Vajrayana.

From 13th- 16th century three forms of Buddhism  developed in Japan, the Pure land school of Honen(1133-1212) the Lotus doctrine of Nichiren ( b 1222) and  Zen Buddhism . Zen Buddhism was  introduced from China by Yeisai ( 1141-1215) and Dogen ( 1200- 1253). Zen Buddhism  alone, of these three,  emphasized the elements of early Buddhism such as the training of the mind.

Sri Lanka was one the earliest sovereign states to receive Buddhism .  Scholars  say that the Buddhist philosophy  would have come to Sri Lanka in the time of the Buddha itself. It would have come  naturally and easily , due to the  frequent movement  of persons  between  North India and Sri Lanka. There is evidence that the public knew  the Buddhist philosophy by the time Arahant Mahinda arrived. They converted in droves.

Chief Minister Ariththa consented to be the first ordained Bhikkhu. He would not surely have agreed to lead a religion he knew nothing about. By the time of Dutugemunu, Sri Lanka  had established contact with Buddhist communities abroad. They were invited to attend the  unveiling of the Maha Thupa. By the time of Dutugemunu, Sri Lanka  had established contact with Buddhist communities abroad. They were invited for the  unveiling of the Maha Thupa.

The first  Chaitya in Sri Lanka  was built  at Tissamaharama, not Anuradhapura .  this was the largest such monument in the Buddhist world, at the time, said Guruge. Later, three much larger   stupa were erected in Anuradhapura , Ruvanveli, Abhayagiri  and   Jetavana.  Jetavana was even larger than Abhayagiri. Sri Lanka knew to build high. Lohapasada was a  skyscraper with 125 feet and 1000 rooms, observed Guruge. 

Sri Lanka  followed Theravada Buddhism where the scriptures were concerned. Sri Lanka’s contribution to world Buddhism is in the preservation and propagation of Theravada. The Sinhala commentaries  and the Sinhala Upasampada were much sought after. But Mahayana practices were added on  the medieval period. Bodhisatva Avalokitesvara and his Tara are worshipped. The statues at  Buduruvegala are Mahayana.   

Sri Lanka played an important role in the propagation of Theravada Buddhism in Asia. Sri Lanka helped to entrench Theravada Buddhism in the Indo-China peninsula.  Sinhala Buddhism went first to Cambodia, and from Cambodia  the teachings  fanned out  to Burma, Thailand and Laos.

 Sri Lanka sculptors present Buddha in  Yogasana position and Burma, Thailand, Cambodia followed this .Yogasana  was a difficult position,  both ankles  were crossed , facing upwards. Sri Lanka  was recognized  not only for Theravada but also for its Mahayana and Tantra studies. Abhayagiri influenced Buddhism in Indonesia and  Bhikkhuni Chandramali went to Tibet to advise on the scriptures.

The  information in this series is taken almost completely   from  Ananda Guruge’s Buddhism, the religion and its culture” (2 ed. 2017).  I  acknowledge this  with deep  appreciation.(Concluded)


  1. Ratanapala Says:

    Hindu resurgence which began in the Gupta age, reached its zenith in the time of Sankaracharya (788-820 BC or 700-750 BC). Sankaracharya established the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy. One reason for doing so was to combat the influence of Buddhism, which Sankara deeply disliked. Buddhism was strong in India at that time, said Guruge.

    The above should read I guess:

    Hindu resurgence which began in the Gupta age, reached its zenith in the time of Sankaracharya (788-820 AD or 700-750 AD). Sankaracharya established the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy. One reason for doing so was to combat the influence of Buddhism, which Sankara deeply disliked. Buddhism was strong in India at that time, said Guruge.

    Just to put all in context and actual dates for Vedanta School of Hindu Philosophy is definitely post Buddhist!

  2. Priyan Wijeyeratne Says:

    Was there any Buddhist influence in south India? Were there any ruins found? If not, does anyone know why?

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