A Summary History

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A Summary History of the Spread Of Buddhism Across East Asia



In 386 BCE, roughly a century after the mahAparinirvANa of the Buddha (which took place at kusinAra, northern India in 483 BCE), the Second Buddhist Council took place at vesAli (also in northern India) under the patronage of King kAlAshoka in order to resolve certain differences in opinion that had cropped up within the Sangha with regard to some Vinaya observances. The outcome of this council was that it created a permanent split in Buddhism into the conservative and liberal factions. The conservative group came to be known as the theravAda and the liberal faction became known as the mahAsanghika. In 247 BCE, Emperor ashoka (304-236 BCE) called for the Third Council at pATaliputra (modern Patna in northeastern India) to reunite the factions. This, however, did not happen. Nevertheless, Emperor ashoka during the council explored the possibility of propagating theravAda Buddhism outside the land of its birth. His own son, mahinda, and daughter, sanghamittA, joined the Sangha and took Buddhism to Sri Lanka. It is from Sri Lanka, that theravAda Buddhism spread to Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam.


In Sri Lanka, theravAda Buddhism was consolidated during the reign of King devAnAmpiya tissa (247-207 BCE). In Burma, it was finally consolidated during the reign of King anawratha (1044-1077 CE). In Thailand, during the reign of King rAmakhamahaeng (1275-1317 CE) of the Sukhothai dynasty. In Cambodia and Laos in the mid-14th century CE and in southern Vietnam in 1471 CE during the Nguyen dynasty.

The liberal mahAsanghika branch of Buddhism during Emperor ashoka's time took root in gandhAra (modern Afghanistan). In the first century CE, the kushan dynasty under Emperor kaniShka (78-103 CE) patronized this branch of Buddhism as Emperor ashoka had done for
the theravAda branch. In order to codify and crystallize the views of the mahAsanghika branch, Emperor kaniShka called for the Fourth Council in 100 CE at Jalandhara (modern Jullundur in the present-day Indian portion of the province of Punjab). During the Fourth Council which was conducted entirely in Sanskrit (instead of in pAli as the first three councils had been conducted), the mahAsanghika branch dubbed the theravAda ideal of arhat (worthy one) as too narrow and selfish and thus expounded the bodhisattva (wisdom-being) ideal wherein the blessings of nirvANa were available to even the "unworthy" ones. It was the job of the bodhisattva to take the vow of postponing his/her own nirvANa and work toward the salvation of all beings out of pure selfless compassion (karuNA). On account of this large-hearted attitude, the liberal faction renamed itself as the mahAyAna (Great Vehicle), dubbing the theravAda branch as the "hInayAna" (Lesser Vehicle).


mahAyAna Buddhism is found in the lands of northeast Asia in its two forms known as the pAramitayAna and the vajrayAna. The pAramitayAna type of mahAyAna Buddhism is found in China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. There, it is found in its 5 forms. These are the devotional, meditational, mystical, rational and esoteric branches. In China and Japan, they are known as Ching t'u/Jodo, Ch'an/Zen, Hua-yen/Kegon, T'ien-t'ai/Tendai and Chen-yen/Shingon sects 

mahAyAna Buddhism came to China in the reign of Emperor Ming-ti (58-75 CE) of the Han dynasty. After the fall of the Han dynasty, China went into a state of great political turmoil, economic deprivation and social chaos for nearly 4 centuries (220-617 CE). Buddhism came in at this most appropriate juncture in Chinese history. The literati had become unemployed, the gentry had lost all their land-holdings and the general population went through great hardship. The Chinese were looking for a philosophical answer to this enormous suffering which neither of the two native religions of China, i.e. Taoism and, much less so, Confucianism could provide.

Buddhism with its deep metaphysical insight into the nature of suffering as enunciated in its doctrines of the 4 Noble Truths, the 3 Marks of "Existence", the 12-Fold Wheel of Causality and the Noble 8-Fold Path not only provided the reason for suffering (which was at once both simple and yet very profound), but also pointed a way out of that suffering by articulating a spiritual agenda culminating in the attainment of nirvANa. When mahAyAna Buddhism came to the Korean Peninsula in the fourth century CE, Korea was not one nation but three kingdoms, i.e KoguryO in the north, Paekche in the southwest and Silla in the southeast. Through the efforts of Chinese missionaries, all three kingdoms eventually accepted Buddhism and the golden age of Korean Buddhism was during the KoryO dynasty from 932 CE to 1392 CE.

mahAyAna Buddhism entered Japan in the reign of Emperor Kimmei in 552 CE. The Korean missionaries failed in this initial attempt because the ShOguns (the powerful aristocracy) who were staunchly Shintoist were opposed to this foreign religion. They warned Emperor Kimmei that the kami (the ancient Shintoist spirit gods) would become angry if this foreign religion was admitted onto the sacred soil of Japan. So, Emperor Kimmei sent the Korean missionaries back.

The Korean missionaries tried once again in the reign of Emperor Bidatsu who ascended the throne in 577 CE. This time they were allowed to set up a monastery near Osaka. It was at this time that a member of the Japanese imperial family, Prince ShOtOku Taishi (573-671 CE), became deeply impressed and sought spiritual refuge in it. The fortunes of Buddhism took an important turn with the ascension of Empress Suiko to the imperial throne in 588 CE. She appointed Prince ShOtOku as the regent of Japan and he used the full force of his prestigious office to spread Buddhism among the Japanese people. He declared Buddhism as the state religion of Japan in 594 CE. The golden age of Japanese Buddhism was during the Kamakura period from 1192 to 1333 CE. 

mahAyAna Buddhism came to northern Vietnam in the 10th century CE from China. Three successive dynasties, the Dinh (969-981 CE), the Le (981-1009 CE) and the Ly (1010-1025 CE) help establish the MahAyAna tradition there.


King Songtsen Gampo (618-650 CE) of Tibet, through the influence of his devoutly Buddhist wives, sent missionaries to northern India for the purposes of seeking knowledge of Buddhism for introduction of the faith into his land. The priests of the native (pre-Buddhistic) Bon religion of Tibet were deeply opposed to this alien religion. So, nothing much came to pass for a century. Then in the mid-8th century CE, King Trisong Detsen (740-798 CE), a devout Buddhist himself, took personal interest and sent for shAntarakShita, the Abbott-President of the vikramasIla University in western India. shAntarakShita's mission in Tibet was not successful. 

Before his departure for Nepal, he advised the king to send for the great Buddhist tantric master, padmasambhava, the former Abbott-President of nALandA University in eastern India. padmasambhava arrived in Tibet in the year 747 CE. The priests of the Bon religion were so impressed by his powers that they readily became his disciples. padmasambhava then asked the king to re-invite shAntarakShita, and together they set up the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet in 775 CE.

Tibetan Buddhism is divided into 4 principal sects. These are the Nyingma-pa (which traces its lineage to padmasambhava himself), the Sakya-pa (which traces its lineage to Drok-mi [992-1072 CE]), the Kagyu-pa (which traces its lineage to Marpa [1012-1096 CE]) and the Geluk-pa (which traces its lineage to Tsongkhapa [1357-1419 CE]). The Geluk-pa sect is the most numerous and powerful.

In 1261 CE, the open-minded Emperor Kublai Khan of Mongolia (after having investigated many religions and finally choosing Buddhism over all of them), sent for the abbott of the Sakya monastery in Tibet to come and spread the Buddhist faith among his people. Three centuries later, in 1578 CE, Emperor Altan Khan invited Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588 CE), the third patriarch of the Geluk-pa sect, to come and establish his tradition in Mongolia. After much success, Altan Khan in 1581 CE bestowed the title of Dalai Lama meaning "Ocean of Wisdom-Teacher" on Sonam Gyatso who accepted the title in Tsongkhapa's name. So, Sonam Gyatso automatically became the "third" Dalai Lama. The fifth Dalai Lama, Losang Gyatso (1617-1682 CE), established himself as the supreme political and spiritual leader of Tibet. The present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (1935-present), is the fourteenth in the lineage.

1. Sri Lanka
2. Burma
3. Thailand
4. Laos
5. Cambodia
6. Vietnam (southern region)

1. China
2. Taiwan
3. Tibet
4. Bhutan
5. Mongolia
6. Korea
7. Japan
8. Vietnam (northern region)