The history of Buddhism traces back to the teachings of Lord Buddha after He attained enlightenment in 528 BCE under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, India. Ater attaining enlightenment, Lord Buddha spent the rest of His life in making others aware of the truth of life.
It was after His Mahaparinirvana in 483 BCE , when the first Buddhist council was convened at Rajagriha in India , when 500 monks assembled under the guidance of Mahakashyapa, and the teachings of The Buddha were compiled by His chief disciple, Ananda in the form of a holy Pali canon, Tripitaka, which meant the three baskets.
Buddhism In India
- 483 BCE – 250 BCE
The Second Buddhist council that was held in Vaishali in 383 BCE, one hundred years after the Buddha’s death, witnessed the conflict of the Buddhist ideologies, which ultimately resulted in the formation of two schools – Sthaviravadins and Mahasanghikas. The Sthaviravadins, later known as Theravadins were of orthodox views and wanted the monks to lead an ascetic’s life, whereas the Mahasanghikas or the Mahayanas were of liberal view and wanted the conducts to be flexible. The conflict between both the sects became so intense that later The Indian emperor, Ashoka had to convene the third Buddhist council in his kingdom’s capital at Patliputra in 250 BCE to purify Buddhism and reconcile the two sects.
- Ashoka (269 BCE – 232 BCE)
There is a story which tells about a poor young boy, who once when went to see Gautam Buddha, had nothing to give Him as a gift. The poor young child was desperate to present the Buddha something, and so, he collected a handful of dust and innocently presented it to the Buddha. The Buddha smiled and accepted it with the same graciousness He used to accept the gifts of wealthy admirers. That innocent boy, it is said, was reborn as the Emperor Ashoka. The rise of Buddhism had not reached the height prior to the upcoming of Ashoka, who when converted into a Buddhist, gave the sect a glory that it should have got earlier! Ashoka made ‘Dhamma’ his state religion, which was entirely based upon the teachings of Lord Buddha, and got the Dhamma engraved on the rock edicts throughout his empire. He also sent the Buddhist monks, including his son, Mahindra and daughter, Sanghamitra, to different parts of the world as far as Egypt, Palestine, Greece, Southeast Asia and Central Asia to spread the philosophy of Buddhism. Though Ashoka had convened the third Buddhist council to establish harmony between two sects, but unfortunately he could not succeed. However, both the sects agreed upon the purification of Buddhism.
- 233 BCE – 1st century BCE
After the death of Ashoka, Buddhism again went through the period of suppression especially by the Sunga rulers, during 185 BCE – 73 BCE.
- 1st century CE – 8th century CE
The following era till 8th century CE was an era of Buddhism, in which a large section of people followed the principles of Buddhism. Again the Indian emperors started giving royal patronage to Buddhism. Kanishka, a Kushana emperor, convened the fourth Buddhist council in 100 CE in Kashmir or Jalandhar, which is generally associated with the rise of the Mahayana sect.
- 8th century CE onwards
But the ‘dark age’ began in the 8th century CE with the revival of Hinduism in India as people started going back to Hinduism. The Buddhist school was further shaken by jolts from the luxurious practices of the Buddhist monks, intermingling of the Tantricism with that of Hinduism and finally, the Turks’ invasion of India, who targeted the Buddhist temples and monasteries. As a result, Buddhism got confined to parts of the Indian Himalayan region till early 20th century, when the establishment of MahaBodhi society and conversion of an Indian leader, B.R. Ambedkar with his followers into Buddhism favoured the revival of Buddhism in India.
Buddhism Outside India
- Sri Lanka (3rd century BCE onwards)
When Ashoka’s son, monk Mahindra reached the contemporary Sri Lankan capital of Anuradhapura in the 3rd century BCE, he was warmly welcomed by the Sri Lankan ruler, Devanampriya-Tissa. The Sri Lankan emperor was greatly influenced by the teachings of the Buddha and culture of the Buddhist India which were preached by the monk Mahindra, and converted into Buddhism. Soon, Buddhism became the state religion of Sri Lanka.
Later, when Ashoka’s daughter, Sanghamitra, reached Sri Lanka, she is believed to have brought the southern branch of the original Bodhi tree, which was planted at Anuradhapura, and still is worshipped by the Sri Lankan Buddhists.
During the reign of the Sri Lankan ruler, Vatta Gamini in the 1st century CE, the monks assembled in Aloka-Vihara and wrote down the Tripitaka, the three basket of the Teachings, known as the Pali scriptures for the first time. The Sri Lankan nuns introduced the Sangha of nuns in China in 433 CE. Although Buddhism in Sri Lanka had spread once from Sri Lanka to other parts as well, but from the 16th century CE onwards, it nearly died out due to competition from Hinduism and Islam, as well as war and Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialism in Sri Lanka.
But a major Buddhist revival movement as a result of nationalism not only brought back the glory of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, but also flourished it in other parts of the continent.From that period onwards itself, the Sri Lankan monks have had an important role in spreading both Theravada Buddhism in Asia, the West and even in Africa. Today, about 69 per cent of the total Sri Lankan population adheres to Theravadin Buddhism.
- China (475 CE onwards)
Before the arrival of Buddhism in China, the Chinese were either following Confucianism, Taoism or folk religion. China recorded official contact with Buddhism with the arrival of an Indian Buddhist monk and scholar, Bodhi Dharma IN 475 CE. Bodhi Dharma introduced the philosophy of the Buddha’s teachings to the Chinese, who were influenced by them. Gradually, Buddhism and Chinese Taoism intermingled with one another, thereby resulting in the Ch’an school of Buddhism in China. The philosophical inspirations of the Madhyamaka and Yogachara, as well as the Pure Land and Ch’an Sutras, interacting with the already sophisticated philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism, led to a regular renaissance in religious and philosophical thought in China.
- Tibet (173 CE onwards)
Buddhism was first introduced to Tibet in 173 CE in the reign of the 28th Yarlung king Lha Thothori Nyantsen, but it had hardly any impact on the Tibetans. The Buddhist scriptures were for the first time officially introduced to Tibet around 500 CE during the reign of the 28th Tibetan king, Hlato Ri Nyentsen. The Indian scholar, Shantarakshita went to Tibet during the reign of the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen (CE 740 – CE 798), but due to the opposition from some of the king’s ministers, he had to return back. But before Shantarakshita left, he convinced the king to invite the tantric adept Padmasambhava, whose arrival asserted that Shantarakshita’s efforts had been ruined by the demons of the country. Padmasambhava defeated all the demons in a personal combat which impressed the king and his court who then invited Shantarakshita again and the first monastery in Tibet was built at Samye. This marked the beginning of the ‘first dissemination’ of Buddhism to Tibet, which ended when the devout Buddhist king Relbachen (815-836) was assassinated, which further led to the beginning of an interregnum period for Tibetan Buddhism, which again ended in 1042 CE, when Atisha (982 CE – 1054 CE), one of the directors of the monastic university of Nalanda, paid a visit to Tibet. Tibetan historians consider this to be the beginning of the ‘second dissemination’ of Buddhism in Tibet. Atisha was so successful in bringing back the Dharma to Tibet that Buddhism quickly became the dominant religious tradition in the country.
- Buddhism In Japan (550 CE onwards)
Buddhism was introduced to Japan by Korea and China in the 6th century CE. Trade via ‘silk route’ not only brought different regions of the distant world together, but also developed the ‘mutual understanding’ among the neighbouring nations. China and Korea were no exception and along with trade relationship, Buddhism reached Korea from China.
Later, as per Nihonshoki in 552 CE, the Korean state of Paekche sent Buddhist texts and images to Japan so as to convince the Japanese emperor to become an ally in its war with the neighboring state of Silla. In the initial stages, Japanese inclination towards Buddhism was majorly related to the magical powers of the Buddha and Buddhist monks. But when the emperor Yomei (CE 585 – CE 587) converted into Buddhism, the Japanese began to travel to China in order to learn from the Buddhist teachers there, and a number of indigenous Buddhist schools developed in Japan, Zen being the most prominent one of all others like Shingon and Tindai.
Yomei’s son, Prince Shotoku (CE 574 – CE 622) propagated Buddhism, built various Buddhist temples and sent Japanese monks to travel to China for further studies on Buddhism. Besides these, he also wrote commentaries on three Buddhist texts. Undoubtedly, in later period, he was viewed in Japan as an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
- The Western Nations (1850 CE onwards)
The West came to know about the Buddha and His philosophy as a result of the European colonies set up in the Asian regions. However, Buddhism was officially introduced in the western nations in the later half of the 19th century CE. The western scholars, who were influenced by the ancient cultures of India and other Asian regions such as China and Sri Lanka, started learning Asian languages and translating Asian texts into European languages. The religious people started coming down to India, Japan, Sri Lanka and China to understand the depth of the Asian religion and culture.
In Great Britain, societies like ‘Pali Text Society’ (By T.W.Rhys Davids) and ‘Buddhist Society’ (By T.Christmas Humphreys) were set up for the Buddhist devotees. Similarly, Buddhism was also encouraged in countries like Germany, France and the United States. During the world war II, when many Zen Buddhists went to England and the U.S., the Zen Buddhism became more popular in those places.
Similarly, the Europeans and Americans, who acquired the wealth of knowledge from Asia and were impressed with the Buddhist Philosophy set up Buddhist monasteries and societies back at their home, which became source of the Buddhist Idealogies for the Westerners.