The history and the spread of Buddhism
The Birth of Buddhism
The history of Buddhism spans from the 6th century BCE to the present. The Buddha found that all conditioned things (samskara) are impermanent (anitya) and dukkha, and that all conditioned and unconditioned things (dharma) are without self (anatma). He explained the Four Noble Truths, namely Dukkha, the Arising of Dukkha, the Cessation of Dukkha, and the Path leading to the Cessation of Dukkha; and the law of cause and effect (Pratitya-samutpada). There is no self, no permanent things and there is no permanence, and the belief that this world is created and ruled by a God is a false view (Mithyadrushtism). Buddhism is not a religion but it is the realization of the absolute truth.
The Buddha, whose personal name was Siddhattha (Siddhartha in Sanskrit), and family name Gotama (Skt. Gautama), lived in North India in the 6th century B.C. His father, Suddhodana, was the ruler of the kingdom of the Sakyas (in modern Nepal). His mother was queen Maya. According to the custom of the time, he was married quite young, at the age of sixteen, to a beautiful and devoted young princess named Yasodhara. The young prince lived in his palace with every luxury at his command. But all of a sudden, confronted with the reality of life and the suffering of mankind, he decided to find the solution – the way out of this universal suffering. At the age of 29, soon after the birth of his only child, Rahula, he left his kingdom and became an ascetic in search of this solution.
For six years the ascetic Gotama wandered about the valley of the Ganges, meeting famous religious teachers, studying and following their systems and methods, and submitting himself to rigorous ascetic practices. They did not satisfy him. So he abandoned all traditional religions and their methods and went his own way. It was thus that one evening, seated under a tree (since then known as the Bodhi- or Bo-tree, ‘the Tree of Wisdom’), on the bank of the river Nerañjara at Buddha-Gaya (near Gaya in modern Bihar), at the age of 35, Gotama attained Enlightenment, after which he was known as the Buddha, ‘The Enlightened One’.
After his Enlightenment, Gotama the Buddha delivered his first sermon to a group of five ascetics, his old colleagues, in the Deer Park at Isipatana (modern Sarnath) near Benares. From that day, for 45 years, he taught all classes of men and women – kings and peasants, Brahmins and outcasts, bankers and beggars, holy men and robbers – without making the slightest distinction between them. He recognized no differences of caste or social groupings, and the Way he preached was open to all men and women who were ready to understand and to follow it.
At the age of 80, the Buddha passed away at Kusinara (in modern Uttar Pradesh in India).Today Buddhism is found in Sri Lanka (Sinhale, Ceylon), Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Tibet, China, Japan, Mongolia, Korea, Formosa, in some parts of India, Pakistan and Nepal, and also in the Soviet Union. The reported Buddhist population of the world is over 500 million while the number will be much higher than 1 billion with the inclusion of the unaccounted Buddhist population in China.
Mauryan Empire (322–180 BCE)
During the reign of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (273–232 BCE), Buddhism gained royal support and began to spread more widely reaching most of the Indian subcontinent. After his invasion of Kalinga, Ashoka seems to have experienced remorse and began working to improve the lives of his subjects. Ashoka also built wells, rest-houses and hospitals for humans and animals, he also abolished torture, royal hunting trips and perhaps even the death penalty. Ashoka also supported non-Buddhist faiths like Jainism and Brahmanism. Ashoka propagated religion by building stupas and pillars urging, among other things, respect of all animal life and enjoining people to follow the Dharma. He has been hailed by Buddhist sources as the model for the compassionate chakravartin (wheel turning monarch).
Another feature of Mauryan Buddhism was the worship and veneration of stupas, large mounds which contained relics (Pali: sarira) of the Buddha or other saints within. It was believed that the practice of devotion to these relics and stupas could bring blessings. Perhaps the best-preserved example of a Mauryan Buddhist site is the Great Stupa of Sanchi (dating from the 3rd century BCE).
According to the plates and pillars left by Asoka (the Edicts of Ashoka), emissaries were sent to various countries in order to spread Buddhism, as far south as Sri Lanka and as far west as the Greek kingdoms, in particular the neighbouring Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, and possibly even farther to the Mediterranean.
Theravadin sources state that Ashoka convened the third Buddhist council around 250 BCE at Pataliputra (today's Patna) with the elder Moggaliputtatissa. The objective of the council was to purify the Sangha, particularly from non-Buddhist ascetics who had been attracted by the royal patronage. Following the council, Buddhist missionaries were dispatched throughout the known world.
Proselytism in the Hellenistic World
Some of the Edicts of Ashoka describe the efforts made by him to propagate the Buddhist faith throughout the Hellenistic world, which at that time formed an uninterrupted cultural continuum from the borders of India to Greece. The edicts indicate a clear understanding of the political organization in Hellenistic territories: the names and locations of the main Greek monarchs of the time are identified, and they are claimed as recipients of Buddhist proselytism: Antiochus II Theos of the Seleucid Kingdom (261–246 BCE), Ptolemy II Philadelphos of Egypt (285–247 BCE), Antigonus Gonatas of Macedonia (276–239 BCE), Magas (288–258 BCE) in Cyrenaica (modern Libya), and Alexander II (272–255 BCE) in Epirus (modern North-western Greece). One of the edicts states:
"The conquest by Dharma has been won here, on the borders, and even six hundred yojanas (5,400–9,600 km) away, where the Greek king Antiochos rules, beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander rule, likewise in the south among the Cholas, the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni (Sri Lanka)." (Edicts of Asoka, 13th Rock Edict, S. Dhammika).
Furthermore, according to the Mahavamsa (XII) some of Ashoka's emissaries were Greek (Yona), particularly one named Dhammarakkhita. He also issued edicts in the Greek language as well as in Aramaic. One of them, found in Kandahar, advocates the adoption of "piety" (using the Greek term eusebeia for Dharma) to the Greek community.
It is not clear how much these interactions may have been influential, but authors like Robert Linssen have commented that Buddhism may have influenced Western thought and religion at that time. Linssen points to the presence of Buddhist communities in the Hellenistic world around that period, in particular in Alexandria (mentioned by Clement of Alexandria), and to the pre-Christian monastic order of the Therapeutae (possibly a deformation of the Pali word "Theravada"), who may have "almost entirely drawn (its) inspiration from the teaching and practices of Buddhist asceticism" and may even have been descendants of Asoka's emissaries to the West. Philosophers like Hegesias of Cyrene and Pyrrho are sometimes thought to have been influenced by Buddhist teachings.
Buddhist gravestones from the Ptolemaic period have also been found in Alexandria, decorated with depictions of the Dharma wheel. The presence of Buddhists in Alexandria has even drawn the conclusion that they influenced monastic Christianity. In the 2nd century CE, the Christian dogmatist, Clement of Alexandria recognized Bactrian sramanas and Indian gymnosophists for their influence on Greek thought.
Establishment of Sri Lanka Buddhism
Sri Lankan chronicles like the Dipavamsa state that Ashoka's son Mahinda brought Buddhism to the island during the 2nd century BCE. In addition, Ashoka's daughter, Sanghamitta also established the bhikkhuni (order for nuns) in Sri Lanka, also bringing with her a sapling of the sacred bodhi tree that was subsequently planted in Anuradhapura. These two figures are seen as the mythical founders of the Sri Lankan Theravada. They are said to have converted the King Devanampiya Tissa (307–267 BCE) and many of the nobility.
The first architectural records of Buddha images, however, actually come from the reign of King Vasabha (65–109 BCE). The major Buddhist monasteries and schools in Ancient Sri Lanka were Mahavihara, Abhayagiri and Jetavana. The Pali canon was written down during the 1st century BCE to preserve the teaching in a time of war and famine. It is the only complete collection of Buddhist texts to survive in a Middle Indo-Aryan language. It reflects the tradition of the Mahavihara school. Later Pali Mahavihara commentators of the Theravada such as Buddhaghosa (4th–5th century) and Dhammapala (5th–6th century), systematized the traditional Sri Lankan commentary literature (Atthakatha).
Although Mahayana Buddhism gained some influence in Sri Lanka as it was studied in Abhayagiri and Jetavana, the Mahavihara (“Great Monastery”) school became dominant in Sri Lanka following the reign of Parakramabahu I (1153–1186), who abolished the Abhayagiri and Jetavanin traditions.
The Buddhist movement that became known as Mahayana (Great Vehicle) and also the Bodhisattvayana, began sometime between 150 BCE and 100 CE, drawing on both Mahasamghika and Sarvastivada trends. The earliest inscription which is recognizably Mahayana dates from 180 CE and is found in Mathura.
The Mahayana emphasized the Bodhisattva path and the doctrine of upaya (skill in means). It emerged as a set of loose groups associated with new texts named the Mahayana sutras. The Mahayana sutras promoted new doctrines, such as the idea that "there exist other Buddhas who are simultaneously preaching in countless other world-systems". In time Mahayana Bodhisattvas and also multiple Buddhas came to be seen as transcendental beneficent beings who were subjects of devotion.
Mahayana remained a minority among Indian Buddhists for some time, growing slowly until about half of all monks encountered by Xuanzang in 7th-century India were Mahayanists. Early Mahayana schools of thought included the Madhyamaka, Yogacara, and Buddha-nature (Tathagatagarbha) teachings. Mahayana is today the dominant form of Buddhism in East Asia and Tibet.
Several scholars have suggested that the Prajñaparamita sutras, which are among the earliest Mahayana sutras, developed among the Mahasanghika along the Krsna River in the Andhra region of South India. The earliest Mahayana sutras to include the very first versions of the Prajñaparamita genre, along with texts concerning Aksobhya Buddha, which were probably written down in the 1st century BCE in the south of India. A.K. Warder believes that "the Mahayana originated in the south of India and almost certainly in the Andhra country." Anthony Barber and Sree Padma also trace Mahayana Buddhism to ancient Buddhist sites in the lower Krsnaa Valley, including Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda and Jaggayyapeta.
Shunga Dynasty (2nd–1st century BCE)
The Shunga dynasty (185–73 BCE) was established about 50 years after Ashoka's death. After assassinating King Brhadrata (last of the Mauryan rulers), military commander-in-chief Pushyamitra Shunga took the throne. Buddhist religious scriptures such as the Asokavadana allege that Pushyamitra (an orthodox Brahmin) was hostile towards Buddhists and persecuted the Buddhist faith. Buddhists wrote that he "destroyed hundreds of monasteries and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Monks": 840,000 Buddhist stupas which had been built by Ashoka were destroyed, and 100 gold coins were offered for the head of each Buddhist monk.
Modern historians, however, dispute this view in the light of literary and archaeological evidence. They opine that following Ashoka's sponsorship of Buddhism, it is possible that Buddhist institutions fell on harder times under the Shungas, but no evidence of active persecution has been noted. Etienne Lamotte observes: "To judge from the documents, Pushyamitra must be acquitted through lack of proof." Another eminent historian, Romila Thapar points to archaeological evidence that "suggests the contrary" to the claim that "Pushyamitra was a fanatical anti-Buddhist" and that he "never actually destroyed 840,000 stupas as claimed by Buddhist works, if any". Thapar stresses that Buddhist accounts are probably hyperbolic renditions of Pushyamitra's attack of the Mauryas, and merely reflect the desperate frustration of the Buddhist religious figures in the face of the possibly irreversible decline in the importance of their religion under the Shungas.
During the period, Buddhist monks deserted the Ganges valley, following either the northern road (uttarapatha) or the southern road (daksinapatha). Conversely, Buddhist artistic creation stopped in the old Magadha area, to reposition itself either in the northwest area of Gandhara and Mathura or in the southeast around Amaravati. Some artistic activity also occurred in central India, as in Bharhut, to which the Shungas may or may not have contributed.
The Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I (reigned c. 200–180 BCE) invaded the Indian Subcontinent, establishing an Indo-Greek kingdom that was to last in parts of Northwest South Asia until the end of the 1st century CE. Buddhism flourished under the Indo-Greek and Greco-Bactrian kings. One of the most famous Indo-Greek kings is Menander (reigned c. 160–135 BCE). He may have converted to Buddhism and is presented in the Mahayana tradition as one of the great benefactors of the faith, on a par with king Asoka or the later Kushan king Kaniska. Menander's coins bear designs of the eight-spoked dharma wheel, a classic Buddhist symbol. Direct cultural exchange is also suggested by the dialogue of the Milinda Pañha between Menander and the Buddhist monk Nagasena, who was himself a student of the Greek Buddhist monk Mahadharmaraksita. Upon Menander's death, the honor of sharing his remains was claimed by the cities under his rule, and they were enshrined in stupas, in a parallel with the historic Buddha. Several of Menander's Indo-Greek successors inscribed "Follower of the Dharma," in the Kharosthi script, on their coins.
During the first century BCE the first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha are found in the lands ruled by the Indo-Greeks, in a realistic style known as Greco-Buddhist. Many of the stylistic elements in the representations of the Buddha point to Greek influence: the Greco-Roman toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulders (more exactly, its lighter version, the Greek himation), the contrapposto stance of the upright figures (see: 1st–2nd century Gandhara standing Buddhas), the stylicized Mediterranean curly hair and topknot (ushnisha) apparently derived from the style of the Belvedere Apollo (330 BCE), and the measured quality of the faces, all rendered with strong artistic realism (See: Greek art). A large quantity of sculptures combining Buddhist and purely Hellenistic styles and iconography were excavated at the Gandharan site of Hadda.
Several influential Greek Buddhist monks are recorded. Mahadharmaraksita (literally translated as 'Great Teacher/Preserver of the Dharma'), was "a Greek ("Yona") Buddhist head monk", according to the Mahavamsa (Chap. XXIX), who led 30,000 Buddhist monks from "the Greek city of Alasandra" (Alexandria of the Caucasus, around 150 km north of today's Kabul in Afghanistan), to Sri Lanka for the dedication of the Great Stupa in Anuradhapura during the rule (165–135 BCE) of King Menander I. Dhammarakkhita (meaning: Protected by the Dharma), was one of the missionaries sent by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka to proselytize the Buddhist faith. He is described as being a Greek (Pali: "Yona", lit. "Ionian") in the Mahavamsa.
Kushan Empire and Gandharan Buddhism
The Kushan empire (30–375 CE) was formed by the invading Yuezhi nomads in the 1st century BCE. It eventually encompassed much of northern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Kushans adopted elements of the Hellenistic culture of Bactria and the Indo-Greeks. During Kushan rule, Gandharan Buddhism was at the height of its influence and a significant number of Buddhist centers were built or renovated. The Buddhist art of Kushan Gandhara was a synthesis of Greco-Roman, Iranian and Indian elements. The Gandharan Buddhist texts also date from this period. Written in Gandhari Prakrit, they are the oldest Buddhist manuscripts yet discovered (c. 1st century CE). According to Richard Salomon, most of them belong to the Dharmaguptaka school.
Emperor Kanishka (128–151 CE) is particularly known for his support of Buddhism. During his reign, stupas and monasteries were built in the Gandharan city of Peshawar (Skt. Purusapura), which he used as a capital. Kushan royal support and the opening of trade routes allowed Gandharan Buddhism to spread along the Silk Road to Central Asia, the Tarim Basin and thus to China.
Kanishka is also said to have convened a major Buddhist council for the Sarvastivada tradition, either in Gandhara or Kashmir. Kanishka gathered 500 learned monks partly to compile extensive commentaries on the Abhidharma, although it is possible that some editorial work was carried out upon the existing Sarvastivada canon itself. Allegedly during the council there were altogether three hundred thousand verses and over nine million statements compiled, and it took twelve years to complete. The main fruit of this council was the compilation of the vast commentary known as the Maha-Vibhasha ("Great Exegesis"), an extensive compendium and reference work on a portion of the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma. Modern scholars such as Etienne Lamotte and David Snellgrove have questioned the veracity of this traditional account.
Scholars believe that it was also around this time that a significant change was made in the language of the Sarvastivadin canon, by converting an earlier Prakrit version into Sanskrit. Although this change was probably effected without significant loss of integrity to the canon, this event was of particular significance since Sanskrit was the sacred language of Brahmanism in India, and was also being used by other thinkers, regardless of their specific religious or philosophical allegiance, thus enabling a far wider audience to gain access to Buddhist ideas and practices.
After the fall of the Kushans, small kingdoms ruled the Gandharan region, and later the Hephthalite White Huns conquered the area (circa 440s–670). Under the Hephthalites, Gandharan Buddhism continued to thrive in cities like Balkh (Bactria), as remarked by Xuanzang who visited the region in the 7th century. Xuanzang notes that there were over a hundred Buddhist monasteries in the city, including the Nava Vihara as well many stupas and monks. After the end of the Hephthalite empire, Gandharan Buddhism declined in Gandhara proper (in the Peshawar basin). However, it continued to thrive in adjacent areas like the Swat Valley of Pakistan, Gilgit, Kashmir and in Afghanistan (in sites such as Bamiyan).
Spread to Central Asia
Central Asia was home to the international trade route known as the Silk Road, which carried goods between China, India, the Middle East and the Mediterranean world. Buddhism was present in this region from about the second-century BCE. Initially, the Dharmaguptaka school was the most successful in their efforts to spread Buddhism in Central Asia. The Kingdom of Khotan was one of the earliest Buddhist kingdoms in the area and helped transmit Buddhism from India to China.
The Kushan empire's unification of most of this area and their support of Buddhism allowed it to easily spread along the trade routes of the region throughout Central Asia. During the first century CE under the Kushans, the Sarvastivada school flourished in this region, some of the monks also bringing Mahayana teachings with them. Buddhism would eventually reach modern-day Pakistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. As Buddhism reached many of these lands, Buddhists began to translate and produce texts in the local languages, such as Khotanese (a Middle Iranian language), Sogdian (also Iranian), Uighur (Turkish), Tangut, Tibetan, and Chinese.
Central Asians played a key role in the transmission of Buddhism to China The first translators of Buddhists scriptures into Chinese were Iranians, including the Parthian An Shigao (c. 148 CE), the Yuezhi Zhi Qian and Kang Sengkai (from Samarkand). Thirty-seven early translators of Buddhist texts are known, and the majority of them have been identified as hailing from the Iranian cultural sphere. The Zoroastrian Sassanian empire (226–651 CE) would eventually rule over many of these regions (such as Parthia and Sogdia), but they tolerated the Buddhist religion. During the mid-seventh century, the Arab conquest of the Iranian Plateau followed by the Muslim conquests of Afghanistan and the later establishment of the Ghaznavid kingdom in Central Asia (c. 977–1186) led to the decline and eventual disappearance of Buddhism from most of these regions.
Buddhism also flourished in the eastern part of central Asia (Chinese Turkestan, Tarim Basin). Indians and Iranians lived in major cities of this region like Kashgar and Khotan. The region has revealed extremely rich Buddhist works of art as well as Buddhist texts such as those found in Dunhuang. Serindian art is highly reminiscent of the Gandharan style, and scriptures in the Gandhari script Kharo??hi have been found. The Uyghurs conquered the area in the 8th century and blended with the local Iranian peoples, absorbing the Buddhist culture of the region. They were later absorbed by the Mongol Yuan dynasty. Many printed Buddhist texts from the region date to the Yuan, and they were printed in the Uyghur, Xixia and Sanskrit languages. The Uyghurs also restored cave temples and repainted Buddhist wall paintings such as at Bezeklik. Uyghur Buddhism was the last major Buddhist culture in East Turkestan and it lasted until the mid-14th century. After the Islamification of Xinjiang, Buddhism ceased to be a major religion there.