The Spread of Buddhism

Buddhist proselytism at the time of king Ashoka (260–218 BCE), according to the Edicts of Ashoka (source wikipedia)
Buddhist proselytism at the time of king Ashoka (260–218 BCE), according to the Edicts of Ashoka (source wikipedia)

Buddha spent his life in preaching and by his personal exertions spread his doctrines over Bihar and Oudh (Uttar Pradesh) but for two centuries after his death we know little of the history of Buddhism. In the reign of Asoka (273-232 B.C.), its fortunes suddenly changed, for this great Emperor whose dominions comprised nearly all India made it the state religion and also engraved on rocks and pillars a long series of edicts recording his opinions and aspirations. Buddhism is often criticized as a gloomy and unpractical creed, suited at best to stoical and scholarly recluses. But these are certainly not its characteristics when it first appears in political history, just as they are not its characteristics in Burma or Japan today. Both by precept and example Asoka (Ashoka) was an ardent exponent of the strenuous life. In his first edict he lays down the principle "Let small and great exert themselves" and in subsequent inscriptions he continually harps upon the necessity of energy and exertion. The Law or Religion (Dhamma) which his edicts enjoin is merely human and civic virtue, except that it makes respect for animal life an integral part of morality. In one passage he summarizes it as "Little impiety, many good deeds, compassion, liberality, truthfulness and purity." He makes no reference to a supreme deity, but insists on the reality and importance of the future life. Though he does not use the word "Karma" this is clearly the conception which dominates his philosophy: those who do good are happy in this world and the next but those who fail in their duty win neither heaven nor the royal favour. The king's creed is remarkable in India for its great simplicity. He deprecates superstitious ceremonies and says nothing of Nirvana but dwells on morality as necessary to happiness in this life and others. This is not the whole of Buddha's teaching but two centuries after his death a powerful and enlightened Buddhist gives it as the gist of Buddhism for laymen.

Asoka wished to make Buddhism the creed not only of India but of the world as known to him and he boasts that he extended his "conquests of religion" to the Hellenistic kingdoms of the west. If the missions which he dispatched thither reached their destination, there is little evidence that they bore any fruit, but the conversion of Sri Lanka and some districts in the Himalayas seems directly due to his initiative.

The countries which have received Indian culture fall into two classes:

First those to which it came as a result of religious missions or of peaceful international intercourse, and second those where it was established after conquest or at least colonization. In the first class the religion introduced was Buddhism. If, as in Tibet, it seems to us mixed with Hinduism, yet it was a mixture which at the date of its introduction passed in India for Buddhism. But in the second and smaller class including Java, Cambodia and Champa the immigrants brought with them both Hinduism and Buddhism. The two systems were often declared to be the same but the result was Hinduism mixed with some Buddhism, not vice versa.

The countries of the first class comprise Ceylon, Burma and Siam, Central Asia, Nepal, China, Korea and Japan, Tibet with Mongolia. The Buddhism of the first three countries[11] is a real unity or in European language a church, for though they have no common hierarchy they use the same sacred language, Pali, and have the same canon. Burma and Siam have repeatedly recognized Ceylon as a sort of metropolitan see and on the other hand when religion in Ceylon fell on evil days the clergy were recruited from Burma and Siam. In the other countries Buddhism presents greater differences and divisions. It had no one sacred language and in different regions used either Sanskrit texts or translations into Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian and the languages of Central Asia.

The Mauryan Emperor: Asoka (Asoka) the Great
The Mauryan Emperor: Asoka (Asoka) the Great

1. Ceylon. There is no reason to doubt that Buddhism was introduced under the auspices of Asoka. Though the invasions and settlements of Tamils have brought Hinduism into Ceylon, yet none of the later and mixed forms of Buddhism, in spite of some attempts to gain a footing, ever flourished there on a large scale. Sinhalese Buddhism had probably a closer connection with southern India than the legend suggests and Conjevaram (Tamil Nadu) was long a Buddhist centre which kept up intercourse with both Ceylon and Burma.

2. Burma. The early history of Burmese Buddhism is obscure and its origin probably complex, since at many different periods it may have received teachers from both India and China. The present dominant type (identical with the Buddhism of Ceylon) existed before the sixth century and tradition ascribes its introduction both to the labours of Buddhaghosa and to the missionaries of Asoka. There was probably a connection between Pegu and Conjevaram. In the eleventh century Burmese Buddhism had become extremely corrupt except in Pegu but King Anawrata conquered Pegu and spread a purer form throughout his dominions.

3. Siam. The Thai race, who starting from somewhere in the Chinese province of Yünnan began to settle in what is now called Siam about the beginning of the twelfth century, probably brought with them some form of Buddhism. About 1300 the possessions of Râma Komhëng, King of Siam, included Pegu and Pali Buddhism prevailed among his subjects. Somewhat later, in 1361, a high ecclesiastic was summoned from Ceylon to arrange the affairs of the church but not, it would seem, to introduce any new doctrine. Pegu was the centre from which Pali Buddhism spread to upper Burma in the eleventh century and it probably performed the same service for Siam later. The modern Buddhism of Cambodia is simply Siamese Buddhism which filtered into the country from about 1250 onwards. The older Buddhism of Cambodia, for which see below, was quite different.

At the courts of Siam and Cambodia, as formerly in Burma, there are Brahmans who perform state ceremonies and act as astrologers. Though they have little to do with the religion of the people, their presence explains the predominance of Indian rather than Chinese influence in these countries.

4. Tradition says that Indian colonists settled in Khotan during the reign of Asoka, but no precise date can at present be fixed for the introduction of Buddhism into the Tarim basin and other regions commonly called Central Asia. But it must have been flourishing there about the time of the Christian era, since it spread thence to China not later than the middle of the first century. There were two schools representing two distinct currents from India.

First the Sarvastivadin school, prevalent in Badakshan, Kashgar and Kucha; secondly the Mahayana in Khotan and Yarkand. The spread of the former was no doubt connected with the growth of the Kushan Empire but may be anterior to the conversion of Kanishka, for though he gave a great impetus to the propagation of the faith, it is probable that, like most royal converts, he favoured an already popular religion. The Mahâyâna subsequently won much territory from the other school.

5. As in other countries, so in China Buddhism entered by more than one road. It came first by land from Central Asia. The official date for its introduction by this route is 62 A.D. but it was probably known within the Chinese frontier before that time, though not recognized by the state. Secondly when Buddhism was established, there arose a desire for accurate knowledge of the true Indian doctrine. Chinese pilgrims went to India and Indian teachers came to China. After the fourth century many of these religious journeys were made by sea and it was thus that Bodhidharma landed at Canton in 520[13]. A third stream of Buddhism, namely Lamaism, came into China from Tibet under the Mongol dynasty(1280). Khubilai considered this the best religion for his Mongols and numerous Lamaist temples and convents were established and still exist in northern China. Lamaism has not perhaps been a great religious or intellectual force there, but its political importance was considerable, for the Ming and Manchu dynasties who wished to assert their rule over the Tibetans and Mongols by peaceful methods, consistently strove to win the goodwill of the Lamaist clergy.

The Buddhism of Korea, Japan and Vietnam is directly derived from the earlier forms of Chinese Buddhism but was not affected by the later influx of Lamaism. Buddhism passed from China into Korea in the fourth century and thence to Japan in the sixth. In the latter country it was stimulated by frequent contact with China and the repeated introduction of new Chinese sects but was not appreciably influenced by direct intercourse with Hindus or other foreign Buddhists. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Japanese Buddhism showed great vitality, transforming old sects and creating new ones.

In the south, Chinese Buddhism spread into Vietnam rather late: according to native tradition in the tenth century. This region was a battlefield of two cultures. Chinese influence descending southwards from Canton proved predominant and, after the triumph of Vietnam over Champa, extended to the borders of Cambodia. But so long as the kingdom of Champa existed, Indian culture and Hinduism maintained themselves at least as far north as Hue.

6. The Buddhism of Tibet is a late and startling transformation of Gotama's teaching, but the transformation is due rather to the change and degeneration of that teaching in Bengal than to the admixture of Tibetan ideas. Such admixture however was not absent and a series of reformers endeavored to bring the church back to what they considered the true standard. The first introduction is said to have occurred in 630 but probably the arrival of Padma Sambhava from India in 747 marks the real foundation of the Lamaist church. It was reformed by the Hindu Atisa in 1038 and again by the Tibetan Tsong-kha-pa about 1400.

The Grand Lama is the head of the church as reorganized by Tsong-kha-pa. In Tibet the priesthood attained to temporal power comparable with the Papacy. The disintegration of the government divided the whole land intosmall principalities and among these the great monasteries were as important as any temporal lord. The abbots of the Sakya monastery were the practical rulers of Tibet for seventy years (1270-1340). Another period of disintegration followed but after 1630 the Grand Lamas of Lhasa was able to claim and maintain a similar position.

Mongolian Buddhism is a branch of Lamaism distinguished by no special doctrines. The Mongols were partially converted in the time of Khubilai and a second time and more thoroughly in 1570 by the third Grand Lama.

7. Nepal exhibits another phase of degeneration. In Tibet Indian Buddhism passed into the hands of a vigorous national priesthood and was not exposed to the assimilative influence of Hinduism. In Nepal it had not the same defense. It probably existed there since the time of Asoka and underwent the same phases of decay and corruption as in Bengal. But whereas the last great monasteries in Bengal were shattered by the Mohammedan invasion of 1193, the secluded valley of Nepal was protected against such violence and Buddhism continued to exist there in name. It has preserved a good deal of Sanskrit Buddhist literature but has become little more than a sect of Hinduism.

Nepal ought perhaps to be classed in our second division that is those countries where Indian culture was introduced not by missionaries but by the settlement of Indian conquerors or immigrants. To this class belong the Hindu civilizations of Indo-China and the Archipelago. In all of these Hinduism and Mahayanist Buddhism are found mixed together, Hinduism being the stronger element. The earliest Sanskrit inscription in these regions is that of Vochan in Champa which is apparently Buddhist. It is not later than the third century and refers to an earlier king, so that an Indian dynasty probably existed there about 150-200 A.D. Though the presence of Indian culture is beyond dispute, it is not clear whether the Chams were civilized in Champa by Hindu invaders or whether they were hinduized Malays who invaded Champa from elsewhere.

8. In Cambodia a Hindu dynasty was founded by invaders and the Brahmans who accompanied them established a counterpart to it in a powerful hierarchy, Sanskrit becoming the language of religion. It is clear that these invaders came ultimately from India but they may have halted in Java or the Malay Peninsula for an unknown period. The Brahmanic hierarchy began to fail about the fourteenth century and was supplanted by Siamese Buddhism. Before that time the state religion of both Champa and Cambodia was the worship of Śiva, especially in the form called Mukhalinga. Mahayanist Buddhism, tending to identify Buddha with Śiva, also existed but enjoyed less of the royal patronage.

9. Religious conditions were similar in Java but politically there was this difference, that there was no one continuous and paramount kingdom. A considerable number of Hindus must have settled in the island to produce such an effect on its language and architecture but the rulers of the states known to us were hinduized Javanese rather than true Hindus and the language of literature and of most inscriptions was Old Javanese, not Sanskrit, though most of the works written in it were translations or adaptations of Sanskrit originals. As in Cambodia, Śivaism and Buddhism both flourished without mutual hostility and there was less difference in the status of the two creeds.

In all these countries religion seems to have been connected with politics more closely than in India. The chief shrine was a national cathedral, the living king was semi-divine and dead kings were represented by statues bearing the attributes of their favorite gods.

Extent of Buddhism and trade routes in the 1st century CE (Source wikipedia)
Extent of Buddhism and trade routes in the 1st century CE (Source wikipedia)

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