The Buddha’s teachings spread peacefully across the Indian subcontinent, and from there far and wide throughout Asia. Whenever it reached a new culture, the Buddhist methods and styles were freely modified to fit the local mentality, without compromising the essential points of wisdom and compassion. Buddhism never developed an overall hierarchy of religious authority with a supreme head. Instead, each country to which it spread developed its own forms, its own religious structure, and its own spiritual head. At present, the most well-known and internationally respected of these authorities is His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet.
There are two major divisions of Buddhism: Hinayana (the Modest Vehicle), which emphasizes personal liberation, and Mahayana (the Vast Vehicle), which stresses working to become a fully enlightened Buddha to be able to benefit others. Both the Modest and Vast vehicles have many sub-divisions. At present, only three major forms survive: one Hinayana sub-division in Southeast Asia, known as Theravada, and two Mahayana divisions, namely the Chinese and Tibetan traditions.
- The Theravada tradition spread from India to Sri Lanka and Burma (Myanmar) in the 3rd century BCE. From there, it reached the rest of Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia and Laos).
- Other Hinayana schools spread to modern-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, eastern and coastal Iran, and Central Asia. From Central Asia, they spread into China in the 2nd century CE. These forms of Hinayana were later combined with Mahayana aspects that came through this same route from India, with the Mahayana eventually becoming the dominant form of Buddhism in China and most of Central Asia. The Chinese form of Mahayana later spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam.
- The Tibetan Mahayana tradition started in the 7th century CE, inheriting the full historical development of Indian Buddhism. From Tibet, it spread throughout the Himalayan regions and to Mongolia, Central Asia, and several regions of Russia (Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva).
In addition, from the 2nd century CE, Indian forms of Mahayana Buddhism spread to Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Sumatra and Java along the sea trade route from India to South China. None of them are extant today.
How Buddhism Spread
The expansion of Buddhism throughout most of Asia was peaceful, and occurred in several ways. Shakyamuni Buddha, as a travelling teacher sharing his insights with those who were receptive and interested from the nearby kingdoms, set the precedent. He instructed his monks to go forth in the world and expound his teachings. He did not ask others to denounce and give up their own religion and convert to a new one, for he was not seeking to establish his own religion. Buddha’s aim was merely to help others overcome the unhappiness and suffering that they were creating for themselves, due to their lack of understanding of reality. Later generations of followers were inspired by his example, and shared with others his methods that they found useful in their lives. This is how what is now called “Buddhism” spread far and wide.
Sometimes, the process evolved organically. For example, when Buddhist merchants visited and settled in different lands, some members of the local populations naturally developed an interest in these foreigners’ beliefs, as happened with the introduction of Islam to Indonesia and Malaysia later on. This process also occurred with Buddhism in the oasis states along the Silk Route in Central Asia, during the two centuries before and after the common era. As local rulers and their people learned more about this Indian religion, they invited monks from the merchants’ native regions as advisors or teachers, and eventually, many adopted the Buddhist faith. Another organic method was through the slow cultural assimilation of a conquering people, such as the Greeks into the Buddhist society of Gandhara in present-day central Pakistan, during the centuries following the 2nd century BCE.
Often, the dissemination was due primarily to the influence of a powerful monarch who had adopted and supported Buddhism himself. In the mid-3rd century BCE, for example, Buddhism spread throughout northern India as a result of the personal endorsement of King Ashoka. This great empire-builder did not force his subjects to adopt the Buddhist faith, but by posting edicts engraved on iron pillars throughout his realm exhorting his people to lead an ethical life, and by following the principles himself, he inspired others to adopt Buddha’s teachings.
King Ashoka also actively proselytized outside his kingdom by sending missions to distant lands, sometimes acting upon the invitation of foreign rulers, such as King Devanampiya Tissa of Sri Lanka. Other times he would send monks as envoys at his own initiative. The visiting monks would not pressure others to convert, but would just simply make the Buddha’s teachings available, allowing people to choose for themselves. This is evidenced by the fact that in such places as South India and southern Burma, Buddhism soon took root, while in places such as the Greek colonies in Central Asia, there is no record of any immediate impact.
Other religious kings, such as the 16th century Mongol potentate Altan Khan, invited Buddhist teachers to their realm and proclaimed Buddhism the official creed of the land, in order to help unify their people and consolidate their rule. In the process, they may have prohibited certain practices of non-Buddhist, indigenous religions, and even persecuted those who follow them, but these rare heavy-handed moves were largely politically motivated. Such ambitious rulers still never forced subjects to adopt Buddhist forms of belief or worship. This is absolutely not part of the religious creed.
Shakyamuni Buddha told people not to follow his teachings out of blind faith, but to only do so after examining them carefully. It then goes without saying that people should not accept Buddha’s teachings out of coercion from zealous missionaries or royal decree. In the early 17th century, Neiji Toyin tried to bribe eastern Mongol nomads into following Buddhism by offering livestock for each verse they memorized. The nomads complained to the authorities, and the overbearing teacher was punished and exiled.
In various ways, Buddhism managed to peacefully spread throughout much of Asia, carrying its message of love, compassion and wisdom, while fitting in to the needs and dispositions of different people.