History of Buddhism

The history of Buddhism traces back to the teachings of Lord Buddha after He attained enlightenment in 528 BC under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, India. After 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 BC, 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 BC – 250 BC . The Second Buddhist council that was held in Vaishali in 383 BC, 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 BC to purify Buddhism and reconcile the two sects.

Ashoka (269 BC – 232 BC). 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 BC – 1st century BC. After the death of Ashoka, Buddhism again went through the period of suppression especially by the Sunga rulers, during 185 BC – 73 BC.

1st century AD – 8th century AD . The following era till 8th century AD 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 AD in Kashmir or Jalandhar, which is generally associated with the rise of the Mahayana sect.

8th century AD onwards . But the ‘dark age’ began in the 8th century AD 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 BC onwards) . When Ashoka’s son, monk Mahindra reached the contemporary Sri Lankan capital of Anuradhapura in the 3rd century BC, 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 AD, 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 AD. Although Buddhism in Sri Lanka had spread once from Sri Lanka to other parts as well, but from the 16th century AD 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, 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 AD 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 AD. 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 AD 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 AD 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 (AD 740 – AD 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 eventually ended in 1042 AD, when Atisha (982 AD – 1054 AD), 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 AD 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 AD, 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 (AD 585 – AD 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 (AD 574 – AD 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 AD 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.

Buddhism After Buddha

Buddhism is a philosophy based on the teachings of Lord Buddha(563 BCE-483 BCE), who was born as Siddhartha Gautama, a Shakya prince in Lumbini, Nepal. The teachings preached by Lord Buddha subsequently turned into a religion, known as Buddhism. The core of Buddhism lies in the purification of mind and soul by realising the truth and getting rid of the worldly desires. Basically, it were the principles of Karma in the doctrine of Buddhism that made the religion one of the major ones in the world.

Buddhism After The Buddha – The role of Ashoka  It was after the Buddha’s death that the school of Buddhism spread slowly in India and then subsequently, throughout the world. However, it was at the time of the the Indian emperor Ashoka that Buddhism took a pace to reach its height. After the tragic Kalinga war, Ashoka decided to follow the path of non-violence or ‘ahimsa’ and converted to Buddhism. He promoted the doctrines of Buddhism not only in his empire as Dhamma but in other regions as well. It was his promotional campaign that led to the construction of the Buddhist religious monasteries and stupas, which further facilitated the spread of Buddhism in countries like Sri Lanka, Tibet, China and Japan.

The Buddhist Councils And The Rise Of The Buddhist Sects 

  • First Buddhist Council : It was merely three months after the death of the Buddha that the first Buddhist Council was held in Rajgriha (Modern Rajgir, India) under the guidance of a senior monk, Maha Kassapa. Almost all the Buddhist monks who had attained the ‘arahantship’ participated in the council, in which they unanimously agreed that no disciplinary rule regulated by Lord Buddha should be changed, and neither new rules should be introduced! Since there was no conflict among the monks regarding the doctrines of Buddhism, therefore, all the principles were divided into several parts, which were individually assigned to the senior monks and their disciples. The main purpose of this division was only to ensure that no omissions and additions could be made to the original principles.
  • The Second Buddhist Council And The Formation Of Sthaviravadin and Mahasanghika Schools : One hundred years after the first Buddhist council, the second Buddhist council was held in Vaishali in 383 BCE to deal with the disputes related to the monastic discipline(Vinaya). The monks differed so severely in their opinions on the interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings that a split was inevitable and further resulted in the formation of the Sthaviravadin (with orthodox view) and Mahasanghika(with liberal view) schools of Buddhism.
  • The Third Buddhist Council : The Indian emperor Ashoka convened the third Buddhist council at Patliputra (Now Patna, India) in 250 BCE. The council was held by the monk, Moggaliputta Tissa and aimed at the purification of the Buddhist movement by reconciling different schools of Buddhism.

    The third Buddhist council formalised the Pali canon, Tripitaka, better known as the traditional Buddhist text directly transmitted from the Buddha. The Pali canon comprised the monastic discipline(Vinaya Pitaka), the Budddhist doctrine(Sutra Pitaka) and a new philosophy(Abhidharma Pitaka).

    As per the proceedings of the third Buddhist council, emissaries, including Ashoka’s son, Mahindra, were sent to various countries such as Sri Lanka, Ceylon and the Greek kingdoms in the west in order to spread Buddhism.

    After the third Buddhist council, the ideological conflict between the Sthaviravadins and the Mahasanghikas became so intense that they parted their ways forever and were named as Theravadins and Mahayanas respectively.

  • The Fourth Buddhist Council : The Fourth Buddhist Council was convened by the Kushana emperor, Kanishka around 100 CE in Kashmir or Jalandhar. The council was attended by both the sects- the Mahayanas and the Theravadins. The monks edited the old old texts and the council approved a new set of edited scriptures for the propagation of the Buddhist ideologies.

    The forth Buddhist council is usually associated with the formal rise of the Mahayana sect, though the Theravadins do not recognise the authenticity of this council and call it a ‘Council of heretical monks’. However, it is a fact that it was only after the fourth Buddhist council that the Mahayana Buddhism flourished and spread to Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan, and the works of Nagarjuna, Asanga, Shantideva, Vasubandhu and Ashvaghosha acted as an add on to it.

  • The Fifth Buddhist Council : The fifth Buddhist council was held in Mandalay, Burma(Present Myanmar) in 1871 CE under the supervision of three Elders, the Venerable Mahathera Jagarabhivamsa, the Venerable Narindabhidhaja, and the Venerable Mahathera Sumangalasami. The council, which was held in the reign of king Mindon, aimed at reciting all the teachings of the Buddha, and to examine them minutely if any of them had been changed, dropped or altered.

    The council, attended by 2400 monks lasted for five months and the entire text of the Pali canon was revised and inscribed on 729 marble slabs after its recitation had been completed and unanimously approved.

  • The Sixth Buddhist Council : The sixth Buddhist Council was convened in 1954-56 at Kaba Aye in Rangoon(Present Yangon) with a purpose to affirm and preserve the genuine Dhamma and Vinaya. Almost 2500 Theravadin monks, who hailed from India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Laos, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam attended the council and took part in the traditional recitation and examination of the Buddhist scriptures and Tripaitaka.

    The sixth Buddhist council is considered to be a landmark in the history of Buddhism as the version of Tripitaka, which was examined and reproduced in the modern press in the Burmese script, is still recognised as being true to the pristine teachings of the Lord Buddha.

Other Schools  It was due to the patronage provided by the rulers to Buddhism, that it was gaining popularity not only in India, but in the other places as well. The merchants, monks and pilgrims further took the wave of Buddhism as far as Arabia to the west and eastward to the southeast Asia. Mahayana Buddhism, which was spreading its root in other regions after the Indian subcontinent, established a major regional centre in Gandhar(Modern Afghanistan), from where it further spread to Japan, China, Korea and Mongolia. Bodhidharma, a Mahayana Buddhist, travelled to China from India in 475 CE and established the Chan school of Buddhism in China, which when further went to Japan, came to be known as Zen. Another school of Buddhism, Tantaryana or Vajrayana developed in Eastern India (present Bengal and Orissa) and flourished during the period of Buddhism’s decline in India from 8th to 13th century CE. This new school though was considered to be a sub sect of the Mahayana school, but believed in different way and practices. The Tantrayana Buddhism even today facilitates an accelerated path to enlightenment to be achieved through the use of tantra techniques, which are practical aids to spiritual development and esoteric transmission. The new thought first got spread in Tibet, Bhutan, southwest China and Mongolia by the Indian teachers, then later moved further towards Japan (Known as Shingon Buddhism) and Kalmykia, the only Buddhist state of Europe.

Buddhist Scriptures  The first disciple of Buddha, Ananda wrote down Bbuddha’s thoughts and sermons (From first one at Banaras to the last one at Kushinagar) after His death. These texts, known as Tripitaka or the Three baskets became the main Buddhist scriptures. Later the Mahayanas added the ‘Lotus Sutra’ and the ‘Perfection of wisdom’, ‘Lankavatara’ and many others to the Buddhist scriptures. Similarly, the Tantrayanas also compiled the holy scriptures of the ‘Kanjur'(108 volumes), and the ‘Tanjur'(225 volumes). Besides, the writings of the 6 Buddhist Councils are also considered as the Buddhist holy scriptures, which consists of 400 volumes.

Today, Buddhism is practiced widely in nations of the far east and few of the south Asian countries, whereas it has almost disappeared from India – the country of its origin. It was in the 7th-8th century CE that Buddhism began to decline in India, owing to the revival of Hinduism and Bhakti movement, and by the time of the Turkish invasion of India in 12th century CE, the wave of Buddhism had stayed calm due to the arrival of Islam in India. But, despite these challenges, Buddhism managed to sail through in other parts of the world, and still survives in some parts of India, its birthplace.


Buddhism in the Modern World

The entire concept of Buddhism lies in the teachings of Lord Buddha, that He preached to His disciples after attaining enlightenment in 528 BCE in BbodhGaya. After the mahaparinirvana of Gautam Buddha(483 BCE), the whole phase of the timeline of Buddhist history went through various ups and downs. The division of Buddhism into various sects, arrival of Islam in India and other parts of the world, the revival of Hinduism and the Bhakti movement – whatever it had to be, though slowed down the pace of Buddhism for a time being, but could not put an end over it permanently. The existence of Buddhism in today’s stage of life proves that the Buddha’s teachings still have relevance in our lives.

The Dhamma and Theistic Religions   The term, ‘Theism’ essentially means the service of an unseen God. Hinduism, Islam and Christianity – all three major religions of the world affirm the existence of an all-powerful creator God, whereas the Buddha had long ago repudiated the notion of a supreme God.  It has been widely agreed upon the fact that Buddhism emerged as an offshoot of Hinduism. But, still it does not accept the notion of a supreme deity as followed in Hinduism. Similarly, the Buddhist doctrine do not agree with other two religions – Islam and Christianity, which have been fundamentally intolerant religions dedicated to the goal of converting others, and persecuting those of different faiths. The Buddhist Dhamma could not serve for a longer term in its birthplace, India because the revival of Hinduism in the 8th century CE and the arrival of Islam due to the Arab’s invasion of India in the 12th century CE worked against Buddhism. However, it is another point that there a number of Buddhists in India, curtsey to the Buddhist religious leader, the Dalai Lama, who has been in India for more than four decades after his exile from Tibet. Similarly, The Buddhist philosophy of Dhamma could not establish its root in the Islamic and Christian countries, because these two religions and their believers have always been stuck up with their idea of a supreme deity, thereby not accepting the doctrine of Dhamma.

Buddhism and Humanism  The Dhamma or the Buddhist doctrine primarily appeals to the dignity of human beings rather than glorifying the God’s notion, His free will and His superiority over the nature – unlike the way the theists define humanism. Thus, Dhamma is a humanistic philosophy, which in today’s world is gaining significance because it makes an individual the master of his own destiny. According to Buddhism, the human form is the only form in the entire universe, which is most conducive to deliverance. The Buddhist concept therefore believes in the fundamental idea of self-reliance and humanism rather than that of an external agency.

The Dhamma and Materialism  Today’s world is a materialistic world as people (even those who call themselves ‘religious’) believe that the physical matter is the only reality and worldly possessions constitute the greatest good and highest value in life. Such materialistic view clearly denies the existence of an absolute and objective moral standard.

But the Dhamma, as per the Buddhist school of thought, do not accept the materialistic view, which is based on the worldly desires and insists on the existence of moral conduct, goodness, truth and justice. However, Buddhism is not against the growth of material possessions unless and until it goes against the principles of right livelihood

According to Buddhism, this material gain and crave for more and more has been the root cause of the seriously heightening conflict or rivalry not only among societies and nations, but even among the members of the same family, which is a major concern today, and that’s why, as per the Buddhist ethics, one should follow the pursuit of a middle policy.

The Dhamma and Science The Dhamma closely relates to what is today understood by Science. The myths of nature and life that had captivated the humans have not only been proved wrong by science but also resembles to what the Buddha’s Dhamma mentions. While other religions and the theists turn their backs to the scientific discoveries, Buddhism on the other hand, always reconcile the scientific discoveries with its basic laws for Dhamma believes that logic should be the centre of a man’s knowledge and he should not accept anything blindly. Even the Buddha is believed to have said to His followers that nobody should accept blindly what He says, rather they should rationalise and then decide themselves, what is to be believed or followed and what not!

But, Science also has a self-imposed limitation as it has no procedure to move from positive to normative, but the Dhamma fills this gap as it has the ability to transcend Science. It is also in this sense that the Dhamma can be considered a Philosophy.

The Relevance Of Buddhism In The Modern World   Today everybody seems to be under the influence of external pressure and stressful life. The Dhamma provides ways to free our mind from mental defilement through meditation and concentration, coupled with the true understanding of the world, man’s role in it and practice of the Buddha’s path.

The Spread Of Buddhism In The Modern World   In the modern world, the total number of the Buddhists vary between 230 millions and 500 millions, and even is increasing as the Buddhist ideology, which is based on logic and science, is appealing modern man with modern thoughts.

Buddhism in Asia   The concept of Buddhism is familiar to the parts of Asia, as it was in an Asian country, India where Buddhism had evolved and from this place had spread to other parts of the world. Almost all the major sects of Buddhism are prevalent in different parts of the Asian continent. While Tantrayana or Vajrayana is predominant in Tibet, Mongolia and parts of India , Theravada Buddhism is being followed in most of the southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Similarly, Mahayana Buddhism remains the most common form in the northern Asian countries like China, Vietnam, Singapore, China(Chan) and Japan(as Zen Buddhism). The Buddhist flag that was designed to celebrate the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, later was accepted as the International Buddhist flag, indicating peace, harmony and love for all beings.

Buddhism In Other Parts of The World   In the later half of the 19th century, Buddhism as a religion was accepted by a number of European and American people, who were inspired by the teachings of Lord Buddha. The translation of the Asian texts (most of the Pali canons) into English and other western languages further facilitated the spread of Buddhist ideologies into the western nations.  The presence of the Buddhist temples, monasteries and stupas in countries like Cambodia, Bangkok, United States of America and states of United Kingdom proves that Buddhism is being accepted as one of the major religions throughout the world, thus returning its glorious rhythm.