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Religion Library: Buddhism

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Julia Hardy

While many Asian rulers favored Buddhism, it was not spread by armed men conquering territory or demanding conversion. Ashoka, who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century B.C.E., encouraged the spread of Buddhism by having edicts containing basic Buddhist teachings carved in stone and on pillars throughout his empire and beyond. Rulers of other Asian kingdoms supported the growth of Buddhism as well, and it was also carried along trade routes by merchants, traveling monks and teachers, and by immigrants. During the Common Era, Buddhism spread from the Indian subcontinent by sea to Southeast Asia and from Southeast Asia north to the east coast of China, and by land from India through Central Asia to East Asia over the famed Silk Route.

Buddhism flourished during a period of significant cultural change in Asia. During the first millennium of the Common Era smaller, kinship-based systems were being absorbed by powerful rulers. Some of these rulers controlled vast territories, as did Ashoka. Qin Shi Huangdi became China's "first emperor" just a decade after Ashoka's death. Along with this process of political consolidation came the growth of urban centers and trade-based economies. Buddhism provided these new urban centers with cultural support in the form of new social identities, new languages, and new institutions.

Buddhist scholasticism was a driving force behind the spread and growth of Buddhism in Asia. On the Indian subcontinent, huge monastic complexes emerged that served as centers for learning, similar to today's modern universities. The largest housed as many as ten thousand monks. Some Buddhist monks became renowned scholars whose sophisticated philosophical treatises were read and appreciated throughout Asia and beyond.

As the religion moved into new territories where there was a desire to read and study Buddhist texts, monks became involved in massive translation projects. Chinese monks made the long journey to India to obtain texts to be translated, and as pilgrims they visited sites marking the Buddha's life and spiritual journey. Monks from South Asia also traveled along the Silk Route to China to teach and aid in translation of texts. Statues and other forms of Buddhist art were carried from country to country as well, and became a visual means of introducing Buddhism to new lands.

In many areas where Buddhism was introduced it was a civilizing force, bringing with it elements of the more sophisticated and literate cultures of the South Asian subcontinent, and, later, China. Buddhism had an aura of power, partly because it had the support of powerful political forces, and partly because Buddhist monks were recognized for their scholarship. Monks were also thought to have special powers such as the ability to heal sickness, predict the future, and control rain.

Each region to which Buddhism traveled developed its own monasteries, universities, temples, and lay following. With time, Buddhism would develop a unique and different character in different Asian countries. In India, Buddhism was weakened by innovations in Hinduism and invasions by Muslims, and eventually disappeared. Southeast Asian Buddhism is believed to most closely resemble early Indian Buddhism, and Southeast Asia is now the center of the Theravada Buddhist tradition. China, where Mahayana Buddhism has flourished, became a center for the transmission of Buddhist religion equal to and eventually surpassing India. Tibet, influenced by both Indian and Chinese Buddhism, developed a Buddhist theocracy and was ruled by Buddhist monks until the Chinese invasion of the mid-20th century. Chinese Buddhism was transported to Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Vietnam, and each country developed its own particular forms. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, due to an increasing interest in Asian thought coupled with increased immigration from Asia to Europe and the Americas, Buddhism began to establish a strong presence in the West.


Study Questions:
1.     How was Buddhism spread?
2.     What role did literacy play in the spread of Buddhism?
3.     What is Buddhism's connection to urbanization?