The Evolution of Buddhism: From India to the Far East

While the Buddha was alive, Buddhism was an oral tradition and it was the predominant religion in India because it transcended the barriers of caste. However, although born in India, it was not destined to survive as a major religion in that country. One of the most important reasons for the decline of Buddhism in India was the influence of Hindu philosophy on the interpretation of Buddhism.

The Rise of Various Buddhist Schools

Five hundred monks held the First Buddhist Council three months after the Buddha’s death. The Council was led by the Buddha’s leading disciple, Maha Kashyappa, and the aim was to put into words the doctrine taught by the Buddha.

With the passage of time many sub-sects were formed, with different interpretations of the Buddhist ideology being adopted in various parts of the world.

The Second Council was held 100 years after the first one. The goal of this Council was to revise and confirm the teachings, thus discouraging the formation of sub-sects on the basis of differences in interpretations of Buddhist philosophy. It was during the Second Council that Buddhism was divided in two branches – the Theravada school and the Mahayana branch.

But things only got worse, as the Buddha had predicted, and the teachings got increasingly diluted and misinterpreted. The Third Council was held 236 years after the passing of the Buddha. King Ashoka the Great, Buddhism’s greatest patron in India, sponsored the Third Council, which decided to get rid of errant monks, preserve the teachings, and send missionaries out to other parts of the world.

However, things continued to degenerate and several splits resulted. Almost 20 schools and even more sub-schools rose from the initial two. None of the sub-schools survived the test of time.

The decline in the popularity of Buddhism in India began in the 12th century. Efforts by Emperor Ashoka led to the spread of Buddhism in other parts of the world.

The Spread of Buddhism outside India

The Third Council sponsored by King Ashoka sent out nine missions to preach the Buddhist way of life in Ceylon, Burma, Siam (Thailand), and Cambodia, and far off countries such as Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Greece. The Mahayana school spread to Nepal, China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan.

In Thailand, Theravada Buddhism is followed by 95% of the population. Thailand is probably the only country where the king is required to be Buddhist in accordance with the Thai constitution.

Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka by Emperor Ashoka’s son Mahendra in the 3rd century BC. The Theravada tradition had nearly died out in Southeast Asia due to wars and colonialism, but it thrived in Sri Lanka. From here it reached out to Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos, and farther to Europe and the West.

The first Buddhist community in China is said to have been established around 150 A.D. Buddhist emissaries traveling along the Silk Road took Buddhism to China. By 229 AD, the number of nuns and monks increased to two million. The concepts of Buddhism merged with the existing religious beliefs and gave rise to the popular Pure Land and Chan schools of Buddhism.

Buddhism entered Japan in the 5th century AD via Korea and by the 7th century it had become the state religion. In the 12th century, Zen (a school of Buddhism started by the South Indian monk-prince, Bodhidharma) came to Japan from China and was welcomed, particularly by the Samurai. Since then, many other Buddhist sects have sprung up, particularly in Japan.

There are many schools of Buddhism and not all schools share the same philosophical concepts. However some common concepts hold them together. The pivotal concept of ‘The Middle Way’ – the midpoint between living for worldly pleasures and self denial – is intellectually believable and completely practical. This concept helps people deal with the pressures of day-to-day living and is one of the main reasons for the sustained popularity of Buddhism the world over.