Brief History of Buddhism

Let me begin by talking about the origin and expansion of Buddhism. Buddhism began in Northern India around the year 500 BCE. The Buddhist tradition gets its name from a man known by his followers as the Buddha, or the awaken one. He was born in a princely family in a region of Northern India that now lies in Southern Nepal. In those days it was simply a part of the great undifferentiated geographical entity that we speak of today as the Indian subcontinent.

I suspect that many of you who are reading this text have an image on your minds already of what a Buddha looks like. The Buddha often is depicted as sitting very serenely in a state of contemplation, his feet are crossed in front of him in a position that we know as the lotus position.

The Buddha is the very picture of calm and contemplation. And is this image of a calm and contemplative human being that has drawn many people to the Buddha, for centuries in Asia, and of course, in our own environment today. This is the image that conveys more explicitly the experience of his awakening. However, the Buddha did not always sit in perfect contemplation.

Buddhism is Born

After his awakening he got up from the sit of his enlightenment and talked about his experience to others on the roads of Northern India.

The major events of his life took place in what we call the middle region of the Ganges basin, still the site of Buddhist pilgrimage today.

To understand the significance of the Buddha’s life, I will spend other articles studying the religious background that the Buddha confronted himself in India during his own lifetime. This background made it possible for the Buddha to have such a strong religious impact on Indian civilization.

The Reform Movements

In India itself there were two major reform movements than appeared within the Buddhist community not so long after the lifetime of the Buddha himself. One of this was called the Mahayana, or the great vehicle. The second was called Tantra.

That word we’ll talk about when the time comes for us to discuss that movement in more detail, but for the moment, I think it might be helpful for us simply to imagine that the word Tantra means power. So it is a tradition in the Indian Buddhist community that emphasize all the techniques that cultivate a sense of power.

This two movements will each get significant attention in separate articles.

Expansion to South East Asia and China

Before this movements had ever began to grow in India, Buddhism was carried to Sri Lanka, just off the southern tip of India. Carried by Buddhist missionaries in the third century BCE. From Sri Lanka, Buddhism was then carried on to most of south east Asia, including Indonesia. We don’t think of Indonesia now as being a particularly Buddhist country, but some of the most extraordinary monuments in the history of Buddhism are found in Indonesia.

Buddhism moved North out of India into China in the second century of the common era, carried North by monks and merchants on the trade routes that went out over the mountains of India, into Afghanistan and then on into the great trade routes called the “silk road” that moved across central Asia and into the major mercantile centers of Northern China.

Here Buddhism encountered a sophisticated and ancient civilization. China was a confident and thoroughly civilized region when these early Buddhist monks began to make contact. For Buddhism to become part of China, as it eventually did, it was important for Buddhists to make some major changes in the way they thought through and expressed basic issues.

So, one of my preoccupations in later articles will be all these subtle ways that Buddhism transformed itself in order to become thoroughly Chinese.

In the Tibet and the Far East

From China, Buddhism was eventually carried to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. You might put Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese Buddhism together as expressions of this great East Asian strand.

In the eighth century of the common era, Buddhism was carried across the Himalayas from India into Tibet. Today, the Dalai Lama, who is the leader of the Tibetan Buddhist community, is one of the most visible, and I think, one of the most active Buddhist leaders in the world.

dalai lama
The Dalai Lama
In many ways he isn’t just a living symbol of Tibetan Buddhism, but for many people, he has been a symbol of Buddhism itself.

We’ll give separate attention to all this major varieties of Buddhism in these different cultural areas. We’ll also take a brief look as how Buddhism has become part of the religious world we know in our own neighborhoods in Europe and North America and in other parts of the contemporary world.

In the Western World

Today, Buddhism has spread through much of the rest of the world including Europe, Australia and the Americas.

On a trip to Australia last year I was staying in one of the hostels that hikers, climbers and skiers use before they go off to climb the mountain, I ran into a group of Australian Buddhists. I was happy to know that Tibetan Buddhism was alive and well and functioning very actively in a quite sophisticated way in Sidney and other cities of Australia.

Buddhism has really become a part of our modern world and we rub shoulders with it in all sorts of ways.

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