History and spread of Buddhism

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Buddhism is a very ancient religion whose origins are lost in oral transmission. From a sources point of view, it is very lacking and what has been reconstructed is based on what tradition has carried on for centuries. On Buddha himself, or Siddhartha Gautama, there are very few documentations and much has been left to legend. Yet it is a reality that still exists, which from India (from which it disappeared) has spread throughout Asia up to, in recent years, the western world. Over the centuries it has developed, adapting to the local cultures, absorbing elements of other religions and creating syncretisms that are very common in the Eastern world. Buddhism itself was immediately divided into several schools that coexisted, and continue to coexist, in a way that is difficult for us Westerners.


In this discussion, I will limit myself to talking about the life of Buddha (according to historiographic sources and leaving aside the legend), the spread of Buddhism after his death and the formation of the various schools. The principles of this religion, specific to each school, are instead deepened in this article. What I want to clarify immediately is that unfortunately the sources we have received are very late (and often biased) and scientifically reconstruct both the life of Siddhartha Gautama and the development of Buddhism is almost impossible.

Sitting Buddha, Indo-Greek art, Gandhara, 2nd or 3rd century CE
Sitting Buddha, Indo-Greek art, Gandhara, 2nd or 3rd century CE


“All that we are is the result of what we have thought.”

Siddhartha Gautama

Historiographic difficulties

Although, by now, the figure of the Buddha, born as Siddhartha Gautama presumably in 566 BCE, is historically ascertained and his life is known by most, from a historical-critical point of view we do not even know if it ever existed. Although more and more scholars have dedicated themselves to historical-scientific research on the figure of Buddha, they have not managed to obtain much. It is practically impossible to separate historical and mythical events, to historically place the episodes of Siddhartha Gautama’s life, including dates of birth and death, because the sources we have received are not reliable. They date back at least 200 years after the death of the Buddha. What they all agree on is the age of Gautama at his death: 80 years. So if the Buddha existed, he lived in an 80-year interval between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. We cannot say more than this and, as Étienne Lamotte points out, the attempt to reconstruct or trace the life of Gautama Buddha is “a hopeless enterprise”.

That specific period between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE is described by Karl Jaspers in this way:

Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, time and time the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, scepticism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers ParmenidesHeraclitus and Plato, of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India and the West.

What is new about this age … is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognising his limits he sets himself the highest goals. He experiences absoluteness in the depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence. In this age were born the fundamental categories within which we still think today, and the beginnings of the world religions, by which human beings still live, were created. The step into universality was taken in every sense.”

Historic Siddhartha Gautama

Trying to reconstruct the few data about Buddha, we can say that he was a man named Siddhartha Gautama, who was born, according to some sources, in 566 BCE in northern India from a rich family, probably of the warrior caste (kshatriya), of the clan of the Sakyas (hence the name Sakyamuni: the sage of the Sakyas). He followed in his father’s footsteps, getting married and having a son until he decided to embrace the itinerant ascetic life, without the permission of the parent. After a long search, he obtained awakening or enlightenment; in an attempt to communicate his experience he encountered an initial failure. When believers finally embraced his teachings and a monastic (as well as secular) community was formed, his leadership went into crisis when his cousin tried to impose stricter ascetic rules. Finally, he died, at the age of eighty, in a remote place due to spoiled food. These are the elements common to most sources.

The Buddha: birth

According to legend, Buddha was born in Lumbini (present-day Nepal) in 566 BCE. Of a royal family, so much so that he is called a prince, he had an unusual birth, like many other deified characters. The name Gautama (or Gotama), which means “he who dispels the darkness (ignorance) thanks to his own light (knowledge)” was chosen by Buddha himself in honour of his adoptive mother Gautami. Before being born as Siddhartha, the Buddha lived an innumerable number of lives (in reality they numbered them and they are 547) that were collected in as many tales.

Birth of Buddha: Thai art
Birth of Buddha: Thai art

So when Buddha was finally ready he incarnated in 566 BCE. Son of raja Suddhodana and his beautiful wife Maya, his birth was announced by unequivocal signs that would make it clear that he was a special person, a great spiritual master. The two parents, married for many years, were unable to have children when one night, Maya, dreamed of a white elephant that entered her womb and painlessly gave her the little Siddhartha. When the moment of childbirth approached, Maya began the journey to go to her paternal family. Having labour pains during the journey, he stopped in the park of Lumbini where he gave birth to Buddha, giving birth to him from the side without any pain. Obviously little Siddhartha was born in a perfect, fully conscious and newly born body he took seven steps and said: “To attain Enlightenment I was born, for the good of sentient beings; this is my last existence in the world “.


As was customary, brahmans and ascetics were invited after the birth for the auspicious ceremony. Asita, a wise elder, showing the newborn horoscope said that he would become a universal monarch or a religious leader destined to achieve awakening (or enlightenment), or a Buddha. Seven days after birth, his mother Maya died. Thus the son was cared for by another of Suddhodana’s wives, Pajapati, Maya’s younger sister. The baby was given the name of Siddhartha (he who achieves his aim) Gautama (belonging to the Gotra branch of the Sakyas).

Prophecy of Asita, Indo-Greek art, Gandhara
Prophecy of Asita, Indo-Greek art, Gandhara


The father, worried that his son could abandon him leaving him without heirs, did everything he could to keep him away from the contemplative life, but with little results. Siddhartha, in fact, from an early age showed evident signs of being interested in the spiritual life, in compassion. There are many legends that tell of his “miracles” during childhood and adolescence. At the age of sixteen, he married his cousin Yasodhara but only at 29 did he get a son from her, Rahula.

Although Siddhartha lived in total splendour, away from poverty and suffering, at the age of 29 he left the royal palace to see the reality of the world, experiencing the crudeness of life: disease, poverty, suffering, death. Seized by a profound crisis, he left the city and, meeting a wandering monk, seeing him calm and serene, he decided to give up his life which, however rich and sumptuous, would not have prevented him from getting sick, suffering and dying. He fled the palace secretly at night, abandoning his son and wife.

Siddhartha esce da palazzo e vede vecchiaia, malattia e morte, arte thailandese
Siddhartha leaves the palace and sees old age, sickness and death, Thai art

Ascetic life

Once he left the royal palace, Siddhartha headed by master Alara Kalama to the Kosala region. He practised under his guidance, meditation and asceticism, to reach the sphere of nullity, which for Kalama was equivalent to obtaining liberation from the cycle of rebirths (the so-called moksha). Dissatisfied with the results, Siddhartha went to Magadha to follow Uddaka Ramaputta. For this master, however, it was necessary to concentrate on meditation in its 4 methods, to obtain the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception. Once Siddhartha reached it, he was once again unsatisfied.

He left that region to settle at the confluence of two rivers, near today’s Bodhgaya. Together with five ascetics of the Brahmanic family, who in the meantime had become his disciples, he devoted himself to very austere ascetic practices: prolonged meditations and long fasts. Having understood that these practices led to nothing, he accepted a cup of rice boiled in milk offered to him by the young Sujata. Seeing him eating, the 5 disciples abandon him, taking it as a sign of weakness.

Extreme asceticism of Siddhartha and the sitar player
Extreme asceticism of Siddhartha and the sitar player

Sitar player

Some traditions say that absorbed in meditation, a boat with musicians talking passed by on the nearby river. As they played the sitar, one said to the other, regarding the tuning of the instrument: “When the string is too tight the music flies away; when too loose, it is silent and the music dies; grants the sitar neither too loose nor too tight”. From there Siddhartha understood that his asceticism was too extreme and that it did not allow him to meditate properly. Whereupon he developed the middle way, as the main way and started eating properly.

The Awakening

So it was that at the age of 35, after seven uninterrupted weeks of recollection, on a full moon night in May, sitting in the lotus position under a Ficus Religiosa in Bodhgaya, Siddhartha meditated all night until reached awakening (or enlightenment): Nirvana. Many traditions describe this moment in a very picturesque and dramatic way: Siddhartha was tempted and tortured by troops of demons of all kinds, each of which represents a temptation (craving, boredom, passion, etc.) up to the final demon which is Mara, the death itself. Thanks to his immovable concentration, Buddha managed to defeat all demons, including Mara himself, or the fear of death. This awakening freed him forever from the cycle of rebirth, making him understand the Four Noble Truths about the human condition and the Eightfold Path, or the tools to reach Nirvana.

Buddha attacked by Mara and the demons, Tibetan art
Buddha attacked by Mara and the demons, Tibetan art

Siddhartha acquired the title of Buddha (awakened). He continued to meditate for a week under the Ficus Religiosa and for three more weeks under three different trees and miraculous events happened: a theological dispute with a Brahmin shows that castes do not exist, but Brahmin is who follows the Dharma; a Naga, snake spirit of the place covered him during a long rain; two merchants brought him honey cakes and became his first lay disciples; Brahma himself appeared to him to encourage him to spread his doctrine.

The setting in motion of the Wheel of Dharma

Buddha decided to bestow his teachings on everyone, without distinction of caste, sex, age. He first went to Sarnath, near Varanasi, in the Deer Park, where his five previous disciples were located. These initially ignored him, then seeing him so radiant, they got convinced and listened to his teachings. That was the first speech given by the Buddha on his doctrine and his first words are reported in the Dhammacakkappavattana-vagga Sutta or The setting in motion of the Wheel of Dharma (or Doctrine). Buddha explained how the two extreme ways, that of dissolution and that of radical asceticism, are both to be rejected in order to follow the middle way, bringing clear vision and knowledge. The Buddha later described the way to follow this path, which is the Eightfold Path and, going backwards, he explained that it derives from the Four Noble Truths, which oppose Samsara, the cycle of rebirths.

The first sermon in Sarnath, Thai art
The first sermon in Sarnath, Thai art

One of the five listening disciples, named Anna Kondanna, once heard the teaching of Buddha exclaimed: “Everything that is born is destined to perish!” and thanks to this, he reached Nirvana becoming Arhat. Monk (Bhikkhu) was then ordained, the wheel of Dharma was started and Sangha (monastic community) formed. From that day Buddha moved along the Ganga valley preaching and welcoming new disciples, creating monastic communities and founding the first beggar monastic order in history (known today). The Buddha’s teaching was addressed to everyone, regardless of caste, gender and social status, it was enough to respect the Sangha rules. In this, Buddha opposed Brahmanism, which instead imposed caste division and concentrated all spiritual power in the hands of the brahmins.

Spreading of the doctrine

Buddha converted many people, from the poorest to the wealthiest kings. Among the main characters who followed him, note the brahman Kashyapa, who became his most important disciple with Ananda, the royal doctor Jivaka Komarabhacca, who was his personal doctor (and which tradition says is the creator of Thai medicine and of the famous Thai massage). He also returned to his homeland, visited the father and wife with the son and converted them all. The same happened with his cousins Ananda and Devadatta. After years of wandering and conversions, of preaching in favour of the weak, the sick, the poor, since Buddha was now old, Devadatta pushed for himself to be appointed as Buddha’s successor and guide of the Sangha, the monastic community.

His intention was to make changes, putting stricter ascetic rules (including vegetarianism: eating meat was allowed when it was offered to the monks and they were sure that the animal had not been killed specifically for them). Buddha did not accept and then Devadatta, with the help of a king, attempted to assassinate Siddhartha by hiring archers, but they refused. Then he tried it with his own hands, but he did not succeed and also lost royal support. Finally, Buddha’s evil cousin opted for the schism and convinced about 500 monks to separate from the Sangha. Siddhartha initially let them do it, then sent a couple of monks to Devadatta and they managed to convince the 500 schismatics to return to Buddha, saying that a more rigid asceticism was granted but it should not have been the rule for everyone. Devadatta was left alone and vomited blood. After six months he decided to return to Buddha but a chasm opened under him and ended up in one of the many Buddhist hells.


During one of his pilgrimages, being left alone with Ananda, Buddha stopped to eat at Cunda‘s place in Pava. Once he left the house, while he was walking, he fell ill and asked his disciple for water. A nobleman, Pukkusa, passed by and gave the Buddha a yellow fabric to make him lie down. The master told Ananda that it was Cunda’s food that had brought him to death (someone says mushrooms, other meat) and that the next day he should go to him, thank him and calm him down. Meanwhile, another monk passed by, Kapphina, and asked Buddha to delay his death. He refused. Meanwhile, other monks arrived, called by Ananda, to assist him and when his time came, he recited his last words:

“Monks, I speak to you now: conditioned things are subject to decay. Work out diligently your own salvation”

Then the Buddha stretched out facing north, reclining on his right side, and expired.

Death of Buddha or Parinirvana, Japanese art
Death of Buddha or Parinirvana, Japanese art


Unlike what happened to Hindu gurus, who were released into rivers without being burned, Buddha had himself cremated. The funeral rite was long and very sumptuous, to resume the contrast between his life as a prince and that of an ascetic. Once reduced to ashes, a fierce competition exploded to possess them, enough to bring armies into play. Then a referee was chosen, who divided the ashes into eight parts, which were delivered to all the contenders. These were buried under stupas specially built for the veneration of the ashes. This was until King Ashoka, in the III BCE, had them unearthed to further divide them and spread them throughout the Maurya empire (present-day India, apart from the southern tip, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Bengal and Assam).

Buddhism: history and diffusion

No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.


After the death of Buddha

As with the life of Siddhartha Gautama, it is very difficult to propose a historically proven reconstruction of the development of Buddhism, for lack of sources. Buddha’s reluctance to appoint a successor and formalize his doctrine has led to the emergence of several factions within his followers for at least 400 years after his death. The first monastic communities gathered around the Agama-Nikaya tradition, that is, the speeches attributed to Siddhartha Gautama himself. All the Buddhist schools existing today derive from this initial nucleus, which over the centuries has diversified within it. The interesting thing was that monks from different schools could live together if they embraced the same Vinaya (monastic code).

The first canonical texts were written down around the first century BCE: this means that Buddha’s teachings have been transmitted orally for 400 years. Until the reign of Ashoka the Great, who embraced Buddhism as a state religion spreading it throughout the empire, in the third BCE, Buddhism remains a minority movement and the events concerning its formation are difficult to establish, due to very posterior and conflicting traditions. The oldest school, called Theravada, claims that there have been two formative councils, but it is difficult to maintain their historical truth due to late sources. According to tradition, there was a first council in the fifth century BCE, immediately after the death of Buddha, presided over by Kashyapa, in which the speeches of Buddha (Sutra Pitaka) were collected and the monastic rules were drawn up (Vinaya Pitaka). While the first text is considered almost orthodox in all Buddhist schools, although with different variations depending on the canon, the second has undergone various diversifications over the years.

Ananda and Kashyapa, Buddha's favorite disciples, Chinese art
Ananda and Kashyapa, Buddha’s favorite disciples, Chinese art

First big separation

The second council, again according to the Theravada tradition, was convened in the fourth century BCE by King Kasaloka in Vaisali, due to a conflict between the more traditionalist schools and a more liberal faction called Mahasamghika (Grand Assembly). The former claimed that Buddha was a human being who had attained enlightenment unreachable by monks (who at most could become Arhats following the precepts of the Buddha), while the latter argued that this approach was selfish and individualistic (the monks limited themselves to work on themselves, for themselves) and that everyone had to aspire to become a Buddha. The Theravadas accused the secessionists of having milder monastic rules to attract more people and argued, instead, that their code was more ancient and therefore original. Recent studies have shown the opposite, coming to think that the Vinaya of the Mahasamghika was older. However, the secessionists were condemned and retreated to northwestern India and Central Asia, where they survived for a few centuries.

Ashoka The Great

After extending his kingdom with bloody wars creating the largest empire of the time, even overcoming the Roman Empire of Trajan, the king Ashoka repented of the violence used and decided to embrace Buddhism. This is what the Buddhist sources that were written 500 years later tell. Modern historiographers speculate that he did it mainly for political reasons: the Buddhist religion was the one that most easily embraced religious syncretism, thus smoothing out the differences and frictions typical of different cultures living in a unified empire.

Ashoka The Great, Indian art
Ashoka The Great, Indian art

The fact is that Ashoka unearthed the Buddha’s ashes and distributed them throughout the empire, erecting new stupas. He promulgated laws such as the abolition of hunting and wounding of animals, promoted vegetarianism, reduced corporal punishment and increased amnesty for death row inmates and prisoners, built hospitals for men and animals, universities, free hostels for pilgrims, irrigation and river traffic, and many new roads. The promulgated laws did not discriminate against caste, religion or political alignment. The moral principles he supported were those of Dharma: non-violence, tolerance of all opinions, obedience to parents and respect for spiritual teachers, generosity towards friends, human treatment of servants, etc. He changed his foreign policy from military aggression to political agreements, creating satellite states.

Third council

In the Buddhist context, he decided to make order among the schools of thought by convening the third Buddhist council in Paliputra, the capital, again according to the Theravada school. Thus it was decided what the canonical scriptures were and what was probably the current Pali canon of the Theravada school was formed: Abhidharma Pitaka, or philosophical elaborations, was added to the Sutra Pitaka and Vinaya Pitaka. Also according to the Theravada tradition, two other Buddhist schools were condemned during this council but survived for other centuries in northern India. Once the true Dharma, or doctrine, was decided, missionaries were sent to nearby Hellenistic realms, going as far as Egypt and Greece. Clement of Alexandria reports the presence of a Buddhist community in Alexandria in Egypt. Syncretisms between Buddhism and the Hellenic religion unique in human history are created, especially in the Hellenistic realms. Many of these missionaries, in fact, were Greek and some historians claim that Ashoka himself had Greek origins.

King Ashoka during the third council
King Ashoka during the third council

Buddhism in Asia

In addition to going to the Middle East and West, the missionaries brought Buddhism into the Mon culture of present-day Myanmar; Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, spread it in Sri Lanka. Tradition, not historiographically attested, says that Ashoka sent missionaries in the north, beyond the Himalayas to Khotan, in the Tarim basin and in the land of the Tocari, from which the Buddhist empire of Kushan was born.

Sunga Repression

After the Maurya dynasty of King Ashoka, in 185 BCE the Sunga rose to the throne, with General Pusyamitra. Being an Orthodox brahmin, he strongly opposed Buddhism by destroying monasteries and killing monks. Many stupas were torn down and monasteries converted into Hindu temples. Buddhists took refuge in northern India and south. Beyond Buddhist sources, however, there are no other references to these repressions and destruction of monasteries. There has been a clear Buddhist decline, but it is not said to be due to repression and violence. Until other sources are found, historiography should distance itself from this view.

The two fourth councils

In 29 BCE, in Sri Lanka, at the home of a famine that had struck the island by killing many monks, especially the elder ones who knew the canon by heart, for fear of losing it they decided to put it in writing in Pali language on leaves of a Palm tree. This always according to the Theravada tradition. The second fourth council was held in the Kushan Empire, north of India, at the behest of King Kanishka. Given that the Theravadas feared that other schools would take advantage of it to change the canon (especially the Sarvastivada school, already condemned in the third council), they refused to participate.

The aim was to compile more comprehensive commentaries on the Abhidharma Pitaka but it is likely that work was done on the existing canon. The biggest contribution of the council concerned the writing of the Agama (i.e. the first four nikayas of the Sutra Pitaka on Buddha’s speeches). According to scholars, in this period the Sarvastivada school translated its canon from pali into Sanskrit: this was the language of the Brahmins, writers and philosophers making Buddhism within reach of more people, which made the Theravada school indignant which claimed that the Buddha would never have wanted such a thing being the Sanskrit language of the Brahmanic elite.

The origins of the Mahayana school

During this council, the foundations are laid for the birth of the Mahayana school (Great Vehicle), which is still the most widespread today. During the council, in fact, texts such as those of the Prajnaparamita Sutra were valued. The nascent Mahayana school, while accepting these texts, made its own doctrines of the Mahasamghika and Dharmaguptaka, declaring itself different from those who did not welcome the Prajnaparamita, that is the Theravadas and the Sarvastivadas, giving them the name of Hinayana (Small Vehicle), to differentiate themselves from it. Nonetheless, it accepted the decision to translate its scriptures into Sanskrit. Following the doctrines of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Mahayana school enhanced the concept of emptiness (sunyata) of the whole existing and therefore the identity between the phenomenal (and painful) world or Samsara and the condition of Nirvana (absence of pain). Consequently, Buddhahood was present in every living thing and this led to the sacralization of the Buddha-nature and its historical manifestation. Furthermore, the state of Nirvana was reached not only by monks but also by laypeople. This new school was a rapid success and in a few centuries replaced Sarvastivada.

Indo-Greek kingdom

Parallel to the Sunga kingdom there was, from 180 BCE, the Indo-Greek one. Demetrius I of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom invaded India and went as far as Pataliputra by founding the Indo-Greek kingdom that survived until the first century CE. Under this reign, Buddhism flourished again and some suppose that this invasion was carried out in support of the Maurya dynasty and the Buddhist population against the Sunga one. Menander I, who reigned from 160 to 135 BCE, converted to Buddhism and he is considered by the Mahayana tradition as Ashoka the Great and Kanishka of Kushan. Greek culture may have influenced the Mahayana school which has a more philosophical and sophisticated approach and a form of Buddha “deification“. It is in this period that the first depictions of Siddhartha Gautama appear.

La più antica statua di Buddha, arte indo-greca, Gandhara, I sec CE
La più antica statua di Buddha, arte indo-greca, Gandhara, I sec CE

Later evolutions: India

With the end of the Kushan empire (3rd century CE) Buddhism in India was mainly of the Mahayana school. Under the Gupta dynasty (from the 4th to the 6th century CE), Buddhism experienced a certain fortune and above all with the University of Nalanda, which became the largest and most influential cultural pole of the time and centuries to come. With the end of the Gupta dynasty, Buddhism underwent a new decline, slowly giving way to Jainism and Hinduism (which managed to convert many Buddhists by identifying Gautama Buddha with one of the avatars of Vishnu). Certainly, the invasion of the White Huns contributed to this decline, although Buddhism was still popular under them. The fatal blow to Indian Buddhism came when the Mameluk Turks from Delhi set fire to the university of Nalanda and defeated the Pala dynasty. Now deprived of political support and no longer much grip on the population, also due to movements such as Advaita and Sufi Islamic missionaries, the monks took refuge on the slopes of the Himalayas or on the island of Sri Lanka, a bulwark of the Theravada school.

Vajrayana school or Esoteric Buddhism

During the Gupta era (IV-VI century) and Pala (VIII-XII), a new school was born within the Mahayana one, called Vajrayana (diamond vehicle), with esoteric characters. It is also called Mantrayana, Tantric Buddhism or Esoteric Buddhism. It promoted the use of mantras, mudras, dharani (repetitive songs), mandalas, displays of divinity and Buddha. It developed a series of peculiar texts called Tantras. The roots of this school go far back in time, in Hinduism and sink into the groups called mahasiddha (the lovers of “perfections”, or the special powers obtained through ascetic practices). At that time, both Shivaism and Buddhism were encouraged at court and a merger of the two was almost inevitable. Many of the Tantra texts refer to Shivaite elements claiming that there is no difference between the two.


Buddhism arrived late in Tibet, around the seventh century CE and traditionally Padmasambhava (called Guru Rimpoche) is believed to be the founder of the first monastery, although very little is known about him from the historical point of view. Coming from the south, the form in which it was presented was a mix between Mahayana and Vajrayana that had developed in the universities of the Pala Empire in the Bengal region of eastern India. Other influences, Sarvastivada-like, came from Kashmir. These influences found space in the Tibetan canon. Chan Buddhism was another current that influenced Tibetan Buddhism, but to a lesser extent, mainly for political reasons. The Tibetan Bon religion, of a shamanic mould, was of great importance, initially opposing Buddhism and then radically infecting it. The effort of the Tibetan monks to collect the original texts from India was such that at present many of these exist only in the Tibetan language.

Dharamsala, India
Dharamsala, India

In the IX and X centuries, due to the collapse of the Tibetan empire and the subsequent civil wars, Buddhism also suffered a decline and fragmentation. After the discoveries of scriptures called Terma (hidden treasures), in which it is claimed that these texts were written by great masters such as Padmasambhava with secret teachings, Buddhism relives a rebirth. Famous masters such as Tilopa, Naropa and Milarepa lived in this period and spread the technique of meditation. Tibetan Buddhism also influenced the Mongols, despite invading Tibet. When the Mongolian Yuan dynasty ascended the Chinese throne in 1271, it imposed Tibetan Buddhism as a state religion. With the decline of the dynasty in 1368, the Buddhist religion also declined, and after several internal clashes, an independent state was formed.

Dalai Lama

In the 16th century the lineage of the Dalai Lamas, belonging to the Buddhist school of the Yellow Hats, was born, which came to power the following century. In 1720, after the expedition of the Qing dynasty, Tibet was invaded and annexed to China and remained so until the end of the dynasty, in 1912. In that year Tibet returned de facto independent but was again invaded in 1950 by the army of Mao. In 1959 the Dalai Lama and a large number of monks and laypeople fled their country to find refuge in India, in Dharamsala, where they still live. This was also the beginning of the spread of Tibetan Buddhism all over the world, especially the western one, which made the Dalai Lama globally famous (so much so that he won the Nobel Prize in 1989). States that adhere to Tibetan Buddhism are Mongolia, northern Nepal, Kalmykia, Siberia, the Russian Far East and northern China. Currently, there are Tibetan monasteries scattered in many western countries.

Central and Northern Asia

According to tradition, Buddhism spread to Central Asia as early as Gautama, thanks to two Bactrian merchants. A big contribution was made to the missions made by Ashoka the Great. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, the Theravada and Mahayana schools mixed. There is talk of areas known as today’s Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and even some Turkish populations. Places where Buddhism never became the main religion and where the Mahayana school was predominant. With the spread of Islam in the seventh century, Buddhist monks were given “people of the book” status along with Jews and Christians. Al-Biruni considered Buddha to be a prophet. In the 13th century, following the Mongol invasion, Buddhism revived but the following century the Mongols with Ghazan converted to Islam. Central Asia, however, played a fundamental role in the spread of Buddhism in China.


Again according to legend, Buddhism arrived in China thanks to the missionaries of Ashoka. It was likely brought from Central Asia in the first century CE. In 67 the monks Moton and Chufarlan officially spread Buddhism while the following year they founded the White Horse Temple, which still exists today. At the end of the second century, a large community already existed in the Pengcheng area (now Xuzhou). The first Chinese translations of the Mahayana texts took place thanks to the Kushan monk Lokakshema between 178 and 189. In the fifth century, new Chinese Buddhist schools were born: the Tiantai, the Huayan, the Chan and that of the Pure Land, all within the Mahayana branch. But it was during the Tang dynasty (618-907) that Buddhism flourished. The Chang’an Academy (now Xi’an) was built and in 629 the famous monk Xuanzang (later renamed Tripitaka) made a long pilgrimage to India collecting as many scriptures as possible and returning them to his homeland in 645, spending the rest of his life to translate them.


From this historical event was born the famous legend known by the name of Journey to the West, probably the most famous story of all Asia, of which I speak in this article. During this period, esoteric Buddhism from India based on Tantras was introduced. As the Tang dynasty declined, Buddhism declined in parallel. Emperor Wuzong, driven by nationalist sentiment, closed cultural exchanges with other countries and banished foreign religions (Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Nestorianism) by promoting autochthonous Taoism, destroying temples and arresting monks. Amidism and Chan Buddhism (two Buddhist currents which we will elaborate on later) survived on a popular level. Chan flourished again thanks to the Song dynasty (960-1279) and spread to Korea and then to Japan, where it acquired the name Zen. Along with Chan, Pure Land Buddhism also became popular and the two were often practised together.

The protagonists of Journey to the West
The protagonists of Journey to the West
Tibetan influence

During the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) there was a turnaround, with the Tibetan school becoming the official one in China while during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) the Chan became the predominant school again. In the seventeenth century, Buddhism was exported to Taiwan (for an article of mine on Taiwan, read here. For one on my experience in a Chan monastery, I refer here). During the Qing era (1644-1911) Tibetan Buddhism was once again the master. With the advent of the Republic of China (1912-1949) several attempts were made to revive Buddhism in a modern way, including Humanistic Buddhism popularized by Taixu and the revival of Chan Buddhism launched by Hsu Yun.

Cultural Revolution

With the Chinese cultural revolution, there was a period of great changes: despite the government’s reassurances about freedom of worship, there were numerous destructions of temples, killing of monks and holy book fires. The lands of the monasteries were confiscated, the buildings used for public use, the monks were secularized and sent to work in the fields or factories. Of the 130,000 religious centres that existed in 1947, less than a hundred remained in 1954, with a total of just 2,500 monks. The surviving monasteries, only in large cities, remained functional exclusively for foreigners and only as a tourist attraction.

Buddhist Association

The government took over the religion and introduced in it people loyal to the party and in 1953 a new Buddhist Association was inaugurated (the previous one had moved to Taiwan). Among the fundamental points of this association, there were: support for agrarian reform, the fight against counterrevolutionaries, the campaign against America and in favour of the war in Korea (the revolutionary war was considered not contrary to the principles of Buddha) and the training of Buddhists in the duty to renew religion according to the new social reality. In short, Buddhism was to serve the party. This Buddhist Association still exists and aims to keep religion in line with communist ideals.

Fo Guang Shan Temple, Taiwan
Fo Guang Shan Temple, Taiwan

To dispel the doubts of the Asian Buddhist community, the party dedicated itself to a series of cultural exchange initiatives with other countries, electing the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and the Mongolian Lama among the 4 honorary members of the Association (the fourth was Hsu Yun). A few years later the Tibetans revolted and the Dalai Lama fled in ’59; he was replaced by the Panchen Lama who was, however, arrested in ’64 as an enemy of the state. In ’66 the Buddhist Association stopped all activities and for a decade there was no open temple or a single functioning monastic community. Only in the 1970s, with the change of policy of the Communist Party after the death of Mao in 1976, was there a revival of Chinese Buddhism. Some temples were restored and new monastic communities were formed that celebrated rites initially only for foreigners or overseas Chinese and later for locals.


Buddhism was introduced to the three kingdoms of Korea in 372 CE. During the 6th century, many monks travelled to China and India to study Buddhism and developed several Korean, Mahayana-style schools. Between 688 and 926 it became the predominant religion. In the following centuries, it maintained its popularity, especially Seon Buddhism (or Chan, known in Japan by the name of Zen). In the fifteenth century, however, at the home of the Confucian Yi dynasty, Buddhism suffered a decline with the confiscation of land, the closure of monasteries and the ban on making new orders. This lasted, with ups and downs, until 1910, when Japan annexed Korea and Korean Buddhism underwent several changes, adapting Japanese rules (such as marriage for monks). With the liberation from the invaders in the ’45, Korean Buddhism partially recovered the old traditions and worked to create a unified school. For an article on Korea with an in-depth analysis of Korean Buddhism, I refer here.

Tempio Jogyesa a Seoul
Jogyesa Temple in Seoul


It is not clear when Buddhism arrived in Vietnam. Some claim it was brought from India in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE, others that it came from China in the 1st or 2nd century CE. What is certain is that from the second century CE there was a solid Mahayana school. In the 9th century, Pure Land and Thien Buddhism (Vietnamese translation of Chan) were the most common. Until the 15th century, Hinduism, Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism coexisted in parallel, but after an invasion from the north, Chinese-style Buddhism spread. Although the Theravada school has survived in southern Vietnam, Vietnamese Buddhism is quite similar to Chinese in the Song period; in addition, it developed a symbiosis with Taoism and the Vietnamese popular religion. For an article on Vietnam with an in-depth analysis of Vietnamese Buddhism, I refer here.

Interior of a Buddhist temple in Hanoi, Vietnam
Interior of a Buddhist temple in Hanoi, Vietnam


Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century CE thanks to Korean monks. During the Nara period (710-794) the emperor had numerous temples built throughout the kingdom. Many sects proliferated, including the Kegon (deriving from the Chinese Huayan school). In the 8th century two prominent figures, Kukai and Saicho, founded the Shingon and Tendai schools respectively. Shinto and Buddhism influenced each other. During the Kamakura period (1185-1333) new Buddhist schools were born that competed with the traditional ones: Honen and Shinran from the Pure Land, the Zen Soto and Rinzai schools, founded by Eisai and Dogen and the Nichiren one of the Lotus Sutra.

Jomanji Temple, Shikoku, the oldest Zen temple on the island, Japan
Jomanji Temple, Shikoku, the oldest Zen temple on the island, Japan

Various arts developed in the Buddhist field and religion remained influential for all centuries, associating, in cases such as Zen Rinzai Buddhism, with samurai. Only with the Meiji era was Buddhism severely hampered in favour of nationalism that saw the only state religion in Shinto (1868-1912). Subsequently, Buddhism often joined nationalist and militarist movements, undergoing many criticisms. After the Second World War, mainly due to the strong materialistic progress, Japanese Buddhism suffered a sharp decline. For an article on Zen Buddhism, I refer here, while for my experience in a Soto Zen monastery, read here.

South East Asia

All of Southeast Asia has suffered greatly from Indian influence. Hinduism and Buddhism have been exported together with goods, arts, culture, politics. Kingdoms such as Funan (now Cambodia, Laos, northern Thailand and southern Vietnam), Sukhothai (Thailand), Khmer (Cambodia) and others in Indonesia were great promoters of both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, following the missionary work of the Theravada monks of Sri Lanka, they managed to promote their school so that it became the main one in all the aforementioned kingdoms. The famous complexes of Angkor Wat and Borobudur were born. To date, states such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, together with Sri Lanka and Myanmar, are the main custodians of the Theravada school.

Part of the spectacular Angkor Wat complex
Part of the spectacular Angkor Wat complex

Myanmar: rinascita Theravada

Myanmar has welcomed Buddhism since at least the fifth century CE. Initially coexisting with other religious forms and other Buddhist schools, but after the decline of Buddhism in India, the Theravada monks from Sri Lanka embarked on conversion missions to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia with great success. King Anawrahta (1044-1078), the founder of the kingdom of Pagan, welcomed Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka, having countless temples and stupas built. Over the centuries, Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar has undergone ups and downs with successive reforms always referring to Buddhism of Sri Lanka. Buddhism still deeply impregnates the social fabric of Burma and is certainly the country in which the Theravada tradition is most respected and followed (not necessarily a good thing). For an article of mine on Myanmar with a related study of Burmese Buddhism, I refer here.

Pagan, stupa, Myanmar
Pagan, stupa, Myanmar


In this historical-geographical overview, it is clear how the figure of Buddha and the Buddhist religion are mainly based on oral tradition and legends, which makes it difficult to give a historical-critical connotation to this movement. What you notice is that it had a history similar to Christianity: it was born in a country from which it almost completely disappears; the charismatic figure that founded it is in contrast with the current priestly class, little and nothing is known about him, leaves no writings, does not formalize the doctrine nor appoint a real successor, finally, his figure is deified; it is used by an emperor for political reasons, making it a state religion and establishing a council to solve doctrinal problems; there are different “schisms” or divisions in schools with very different doctrines, but always in dialogue; it soon became an institutionalized religion alongside the state and influencing politics and, consequently, the social and personal life of the population. For an article on the principles of Buddhism, I refer to this.

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Traditional Japanese wedding

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