The Migrations of Buddhism
Article written by Lionel Landry for the Asia Society's Focus on Asian Studies Vol. II, No. 1, Asian Religions, pp. 20, Fall 1982.
Siddhartha Gautama -- later known as the Buddha, the Enlightened One -- taught in northern India in the sixth century, B.C. His doctrine departed from the Hinduism of his time by affirming that there was indeed a way out of the unending cycle of births and rebirths to which the Hindus held that all sentient life is forever destined. He further taught that the misery and sadness of existence in this life were the result of people's attachment to desire -- desire for pleasure, gratification, power, or whatever.
In his Four Noble Truths and Eight-fold Path, the Buddha explored the roots of unhappiness and outlined a system of appropriate thought, speech, behavior, mental awareness, action, and work -- based on detachment, austerities, and self-control -- patiently learned, meditated over, and practiced throughout many re-births. Even if the path was lonely and arduous in one's long series of existences, the devout practitioner could nevertheless aspire ultimately to reach Nirvana, the cessation of desire and rebirth, the extinction of the ego.
Buddhism swept India in a grand and peaceful conversion, as saffron-robed Buddhist monks by the thousands preached the Buddha's thought. Across the sea the teachings reached Sri Lanka and, across the Bay of Bengal, what are now Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia.
In all these countries great architectural monuments still celebrate the life and thought of the Buddha, much as it seems to have been preached in his lifetime or soon after by his disciples. These structures embody the teachings of "the Enlightened One" in marvelously sculptured temple decoration. Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur, on Indonesia's Java, are two such temples. Pagan, in Burma, is the site of hundreds of pagodas; and Sri Lanka has many heroic structures erected by pious kings. It is striking to note that in crossing the sea the teachings of the Buddha seemed to undergo relatively little change.
By contrast, as Buddhism spread along land routes, it underwent profound change. There were great overland trade routes in those days and in later centuries too, that joined China even to the Mediterranean. Along these routes Buddhism proliferated to northwest India and beyond, along the fabled east-west Silk Route. Monasteries and great universities grew. As the teachings reached people of different civilizations, the demand for adapting them to local customs shaped the Buddha's ideas in different ways. Above all, a less austere way to Nirvana (eternal bliss) -- than came to be taught in Southeast Asia -- seemed needed. The new way would provide a path open to all and not only to the withdrawn hermits and holy men who had practiced the Teachings over their countless solitary lives. A Large Vehicle was wanted -- not a Small Vehicle restricted to the very few, however dedicated they might be. With the rise of this broader and more accessible doctrine, an explosion of sacred texts, commentaries, sculpture, and art arose centering not only on the Buddha but also on many figures representing various aspects of the Buddha's nature. The art and the teachings spread westward to Afghanistan and through Central Asia eastward to the Pacific -- to China, Korea, Japan, and what we now call Viet Nam. In Tang dynasty China (A.D. 618 to 907) Buddhism produced a brilliant culture that greatly influenced all nearby countries in East Asia. If the Buddhism of the Small Vehicle seemed severe, heroic, and -- in a sense -- lonely, that of the Large Vehicle became warm, familiar, and easy to understand and practice.
The teachings reached Japan about the fifth century, A.D., and lived more or less at ease with earlier Japanese forms of nature-worship known as Shinto. In Japan a number of different sects arose -- some still with roots in China, some quite combative, some highly esoteric, some open to the most common denominator of Japanese society. Perhaps the sect best known to people in this country is Zen, a form known earlier in China as Chan, featuring instant illumination (satori) through meditation and an exquisitely refined concept of beauty.
Buddhism eventually died in its birthplace, India, but it reigned in much of the rest of Asia as Hinayana (the "Small Vehicle" of Southeast Asia; practitioners prefer the term Theravada, "The Teaching of the Elders") or the Mahayana (the "Large Vehicle") of all the rest of Asia, with the exception of Tibet. In Tibet a unique form of Buddhism, mixed with the pre-existing animism, arose in the ninth century that emphasized a monkhood led by reincarnated lamas. The spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism is the Dalai Lama, a reincarnation of the revered Bodhisattva of Compassion, Chenrezig (Avalokitesvara). Tibetan Buddhism stresses meditation (taking the form of repetitive chanting, the use of prayer wheels, and circumambulations) and has produced fertile art forms and elaborate rituals.
In whatever form, however, and no matter how seemingly divergent the many sects and cults into which Buddhism developed, the essential central message of the Buddha remained constant. That message stresses that desire is the root of unhappiness in human life, through the cycles of birth and rebirth; that there are ways to achieve illumination, root out desire, and come to a cessation of rebirths; and that meditation, as well as compassion for all sentient beings, are among the practices to be followed.
Buddhism did not fight the local beliefs it encountered as it spread, but rather assimilated into itself the elements most deeply held in various areas. This was not conquest of the sword, but rather the triumph of compassionate persuasion -- of peaceful, history-making proselytization.