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Buddhism's Spread in India, Ceylon & Central Asia

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  • 0:01 Buddhism in India
  • 1:34 Buddhism's Varieties
  • 2:23 In Ceylon & Southeast Asia
  • 2:55 In Tibet, China, Japan…
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

With the efforts of Ashoka, Buddhism soon spread throughout much of Asia. This lesson looks at how Buddhism spread, as well as how the faith split into two different systems. After you review the lesson, test your new knowledge with our quiz!

Buddhism in India

Following the death of the Buddha, Buddhism remained a religion with a relatively small following in India. Frankly, Hinduism was too strongly entrenched in the culture of the subcontinent, so Buddhism was not able to convince many people to convert. However, with the reign of Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire, that would soon all completely change. During his younger years, Ashoka had been keen to expand the empire that his grandfather had started and fought many bloody battles to push its boundaries further.

However, after one particularly bloody battle, he looked at the dead bodies on either side and asked himself what all that suffering had really accomplished. Sure, he had beaten the enemy and added new lands to his empire, but was he really doing what was right? After this, Ashoka searched for a solution to his quest for wanting to do what was morally right and found that Buddhism answered his questions. Almost overnight, Ashoka went from being one of the most aggressive military leaders in Indian history to one of the most peaceful, instead focusing his efforts on building the many stupas, or shrines to relics from the Buddha, that would soon dot India's landscape. That said, after Ashoka, many Buddhists in India felt that much of what they were practicing within their religion was actually really similar to what their neighbors practiced in Hinduism. As a result, with the exception of a few monasteries and other places where belief remained very strong, Buddhism largely disappeared from India by 100 AD.

Buddhism's Varieties

Still, that was just India. Ashoka had actually sent missionaries out to the rest of the known world carrying the message of Buddhism, and soon, the religion had expanded from Japan to the shores of the Caspian Sea. Not surprisingly, such a geographically diverse religion soon split into different patterns of belief. Within Buddhism, the split was between Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. While both versions began to focus more on everyday life, for example by encouraging charity and good works, Theravada Buddhism was more focused on what one might call the 'original' Buddhism. On the other hand, Mahayana Buddhism took a bit more freedom in adapting its beliefs, most notably in elevating the Buddha to the level that some say is almost god-like.

Buddhism in Ceylon and Southeast Asia

Theravada Buddhism, also called Hinayana Buddhism, soon found a home in Southeast Asia, as well as the island of Ceylon, now home to the country of Sri Lanka. Theravada Buddhism became perhaps the most important cultural element for the countries of this region. Originally brought by missionaries and merchants, it became central to almost every aspect of Southeast Asian life. In fact, even today most men spend a couple of years of their late teens or early 20s as Buddhist monks in these countries.

Buddhism in Tibet, China, Japan and Mongolia

However, it was Mahayana Buddhism that would become the more prevalent of the two branches, quickly spreading throughout Central Asia and Northeast Asia. Mahayana Buddhism would arrive from missionaries in Tibet, but it was actually a Chinese ambassador who, having studied Buddhism while on assignment in India, would introduce the Buddha's teachings to China. Soon, Buddhism found a more fertile land for conversion in China than it had in its homeland. In fact, the teachings of the Buddha fit in well with other Chinese philosophies of Confucianism or Daoism. Further, through Chinese cultural influence, Buddhism was able to reach Korea, Mongolia and Japan. In Japan, Buddhism coupled with local traditions to form Zen Buddhism.

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