Spread of Buddhism

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A number of the world’s great religions were born during the sixth and fifth centuries BCE.Zarathustra founded Zoroastrianism in Iran;Laozi, the founder of Daoism, and Confuciuslived in China; Mahavira, the great teacher of the Jain religion, was one of the Buddha’scontemporaries in India. Some consider the fifth century BCE more likely than the sixth for theBuddha’s birth, partly because the earlier date creates a hiatus between his teachings and subsequent events.

Legend has it that during the Mauryan period(324-187 BCE), with the support of King Ashoka(c. 271-231 BCE), the new philosophy spread throughout India and beyond – to Sri Lanka,Myanmar, and the region to the west. Ashokaexpounded his conversion (following a period of war) throughout his extensive Indian empire in the form of edicts and beneficent acts. His edicts have been found from Afghanistan in the north to Karnataka in the south and Orissa in the east. In the millennia to follow, Ashoka, who styled himself a cakravartin (one who turns the wheel of the law in a secular sense), served as the model for subsequent Buddhist rulers.

Following the Buddha’s death, five hundred of his followers met in a great council in Rajgriha(the first of six) to codify sutras (texts) and vinaya (rules) for the sangha (monastic community). In the early Buddhist schools, his followers sought personal release from suffering, or the ideal of the arhat (worthy one), a being who has attained released from the cycle of rebirth. Over time, sectarian differences arose and separate schools developed. The term Hinayana Buddhism was devised by the later Mahayana Buddhists to describe the early schools of Buddhism; another term associated with the Early schools is Theravada, the form of Buddhism practiced in Southeast Asia today. The first is generally considered derogatory (it means “lesser vehicle”), and the second refers to the single extant school of Buddhism that follows the Pali canon. A more appropriate term than Hinayana might be the Early Buddhist Schools, or nikayas.

We know little of the early Buddhist Pali canon prior to the first century BCE, so it is difficult to say when sectarian differences arose. By the second century CE, so called Mahayana literaturehad developed, a more inclusive doctrine that suggested a path to enlightened for a broader segment of society beyond monastic community. One of its primary tenets relates to thebodhisattva, a being who could attain nirvana but who remains in this world to help all sentient beings. (One might distinguish two types of Boddhisattvas, humans who have embarked on the path, and celestial bodhdhisattvas, who have lived thousands of years before reaching the exalted state). This belief resulted in an expansion of the Buddhist pantheon, with a multitude ofBoddhisattas populating the myriad Buddha worlds. Texts also multiplied, many of which the Early Buddhist schools did not accept as the word of the Buddha, since they were written after his passing. A scholarly community, the Mahayana monks wrote extensive commentaries explaining these texts.

Seated Buddha

Traditionally, scholarship has tended to identify three schools ofBuddhism, the hinayana, theMahayana, and the tantric school (alternately called esoteric,Vajrayana or Mantrayana Buddhism). The earliest tantric texts were written by the sixth century CE. More closely related toMahayana than to Early Buddhism, tantric practiced differed my incorporating means by which one could attain enlightenmentquickly. This classification of three schools is imperfect, as there is overlap and shared belief among them. Certainly during the early period, practitioners of Early,Mahayana and tantric Buddhismcoexisted in monasteries.

Furthermore, none of these so called schools of Buddhism has remained static, each adapting, growing, and continuing to contribute to the wealth of Buddhist literature and practice. Recent scholarship has begun to move away from this tripartite classification of Buddhism. The fact that all monks were ordained into one or another of the Early Buddhist schools, or nikayas (a practice still followed in Tibet), and then after their ordination may have followed practices that relied onMahayana sutras or Vajrayana tantras, indicates a less rigid categorization than scholars previously believed.

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