QUESTION: Buddhism is now the religion of a large number of people in many different countries. How did this happen?
ANSWER: Within 150 years of the Buddha’s passing his teachings had already spread fairly widely through northern India. Then in about 262 BCE the then emperor of India, Asoka Mauriya, converted to Buddhism and spread the Dhamma throughout his entire realm. Many people were attracted by Buddhism’s high ethical standards and particularly by its opposition to the Hindu caste system. Asoka also convened a great council and then sent missionary monks to neighboring countries and even as far as Europe. The most successful of these missions was the one that went to Sri Lanka. The Island became Buddhist and has remained so ever since. Other missions brought Buddhism to southern and western India, Kashmir and what is now southern Burma and peninsular Thailand. A century or so after this Afghanistan and the mountainous regions of northern India became Buddhist and monks and merchants from there gradually took the religion into Central Asia and finally to China, from where it later penetrated into Korea and Japan.
It is interesting to note that Buddhism is really the only foreign system of thought that has ever taken root in China. In about the 12th century Buddhism became the dominant religion of Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia due mainly to the efforts of monks from Sri Lanka.
QUESTION: How and when did Tibet become Buddhist?
ANSWER: In about the 8th century the king of Tibet sent an ambassador to India to bring monks and Buddhist scriptures to his country. Buddhism caught on but did not became the major religion due partly to opposition from the priests of the indigenous Bon religion. Finally, in the 11th century a large numbers of Indian monks and teachers came to Tibet and the religion became firmly established. Since that time Tibet has been one of the most fervently Buddhist countries.
QUESTION: So Buddhism spread very widely.
ANSWER: Not only that, there are very few instances of Buddhism persecuting the religions it encountered as it spread or of it being spread by conquering armies. Buddhism has always been a gentle way of life and the idea of using force or pressure to induce belief is repugnant to Buddhists.
QUESTION: What influence did Buddhism have on the countries it went to?
ANSWER: When missionary monks went to different countries they usually took more than just the Buddha’s teachings with them, they also brought some of the best aspects of Indian civilization. Monks were sometimes skilled in medicine and introduced new medical ideas into areas where they had not existed before. Neither Sri Lanka, Tibet nor several regions of central Asia had writing until monks introduced it and of course with writing came new knowledge and ideas. Before the coming of Buddhism the Tibetans and the Mongolians were a wild unruly people and Buddhism made them gentle and civilized. Even within India animal sacrifice went out of vogue because of Buddhism and the caste system became less harsh, at least for a while. Even today, as Buddhism spreads in Europe and the Americas, modern Western psychology is starting to be influenced by some of its insights into the human mind.
QUESTION: Why did Buddhism die out in India?
ANSWER: No one has ever given a satisfactory explanation for this unfortunate development. Some historians say that Buddhism became so corrupt that people turned against it, others say that it adopted too many Hindu ideas and gradually became indistinguishable from Hinduism. Another theory is that monks began to congregate in large monasteries supported by the kings and that this alienated them from the ordinary people. Whatever the reasons, by the 8th or 9th centuries, Indian Buddhism was already in serious decline. It disappeared completely during the chaos and violence of the Islamic invasion of India in the 13th century.
QUESTION: But there are still some Buddhists in India aren’t there?
ANSWER: There are and indeed since the middle of the 20th century Buddhism has started to grow in India again. In 1956 the leader of India’s untouchables converted to Buddhism because he and his people suffered so badly under the Hindu caste system. Since then about 8 million people have become Buddhist and the numbers continue to grow.
QUESTION: When did Buddhism first come to the West?
ANSWER: The first Westerners to become Buddhists were probably the Greeks who migrated to India after the invasion of Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BCE. One of the most important ancient Buddhist books, the Milindapanha, consists of a dialogue between the Indian monk Nagasena and the Indo-Greek king Milinda. But in recent times Buddhism started to attract admiration and respect in the West towards the end of the 19th century when scholars began translating Buddhist scriptures and writing about Buddhism. By the early 1900s a few Westerners were calling themselves Buddhists and one or two even became monks. Since the 1960s the number of Western Buddhists has grown steadily and today they make up a small but significant minority in most Western countries.
QUESTION: Can you say something about the different types of Buddhism?
ANSWER: At its height, Buddhism stretched from Mongolia to the Maldives, from Balkh to Bali, and thus it had to appeal to people of many different cultures. Further, it endured for many centuries and had to adopt and adapt as people’s social and intellectual life developed. Consequently while the essence of the Dhamma remained the same its outward form changed greatly. Today there are three main types of Buddhism – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana.
QUESTION: What is Theravada?
ANSWER: The name Theravada means The Teachings of the Elders and is based mainly on the Pali Tipitaka, the oldest and most complete record of the Buddha’s teachings. Theravada is a more conservative and monastic-centered form of Buddhism which emphasizes the basics of the Dhamma and tends to take a more simple and austere approach. Today Theravada is practiced mainly in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and parts of South-east Asia.
QUESTION: What is Mahayana Buddhism?
ANSWER: By about the 1st century BCE some of the implications of the Buddha’s teachings were being explored more deeply. Also, society was developing and this required new and more relevant interpretations of the teachings. The many schools that grew out of these new developments and interpretations were collectively called Mahayana, meaning The Great Way, because they claimed to be relevant to everyone, not just to monks and nuns who had renounced the world. Mahayana eventually became the dominant form of Buddhism in India and today is practiced in China, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan. Some Theravadins say that Mahayana is a distortion of the Buddha’s teachings. However, Mahayanists point out that the Buddha accepted change as one of the most fundamental of all truths and that their interpretation of Buddhism is no more a distortion of the Dhamma than an oak tree is a distortion of an acorn.
QUESTION: I have often seen the term Hinayana. What does this term mean?
ANSWER: When Mahayana was developing it wanted to distinguish itself from the earlier schools of Buddhism so it called itself Mahayana, the Great Way, and dubbed the earlier schools Hinayana, meaning the Little Way. Therefore, Hinayana is a somewhat sectarian term that Mahayanists give to Theravadins.
QUESTION: What about Vajrayana?
ANSWER: This type of Buddhism began to emerge in India in the 6th and 7th centuries CE at a time when Hinduism was undergoing a major revival in India. In response to this some Buddhists were influenced by aspects of Hinduism especially the worship of deities and the use of elaborate rituals. In the 11th century Vajrayana became well established in Tibet where it underwent further developments. The word Vajrayana means the Diamond Way and refers to the supposedly unbreakable logic that Vajrayanists used to justify and defend some of their ideas. Vajrayana relies more on a type of literature called tantras than on the traditional Buddhist scriptures and therefore is sometimes also known as Tantrayana. Vajrayana now prevails in Mongolia, Tibet, Ladakh, Nepal, Bhutan and amongst Tibetans living in India.
QUESTION: This could all be very confusing. If I want to practice Buddhism how can I know which type to choose?
ANSWER: Perhaps we could compare it to a river. If you went to the source of a river and then to its mouth they would probably look very different. But if you followed the river from its source, as it wound its way through hills and dales, over waterfalls and past the numerous small streams that flowed into it, you would eventually arrive at its mouth and understand why it seemed to be so different from the source. If you wish to study Buddhism, start with the earliest basic teachings – the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the life of the historical Buddha and so on. Then study how and why these teachings and ideas evolved and then focus on the approach to Buddhism that appeals to you most. Then it will be impossible for you to say that the source of the river is inferior to the mouth or that the mouth it a distortion of the source.