How Buddhism Flourished throughout the World

Buddhism never developed a missionary movement; Buddha’s teachings nevertheless extend far and wide on the Indian Subcontinent and from there throughout Asia. In each new culture it attained, the Buddhist methods and styles were modified to fit the local mentality, without compromising the essential points of wisdom and compassion.

Buddhism, however, never extended an overall hierarchy of religious authority with a supreme head. Each country to which it spread expanded its own forms, its own religious structure and its own spiritual head. The most well-known and worldwide respected of these authorities at present is His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet.

There are two main separations of Buddhism. The Hinayana, or Modest Vehicle, emphasizes personal liberation, while the Mahayana, or Vast Vehicle, stresses working to become a completely enlightened Buddha in order to be best able to help others. Each has various sub-divisions in Buddhism. At present, however, three major types survive: one Hinayana, known as Theravada, in South East Asia, and two Mahayana, namely the Chinese and Tibetan traditions.

The Theravada tradition spread from India to SriLanka and Burma in the third century B.C.E., and starting there to Yunnan in southwest China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, South Vietnam and Indonesia. Pockets of Indian merchants practicing Buddhism were soon found on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula and still as far as Alexandria, Egypt. Other forms of Hinayana spread from that time to modern-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, eastern and coastal Iran, Uzbekistan, Kashmir, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

These were the ancient states of Gandhara, Parthia, Bactria and Sogdia. From this base in Central Asia, they spread more in the second century C.E. to East Turkistan (Xinjiang) and Inner China, and in the late seventh century to Kyrghyzstan and Kazakhstan. These forms of Hinayana were later combined with Mahayana aspects that also came from India so that Mahayana ultimately became the dominant form of Buddhism in most of Central Asia.

The Chinese form of Mahayana later spread to Japan, Korea and North Vietnam. Another early wave of Mahayana, mixed with Shaivite forms of Hinduism, spread from India to Nepal, Indonesia, Malaysia and elements of South East Asia starting in about the fifth century.

The Tibetan Mahayana tradition, which, starting in the seventh century, inherited the full historical development of Indian Buddhism, widen throughout the Himalayan regions and to Mongolia, East Turkistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, northern Inner China, Manchuria, Siberia and the Kalmyk Mongol region near the Caspian Sea in European Russia.