Although there is no active, intentional, or centralized missionary component of the Buddhist faith, the religion has nevertheless spread over vast regions since its advent in the middle of the first millennium BCE. Buddhism originated in the Ganges River Valley in the northeastern region of the Indian subcontinent. From there, the belief system spread to the remainder of Southeast Asia, Central Asia, China, Tibet, and East Asia. Buddhism’s malleability, focus on ethics and personal enlightenment, and accessibility to all sorts of people made the religion attractive to a variety of people groups and account for its historic popularity across diverse regions. The primary mechanisms for Buddhism’s transmission out of India and across the rest of Asia are royal patronage and trade. This essay will explore the ways in which significant historic figures and the Silk Road drove the spread of Buddhism from India into neighboring regions.
It is useful to bear in mind that the transmission of Buddhism across India and other Asian regions was largely peaceful and befitting the teachings of the Buddha. Conversion was typically never forced and people were given the opportunity to choose which of the Buddha’s freely available messages and teachings were applicable to their own lives (Berzin 1996). Further, upon Buddhism’s adoption within a new region or culture, those within the region or culture adapted traditional methods and forms to fit within their lifestyle while maintaining the essence and spirit of Buddhism (Hierman and Bumbacher 2007). These adaptations were possible because of the decentralized nature of Buddhism. That is, Buddhism does not feature a religious hierarchy with a figurehead. As Buddhism spread to other powers, each power created its own hierarchies, structures, and figureheads. One might look to the development of monastic communities in places like Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka, and other southeastern Asian nations as an example.
Buddhism’s adoption by powerful figureheads has historically proved to be a very effective mode of diffusion. The great Mauryan king of the third century BCE, Ashoka, adopted the religion and was instrumental in its spread across both India and other, far-flung parts of Asia (Neelis 2010). He inspired those within his realm to adopt the tenets of Buddhism by engraving various edicts on iron monuments erected across the Mauryan Empire. These edicts implored his subjects to embrace a certain set of ethics which he also followed. His example, as well as the various Buddhist monuments he constructed, was effective in converting those within the Indian subcontinent and inspiring curiosity about the religion in neighboring regions (Neelis 2010).
Ashoka also proactively sent monks as emissaries to foreign regions to establish missions and present the teachings of Buddhism. Ashoka sent these envoys both at the behest of the rulers of these regions and without invitation (Hierman and Bumbacher 2007). Although these envoys were, indeed, religiously motivated and Ashoka was interested in gaining converts, monks did not exert pressure upon their hosts to convert. They merely provided information about the Buddha and his teachings so that people themselves might choose whether to convert (Berzin 1996). One finds evidence of this approach in the fact that some regions, like Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, quickly adopted forms of Buddhism, while the religion did not take hold immediately or at all in others, such as the Hellenic colonies of Central Asia and Eurasia (Neelis 2010).
As with many historical trends, the transmission of religion was deeply impacted between connections made between ruling figures. As with Ashoka and the rulers to whom he helped proselytize, the Paekche kingdom of Korea communicated the tenets of Buddhism to the Japanese emperor in the sixth century CE and the eighth century Tibetan king Trisong Detsen responded positively to Buddhist monks who demonstrated the power of tantric meditation (Neelis 2010). In both cases, Buddhism took deep root among both the ruling classes and their subjects, the common people, in these places and remains a dominant religion (Berzin 1996).
Aside from the religious machinations of powerful authority figures, Buddhism also traveled along significant trade routes—namely the Silk Road, whose routes connected Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Mediterranean. As Buddhist merchants traveled from the Indian subcontinent, they inspired curiosity in those who lived places they visited and settled. As common people and local rulers became more curious, they invited monks to teach them more about the religion (Folz 2010). Frequently, these monks would assist in adapting Buddhist practices within these new regions and translate Buddhist texts into different languages.
This was certainly the case with China. Beginning in the first century CE, Buddhism is thought to have been introduced to Han China and Chinese territory in the Tarim Basin (Zurcher 1972). Throughout the first millennium CE, Buddhist monks traveled to China to translate significant religious texts and encouraged Chinese Buddhists to make pilgrimages to religious sites in India (Folz 2010, Zurcher 1972). As religious traffic along the Silk Road increased, merchants and pilgrims helped support Buddhist monasteries who, in turn, provided lodging, storage, and food to Buddhist travelers (Folz 2010). With the support of merchants and pilgrims, monasteries became pillars of communities which grew into cultural and literary centers in their respective regions.
As trade routes fell into disuse, new religious traditions arose, new rulers endorsed and shaped Buddhist traditions, and new trade patterns were established, Buddhist traditions declined in some regions and were intensely embraced in others. It is a living tradition that has traveled to as many places as the various Asian diasporas have touched. Buddhism has fused with older religious traditions such as Daoism and been welcomed as a philosophical alternative to Western traditions. Buddhism continues to exist within the contemporary period for the same reasons the tradition was attractive two thousand years ago: its flexibility and simple essence of ethical living and personal enlightenment are accessible and applicable to a great many people in a variety of situations. In an increasingly global environment, it will be interesting to see how Buddhism is shaped in future generations.
- Berzin, A. (1996). Buddhism and Its Impact on Asia. Cairo: Cairo University Press.
- Folz, R. (2010). Religions of the Silk Road. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Hierman, A., and Bumbacher, A.P. (2007). The Spread of Buddhism. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.
- Neelis, J. (2010). Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks: Mobility and Exchange Within and Beyond the Northwestern Borderlands of South Asia. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.
- Zurcher, E. (1972). The Buddhist Conquest of China. Leiden: E.J. Brill.