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Spread and Distribution of Buddhism

China100,000,0008 %
Japan70,000,00050 %
Thailand55,000,00080 %
Vietnam50,000,00055 %
Myanmar40,000,00075 %
Sri Lanka13,000,00070 %
South Korea10,000,00020 %
Cambodia10,000,00080 %
Taiwan5,000,00020 %
The estimations on the number of Buddhist in the world vary significantly, according to different sources available, between 350 million and over 1.5 billion. However, it was difficult to estimate accurately the number of Buddhists because they did not have congregational memberships and often did not participate in public ceremonies. And many Buddhists live in countries which are officially atheistic, such as China and Vietnam. Obtaining exact numbers of practicing Buddhists can be difficult and may be reliant on the definition used. Adherents of Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto and traditional religions or Shamanism, animism often have beliefs comprised of a mix of religious ideas. While only a small proportion of the population may have taken the formal step of going for refuge (about 400 million), many more may practice an informal Buddhism or hold Buddhist beliefs mixed with those of related religions.

The spread of Buddhism was even more rapid than that of Christianity, not only in its native India, but also among peoples of alien race, unlike civilization, and different religion. The actual grammatical fixation of Sanskrit seems to have taken place about contemporaneously with the first spread of Buddhism; and indeed that popular religious movement undoubtedly exercised a powerful influence on the linguistic development of India.

The imperial dominion of Chandragupta Maurya extended across India from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, and beyond the Indus as far as the Hindu Kush mountains. This vast territory was governed from the capital at Pataliputra; and so tightly were the reins of government held in the grasp of the emperor that the sceptre was transmitted to his son and grandson without difficulty or disturbance. Asoka-vardhana, or Asoka, succeeded to the throne in the year 272 BC; but the young monarch was not crowned till three years later, 269 BC, from which date he reckons his regnal years in the numerous inscriptions which are the principal authority for the events of his memorable reign. He eventualy attached himself to the Buddhist church as a lay disciple, and ultimately, late in his reign, assumed the monastic robe, and was ordained.

He also set forth the main principles of the doctrine in pithy documents composed in the vernacular dialects, which were inscribed on rocks in the frontier, and on monolith pillars in the home provinces. An active proselytizing propaganda by means of special agents was organized, in addition to the system of instruction by officials. Missionaries were dispatched to Ceylon, to the independent Chola and Pandya kingdoms in the extreme South, and to all tributary states on the frontiers, as well as to the Hellenistic kingdoms of Syria, Macedonia, Epirus, Egypt, and Cyrene, then governed respectively by the Greek kings Antiochus (Theos), Antigonus (Gonatas), Alexander, Ptolemy (Philadelphus), and Magas.

Popular interest in the royal teaching was further secured by the provision at government expense of material comforts for man and beast. The high roads were marked with milestones, and shaded by avenues of trees. Camping grounds were furnished with wells, mango-groves, and resthouses for travellers. Hospitals were founded, and medicinal herbs, wherever they were lacking, were freely imported and planted. The severity of the penal code was mitigated, and on each anniversary of the coronation prisoners were liberated. In these ways, and by a watchful supervision over public morals, Asoka demonstrated the sincerity of his faith, and secured an astonishing amount of success in his efforts to propagate the system of Buddha.

The form of Buddhism which he introduced into Ceylon has remained almost unchanged to this day in the island, and buddhism, has thence spread over Burma and Siam. In India conversion proceeded at a very rapid rate, and good progress was made among the mountaineers and nomads to the north and northwest. But the emperor did not force his creed upon his 'children,' as he calls his subjects. He fully recognized the right of all sects and creeds to live and let live, and did not hesitate to adopt a policy of concurrent endowment. In respect of this active toleration his conduct was in accordance with that of most monarchs of ancient India.

By his efforts Buddhism, which had hitherto been a merely local sect in the valley of the Ganges, was transformed into one of the great religions of the world—the greatest, probably, if measured merely by the number of adherents. This is Asoka's claim to be remembered; this it is which makes his reign an epoch, not only in the history of India, but in that of the world. The reign of Asoka, which lasted for some forty years, 331 BC ended in 231 BC. After his death, the Maurya empire, which had endured for ninety years and three generations of kings, crumbled to pieces.

Some claim that Buddhist missionaries accompanied the caravans of traders into China as early as the days of King Asoka, i.e. in the middle of the third century BC. Others claim that the first century BC saw the first Buddhist efforts in that land. It is safe to say that Buddhism did reach China during the first century AD.

It is written that in the year 61 AD the Emperor Ming-ti had a dream of a man standing before him in golden raiment, holding in his hands a bow and arrows and pointing to the West. The emperor sent eighteen men to the West to seek for the True Man whom he had seen in his dream. The messengers got as far as the land of the Getae bordering on India when they met two monks coming through the mountain pass. The messengers returned to the court with these two monks, where the strangers were well received. The two monks died a few years later and the only memorial they left behind, it would seem, was the famous scripture of the Forty-Two Sections, which has remained to this day one of the most popular writings of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism.

The Buddhism which won China at first did not come directly from India proper, but largely from the new home of Buddhism among the Scythians and Parthians. After the fourth century the connection between India and China seems to have been more direct, Indians coming to China in great numbers and Chinese pilgrims visiting the birthplace of their new religion.

The progress of Buddhism in China was not very rapid at first. The first century and a half or more was a period of importation and translation of scriptures. In fact, China seems to have been flooded with books; so that the Emperor Hweiti in 306 AD, wishing to free himself of this foreign importation, ordered a great many books to be burned, and for many years the Chinese were forbidden by imperial edict to become Buddhist monks. But after 335 AD matters took a turn for the better. The people were allowed to take monastic vows, and many began to give the new religion serious attention.

The thing that, perhaps, more than any other won the Chinese to Buddhism was the latter's attitude towards the deep-rooted ancestor worship. Buddhism did not openly antagonize ancestor worship; in fact, it enriched it by a distinct contribution, for it offered the Chinese a way of raising the dead to the exalted position of Buddhas. Ancestors should not only be revered, but they should be worshipped as Buddhas. Then of course Buddhism also satisfied the religious longings better than Confucianism was doing. Especially did the Amitabha faith meet a great need in a land where religion was entirely too much a matter of mere human relationships.

During the latter part of the fourth century, Buddhism had reached Korea. At this time, there was really no Korea as known at present, but it was divided into the three small independent kingdoms of Koma (Ko-gur-yu), Kudara (Pakche), and Shiragi (Silla), with some small buffer states between the latter two. In 372 AD a priest from Sin-an-fu, China, reached Koma. An Indian priest, Masananda by name, came to Kudara from eastern China in 384 AD. And Shiragi received its first Buddhist missionary from Koma in 424 AD.

In 526 AD the 28th Buddhist patriarch, who taught a system of Buddhism which discouraged study and attached importance to mystic meditation, after growing old in Southern India, reached Canton by sea. Of all the Buddhists who came to China from India during this period there is none whose coming was of such significance for Chinese Buddhism as that of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Contemplative school of Buddhism in China. Bodhidharma was the twenty-eighth patriarch of the Dhyani school in India, claiming to be in real apostolic succession from Gautama down; and with him the center of this type of Buddhism is shifted from India to China. Whatever may be said about the apostolic succession claim which this school makes, it is certainly true that even to this day it is in many respects nearer the original Buddhism than other Chinese or Japanese sects; especially is it nearer than the sects which make Amitabha the center of their faith.

The statistics given in connection with the accounts of the great persecutions of Buddhists during the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries show that Buddhism kept increasing at the expense of its rivals. In 714 AD, e.g., we are told that 12,000 monks and nuns were compelled to return to secular life, and the edict against Buddhists issued by Emperor Wu-tsung in 845 AD is said to have led to the destruction of 4,600 monasteries and 40,000 smaller edifices, and more than 260,000 monks and nuns were compelled to return to common employments.

From China as a center Buddhism spread in several directions, mainly, however, in its Mahayana form. During the seventh century it reached Tibet and there developed into what is now known as Lamaism. Lamaism, during the time of the great Mongolian conqueror, Kublai Khan, became the religion of Mongolia and also flowed back again into China proper, thus adding one more current to the ever swelling stream of Northern Buddhism.

Buddhism in its spread from India northward and in its triumphant march across China and Korea underwent some radical changes, not only in minor points, but in the very fundamentals of religion. And thus when Buddhism reached Japan in the middle of the sixth century A.d. it was no longer the pure religion of the founder. It was not the Buddhism of the Pali scriptures and the religion which western scholars usually describe when they speak of Buddhism, but it was that expanded and much modified religion known as Mahayana Buddhism. The native Shinto modified Buddhism so seriously after its union with it in the beginning of the ninth century that the resultant stream was known for many centuries as Ryobu-Shinto, Two-sided Shinto.

In Mongolia, each tribe, as its fortunes varied, either rose to power or sank into insignificance. At times the old vigour and strength which had nerved the arm of Jenghiz Khan seemed to return to the tribe, and we read of successful expeditions being made by the Ordu Mongols into Tibet, and even of invasions into China. The relations with Tibet thus inaugurated brought about a rapid spread of Buddhism among the Mongolians, and in the beginning of the 17th century the honor of having a Dalai Lama born among them was vouchsafed to them, In 1625 Toba, one of the sons of Bushuktu Jinung Khan, went on a pilgrimage to the Dalai Lama, and brought back with him a copy of the Tanjur to be translated into Mongolian, as the Kanjur had already been.

Religions in Asia Spread and Distribution of Buddhism

Spread and Distribution of Buddhism Spread and Distribution of Buddhism

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Page last modified: 24-05-2012 19:28:00 ZULU