Contrary to popular belief, Buddhism did not originate from China. It was founded in India, and is based on the teachings of a prince-turned-monk named Siddharta Gautama.
As the story goes, Siddharta was born into affluence but left his life as a prince after he experienced the fabled “4 Encounters”. Those four passing sights in his young life were the catalyst in making him decide to leave his pampered life and begin his quest to discover the source of mankind’s suffering and how to overcome it.
Why did Buddhism spread like it did? In a time when there were no efficient means of travel, how did the teachings of Siddharta Buddha cross lands and borders, convert people, and had them building shrines for him? How were kings and royalty crucial to its reach?
Buddhism emphasized self-exploration and self-awareness. Unlike any other religion during that time, it was not imposed upon others. Its teachings were made available to everyone, preached to anyone willing to listen.
Buddhist monks did not conquer lands or forced people. They simply spoke to them, random strangers from all walks of life. They were not asked to renounce whatever religion they believed in.
In truth, Buddha was not seeking to establish his own religion. His words were meant to help mankind overcome suffering and unhappiness, a tool for understanding reality and what it really takes to have a peaceful and meaningful life.
At a place where Hinduism was the popular religion which revolved around mythology and rituals, Buddhism was an unorthodox take as it approached life philosophically. And this “practical” approach to obtaining meaning and wisdom is perhaps the key ingredient in its spread.
For the first time in their lives, they were shown a belief that focused on what they can do, not be ordered to worship someone based on their status in life.
Suddenly, people had insight as to why they are suffering and how it can be overcome. It empowered them and enabled them to view life from a philosophical and compassionate angle. This, ultimately, is what made Buddhism appealing and made its followers want to share it to the rest of the world.
There are plenty of material out there attempting to explain how Buddhism spread. In my own research, there were 4 important factors that were critical to its expansion.
Buddha was himself a traveler. Obtaining enlightenment under the legendary Bodhi tree was the “end” of his spiritual journey. After this event, he began his physical journey and mission of spreading what he knew, even if he was aware the it was going to be a long and difficult process. His compassion for mankind was his most powerful driver.
Siddharta was believed to be 35 years old when he became Buddha, or the Enlightened One. From that point on until his death at 80 years of age, he traveled across India to teach Buddhism. During his travels he gained plenty of followers. And these travelers eventually turned into monks, individuals who dedicated their lives practicing and spreading the word of Buddhism.
Buddha instructed the monks to spread his word. They were tasked to reach areas and kingdoms and preach to anyone willing to listen.
Another key factor in the spread of Buddha’s words were merchants who converted to Buddhism. After hearing the teachings of the Enlightened one, they took every opportunity to share it with the people they traded with.
The first documented translations of Buddhist teachings into Chinese were around the first and second century CE. Buddhist merchants and followers were believed to have travelled to China via the Silk Road, a network of trade routes that connected East, Southeast, and West Asia, as well as East Africa and Southern Europe.
It was the Gandharan Buddhists who brought the teachings to the Chinese masses who lived in areas near Han China. These buddhists hailed from Ancient Gandhara (modern day Pakistan) which was the region from which Indian emperor Ashoka ruled.
Hailed as one of India’s greatest emperors, King Ashoka was critical in the spread of Buddhism. During his reign, he went to war with a region called Kalinga, and was victorious. However, the war made him realize the brutal nature of conquest after witnessing the mass murder of both his men and enemies. As the rock inscriptions on the “Edicts of Ahoska” stated:
“Thence arises the remorse of His Sacred Majesty for having conquered the Kalingas, because the conquest of a country previously unconquered involves the slaughter, death, and carrying away captive of the people. That is a matter of profound sorrow and regret to His Sacred Majesty.”
Soon after the war, King Ashoka found Buddhism and converted to practice its teachings. He built edicts around his kingdom and regions that he controlled, which saw the use of Gandhari language and Kharosthi script eventually used by Gandharan buddhists who travelled to Han China.
Aside from creating these decrees, King Ashoka actively sent monks as envoys to distant lands to spread the word of Buddhism. Sometimes, rulers from other kingdoms would request from King Ashoka to send some of these envoys to their kingdoms in order to know more about Buddhism.
But while these initiatives are commanded by the king, he did not impose Buddhism into other people. He merely made the teachings available for anyone who was interested. This aligns with Buddha’s emphasis about not following his teachings out of blind faith, but rather, through careful examination only.
Even if it was controversial back then, Buddha accepted followers even from the lowest caste system, people dubbed as the “Untouchables”. Unlike Brahmin clergy who chose to preach to a select group of people, Buddha welcomed both the rich and poor alike to listen. This approach only made his teachings even more popular since it transcended social statuses and gave people something to believe in even if they were poor.
Buddhism was also one of the earliest religions that allowed women to join and convert to monks. In one of the stories, Buddha’s aunt, Mahapajapati Gotami, asked for his permission to be allowed to become a monk. Initially, the Buddha refused and said that it was too early for women to be counted as monks.
Adamant to be one, she shaved her head and put on monk robes, and requested an audience with Buddha along with other fifty women who also wanted to become monks. The Buddha then discussed it with his advisors and ultimately allowed women to the fold, albeit with additional set of rules.
Buddhism’s indifference to social status and gender is critical to its widespread adoption as it allowed everyone to follow its teachings as equals.
While Buddhism originated and grew mainly out of Asia, there are all forms of Buddhism that can be found throughout the world. This can be attributed to two main groups: Immigrants from Asia and foreign Buddhist practitioners. The Asian immigrants mostly started the spread in Australia and the US, and they did it by building shrines and temples based on their country of origin. They did this to maintain their religious practices while living in a foreign land. Eventually, communities were built around it. Asians visit these temples to practice their devotions and help maintain their cultural beliefs and identities. In the US alone, there are 22 temples with an estimated 3 to 4 million Buddhists most of which are Asian Americans.
In other locations, there are thousands of “Dharma centers” spread across 100 countries. These are places built and frequented by non-Asians who embraced Buddhism in their lives. They visit these places to meditate, study, and practice its rituals. A great number of these Dharma centers are based on Tibetan, Zen, and Theravada traditions.
And of course there’s no other more prominent figure in the world today than His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, when it comes to buddhist teachings. If you want to read more about him and his wisdom, this is a good place to start.
What do you think though? Did we miss anything?
Amiel is a staff writer at Kaiya, who enjoys the simple things that life has to offer. When not reading, he's usually taking long walks, or spending time with his family.