How Buddhism Conquered Asia

It is the fourth largest religion in the world today, with half a billion practitioners. Though founded by one man, it has grown into three major traditions with innumerable sects and splinter groups. It is Buddhism, and here is its story.


Asian Buddha statues.  Field Museum, Chicago.

The Buddhist religion, in all its forms, traces itself back to one man, an Indian Prince named Siddhartha Gautama. According to tradition, he lived in the town of Lumbini, which was then a part of India but is now a part of Nepal. Various sources place his birth anywhere from 625 BCE to 550 BCE. Gautama was a member of the Shakya family of royalty, and his father was said to be Sudhodana, a local ruler. According to the mythology, Gautama was able to walk and talk from birth, and when he walked in the royal gardens as a young child, the statues of the Hindu gods all bowed to him.

At first, Gautama lived a sheltered and pampered life inside the royal palace. But one day he chanced to meet a beggar on the road, and the experience transformed him: he gave away his royal riches, renounced his place in the government, left the palace, and became a wandering religious student, seeking to understand all the mysteries of the universe. In a hunting preserve at the village of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges River, Gautama sat under a fig tree and began meditating, swearing an oath not to leave until he had either attained understanding or died. After six years, he attained Awakening, and became known as Gautama the Buddha (“Enlightened One”).

The Buddha summed up his views in the Four Noble Truths. Life, the Buddha concluded, is suffering. Suffering is everywhere and is part of everything. The cause of this suffering, he decided, was selfish thoughts and actions, by trying to force the universe to do what we selfishly desire it to do. But, Buddha realized, suffering can be ended if the selfish desires can be controlled and eliminated and the universe accepted for what it is, and this could be done by following a discipline of unselfishness acceptance, which he called the Eightfold Path: right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. By following the Eightfold Path, one could free oneself from selfishness and escape suffering, and enter a state of selfless enlightenment known as Nirvana.

After the Gautama Buddha’s death, the practice of Buddhism split into three major branches. The Theravada school remained closest to Buddha’s original structure: it was completely individualistic, had no deities or divine texts, and emphasized personal meditation and practice as the way to Enlightenment.

The Mahayana school, on the other hand, emphasized not only personal enlightenment, but the teaching of enlightenment to other people. Realizing that the vast majority of people were not able to reach enlightenment on their own, the Mahayana school therefore developed the concept of the Bodhisattva, a person who is on his way to Buddhahood but who has sworn to help others reach Nirvana. The Mahayana school held up many Buddhas and emphasized reliance on these saints as the way to achieve a right life. It also introduced a large number of gods and deities. In most Mahayana traditions, it is accepted that all of these deities are merely symbolic, and provide a practical way to teach enlightened actions to the ordinary people. In this way, the Mahayanas became very much like the early Catholic Church, which essentially had two sets of teachings–one for the common people, and a deeper and more symbolic one for the priesthood who had been instructed in the symbolism and its hidden meanings.

This tradition of “the secret teachings” was emphasized even more in the third school of Buddhism, the Vajrayana, or “Diamond Vehicle”, which was the most esoteric and monastic of the three. It was centered around long years of training under a teacher called a “Guru”, and emphasized both the complete immersion of the individual in natural surroundings and training in esoteric symbolic doctrines under the Guru’s guidance as the pathway to enlightenment. In Tibet, the state itself was based on Vajrayana Buddhism, and the government was a theocracy ruled by the Vajrayana monks, who attempted to use the laws of the state to instruct people in righteous behavior.

Within a few centuries, Buddhism in India had been almost completely obliterated, having been absorbed into Hinduism (Hinduism was an eminently adaptable religion, and it simply accepted the Gautama Buddha as another manifestation of the many-formed god Shiva). Theravada Buddhism, meanwhile, had become established in Indochina and Sri Lanka, and Vajrayana had traveled to Tibet. Mahayana Buddhism, however, became the largest branch, and spread to China and Japan.

According to legend, Buddhism was first introduced into China when the Emperor Ming of the Chan Dynasty, around the year 70 CE, had a dream in which he was taught by a white elephant god, and sent scholars to India looking for this new religion. Archaeological evidence shows the earliest known Buddhist texts in China, which were translations of Indian Sutras, date to about this time. By 150 CE, there were several Buddhist temples established in China.

When Buddhism reached China, it encountered another mystic religion that had been established there at about the same time as the Gautama Buddha. This Chinese mysticism was known as Taoism. Taoism (or Daoism, as it is sometimes spelled today) was a nontheist religion that emphasized natural cycles and the unity of opposites. The two religions found themselves compatible, and many of the early Chinese Buddhist writings readily adopted Taoist terminology and symbolism.

Inside China, Buddhism underwent an explosion, as it mixed freely with Taoism and also with elements of Hinduism (particularly in Tibet). Some of the largest Buddhist traditions, such as the Pure Land, the Huayan and the Tiantai, were founded during this period. One minor Buddhist school that traveled from India to China was known as “Ch’an”. According to legend, the Ch’an sect took its teachings from the so-called “Flower Sermon” given by the Gautama Buddha. On this occasion, the Buddha stood before a group of students and silently held up a flower before turning to leave. Only one man, the student Maha Kashapa, understood the Buddha’s message, and he is generally credited with founding the Ch’an sect of Buddhism.

When the T’ang Dynasty collapsed in 907 CE, China was engulfed in civil war. To escape, many Chinese religious monks fled to Japan, where they introduced their religious doctrines and practices. Japan already had its own state-sponsored religion known as Shinto, which worshipped nature and the spirits of the ancestors, and which upheld the Japanese Emperor as the offspring of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Once again, Buddhism found itself compatible with the local religion, and within a short time most of Japan had embraced various schools of Buddhism. The Vajrayana school of Tibetan Buddhism was adopted in some of the rural areas, where it formed the basis of the shugendo and yamabushi groups of wandering religious ascetics. The urban areas and the Emperor’s court and the samurai elite embraced the Mahayana schools, most particularly the simple teachings of the Ch’an sect, which became known in Japan as “Zen”.

Zen became the most thoroughly mystical of all the Asian Buddhist traditions. The only goal of Zen is that of the Buddha himself–to directly grasp and intuitively understand the nature of reality. Like the other mystic disciplines, Zen holds that all words and intellectual concepts are mere illusions to be transcended, but in Zen this conviction is carried to its extreme. The ultimate reality sought by Zen is not even named. Such a name, says Zen, would only limit that which cannot be limited. Zen has no holy scriptures, no priests, no religious services, no temples, no deities. Even the written teachings of the Buddhist Sutras and the sermons of the Buddha are regarded by Zen as mere words with no value in and of themselves. To attain freedom from the illusions of the intellect, one must discard the use of logic, words and rational categorizing, and instead intuitively grasp reality with your entire being. In fact, as the Zen masters declare, the purest teaching of Zen is no teaching at all. Zen teaches, literally, nothing. If pressed as to the teachings of Zen, the master is likely to recite these four lines, which sum up the entire outlook of Zen:

A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words or letters,
Pointing directly to the human mind,
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.

This enlightenment, known as Satori, is the only goal of Zen practice.


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