To China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam: Buddhism in East Asia

Senso-ji buddhist temple in tokyo an example of buddhism in east asia

The Senso-ji Buddhist temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo, Japan, was first established in the 7th century CE. AsiaDreamPhoto / Alamy Stock Photo

When the reign of Ashoka the Great (c. 300–232 BCE) began around 268 BCE, Buddhism was known only on the Gangetic plain of northern India. But that was about to change.

It is believed that Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries throughout his empire―which included most of today’s India and a large part of Pakistan and Afghanistan―and to most of the world that was known to him. During his reign, Buddhism spread to central and southern India and to today’s Sri Lanka. Buddhism also took root in Ashoka’s western kingdom, especially in Gandhara, which was the ancient name for the area around the Swat and Peshawar valleys in northern Pakistan. For the next few centuries Buddhism continued to flourish throughout the Indus Peninsula and in Gandhara and began to move into central Asia.

Beginning in the first century CE, Buddhist monks from Gandhara and central Asia began to follow merchants east on the Silk Road into northern China. At the same time, missionaries from India also traveled to China, usually by ships that landed at the southern port of Guangzhou. Because of the combined work of many dedicated traveling monks, Buddhism became the dominant religion of China during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), and several new styles emerged over the years. And it was mostly from China that Buddhism spread to the rest of east Asia.

Buddhism was introduced to the kingdoms of the Korean Peninsula by monks from Gandhara and China in the 4th century. In the 6th century, an emissary from a king of Korea introduced Buddhism to the court of the emperor of Japan. For many centuries after, it was common for Korean and Japanese monks to travel to China to study before becoming teachers in their own countries. Several schools of Chinese Buddhism were established in Korea and Japan, and a few new schools developed in both places as well.

Buddhism may have been introduced to the Vietnamese from India about the same time it reached China, but over the centuries Chinese forms of Buddhism became dominant in Vietnam. Chinese settlers brought Buddhism to Taiwan in the 17th century, and it has flourished there since.


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