The history of the Buddhism begins with the enlightenment of the Buddha. At the age of thirty-five, he awakened from the sleep of delusion that grips all beings in an endless vicious cycle of ignorance and unnecessary suffering (around 528 BCE). Having awakened, he decided to “go against the current” and communicate his liberating wakefulness to suffering beings—that is, to teach the Dharma.

For forty-five years, he crossed and recrossed central India on foot conveying his profound, brilliant wakefulness directly as well as by means of explanations that grew into a great body of spiritual, psychological, and practical doctrine. His enlightenment as well as the doctrine leading to it have been passed down through numerous unbroken lineages of teachers, which have spread to many countries. Many of these lineages still flourish.

At the time of the Buddha’s death (ca. 483 BCE), his Dharma was well established in central India. There were many lay followers, but the heart of the Dharma community were the monastics, many of whom were arhats [worthy ones, who attain Nirvana at the end of this lifetime]. Numerous monasteries had already been built round about such large cities as Rajagriha, Shravasti, and Vaishali.

The first to assume the Buddha’s mantle, tradition tells, was his disciple Mahakashyapa, who had the duty of establishing an authoritative version of the Buddha’s teachings. Thus, during the first rainy season after the Buddha’s death (parinirvana), Mahakashyapa convoked an assembly of five hundred arhats. At this assembly, it is said, Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant, recited all of the master’s discourses (sutras), naming the place where each was given and describing the circumstances.

A monk named Upali recited all the rules and procedures the Buddha had established for the conduct of monastic life. Mahakashyapa himself recited the matrika, lists of terms organized to provide analytical synopses of the teachings given in the sutras. These three extensive recitations, reviewed and verified by the assembly, became the basis for the Sutra Pitaka (Discourse Basket), the Vinaya Pitaka (Discipline Basket), and Abhidharma Pitaka (Special Teachings Basket), respectively. The Tripitaka (all three together) is the core of the Buddhist scriptures. This assembly, held at Rajagriha with the patronage of the Magadhan king Ajatashatru, is called the First Council.

In the early centuries after the Buddha’s death, the Buddha Dharma spread throughout India and became a main force in the life of its peoples. Its strength lay in its realized (arhat) teachers and large monasteries that sheltered highly developed spiritual and intellectual communities. Monks traveled frequently between the monasteries, binding them into a powerful network.

As the Dharma spread to different parts of India, differences emerged, particularly regarding the Vinaya, or rules of conduct. Roughly a hundred years after the First Council, such discrepancies led to a Second Council in Vaishali, in which seven hundred arhats censured ten points of lax conduct on the part of the local monks, notably the acceptance of donations of gold and silver. In spite of this council and other efforts to maintain unity, gradually, perhaps primarily because of size alone, the Sangha divided into divergent schools.

Among the principal schools was a conservative faction, the Sthaviravada (way of the elders), which held firmly to the old monastic ideal with the arhat at its center and to the original teaching of the Buddha as expressed in the Tripitaka. Another school, the Mahasanghikas, asserted the fallibility of arhats. It sought to weaken the authority of the monastic elite and open the Dharma gates to the lay community. In this, as well as in certain metaphysical doctrines, the Mahasanghikas prefigured the Mahayana.

Another important school was that of the Sarvastivadins (from Sanskrit sarva asti, “all exists”), who held the divergent view that past, present, and future realities all exist. In all, eighteen schools with varying shades of opinion on points of doctrine or discipline developed by the end of the third century BCE. However, all considered themselves part of the spiritual family of the Buddha and in general were accepted as such by the others. It was not rare for monks of different schools to live or travel together.

According to the Sthaviravadin tradition (known in Pali as the Theravada), which continues today in Southeast Asia, a Third Council took place in the time of King Ashoka (r. 276-232 BCE) at which the king declared the Sthaviravadin teachings the standard from which all other schools deviated. Perhaps in reaction to this, the Sarvastivadins gradually migrated to the west. They established a bastion in the city of Mathura, from which their influence continued to spread. Over centuries, they dominated the northwest, including all of Kashmir and much of Central Asia. Today a Sarvastivadin Vinaya lineage still survives in all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

King Ashoka was the third emperor of the Mauryan empire, which covered all of the Indian subcontinent but its southern tip. His personal espousal of the Dharma and adoption of its principles for the governance of his immense realm meant a quantum leap in the spread of the Buddha’s teaching. The imperial government promulgated the teachings. It supported the monasteries and sent proselytizing missions to the Hellenic states of the northwest and to Southeast Asia. Under King Ashoka, institutions of compassion and nonviolence were established throughout much of India. These include peaceful relations with all neighboring states, hospitals and animal hospitals, special officials to oversee the welfare of local populations, and shady rest stops for travelers. Thus he remains today the paragon of a Buddhist ruler, and his reign is looked back upon by Buddhists as a golden age.

The Mauryan empire soon fragmented, but the Buddha Dharma continued as a dominant force throughout India in the early centuries of the common era. The kings of the Satavahana dynasty of central India followed Ashoka in adopting the Dharma as a civilizing and unifying force in governing disparate peoples. King Kanishka (r. first-second centuries), whose vast Kushan empire, centered on Gandhara, encompassed northern India and large parts of Central Asia, was a champion of the Dharma, hailed as a second Ashoka.

Under his patronage, a Fourth Council was held, at which major new commentaries on the Tripitaka were written, largely under Sarvastivadin influence. Under Kanishka, the Buddha Dharma was firmly planted among the Central Asian peoples whose homelands lay along the Silk Route, whence the way lay open to China. The Kushan empire also saw the flowering of Gandharan art, which under Hellenistic influences produced Buddha images of extraordinary nobility and beauty.

Traditional accounts of the Fourth Council say that the assembly was composed of arhats under the leadership of the arhat Parshva but also under the accomplished bodhisattva Vasumitra. Indeed it was at this time, about the beginning of the second century, that the way of the bodhisattva, or the Mahayana (Great Vehicle), appeared. It was this form of the Buddha Dharma that was to conquer the north, including China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, and Mongolia.

The most visible manifestation of the Mahayana was a new wave of sutras, scriptures claiming to be the word of the Buddha that had remained hidden until then in other realms of existence. The Mahayana replaced the ideal of the arhat with that of the bodhisattva. Whereas arhats sought to end confusion in themselves in order to escape samsara, bodhisattvas vowed to end confusion in themselves yet remain in samsara to liberate all other sentient beings. The vision of spiritual life broadened beyond the controlled circumstances of cloister and study to include the wide-open situations of the world.

Correspondingly, the notion of “buddha” was no longer limited to a series of historical personages, the last of whom was Shakyamuni [Siddhartha Gautama], but referred also to a fundamental self-existing principle of spiritual wakefulness or enlightenment. While continuing to accept the old Tripitaka, Mahayanists regarded it as a restricted expression of the Buddha’s teaching, and they characterized those who held to it exclusively as Hinayanists (adherents of the Hinayana, the Small Vehicle).

Great masters shaped the Mahayana in the early centuries of the common era. Outstanding among them all was Nagarjuna (fl. second or third century), whose name connects him with the nagas (serpent deities) from whose hidden realm he is said to have retrieved the Prajnaparamita sutras, foundational Mahayana scriptures [see pages 177-213]. Nagarjuna was born in South India and became the head of Nalanda, the great Buddhist university) a few miles north of Rajagriha, which was a major stronghold of the Dharma for a thousand years. Nagarjuna’s commentaries and treatises expounded the teachings of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way), one of the two main Mahayana schools. Another great master was Asanga (fl. fourth century), who founded the other main school, the Yogachara, which focused on experience as the ultimate principle.

Through most of the Gupta period (c. 300-c. 600), the Buddha Dharma flourished unhindered in India. In the sixth century, however, hundreds of Buddhist monasteries were destroyed by invading Huns under King Mihirakula. This was a serious blow, but the Dharma revived and flourished once again, mainly in northeastern India under the Pala kings (eighth-twelfth centuries). These Buddhist kings patronized the monasteries and built new scholastic centers such as Odantapuri near the Ganges some miles east of Nalanda. Though the Hinayana had largely vanished from India by the seventh century, in this last Indian period the Mahayana continued, and yet another form—known as Mantrayana, Vajrayana, or Tantra—became dominant.

Like the Mahayana, the Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) was based on a class of scriptures ultimately attributed to the Buddha, in this case known as Tantras. Vajrayanists regarded the Hinayana and Mahayana as successive stages on the way to the tantric level. The Vajrayana leaped yet further than the Mahayana in acceptance of the world, holding that all experiences, including the sensual, are sacred manifestations of awakened mind, the buddha principle. It emphasized liturgical methods of meditation, or sadhanas, in which the practitioner identified with deities symbolizing various aspects of awakened mind. The palace of the deity, identical with the phenomenal world as a whole, was known as a mandala. In the place of the arhat and the bodhisattva, the Vajrayana placed the siddha, the realized tantric master.

By the thirteenth century, largely as a result of violent suppression by Islamic conquerors, the Buddha Dharma was practically extinct in the land of its birth. However, by this time Hinayana forms were firmly ensconced in Southeast Asia, and varieties of Mahayana and Vajrayana in most of the rest of Asia.


The Mahayana entered China through Central Asia at the beginning of the common era. At first it was confused with indigenous Taoism, whose terms it had to borrow. The Kuchean monk Kumarajiva (344-413), brought to China as a prisoner of war, created a new level of precision in Chinese Buddhism. His lucid translation and teaching resulted in the formation of the Chinese Madhyamaka school (San-Iun, Three Treatises). Paramartha (499-569) was another great translator and teacher. His work made possible the development of the Fa-hsiang, or Chinese Yogachara, school.

Buddha Dharma’s golden age in China was the T’ang period (618-907). Monasteries were numerous and powerful and had the support of the emperors. During this time the other main Chinese Dharma schools—Hua-yen, T’ien-t’ai, Ch’an, Pure Land, and the tantric Mi-tsung—made their appearance. In 845, however, came a major persecution of the Dharma community, and the monasteries had to be evacuated. Thereafter the Buddha Dharma in China never recovered its former glory.

The Sung period (960-1279) was a time of blending Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian ideas and methods. Under the Ming dynasty (1368-1662), a fusion of Ch’an and Pure Land opened the way for a strong lay movement. During the Ch’ing period (1663-1908), the Tibetan Vajrayana made its mark on Chinese Buddhism, mainly through the imperial courts. Communist rule in the twentieth century reduced the Dharma community to a remnant, but in Taiwan the Dharma flourished, predominantly in Pure Land and other popular forms.


Buddha Dharma came to Korea from China in the fourth century CE. It flourished after the Silla unification in the seventh century. By the tenth century there were Korean versions of most Chinese schools. Paramount were Ch’ao, Hua-yen, and a Vajrayana form related to the Chinese Mi-tsung. The heyday of Korean Dharma was the Koryo period (932-1392), during which the comprehensive Tripitaka Koreana was published. Under the Yi dynasty (1392-1910), Confucianism became the state religion and the Buddha Dharma was forced into the background. A revival came after the end of Japanese rule in 1945, when the Won movement, a popular Buddhism much influenced by Ch’an, came to the fore. Nowadays, a kind of syncretic Buddhism is widespread in Korea.


The Buddha Dharma was brought to japan from Korea in 522. It received its major impetus from the regent prince Shotoku (r. 593-621), a Japanese Ashoka. He established Buddhism as the state religion of Japan, founded monasteries, and himself wrote important commentaries on the sutras. Initially, it was primarily the Sanron (San-Iun, Madhyamaka) school that spread. In the ninth century, six Japanese schools, originally brought from China—Kosha, Hosso, Sanron, Jojitsu, Ritsu, and Kegon—were officially recognized, with the imperial house adopting the Kegon Dharma.

During the latter part of the Heian period (794-1184), the Tendai and tantric Shingon schools became predominant. From the tenth to fourteenth centuries, various Pure Land sects began to prosper. Zen (Ch’an) came to Japan from China toward the end or the twelfth century, and remained a vital force in Japanese cultural life ever after; Soto and Rinzai are its two main schools. After the appearance of the Nichiren school in the thirteenth century, no further movements developed until modern times. All Japanese schools assimilated aspects of indigenous Shinto kami [deities inhabiting nature) and ancestor worship.

Since World War II, various modernizing lay movements such as Soka-gakkai and Rissho Kosei-kai have developed. Japan today boasts an unparalleled variety or Buddhist sects.


The Buddha Dharma of Tibet (and Himalayan countries such as Sikkim, Bhutan, and Ladakh) preserved and developed the Vajrayana tradition of late Indian Buddhism and joined it with the Sarvastivadin monastic rule. The first spreading of Buddhism was initiated by King Trisong Detsen (755-797), who invited to Tibet the Indian pandit [learned man] Shantarakshita, notable for his brilliant synthesis of the Madhayamaka and Yogachara, and the great Indian siddha Padmasambhava. The tradition of the Nyingma school stems from this time. After a period of persecution, a second spreading came in the eleventh century, resulting in the foundation of the Kagyu and Shakya schools. A major part of Indian Buddhist writings were translated to form the Tibetan canon, which included tantric scriptures and commentaries, preserving many texts otherwise lost.

In the fourteenth century, a reform movement resulted in the formation of the Gelukpa school, the fourth of the principal schools of Tibetan Buddhism. By the late twentieth century, as a result of Chinese repression Buddhism in Tibet was reduced to a vestige, but it remained in Sikkim and Bhutan. Centers of Tibetan Buddhism also developed in northern India and Nepal as well as in Europe, Australia, and North America.


The Mongols were definitively converted to Tibetan Buddhism in the sixteenth century. Scriptures and liturgies were translated into Mongolian, and the four principal Tibetan schools flourished until the Communist takeover of the twentieth century.


Vietnam lay under Chinese influence, and the Chinese Mahayana sects of Ch’an (Thien) and Pure Land (Tindo) were well established in the country by the end of the first millennium. Theravada was introduced b the Khmers but remained largely confined to areas along the Cambodian border. A modern social-action – oriented movement fusing the two Mahayana sects began in Saigon in 1932. In 1963 Theravadans joined this movement, and a United Buddhist Congregation of Vietnam existed fleetingly. Today Buddhists in Vietnam remain intensely involved in politics and social action.

Burma (Myanmar)

Emissaries sent by King Ashoka in the third century BCE first brought the Dharma to Burma. By the fifth century, the Theravada was well-established, and by the seventh century the Mahayana had appeared in regions near the Chinese border. By the eighth century, the Vajrayana was also present, and all three forms continued to coexist until King Anaratha established the Theravada throughout the land in the eleventh century. Pagan, the royal capital in the north, adorned with thousands upon thousands of Buddhist stupas and temples, and was the principal bastion of Buddha Dharma on earth until sacked by the Mongols in 1287.

In succeeding centuries the Theravada continued strong, interacting closely at times with the Dharma centers of Ceylon [Sri Lanka]. The Burmese form of Theravada acquired a unique flavor through its assimilation of folk beliefs connected with spirits of all kinds known as nats. Today 85 percent of Burmese are Buddhist, and Buddhism is the official religion of the country.

Cambodia (Kampuchea)

The Buddhism of the Sarvastivadin school spread to Cambodia in the third century BCE and reached a high point in the fifth and sixth centuries. By the end of the eighth century, elements of Mahayana had also appeared. Succeeding centuries brought a fusion of Buddha Dharma with Shaivite Hinduism. In the fourteenth century, however, the Theravada was firmly imposed on the country by the royal house, and it has remained dominant. In 1955 Prince Norodom Sihanouk sought to unite the country under the banner of king, Dharma, and socialism.

Sri Lanka (Ceylon)

In the third century BCE, King Devanampiya Tissa turned to Theravada Buddhism. The Sinhalese king built the Mahavihara monastery and there enshrined a branch of the Bodhi Tree that had been brought from India. For more than two millennia since that time, the Mahavihara has been a powerful force in the Buddhism of Ceylon and other countries of Southeast Asia, notably Burma and Thailand. The Theravada in Ceylon remains the oldest continuous Dharma tradition anywhere in the world.

Nonetheless, factions reflecting the influence of other Indian or Theravada schools played a significant role. These centered around other great Sinhalese monasteries such as the Abhayagirivihara and the Jetavanavihara. Mahayana and tantric influences are also traceable, and Tamil Hinduism had an ongoing influence outside the monasteries. Associated with the Mahavihara was the preeminent teacher and writer Buddhaghosha (fl. fourth-fifth centuries), whose great Vishuddimagga (Path of Purity) gives a definitive account of the Theravada. In the twelfth century King Parakkambahu forcibly imposed the Mahaviharan brand of Theravada on the entire country.

The attempted conversion of the country to Christianity by Portuguese and Dutch colonists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries greatly weakened the Dharma in Ceylon but made it a rallying point for Sinhalese nationalism. In the following centuries Sinhalese kings turned to Burma and Thailand to refresh Sinhalese monastic lineages. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many Europeans came to the aid of Sinhalese Buddhism. By the time of independence in 1948, the Theravada was again thriving in Ceylon and exercising significant influence beyond its borders.


Some form of Hinayana Buddhism arrived in Thailand from Burma in about the sixth century; however, the Mahayana seems to have been dominant between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. From the eleventh century, Hinduist Khmers were a major factor in many regions of the country. In the thirteenth century, however, the Thai royal house established Theravada Buddhism as the national religion.

Eventually, the Khmers were converted to Theravada and became strong supporters. In the nineteenth century, the reformist Dhammayut school, characterized by strict adherence to Vinaya discipline, arose under royal influence. Today it remains the dominant element in Thai Buddhism and has also influenced other countries of Southeast Asia. Ninety-five percent of the Thai population is Buddhist.

The Western World

Over the last two hundred years many Western intellectuals were drawn to and influenced by Buddhism. The exotic profundity of Buddhist thought inspired philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Henri Bergson. In the twentieth century there has been considerable attention to Buddha Dharma in academic circles, and fairly accurate translations of Buddhist texts have gradually become available since the 1930s. A new level of understanding has come about since the 1950s as authentic Asian meditation masters have established themselves in Western countries and taken on serious Western students.

Theravada Buddhism has had a significant impact since the 1930s, Zen since the 1950s, and the tantric Buddhism of Tibet since the 1970s. Recently Westerners have begun assuming leadership in age-old Asian lineages. Of course, significant numbers of Asian Buddhists have reached the West as part of immigrant populations. But thus far there has been little crossover of Buddha Dharma from this source into host cultures.

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters