Stephen Batchelor, proponent of “Buddhism without beliefs,” investigates the historical development of Buddhism across different cultures—and uncovers a difference in the conception of history itself.


 

The classic Greek style, as seen in the statue of Diadoumenos, left, influenced the art of the ancient Gandhara region, in what is now Pakistan. At right, a Gandharan sculpture of a bodhisattva, fourth of fifth century CE. (Left) All Rights Reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1925; (Right) Collection Arnold Lieberman, Photo John Bigelow Taylor.
The classic Greek style, as seen in the statue of Diadoumenos, left, influenced the art of the ancient Gandhara region, in what is now Pakistan. At right, a Gandharan sculpture of a bodhisattva, fourth of fifth century CE. (Left) All Rights Reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1925; (Right) Collection Arnold Lieberman, Photo John Bigelow Taylor.

Nearly thirty years have passed since I first became involved in Buddhism. I was nineteen at the time, dizzy with the optimism of the 1960s and the thrill of having traveled overland from England to India. The Tibetans had been in exile from their homeland for just over a decade. The Dalai Lama was only thirty-seven years old and had yet to visit the West. I remember walking up the mist-drenched hills above Dharamsala into the hushed village where the Dalai Lama and his followers had settled. My traveling companions and I visited and lived in impoverished Tibetan refugee communities. We were enthralled by the exploration of a virtually uncharted terrain under the guidance of extraordinary teachers who had literally stepped out of an ancient Buddhist civilization into the modern world.

None of us who stumbled across the Tibetans then had any inkling of the extent to which Buddhism would have spread in our own homelands a quarter of a century later. From the humble state of the Tibetan community-in-exile at that time, the present widespread interest in Buddhism, including the availability of books, magazines, centers and retreats throughout the Western world, not to mention the meteoric rise to international prominence of the Dalai Lama, was merely the stuff of fantasy.

Yet the adoption of Buddhism has often started in small and unremarkable ways like this. For the first two hundred years after the Buddha, for example, the Buddhist community appears to have been just one among several orders of wandering mendicants (shramanas) in northern India. Although the Greek envoy Megasthenes lived for ten years in the very heartland of where the Buddha had taught only one hundred and fifty years earlier, he makes no mention of Buddhism when describing the religious practices of India. However, within less than a century after Megasthenes had returned to Greece, Buddhism had been adopted by Emperor Ashoka and was rapidly spreading across the subcontinent. The endorsement and patronage of Ashoka transformed Buddhism almost overnight from a small community of monks and nuns into a powerful religious force, which was destined to expand far beyond the borders of India.

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