Founded in North India in the 6th century B.C. by Gautama Buddha as a reaction to the prevailing Hindu practices, it became a leading faith of the East covering an extensive area from Central Asia to Sri Li and Burma to Korea by the 12th A.D.
Today, the area of its greatest concentration is in Southeast Asia, where the strength of its adherents ranges from 95 percent of the population of Thailand, nearly 90 percent of Myanmar and Cambodia, 67 percent of Laos, 70 percent of Sri Lanka, and over 50 percent that of Vietnam.
Ashoka (c. 275 B.C.), the greatest Buddhist monarch that reigned in India accorded Buddhism the status of a state religion and carried Buddha’s message to the various parts of India, and through its cultural and diplomatic missions to distant lands of Sri Lanka, Syria, Egypt, and Central Asia.
Buddhism entered China along the trade routes by the 1st century and became a part of the Chinese society through the activities of exchange of scholars, missionaries and pilgrims from India, where it often heavily interblended with native Taoism. By the 7th century it had spread to southern and eastern Asia, from Sri Lanka to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaya, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan through a vigorous missionary drive and colonization of the Buddhist monks.
Tibet also became Buddhist by the 7th century, from where it’s distinctive form—Tibetan Lamaism—was carried to Mongolia in the 16th century. Within India, however, the destruction of the Buddhist centers by the Huns in the 6th century and by Muslims by the 11th century led to its virtual extinction and finally its absorption into the Hindu fold.
Despite a surge of revival during the 1950s and 1960s in western and central India, Buddhism remains numerically an insignificant faith in India, the land of its origin, where less than 1 percent of the population professes the faith, although it has left an indelible imprint on India’s civilization.
Buddhism remains essentially a religion of detachment or non-activity, and of non-violence, but retains the Hindu belief in Karma (the inevitability of cause and effect) and transmigration of soul. As it moved to other regions, it acquired native beliefs, and produced in each country distinctive variations of Buddhist faith, and expressions of architecture and arts. In China it was fused with the native ethnic religions such as Confucianism and Taoism, and in Japan with Shintoism to form composite faiths.
Basically, there developed two major schools within Buddhism: the Theravada or Hinayana variety and the Mahayana school. Theravada, a more conservative of the two, and closer to Buddha’s teachings, is practiced in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. It holds that each person must work out one’s own salvation, perform religious acts, and chart out one’s personal road to Nirvana (escape from the worldly bondage or existence).
Theravadas often spend a part of their lives as monks and nuns in order to gain personal merit. Mahayana Buddhism, mainly practiced in Vietnam, China, Korea, and Japan, believes that merit can be acquired from superhuman sources or from the great Buddhas (Buddhist teachers) through contemplation and meditation. In due course, Buddha became deified, and began to be worshiped, architectural expressions of which witnessed the creation of fine sculptures and statues of Buddha.
A variation of Buddhism known as Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism, which is heavily laced with mysticism, magic, metaphysics, and folklore, prevails in Tibet and Mongolia. After China’s occupation of Tibet in 1950, many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries were destroyed and Lamaism was suppressed. Within China, where the state actively discourages the practice of religion, only 6 percent of the population is classified as Buddhist, and 20 percent belonging to Chinese folk-religions, the latter profess Buddhism interblended with Tao and Confucian beliefs. Seventy-two percent declare themselves as atheist or non-religious in China.