Buddhist History

This is an incomplete summary of events in Buddhist history.
Information sources are listed where known.

See the Timeline of Buddhism at Wikipedia for the latest timeline - I no longer update this page. 

date event source
~563 BCE Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) is born in Lumbini, Northern India, near the modern border with Nepal. -
309 BCE
Third Buddhist Council convened by Asoka.
Buddhism into Burma @ Nibbana
~300 BCE The oldest real documents written in Brahmi script date from this period, though there already existed several varieties (Brahmi is throught to have existed before 500BCE).  Brahmi quickly became the official script of religious texts and cults, and therefore spread over all India. At this time another script, Kharosthi, was spreading in the country, but Brahmi finally prevailed. This is the script from which modern Devanagari Script, used for writing Sanskrit and a few other Indian languages, evolved.

A lot of arguments existed about the origins of Brahmi which was at first supposed as an offspring of the Aramaic script. Today, its West Semitic (Phoenician) traits are proved. For instance, the symbol A resembles greatly Semitic letter ALEF. Similarly, DHA, THA, LA, and RA all appear quite close to their Semitic counterparts/ancestors. There is, also, a slightly different school of thought that proposes a Southern Semitic origin. Still, a third school of thought holds that the Brahmi script came from the Indus Valley Script. However, the lack of any textual evidence between the end of the Harappan period at around 1800 B.C. and the first Brahmi and Kharosthi inscriptions at roughtly 500 B.C. makes the Indus origin of Brahmi highly unlikely. More research (as in digs) should be conducted, though, to either prove or disprove this theory.

Brahmi is a syllabary, it consists of syllables only, if we state that single vowels are also syllables. Each character carries a consonant followed by the vowel "a", much like Old Persian or Meroïtic. However, unlike these two systems, Brahmi indicates the same consonant with a different vowel with extra strokes attached to the character. Brahmi is written from the left to the right.

Already in the last centuries BC the script was divided into 3 varieties: northern, south-eastern, and southern. Dialectal differences consisted of the shape of the symbols, though the system remained the same. First separate branches emerged in the 5th century AD. The Brahmi script is the ancestor of practically all modern Indian writing systems, at all there are about 40 varieties of them nowadays, including Tibetan, Singhalese, Sharada, Newari, Bengali, Oriya, Gujarati, Gurmukhi, Lahnda, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Burmese, Khmer, Lao, Thai, Devanagari. In addition, many other Asian scripts, even Japanese to a very small extent (vowel order), were also derived from Indian script. Thus the Brahmi script was the Indian equivalent of the Greek script that gave arise to a host of different systems.

Languages which used Brahmi as their script: Indo-Aryan (Vedic, Sanskrit, Prakrits, Pali), Iranian (Sacian), Tocharic.

The Devanagari Script @ Learn Sanskrit Through Self-Study

Brahmi Script

Bramhi @ Omniglot

The Evolution of Brahmi Script
200s BCE
Indian traders, from western and southern India, and doubtless Sind too, were regularly visiting ports in the Gulfand Arabia, and these contacts probably explain the frequency of names in the region which contain elements such as but, and also hind (Indian), and bahar (from the Sanskrit vihara, a Buddhist monastery). A Concise History of Buddhism
100s BCE Theravada Buddhism is officially introduced to Sri-Lanka by the Venerable Mahinda, the son of the Emperor Ashoka of India during the reign of King Devanampiya-Tissa. Sri Lanka @ BuddhaNet
0s According to Theravada teachings, the Buddhist monks assembled in Aloka-Vihara in Sri-Lanka during the reign of King Vatta Gamini and wrote down the Tripitaka, the three basket of the Teachings, known as the Pali scriptures, for the first time. Sri Lanka @ BuddhaNet
67 Buddhism officially came to China. The emperor had sent special envoys to India to invite Buddhist monks to come to China to teach Buddhism, which in that period, was regarded as an educational system, and not as a religion.

The first two monks that came to China were known as Moton and Chufarlan, and were received by the Hong-Lu-Si, which is equivalent to our present Foreign Ministry or State Department.

Buddhism as an Education @ BuddhaNet
According to Mahayana tradition, the Fourth Buddhist council takes place under the Kushana king Kanishka's reign, near Jalandar, Kashmir, India. XuanZang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road
100s &
Indian and Central Asian Buddhists found a welcome in Vietnam (then a Chinese province). The earliest temples date from this era. From there, Buddhism diffused into southern China. At the same time, Buddhists visited Vietnam from the north, from China itself.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
An Shih-kao, a Parthian, arrived in the monastery at Lo Yang, and worked with a team of non-Mahayana monks translating sutras to Chinese. However, he did have contemporaries who were engaged in translating Mahayana sutras, notably An-hsuan, another Parthian, and Lokaksema, an Indo-scythian (post-168), eleven of whose translations have survived. Translations from this early period all suggest a minority interest, perhaps from amongst some fringe cult groups, and in which there was probably no clear differentiation between lay and ordained. After the fall of the Han dynasty in 220, the situation changed and many more translations were made, including those of numerous Mahayana sutras. However, little is known of Buddhism in this period other than that it was not the interest of the educated Chinese upper classes. Less still is known of the early Buddhist centers at Peng Cheng (on the lower Yangtze River) in east China, and at Chiao Chou in southern China (now in North Vietnam). There is little doubt that the latter must have been initiated through sea trade contact with southern Asia, and it is possible that the same source accounts for the eastern centre too.
China @ Quang Duc World Buddhism
The longer version of the "Pure Land Sutra" (aka Sukhavativyuha sutra: “Ornaments of the Realm of Bliss”) was first translated in to Chinese.
Sanskrit Canons @ Akshin
320-467 The Gupta period, during which the great University of Nalanda grew to support 3 to 10 thousand monks at a time. Bangladesh @ BuddhaNet
399-414 法顯 (Faxian / 320?-420?) travelled to India 399-414, and mentioned in his itinerary about the Kingdom of Champa on the Southern bank of the Ganges when he came across much evidence of living Buddhism which was mostly Mahayana. On his return, he translated the six-fascicle version of the Mahaaparinirvaana-suutra 涅槃經 and some forty fascicles of vinaya materials. Bangladesh @ BuddhaNet,
Dictionary of East Asian Buddhist Terms
400s The earliest written evidence of Theravada in Burma, some Pali inscriptions, date from this era. Myanmar @ BuddhaNet
Buddhism has become established in the Indonesian archipelago by this point, as statues have been found from this era.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
The first definitive reinterpretations of Theravada Pali texts date from this period.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
402 鳩摩羅什 (Kumaarajiiva / 344-413), a monk from Kucha (龜茲) in modern day Xinjiang province, travelled to 長安 (Chang'an) at the request of King Yao Hsing (姚興), and with the aid of numerous collaborators and assistants became one of the most prolific translators of Buddhist texts in history, rendering some 72 texts into Chinese. Among the most important of these are the Diamond Sutra 金剛經, Amitaabha-suutra, Lotus Sutra 法華經, Vimalakiirti-nirde`sa-suutra 維摩經, Madhyamaka-kaarikaa and the Mahaa-praj~naapaaramitaa-`saastra. His translation was distinctive, possessing a flowing smoothness that reflects his prioritization on the conveyance of the meaning as opposed to precise literal rendering. Because of this, his renderings of seminal Mahayana texts have often remained more popular than later, more exact translations. Dictionary Of East Asian Buddhist Terms

Sources of Chinese Tradition
In China, Hui-Yuan argues at court that Buddhist monks be exempt from bowing to the emperor.
Sources of Chinese Tradition
King Yao Hsing (姚興) honored Kumarajiva (鳩摩羅什) with the title of National Preceptor, and asked him to be in charge of translating sutras in Chinese. Kumarajiva@ Buddhist Door

Sources of Chinese Tradition

Adherants from the Thien (Zen) school visit Vietnam, arriving from the north. The resulting influence of this meditational school increased monastic and other exchanges with China. Southeast Asia, A Concise History
Buddhist Jataka stories, via a Hindu recension under the title of the Pancatantra, were translated into Persian at the command of the Zoroastrian king Khusru.  This translation was later translated into Greek, Latin, and Hebrew and was to form the basis of the collections of stories known as Aesop’s Fables (complied in the 14th century by a Byzantine monk), the stories of Sinbad, and the Arabian Nights. A Concise History of Buddhism
538 or
Buddhism officially introduced in to Japan from Korea, when the king of Peakce (aka Beakje) sent a gold and copper Buddha and some sutras to the emperor of Japan. Nihonshoki.
A Brief History of Japanese Buddhism

600s Famous Chinese monk 玄奘 (XuanZang / 600-664) travelled to India, recorded various accounts of the persecution of Buddhism by Sasanka, the king of Gouda (North Western part of Bengal). He recorded Mahayana Buddhism in various parts of Bangladesh with some Sthavir schools. Upon his return to China with some 657 Sanskrit texts, he set up a large translation bureau in 長安 (Changan) drawing students and collaborators from all over East Asia. He is said to have supervised six-hundred scholars in sutra translation, and is credited with the translation of some 1,330 fascicles of scriptures into Chinese. Previously, a monk named Kumaraja had a translation team of about four hundred scholars. Buddhism as an Education @ BuddhaNet,
Bangladesh @ BuddhaNet,
Dictionary of East Asian Buddhist Terms
Preceding period of sporadic Buddhist rule in the Sindh draws to a close.
A Concise History of Buddhism
Chinese Buddhist pilgrim I-Ching visited the then-capital of the partly Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya, Palembang, "after a voyage of less than 20 days from Canton" (广州 / Guangzhou). A translation of his description of the city, excerpted from Southeast Asia, A Concise History: "In the fortified city of Fo-shih [Palembang], there are more than a thousand Buddhist priests whose minds are bent on study and good works... If a Chinese priest wishes to go to the west to understand and read [the original Buddhist texts] there, he would be wise to spend a year or two in Fo-shih and practice the proper rules there; he might then go on to central India". According to the same source, "Srivijaya's rulers successfully blended symbols from Malay traditions, Buddhism and Hinduism to underline their powers".
Srivijaya @ Network Indonesia
Buddhist Jataka stories are translated into Syriac and Arabic, under the title Kalilag and Damnag. A Concise History of Buddhism
A life of the Buddha was translated into Greek by St John of Damascus and circulated widely in Christian circles as the story of Balaam and Josaphat. So popular was this story in medieval Europe that we arrive at the irony of the figure of Josaphat, this name a corruption of ‘bodhisattva’, being canonized, by the 14th century, and worshipped as a saint in the Catholic church. A Concise History of Buddhism
In Indonesia, the famous structure of Borobodur starts to be constructed, probably as a non-Buddhist shrine. It was converted to a tantric Buddhist monument by the 'Sailendra' family after they took control of the region. The monument was completed in 830, after approximately 50 years of work.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
Li Chan(Yan) reigns during the Chinese Tang dynasty, and is one of the three famous emporers in Chinese history who prohibited Buddhism. Tang Dynasty
Temple building begins at Pagan, Burma (Bagan, Myanmar).
Covington, Richard. (2002) Sacred and Profaned. Smithsonian, Dec. 2002
Vietnam's first independant dynasty, the Ly, was proclaimed, relying at first on an alliance between military figures and the Buddhist monkhood. Ly emperors built temples and patronized Mahayana Buddhism, though they honoured the traditional spirits as well.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
Srivijaya, a partly Buddhist kingdom based on Sumatra, is raided by seamen from the Chola region of southern India. It survives, but declines in importance. Shortly after the raid, the centre of the kingdom moves northward from Palembang to Jambi-Melayu.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
In Burma, Pagan's first king Anawrahta reigned. He is said to have been converted to Theravada Buddhism by a Mon monk, after which he made a pilgrimage to Sri Lanka.  He returned to convert Myanmar to Theravada Buddhism.  It became predominant within two centuries. This conversion of the whole country was helped to a great degree by the flood of monks and books from Sri Lanka.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History

Myanmar @ BuddhaNet

Covington, Richard. (2002) Sacred and Profaned. Smithsonian, Dec. 2002
1057 Theravada Buddhism in Thailand was further strengthened when King Anawrahta of Burma captured Thanton. From there he carried to his capital at Pagan a number of Theravadin monks together with the Pali canon, and being an ardent Theravadin he spread his religion along with his conquests in northern Thailand. Thailand @ BuddhaNet
In Burma, Pagan's second king, Kyanzittha (son of Anoratha) reigned. He completed the building of the Shwezigon pagoda, a shrine for relics of the Buddha, including a tooth brought from Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Various inscriptions refer to him as an incarnation of Vishnu, a chakravartin, a bodhisattva and dharmaraja. Obviously, belief in Hinduism persisted.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
Alaungsithu reigned in Pagan, until his son Narathu smothered him to death and assumed the throne.
Covington, Richard. (2002) Sacred and Profaned. Smithsonian, Dec. 2002
1133-1212 Honen Shonin establishes Pure Land Buddhism as an independant sect in Japan. Palace Museum, Taiwan
The self-styled bodhisattva Jayavarman VII assumes control of the Khmer kingdom, and is a devout follower of Mahayana Buddhism (though he also patronised Hinduism). He constructs the Bayon, the most prominent Buddhist structure in the Angkor temple complex. This set the stage for the later conversion of the Khmer people to Theravada Buddhism.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
In Burma, Anoratha's lineage regains control - Pagan has been in anarchy. This is accomplished with the assistance of Sri Lanka, and reforms Burmese Buddhism on Sri Lankan (Theravada) models.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
Late 1100s The great Buddhist educational centre at Nalanda, where various subjects were taught such as Buddhism, Logic, Philosophy, Law, Medicine, Grammar, Yoga, Alchemy and Astrology, was destroyed by the Turks. Nalanda was supported by kings of several dynasties and served as the great international centre of learning. Bangladesh @ BuddhaNet
1200s Theravada overtakes Mahayana - previously practised alongside Hinduism - as the dominant form of Buddhism in Cambodia. Thailand had an important role to play in this change, but so did missionary monks from Sri Lanka and Cambodian monks studying in Sri Lanka. Cambodia @ BuddhaNet
Rashid al-Din, a 13th century historian, records some eleven Buddhist texts circulating in Persia in Arabic translations, amongst which the Sukhavati-vyuha and Karanda-vyuha Sutras are recognizable. More recently portions of the Samyutta and Anguttara-Nikayas, along with (parts of) the Maitreya-vyakarana, have been identified in this collection. A Concise History of Buddhism
~1238 Thai Kingdom of Sukhothai is established, with Theravada Buddhism as the state religion. Thailand @ BuddhaNet
Burma's Pagan empire begins to disintegrate after being defeated by Kublai Khan at Ngasaungsyan, near the Chinese border.  The Khan ordered the invasion after the Burmese refused to pay tribute.
Covington, Richard. (2002) Sacred and Profaned. Smithsonian, Dec. 2002
The Thai kingdom of Sukothai's third and most famous ruler, Ramkhamhaeng (Rama the Bold), reigned and made vassals of Laos, much of modern Thailand, Pegu (Burma), and parts of the Malayan peninsula, thus giving rise to Sukhothai artistic tradition. After Ramkhamhaeng's death, Sukothai lost control of its territories as its vassals became independant.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
Mongol leader Ghazan Khan is converted to Islam, ending a line of Tantric Buddhist leaders.
A Concise History of Buddhism
The Burmese Theravada kingdom at Pagan falls to the Mongols, and then becomes overshadowed by the Shan capital at Ava.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
Buddhists in Persia attempt to convert Uldjaitu Khan. A Concise History of Buddhism
In Thailand, U Thong, possibly the son of a Chinese merchant family, established Ayuthya as his capital and took the name of Ramathibodi.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
The Chinese eunuch admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) made seven voyages in this period, through South East Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, East Africa, and Egypt. At the time, Buddhism was well-established in China, so visited peoples may have had exposure to Chinese Buddhism.
Buddhism in Malaysia @ Quang Duc World Buddhism
1600s &
When Vietnam divided during this period, the Nguyen rulers of the south chose to support Mahayana Buddhism as an integrative ideology for the ethnically plural society of their kingdom, which was also populated by Chams and other minorities.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
1766-67 In Thailand, many Buddhist texts are destroyed destroyed in the devastation that attended the Burmese invasion. Thailand @ BuddhaNet
1800s In Thailand, King Mongkut - himself a former monk - conducted a campaign to reform and modernise the monkhood, a movement that has continued in the present century under the inspiration of several great ascetic monks from the north-east of the country. Thailand @ BuddhaNet
Nguyen Anh comes to the throne of the first united Vietnam - he succeeds by quelling the Tayson rebellion in south Vietnam with help from Rama I in Bangkok, then took over the north from the ramaining Trinh. After coming to power, he created a Confucianist orthodox state and was eager to limit the competing influence of Buddhism. He forbade adult men to attend Buddhist ceremonies.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
Minh Mang reigns in Vietnam, further restricting Buddhism. He insists that all monks be assigned to cloisters and carry identification documents. He also placed new restrictions on printed material. He also began a persecution of Catholic missionaries and converts that his successors (not without provocation) continued.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
~1860 In Sri Lanka, against all expectations the monastic and lay community brought about a major revival in Buddhism, a movement that went hand in hand with growing nationalism. The revival followed a period of persecution by foreign powers.

Since then Buddhism has flourished and Sri Lankan monks and expatriate lay people have been prominent in spreading Theravada Buddhism in Asia, the West and even in Africa.

Sri Lanka @ BuddhaNet
Burma becomes a British colony.
Covington, Richard. (2002) Sacred and Profaned. Smithsonian, Dec. 2002
Using Fa Xian's records, Nepalese archaeologists rediscovered the great stone pillar of Ashoka at Lumbini.
China Daily, via Merit Times
Burma regains independance.
Covington, Richard. (2002) Sacred and Profaned. Smithsonian, Dec. 2002
Burmese military government attempts to assert authority over the sangha.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
World Buddhist Sangha Council first convened by Theravadins in Sri Lanka with the hope of bridging differences and working together. The first convention was attended by leading monks, from many countries and sects, Mahaayaana as well as Theravaada.

The following, written by Ven. Walpola Rahula was approved unanimously.

Basic Points Unifying The Theravaada and the Mahaayaana

1. The Buddha is our only Master.

2. We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.

3. We do not believe that this world is created and ruled by a God.

4. Following the example of the Buddha, who is the embodiment of Great Compassion (mahaa-karu.naa) and Great Wisdom (mahaa- praj~naa), we consider that the purpose of life is to develop compassion for all living beings without discrimination and to work for their good, happiness, and peace; and to develop wisdom leading to the realization of Ultimate Truth.

5. We accept the Four Noble Truths, nameley Dukkha, the Arising of Dukkha, the Cessation of Dukkha, and the Path leading to the Cessation of Dukkha; and the universal law of cause and effect as taught in the pratiitya-samutpaada (Conditioned Genesis or Dependent Origination).

6. We understand, according to the teaching of the Buddha, that all conditioned things (sa.mskaara) are impermanent (anitya) and dukkha, and that all conditioned and unconditioned things (dharma) are without self (anaatma).

7. We accept the Thirty-seven Qualities conducive to Enlightenment (bodhipak.sa-dharma) as different aspects of the Path taught by the Buddha leading to Enlightenment.

8. There are three ways of attaining bodhi or Enlightenment, according to the ability and capacity of each individual: namely as a disciple (sraavaka), as a Pratyeka-Buddha and as a Samyak-sam-Buddha (perfectly and Fully Enlightened Buddha). We accept it as the highest, noblest, and most heroic to follow the career of a Bodhisattva and to become a Samyak-sam-Buddha in order to save others.

9. We admit that in different countries there are differences with regard to the life of Buddhist monks, popular Buddhist beliefs and practices, rites and ceremonies, customs and habits. These external forms and expressions should not be confused with the essential teachings of the Buddha.

Online excerpt from Walpola Rahula; The Heritage of the Bhikkhu; (New York, Grove Press, 1974); pp. 100, 1137-138.
Indonesian Archaeological Service and UNESCO restore Borobodur.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
After 1975, Lao Communist rulers attempted to change attitudes to religion, in particular calling on monks to work, not beg. This caused many to return to lay life, but Buddhism remains popular.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History
1975-1979 The communist in Cambodia tried to completely destroy Buddhism, and very nearly succeeded. By the time of the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 nearly every monk and religious intellectual had been either murdered or driven into exile, and nearly every temple and Buddhist library had been destroyed. Cambodia @ BuddhaNet
Burmese military government asserts authority over the sangha.
Southeast Asia, A Concise History

Misc. Art
Apologies for the poor quality of these shots.

date piece artist location
Qing Dynasty Qing Dynasty Tibetan Buddha in Pavillion - Palace Museum, Taiwan
Sakyamuni (Wood Carving) Ju Ming Palace Museum, Taiwan
193? Tibetan Buddha (Golden Statue)
(reproduction/interpretation of older pieces)
- Palace Museum, Taiwan
Stone Carving (unknown subject) - Longshan Temple, Taipei, Taiwan
Stone Carving (unknown subject) - Longshan Temple, Taipei, Taiwan
Bamiyan Budda
Bamiyan, Afghanistan


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