History of Buddhism

The history of Buddhism religion dates back to the year 580 BC, which started with the birth of Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. Born in the Lumbini, Southern Nepal, Siddhartha left his home at a young age of 29 years, in search of enlightenment. After going through a life of self-denial, discipline and meditation, he attained enlightenment, which resulted in the alleviation of all his pain and suffering. He then set on a journey of teaching people the path to enlightenment that would liberate them from the cycle of life and death.

Gradually, Buddhism spread to numerous countries of the world, which resulted in development of the religion. The original Indian foundation was expanded by the inclusion of Hellenistic as well as Central Asian, East Asian, and Southeast Asian cultural elements. The history of Buddhism also witnessed the development of numerous movements and divisions, such as Theravada, Mahayana, etc.

 The First Council

The first council of Buddhism Sangha was organized a few months after Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana. It was held in Rajagaha, with the aim of developing an agreement on his teachings. However, the teachings of Buddha were not written down even then.

The Second Council

The second council took place around 100 years after the Mahaparinirvana of Lord Buddha. The aim of the council, held at Vesali, was to settle a conflict over the nature of the arahant (or Buddhist saint) and monastic discipline, which had arisen between Mahasanghika majority (Great Assembly) of eastern India and Sthavira minority (the Elders) of the west.

The Era of Asoka the Great

Asoka, the first Buddhist Emperor, was the ruler of the Magadhan empire. Initially a ruler obsessed with the aim of expanding his empire, he changed after witnessing the brutal carnage at the battle of Kalinga. This event led him towards Buddhism and he built his empire into a Buddhist state, a first of its kind. He laid the foundation of numerous stupas and spread the teachings of Lord Buddha throughout the world.

 The Third Council

The third council of Buddhism Sangha was held under Emperor Asoka, in Pataliputra. The reason for the council was deterioration in the standards of the monks. The consequence of the council was exclusion of numerous bogus monks from the Sangha.

Spread of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.Emperor Asoka sent his son, Mahindra, to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhism in the state. He succeeded in converting the King of Sri Lanka to Buddhism and soon, Buddhism became the state religion of the country.

The Fourth Council

The Fourth Council took place in Sri Lanka, in the Aloka Cave near the village of Matale. It was in this council that decision was taken to write the teachings of Lord Buddha for the first time. The entire writing was collected in three baskets and given the name of Tipitaka or the Pali Canon. It comprises of three Pitakas, namely Vinaya Pitaka (the rules for the monks and nuns), the Sutta Pitaka (Buddha’s discourses) and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (philosophical and psychological systemization of the Buddha’s teachings). Another Fourth Buddhist Council (Sarvastivada tradition) was held around 100 CE at Jalandhar or in Kashmir. It is said to have been convened by the Kushana king, Kanishka,

 Mahayana Buddhism and New Scriptures

Mahayana Buddhism emerged and grew between 150 BCE and 100 CE. With the rise of this sect, new sutras emerged. The most significant ones are the Lotus Sutra, the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra.


The period between third and seventh century CE saw the establishment of a new form of Buddhism, which emerged out of the Mahayana sect. This form came to be known as Tantra, Mantrayana and Vajrayana. Tantras emphasized on the bodhisattva ideal and empathy for all beings. At the same time, it also laid stress on drawing of mandalas or ‘magic’ circles, symbolic hand gestures known as mudras, the recitation of phrases known as mantras and visualizations. It was also believed that one needs an experienced teacher or guru to learn the teachings of Lord Buddha.

 Decline of Buddhism in India

From the seventh century, Buddhism went on a downward spiral in India, because of growth of Hinduism, decline of Buddhist universities and Muslim Turk invasions of northwest India.

Spread of Buddhism in China

Buddhism started gaining entry into China around 1st century CE.

Spread of Buddhism in Japan

Fourth century CE saw Buddhism gaining ground in Korea and from there, religion spread to Japan in 538 CE. By the end of the century, Buddhism had become the state religion of the country. In 8th century CE, the religion further spread under the patronage of Emperor Shomu. Six schools of Chinese Buddhism, namely Sanron, Jojitsu, Hosso, Kusha, Kegon and Ritsu, were also introduced during this period. Later, Tendai and Shingon schools developed in Japan.

 Spread of Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism, based on Chinese Ch’an Buddhism, started evolving in Japan around the 12th century. Founded by Esai Zenji, it came to be known as Rinzai School in the country. Soto School of Zen also developed there in the 13th century, with its base in Chinese Ts’ao-tung School.

 Spread of Buddhism in Tibet

The arrival of an Indian tantric master, known as Padmasambhava, was instrumental in the spread of Buddhism in Tibet.

 Spread of Buddhism in the West

The efforts towards spread of Buddhism in the western countries were made in the 19th and early-20th century. T W Rhys Davies laid the foundation of the Pali Text Society there, towards the end of the 19th century. Other names worth mentioning in this context are those of Edward Arnold, a poet; Christmas Humphreys, an English barrister; Alan Watts and Dennis Lockwood; founder of the Friends of Western Buddhism Order (FWBO). Buddhism started spreading amongst the native population of America in the 1950s. Presently, one can find all schools of Buddhism in the USA.

 Current Status of Buddhism

Today, Buddhism has spread to almost all the countries of the world, with the population of Buddhists estimated to be around 350 million. Out of these, almost half the number practice Mahayana tradition. The largest population of Buddhist is in China, while, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar have the highest proportion of Buddhists in their population. The religion is also becoming quite widespread in America, Australia and United Kingdom.