Where enforcement of a rigid orthodoxy might have killed the faith, its openness gave it a creative capacity for flexibility and longevity that sired a family of endlessly fertile offspring. The local adaptability of Buddhism has enabled it to travel and grow, to diversify and elaborate. Its lack of a Pope-Caliph or a single text has allowed it to grow differently in every soil into which it has been planted. The continuous practice of a system in which consciousness examines itself deeply and at leisure has produced a range of highly sophisticated approaches to spiritual experience over twenty-five centuries. Though it preached calmness it sprang from a dynamic and turbulent India and its Indian origins are clearly detectable in its particular blend of rationality and asceticism, the vocabulary of its cosmology and the imprint it carries of the beliefs it replaced and rejected.
The transmission of ideas does not always leave hard evidence and it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Buddhism began to spread beyond India. There is a tradition that two brothers from Bactria became disciples of the Buddha during his lifetime and that they then returned home and built shrines to him. If this is true then Buddhism was travelling from its very inception. However talk of building temples to the Buddha smacks of much later practice. Any disciple who had been personally taught by Gautama can surely not have failed to respect the early doctrine, that the Buddha was no more than a man and that he taught a practical Path, not a cult of devotion.
For current purposes the development of Buddhism can be conveniently divided into three main periods, corresponding to the ascendancy of different approaches to the central teachings of the Buddha: the Early period from the Buddha’s life to around the first century BCE, the Mahayana period lasting roughly to 600 CE, and the Tantric period, to the disappearance of Buddhism in India around 1200. These periods might also be seen in terms of steps away from the simpler, contemplative teachings of the Buddha in which firstly compassion, then faith, then magic began to replace higher wisdom as the ideal path to salvation. These steps can also be thought of as a movement away from the hope of reaching nirvana in many lifetimes to the goal of attaining it within one lifetime, then within an instant.
This paper expounds the basic tenets of Buddhism and traces the spread of the influence of Buddhism over the pre-modern world, from c. 400 BCE to c 1200 CE.
India’s greatest export: Buddhism
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Roderick Matthews, historian, obtained a First from Balliol College, Oxford in Modern History. Studied Medieval History under Maurice Keen. Studied Tudor and Stuart History under Christopher Hill, Master of Balliol College. Studied European History under Colin Lucas, later Master of Balliol College and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. Studied Imperial History under Professor Paul Longford, Rector of Lincoln College.