Buddhism Spreads

The Buddha attracted many disciples, or followers, who accompanied him as he preached across northern India. Many men and women who accepted the Buddha's teachings set up monasteries and convents for meditation and study. Some Buddhist monasteries grew into major centers of learning.

A map shows the distribution of Buddhism in modern Asia.
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What is one Asian country that has followers of both Mahayana Buddhism and Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism? Which do more countries follow, Mahayana Buddhism or Theravada Buddhism?

The Buddha's death, like his birth, is clouded in legend. At age 80, according to tradition, he is said to have eaten spoiled food. As he lay dying, he told his disciples, “Decay is inherent [exists in] in all things. Work out your own salvation with persistent effort.”

Collecting the Teachings of the Buddha

After the Buddha's death, his followers collected his teachings into a sacred text called the Tripitaka, or “Three Baskets of Wisdom.” One of the “baskets” includes sayings like this one, which echoes the Hindu emphasis on duty: “Let a man, after he has discerned his own duty, be always attentive to his duty.” Other sayings give the Buddha's version of the golden rule: “Overcome anger by not growing angry. Overcome evil with good. Overcome the liar by truth.”

Two Branches of Buddhism

Missionaries and traders spread Buddhism across India to many parts of Asia. Gradually, Buddhism split into two major schools: Theravada (thehr uh VAH duh) Buddhism and Mahayana (mah huh YAH nuh) Buddhism. These schools in turn became subdivided into sects, or subgroups.

Theravada Buddhism closely followed the Buddha's original teachings. It required a life devoted to hard spiritual work. Only the most dedicated seekers, such as monks and nuns, could hope to reach nirvana. The Theravada school spread to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

The Mahayana school made Buddhism easier for ordinary people to follow. Even though the Buddha had forbidden followers to worship him, Mahayana Buddhists pictured him and other holy beings as compassionate gods. People turned to these gods for help in solving daily problems as well as in achieving salvation.

While the Buddha had said little about the nature of nirvana, Mahayana Buddhists described an afterlife filled with many heavens and hells. Mahayana Buddhism spread to China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan.

Buddhism Declines in India

Although Buddhism took firm root across Asia, it slowly declined in India. With its great tolerance of diversity, Hinduism eventually absorbed some Buddhist ideas and made room for Buddha as another Hindu god. A few Buddhist centers survived until the 1100s, when they fell to Muslim armies that invaded India.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments