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History of Buddhism in South-East Asia

in full-page cartoons

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Choi, Eun Seuk
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2008

Table of Contents
I. Origin and Teachings of Buddhism
II. Schools of Buddhism
II.1 Mahayana Buddhism
II.2 Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism
II.3 Tantric Buddhism (Vairayana)
III. Spread of Buddhism to South East Asia
III.1 Buddhism in Burma
III.1.1 Early Acceptance of Buddhism
III.1.2 Arrival of Pagan and first Controversy about Buddhism
III.1.3 The Shan
III.2 Buddhism in Vietnam
III.3 Buddhism in Cambodia
III.3.1 Its Co-Existance with Hinduism and the Rise of Mahayana Buddhism
III.3.2 Advent of Theravada Buddhism
III.4. Buddhism in Thailand
III.4.1. Mahayana Buddhism
III.4.2. Theravada Buddhism
III.5. Buddhism on Java/Sumatra
IV Conclusion

I. Origin and Teachings of Buddhism
            Buddhism is the one of the oldest religion in the world which is established by Gautama Budda - Siddharta Gautama - (563 BC ? 483BC) (1). Under his father Suddodhana, the ruler of Kapilvastu, Siddharta spent the early years of his life in total luxury. After he experienced the outside world, he concluded that real life was all about inescapable grief and sorrow. He later chose to become an ascetic and started to think 'Why human suffers.' He finally made Buddhism after he obtained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya.
            Budda made basic teachings consisting of "The Three Universal Truths", "The Four Noble Truths", and "The Noble Eightfold Paths". "The Three Universal Truths" are composed of 1. Nothing is lost in the universe. 2. Everything Changes. 3. Law of Cause and Effect. "The Four Noble Truths" consist of 1. There is Suffering. Suffering is common to all. 2. Cause of Suffering. We are the cause of our suffering. 3. End of Suffering. Stop doing what causes suffering. 4. Path to end Suffering. Everyone can be enlightened. "The Noble Eightfold Paths" are made up of 1. Right View. 2. Right Thought. 3. Right Speech. 4. Right Conduct. 5. Right Livelihood. 6. Right Effort. 7. Right Mindfulness. 8. Right Concentration. (2)

II. Schools of Buddhism
            Just as there are many different branches of Christianity, including Protestant churches and Catholicism, the different types of Buddhism reflect the way that it is practiced. And also, since Buddhism has assembled followers in several different sects of the world ? mostly in Asia ? the way Buddhism is practiced has split into several parts. (3)

II.1 Mahayana
            Mahayana is called "The School of the Great conveyance". Scholars expect that it originated in the 1st century CE in South Asia. Mahayana is often called "Greater Vehicle" or "Northern Buddhism". It could accommodate more people and more believers from all walks of life. Mahayana Buddhists distinguished themselves from mainstream Theravada Buddhism by contemptuously referring to Theravada as Hinayana, or "The Lesser Vehicle". The Mahayanists claimed to be recovering the original teachings of Buddha, in much the same way that the Protestant reformers of sixteenth century Europe claimed that they were not creating a new Christianity but recovering the original form. The eventual goal of Mahayana was to extend religious authority to a greater number of people rather than focusing it in the hands of a few. In fact, they managed to turn Buddhism into a more abstruse religion by making a theory of gradations of Buddhahood. (4)
            Mahayana Buddhism broke into several sub-types. In china, Zen and Pure Land'; both would later be transmitted to Japan. Zen migrated to Korea. Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism which moved North and West, finally taking root in Tibet.

II.2 Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism
            Theravada Buddhism is the closest to the original teachings of Buddha, the earliest Buddhism. It is called "the Teaching of the Elders", "The tradition of the Elders", or "Ancient Teaching" and it is sometimes condescendingly called "Lesser Vehicle". For many centuries, it has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka (about 70% of population) and most of continental Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand). (5) It is also practiced by minorities in parts of southwest China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Theravada school is ultimately derived from the Vibhajjavada grouping which was a continuation of the older Sthavira group at the time of the Third Buddhist Council around 250 BCE, during the rule of Emperor Ashoka in India. The first period in the development of the Buddhist dogma is called the small conveyance, because the forms of doctrine and of worship were limited, plain, and simple then, compared with the elaborate systems of after times (6). The Theravada tradition spread from India to Sri Lanka and Burma in the third century BCE, and from there to Yunnan in southwest China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, South Vietnam and Indonesia.

II.3 Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana)
            Tantric Buddhism (also called Vajrayana) is known as Tantrayana, Mantrayana, Secret Mantra, Esoteric Buddhism and Diamond Vehicle. Vajrayana is classified as the third major Yana (Vehicle) of Buddhism, alongside the Mahayana and Theravada, but it is also the extension of Mahayana Buddhism. It is practiced dominantly in Tibet, Mongolia, and Bhutan. The goal of spiritual ceremony within the Vajrayana tradition is to become a Buddha by following the bodhisattva path, which is similar to that of Mahayana. Vajrayana also emphasizes the motivation as the key constituent of its practice. The Dalai Lama has said that :
            "Tantra is limited to persons whose compassion is so great that they cannot bear to spend unnecessary time in attaining Buddhahood, as they want to be a supreme source of help and happiness for others quickly. " (7)
            According to the Vajrayana tradition, the bodymind is in a very subtle state which can be used by advanced practitioners to transform the mindstream. Tantric Buddhism introduces some techniques to approach to this condition of bodymind: Deiity yoga, Guru yoga, and Death yoga.
            There are three kinds of Buddhism in Tantric Buddhism: Tibetan Buddhism, Shingon Buddhism, and Newar Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is the body of Buddhist religious doctrine and institutions characteristic of Tibet and certain regions of the Himalayas, including northern Nepal, Bhutan, and India. It is also disseminated to Mongolia and Northeast China. Buddhism spread to Tibet in the 7th century. The first critical event in the history of Tibetan Buddhism occurred in 641, when King Songtsen Gampo unified Tibet and took two Buddhist wives. Before long, King Gampo made Buddhism the state religion and established a network of 108 Buddhist temples across the region, including the Jokhang and Ramoche temples to house the Buddha statues. The most important event in Tibetan Buddhist history was the arrival of the great tantric mystic Padmasambhava in Tibet in 774 at the invitation of King Trison Detsen. It was Padmasambhava(Guru Rinpoche) who merged tantric Buddhism with the local Bon religion to form what we now know as Tibetan Buddhism. Shingon Buddhism is established in Japan. Its practices, known as Mikkyo, are similar in concept to those in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. The key texts of Shingon Buddhism are the Mahavairocana Sutra and Vajrasekhara sutra. The founder of Shingon Buddhism was Kukai, a Japanese monk who went Tang Dynasty and brought Vajrayana scriptures to Japan. Newar Buddhism is mainly practiced by Newars in Nepal. The unique characteristic of it is that Newar Buddhism is the only form of Vajrayana Buddhism in which the scriptures are written in Sanskrit.

III. Spread of Buddhism to South-East Asia (Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Java/Sumatra)
            Since Buddhism was established by Gautama Budda (Siddharta Gautama) in present-day India, people think that it mainly prevailed in India. However, it was not a dominant religion in India because it already had a state religion called Hinduism and its strong relationship with Caste system, the chief political system in India. Having no space to settle in India, Buddhists, disseminated Buddhism abroad, starting from South-East Asia. However, since Buddhism was divided into several branches, people in South-East Asia had accepted different types of Buddhism according to where they lived. This paper primarily dealt with the spread of Buddhism in Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Java/Sumatra.

III.1 Buddhism in Burma

III.1.1 Early Acceptance of Buddhism
            The Buddhism was first transmitted by the The Third Buddhist Council in the rule of Emperor Asoka. Then, Buddhism was descended to The Mon and Pyu kingdoms in the lower Myanmar.
            The Mon civilization was started from the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati in the South of Thailand. Accepting the Theravada Buddhism, Mon did not only influence people in Burma but also in large parts of what is now Thailand. There was Buddhaghosa, who was of Mon origin and a native of Thaton. He greatly influenced the translation of the Pali Buddhist texts which were later regarded as authoritative by Theravada scholars. He led to an active religious activity in the kingdoms of Lower Myanmar. Lower Myanmar was also settled by another ethnic group, the Pyu, who were closely related to the modern Myanmar. Their capital was at Sri Ksetra (Prome) and they were also followers of the Theravada Buddhism. Their interaction with Asokan religious centers in India happened in the second century AD. Buddhism was continuously prospered by Mon and Pyu kingdoms from the 5th century to 11th century. Both Buddhist cultures in the south of Myanmar, the Mon and the Pyu, were declined by the armies of Myanmar. The leader of the armies was Anawratha, the champion of Buddhism.

III.1.2 Arrival of Pagan (11th Century) and Controversy about Buddhism
            Myanmar established Pagan 849-850 AD. Anawratha began to unite the area by defeating one chieftain after another and finally succeeded in making Myanmar a larger community. The most critical event in the history of Myanmar is its admission of Theravada Buddhism in the eleventh century. It was brought to the Myanmar by a Mon bhikkhu, called Shin Arahan. King Anawratha acquired the Scriptures, developed Pagan into a major regional power and laid the foundation for its glory. The first controversy about Buddhism occurred during the contacts with Sri Lanka. The interaction with Sri Lanka was very important for the prosperity of the religion in Pagan. It started with the friendship of Anawratha and Vijayabahu. They aided each other in their endeavors and then re-established the Theravada doctrine together. The constant contact between them was beneficial for both. Bhikkhus visiting from one country were led to look at their own traditions critically and to reappraise their practice of the Dhamma as preserved in the Pali texts. Uttarajiva, who was succeeded by Mon bhikkhus, travelled to Sri Lanka with Chapada, a beginner who remained behind on the Sri Lanka to study the scriptures in the Mahavihara, the orthodox monastery of Sri Lanka and the guardian of the Theravada tradition. Thinking the tradition of Myanmar bhikkhus impure, he returned to Pagan with four elders who had studied with him. Also, the Myanmar king Narapati seems to have agreed with the superiority of the Mon bhikkhus. Therefore, Chapada and his friends refused to accept the ordination of the Myanmar bhikkhus as legitimate in accordance with Vinaya. They established their own ordination. After Chapada's death, the reform movement soon split into two groups, and finally each of the four remaining bhikkhus went his own way.

III.1.3 Until Today
            Theravada Buddhism was strengthened by many Kings, such as King Dhammazedi. There was not a conflict among the branches of Buddhism, but a conflict among the different tribes. Since they used Theravada Buddhism to attract people to support them, the Buddhism was more firmly settled in Burma. Except for the period of invasion by Western people who introduced Christianity to Burma, Theravada Buddhism could prosper in Burma.

III.2 Buddhism in Vietnam
            Religion in Vietnam today is the co-existence of Confusionism, Taoism, Catholics, and Buddhism under the several traditional Vietnamese religions. Nearly all Vietnamese believe in the combined form of religion, but different classes emphasize the different part of religions. For example, scholars and government officials mark the main importance on the teaching based on Confucianism while common middle class people mainly concentrate on the teaching based on Buddhism and Taoism. Before the conquest of Chinese, Vietnamese people believed in totemism. Dong Sun culture with carving of birds in BC 1C ? 3C proves that they believed in birds. Early Vietnameses also believed that they are descendants of the Dragon King and nymph. Chinese rule over Vietnam in 111 BC ? 939 AD disseminated the Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism to Vietnam. Although the dominance of Buddhism paused from 939 ? 968 AD, by Ngo Quyen, soon it prospered under the power of Dinh-bo-Linh, who was a protector of Buddhism.
            Hanoi was a center of the Buddhism in 2nd century AD. Buddhism in Vietnam emphasizes not the deep research about the knowledge of teachings but the training of mentality and physical condition to do a proper behavior, which is close to Mahayana Buddhism. Vietnamese Buddhists wanted the sudden enlightenment. In 10th century, they became devout Buddhists. Since Buddhist priests had abundant knowledge, they connected King, who was without any knowledge and scholarship, with his subjects. Buddhist monks had to get rid of their relationship with their families.
            The southern part of present-day Vietnam was originally occupied by the Champa and the Cmbodian (khmer) people who followed both a syncretic Saiva-Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism. The Dai Viet annexed the annexed the land occupied by the Champa in the 15th century, and also annexed the southern portion of the Khmer Empire in 18th century. During this invasion, the dominant Dai Viet as well as the Champa followed the Mahayana tradition, but the Khmer continued to practice Theravada.
            Buddhism in Vietnam was Mahayana Buddhism, close to the combination of Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism, with acknowledgment of Bodhisattvas. Zen Buddhism, with its emphasis on meditation and asceticism, is mostly practiced by the monks and nuns, while Pure Land Buddhism, the one type of Mahayana Buddhism, was pursued by the lay-people. Its Buddhism was most prosperous in Ly dynasty (1010 ? 1225) because Ly Cong Uan, the first king of Lee dynasty, gained the throne with the great help of Buddhist monks. However, people started to became monks not to be taught teachings of Buddhism but to gain economic prosperity, because Monks did not have to pay the tax and to participate in military service. As the time past, the number of Monks who did not know the Buddhist Scripture increased and therefore, the king did not trust the Buddhist Monks anymore. The influence of Monks in Vietnam greatly declined after the 13th century, with the invasion of Chinese. Starting in 1920, after the Nationalist movement in North, South, and center of Vietnam, regeneration of Buddhism occurred. (8)

III.3 Buddhism in Cambodia

III.3.1 Its Co-Existance with Hinduism and the Rise of Mahayana Buddhism
            Buddhism in Cambodia also first came by way of missionaries conveyed by the Indian Emperor Ashoka. Various types of Buddhist groups competed with indigenous animistic religion and Brahamanism. For the thousands of years, Theravada, Saravastavada, and Mahayana co-existed under the dominance of Hinduism. During the period of the Funan Kindom Buddhism certainly existed; however, it was a secondary religion in this period because the kingdom was Hindu. Vishnu and Shiva religious practices were held in Funan. Buddhism in Cambodia was starting to expand its influence from 450 AD, when the Chinese explorer I-tsing wrote the celebrated records of the Buddhist religion, based on his travel in India, Sri Lanka, the Indonesian archipelago. Funan declined in 500 AD and the new people, Chenla, dominated the region. During the era of Chenla, the power of Buddhism decreased, though it remained, since Chenla people worshiped Shiva, the God of Hinduism. Starting from 500 AD, many Mahayana Buddhist statues were created in Cambodia. There were change of Hindu god-king into Mahayana Buddha-king was shocking and not easily acceptable, but soon, the worship of Shiva and Vishnu gradually mixed with the cult of the Bodhisattava. What cause the ascendancy of Mahayana Buddhism in Cambodia was the prosperity of the Silendra dynasty. Also, it was greatly developed under King Jayavarman II (802-869), the first real Khmer king of the Angkor Empire. Surayvarman I and Jayavarman VII are two of the most important Khmer Buddhist kings in Cambodian history. They were both devout Mahayanists.

III.3.2 Advent of Theravada Buddhism
            After the decline of Angkor, Theravada Buddhism was the most popular religion in Cambodia. King Jayavarman VII had sent hist son Tamilinda to Sri Lanka to learn Theravada Buddhism according to Pali scriptural traditions. Tamalinda then returned to Cambodia and promoted Theravada Buddhist traditions. The mass conversion of Khmer society to Theravada Buddhism led to a nonviolent revolution every all level of society. Theravada Buddhism succeeded because it was inclusive and universal in its outreach, recruiting the disciples and monks from not only the elite and court, but also in the villages and among the peasants, enhancing its popularity among the Khmer folk. The Theravada revolution was therefore a grassroots movement of the Khmer people who was rejecting the oppressive burden of maintaining the god-king religion of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. Until today, Theravada Buddhism is the most dominant religion in Cambodia, although the most dominant region of Theravada frequently changed. Although the dominant religion is Theravada Buddhism, there exist many other religion in Cambodia: Islam, Christianity, Animism, and Hinduism.

III.4 Buddhism in Thailand

III.4.1 Mahayana Buddhism
            With the growth of Mahayana Buddhism in India, the sect also spread to the neighboring countries including Dvaravati, now Western Thailand. Starting from the early 5th century AD, Mahayana Buddhist missionaries from Kashmir began to go to Sumatra in succession. Being Mahayanists, the rulers of Srivijaya gave much support to the spread of Mahayana Buddhism in South Thailand, part of his territory. Therefore, in Southern Thailand, Mahayana Buddhism prevailed. From 1002 to 1182 AD, kings from Suryavarman dynasty ruled the entire territory of present-day Thailand. Since they were strong adherents of Mahayana Buddhism with a mixture of Brahmanism, the Suryavarman rulers influenced much to establish the tenets of the Northern School in Thailand. Mahayana School could not superseded the Theravada in Thailand, because Theravada Buddhism was already on a firm basis in Thailand when Mahayana School was introduced there.

III.4.2 Theravada Buddhism
            It is not sure when Buddhism reached that part of the world now officially known as Thailand. Some scholars argue that Buddhism was introduced to Thailand during the rule of King Asoka, like other South-Eastern Asian regions. Others say that Thailand received Buddhism much later. Whatever the true theory is, the first form of Buddhism introduced to Thailand was that of Theravada. According to the former opinion, Theravada Buddhism first appeared in Thailand in 3rd century BC, while according to the latter¡¯s, it appeared in Thailand in 6th century AD. Theravada Buddhism was further strengthened after King Anawrahta of Burma captured Thanton in 1057 AD, although Thailand was under the rule of Suryavarman. When they set up the Thai Kingdom of Sukhothai in about 1238 AD, it was with Theravada Buddhism as the most dominant religion. The history of Thailand begins with the rise of the Sukhothai Kingdom in the thirteenth century. Under the devout kings of Ayudhya, Buddhism flourished, and by 1750 must have accumulated great quantities of sacred writings and valuable chronicles connected with the Monastic Order. Although Thailand was interrupted by Burmese invasion of 1766- 1767, Theravada Buddhism in Thailand could prosper until today.

III.5 Buddhism in Java/Sumatra

            Buddhism is the second oldest religion in Indonesia, just after Hinduism. Indonesian people believed that nature had supernormal power, before the advent of those two religions. In around the 2nd century, Hinduism came to Indonesia; Vajrayana Buddhism, the part of Mahayana Buddhism, came a few hundred years after the arrival of Hindusm. In the late 8th century, Indian models of Vajrayana traveled directly to the Indonesian island of Java where a huge temple complex at Borobudur was soon built. Vajrayana Buddhism would survive in Indonesia and Malaysia until it was eclipsed by Islam in the 13th century. Vajrayana Buddhism reached its apex at the time of Srivijaya¡¯s dynasty, which was one of the largest kingdoms in South East Asia from 7th century to 14th century. Therefore, in Sumatra, there was co-existence of two religions: Mahayana Buddhism and Brahmins (Hinduism). After, due to the rule of Islamic empire, Buddhism could not prosper in Indonesia; there was a revival movement of Buddhism in the 20th century.

IV. Conclusion
            Although Buddhism was originated in India, its influence was dim and weak because of the Hinduism strongly connected with Caste system. Therefore, Buddhists turned their eyes to the South-East Asia and there Buddhism blossomed its flower in South-East Asia. The reason why Buddhism has lasted with South-East Asian people, even until today, is that Buddhism was not just a local religion itself. It was closely related to the rule of the kings. It was the means justifying the ruling of the kings. If Buddhist king declined, the power of Buddhism also weakened. On the other hands, if the power of Buddhist king increased, Buddhism prospered under the king. Since Buddhism, which deeply affected the lives of people, could be absorbed into the mentality of South-East Asian people and influenced the formation of their identities, its teachings could be handed down to descendants after descendants. As a result, although all three countries ? Burma, Vietnam, Sri Lanka ? experienced the sudden decline of Buddhism several times, their essential teachings did not perish so that they could successfully revive Buddhism.

Notes (1)      Maps of India
(2)      Following the Buddha¡¯s Footsteps
(3)      Ezine 2008
(1)      Hooker 1999
(1)      Article : Theravada, from Wikipedia
(1)      Article : Vajrayana, from Wikipedia
(1)      Chanh 1962

Bibliography Note : websites quoted below were visited in December 2008.
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Wikipedia : Vajrayana      Article : Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism), from Wikipedia. December 7 2008.
Wikipedia : Buddhism in Cambodia      Article : Buddhism in Cambodia, from Wikipedia. December 14 2008.
Wikipedia : Buddhism in Thailand      Article : Buddhism in Thailand, from Wikipedia. December 14 2008.
Wikipedia : Buddhism in Vietnam      Article : Buddhism in Vietnam, from Wikipedia. December 9 2008.
Wikipedia : Religion in Thailand      Article : Religion in Thailand, from Wikipedia. November 23 2008.
Wikipedia : Srivijaya      Article : Srivijaya, from Wikipedia. December 17. 2008.
Khmer Botra      Buddhism in Cambodia, from Khmer Botra, December 10. 2008.
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