Membership, Community, Diversity

Have Buddhists traditionally sent out missionaries to convert others?

Buddhism’s vigorous missionary heritage is traditionally traced to two kings: Ashoka (270-230 B.C.E.) and Kanishka (r. c. 120-160 C.E.). The first is said to have converted to Buddhism after repenting of his bloody conquests. Ashoka declared that the Buddha’s teaching would be the official creed of the realm. Tradition credits Kanishka with supplying a major impetus to Buddhism’s spread into central and eastern Asia. Monks (and, to a lesser extent, nuns) have historically been the most important and effective missionaries. Wherever they traveled they carried sacred texts and art as their prime teaching tools. Buddhist missionary work continues in the form of various contemporary adaptations of traditional methods of evangelization. They call their missionary workers dhammadutas, (those who spread the dharma), convinced of the universal relevance of the teaching. In much of Theravada southeast Asia, missionaries continue to bring the message of Buddhism to rural areas. In Thailand, for example, teams of five travel about from March to June, then return to monasteries for the rainy season retreat. They begin by setting up a monastery and training young boys in the temple compound. Eventually they start to visit homes and ask about people’s general well-being. The next step is to start elementary schools and encourage youngsters to enter the monastic life.


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