History and Sources

How would you sum up the history of Buddhism?

For a quick overview, we can conveniently divide Buddhist history into four periods.

  1. Foundations: A developmental period begins with the Buddha’s enlightenment and early teaching and spans five centuries. During this period, Buddhists finalized their earliest scriptures in written form and spread their basic religious institutions across much of southern Asia. Several major schools of Buddhists articulated distinctive doctrinal and philosophical views and established themselves in India.
  2. Spread: For about the next five or six centuries, up to around 550 C.E., Buddhist missionaries carried the message and scriptures of the various Indian branches of the tradition throughout central, southeast, and eastern Asia. As Buddhism’s various schools traveled into new settings, still newer forms of Buddhist thought and practice evolved.
  3. Inculturation and further development: From the sixth century to the eighteenth, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultures—as well as those in Tibet, Thailand, and Cambodia—all put their recognizable stamp on the Middle Way of the Buddha. Monks still traveled great distances and imported scriptures and artistic treasures from one culture to another. Buddhist kingdoms rose and fell in various parts of southeast Asia. During these centuries, sometimes referred to as Buddhism’s medieval period, patterns of Buddhist institutional life that would endure into modern times took root all over Asia.
  4. Colonialism and cultural readjustment: Sometimes called the modern period, the eighteenth through twentieth centuries have witnessed further dramatic changes, resulting from both political realignments and adaptation to accelerated intercultural communication. Buddhism is now a truly global tradition. Pilgrims have begun to return in great numbers to the sacred sites in India. Although Buddhism virtually disappeared from the land of its birth perhaps eight hundred of years ago, small Buddhist communities are again springing up on Indian soil.
Date Event
c. 563–483 B.C.E. Life of the Buddha
473 B.C.E. First Buddhist Council
383 B.C.E. Second Buddhist Council
273-236 B.C.E. Reign of Emperor Ashoka
250 B.C.E. Third Buddhist Council
c. 200 B.C.E. Rise of Mahayana Buddhism; Theravada Buddhism
160 B.C.E. Prajñaparamita Literature
120 B.C.E. Synod of the Sarvastivadins
c. 100 C.E. Lotus Sutra; Pali Canon
r. 120-162 C.E. Reign of Emperor Kanishka
c. 150 C.E. Fourth Buddhist Council
c. 200 C.E. Nagarjuna, philosopher
220-552 C.E. Missions to Vietnam, China, Korea, Burma, Java, Sumatra, Japan
fl. c. 430 C.E. Career of Buddhaghosa, philosopher
594 C.E. Buddhism proclaimed Japanese state religion
749 C.E. First Buddhist monastery in Tibet
800 C.E. Founding of Japanese Tendai (Saicho d. 822) and Shingon (Kukai d. 835) sects
845 C.E. T’ang Dynasty persecutes Chinese Buddhists
1065 C.E. Hindu Invasion of Sri Lanka
1133-1212 C.E. Honen, founder of Japanese Pure Land tradition
1193-1227 C.E. Rise of Japanese Zen sects
1203 C.E. Destruction of Vikramasila, end of Buddhism in India
1222-1282 C.E. Nichiren, philosopher
1260-1368 C.E. Tibetan Buddhism influential in China
1360 C.E. Buddhism becomes state religion in Thailand
1543-1588 C.E. Final conversion of Mongols
1856-1857 C.E. Fifth Buddhist Council
1868-1871 C.E. Meiji Persecution of Buddhism in Japan
1954-1956 C.E. Sixth Buddhist Council in Rangoon, Burma
1959 C.E. Communist China represses Buddhism in Tibet


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