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Spread of Buddhism to SE Asia

In the 2nd century BCE, Asoka's emissaries (perhaps including Asoka's son Mahinda) went to Sri Lanka, an island southeast of the Indian subcontinent. They were well-received by the local ruler, King Devanampiva Tissa, and Theravada Buddhism took hold there.

This is when the Mahavihara monastery, a center of Sinhalese orthodoxy, was built. It was at the Sri Lankan royal city of Anuradhapura, in about 90 BCE, that the Tripitaka was put in written form in the Pali language. Although there are other versions of the Tripitaka available, the Pali Canon is the earliest written version.

Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism continued to flourish over the centuries, producing notable Buddhist commentators such as Buddhaghosa (4th–5th century). Although Mahayana Buddhism gained some influence at that time, Theravada ultimately prevailed, and Sri Lanka turned out to be the last stronghold of Theravada Buddhism, from where it would expand again to southeast Asia from the 11th century.

In the areas east of the Indian subcontinent (today's Burma), Indian culture strongly influenced the Mons. The Mons are said to have been converted to Buddhism around 200 BCE under the proselytizing of the Indian king Ashoka, before the scission between Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism. Early Mon Buddhist temples, such as Peikthano in central Burma, have been dated between the 1st and the 5th century CE.

The Buddhist art of the Mons was especially influenced by the Indian art of the Gupta and post-Gupta periods, and their mannerist style spread widely in Southeast Asia following the expansion of the Mon kingdom between the 5th and 8th centuries. The Theravada faith expanded in the northern parts of Southeast Asia under Mon influence, until it was progressively displaced by Mahayana Buddhism from around the 6th century CE.

There is also a legend, not directly validated by the edicts, that Ashoka sent a missionary to the north, through the Himalayas, to Khotan in the Tarim Basin, then the land of an Indo-European people, the Tocharians.


    - John Bowker, ed., The Cambridge Illustrated History of Religions (Cambridge UP, 2002), p. 80.

Article Info

Title Spread of Buddhism to SE Asia
URL www.religionfacts.com/buddhism-se-asia
Short URLrlft.co/824
UpdatedNovember 20, 2016
MLA Citation“Spread of Buddhism to SE Asia.” ReligionFacts.com. 20 Nov. 2016. Web. Accessed 24 Jan. 2017. <www.religionfacts.com/buddhism-se-asia>

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