History of Buddhism

What is the story of the Buddhist faith?

star and crescent in Islam
Lotus Flower

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For the last 2,500 years, Buddhism has been one of the most followed religious paths in the eastern world, and slowly but surely, it's beginning to make inroads into the West.

Buddhism has many expressions, which reflects the wide variety of beliefs and practices of its adherents. Diversity doesn't mean complete uniformity, however, and there are commonalities to different Buddhist paths.

Some forms of Buddhism emphasize on religious rituals and the worship of deities, while others focus on a complete rejection of both rituals and deities in favor of pure meditation. Yet all forms of Buddhism share respect for the teachings of the Buddha.

Life of the Buddha

The details of the Buddha's life are not known for certain, but most scholars are in agreement that he was an actual historical figure who lived in northern India around the 5th century BCE. The events of his life are recorded in Buddhist tradition and often lovingly illustrated in Buddhist art.

The Buddhist religion: past and present

First Buddhist Council

After the Buddha's death, his disciple Mahakasyapa took over leadership of the Sangha. One of Mahakasyapa's first acts as the new Buddhist leader was to convene a council of 500 arhats to collect and preserve the Buddha's teachings.


When Mahakasyapa died shortly after the First Council, Ananda became head of the sangha. During the 40 years he led the Buddhist monastic order, Buddhism spread throughout India. The Buddha had directed his disciples to teach "for the welfare of the many, out of compassion for the world," and this his disciples did.

Second Buddhist Council

Along with increasing numbers often comes increasing disagreements. Within 100 years of the Buddha's passing, significant disputes arose, primarily in the areas of monastic discipline. To deal with these disputes, a Second Council was convened

Conversion of Emperor Asoka

Thai Buddhists at a temple in Chiang Mai

Around 270 BC, a man named Asoka became emperor of the powerful Mauryan dynasty in India. Emperor Asoka began his reign by expanding the empire his grandfather had established. He was very successful, and soon he ruled a sizeable portion of India.

Spread of Buddhism to Southeast Asia

One pair of Asoka's emissaries went to Sri Lanka, an island southeast of the Indian subcontinent. They were well-received by the local ruler, King Tissa, and Theravada Buddhism took hold there.

Spread of Buddhism to the Hellenistic World

The interaction between Hellenistic Greece and Buddhism started when Alexander the Great conquered Asia Minor and Central Asia in 334 BCE, going as far as the Indus, thus establishing direct contact with India, the birthplace of Buddhism.

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