early centuries of the Common Era, the people in various
parts of Southeast Asia came to know of Buddhism as a result
of increased contact with the Indian merchants who had come
to the region to trade. These merchants not only established
trading stations in Southeast Asia, but also brought their
religions and cultures with them. Under their influence,
the local people began to practise a mixture of Buddhism
and Hinduism, while retaining at the same time many of their
old beliefs and customs.
Wheel: Thai (Dvaravati style) from the 7th - 9th century.
early as the time of King Ashoka of India, monks were sent to Thaton
to spread the Buddha's teachings. Thaton was a trading centre of
southern Burma. However, from the first century C.E. onwards, trade
between India and Burma expanded and there was increased contact
with the Indian traders and their religious beliefs. Buddhism was
widely accepted by the people in Thaton as more Buddhist missionaries
arrived from Indian Buddhist centres. Thaton soon became an important
centre for Theravada Buddhism.
later centuries, Vajrayana Buddhism was introduced to the people
in northern Burma. They practised it together with Hinduism and
local folk beliefs. In the middle of the eleventh century, a powerful
king, Anawratha, brought northern and southern Burma under his rule.
As he was a strong supporter of Theravada Buddhism he made it the
national religion. He had Buddhist texts and relics brought from
Sri Lanka. He also began the construction of monasteries and stupas
in the capital city of Pagan, and this was continued by his successors.
Pagan soon developed into a centre of Buddhist culture.
the succeeding centuries, Burma underwent several periods of wars
and political unrest, but Buddhism continued to prosper under the
patronage of various kings and became part of the life of the common
people. In every village, schools were set up in the monasteries.
Here monks taught the children basic Buddhist teachings as well
as reading and writing.
traditional structure of the Buddhist community suffered when Burma
came under British colonial rule in the nineteenth century. However,
Buddhism has regained its traditional place of importance in the
life of the Burmese people since Burma became independent in the
middle of the twentieth century.
the thirteenth century, the region now called Thailand was composed
of many small independent kingdoms. Buddhist influence had already
been felt in this region as a result of contact with neighbouring
countries. At the end of the thirteenth century, Theravada Buddhism
gained the support of the Thai king, Ramkham-haeng. He invited Buddhist
monks to teach in his capital city of Sukothai. He also established
relations with Sri Lanka by sending monks there to study. Furthermore,
he began the tradition of appointing a Sangha chief to oversee the
administration of the monastic community. Under his patronage, all
the people in his kingdom were said to have become Buddhists.
half a century later, there was another devout and learned king
called Luthai who was a strong supporter of Buddhism. He joined
the Order for a period of time and is said to have initiated the
Thai tradition of Buddhists becoming monks for a limited period
of time, usually about three months.
spite of the wars in the centuries following, Buddhism continued
to grow in importance and enjoyed uninterrupted state support. The
Thai Order is as influential today as it was in the past. However,
some reforms have been introduced since the turn of the present
century. There is greater emphasis on Buddhist education and the
monks are actively involved not only in teaching the religion, but
also in providing secular education for the lay people. Many monks
still teach in the primary and secondary schools that have been
set up in the Buddhist monasteries throughout the country. Many
others also pursue higher studies at Buddhist colleges and universities.
Over the past few decades, some monks have been sent overseas to
spread the teachings of the Buddha.
the end of the fourth century, Indian influence had spread throughout
the kingdom of the Cambodians. In the following two centuries, the
rulers practised Hinduism but gave some support to the Buddhist
communities, which practised mainly Mahayana Buddhism.
Buddhist monks of the region were learned, and in the fifth century
some were said to have been invited to China to translate Buddhist
texts from Indian languages to Chinese. In the seventh century,
Cambodia had a succession of rulers who patronised Hinduism and
suppressed Buddhism. It was not until the ninth century that Buddhism
began to receive some royal patronage from the rulers.
Jayavarman VII, who ruled from the end of the twelfth century to
the early years of the thirteenth century, was a devout Buddhist.
Under him Mahayana Buddhism became for a time the dominant religion
of the kingdom. He built the new city of Angkor (called Angkor Thom),
in the centre of which was a temple called the Bayon. At the centre
of the temple was a huge tower with four human faces carved on it.
Surrounding the central tower were other smaller towers also carved
with human faces. These faces portray the king as the "Buddha-king".
was also during the reign of Jayavarman VII that Burmese monks began
to teach Theravada Buddhism among the common people. The Thais who
invaded Cambodia in the fourteenth century also contributed to the
spread of Theravada Buddhism. By the middle of the century, Theravada
Buddhism had become widely accepted by the Cambodian people.
the centuries that followed, Buddhism continued to be practised
by the people of Cambodia. Even when the country came under French
colonial rule in the mid-nineteenth century, Buddhism was still
being patronised by the kings, though on a reduced scale. After
Cambodia had gained independence, some progress was made in Buddhist
education and the publication of texts. At present, however, owing
to political unrest, the future of Buddhism in Cambodia is uncertain.
lived in the middle of the fourteenth century, Fa Ngoun, a descendant
of a royal family of Laos. He spent his earlier years in exile in
Cambodia with his father. Fa Ngoun was looked after by a Cambodian
monk who later took him to the court of the Cambodian king. There
he married a princess who was a devout Buddhist. With the help of
the king of Cambodia, he later returned to Laos to rule over it.
At his wife's request, Fa Ngoun invited Buddhist monks from Cambodia
to teach in his kingdom. Thus Buddhism was brought to the people
a later period, the Thai Buddhist tradition also influenced Buddhism
in Laos. The structure of the Sangha in Laos followed closely that
of Thailand. Many monks were also said to have gone to Thailand
the early centuries, there were a number of small states in the
territory of present Vietnam. Buddhism from China influenced the
northern state, being for several centuries under the domination
of the Chinese empire. The earliest monks were said to have come
from China at the end of the second century CE Later, monks from
India and Central Asia also arrived by land and sea. The people
who also worshipped the native deities practised the Pure Land school
of Buddhism. The Chan school of Buddhism, on the other hand, flourished
in the monasteries and among Buddhist scholars. Both the rulers
and the common people for their literacy respected its monks. Some
of them became famous scholars, poets, writers and even royal advisors.
southern states were exposed to Indian influence from the beginning
of the Common Era. Both Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism were practised
then. From the fifteenth century onwards, these southern states
were gradually assimilated by the powerful northern state, and as
a result the Chinese form of Buddhism also came to influence the
south. Finally when Vietnam became unified as a nation, it was the
Chinese form of Buddhism that was commonly practised.
the beginning of the present century, Buddhism in Vietnam underwent
some modernisation. Buddhist national organisations were set up
and education was emphasised. However, this process was hindered
by a continuous period of wars, and came to a virtual stop when
the country came under Communist rule.
in Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula
is said that late in the fifth century, a Buddhist monk from India
landed in a kingdom in central Java and converted its queen to Buddhism.
She in turn converted her son and made Mahayana Buddhism the official
religion of the kingdom.
the end of the seventh century, Yi-jing, a Buddhist pilgrim from
China, visited Sumatra, which was part of the Srivijaya kingdom.
He found that Buddhism was widely accepted by the people and Palembang,
the capital of Srivijaya, was an important centre for Buddhist learning.
Yi-jing studied there for some time before continuing on his journey
the middle of the eighth century, central Java was under the rule
of the Sailendra kings who were Buddhists. They built various Buddhist
monuments in Java, the most famous of which is the Borobudur. This
monument was completed in the early part of the ninth century. It
consists of a series of six square terraces above which are three
circular platforms. Right at the top is a central stupa. The walls
of the monument are carved with reliefs depicting scenes from the
Buddha's life, the stories of His past lives and Mahayana Buddhist
sutras. It is said that the ascent of the Borobudur symbolises man's
progress out of Samsara to Nirvana.
the middle of the ninth century, a Sailendra prince became king
of Srivijaya. Under the Sailendra kings, Srivijaya grew in wealth
and power. By that time, the kingdom already included Sumatra, Java
and the Malay Peninsula. During this period of prosperity, which
lasted till the end of the twelfth century, Vajrayana Buddhism gained
wide acceptance alongside Hindu practices, throughout the empire.
the end of the thirteenth century, Islam was established in Sumatra
and it soon spread to Java and the Malay Peninsula. As a result,
Buddhism declined in popularity and by the end of the fifteenth
century Islam was the dominant religion in Indonesia and the Malay
Peninsula. Buddhism was reintroduced to the region only in the nineteenth
century, with the arrival of the Chinese, Sri Lankans and other
immigrants who were Buddhists.