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The Buddha And The Fundamental Doctrines Of Buddhism, Formation Of Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhist Doctrines And Traditions

Buddhism, the only truly "world" religion of Asia, was founded in the fifth century B.C.E. in northwest India by a prince named Gautama, who was also called Siddhartha ("He who has reached his goal"), Shakyamuni ("Silent sage of the Shakya clan"), and eventually the Buddha, or "Enlightened One." The religion spread throughout northern India during the next centuries, becoming a major competitor with Hinduism for popular support and royal favor. The traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism mutually influenced each other, sharing many of the same assumptions but also differentiating themselves doctrinally and, to a lesser degree, socially and ritually.

The three major forms of Buddhism—Theravada ("The Speech of the Elders"), Mahayana ("The Great Vehicle"), and Vajrayana ("The Diamond Vehicle")—all were born in India and were given their characteristic stamp in that country. By the end of the first millennium C.E., however, Buddhism was more or less defunct in the land of its origin, in part as a result of invading Muslims who especially targeted Buddhist temples and monasteries and in part because Buddhist doctrines and deities were increasingly assimilated into Hinduism.

Long before it ceased to be a religion of India, however, Buddhism had become a pan-Asian religion. By the middle of the third century B.C.E. the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka consolidated most of the Indian subcontinent under his rule. While Ashoka may or may not have been himself a Buddhist convert, tradition gives him credit for spreading the religion not only throughout India (his "edicts" posted on pillars throughout the subcontinent are often read for their Buddhist or crypto-Buddhist messages) but also into Sri Lanka to the south, where it soon became the state religion. From there Buddhist monks brought the religion to Burma, Thailand, and other parts of Southeast Asia, where it has survived as the predominant faith of that region.

Other monks, starting from points in northern India, followed the trade routes into Central Asia and eventually into China, where Buddhism entered by the first century C.E. Although initially regarded with suspicion as a foreign and "barbarian" faith, over the course of several centuries Buddhism was gradually blended with Chinese culture until it joined Confucianism and Taoism as one of the principal religions of that region. By the middle centuries of the first millennium C.E., Buddhism had become the religion of choice of the newly re-unified Chinese empire, and indigenous doctrinal and philosophical schools of Buddhism arose. By the seventh century, Buddhism had converts in China from all strata of society, from the imperial family down to the peasantry, and monasteries flourished throughout the empire. The popularity of Buddhism in China would not last, however, and by the ninth century the religion began to decline.

From China, Buddhism entered Korea by the third century C.E. Missionaries from Korea brought the religion to Japan in the sixth century, where it developed into the dominant religion of that country and exerted a huge influence on Japanese national culture. It was not until the seventh century that Buddhism came from India to remote Tibet where, after a few centuries of ups and downs, it became firmly entrenched by the eleventh century and was the state religion until the Chinese invasions in the 1950s. Tibetan Buddhism was exported to Mongolia originally as a result of the close relations between one of the ruling khans and the first Dalai Lama.

Buddhism has been known in the West since at least the time of Alexander the Great and possibly influenced some forms of Greek philosophy, the Gnostics, and early Christians. In modern times, as a result initially of immigration of Asians to Western countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and increasingly because of interest among Westerners themselves, Buddhism can no longer be regarded as an exclusively Asian religion.

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