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Growth and Change Over 25 Centuries

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What began with the teaching of a wandering holy man in India grew to become the fourth largest religion in the world, with an estimated 370 million followers. Although primarily associated with Asia, today Buddhism has established itself on every continent of the globe.

As it spread and grew over the centuries, Buddhism also became more diverse. Doctrinal divisions and the influence of many cultures have created a rich spectrum of philosophies, scriptures, art and iconography, and practices.

  1. Early Buddhist History
  2. Through Asia and Beyond
  3. Theravada and Mahayana
  4. Major Mahayana Schools

Early Buddhist History

The history of Buddhism begins with the life of the historical Buddha, 25 centuries ago. For the next 500 years the sangha grew from small groups of wandering monks and nuns in patched robes to become a major religion of the Indian subcontinent. During this time the first Buddhist scriptures were written, and Buddhism divided into the two major schools, Theravada and Mahayana.

Through Asia and Beyond

The first five centuries of Buddhist history took place mostly within the Indian subcontinent. About the year 1 CE, a new chapter of Buddhist history began when monks took the dharma into China. Over the next several centuries Buddhism spread throughout southeast Asia and also from China into Mongolia, Tibet, Korea, Japan and eventually the rest of the world.

Theravada and Mahayana

About 2,000 years ago Buddhism divided into two major schools, most often called Theravada and Mahayana. For centuries, Theravada has been the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar) and Laos. Mahayana is dominant in China, Japan, Taiwan, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, Korea and Vietnam, and recently India. The articles linked below explain how the two schools originated and how they differ.

Major Mahayana Schools

To a much greater degree than the other major school, Theravada, Mahayana Buddhism subdivided into a number of important sub-schools and sects. These schools of Mahayana are remarkably diverse, yet all are built upon the foundation of the historical Buddha's teachings.

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