History of Buddhism
Buddhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, with over 376 million followers as of 2012. It is also the third oldest religion which is still practiced widely. It was founded by Siddartha Gautama in the 5th century BC, in modern-day India.
The founding lore of Buddhism states that Siddartha Gautama, a rich Indian warrior-prince, left behind his life of wealth and pleasure and went to seek wisdom. Through meditation and asceticism-or a lifestyle which renounces comfort-he achieved enlightenment, he became the Buddha, which means 'awakened one.' The Buddha then became a wandering teacher until his death, spreading what he had learned, and ultimately achieving Nirvana.
Buddhism is split into three sects, Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana. All three coexisted peacefully through all of history. Most sects believe in very similar core concepts, but have slightly different ways of approaching them.
Theravada was the first sect, and traces its roots back to the Buddha. Today it is most prevalent in South Asia.
Buddhism grew slowly in India. In 261 BC it was adopted by Aśoka, the Emperor of Maurya, which was a huge empire spanning nearly all of present-day India. The emperor had just conquered a region with a lot of violence and bloodshed, and felt very guilty about it. He built many famous works to advance the religion, and sent people all over the known world to convert people. These Buddhist preachers made it as far as Greece.
After Aśoka's death, one of his generals took charge, and as he was Hindu and very orthodox, he persecuted Buddhists, destroying hundreds of monasteries and killed monks. However, this view is disputed. At this point many Buddhists in India left.
Between the 1st and 10th centuries AD, Buddhism spread to China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Khmer, Tibet and present-day Indonesia. At the same time, it started to disappear from India, where it had coexisted with Hinduism. Buddhism grew and evolved in Asia, and new ideas, like Zen, or a practice of self-control and meditation influenced by Taoism, developed. At this point the Mahayana sect arose, as well.
Around the 5th century, another sect, Vajrayana, developed in this time. This became particularly popular in Tibet, where Buddhism was established as the official state religion in the 8th century.
South-East Asia became one of the key areas for Buddhism, and was the scene of a Buddhist renaissance of sorts in the 11th century, during which thousands of new temples were built and new people converted. The center of the Buddhist world gradually moved away from India, as Hinduism and Islam grew to dominance there, and moved to eastern Asia. Through the centuries, it remained important in Asia, and was only recently 'discovered' in the West.
Buddhism was not well-known in the West for most of history. Only rumors and misconceptions reached Europe, as only Buddhists who made direct contact with Europe were warriors among the conquering Mongols. It wasn't until the 1800s, when Japan opened its borders at America's urging, that Buddhism became known. In 1959, an uprising in Tibet resulted in a harsh crackdown from China, which rules over Tibet. This caused thousands of Buddhists to leave and escape all over the world, taking their religion with them into America and Europe.
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