I have, for some time now, been fascinated with the spread of Buddhism across Asia, from India, where it began in the sixth century B.C., to its arrival in Japan in the sixth century A.D.
Buddhism's route was somewhat indirect. There was, intriguingly, interaction between South Asian Buddhism and Greek culture: some theorize that this interaction helped to produce the Mahayana Buddhism that spread to China and its neighbors:
The close association between Greeks and Buddhism probably led to exchanges on the philosophical plane as well. Many of the early Mahayana theories of reality and knowledge can be related to Greek philosophical schools of thought. Mahayana Buddhism has been described as the “form of Buddhism which (regardless of how Hinduized its later forms became) seems to have originated in the Greco-Buddhist communities of India, through a conflation of the Greek Democritean-Sophistic-Skeptical tradition with the rudimentary and unformalized empirical and skeptical elements already present in early Buddhism” (McEvilly, "The Shape of Ancient Thought", p503).The impact of the interaction between Greek and South Asian Buddhism is startlingly evident in the art produced during that period (most of this art was produced in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan).
In the Prajnaparamita, the rejection of the reality of passing phenomena as “empty, false and fleeting” can also be found in Greek Pyrrhonism .
The perception of ultimate reality was, for the Cynics as well as for the Madyamikas and Zen teachers after them, only accessible through a non-conceptual and non-verbal approach (Greek "Phronesis"), which alone allowed to get rid of ordinary conceptions.
The mental attitude of equanimity and dispassionate outlook in front of events was also characteristic of the Cynics and Stoics, who called it "Apatheia".
Nagarjuna's dialectic developed in the Madhyamika can be paralleled to the Greek dialectical tradition.
Buddhism made its way through the dusty paths of the Silk Road, across the steppes of Central Asia, and was introduced to China sometime around the second century B.C. The new religion was enthusiastically received. In fact, the Chinese began dispatching pilgrims to India, to translate and bring back Buddhist writings:
It is not certain when Buddhism reached China, but with the Silk Road opened in the second century BC, missionaries and pilgrims began to travel between China, Central Asia and India. The record described that Chang Ch'ien, on his return from Ta-hsia (Ferghana) in the 2nd century BC, heard of a country named Tien-chu (India) and their Buddhist teaching. This is probably the first time a Chinese heard about Buddhism. A century later, a Buddhist community is recorded at the court of a Han prince. However the most famous story is the Han emperor Mingdi's dream about Buddha. In 68 AD, Mingdi sent his official Cai Yin to Central Asia to learn more about Buddhism after a vision of a golden figure appeared to him in a dream. The next morning he asked his ministers what the dream meant and was told that he had seen the Buddha - the god of the West. Cai Yin returned after 3 years in India and brought back with him not only the images of Buddha and Buddhist scriptures but also two Buddhist monks named She-mo-teng and Chu-fa-lan to preach in China. This was the first time that China had Buddhist monks and their ways of worship. A few years later, a Buddhist community was established in Loyang, the capital, itself. From then on, the Buddhist community grew continuously. They introduced the sacred books, texts and most importantly the examples of Buddhist art, never before seen in China. In 148 AD, a Parthian missionary, An Shih-kao arrived China. He set up a Buddhist temple at Loyang and began the long work of the translation of the Buddhist scriptures into the Chinese language. The work of scripture translation continued until the 8th century when access to Central Asia and India by land was cut off by the Arabs. In 166 AD Han Emperor Huan formally announced Buddhism by having Taoist and Buddhist ceremonies performed in the palace. The unrest situation in China at the end of the Han dynasty was such that people were in a receptive mood for the coming of a new religion.From Silkroad Foundation.
During the 4th century, Kumarajiva, a Buddhist from Central Asia organized the first translation bureau better than anything that had existed before in China. He and his team translated some 98 works from many languages into Chinese, of which 52 survive and are included in the Buddhist canon. By around 514, there were 2 million Buddhists in China. Marvelous monasteries and temples were built and the work of translating the scriptures into Chinese was undertaken with great industry.
China was by far the most dominant and advanced civilization in East Asia at that time. Through Chinese influence, Buddhism was spread to neighboring Korea and Vietnam, which were both vassal states to China. The terminal point in this period of expansion was Japan.
Japan, at the time Buddhism was introduced, had no written language. Korean scribes were often imported to keep records--using the Chinese characters--for large landholders and other lords in the Japanese version of feudalism. A fascinating aspect of the story here is that Buddhism came part and parcel with the introduction of the Chinese characters, which the Japanese adopted virtually wholesale, adapting them to the particularities of Japanese grammar
Japan, when Buddhism came in the sixth century A.D., was young in more than spirit, Not only compared to China, but by any ordinary standard, her civilization was undeveloped. It lacked a written literature, historical records, codified laws, a tradition of philosophical discussion, and many of the arts and sciences associated with the classical civilizations of China, India, and the Near East. Native Shinto, with neither written scriptures nor a formulated theology, could offer resistance only from its entrenched position in the daily lives of people, but could not compete with Buddhism on its own terms. . . .The Buddhist Tradition, edited by William Theodore de Bary, pp. 255-56.
The importance of Buddhist missionary activity in Japan went far beyond the propagation of the faith alone. Chinese and Korean monks, carried across stormy seas by religious zeal, at the same time served as the carriers of superior Chinese culture. They were no doubt well aware that identification or association with this high culture lent them great prestige in the eyes of admiring Japanese, but whether they chose to capitalize on this or not, it would in any case have been impossible to disengage the new religion from its cultural embodiment in China, the land of its adoption. To establish the new faith in Japan required the transplanting of essential articles--images, vestments, books, ritual devices--as well as of ideas. The Japanese apprenticeship in the study of Chinese writing was undoubtedly served in the copying by hand of large numbers of Buddhist sutras, distributed by the imperial order to the various temples and monasteries.
The Big Buddha at Kamakura, Japan
Buddhism did not arrive and flourish in Tibet--which is strongly associated in the popular culture with Buddhism--until relatively late. Also, after the arrival of Islam in South Asia, Buddhism went into decline; its presence in South Asia today is marginal.
I wonder if Buddhism will continue its migration East. It seems to have developed a significant following here in Los Angeles. Of course, the version of Buddhism practiced here in L.A. by Americans often seems corrupted, simplified, commercialized--in a word, Americanized. But it is interesting to recall that on each step of its migration across Asia, Buddhism was modified and adapted by various cultures. I would be all for an American Buddhism (long ago, Kerouac and the Beats had the same idea). For starters, I don't think Buddha is known to whisper into leaders' ears and urge them to invade countries. Then again, in his recent Pol Pot biography, Philip Short tied Pol Pot's Cambodian killing fields to an extreme form of Theraveda Buddhism, which, Short believed, negated the value of life.
Mrs. Octopus, after watching me write this post, is now rediscovering her Vietnamese roots and maintaining that she is a Buddhist. One step forward for a new American Buddhism.