Buddhist theology owes a lot to the Hindu theology that it developed out of. Much like Christianity’s relationship with Judaism, Buddhism diverges from Hinduism on a few key points while maintaining many of the other teachings. Instead of the Vedic texts that are held up as the supreme authority in Hinduism, Buddhist authority is held in the personal example of the Buddhas; anyone who has achieved Enlightenment. See the section on Sources of Wisdom and Authority for more on this.
In the time before the Buddha passed into Nirvana many small communities of Buddhists emerged in monasteries and nunneries largely concentrated in North India. It wasn’t until the Mauryan Empire consolidated its rule over almost the entire Indian subcontinent over 2300 years ago that Buddhism gained the opportunity to spread much further afield. The Mauryan Empire itself converted to Buddhism under the Emperor Ashoka who sponsored Buddhist missionaries to Europe, the Middle East, and South East Asia. This support from perhaps the largest and most influential Empire in the world at the time saw a huge growth in Buddhists especially in South East Asia.
Buddhism continued to spread for the next few centuries along the thriving trade routes of the Silk Road and the Indian Ocean through Central Asia into China. The most famous such journey being undertaken by the Tang Chinese Monk Xuanzang, immortalised both by the journal he kept and the legend Journey to the West that accompanied it. This continued until the rise of Islam in the 8th Century, which disrupted the dominance of Buddhism on these trade links and saw the rapid growth of Islam in both Central and South-East Asia. During this time Buddhism fell into decline in both India and China. Not just because of the spread of Islam, but also the resurgence of Hinduism in India, and increased attacks from Turkic peoples in the Steppes.
As Buddhism spread to these different regions. It took on distinct forms. In South-East Asia what we call Theravada Buddhism developed out of a focus on monastic life. Whereas as Buddhism spread north out of India into Tibet, and then later China, it became what we now call Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhism’s arrival in China, and subsequently Korea, Japan, and to a lesser extent Vietnam, enacted a small revolution of thought as it encountered Confucianism and Taoism. Conversely, the shape it took in places like Mongolia and Tibet, as we have previously discussed, was very different. Tibetan Buddhism, along with Mongolian Buddhism is often seen as Distinct from the Mahayana Buddhism of East Asia, and is referred to as Vajrayana. This form of Buddhism is thought to be much more closely influenced by later changes in Indian Buddhist Theology as it spread up the Himalayas and then onto the Central Asian Steppe. Only interrupted by the Chinese control of the Silk Road which cuts Tibet and Mongolia apart.
As with all of the world’s great theological traditions, Buddhism has adapted and been shaped in the modern world by nationalism. Unlike many others, with the exception of maybe Christianity, it is well suited to being a Global Theology, and so with some minor exceptions, has avoided being attached to specific nationalist theologies.
That being said it is very strongly connected to a handful of Nationalist identities from Thailand, to Myanmar, and the independent Tibetan nationalist movement. In each of these places Buddhist theology has shaped the socio-political system in varied and interesting ways. The dual reincarnated leadership of the Dalai and Panchem Lamas of Tibet is a great example of this; as is the mandatory monastic service of every Thai man before the age of 20. As with all nationalisms, Buddhist Nationalism is also home to the kind of violence and xenophobia against minorities that is seen elsewhere. In Myanmar, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, are denied statehood and have suffered severe persecution and even genocide, often whipped up by the words of local Buddhist Monks demanding a purely Buddhist Nation State.
For most people around the world, the image that Buddhism has is far from these intense acts of violence. This speaks to the ease with which Buddhist Theology avails itself to being a Global Theology. But, while such a thing may be true for the mainstream of Buddhist Theology, that does not cover up the real violence that is done in its name; just as with the other great theological traditions of the world.
Buddhist communities can be found all over the world. The Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana communities represent the biggest and best organised groups. But, many people outside these groups are also engaged and attracted by Buddhism and its teachings. This is seen in the growth of interest in Western societies with concepts like Karma and Mindfulness in recent years. The ideas continue to be applied to fields as diverse as medicine, psychology, and ethics. This recent development points to Buddhism taking its place more firmly and vocally as a Global Theology. It seems clear that few people would challenge this about Buddhism. People who belong to this tradition regularly enter into theological conversation with those who belong to the other great Global Theological traditions such as Christianity and Humanism.
That being said, Buddhist Nationalism in various forms is in no way a thing of the past, and we should not expect it to become so. Most of the countries in South-East Asia see Buddhism as intrinsic to their National Identity. It will be significant to see how this identity is navigated, and whether Buddhism is able to fully organise as a Global force, either by itself or in collaboration with others, and what effect that would have on its nationalist strains. Buddhism is very transcendentalist in its theology, that could lead to conflict as a whole host of seemingly contradictory actions are performing in its name. This is an unsolved and unaddressed problem in Buddhist Theology.
Buddhism is a significant theological system that offers profound insight and seeks to relieve the suffering that we see around us in the world. On top of that it seems to be growing in influence. We hope you have come to a greater understanding about it through reading these pages. These pages are a constant work in progress, so please do not hesitate to ask us further questions, or make suggestions so that we can continue to improve and update our content. Please feel free to explore our other resources to learn more about other theological systems and issues.