Spread of Buddhism
Main article: Timeline of Buddhism
The spread of Buddhism at the time of emperor Ashoka (260–218 BCE)
Buddhism may have spread only slowly in India until the time of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, who was a public supporter of the religion. The support of Aśoka and his descendants led to the construction of more stūpas (Buddhist religious memorials) and to efforts to spread Buddhism throughout the enlarged Maurya empire and into neighbouring lands such as Central Asia, beyond the Mauryas' northwest border, and to the island of Sri Lanka south of India. These two missions, in opposite directions, would ultimately lead, in the first case to the spread of Buddhism into China, and in the second case, to the emergence of Theravāda Buddhism and its spread from Sri Lanka to the coastal lands of Southeast Asia.
This period marks the first known spread of Buddhism beyond India. According to the edicts of Aśoka, emissaries were sent to various countries west of India to spread Buddhism (Dharma), particularly in eastern provinces of the neighbouring Seleucid Empire, and even farther to Hellenistic kingdoms of the Mediterranean. It is a matter of disagreement among scholars whether or not these emissaries were accompanied by Buddhist missionaries.
Coin depicting Indo-Greek king Menander, who, according to Buddhist tradition records in the Milinda Panha, converted to the Buddhist faith and became an arhat in the 2nd century BCE (British Museum)
In central and west Asia, Buddhist influence grew, through Greek-speaking Buddhist monarchs and ancient Asian trade routes. An example of this is evidenced in Chinese and Pali Buddhist records, such as Milindapanha and the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhāra. The Milindapanha describes a conversation between a Buddhist monk and the 2nd-century BCE Greek king Menander, after which Menander abdicates and himself goes into monastic life in the pursuit of nirvana. Some scholars have questioned the Milindapanha version, expressing doubts whether Menander was Buddhist or just favourably disposed to Buddhist monks.
Other examples of the influence of Greco-Buddhism can be seen in the history of the school of Dharmaguptaka. This early Buddhist school, active in north-western India, was in all probability founded by a Greek monk by the name Yonaka Dhammarakkhita, native of "Alasanda" (which could be either Alexandria, Egypt or Alexandria on the Caucasus in modern Afghanistan, two cities of many founded or renamed by Alexander the Great. This school played a critical role in the spreading of Buddhism to central Asia and China and eventually to other parts of the far east. Further, some of the earliest written documents of the Buddhist faith are the Gandharan Buddhist texts, dating from about the 1st century CE, and connected to the Dharmaguptaka school. These texts are written in the Kharosthi script, a script that was predominantly used in the Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms of northern India and that played a prominent role in the coinage and inscriptions of their kings.
The Theravada school spread south from India in the 3rd century BCE, to Sri Lanka, and later to southeast Asia (Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and coastal Vietnam).
The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism to China is most commonly thought to have started in the late 2nd or the 1st century CE, though the literary sources are all open to question.[note 52] The first documented translation efforts by foreign Buddhist monks in China were in the 2nd century CE, probably as a consequence of the expansion of the Kushan Empire into the Chinese territory of the Tarim Basin.
In the 2nd century CE, Mahayana Sutras spread to China, and then to Korea and Japan, and were translated into Chinese. During the Indian period of Esoteric Buddhism (from the 8th century onwards), Buddhism spread from India to Tibet and Mongolia. Johannes Bronkhorst states that the esoteric form was attractive because it allowed both a secluded monastic community as well as the social rites and rituals important to laypersons and to kings for the maintenance of a political state during succession and wars to resist invasion. During the Middle Ages, Buddhism slowly declined in India, while it vanished from Persia and Central Asia as Islam became the state religion.