Many who I meet who take an interest in Zen and/or Japanese fine arts do not happen to have a running knowledge of how Buddhism, hugely influential in Japan, formed over time out of Indian culture, and beyond, to the world. So I thought I would outline a basic chronology of Buddhism from pre-Buddhist Vedic culture to Japan in the 14th century, when Zen became ubiquitous, to help Asian Studies students organize their notes, or those casually interested in Buddhism in general to learn more about this fascinating religion.
Also, this particular list ties in with my post on the history of Japanese philosophy, as Buddhist history leads into religious socio-political history around the 8th – 10th century with the Nara ‘schools’ developing into distinct sects and orthodoxies.
6500 BCE Verses from the Rg Veda, India’s earliest sacred texts, are said to have been compiled; taking their final form in approx. 1200-1000 BCE.
5500 Astrological observations later mentioned in the Puranas.
4750 Scholarly dating of Lord Rama’s sojourn in the material world. Tradition though places this time as in the Treta-yuga, approx. 1,004,750 BCE.
3237 Traditional date given for Lord Krishna’s earthly existence.
3112 Krishna leaves the world, thus the Kali Yuga, the world’s final epoch begins.
2000 – 1250 Upanishads, Brahmanas, and Aranyakas seem to arise at this time.
1500 – 500 Major Upanishads and philosophical texts are composed, along with the systemization of the “Six Schools of Indian Philosophy”.
599 – 527 Life of Mahavira, “founder” of Jainism, though he was part of an ancient, established line of Jain-like masters.
563: Birth of Siddartha Gautama (The Buddha), founder of Buddhism.
483 Death of Siddartha and gathering of the First Great Council, where major portions of the future canon were recited.
400 Greek ambassador to India Megasthenes writes of Krishna as the Supreme Being, one of the the earliest historical evidences of Krishna worship.
395 Great Council of Vaishali and beginning of first major schism.
300 Beginning of composition of Abhidharma (Further Teachings) text.
274 King Ashoka ascends to the throne of the Mauryan Empire and eventually converts to Buddhism. Under his patronage Buddhism spreads out through India, and into Central/Western Asia.
250 Third Council at Pataliputa under Ashoka
225 Mahinda, Ashoka’s son, takes Theravada Buddhism to Sri Lanka.
200 Beginning of memorial mound (stupa) cults, which involve increasing numbers of laity.
150 Buddhist canon written down.
100 Various schools of Scholastic Buddhism established; Heliodorus Column in Besnagar, north-central India, bears an inscription mentioning Vasudeva (Krishna) as a Divine Being, offering pre-Christian archeological evidence for Krishna worship.
50 Earliest Perfection of Wisdom sutras written; beginning of Mahayana Buddhism.
25 Introduction of Buddhism into China.
100 CE Emergence of Mahayana as a recognizable movement in India, including Pure Land forms, and continued composition of related texts.
150 – 250 Life of Nagarjuna, “founder” of Madhyamika (Middle Way) School, the most original thinker after Siddartha.
200 Great monastic university of Nalanda founded, becoming a flourishing center of Buddhist study for 1000 years.
220 Collapse of Han Dynasty in China and beginning of the “period of disunity”. Confucianism falls into disrepute, which opens the way for Buddhism to take hold in the populace.
344 – 414 Life of Kumarajiva, Central Asian translator of Buddhist texts into Chinese.
350 Beginning of Yogachara (Practice of Yoga) as a distinct school of philosophy in India.
372 Introduction of Buddhism into Korea from China
399 Chinese monk Faxian becomes first Chinese pilgrim to India.
500 Emergence in India of Tantra, a pan-Indian ritual/occult esoteric movement.
526 Legendary Bodhidharma brings Chan/Zen teachings to southern China.
538 – 597 Life of Zhiyi, founder of Tiantai “Heavenly Terrace” School (“Tendai” in Japan).
550 Early development of Pure Land and Ch’an (Zen) Schools in China.
574 Life of Prince Shotoku, “founder” of Japanese Buddhism and author of Japan’s first “constitution” – who makes a concerted effort to bring Buddhism to Japan from Korea as part of Chinese cultural influence.
589 China reunited under Sui and Tang Dynasties. Beginning of Buddhism’s Golden Age.
596 – 664 Life of Xuanzang, Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who travels throughout Asia to India in search of the original Scriptures. He brings back thousands of texts to be translated and becomes one of the great heroes in Chinese culture, eventually immortalized in the famous novel Journey to the West (1592).
641 – 650 Construction of the first Buddhist temples in Tibet to house images of the Buddha.
700 – 794 Nyingma School (oldest order) of Tibetan Buddhism established.
710 – 794 Nara Period of Japanese Buddhism in which Buddhism becomes Japan’s official religion (among the nobility). The great Eastern Temple, the largest wooden structure in the world, is built as a symbol of Japanese unity under Buddhism, housing the world’s largest bronze statue.
749 Sam-ye monastery founded in Tibet.
750 Spread of Buddhism to Indonesia and Java; construction of Borobudur, monumental pyramid temple outside of Jakarta.
775 Padmasambhava, Tantric adept, transmits Vajrayana to Tibet, an event known as the “First Propagation of Buddhism”.
766 – 822 Life of Saicho, founder of Tendai School in Japan, who establishes Buddhist center on Mount Hiei.
774 – 835 Life of Kukai, founder of Shingon Buddhism (Japanese Tantra).
788 Life of Adi Shankara, Hindu monk-philosopher who emphasized that the world is an illusion and that each living being is ultimately no different from God.
845 Great suppression of Buddhism in China during latter Tang Dynasty.
866 Death of Linji Yixuan (Japan: Rinzai Gigen), founder of what would become Rinzai Zen in Japan.
868 Oldest existing printed book in the world created: a Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra.
983 First complete printing of the Chinese Buddhist canon.
1000 Spread of Theravada Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia, “Second Propagation of Buddhism” in Tibet under scholar-monk Atisha
1100 Construction of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
1200 – 1253 Life of Dogen Zenji, Founder of the Soto Zen sect in Japan
1200 – 1300 Biography of the Buddha translated into Greek in Christian guise as the tale of Balaam and Josaphat by Euthymius, a Georgian monk. The two are venerated in the Greek Orthodox (Aug. 26), Slavic Orthodox (Nov. 12) and Gregorian (Dec. 2) calendars.