Brief History of Buddhism (仏教の歴史: 6500 BCE – 1300 CE)


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.

Basic Chronology

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.



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