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The Spread of Buddhism

The Buddha's first sermon, the Dharmachakrapravartana ('Turning of the Wheel of Law') which put forth the Middle Path, The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path after his enlightenment marked the formal beginning of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent.
The propagation and the spread of Buddhism were facilitated by its simplicity, envisioning deliverance from the caste-ridden and ritualistic dogmas, and providing an alternative path to salvation. These ideals which appealed to all classes and castes subsequently saw the establishment of a highly organised 'sangha' (community) with the monks and nuns zealously spreading the Buddha's message in all directions. When the Lord Buddha had attained Nirvana at the age of 80 years, the teachings he had propounded had a large following in north India. Following the Buddha's death, the First Buddhist Council formally codified his teachings which were orally transmitted until the 1st century B.C. when they were first committed to writing.

The conversion of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka to Buddhism marked the elevation of Buddhism from being a sect to the creation of a state based on Buddhism. Ashoka's patronage of Buddhism was responsible for the propagation and spread of Buddhism beyond the Indian subcontinent. As early as the first five hundred years after the Buddha's Nirvana, conflicting opinions about monastic practice as well as philosophical issues in the succeeding Buddhist Councils caused splits within the sangha.

However the emergence of different sects did not hamper the spread of Buddhism as each sect spread and established itself rapidly throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Curiously, Buddhism did not last for long in the Indian subcontinent. Turkish invasions from around the 11th century and the revival of Hinduism dealt a major blow to Buddhism. But the virtual disappearance of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent did not herald its extinction as its seeds had already been sewn elsewhere by Buddhist missions sent abroad under the patronage of Ashoka and the succeeding Dynasties.

This photo essay traces the different strands of Buddhism in some of the many places where this great religion found fertile ground for expansion.
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