Buddhism in Central Asia

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Although Buddhism never developed a missionary movement, Buddha's teachings nevertheless spread far and wide on the Indian subcontinent and from there throughout Asia. In each new culture it reached, the Buddhist methods and styles were modified to fit the local mentality, without compromising the essential points of wisdom and compassion. Buddhism, however, never developed an overall hierarchy of religious authority with a supreme head. Each country to which it spread developed its own forms, its own religious structure and its own spiritual head. The most well-known and internationally respected of these authorities at present is His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet.

The Theravada tradition spread from India to Sri Lanka and Burma in the third century B.C.E., and from there to Yunnan in southwest China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Pockets of Indian merchants practicing Buddhism were soon found on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula and even as far as Alexandria, Egypt. The Theravada spread from that time to modern-day Pakistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan, eastern and coastal Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. These were the ancient states of Gandhara, Bactria, Parthia and Sogdia. From this base in Central Asia, they spread further in the second century C.E. to East Turkistan (Xinjiang) and further into China, and in the late seventh century to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. These forms of early Buddhism were later combined with Mahayana aspects that also came from India so that Mahayana eventually became the dominant form of Buddhism in most of Central Asia.

The Chinese form of Mahayana later spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Another early wave of Mahayana, mixed with Shaivite forms of Hinduism, spread from India to Nepal, Indonesia, Malaysia and parts of South East Asia starting in about the fifth century. The Tibetan Mahayana tradition, which, starting in the seventh century, inherited the full historical development of Indian Buddhism, spread throughout the Himalayan regions and to Mongolia, East Turkistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, northern Inner China, Manchuria, Siberia and the Kalmyk Mongol region near the Caspian Sea in European Russia.

In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, the percent who are Buddhist is only 0.1% to 0.6%. In Mongolia, however, with its close proximity to China and Tibet, about 94% are Buddhist.

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