The Buddhists of Southeast Asia are not considered here in a detailed article, since many of the longer articles in this volume deal with specific Buddhist cultural groups. Buddhism is, after all, a world religion with several hundreds of millions of adherents; and so, as with any other major and widespread faith, considerable diversity may be found in cultural practices.

The form that Buddhism has taken in Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and the delta of the Mekong, as in Sri Lanka, is called Theravada. Vietnam, on the other hand (except for the Mekong delta), can be grouped with China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia, all countries that follow the Mahayana form of Buddhism, a form that derives from the late Indian schools of Buddhism and their interaction with Tantrism. All forms of Buddhism of course take their origin from the teachings of Gautama the Buddha (also called Sakyamuni, c. 560-480 B.C. ).

Buddhism was slow to spread to Southeast Asia. By the middle of the third century B.C. it had reached Sri Lanka, and from there, after some centuries, it was carried to Burma, at the latest by the fifth century A.D. In Thailand there is little trace of the religion before the thirteenth century A.D. , while in Cambodia it can be traced back to the third century A.D. But this was probably not, in the latter case, Theravada Buddhism, but rather another form called Sarvastivada. It was only in the fourteenth century A.D. that Theravada appeared in Cambodia and Laos. For some centuries following the third century A.D. other parts of Southeast Asia were Buddhist, although they have not been so in recent centuries. Java and Sumatra, in particular, were strong centers of the faith, as were, to a lesser extent, Malaya and Borneo. Buddhism remained in much of this insular area until the massive conversion to Islam in the fifteenth century. A vast canon of the text in Pali, collectively known as the Tripitaka and covering a span of nearly two millennia, forms the basis for the Theravada sect. These texts and commentaries contain the orthodox doctrine and rules for the highly important monastic life, which can be traced back to the first Buddhist schism of the fourth century B.C. , and the "doctrine of the elders" that was formulated, if not written down, at the time. This doctrine recognized three alternative paths for the devotee: (1) arahat; (2) paccekabuddha; and (3) fully awakened Buddha. An arahat was a worthy one who had achieved the goal of Buddhist life by gaining insight into the true nature of things; a paccekabuddha is one who, having gained enlightenment, lives alone as an "isolated Buddha" without trying to teach others. The cult of Theravada Buddhism broke away from Brahmanic ritual and also from Mahayana forms.

The Mahayana sect, though at one time present in Cambodia, alongside Hinduism, in modern Southeast Asia occurs only in Vietnam, and then not in the southernmost parts. This sect had its origin around the first century A.D. , and entailed a reinterpretation of the Theravada discipline for monks, which in turn freed them to travel freely and even settle in distant lands. As a result it was the Mahayana form of Buddhism that reached China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. One important feature of Mahayana doctrine was the concept of bodhisattva, essentially an idea that certain almost heavenly personages have the potential to become future Buddhas. This idea allowed for the assimilation of numerous popular local cults in the countries just mentioned, and goes a long way toward explaining why Mahayanists are very much more numerous than Theravadists in Asia.

Returning to the Theravada sect, we must note the importance of the monastery (often called a pagoda). In former times all adolescent Buddhist boys were expected to spend some months there; many still do. The monastery was a central institution, to be found in very many of the Buddhist towns and villages. It was attached to a temple (called a vihara or pagoda), which contained several statues of the Buddha. Local forms of the temple were architecturally diverse. Other buildings commonly found within the precincts of a temple were a prayer hall, perhaps a school or library, and huts or cells for the monks, students, and some other elderly residents.

The monastic community was a moral community, bound together by its observance of the five basic commandments (Panch Sila) of Buddhism; but monks and nuns would observe three (sometimes five) additional restrictions. Some monks would remove themselves from the main community of their monastery to live in caves or remote huts as hermits, either alone or as a small group. Those more active in the community would teach the youths and young monks, or might preach to the faithful, study texts, or simply meditate.

Even within the Theravada sect, there was no overarching theocratic structure, and certainly no person analogous to a pope or Dalai Lama. In keeping with the fact that in each country of Southeast Asia Theravada Buddhism had a distinct history, the organization of the sect does not reach beyond a national level. Local temples and monasteries are essentially self-sufficient, for they depend on their own lands and the offerings of the faithful. Property belongs either to the community or, to a lesser degree, to the Buddha or to the monks.

The broad appeal of Buddhism throughout history can be attributed to the strongly universalistic content of its ethical teachings, which were first expounded and elaborated upon by the Buddha himself in a lifetime of sermonizing. The essence of these teachings is summarized as the "Noble Eight-fold Path," which prescribes: (1) right understanding, (2) right aspiration or purpose, (3) right speech, (4) right bodily action, (5) right means of livelihood, (6) right endeavor, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration. Against this were set the five proscriptions, or Panch Sila: (1) refrainment from injuring any living things; (2) refrainment from taking that which has not been given; (3) refrainment from excessive sensuality; (4) refrainment from false or harmful speech; and (5) refrainment from any drink or drug that clouds the mind. Perhaps overlooked in these dual formulations is the great Buddhist emphasis on generosity, especially the giving of alms. Overall it must be admitted that Buddhism provided a code of conduct, a direction to both one's thoughts and one's actions, that could pervade the entire fabric of a peaceable society. If the perfect Buddhist society has not yet emerged, it is still a fervent hope for hundreds of millions in East and Southeast Asia.


Bareau, André (1976). "Le bouddhisme à Ceylan et dans l'Asie du Sud-est." In Histoire des religions, edited by Henri-Charles Puech. Vol. 3, 330-352. Encyclopédie de la Pléiade. Paris: Éditions Gallimard.

Lafont, Pierre-Bernard (1976). "Le bouddhisme vietnamien." In Histoire des religions, edited by Henri-Charles Puech. Vol. 3, 353-370. Encyclopédie de la Pléiade. Paris: Éditions Gallimard.

Spiro, Milford E. (1970). Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes. New York: Harper & Row.


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