Buddhism began in Northern India around the year 500 BCE. The Buddhist tradition gets its name from a man known by his followers as the Buddha, or the awaken one. He was born in a princely family in a region of Northern India that now lies in Southern Nepal. In those days it was simply a part of the great undifferentiated geographical entity that we speak of today as the Indian subcontinent.
The Buddha is the very picture of calm and contemplation. And is this image of a calm and contemplative human being that has drawn many people to the Buddha, for centuries in Asia, and of course, in our own environment today. This is the image that conveys more explicitly the experience of his awakening. But the Buddha did not always sit in perfect contemplation.
After his awakening he got up from the sit of his enlightenment and talked about his experience to others on the roads of Northern India. The major events of his life took place in what we call the middle region of the Ganges basin, still the site of Buddhist pilgrimage today. In India itself there were two major reform movements than appeared within the Buddhist community not so long after the lifetime of the Buddha himself:
Buddhism moved North out of India into China in the second century of the common era, carried North by monks and merchants on the trade routes that went out over the mountains of India, into Afghanistan and then on into the great trade routes called the “silk road” that moved across central Asia and into the major mercantile centers of Northern China.
Here Buddhism encountered a sophisticated and ancient civilization. China was a confident and thoroughly civilized region when these early Buddhist monks began to make contact. For Buddhism to become part of China, as it eventually did, it was important for Buddhists to make some major changes in the way they thought through and expressed basic issues.
From China, Buddhism was eventually carried to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. You might put Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese Buddhism together as expressions of this great East Asian strand.
In the eighth century of the common era, Buddhism was carried across the Himalayas from India into Tibet. Today, the Dalai Lama, who is the leader of the Tibetan Buddhist community, is one of the most visible, and I think, one of the most active Buddhist leaders in the world.