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The Spread of Buddhism over Asia

Editor’s Note: Dr. Andrey Anatolyevich Terentyev studied Sanskrit, Tibetan and Indian Philosophies and Religions. He obtained his Ph.D. in the field of Oriental Studies (Russia). Currently, he is a visiting lecturer at the International Buddhist College.

The diffusion of Buddhism in Asia led to the appearance of the three major traditions of Buddhist art: (1) Southern (Therav?da countries), (2) Eastern (Chinese) and (3) Northern (Indo-Tibetan).

Buddhism first spread from India to the ‘Southern’ countries of a) Sri Lanka, b) Burma and c) Thailand. In these places we have the Southern Buddhist Art traditions, each having their own distinctive style. One of the characteristics of Southern Buddhist Art is the abundance of parinirv??a images, depicting the lying Buddha on his last day in Kushinagara.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan images of the Buddha usually reveal a strong, powerful build, featuring wide shoulders and a peculiarly shaped u????a (an uncommon convexity of a section of the skull that is said to be a mark of enlightenment).


In Burma, the oldest monuments of the specific Burmese style did not emerge until the Pagan dynasty (1044-1287).


In Thailand, images of the Buddha have a more slender body shape and elongated u????as.

The original Emerald Buddha, which is considered to be the most sacred statue of the Buddha in Thailand, was revealed in 1434 when lightning split open a chedi in a rock. Note that the position of the legs of the Buddhas in Thai iconography is different from that of all other traditions, stemming, perhaps, from the famous Emerald Buddha image.

The second great wave of Buddhist diffusion saw the spread of Buddhism from India and Central Asia to a) China, and from there to b) Korea and c) Japan. These Buddhist traditions are usually referred to as ‘Far-Eastern’.


According to Chinese historians, Buddhism was officially recognized in China at approximately 67 A.D. A few years prior, the emperor Ming-Ti was said to have envisioned in a dream a large golden image bearing a halo hovering above his palace. His advisers, some of whom were no doubt already favorable to the new religion, interpreted the image in the dream to be that of the Buddha, the great sage of India, inviting his attention. Following their advice, the emperor sent an envoy to India to study Buddhism. This envoy later returned with two Indian monks and a quantity of Buddhist classics. As these were carried on a white horse, the monastery which the emperor built for the monks and those who came after them came to be called the White Horse Monastery. Its plaque survives to this day.

The largest of the Longmen caves, Fengxian Temple, was carved 1300 years ago during the Tang dynasty. When it was first constructed, the entire grotto was covered with a roof, enclosed from the natural elements. Today the roof is missing and the sculptures stand out in the open air. The main Buddha figure at Fengxian is a colossal carving of one of the ‘5 Buddhas’ – Vairocana, which legend says bears Empress Wu’s features. The Longmen temples were explicitly built in response to Tibetan military success in Central Asia, aiming to bring supernatural succor to the Tang armies. (Clunas, Craig. Art in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p.104).

The traditional style of Buddhist art in China, both in sculptures and paintings, was always freer and simpler than the strict Indian and Tibetan styles, the sublime style of the Thais, and the solid and heavy style of the Sri Lankans.

One of the favorite Buddhist symbols in China is the swastika, the Indian sign of happiness and prosperity, which is common to all Indian religions.

The swastika was included, at least since the Liao Dynasty, as part of the Chinese language, the symbolic sign for the character ?U or ?E (wàn in Chinese, man in Japanese, v?n in Vietnamese) meaning all, and eternality (lit. myriad). The swastikas, facing either direction, appeared on the chest, and also on the soles of the feet of many Chinese statues of the Buddha.

In later times, when Tibetan Lamas settled in Beijing and became spiritual guides for Chinese emperors, Chinese Buddhist art began to be strongly influenced by Tibetan Buddhist iconography, and from the beginning of the 19th Century almost all works were done in accordance with Tibetan canons.


During the Unified Silla period (668-935), when indigenous Buddhist art started to appear in Korea, Korean sculptors developed a love for stone and considerable skill in working granite. This material was preferred most likely because it was plentiful in Korea’s mountainous areas (in China most Buddha statues were carved from sandstone or limestone, and in Japan from wood – materials which were easy to obtain in these country.)

During the Three Kingdoms period in Silla (Korea), the Buddha was portrayed in a very distinctive style which seems to be essentially Korean. Especially popular during Early Silla was Maitreya or the ‘Buddha of the Future’ (Miruk Posal), often depicted in a meditation pose. A large Maitreya (1) (three feet one inch) with its hand on its chin is the largest of the gilt- bronze images of this early period (National Treasure No. 83). The crown is simple and the torso bare. With an air of grace the drapery falls in soft lines over the pedestal and around the feet. (Adams, Edward B. Art Treasures of Seoul. Seoul: Samhwa Printing Co., Ltd., 1986, p. 79)


The history of Buddhist Art in Japan is usually divided into three periods. In the first period, from the 6th to the beginning of the 9th centuries, Japanese Buddhist art was heavily dependant on early Chinese styles, and only after Kyoto became the capital of the country in 800 did the elegant Japanese style begin to develop. The 3rd period began in the rule of Kamakura which started in 1185. In this epoch older temples were rebuilt and older images recreated. Later Zen art styles became a leading force.

Northern Buddhist Art is the art of the Tibetan cultural area, which besides Tibet also covers Mongolia, some parts of the Himalayas, China and Russia. These later styles initially borrowed widely from Indian and especially Nepalese samples, then from Chinese sources, before eventually developing a distinctive Tibetan flavour.

Buddhist statues in Sri Lanka.
Inwa (Ava, circa 15th Century(?)) bronze Buddha statue – Crowned images in Burma became popular as representations of the story of the Buddha humbling the proud King Jambupati in order to convert him.
Longman caves from the Tang dynasty – China
A monumental statue of the Buddha at the Yungang caves, China.
Arhat – Another iconometrically specific Far Eastern feature in Buddhist art is the representation of the u????a. At some point in China theu????a started to be depicted not as a dome-shaped protrusion common in Indo-Tibetan styles, but simply as an elong
Korean Buddhas of the Unified Silla period (668-935)
Maitreya Buddha (Miruk Posal) – Korea, bronze
Mikaeri Amida Nyorai: “Tath?gatha Amida [Buddha] Looking Back” – The Zenrinji temple in Kyoto shows Amida Buddha looking back for any stragglers to take to the Pure Land. (From:…/ Fac/Adler/Reln260/SYL260.htm)
Buddha – Bronze. Tibet, 18th Century (?)

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