A Brief History of Buddhism

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha Shakyamuni, lived and taught about 2,600 years ago in the southern foothills of the Himalayas. His philosophical discoveries and teachings have resounded down through the centuries, traveling from teacher to student across continents and oceans to reach us today.

Like a pebble dropped in a calm pond, Buddha’s impact traveled like ripples from northern India out to the world. It followed the highways and byways of the times, influencing philosophical thinkers on its way. As it spread, Buddha’s teachings became incorporated into the cultures with which it came int contact creating a rich diversity of practice.

One of the first forms of Buddhism, the Theravada communities and monastic forest retreats, emerged to the south, finding a save haven in Sri Lanka and flourishing in Southeast Asia– Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. This tradition is firmly rooted in the Pali Cannon (the earliest written Buddhist records). They practice Vipassana (Insight Meditation).

Buddhist teachers also traveled west into current Afghanistan, then Central Asia, skirting north to the Himalayas; following the caravans and established centers along the Silk Road. It was in the early era, that the Bodhisattva ideal (in keeping with the Heart Sutra) was honed and the Mahayana traditions were formed.

Around the time of Jesus, Buddhism reached China and over the next 500 years the teachings flourished. At this time Pure Land practices emerged. In the 5th century C.E., the sage Bodhidharma arrived from the “West” (i.e. India) establishing what would become the Ch’an traditions.

Mahayana flowed south and north from China. Ch’an is the common root for Zen in Korea, Japan and Vietnam. While linked philosophically, each Zen branch has unique ways of teaching and practicing.

Well buffered by the Himalayas, the Tibetan people converted to Buddhism in the beginning of the 6th century C.E. Developing from the Mahayana traditions, the Vajrayana school of Buddhism and Tantric traditions became well rooted in Tibet. Five Buddhist lineages evolved: Bon, Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya and Geluk.

All Tibetan lineages practice forms of Dzogchen (“Natural Great Perfection”) meditation while the Rime’ school incorporates all lineage teachings and practices. Some Tibetan traditions, like Shambhala, have become distinctly Western.

In today’s era of technological sophistication, mountains and oceans are no longer barriers to information. How extraordinary it is to be present in a time when all the vast treasures and teachings of the Buddha can be found at the push of a button.

We are very fortunate to have a wide representation of Buddhist traditions in Pittsburgh and we certainly have reason to pause with deep appreciation for all of our predecessors who near and far who have brought the teachings of the dharma to us today.


Categories: history, Mahayana, Theravada, Tibet


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


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2 Comments on “A Brief History of Buddhism”

  1. Ally Lynch
    April 2, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

    I’m studying Buddhism at university and this blog has saved my academic life. Thanks so much for putting this all in context for me!

    • April 2, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

      I am very happy to hear that!

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