The Buddha taught many things after his enlightenment, but his message consistently centered on liberating oneself from the source of suffering.
After Shakyamuni's death, his disciples carried the teachings to new places. This process of exchange and evolution helped to shape and enrich Buddhism. Countless approaches to spiritual awakening were developed, reflecting the wide variety of cultural viewpoints, social circumstances, and diverse needs.
Buddhism in India
The teachings spread from their birthplace in eastern India and present-day Nepal, giving rise to many schools that branched from the lineage started by Shakyamuni. In the 3rd century BCE, King Ashoka's promotion of Buddhism helped it to expand throughout India. During this period of coexistance alongside other religious traditions, Buddhism incorporated elements of tantra.* This gave concrete form to certain abstract doctrinal principles and opened up a new avenue of practice known as esoteric Buddhism. After coexisting and mingling with Hinduism for over a thousand years, Buddhism eventually became interwoven in the greater religious fabric of India. By the 13th century, for various reasons, it had either died out or ceased being a distinct belief system in most places. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, there was a revival of interest in specifically Buddhist practice. Presently there are around 5 million Buddhists in India.
*Tantra (a weave, continuum, context, method): a term to describe the basic activities of esoteric Buddhism and its system of meditation and practice. It is oriented to people's experiential potential and mystical union with the divine, through which spiritual power flows.
Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia
Buddhism took a "southern route" in the course of its spread when it was carried to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. The form of Buddhism that became predominant in these countries centers on monasticism and places emphasis on adherence to the precepts, and the study of the Pali canon (the first teachings to be written down were in the ancient Pali language).
Buddhism in China
By the 1st century CE, Buddhism was arriving in China via the Silk Road. In China, the "northern" and "southern" routes of Buddhist transmission crossed, with many masters and monks devoting themselves to systemizing Buddhism in new ways. It was in China that Buddhism encountered and incorporated elements of other forms of spirituality, such as Daoism and Confucianism.
Buddhism in Japan
Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the middle of the 6th century from China and Korea. Japanese Buddhist masters in subsequent centuries visited China to study Buddhism more closely. Upon returning to Japan they brought with them the major traditions, such as esoteric Buddhism, Zen, and the Pure Land teachings.
Buddhism in Tibet
Buddhism arrived in Tibet and other Himalayan regions in the 7th century. Combined with local folk beliefs and customs, Buddhism in Tibet is known for its rich mix of different traditions, most notably the esoteric teachings, through which it has developed its own unique culture and training methods.
Buddhism Outside Asia
Since the 19th century, Buddhism has slowly been spreading beyond Asia. Today, there are many Buddhist centers throughout the world, and, as in previous centuries, Buddhism continues to evolve as it spreads out further from its Indian roots.