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Stele of the Buddha Maitreya, 687. China; Tang dynasty (618–906). Limestone. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S36+ (Asian Art Museum)Stele of the Buddha Maitreya, 687. China; Tang dynasty (618–906). Limestone. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S36+. View more artworks in the Asian Art Museum's collectionOver the centuries, two main branches of Buddhism emerged: a transmission that traveled to Southeast Asia, and a transmission that evolved in East Asia. A further offshoot of the northern transmission also developed. All three branches began in India, and developed further as they moved across Asia.

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada is believed to be the oldest form of Buddhism. The term itself comes into use later, but the Theravada tradition upholds the monastic path and adheres to the oldest surviving recorded sayings of the Buddha, collectively called the Pali canon. These original texts were set down in the Pali language by monks in Sri Lanka in the first century C.E. Prior to this codification, teachings had been transmitted orally, and concern arose that original texts must be preserved in light of the growing heterodoxy that was developing in India.

Theravada recognizes the primacy and humanity of the historical Buddha. The Buddha was an exemplary figure. Enlightenment is an arduous task, available only to monks who explicitly pursue the path of Shakyamuni himself. Theravada is the dominant form of Buddhism today in Sri Lanka as well as Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. The subject matter of Buddhist art from these traditions focuses on life events of the Buddha.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana is a philosophical movement that proclaimed the possibility of universal salvation, offering assistance to practitioners in the form of compassionate beings called bodhisattvas. The goal was to open up the possibility of buddhahood (becoming a Buddha) to all sentient beings. The Buddha ceased to be simply a historical figure, but rather was interpreted as a transcendent figure who all could aspire to become.

New sutras (texts) were added to the Buddhist canon, causing rifts among the various sects. Reformers called themselves the “greater vehicle” (Mahayana), and they labeled the traditionalists the “lesser vehicle” (Theravada). The bodhisattva developed as an enlightened being who postpones his own salvation in order to help others. Initially understood as companions to the Buddha, bodhisattvas are spiritual beings who compassionately vow to achieve buddhahood, but have deferred this aspiration in order to liberate all creatures in the universe from suffering. The most popular bodhisattvas appearing in sculpture and painting include Avalokiteshvara (bodhisattva of mercy and compassion), Maitreya (the future Buddha), and Manjushri (bodhisattva of wisdom).

Mahayana also spread to Southeast Asia, however its greatest impact is felt in the East Asian nations of China, Korea, and Japan. As Mahayana evolved, it continued to expand a vast pantheon of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other divine and semi-divine beings, drawing from and assimilating regional and local traditions.

Tantric Buddhism: a further evolution of Mahayana Buddhism

Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism, sometimes called Vajrayana (the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt), developed about 500–600 C.E. in India. An offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism, the origins of Tantric Buddhism can be traced to ancient Hindu and Vedic practices as well, including esoteric ritual texts designed to achieve physical, mental, and spiritual breakthroughs. Tantric Buddhism is sometimes described as offering a shortcut to enlightenment. Because some practices subverted mainstream Buddhism and Hinduism, engaging in acts otherwise considered taboo, its practitioners were secretive. Initiates worked closely with a spiritual guide or guru.

Vajrayana Buddhism is most closely identified with Tibetan Buddhism, however, it also influenced parts of Southeast Asia and East Asia. Buddhism thrived in India for more than a millennium, reaching an expansive culmination in the Pala period in eastern India. By the 1100s C.E., Buddhism had declined mainly as a result of Muslim incursions.

Before this time, however, Buddhist doctrine had been transmitted to Sri Lanka, which became a further point of reference for the spread of Buddhism to Southeast Asia. Travelers and missionaries carried the message of Buddhism by sea and land routes through Central Asia into China by the first century C.E., Buddhism flourished in China between 300 and 900 C.E. and provided a point of reference for Buddhism as it developed in Korea and Japan. Chinese translations of Indian texts contributed to the development of printing.

Buddhism is still strong today in Bhutan, Cambodia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Burma, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, and Vietnam. Throughout its history and transmission, Buddhism has been very adaptable to local beliefs and customs, and the combination of these local forms with imported beliefs and symbols is a characteristic of Buddhist art throughout Asia.

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