Buddhism originated in India with Siddhartha Gautama who was born in 563 B.C.E. The movement spread rapidly throughout India and Southwest Asia for a number of reasons:
- Buddhism did not recognize the Caste system of Hinduism, which made it immensely popular among the lower classes.
- Buddhism did not require one to surrender all ones earthly possessions as did Jainism.
- The conversion of the Emperor Ashoka who built stupas and temples throughout India aided in its proliferation.
- Buddhism adopted a monastic system, whose participants, Buddhist monks, proved efficient at spreading the Buddha's message.
Through the efforts of the Emperor Ashoka, Buddhism spread quickly to Bactria and Ceylon, (present day Sri Lanka.) It later travelled to China and Southeast Asia by the third century B.C.E. It was immensely popular with merchants and soon established itself in Oasis towns along the Silk Roads. It was especially intriguing to nomadic people who visited the Oasis towns, and spread rapidly throughout Asia from there. It was not well received by the upper classes of China, as it was considered a "foreign" religion; however it spread rapidly among farmers, peasants and other members of the lower classes. Merchants also carried it as far as Sumatra and the Malay peninsula and Japan. By 400 B.C.E. it was the most popular religion in Asia.
When the Han Dynasty of China extended its power to Central Asia in the first century B.C., trade and cultural ties between China and Central Asia also increased. In this way, the Chinese people learnt about Buddhism so that by the middle of the first century C.E., a community of Chinese Buddhists was already in existence.
The earliest historical records state that there were three kingdoms in Korea, namely Koguryo in the north, Packche in the southwest and Silla in the southeast. According to tradition, a Chinese monk in the second half of the fourth century C.E first introduced Buddhism to the northern kingdom of Koguryo. A Central Asian monk is said to have brought Buddhism to Packche sometime later.
The Silla kingdom was the most isolated region and was at first not ready to accept Buddhism. The people held firmly to their traditional religious beliefs. There was such strong opposition to Buddhism that a monk who went there to spread the Buddha's teachings is said to have been killed. Eventually, by the middle of the sixth century, even the Silla people accepted Buddhism.
In the sixth century, the king of Packche, anxious to establish peaceful relations with Japan, sent gifts of images of the Buddha and copies of Buddhist texts to the Japanese imperial court. Buddhism was recommended as a means of bringing great benefit to the country. The Japanese people soon accommodated Buddhism along with their indigenous Shinto beliefs. Being a religion of universal appeal, Buddhism helped to foster harmony within the country.