The History and Spread of Buddhism: Singapore

Buddhism is a religion that’s practiced across the world today, but was originally founded in the late 6th century B.C.E. in modern-day Nepal by Siddhartha Gautama, who later became known as the “Buddha”. While different forms of Buddhism have been created and slightly altered throughout history, those who follow Buddhism still attempt to live their lives by the experiences of the Buddha, his teachings, and their “spirit” or essence (dhamma or dharma). Skills such as listening, empathy, mindful self-awareness, and compassion are all important principles of Buddhist teaching and learning.

The Buddha

Siddhartha Gautama was born into a wealthy family as a prince, in present-day Nepal during the 5th century B.C. Although Gautama had grown up with the easy lifestyle of a prince, as an adult he realized that he was unfulfilled by this and decided to give up his life of luxuries to live out a poor man’s life experience. However, when this chosen lifestyle of extreme poverty did not quite fulfill him either, he decided on the idea of the “Middle Way”, which means to exist between two extremes. From then on, he lived a life without great indulgences, but also without any deprivation. Buddhists believe that after six years of searching, Gautama found true enlightenment (the state of perfect knowledge or wisdom, paired with infinite compassion) while meditating under a Bodhi tree. The Buddha spent the remainder of his life teaching others who followed him how to achieve this spiritual state for themselves.

Key Principles

Buddhists have different beliefs than most popular Western religions, such as Christianity or Judaism. For instance, those who follow Buddhism do not believe in a supreme god or deity. Instead, they focus on reaching enlightenment, or a state of inner peace and wisdom, by practicing morality, meditation, and wisdom consistently. In fact, some scholars do not even recognize Buddhism as an organized religion, but more as a “way of life” or a “spiritual tradition”. Buddhists also believe in the concept of karma, or the law of cause and effect, which acts a universal law of energy, and states that our actions towards others, both good and bad, will come back to us in the future. Buddhas most important teachings, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, explore the reasons for unhappiness and provides a guide for appropriate thought, speech, behavior, mental awareness, action, and work.

Four Noble Truth and the Eightfold Path

The Buddha’s basic teachings are called the Four Noble Truths and state the beliefs that: there is suffering, there is the start of suffering, there is the end of suffering, and there is a path to the end of suffering. The Eightfold Path teachings are represented by a symbol of a wheel, with eight spokes to represent the eight different paths that lead to enlightenment, in the center: right view, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

The History and Spread of Buddhism

When Gautama passed away around 483 B.C., his disciples began to organize a religious movement, with Buddha’s teachings being the foundation of what would later develop into Buddhism as we know it today. This movement began to pick up speed, when two hundred years after Gautamas’ passing, Ashoka the Great, a Mauryan Indian emperor, made Buddhism the state religion of India in the 3rd century B.C., and built Buddhist monasteries to encourage Buddhist missionary work. Over the next few centuries, Buddhism began to spread beyond India and the religions’ followers’ philosophies and beliefs became more diverse, with different interpretations of Gautama’s ideas.

Types of Buddhism

While Buddhism was originally founded in Asia, there are many different forms of Buddhism that exist around the world today. In fact, there are three main branches of Buddhism that are represented by specific geographic areas including: Theravada Buddhism, which is popular in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma. Tibetan Buddhism, which is prevalent in Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, Bhutan, and parts of Russia and northern India. And lastly, Mahayana Buddhism, which is most commonly practiced in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Mahayana Buddhism

By the second century AD, there was a major development within Buddhism: the way of the Mahayana, which was created from the Theravada school of Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism tends to be characterized by an emphasis on the supernatural, as they believed in the elevation of the Buddha to a status of a god and created statue representations, similar to the ancient Greek statues of Alexander the Great, which were carried into Asia. However, the Mahayana Buddhism remained the minority until the it spread to Thailand in the fourth century AD and then Cambodia through merchants who conducted trade with the country and introduced the Mahayana principles in the sixth century AD.

Buddhism in Singapore

In Singapore, around 42% of the population are classified as following the Buddhist religion today, with Chinese Mahayana Buddhism being the most common form of Buddhism practiced in the country. While the presence of Buddhism was evident in Singapore during the Srivijayan times, the revival of Buddhism is a recent movement after the influence of Buddhist beliefs almost disappeared in Singapore during the 14th and 15th century AD. In fact, Singapore’s census stated that Buddhists rose from just 27% in 1980 to 42.5% in 2000, with a large increase in the interest of Buddhist teachings and practices, such as meditation.

The Buddha – Educational Resources

Lesson Plan: The Noble Eightfold Path (PDF)

Islam and Buddhism: Preserving Harmonious Relations

The History of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum

The History of Buddhism

Ceylonese Buddhism in Colonial Singapore (PDF)

The Origins of Buddhism

The Growth and Spread of Buddhism (PDF)

The Migrations of Buddhism

Different Forms of Buddhism


Philosophy of Religion: Buddhism

Buddhism & Buddhism in China (PDF)


Following the Buddha’s Footsteps

Buddhism and the Han Period

Buddhism: The Eightfold Path

What is Buddhism

Buddhism Religious Basics (PDF)

Basic Concepts of Tibetan Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism

The Buddhist Stupa: Origin and Development

Chinese Religion: An Overview

Buddhism History

Guide to Buddhist Temples in Singapore


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