The Spread of Buddhism and its arts
from "Reading Buddhist Art", Meher Mc Arthur, Thames and Hudson, London, 2002, BUY IT!

Sri Lanka
South East Asia
Thailand
Cambodia
Burma (Myanmar)
Indonesia
Central Asia
China
Korea
Japan
Nepal
Tibet

 

Sri Lanka

SriLanka has been a center of Buddhism for over tow thousand years. According to one legend, the Buddha visited the island on three separate occasions, and it is believed that tow hundred years later, King Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, brought a branch of the original bodhi tree from Bodh Gaya to Sri Lanka and planted it at the first capital, Anuradhapura, wher4e a descendant of this tree is still worshipped today. Mahinda also converted the Sri Lankan King Devanampiya-Tissa (c. 250-210 BC) to Buddhism, and from that period onward, Buddhism in various forms was practiced on the island, the first Buddhist texts, or sutras, were written in Pali, the language of Sri Lanka. By the eleventh century, the monastic Theravada school gained primacy and thrived under the Sinhalese rulers of Sri Lanka. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a period when India was rejecting the Buddhist faith in favor of Hinduism and Islam, Sri Lanka became an important Buddhism center, spreading Theravada teaching from the monasteries of the capital, Polonnaruwa, into areas of Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Burma.

            In Sri Lanka, the principal object of devotion is the bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, as it represents the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment. It has been surrounded by a shrine and four seated Buddhas. The stupa, a symbol of the Buddha’s enlightenment, features prominently in Sri Lankan Buddhist architecture, the most important example also being at Anuradhapura. Unlike many of the stupas from India and other Buddhist cultures, the Sri Lankan stupas feature minimal decoration, the form itself being of greater importance than decorative details.

            In theravada Buddhist cultures such as Sri Lanka, the principal figure of veneration is the Historical Buddha, so the art of these cultures generally focuses on Shakyamuni and the various important events of this historical life. Jataka tales, or tales of his previous lives as a bodhisattva, also feature prominently in the art of these cultures. The most outstanding examples of Sri Lankan Buddhist sculptures are the colossal stone images of the Buddha and other figures at the Gal Vihara temple at Polonnaruwa. These figures and many other Sri Lankan images from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries show the stylistic influence of the graceful sculptures of the earlier Indian Gupta period. After the thirteenth century, Sri Lanka experienced an increasing fusion of religions, shrines combining Buddhist and Hindu worship, and Mahayana figures such the compassionate bodhinattva Avalokiteshvara gaining devout following.

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Southeast Asia

Buddhism was introduced to Southeast Asia in the second or third centuries AD However, due to the popularity of Hinduism, which was transmitted to this region from India at an earlier date, Buddhism only became a powerful force here in the sixth and seventh century. Although both the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism did have a presence in Southeast Asia for a short period, especially on the islands of Java and Sumatra, the dominant Buddhist tradition in this region is Theravada Buddhism, which came to these regions from southeast India and Sri Lanka. The earliest Buddhist art from Southeast Asia tends to be highly derivative of the Indian models that were brought by proselytizing monks. However, by the end of the first millennium, the different Buddhist regions of Southeast Asia had begun to produce their own unique styles and art forms patronized by their various rulers.

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Thailand

In the area now known as Thailand, Buddhism was first adopted at an official level by the Mon people who ruled over central Thailand from the sixth to the eleventh centuries AD. This Buddhist state has become known as Dvaravati, and many examples of Theravada and Mahayana sculptures in stone, bronze and terracotta have survived from this period. Thease figures, usually depicting the Buddha’s enlightenment and other key moments in his life, may be the earliest Buddhist sculptures made in Southeast Asia. Artists of this period also created many images of the Buddhist wheel of the Law, either on its own or flanked by deer, symbolizing the Buddha’s first sermon at the Deep Park at Sarnath, a moment which marked the true beginning of Buddhism as a faith. Large numbers of stupas, made from brick and laetrile (a clay-like material), were also built during this period and decorated with niches containing terracotta clay figures. Later, this area came under the influence of the Khmer kingdoms of Cambodia who invaded the area, and until the thirteenth century, much of Thai Buddhist art echoes Khmer examples.

            In the thirteenth century, the Thai people, who originally came from China, established the kingdom of Sukhothai in north central Thailand, which lasted until 1438. This Buddhist kingdom had close links with the Theravada centers in Sri Lanka, and much of the Buddhist architecture of the period reveals influences from Sri Lanka, as well as the Khmer and Mon cultures. Sukhothai period figures of the Buddha are characterized by their graceful physiques, gentle, yet elegant faces and a flame-shaped ushnisha, or protrusion, on the top of the head. The most notable development in Sukhothai Buddhist imagery is the walking Buddha, a graceful figure with a curvaceous form, one leg extended in front of the other.

            From 1350 in lower Thailand, another Buddhist kingdom was established at Ayudhaya and lasted until it was sacked by the Burmese in 1767. The Buddhist art and architecture of this period shows much Khmer and Mon stylistic influence. This is most apparent at Ayudhaya, where Khmer-style towers, or prang, gently curved structures ending in a point, are found alongside traditional Thai-style stupas with their attenuated forms and lotus bud finials. After the demise of Ayudhaya, Buddhism has continued to flourish in Thailand, as have its arts, which in the past two centuries have been characterized by elaborate surface decoration, often including gilding, colored glass and gems, and wall paintings.

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Cambodia

The area that is now Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer from as early as the sixth century. The Khmer kings followed both Hinduism and Buddhism, and under their rule, fine stone sculptures and temples were created, at first copying Indian models, but increasingly in Khmer style. Khmer royal patronage of Buddhism increased over the next few centuries and reached its culmination under one of the most powerful and influential of all the Khmer rulers, Jayavarman VII (ruled 1181-1219).

            Under his reign, some of Cambodia’s most remarkable Buddhist architecture was built, in particular the Bayon, a Buddhist monument in the Angkor Thom complex. This is an architectural manifestation of Jayavarman’s Mahayanist Buddhist beliefs and a demonstration of his belief in the conept of the god-king, a divine ruler at the cneer of the univers. The bayon is designed as a great cosmic mountain, symbloizing the Buddhist Mount Meru at the center of the cosmos and is built on a base that resembles a Buddhist mandala, or cosmic diagram. On its towers are mummery faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara looking out to their four directions. The faces are said to resemble his own looking out over his great empire.

            Images of Avalokiteshvara were produced in large numbers under Jayavarman, mostly in stone, but occasionally in bronze. Khmer sculptors also created numerous images of the Historical Buddha, often shown surrounded by the hood of the seven-headed serpent king. Muchalinda, who protected the Buddha from a storm during his meditation under the bodhi tree. This image, as well as sculpted and painted images of naga, or serpent deities, were extremely popular in Khmer Buddhist art, in part because Jayavarman VII also associated himself with the Buddha, who was protected by snakes. After his rule, patronage of Buddhism and its arts declined in Cambodia and the era of great Khmer Buddhist art came to an end.

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Burma (Myanmar)

The earliest evidence of Buddhism in Burma dates to the fifth century AD, when the country was settled largely by the Mon people who inhabited both Burma and Thailand. The Mon had their political and cultural center in the Dvaravati state in what is now central Thailand, but the Mon people in the area of Burma had their capital at Thaton, and are known to have had contacts with India and Buddhism, the first major Buddhist capital was Sri Ksetra, a Pyu city, which, according to the seventh-century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, had one hundred elaborately decorated Buddhist monasteries. This and other Pyu sites have revealed that the Pyu people, who entered Burma from the northeast, believed in a mixture of Hinduism and Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. Regrettably, little Buddhist art has survived from this early period.

            The oldest Buddhist archaeological remains and the first appearance of a true Burmese style in Buddhist art date to the time of King Aniruddha (ruled 1044-77), whose enthronement united Burma for the first time and began the Pagan period (1044-1287). King Aniruddha is known to have been an ardent Buddhist who spread the Buddha’s teachings to the areas he conquered. He brought monks, artists, and craftsmen from conquered Buddhist citieds to the cpaital, Pagan, to develop it into a truly Buddhist city. In the three hundred or so years that Pagan was the capital, several thousand temples were constructed in the city, of which about tow thousand remain. Most of these were Theravada Buddhist temples, although this religion co-existed alongside Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism until around the thirteenth century, when Theravada gained primacy.

            The city of Pagan is remarkable for its extraordinary scale and for the impressive brick and stucco Buddhist architecture that is unique in Southeast Asia. Many of the temples, including the Ananda temple built around 1105, resemble stupas, with their stepped pyramid bases, bell-like central sections and spires, all painted white with stucco to crate the impression of a stone structure. The stupas, or pagodas, of Pagan and other Burmese cities also have a distinctly Burmese flavor. The Shwezigon Pagoda of Pagan and the later Shedagon Pagoda of Rangoon (Yangon) stretch upw9oards, their separate geometric parts merging into a single golden from with smooth profile.

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Indonesia

The islands of Java and Sumatra in Indonesia enjoyed active trade with the mainland of India from around the sixth or seventh century, resulting in the introduction of both Hinduism and Buddhism to the islands. In the eighth century, Mahayana and Buddhist teachings were transmitted to the islands from the Pala Empire in northeastern India. This accounts in part for the creation they’re of Borobodur, one of the most complex and mysterious works of architecture and sculpture in the Buddhist world.

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Central Asia

It was roughly three hundred years after the death of the Historical Buddha before Buddhism began to spread outside India. In the third century BC, during the reign of King Ashoka, the teachings of the Buddha spread south to the island of Sri Lanka. Missionaries’ also traveled to Gandhara in present-day northwestern India, Pakistan and east Afghanistan, where Buddhism took hold fairly quickly. The region of Gandhara was situated along a branch of the Silk Road, along which silks and other merchandise were transported between China and the West. Buddhism also spread along this route, carried by Buddhist monks and pilgrims who settled in the various regions connected by the route, built Buddhist temples and monasteries, and proselytized among the local communities. Over the centuries, many cave temples and Buddhist monuments were erected long the route at Bamiyan and Gilgit, and then further east at Kucha and Dunhuang towards the Chinese end of the Silk Road. Many of these Buddhist sites flourished in the first centuries AD, and they contain some of the earliest surviving Buddhist texts and imagery.

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China

Buddhism first traveled towards China along the Silk Road, penetrating its borders during the first century AD. Initially, the religion encountered resistance from followers of the two native philosophies, Confucianism and Daoism. However, Indian monks gradually adapted Buddhism to suit the beliefs of the Chinese, and eventually, many of the scholarly Confucian Chinese embraced the monastic traditions of Buddhism, while the more intuitive and non-ritualistic Daoists embraced Mahayana teachings. Under the Turkic Wei rulers between the fourth and the sixth century. Buddhism flourished, and huge Buddhist cave temples at Yungang and Longmen were created as displays of Wei support of the faith. At Dunhuang, at the Chinese entrance to the Silk Road, many more cave temples were decorated with Buddhist sculptures and paintings and the site went on to be a major Buddhist center for pilgrims until the end of the first millennium.

            Some of the most remarkable works of Chinese Buddhist art date from this early period. Sculptural representation of all sizes of the Buddha and bodhisattvas, often with Chinese facial features, were among the greatest achievements these early period. The large stone figures carved from cliffs and the small stone and bronze figures with their sweet-smiling faces and heavily stylized robes became the model for Buddhist imagery throughout East Asia. It was also during this time that the pagoda, an East Asian variation of the stupa, made its appearance in China. Pagodas retain the solid core that houses the relics and a space around them for circumambulating, but these tower-live structures with their many storeys bear little resemblance to their Indian ancestors.

            During the first half of the Tang dynasty, Buddhism received the support of many of the Chinese rulers, who were drawn to the Indian concept of the chakrawartin, or Buddhist king who ruled over all other kings. They erected many large stone sclptures of Buddhas, and patronized temples and monasteries, resulting in a blossoming of Chinese Buddist culture. Very few of these buildings have survived, but examples of Tang-style Chinese architecture in Japan attest to the sophistication and elegance of these Tang Buddhist temples. During this period, many different schools of Buddhism achieved great popularity, from the complex, ritualistic esoteric schools to the meditative Chan school, which drew many elements from Daoism. Two major Chinese Cuddhist schools that blossomed at this time were the Pure Land school, which stressed the saving powers of the Buddha Amitabha, and the Tiantai school, named after a sacred mountain in southern China, which preached the potential for Buddhahood in all beings. The imagery created for these various schools is among the most refined Buddhist imagery ever created. The few Tang dynasty paintings that have survived from Dunhuang and the stone and bronze sculptures paintings that have survived from Dunhuang and the stone and bronze sculptures reveal a graceful, dynamic artistic style reminiscent of the elegant Gupta style of India.

            In the later Tang dynasty, Buddhists were heavily persecuted, but over the following centuries, Buddhism received sporadic support from Chinese emperors of the Song and later the Ming and Qing dynasties, who commissioned imagery of various forms and styles. The compassionate bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, known in Chinese as Guanyin, became one of the most popular objects of veneration, and underwent a transformation into a merciful goddess. Close contact between the Chinese court and Tibetan lamas during the Ming dynasty resulted in the Tibetan influence on Chinese Buddhist art at several points in time, and the introduction of Chinese artistic elements and motifs into Tibetan Buddhist art.

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Korea

From China, Buddhism was tranmitted to Korea and Japan, where it has endured to varying degrees up to the present day. Buddhism first appeared on the Korean peninsula during the fourth century, when the area was divided into three main kingdoms: Koguryo, Paekche and Silla. Before the introduction of Buddhism, the Koreans, many of were descended from nomadic peoples from the Siberia-Manchuria region, were a shammanistic people, believing strongly in the world of spirits. Buddhism arrived first in the northern kingdom of Koguyo, via an overland route from northeast China, and shortly afterwards in Paekche, via the sea from southern China. The kingdom of Silla in the southeast was relatively isolated and received Buddhism later than the other two states, although the faith eventually took the strongest hold in this region.

            Buddhist imagery from this period bore a strong resemblance to early Chinese Buddhist images from the fifth and sixth centuries. The sculptures of this period feature simple forms and shallow, tentative carving. Buddha images tend to have large heads and hands, similar to the earlier Chinese figures at Long men, and the folds of their robes are highly stylized. Their faces wear gentle smiles. Some of the most notable figures of this period are the bronze seated figures of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, from Paekche and Silla, depicted as a bodhisattva sitting in contemplation of the state of the world. Dating to the seventh century, these images show the beginnings of a true Korean sculptural style of slender, elegant Buddhist figures.

            When the three kingdoms were united by the silla in 668 AD, Buddhism thrived in the southeast under the influence of neighbouring Tang dynasty china. In the capital, Kyongju, numerous temples, monasteries, and pagodas were built by the rulers and members of the upper classes. One of the most notable sites is the Pullguksa, the Temple of the Buddha Land, constructed by Prime Minister Kim Taesong in the eighth century. This large complex, which has since been destroyed and rebuilt, features Chinese Tang-style wooden architecture as well as stone pagodas that demonstrate a native Korean architectural style, with open sections and steps on each side. The Sokkuram Cave Temple was also created at this time by Kim Taesong as a temple of private worship. Inside it is Korea’s great masterpiece of Buddhist art, a granite statue of a seated Buddha, probably Shakyamuni, surrounded on the walls by relief carvings of bodhisattvas and monks. The cave was a more intimate version of the Indian, Central Asian and Chinese Buddhist cave temples and featured openings which allowed the sunlight to stream in and animate the carvings on the wall.

            Buddhism continued to flourish in Korea during the succeeding Koryo dynasty, when many fine Buddhist paintings on silk were produced for the Buddhist nobility. Other significant artistic achievements of this period include bronze temple bells, lacquer sutra boxed, and ceramic sprinkling vessels, all used by Buddhist monks and lay practitioners. One of the most spectacular achievenments of Korean Buddhists was the carving of the entire Buddhist canon, or Tripitaka, onto woodblocks to enable the printing and widespread dissemination of Buddhist teachings. A set of, woodblocks carved in the thirteenth century is still housed in a special hall in the Heinsa temple. After this period, Buddhism lost the patronage of the rulers, who turned to Confucianism for philosophical guidance. However, many of the ordinary people still practised Buddhism and produced folk art with Buddhist subject matter.

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Japan

It was the Koreans who first introduced Buddhism to Japan. According to Japanese historical records, the King of Paekche sent Buddhist texts, a bronze image and other religious objects to the Japanese Emperor Kimmu in the sixth century. Initially, Japan’s imperial court, who derived much of their political power from the belief that they were descended from the chief Shinto deity, the Sun Goddess, were wary of introducing a foreign faith that might undermine their position. However, an imperial prince, Shotoku Taishi, encouraged the study and spread of Buddhism among the country’s rulers, and commisioned the country’s first temples, paintings, and sculptures.

            The earliest Japanese Buddhist art and architecture of the seventh century strongly echoes that of China and Korea of a slightly earlier date. Temples around the ancient capital of Nara housed bronze and wooden Buddhas and bodhisattvas, created mostly for the personal worship of the ruling classes. In the eighth century, the devout Buddhist Emperor Shomu transformed the nation into a Buddhist state with himself as a chakravartin, in the centre. To demonstrate his own greatness as well as to encourage the spread of the faith, he constructed a colossal bronze image of the Cosmic Buddha Vairochana in the capital, Nara, and installed it in the largest wooden structure ever created.

            After Shomu, church and state separated again in Japan, and Buddhism becam more of a personal faith. Throughout the ninth and tenth centuries, many different schools of the Mahayana tradition took hold in Japan, including the esoteric Tendai and Shingon sects and the Pure Land sect. The Buddha Amitabha and the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara become the focus of devotional Buddhism, first among the upper classes and then increasingly among the general populace. Some of Japan’s greatest contributions to Buddhist art are the wooden sculptural representations of these and other Buddhist figures, from the serene gilded wood image of the Buddha Amitabha at the Byodoin temple near Kyoto, to the dynamic wood guardian figures at the temple gates of Nara and Kyoto temples such as the Todaiji. Also masterfully created are the wooden worship halls and pagodas of Japan’s Buddhist temples, some of which have survived since the eighth century.

            Around the twelfth century, Zen Buddhism, which evolved from Chinese Chan meditational practices, gained a following among the samurai military class and later in other areas of society. Within the context of Zen Buddhism, Buddhist paintings and calligraphy, often based on Chinese Chan Buddhist prototypes, flourished, and the dry landscape gardens of Zen temples becam some of the most exquisite sites for Buddhist meditational practices. From around the seventeeth century, Buddhism lost the patronage of the rulers and becam more of a people’s religion.

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Nepal

Siddhartha Gautama, the Historical Buddha, was born at Lumbini in the Shakyan capital of Kapilavastu in the southern region of Nepal. However, after he left home to pursue spiritual enlightenment, Siddhartha spent most of the next fifty years of his life travelling around india. It is said that King Ashoka visited Nepal in the third century BC, bringing with him the Buddhist faith and erecting a stupa and one of his famous columns at Lumbini. Buddhism was practised alongside hinduism in Nepal for several centuries, and it enjoyed its greatest popularity between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries. From the thirteenth century onwards, Hinduism has been the predominant faith of Nepal.

            Nepal fully embraced the esoteric teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism, along with its numerous forms of the Buddha and its various benign and wrathful bodhisattvas and deities. Along with images of the Historical Buddha at various stages of his life, and bodhisattvas, particularly Avalokiteshavara and the feemale figures, Tara and Prajnaparamita feature prominently in Nepali Imagery. Probably the Most Remarkable examples of Nepali Buddhist art are the fine gilt bronze sculptures produced by the Newari metalworkers of the Kathmandu Valley. These bronze figures are slender, graceful deities usually ewaring crowns and jewelry made using inlaid precious stones. Strupas and other objects of veneration were given the same artistic treatment by the metalworkers of Nepal.

            In the realm of painting, the most notable works are mandalas, often similar to Tibetan examples, and palm leaf manuscripts decorated with gold lettering and bold colours. In architecture, the most remarkable developments in Nepal were probably their Buddhist buildings constructed out of brick and wood. Many of the temple buildings have wide wooden eaves that extend outwards to resemble those of East Asian pagodas. As well as temple buildings, the Nepali Buddhists constructed large and small stupas, close in tyle to the Indian prototypes, with a large dome surmounted by a rectangular element called a harmika and a spire with umbrella. A unique feature of Nepali stupas is the addition of a pair of eyes painted on each side of the harmika, which may serve as the eyes of the Four Heavenly Kings who guard the four directions of the world, or as the eyes of the all-seeing Cosmic Buddha, Vairochana.

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Tibet

Buddhism did not arrive in Tibet until the seventh century AD, a relatively late date compared with the rest of Asia, and it took another three hundred years for it to become firmly rooted. It was Vajrayana Buddhism that found favour among the Tibetans, who possessed a strong tradition of shamanistic practices which they incorporated into their form of Buddhism. Often known as Lamaism, after the Tibetan name for a Buddhist monk, Tibetan Buddhism is often considered the most complex of all Buddhist traditions. Not only are many different Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities venerated, but they are worshipped in a great number of different forms. Of great importance to Tibetan Buddhists is the concept of mystical union with deities which can be achieved by performing mantras (sacred phrases), mudras (hand gestures) and meditation using a variety of different types of art forms, the most well known being the elaborate diagrams known as mandalas.

            The Buddhist art of Tibet evolved under the influences of Indian, Nepalese, Kashmiri and Chinese artistic styles. In the realm of sculpture, stone carving is vitually unknow in Tibet, but many broze figures of bodhisattvas and deities have been made, often by the Newari craftsmen of Nepal and their descendants. These share with the Nepalese images an elaborate, heavily ornamented style. Some of the most remarkable sculptural images are the figures of male and female deities joined in sexual embrace. Known as yab-yum, or ‘father-mother’ images, these figures symbolize the union of wisdom (femaleX and compassion (male) that is believed by many Mahayana Buddhists to be necessary for enlightenment. The most striking of these figures are the wrathful deities, with their bulging eyes, fangs and many arms wielding swords with which they destroy evil. Other notable Tibetan images are the figures of the various deified teachers, or gurus, of Tibetan Buddhism, including Padmasambhava, who brought many tantric practices to Tibet in the eighth century, and Atisha, who helped reform Buddhism in the eleventh century.

            Buddhist painting has flourished in Tibet, and paintings on cloth, known as thangkas, are particularly remarkable. They generally depict a Buddha, bodhisattva, deity or deified guru in the centre, surrounded by lesser deities. They may be shown in their various paradises, or pure lands, or in the centre of a mandala, a geometrical diagram that represents the perfected worlds of these deities. Originally derived from Indian Tantric diagrams, these mandalas have been used by Tibetan Buddhists in visualization exercizes that help the practitioner to enter the perfected worlds and progress towards enlightenment.

            For centuries, Tibet has been one of the most devoutly Buddhist countries, and has been one of the few nations in which the political leader has also been the country’s religious leader. Over the centuries, this phenomenon resulted in the enthusiatic patronage of Buddhist painting, sculpture and metalwork, in particular. Since I959,  His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has lived in exile in Dharamasala in India, and many exiled Tibetan Buddhists have established their homes in countries around the world. Many have taken with them the Buddhist arts of Tibet, and increasingly, Tibetan Buddhist thangka paintings, silk appliques and mandalas are being produced in as distant places as Europe and the United States, where Buddhism is enjoying increasing popularity in the twenty-first century.


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