India was the birthplace of Buddhism, and it has spread out from there to the four corners of the world. The first transmission was to Sri Lanka off India’s southern coast and from there to the nations of Southeast Asia. As a result, this Southern Buddhism is the oldest and most traditional of the Buddhisms of the four directions. Theravada Buddhism, as it is now most commonly known, accepts only the earliest texts they call the Pali Cannon, which they believe to be the only authentic teachings of the Buddha.
The next transmission was to the East, to China and from there, to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Countless new schools in the Mahayana tradition flourished in China, and many eventually melted with each other and various indigenous Chinese traditions. But two distinct and important schools still persist. Pure Land Buddhism, most popular among the common people, focuses on the recitation of the name of Amitaba Buddha in order to gain rebirth into his “pure land” (heaven). The Zen school, as it is known, is Japanese and places a heavy emphasis on meditation and discipline, and was more attractive to the warriors and intellectuals.
Buddhism’s last journey in Asia was to the North, to the Himalayan region of Tibet and Mongolia. Northern Buddhism carries on the last development of Indian Buddhism known as the Tantras. While it shares much of the same Mahayana philosophy as Eastern Buddhism, Northern Buddhism is known as the Vajrayana because it also includes a unique emphasis on the use of visualizations and mantras in its practices.
Buddhism did not gain a foothold in the West until the 20th century, where it encountered an entirely new type of postmodern society. As it has adapted to this radically new environment, Western Buddhism has developed many unique characteristics of its own. Monks are the heart of the Buddhisms of the other three directions, but they are far less important in the West. On the other hand, lay people of both genders are far more likely to meditate and to take on leadership positions that used to be reserved for the male monastics. Although the Asian teachers who first brought Buddhism to the West were usually familiar with only the tradition of their homeland, Western teachers are often influenced by the full spectrum of Buddhist teachings as well as Western science and psychology.