Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia

From India, Buddhism spread to the East and South.


Cambodia was influenced by India early in its history, and Mahayana Buddhism took a foothold with its people. Early Cambodian history is not well documented, so it is not until the ninth century that we know Buddhism was being practiced there. Kings of the Khmer, who were dominate in Cambodia, started to build large temples and monasteries.

Then at the turn of the twelfth century, King Jayavarman VII came into power. He was a devout Buddhist, and Mahayana Buddhism became the dominant religion of the kingdom under his influence. Neighboring Thailand was soon to have a strong effect, however, and by the end of the thirteenth century Theravada was predominant.

Buddhism has exerted influence on Southeast Asia since the first century C.E. and has taken a predominately Theravada form (except in Vietnam). Great material and political resources were devoted to building what are now some of the world's most magnificent ruins: Angkor in Cambodia, Pagan in Burma, and Borobudur in Java.

When Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge communists took control of Cambodia in the 1970s, they tried to eradicate Buddhism and nearly succeeded. There were 65,000 monks in the Sangha before 1970, and after Pol Pot, that number was reduced to 3,000. Approximately two-thirds of the Buddhist temples were destroyed. Today Buddhism is attempting to re-establish itself but political unrest continues. There has been resurgence in the sangha, and 95 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist.


As in Cambodia, Laotian Buddhism was probably introduced by the Khmer. Later, it was heavily influenced by Thailand and thusly became Buddhist in the Theravada school. Communists also tried to rid Laos of Buddhism in 1975, and a large percentage of the sangha fled the country. The remaining religious communities were under strict state control. Recent reforms and dialogues are moving to declare Theravada Buddhism the state religion. Fully 60 percent of the population is considered to be practicing Buddhists.


The first Buddhists arrived in Indonesia sometime in the first century C.E. from India. It is believed that Buddhism spread here through Ashoka's missionaries as well. Both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism were prevalent, though Mahayana eventually took hold in the eighth century C.E. In the nineteenth century, the largest Buddhist shrine in the world was built on the island of Java. It is known as Borobudur, and this monumental stupa was most likely built at the end of the ninth century by Hindu kings as a central sanctuary of the Buddhist religion. Until recent history, Borobudur was mostly covered and just a small portion was visible above the surrounding earth and forests. It was restored just 200 years ago. This enormous temple is said to be a mandala, a representation of the cosmos, constructed by practicing tantric Buddhists.

  1. Home
  2. Buddhism
  3. The Spread of Buddhism
  4. Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia
Visit other sites: