Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula

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The geography of the Malay Peninsula and of Indonesia helps to explain the role the region played in the early spread of Buddhism to Southeast Asia and China. The peninsula includes the modern nation-states of Malaysia and Singapore and the southern portion of Thailand. Malaysia occupies the end of the peninsula, with the small city-state of Singapore at its southern tip on the Sunda Strait. Malaysia shares its northern border, halfway up the peninsula, with Thailand. For purposes of examining the role of ancient Buddhism, the entire peninsula can be seen as a single geographical area. Some twenty-five miles from Singapore, across the Sunda Strait, is the island of Sumatra, one of about three thousand islands that make up the archipelago of modern Indonesia. The peninsula and the islands, surrounded by water, are an environment that produces cultures that rely on boats. Likewise, the peninsula is located about halfway between India and China along the route taken by trading vessels. The area was a crossroads for both local and international trade and communication. It is thus not surprising that most of the earliest evidence for Buddhism in Southeast Asia comes from the peninsula, and that both the peninsula and the islands reveal in their art, culture, and religion very direct and frequent interchanges with South Asia.

These interchanges, based on trading activities, brought Buddhism and Hinduism to Southeast Asia. There is archeological evidence on the Malay Peninsula for the presence of both Hinduism and Buddhism from about the fifth century c.e. Both these Indic religions are present together for centuries to follow at sites on the Malay Peninsula and in Indonesia, specifically on the islands of Sumatra, Java, and Bali. While one religion may have been favored over the other at certain times and places, they rarely were set in opposition to one another. Indeed, as on Bali today, they tended to blend together.

The evidence for Buddhism comes from three sources: Chinese histories, local inscriptions, and art. The Chinese histories that mention early Southeast Asian polities have been very thoroughly explored by scholars. The Chinese sources present the Indian impact starting in the first century c.e., and at times references to Buddhism can be discerned for this early period. By around the fifth century, there are reports from Chinese monks who traveled by ship to and from India, and who thus passed through Southeast Asia. One monk, Yijing (635–713), stopped in the capital of Śrīvijaya in 671 on his way to India in order to study Sanskrit. The capital is believed to have been Palembang on Sumatra. Yijing returned to Palembang after ten years in India to live again in Śrīvijaya from 685 to 695 (with one visit to China in 689), and it is there that he translated Indian texts into Chinese and wrote his memoirs.

Srivijaya remained a center for Buddhist studies for hundreds of years. The famous Indian monk Atisha (982–1054) went to Sumatra to study with the Buddhist teacher Dharmak rti. Atisha later traveled to Tibet in 1042 and founded the Kadam lineage, which became the Dge lugs (Geluk) school of Tibetan Buddhism.

The second category of evidence for Buddhism on the Malay Peninsula and in Indonesia is inscriptions. The earliest inscriptions, mostly written on stone, date from around the fifth to the eighth centuries c.e. They are written in Indian-related scripts in Sanskrit, and often include phrases from, or similar to those in, Buddhist texts. The dating of these inscriptions, scattered at various sites, is generally based on paleography (that is, the style of the letters), which gives rise

to varying opinions by scholars. Most of these inscriptions hold little historical information, but they tell us that Buddhism was practiced by some of the population and sometimes the school of Buddhism can be broadly identified. When the early Buddhist inscriptions are compared to those of similar date that relate to Hinduism, it appears that Hinduism was associated with those in power, the local chiefs or kings. Hinduism in Southeast Asia served the role of building royal power more frequently than did Buddhism during this early period.

When one thinks of Buddhism in Java, it is the Central Javanese period (seventh to tenth centuries) and the truly spectacular monument of Borobudur that come to mind. Borobudur is but one of the many Buddhist monuments built during this time, when hundreds of Buddhist images in stone and bronze were also made. Hinduism was practiced here as well, and the old theory that the two religions represented contending dynasties is today discounted. The coexistence of Buddhism and Hinduism continued when the cultural center of Java moved to the east. During the Majapahit period (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), Śiva and the Buddha were worshiped, both with tantric texts and rituals.

Today, most of the population of Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula is Muslim. Islam appeared in Sumatra by the ninth century c.e. and by the sixteenth century had come to dominate most of the Indonesian islands and the Malay Peninsula up to about the border with modern Thailand. Although Thailand is today overwhelmingly Buddhist, its southern peninsular region has a large Muslim minority. Modern Thai Buddhism is not related to the earlier Buddhism of the peninsula, but is connected to that of Burma and Sri Lanka. Buddhism is also practiced in Singapore, but this is Buddhism of the large expatriate Chinese community. It is only on the tiny island of Bali that echoes of the region's early Buddhism remain today, blended with Hinduism in a unique local religion and culture.

See also:Hinduism and Buddhism; Indonesia, Buddhist Art in; Islam and Buddhism; Southeast Asia, Buddhist Art in


Coèdes, George. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, tr. Susan Brown Cowing. Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1968.

Jacq-Hergoualc'h, Michel. The Malay Peninsula: Crossroads of the Maritime Silk Road (100b.c.–1300 a.d.), tr. Victoria Hobson. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2002.

Miksic, John N., ed. The Legacy of Majaphit. Singapore: National Heritage Board, 1995.

Soekmono, R. The Javanese Candi: Function and Meaning. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1995.

Robert L. Brown