(2011 marks the 2,555th anniversary of the Buddha's
parinibbana and the 2,600th year since his
enlightenment and the start of the Buddha sasana. The
full moon day of July 15 marked the 2,600th
anniversary of the Buddha's first discourse, the
Two centuries after the Buddha breathed his last,
Asoka became Emperor of Magadha. Driven by
overweening ambition, he established a vast empire
covering much of India and neighbouring countries.
But one kingdom had not been brought under his sway:
Kalinga, the modern-day Indian state of Orissa.
Furious at its resistance to him, Asoka attacked
Kalinga and subjugated it in a bloody war. Then, after
the fighting was over, he saw how many innocent
people had been killed and how terrible was the
suffering of this once-prosperous land. Heartsick at his
own actions, he resolved to abjure the sword.
It was at this time that Asoka came to know about
the teachings of the Buddha and was instantly attracted.
He began by studying the words of the Enlightened
One. Then someone told him that knowledge of the
texts was not enough to give an understanding of the
real meaning of the teachings; that can come only
through the development of insight, that is, vipassan±-
bh±van±, or Vipassana meditation.
The best place then to learn Vipassana was at
Bairath in the state of Rajasthan, where a bhikkhu
named Upagupta taught. Handing over power to his
subordinates, Asoka set out for Rajasthan. After 300
days he returned to his capital, a changed man. Now his
ambition was to spread the teachings of the Buddha
throughout his empire; he had been inspired by
ehipassiko, the wholesome wish that others may come
and see the Dhamma.
Printing then was unknown but Asoka was
determined to spread the Buddha’s teachings among hissubjects. He gave orders to inscribe the core teachings
in stone, where everyone could see. This happened little
more than two centuries after the Buddha, before his
original words had been altered in any way. That is why
we see the pure teachings of the Buddha in Asoka’s
More than mere study of the texts or theory
(pariyatti), the Buddha gave importance to practice
(paμipatti). That is why the Asoka inscriptions often
mention the practice of Vipassana.
The Buddha took no account of religious
differences, giving his teaching to all. In many cases,
people who started as his staunch opponents became his
most fervent supporters once they learned what he
taught. In ancient India there were two communities,
the samaºas and the br±hmaºas. The Buddha tried to
unite people of all sects in the practice of Dhamma.
Similarly, Asoka made no distinction between samaºas
and br±hmaºas. He gave donations to both and
encouraged others to do the same.
In fact, with the practice of Vipassana, differences
between the two communities began to fade and they
lived together in harmony. Asoka’s reign saw no
communal tension or fighting.
Asoka tried to interest all communities in Vipassana.
Far from being the monopoly of any one group, he
showed that Vipassana belongs to all. It is universal.
The Buddha sent forth his disciples, telling each to
go in a different direction and offer his pure, nonsectarian
teaching. The result was that the Dhamma
began to spread far and wide through northern India,
bringing happiness to many. People from every major
system of belief came in contact with the Buddha’s
teachings and changed for the better.
To bring people of all religious backgrounds to a
righteous way of living, Asoka urged them to learn and
develop in Vipassana. He appointed male and femaleteachers, both members of the Sangha and laypeople.
All began to teach Vipassana throughout India. In
modern times as well, my revered teacher Sayagyi U
Ba Khin taught Vipassana to followers of the Buddha in
Myanmar and also to other people of many different
Asoka decided to establish cetiyas, or memorials to
the Buddha, the length and breadth of his empire.
Afterwards bhikkhus came to reside at these calm and
inspiring sites, which were ideal places for the teaching
of the Dhamma.
Out of compassion, Asoka saw that Vipassana was
taught to prison inmates so that they might be
transformed. In modern times as well, prison inmates in
India, Myanmar, the United States and other countries
have the opportunity to change their lives through
Asoka was instrumental in spreading the pure
teachings of the Buddha as far afield as Iran, Iraq,
Egypt and Europe, although in those countries the
memory of the Dhamma faded. The story was different
in some Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar,
Thailand, Cambodia and Laos: there the Dhamma took
root with Asoka’s help and flourishes still today.
Asoka had the military strength to conquer
neighbouring countries and extend the frontiers of his
empire. Instead he chose to expand the kingdom of
Dhamma, so that people would live a good life. In
doing so, he won the hearts of all.
With the passage of centuries, in some countries the
teachings of the Buddha did not remain in the original,
authentic form as sent by Asoka. But in Myanmar,
people preserved the words of the Buddha and the
technique of Vipassana meditation in their pristine
purity from generation to generation. At least among a
few, the theory and practice were handed on from
teacher to pupil in their pure form as sent by Asoka.