I’m not qualified to talk much about the Pali teachings because I don’t know enough about them. But in terms of what we sometimes call the “Northern teachings,” the teachings that were mainly written down in Sanskrit or related languages… Of course you have to remember that India wasn’t a unified country in those times. It was not as if there was one border…like present day India. Buddhism spread for all sorts of reasons to all kinds of neighbouring countries, including way up to the Northwest, into what’s now Pakistan, Afghanistan and even parts of Iran; and also all along what we now call the Silk Road and the trade routes in Central Asia.
But the most notable spread, really, was, perhaps, initially to China, as a result of the visits of great Chinese travelers to India to seek the teachings. They invited to China some Indian scholars specifically to translate the texts. Here we are talking about, perhaps beginning in the 1st century BC, carrying on through to the 5th or 6th centuries AD. Over a long period, texts were being translated into Chinese. Sometimes the same text was translated more than once by different groups of translators.
Of course, in each of those countries, the original texts would have been preserved. But the Buddha always emphasized the importance of translation into local languages in order that people could really understand and practice the teachings. So it wasn’t like the teachings were kept in the classical language, which was the origin. They were translated and used. And the work of translation was taken very seriously.
The Tibetan….it spread into Tibet, which perhaps might not have seemed incredibly important at that time, we now see as very, very important, happened at a later stage starting in the 7th, some people say the 6th, but certainly in the 7th, 8th, 9th centuries. There was a very concentrated period of activity, especially in the reign of King Trisong Detsen, who invited Shantarakshita, Guru Padmasambhava and many Indian panditas to Tibet. And they started establishing really very quickly, a very active translation school and all kinds of tools and methods. All of this was done under state sponsorship, under the direction of the king, ministers and some appointed officials, and was very, very organized. And although the work of translation did carry on for several centuries, a lot of the main body, especially the sutras, was completed…certainly by the 9th century. There were some revisions after that, but an extraordinary amount was achieved.
So this later spread of Buddhism to Tibet tended to include scriptures translated from the Sanskrit, which had not all been around, or at least not all been used very much at the time of the Chinese translations. So we get a slightly different pattern of the scriptures that were translated in each case.
And then of course there was also spread of the teachings and translation into other countries of South Asia, South-East Asia, East Asia, Mongolia and further North as well, of which we have quite a lot of archeological evidence, but not that much in terms of translations into other languages.
But there are buddhist teachings in a huge range of Asian languages that have been found in some very important languages. Some are really only just being explored, like the Karosti and other languages, Sogdian, many other languages, dialects and scripts. And of course, the activity of monks, people teaching, the establishment of monasteries, the building of stupas, and communities of practitioners in different places, took different patterns according to the local cultures.
The great significance, really, of the spread to Tibet was that it happened just not really very long before the disappearance of most of the buddhist teachings and libraries and monasteries in India itself. And because so many of them had been, so many of the texts, at least, had been preserved in Tibet, we still have them today. Otherwise we wouldn’t.