The far-flung regions of Asia have been linked by trade routes for millennia. Buddhism spanned the Indian and Chinese cultural realms of Asia by moving along these trade routes—across deserts, mountains, and oceans. Contributing to this dispersion was the fact that Buddhism, unlike Hinduism, did not view commercial activity negatively, and many Indian merchants became Buddhists. By the first century C.E., trading ships and caravans from India were transporting Buddhist missionaries along with their primary cargos of goods such as textiles, ivory, sandalwood, and spices. Itinerant monks and teachers traveled from India to promote the religion, or to India to seek instruction from a learned master. Later, numerous pilgrims made the perilous voyage to India as well. Material Buddhist culture, in the form of manuscripts, images, and other portable icons, also traveled along the trade routes, carried abroad by those who needed religious objects for protection, veneration, or for proselytizing purposes. Travelers were often forced to spend extended periods of time in a port or an oasis, waiting until the following season's weather permitted a journey on to the next stop or back home. In the case of long-distance maritime traders, these stops could easily last three to five months. Cultural influences, religious ideas, and arts were readily exchanged in market towns, and new ideas were then disseminated to other regions of Asia.

Although established networks have linked Asia since prehistory, archeological and written evidence extends back only to the first centuries of the common era. Recent finds include shards of pottery belonging to a Vietnamese tradition dating from about 750 – 200 B.C.E. in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia; shards of Indo-Roman pottery from the first century C.E. on the north coast of Java; an Indian ivory comb dating from the first to third century C.E. in central Thailand; and Indian beads and "Indianizing" coins from the first to fifth century C.E. in central Burma. It should also be pointed out that although commerce was one of the most important activities performed along these routes, the concomitant spread of religions demonstrates that other types of transactions were also important. Studies by anthropologists have shown that ritual, religious, and social considerations often overshadowed material motives in the exchange of goods.