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Buddhism Could Now Be the 2nd Largest Spiritual Path with 1.6 Billion or 22% of the World’s Population According to Some Recent Studies

Buddhism Could Now Be the 2nd Largest Spiritual Path with 1.6 Billion or 22% of the World’s Population According to Some Recent Studies

Buddhism has never been a “propagation” spirituality. Actively seeking out “converts” is discouraged for the most part. Individual spirituality is emphasized more than group activities. Some people don’t even think of Buddhism as a “religion”—certainly not an organized religion with dogma. So, it is with sense of optimism—without pride or attachment?—that we report the latest estimates of Buddhist population worldwide at over 1.6 billion, now closing in on a quarter of the population.

Why optimism? Because, it’s remarkable that a spirituality and philosophy with no central authority, no rigid dogma and no mission to proselytize, can never-the-less quietly grow. It’s not a matter of pride, but one of inspiration and hope.

 

Teachers such as the Dalai Lama (centre) and Lama Zopa Rinpoche (right) teach compassion to non-humans and promote vegetarianism.
Teachers such as the Dalai Lama (centre) and teachers such as Lama Zopa Rinpoche (right) have helped spread Tibetan Buddhism around the world, one of the fastest growing “religions.” The Dalai Lama’s gentle teachings and appearances, especially, have been enthusiastically received by students in numerous countries.

 

This may be an optimistic number, given 2010 estimates around 500 million, and I’m the first to doubt this number. I believe the real number is somewhere between the low estimates of 500 million or so (in 2010), and the 1.6 Billion being floated today. Tibetan Buddhism especially has accounted for much of the growth in the west in earlier reports (2010 estimates). But in sheer numbers, China’s sudden official re-embracing of Buddhism  makes the higher number is feasible, given their population density.

The Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai.
The Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai.

 

China Officially Supports Buddhism

Clearly, the return of active spirituality in China accounts for the surge in estimates from 7% or 488 million Buddhists [1], only a few years ago, to today’s estimates of 1.6 billion or 22% of the world’s people. China, only a few years ago, was attributed a mostly non-spiritual status. Now, with freedoms returning, there are over 28,000 Buddhist monasteries, 16,000 temples and 240,000 Buddhist monks and nuns. 80% of the Chinese population, just over 1 billion, now—according to some estimates—call themselves lay Buddhists. Other estimates are much lower, varying from expert to expert.

If you believe the majority of Chinese are Buddhist — considering Buddhism is now officially supported in China and their active program to rebuild temples — then the 1.6 billion estimate seems at least possible. Previous studies, prior to official support, estimated China’s Buddhist population at only 244,130,000. [3]

 

A typical ceremony with Chinese Buddhist monks.
A typical ceremony with Chinese Buddhist monks.

 

Numbers Just Another Label

So which is it? The conservative estimate indicated in 2010 studies at just about half a billion, or the 1.6 Billion, now estimated by some studies in 2014? It doesn’t really matter, of course. Numbers are just a label of another kind. The number is just a matter of curiosity or interest, nothing more.

Russia Embraces Buddhism?

A Buddhist temple is now being constructed in Moscow, the Russian capital, for the first time, signalling the countries openness to diverse spiritualities. The temple is scheduled to be completed by 2017. The temple will have it’s own library, a cinema, a five meter statue of the Buddha and will have a clinic for Tibetan Buddhist medicine. [4]

Russia and China’s sudden re-embracing of Buddhism is a hopeful sign of peaceful, organic growth of Buddhism in all its forms worldwide.

 

Russia will complete construction on an elaborate Buddhist Temple, complete with Tibetan Buddhist Medical clinic, by 2017. This will be the first Buddhist temple in Russia, according to World Religion News.
Russia will complete construction on an elaborate Buddhist Temple, complete with Tibetan Buddhist Medical clinic, by 2017. This will be the first Buddhist temple in Russia, according to World Religion News.

 

How do we know?

How do we know this is a reliable estimate? There’s no worldwide census to rely on, but this data is reasonably extrapolated by Dr. Daya Hewapathirane, based on studies published in 2010 and 2013. The shift in numbers (from 6% to 22%) is largely due to the willingness of the Chinese population to now identify with Buddhism. Prior to the mid-1990s , religious affiliations in China may not have been openly declared. Between 1966 and 1976, in particular, religion was discouraged.

Now, China is actually encouraging the promotion of Buddhism, and not just Shaolin monk world tours and tourism. China affirmed its status as the most populous Buddhist nation and “declared its commitment to spearhead and support international initiatives to protect Buddhism and Buddhist culture,” according to Dr. Hewapathirane.

 

Korea has always been a nation with a large Buddhist population. Today, estimates place the Buddhist population in South Korea a 50%. Pictured: a temple on Jejudo.
Korea has always been a nation with a large Buddhist population. Today, estimates place the Buddhist population in South Korea at 50%. Pictured: a temple on Jejudo.

 

Around the World

In addition, Buddhist populations have grown in other countries. Remarkably, over 14 countries have Buddhist populations at more than 50% of citizens. Seven of these countries indicate Buddhism is practiced by 90% of their populations.

The 14 countries with higher than 50% Buddhist populations are:

  • Cambodia 97%
  • Japan 96%
  • Thailand 95%
  • Taiwan 93%
  • Mongolia 93%
  • Myanmar 90%
  • Hong Kong 90%
  • Bhutan 84%
  • China 80%  [this is according to note 2 below. It is significantly less in earlier reports note 5 below, at 102 million people and another report at 500 million. However these were both prior to China’s new “promotion” of Buddhism]
  • Vietnam 75%
  • Sri Lanka 70%
  • Laos 67%
  • Tibet 65% [5]
  • Singapore 51%
  • South Korea 50%

NOTES 

[1] Low estimate according to Adherents.com

[2] “World’s Buddhist Population” Dr. Daya Hewapathirane. Also, information extrapolated from CIA’s World Fact Book 

[3] Pew Research 2010 

[4] “Moscow’s First Buddhist Temple” World Religion News 

[5] Stats from [2] above and from “Largest Buddhist Populations” Buddhanet.net.

24 Responses to Buddhism Could Now Be the 2nd Largest Spiritual Path with 1.6 Billion or 22% of the World’s Population According to Some Recent Studies

  1. I don’t put much stock in those numbers: for example, I’m pretty sure that S. Korea is majority Christian at this point and I’d bet that Japan has never been 96% Buddhist…

    • Actually, Christianity, especially protestant Christianity, is in decline in South Korea. According to a recent study (I believe it was made 2011) Buddhism rose by 3.2 percents, while Protestantism decreased by 1.2 percents. Catholicism experienced a minor rise, if I recall correctly along the lines of 0.40%.
      Furthermore, the general public’s opinion about Christians has taken a hard hit in recent years. It is mainly because many churches have huge debts, Christian officials’ intolerance of other religions, and a few sex scandals involving seemingly devout and morally pure politicians that the Christians have been trying to hide under the carpet. Even more so, Christianity in there has been on a decline since mid-nineties.

      One of Buddhism’s boons is that it lacks strict organization and dogmas. Many people in the secularizing West are drawn to it because of that, in addition to its compassionate values. Plus even atheists leave Buddhism alone for the most part in the world, unlike Christianity. At the moment, Buddhism has very few enemies and opposers.

      IMO, the future of Buddhism looks very favorable, especially since the Dalai Lama has brought up how “science-friendly” Buddhism is. That is bound to appeal to a lot of modern people. I admit even I converted partly because of that.

      But yes, some numbers of the article are way off, especially Japan. It has been a very secular country for almost half a century, and even so the population is largely syncretistic, combining both Shinto and Buddhism. Japan’s true number of active Buddhists would be more like 15-20%, not 96%.

      Anyway, I believe China may actually have so many Buddhists. In my experience, most of them are very devoted Buddhists, instead of simply following an old tradition.

      I would guess the real number of active Buddhists would be in between 800 millions and 1.2 billion.

      • When Buddha had born, there was no Nepal, it was called Ayrabartha, a ample king Dom of ancient India called Kapilabastu, So it is very correct to say Buddha had born in India.

        • So according to your myth everything significant happened in Asia simply happened in India??? Cool… go on…. that hypocrisy

    • Bhagawan Buddha were born in lumbini which is in Nepal.. And you are talking about population of Buddhism in India is low , so in India hindu’s population is more than us but so many people are Buddhism here and population of Buddhism is increasing in India in Gujarat more than 90%-95% of people want’s to accept Buddhism and some of them are already accepted Buddhism. And in India or Maharashtra 500 Hindu people’s leave Hinduism and accepted Buddhism and don’t you know the greatest person of India ,because of that person Buddhism are alive in India , India is depend upon the rajyaghatana which is written by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar who accepted Buddhism.in india Buddhism is also known as “Jay Bhim” which is taken by the name of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar . in India we respect Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Bhagawan Gautam Buddha and we are worshipers of them.in future population of Buddhism will increase in India and whole India will be known as Buddhism country. And I know in world Buddhism people’s will increase.

      • Well said,I could not have agreed more with you.Buddhism always seem to have more tolerance towards other religion.Buddhism survived through all the oppressive movements by Hindus and Islam and against all odds in early days.Brahmins did not accepted Buddhism from the get go because Buddha did not agree with their establishment and the products they introduced to the society such as caste and gender discrimination.

  2. Buddhism is the cultural identity of Japan. As to the 96% rating this does not mean that Japanese solely practice Buddhism (Buddhism is inclusive) for most are married in a Shinto rite and the vast majority (over 96%) of Japanese have funeral rites that are Buddhist. The monastery that I belong to is Koyasan (Shingonshu) which was founded by St. Kobo Daishi 1,200 years ago and his name is still ‘a house hold word’ in Japan. Japanese Buddhism has always been engaged in helping persons in need. Shingonshu has been a leader in creating schools, hospital and elder care since the 7th century CE.

  3. I am a Buddhist, but this article seems to have been written by a China apologist, or by a half baked scholar. It does not mention about Tibet while it clearly mentions Taiwan. The number of the Chinese Buddhist is exaggerated and overblown, and there is no credible statistics to back up the claim. On the other hand it totally ignores the number of Buddhist in places like Bangladesh, Nepal, Europe and America even though their number may be far less than 50%. Dalai Lama and the Tibetan diaspora have contributed to the spread of Buddhism the world over, and the article deliberately ignores this fact just to please the Chinese. After all this is yet another of the political article, not a researched fact.

    • Dear Sherab Gyatso,
      Thank you for commenting, appreciate it. I am Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, and the author of this story, and by no means political nor a China apologist, and never claimed to be any sort of scholar (I don’t take offence, I’m just responding to clarify that I’m none of these things). I also see why you feel that way, and have found a separate report with Tibetan numbers, so I will amend the story accordingly. The original numbers, however, were citing a specific report, which reported it in the way I presented the numbers. They were not a willful slant — it is difficult to find the numbers for Tibet in many statistical compilations — but I appreciate your insight that it could be taken this way. According to statistics reported on Buddha Net, Tibet is listed as 65% Buddhist. I don’t know how accurate it is, but Tibet is significant for certain.
      This is a reporting piece, focused on numbers only. The reason China is a focus is the sheer magnitude of the population. Of course Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the Dalai Lama have always been a huge driver of increasing populations of Buddhists, particularly in the West, probably more so than any other Buddhist traditions, but this is strictly a numbers reporting piece, based on numbers from two sources. If you read the stories in Buddha Weekly, you will note we extensively cover Tibetan Buddhism — and we steer very far away from any politics. The sudden surge in massive numbers are definitely influenced by China (not the politics or the country, just the sheer number of people.) This is the reason why the optimistic number is so much higher than the conservative number, as explained in the piece. As for the credibility of the numbers, this is likewise explained: we’re reporting on the findings of others and we made it clear there is a “conservative” and “optimistic” number. I hope I don’t sound apologetic:-) Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. It will be a good thing special in this time that Buddhism is growing world wide. High time for a good and peacefull change !

    • I live in the USA and a buddhist, most my friends from all nationalities all self converted to buddhism. We are growing quickly but we do not go around telling everyone we are buddhist unless someone seeks information from us or gets to know us. So many people are seeking the path of enlightenment here. I can definitely say we are the largest religion in the world. Because most my friends are not Asians all self converts and they are spreading the word everyday to those who are doubting their own religiosity views.

  5. I can believe this number, if you add the western and Latin countries explosive growth of buddhist to these numbers. I’m sure the number is way higher. I live in the US and most my friends of not Asian backgrounds are self converted buddhist , im talking around 50+ ppl! And they told me Europe and Latin America has alot of buddhist there too and growing quickly.

  6. This is vRy good news
    Coz Buddhism vary old and Daimond religion,
    It is founder by human ,
    It is benefit by all human
    Be happy be peace be secure be free from all kind of suffering, there no god no creator only believe your krama or acton , wisdom is teacher awoken is daly prayer ,

  7. If these figures are accurate this is delightful news! I am a convert to Zen Buddhism and it has changed my life for the better. I hope with the growth of Buddhism we will start seeing a more peaceful and compassionate world.

  8. Dear BuddhaWekkly,
    Thank you so much. I agree that the population of the world’s Buddhists has increased due to the adding of numbers from China and Japan. Previously China was almost excluded as it was a staunch anti-religious country and Japan was regarded as a Shinto country. But Buddhism allows its adherents to practice other religions or sects like Hinduism and Shintoism so that the Buddhism census recorders took just one religion as professed like China to be atheist and Japan Shintoist. Now both are counted a smajority Buddhist. Welcome.

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