Buddhism originated in north India in the fifth century BCE. For over a
thousand years it flourished there, sending out teachers south and west.
Then it declined in India itself under the impact of Islam in the 10th to 12th
There are two major divisions of Buddhism: the Southern school (known as
Theravada), and the Northern school (Mahayana). Theravada or “Teaching
of the Elders” is considered to be the older school and its holy books, the
Pali Canon, the ones closest to the words of the historical Buddha. The Pali
Canon has shaped Buddhism in much of southeast Asia. Mahayana or
“Great Vehicle” arose around 2000 years ago and its teachings have
shaped Buddhism throughout China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia.
Theravada Buddhism is flourishing today in much of southeastern Asia. The
Mahayana version continues to have a significant presence in Japan,
Mongolia and Vietnam. Actually, more than half of the world’s population
lives in countries where Buddhism is now, or has been, dominant, but of late
it has been subject to greater suppression and persecution than at any time
in its history. Still, over the last hundred years or so, Buddhism has spread
throughout Europe, North America and Australia.
Since the 1960s Buddhism’s influence has increased as a result of a great
number of young people traveling to Buddhist countries, and there is an
increasing number of Buddhist centers and monasteries outside Asia. It is
virtually impossible to estimate the numbers of Westerners who Practice
Buddhism. Relatively few have joined organized religious orders. Many
people find some aspect of Buddhist teaching helpful, though they may not
describe themselves as Buddhist.
Source: Joanne O’Brien and Martin Palmer, The State of Religion Atlas, 1993.
Worldwide: Approaching 330 million adherents.
Source: The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1994.
United States: A recent study shows 1,082,000 Buddhists (0.5% of the
United States population). Table
Source: The ARIS 2001 study.
Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism