Buddhists in the World
The number of Buddhists around the world is grossly underestimated. The statistics found in nearly all encyclopedias and almanacs place the number of Buddhists at approximately 500 million. This figure completely ignores over one billion Chinese people who live in the People's Republic of China. China is officially communist (although many free market conditions are already in place) and does not keep records on religion statistics of adherents. Also, many western reference sources refuse to accept that a person can belong to more than one religion. In Asia it is quite common for one person to have two, three, or more religions. In China, it is common for a family to have a shrine in their home with statues and icons from Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.
Currently there are about 1.3 billion Chinese living in the People's Republic. Surveys (Gach-Alpha Books, U.S. State Dept. report on China, Global Center for the Study of Contemporary China, BBC News, China Daily, and a report by Christian missionaries in China) have found that about 8% to 91% identify with Buddhism as one of their religions. If we use a percent near the upper end of this estimate, of about 80% it works out to about 1.1 billion Chinese Buddhists. To ignore over one billion people as if they do not count is a terrible mis-count and very misleading in the reporting of adherents. A Chinese Buddhist forum (bskk.com) currently has about 60,000 registered members and over 2 million posts, which is about double the amount of the largest English language Buddhist forum (which also has Chinese Buddhists participating in the discussions). But to be fair, a more conservative estimate is also shown (see below).
Here are some links to studies that have analyzed or counted the number of Buddhists in China and the percentage found in the study:
U.S. State Dept. report Approx. 8% to 40% (the report lists 8% but then states that there are "hundreds of millions" of Chinese who practice various religions together, which includes Buddhism).
BBC News, 2007 Approx. 16% to 23%
ChinaDaily.com, 2007 Approx. 16% to 21%
Seanetwork.org article by Dr. A. Smith, 2004 Approx. 50% to 80%
Global Center for the Study of Contemporary China Approx. 23% to 98% (the report lists 23% but states that as many as 98% follow more than one religion, which includes Buddhism).
Gach, Alpha Books, 2001 Approx. 91%
The counting of Buddhists in America is also a little problematic since the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask religious affiliation. There are studies that suggest the percentage of Buddhists in America is as low as 0.5% and others that suggest over 3%. Some of the lower estimates claimed that about half of all Buddhists in America are white, European ancestry, which shows that the study was flawed. Any personal observation survey of Buddhism in America by attending meditation groups and temples will demonstrate that the vast majority of Buddhists in the U.S. are still predominantly Asian or Asian ancestry. As a Buddhist I would love to be able to say that Buddhism is so popular that many European and African ancestry Americans are converting, but the reality is still that the vast majority are Asian. Immigration to the U.S. from Asia has been very high due to favorable economic opportunities and more open immigration for those with technical skills, such as in the medical fields. Immigration from Asia ranges from about 1 million to 7 million per year and certainly a sizeable percentage of these immigrants are Buddhist. See: Asian immigration to U.S.
Some other reports at the low end are going by official statistics from Buddhist organizations that count and in many of these estimates it is based on counting only one group, The Buddhist Churches of America (which is one of the few that counts their members). The BCA is just one sect inside the Pure Land school of Buddhism, which is a further sub-set of Mahayana, which is a sub-set of Buddhism in general. As far back as 1995 a study showed that 1.6% of the U.S. is Buddhist. Only a few years later the number of Buddhist centers doubled, which suggests that the actual percent of Americans who are Buddhist is from 2% to 4%. See: R. Baumann, Univ. of Hannover Professor C. Prebish, Ph.D. has stated that 2% of the U.S. population is Buddhist and that most, about 80% of American Buddhists are of Asian descent (about 4.8 million out of 6 million American Buddhists), See: Utah State Univ., 2007 A conservative estimate of 2% is used for the number of Buddhists in America in the table below.
There are also a number of people living in Europe and North America who consider themselves Buddhists, attend retreats once every few years, read dharma books regularly, but who do not have a sangha. They also do not get counted in most lists. Estimates based on book purchases and retreat attendance; put this number at over 200,000. See also Definition of a Buddhist by David N. Snyder, Ph.D.
March 2007 update: Due to the debates and discussions that have occured, some reference books and encyclopedias are finally recognizing that there are Buddhists in China. Some have stated that the survey suggesting that 91% are Buddhist is exaggerated, but at least some are now showing a sizeable percentage, such as over 60% over at wikipedia. Therefore, included below is a liberal estimate using 80% and a more conservative estimate using a 50% figure.
Here is the Wikipedia estimate, which is compatible to the numbers shown here: Wikipedia List of religious populations
July 2007 update: The percentage and numbers for Buddhists in India was adjusted from 1.1% to 1.5% because there have many recent mass conversions of the dalit (untouchables) from Hinduism to Buddhism. See: One of several mass conversions of over 50,000
The following is the more accurate listing of Buddhists around the world with the inclusion of the above-mentioned people (percentage of the total population who are Buddhist is shown in parentheses): China, liberal estimate (80.00%) 1,070,019,251 China, conservative estimate (50.00%) 668,762,032 Japan (96.00%) 122,196,882 Thailand (95.00%) 62,218,633 Sri Lanka (70.00%) 14,790,141 India (1.50%) 17,219,938 Other Asian countries (21.00%) 283,093,570 Total Buddhists in Asia, liberal estimate 1,569,538,416 Total Buddhists in Asia, conservative estimate 1,168,281,197 USA (2.00%) 6,076,493 Canada and N. Amer. islands (1.10%) 366,769 Total Buddhists in N. America 6,443,262 France (1.20%) 768,693 United Kingdom (1.20%) 731,327 Germany (1.00%) 823,695 Other European countries (0.15%) 783,262 Total Buddhists in Europe 3,106,978 Total Buddhists in Latin America and S. America (0.15%) 862,547 Total Buddhists in Australia and Oceania (1.80%) 611,496 Europeans and Americans w/out a sangha 275,504 Total Buddhists in Africa (0.02%) 190,881 _______________________________________________________ Total Buddhists in the world, liberal estimate 1,581,029,084 (about 1.6 billion) Total Buddhists in the world, conservative estimate 1,179,771,865 (about 1.2 billion)
last updated: July 2008 See also Definition of a Buddhist by David N. Snyder, Ph.D.
The current number of Buddhists is therefore, about 1.2 to 1.6 billion which places it nearly equal with each of the two largest religions of Christianity and Islam. Even with the conservative estimate, it is still much higher than the 300 to 500 million still being placed in many references. It is important to know the true number to provide an accurate history and to know that we are not “alone” in our thinking and our practice. What we really strive for is not more Buddhists, but more “buddhas” (enlightened ones) so that we can have true peace inside and for the world.