Who are Buddhists?

The easiest answer to the question of who is a Buddhist is anyone who identifies as such. We might however query this statement if the beliefs, values and behaviour of the person bore no resemblance to anything associated with the term Buddhist or if they had no connections with any Buddhist community. As with any such identification, being a Buddhist can mean many different things. For many it means having been born into a Buddhist family with roots in a majority-Buddhist country, so is linked with ethnic and cultural identity. For others, with different family backgrounds, it might have been a choice in adulthood, and less about ethnicity and culture and more about personal experience, values and beliefs.

Although there are now Buddhists worldwide, Buddhist-majority countries today include Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Bhutan, and Mongolia. Other countries with substantial Buddhist populations are China, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Nepal. Japan is an interesting case. Though many claim to be secular or non-religious, Buddhism has been, and still is, very influential in Japan. Different sources use different ways of counting who is a Buddhist, and as many people combine elements that might be labelled Buddhist or Shinto or secular in their personal worldview and practice, figures vary between 36% and 67% or even higher if counting all those who include at least something recognisably Buddhist in their lives. This listing of countries soon becomes political. Tibet is a Buddhist-majority country, but claimed as part of China. It is interesting to see which lists include Tibet separately and which do not, and to wonder why, and also (in different ways) Taiwan or Hong Kong. In the past, and especially prior to the expansion of Islam, India, Indonesia and many of the Central Asian ‘silk road’ centres (now in countries such as Afghanistan or Uzbekistan) also had substantial Buddhist populations. Whether the 20% of some lists or the much larger estimates of others, the largest number of Buddhists in the world live in China, whether in the minority areas of Theravada or Tibetan-style Buddhist practice, or within the majority Han population. Roughly three-quarters of all Buddhists in the world follow Mahayana traditions, which is important to remember given the UK tendency to view Theravada as the mainstream.

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