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 over 150,000 registered members and over 4 million posts, which is more than ten times 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 used in the table at Buddhists in the World.
Here are some studies that have analyzed or counted the number of Buddhists in China and the percentage found in the study:
state.gov 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).
Buddhist Channel article, July 7, 2009 Buddhism thrives in China
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. 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 0.5 million to 7 million per year and certainly a sizeable percentage of these immigrants are Buddhist.
infoplease.com/ 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%. pluralism.org/resources/statistics/ 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), deseretnews.com Utah State Univ., 2007
A conservative estimate of 2% is used for the number of Buddhists in America in the article linked below.
The percentage and numbers for Buddhists in India has increased dramatically over recent years because there have many recent mass conversions of the dalit (untouchables) from Hinduism to Buddhism. Reference: daophatngaynay.com 2010 article about one of several mass conversions of over 50,000 to Buddhism.
and also a report from Newsweek, March 2008: India now 3.25% Buddhist.
To see the full table of statistics for the approximate number of Buddhists in the world which does not ignore the Buddhists in China, see:
Buddhists in the World
For more statistics, links and sources: The appeal of Buddhism
Definition of a Buddhist by David N. Snyder, Ph.D.
See also: Theravada Buddhists in the World
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