Buddhists in America

How many are there?

A new AFP article discusses a recent Trinity College* study which suggests the amazingly, surprisingly low number of 1.19 million as of 2008. The study is cited relating to a recent Pew study in which less than half of the respondents could identify the religion of H.H. the Dalai Lama. Arun of the Angry Asian Buddhist has a good post on why we might be better off ignoring Pew studies.

Right now there seems to be no accurate way of gauging exactly how many Buddhists are in America, but judging from the estimates of scholars over the last 20 years, the number is sure to be over 2 million, perhaps more than 6 million. Here is an excellent survey of the sources from the Pluralism Project:

Buddhism Statistics: estimates range from 2,450,000 to 3-4 million

2-3 million - 2004 World Almanac.2,500,000 - Encyclopedia Britannica Online estimate for 2000.

Richard Seager writes in Buddhism in America that:

“A few statistics on American Buddhism are available, but they vary considerably. One source put the total number of practicing Buddhists at a round one million in 1990, but another at 5 or 6 million only a few years later. A more recent estimate must be considered rough, but appears to be the best available.

Martin Baumann of Germany suggested in 1997 that there were 3 or 4 million Buddhists in the United States, the most in any western country. In contrast, he estimated that there were 650,000 Buddhists in France and 180,000 Buddhists in Great Britain. His estimates also suggest that converts consistently are out numbered by immigrants. In the same year, France had roughly 150,000 converts and 500,000 immigrants, Great Britain 50,000 and 130,000 respectively. In the United States, he estimated there were 800,000 converts and between 2.2 and 3.2 million Buddhists in immigrant communities.

These figures , however, need to be treated with caution. In the same year, 1997, Time magazine suggested there were ‘some 100,000′ American Buddhist converts. It did not even venture to estimate the number of Buddhist immigrants. As a result, we must proceed without definite information regarding the actual number of American Buddhists. Suffice it to say, there are a great many and, more important, they are engaged in practicing the dharma in a wide variety of fascinating ways.”

Richard Seager, Buddhism in America, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, p.11

Martin Bauman, in The Dharma Has Come West: A Survey of Recent Studies and Sources, on line at http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma/survey.html, writes that in the mid 1990′s there are roughly 3-4 million Buddhists in the U.S., which includes 800,000 Euro/American Buddhists. He estimates 500-600 centers, and using a total population figure of 261 million, Buddhists represent 1.6%, which is significantly higher than any of the other countries he lists.

Charles Prebish in Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) also reprints Bauman’s figures.

In the Pluralism Project Directory we list 2228 Buddhist Centers in the United States.

Don Morreale lists over a thousand centers in the US and Canada in The Complete Guide to Buddhist America. (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1998)

2,450,000 – 2002 Britannica Book of the Year estimate for 2000.

Between one and two million Americans formally practice Buddhism — 2000 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.

Methodological issues abound: what the heck is a Buddhist, anyhow? How do you count them if many don’t go to a group? How do you find out about groups that are often unadvertised and informal?  Given these, and other, issues with counting Buddhists, I tend to think the higher estimates are most likely to be correct. By that I mean that I think more “Buddhists” are missed in the counting than are mistakenly counted. In fact I know there are groups (which is different from finding individual practitioners, I know) that are not listed on Buddhanet’s excellent directory in my home state of Montana (I managed to update an incorrect listing of one I knew off hand).

In any case – I’d guess there are around 5-6 million Buddhists in America today, 2/3 Asian and the other 1/3 being about 90% White, 7% African American, and 3% Other… (note these are absolutely based on my own observations and readings) — Aherents.com also has a much lower estimate, at least as of 2004…

What do you think?

*The post previously cited Pew as the source of the 1.19 million number, not Trinity College. Thanks to Arun for the clarification.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18090181646147336683 Dharma Sanctuary

    It all depends on how you want to define a Buddhist. I think the field is wide open. How about we include anyone who empathizes or resonates with the Buddhist teachings. Let's count anybody who loves the Dalai Lama, too. Let's make Buddhism a party of life lovers and free thinkers. That way we can keep our numbers up. You don't have to be a member of any group to be a Buddhist. You just have to have a Buddhist thought and you're in!Andrew

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17801369779625472334 Pete Hoge

    Thanks for you comment on my visual image blog…I had fallenout of contact with you duringmy latest religious fundamentalismphase when I was entering theCatholic Church…1 month afterconfirmation I was apostate.I think I wanted to purify mysenses according to some versionof Catholic thought so I decidedto flush all "heretics" out ofmy cyber-domain.haha…nothing personal…Ironically I have been havingsome sentimentality for my days when I was focused onBuddhist studies…I don't thinkI can take refuge again..butsome Dharma wisdoms are part ofme forever.In regards to this post:I think one has to take refugein a witnessed ceremony in orderto really identify as a Buddhist,as well as have mindfulness aboutthe precepts and the 3 marks ofexistence…they must practiceright view in regards to what iscalled impermanence and developthat awareness with consciouspractice/actions.I learned that meditation is adifficult practice if the mindis clouded with distortions dueto not following the precepts.That means that for someone tobe really taken seriously as aBuddhist then they have to "obey"the moral teachings of Siddartha.I will have to catch up on yourposts because my intuition is telling me to re-engage with Dharma at some level in order toexperience some healing and growth.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17503422338070678937 Arun

    Just a quick fact-check regarding the “new AFP article discusses a recent Pew study which suggests the amazingly, surprisingly low number of 1.19 million as of 2008.” This study was not a “Pew study,” but one by the Trinity College Program on Public Values. Additionally, I have never advocated writing off “Pew studies” wholesale; rather, I have contested the Buddhist numbers from one single study—the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Form on Religion and Public Life, which you properly link to. There is much else to write with regards to counting American Buddhists, but I’ll mess around with that on my own blog.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14246929532585980356 Buddhist_philosopher

    Andrew, that's definitely one way to look at it, and I did just watch a YouTube video with David Nichtern in which he advocated basically just that definition. Hia Pete – great to see you back around these parts again. Yes, I think our 'karma' is entangled forever, or something like that. I agree 100% about meditation and the precepts. Meditation has always had the wonderful effect of 'telling' me where I need to make changes in my daily life.And I'm very, very intrigued by your use of the word "obey" – partly because most Buddhists I know would recoil quickly from it, but I think it's actually exactly right. The root of the word comes from the Latin "to hear" – we need to listen, in a very deep sense, to the teachings. This is more difficult, I think, than we would guess.Arun, thanks for the clarification on the studies, 'tis fixed in the original now.

  • Pingback: Is Tibetan Buddhism the most popular in America?

  • Axel Stein

    It is quite remarkable that in none of the Patheos pages there is mention of Nichiren Buddhism, one of the most important groups of Buddhists in America.


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