Buddhism is an ancient belief system based on the teachings of Siddharta Gautama who is more commonly known as the Buddha, which means “the awakened one”. The Buddha lived and taught in the Eastern part of the Indian subcontinent sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries, BCE.
His teachings have had a tremendous impact on much of the world’s population and particularly in South-East Asia where Buddhism thrives. This post highlights seven countries which have substantial Buddhist populations.
Officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia, this country has had a turbulent past. This country has a population of over 15,000,000 and its official religion is a form of Buddhism called Theravada Buddhism.
More than 95% of Cambodia’s population practice Theravada Buddhism and there are roughly 4,392 temples throughout the country.
Buddhism has been practiced in Cambodia for over 2,000 years. It was introduced to Cambodia by Hindu merchants sometime between 68 and 550 CE and again a few hundred years later during the time of the Angkor empire.
Cambodian Buddhism has been influenced by other belief systems in the region, including Hinduism, Tantrism and something called animism which is the believe that non-human animals have a spiritual core.
Vietnam is on the eastern edge of the Indochina Peninsula in South-East Asia. It is the 13th most populous country in the world. You may know it as the site of a long war with America but it has a long history with Buddhism too.
Unlike Cambodia, the majority of Vietnam’s population doesn’t practice Buddhism. A 2010 study revealed that about 16,4% of Vietnamese are practicing Buddhists.
Even though the Vietnamese government insists that all Vietnamese citizens are free to practice their religion of choice, this is not the case. The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam was founded in southern Vietnam and has been banned by the communist government which prefers its own approved version.
More than 10 million Vietnamese people have “taken refuge” in the Three Jewels of Buddhism which are the Buddha, Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community). Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is central to Buddhist practice.
The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka was once known as Ceylon but changed its name in 1972. It is an island country in South-East Asia, close to India.
Sri Lanka has a very rich and extensive Buddhist history. It’s earliest Buddhist writings, the Pali Canon, dtae back to around 29 BC.
Buddhism’s arrival in Sri Lanka in 250 BC transformed the Kingdom of Sri Lanka when the ruler, Devanampiya Tissa, embraced Buddhism after being introduced to it by the son of an Indian monarch. Future kingdoms maintained a growing number of monasteries and schools.
The Fourth Buddhist Council was convened under King Vattagami who ruld between 103 and 77 BCE. The purpose of the Council was to begin to document Buddhist teachings in an effort to preserve them. 500 hundred monks recited the teachings as they were written on palm leaves. It was apparently a remarkable experience.
Once known as Burma, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar borders Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. Theravada Buddhism became dominant in Myanmar after the establishment of a pagan empire in the 11th century.
The script used in the written form of Burmese, Myanmar’s official language, dates back to the 11th century and was used to write Theravada Buddhism’s sacred language, Pali.
About 80% of Myanmar’s population practice Buddhism. It is so pervasive that non-Buddhists are often discriminated against when it comes to employment and even joining the army.
Theravada Buddhism is the dominant form of Buddhism practiced in Myanmar. Another is Mahanyana Buddhism. Literature has especially been influenced by the local form of Theravada Buddhism.
Buddhism has been practiced in Japan since somewhere between 250 and 552 CE. Buddhism’s arrival in Japan began with the spread of Buddhism from China which was introduced into that country around 67 CE.
Buddhism’s official introduction to Japan took place in 552 CE when Seong of Baekje sent a delegation of Buddhist monks and nuns carrying Buddhist sutras and an image of the Buddha to Nihon Shoki.
Buddhism was slow to gain traction in Japan in the early years and it was only when the Empress Suiko encouraged her subjects to adopt it, that it became more widespread.
Legends such as the one about an attempt to destroy a tooth relic (a hammer and anvil used in the attempt to destroy the tooth resulted in the hammer and anvil’s destruction but not the tooth) led to Buddhism earning an even greater following.
The quest to learn more about Buddhism and obtain more sutras lead to an increased flow of Buddhist monks and nuns into Japan. Buddhism grew in Japan over the centuries and, as recently as the end of the Second World War, has become even more attractive to many. More than 34% of all Japanese consider themselves Buddhist although Buddhist practices are observed in the majority of some traditions, such as funerals.
Thai Buddhist practice is based primarily on Theravada Buddhism which is followed by 90% of the Thai population. Thai Buddhism has integrated with elements of Chinese religions and Thai Buddhist temples are characterized by golden stupas.
Historically, Thai kings acted as patrons and protectors of Buddhist practice in Thailand. When the king was strong and had control over his territory, Buddhist practice was protected. Less so when he was weak.
In more recent times, particularly the latter part of the 19th century when King Mongkut ascended to the throne (he spent 27 years as a Buddhist monk), Buddhism became more tightly integrated into Thai government and institutions.
Buddhist practice in Thailand was heavily influenced by the more rigorous discipline of Burmese monks, so much so that it changed the flavor of Thai Buddhist practice substantially. Thai monks are regulated under Thai law and also granted special privileges such as free transport on public transport. It has not been declared a state religion, however.
Buddhism has been very influential in almost all aspects of Chinese culture and history. The translation of a large volume of Indian Buddhist scriptures into Chinese especially had far-reaching implications for Chinese society and the dissemination of Buddhism.
Buddhism arrived in China in the first century thanks to Indian missionaries. Buddhism initially blended with Taoism and Chinese arts and gained an early following. Many legends explained how Buddhism became so entrenched in Chinese culture including one story about a dream the Emperor Ming had that prompted him to research Buddhism further and import knowledge of this new faith into China.
Mahayana Buddhism was introduced to China in the 2nd century and its teachings were translated for Chinese followers. As Buddhism grew in China it also began to spread further west into Asia and influenced a number of other countries. The Dharmaguptaka sect became particularly influential and, for the most part, survived to modern times and is credited with establishing Chinese Buddhism early on.
Buddhism is currently experiencing a second revival after centuries of growth and suppression. New temples are being built, older ones rennovated and the Chinese government has even had to step in to prevent rampant profiteering off renewed interest in Chinese Buddhist practice.
There are currently around 1.3 billion Chinese citizens and around 20% of them practice Buddhism.