Buddhism – WorldAtlas

Buddhism is considered the 4e the largest religion in the world originating in ancient India between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. The religion is based on a series of teachings from Gautama Buddha. From India, Buddhism spread to major parts of Asia and the rest of the world. Currently, there are three major groups of Buddhism. These include Mahayana Buddhism which is followed in the countries of China, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam; Theravada Buddhism which is followed in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand; and Tibetan Buddhism which is followed in Mongolia, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, parts of Russia and northern India. There are also many sub-sects of Buddhism like Nichiren Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and Tendai Buddhism. Followers of Buddhism are called Buddhists and at present there are over 535 million Buddhists all over the world.

Buddhist beliefs

Big Buddha statue near the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India.

Buddhism consists of many traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices consistent with the teachings of the Buddha. The main goal of Buddhism is to escape suffering and achieve a state of enlightenment or Nirvana, thus ending the continuous cycle of birth and rebirth. Buddhists believe that this path to enlightenment involves the practice and development of wisdom, morality, and meditation. The basic teachings of Buddhism known as “dhamma” include the Three Universal Truths, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path. The four noble truths are dukkha or suffer, samudaya or the origin of suffering, nirodha or the cessation of suffering and magga or the path to the cessation of suffering. The Fourth Noble Truth – magga thus refers to the stages which Buddhists call the Noble Eightfold Path, by following which one can attain enlightenment. The Noble Eightfold Path which is often represented by an eight-spoke wheel or “The wheel of Dhamma” includes right view (Samma ditthi), good intention (Samma sankappa), right word (Samma vaca), Good deed (Samma kammanta), just means of subsistence (Samma ajiva), right effort (Samma Vayama), mindfulness (Samma Sati), and a good concentration (Samma samadhi).

Ancient Buddhist scriptures in Thailand
Ancient Buddhist scriptures from northern Thailand.

Buddhists also believe in the cycle of rebirth, where souls are born again and again in different bodies that depend on “karma” or good conduct of a person in their past life. The Theravadins believe that each individual is reborn into one of the six realms – animals, demigods, celestial, hellish, humans, and hungry ghosts. There are many religious texts and scriptures written in Pali which are revered by Buddhists. These include the Tipitaka, Mahayana sutras, Tantric texts, Abhidharma, and early Buddhist texts.

Brief history of Buddhism

Buddhists in Bodh Gaya, India
Group of Buddhists walking around to show respect to the place of the enlightenment of the Buddha in Bodh Gaya, India. Editorial credit: Ekkapob / Shutterstock.com

According to the first Buddhist discourses, about 2500 years ago, the historical Buddha – Siddhartha Gautama was born as the son of King Suddhodana and Queen Maya in the southern part of the Lumbini region of present-day Nepal. It is believed that the young prince spent his youth in the ancient city of Kapilavastu. Very young, Siddhartha was moved by the harsh realities of life and the suffering of the world. At the age of 29, Prince Siddhartha Gautama decided to give up his luxurious and comfortable life in the palace and lead an ascetic life. It is believed that Siddhartha saw four sites: a sick man, an old man, a corpse and a holy monk. Disturbed by this sight, Siddhartha became a monk and after many years of intense meditation, prayer and fasting, he decided to continue the “Middle way” – a balanced life without indulgences and social deprivations. Buddhists believe that during deep meditation under a Bodhi tree in the town of Bodh Gaya in the Indian state of Bihar, Siddhartha attained “enlightenment or Nirvana” and became known as ” Buddha ”or“ the Enlightened One ”.

Buddha in Sarnath
Statues of Buddha and his first disciples in Sarnath, Varanasi, India.

For the next 45 years, Gautama Buddha preached his sermons to his disciples and followers on how to attain nirvana. After the death of Buddha around 438 BC. Emperor Mauryan Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BC declared Buddhism as the state religion. During this period several Buddhist monasteries were built and in the following years Buddhism began to spread beyond the borders of India to other parts of the world.

Buddhism today

Buddhism in Thailand
A Buddhist monk approaches a Buddhist temple in Thailand.

Currently, more than 535 million people in the world, representing over 7% of the total world population, are followers of Buddhism, the majority of Buddhists being in the countries of China, Thailand, Japan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, India, Malaysia, Taiwan, Laos, United States, Nepal and Indonesia.

China has the largest Buddhist population in the world with around 244,130,000 Buddhists living in the country. The second largest Buddhist population in the world is in Thailand with approximately 64,420,000 Buddhists living there. Japan has the third largest Buddhist population with 45,820,000 Buddhists.

Other nations that contain a significant Buddhist population include Myanmar (38,410,000), Sri Lanka (14,450,000), Vietnam (14,380,000), Cambodia (13,690,000), South Korea (11 050,000), India (9,250,000), Malaysia (5,010,000), Taiwan (4,950,000), Laos (4,100,000), United States (3,570,000), Nepal (3 080,000) and Indonesia (2,062,150).

10 countries with the highest number of Buddhists

Rank Country Estimated Buddhist population (2010) % of the world’s Buddhist population

















Sri Lanka












South Korea