WORLD’S BUDDHIST POPULATION: Pre-eminence of the Mahayana Tradition    
Posted on November 1st, 2014

 Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

It is noteworthy that until about 2010, the estimates made of the Buddhist population of most countries in the world, especially of the traditionally Buddhist countries, have been grossly underestimated. This led to the marked underestimation of the total Buddhist population of the world. Information published not only in most websites, but also reported in nearly all encyclopedias, almanacs and other popular reference sources on population, emanating predominantly from the western world, has been highly misleading, deceptive and grossly inaccurate. Gross underestimation has been the order of the day until very recent times.

The gross underestimation of the Buddhist population in traditionally Buddhist nations with large Buddhist populations such as China, Japan and Vietnam in particular, led to large-scale inaccuracies in the overall estimate of the overall Buddhist population in the world. One reason for this anomalous situation is the fact that population enumerators, especially those from the western world, had problems in identifying or determining who is a Buddhist. In most Far Eastern countries, there are many Buddhists who follow other traditional faiths and it is not clear whether they were counted as Buddhists.

More accurate estimates of Buddhist population of different countries are available today. These are based on studies and investigations that have taken into account all relevant information on people professing the Buddhist faith in different countries. The results of these studies were published in the years 2010 and 2013. ( 2010; “China Beliefs”,2011; “China Culture Exploring Assistant”, China business,2011, CIA The World Fact book: Populations as of July 2013, The Dhamma Encyclopedia – Buddhism in the World). These estimates  reveal the true situation regarding Buddhist populations in different countries.

In July 2010, the total Buddhist population of the world was estimated at 1.6   billion (1,595,485,458), amounting to about 22% of the total global population. This has been reported as a liberal estimate. China with a current Buddhist population of over one billion (a liberal estimate is 1,070,893,447) accounts for a greater part of the world’s Buddhist population. This has been confirmed by the references cited above,  besides references to China’s Buddhist population in U.S. State Department Report on China, Global Center for the Study of Contemporary China, China Daily, and a report by Christian missionaries in China. These sources report that about 80% to 90% of Chinese identify with Buddhism as one of the several faith traditions they observe. Some recent studies indicate that as much as 98% of Chinese consider themselves as Buddhists, but indicate that they also subscribe to several other Chinese spiritual traditions. (, The Dhamma Encyclopedia, Definition of a Buddhist by David N. Snyder).

BUDDHIST POPULATION OF SELECTED COUNTRIES                                         

                                             Buddhists           % of Total Population

1)      China —————– 1  billion                 (80%)(1,070,893,447Buddhists)

2)      Japan —————–  122 million           (96%)

3)      Vietnam –————    70 million           (75%)

4)      Thailand –———–    64 million            (95%)                                              

5)      Myanmar ———––   49.7 million         (90%)

6)      India –——————  36.6 million         (03%)

7)      South Korea –——-  24.5 million         (50%)

8)      Taiwan —————-  21.7million          (93%)

9)      Sri Lanka ———––- 15.2 million         (70%)

10)   Cambodia –———– 14.7 million         (97%)

11)   Hong Kong ———–– 6.4 million         (90%)

12)   USA –——————-   6 million            (02%)

13)   Malaysia ————–– 6.2 million          (21%)

14)   Laos ——————–– 5 million            (67%)

15)   Indonesia ————–- 4.3 million         (01.7%)

16)   North Korea –———- 3.4 million        (14%)

17)   Nepal –——————  3.3 million         (11.5%)

18)   Mongolia  ————— 3 million            (93%)

19)   Singapore ————–- 2.8 million        (51%)

20)   Philippines ————– 2 million           (01.5%)

21)   Russia —————–– 2 million            (01.4%)

22)   Canada –————— 1.2 million          (03.5%)

23)   Bangladesh –———- 1.1 million         (00.7%)

24)   France ————––— 1 million            (01.5%)

25)   Brazil  ——————– 1 million            (0.5%)

26)   Germany —————–  905,657            (01%)

27)   UK –———————–  760,747             (01%)

28)   Bhutan ————––—  609,249             (84%)

29)   Brunei ——————-– 58,498               (17%) (Near Malaysia)

30)   Macau –——————  466,402             (75%) *

31)   Sikkim —————-–-  171,000              (28%) **

32)   Ladakh  —————–  125,000              (45%)***

33)   Christmas Island——    1,554               (75%) (Territory of Australia)

  *  Macau – a Special Administrative Region of China with a high degree of autonomy. Situated near Hong Kong, estimated population of 624,000 and is the most densely populated region in the world. Macau is one of world’s richest cities, with the highest GDP. It is one of world’s largest gambling centres with an economy heavily dependent on gambling and tourism. Macau has the second highest life expectancy in the world and is one of very few regions in Asia with a “very high Human Development Index“.

** Sikkim  located in the Himalayan mountains near Nepal, China and Bhutan, was an independent Buddhist nation in the past, but in 1975 merged with India.

*** Ladakh is a Himalayan region of India in the state of Jammu and Kashmir bordering China. It’s culture and history are closely related to that of Tibet. Almost half of Ladakhis are Tibetan Buddhists.

In recent years, an increasing trend is observed among the Buddhist communities in some non-traditional Buddhist countries in Europe such as Netherlands(201,660), Switzerland (79,960), Spain (300,000), Italy (122,965), Uzbekistan (85,985) and South America such as – Costa Rico (96,733), Mexico (108,700), Panama (68,000), Chile (17,200), Peru (89,500), Argentina (42,600),Venezuela (56,000).


 There are 25 countries in the world where Buddhist population exceeds one million. Five of these countries – China, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam have exceptionally large Buddhist populations (I billion, 122 million, 64 million, 50 million, 69 million respectively). In these five countries Buddhists account for more than 75% of their total populations.  In three of them,  namely Japan, Thailand and Myanmar, the percentage of Buddhists amounts to more than 90% of their total populations.  It is noteworthy that among the five most populous Buddhist countries in the world mentioned above, three are predominantly followers of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition (China, Japan and Vietnam) and account for  about 75% of the world’s Buddhist population. The other two – Thailand and Myanmar are followers of are Theravada tradition.

It is significant note that the first three of these countries alone with a combined population of 1.19 billion, predominantly follow the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and account for about 75% of the total Buddhist population of the world. Countries that predominantly profess the Mahayana-Vajrayana and other non-Theravada Buddhist traditions amount to about 85% of the global Buddhist population. The total population of countries that predominantly profess the Theravada Buddhist tradition such as Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, India and some Western countries, amounts to 248 million or  about 15%  of the world’s Buddhist population. However, it is important to note that predominantly Mahayana countries such as China and Japan have significant numbers of Theravada Buddhists (China – 53.5 million and Japan- 6.1 million).

 In 14 countries the Buddhist populations account for more than 50%. Among them are seven countries where Buddhists constitute for more than 90% of total population:

1)      Cambodia –———- 97%                14.7 million        

2)      Japan —————– 96%              122 million         

3)      Thailand –———— 95%                 64 million                                                           

4)      Taiwan —————- 93%                 21.7million         

5)      Mongolia  ———— 93%                   3 million           

6)      Myanmar ————- 90%                49.65 million     

7)      Hong Kong ——–– 90%                   6.4 million        

8)      Bhutan —————- 84%                  0.609,249           

9)      China —————— 80%            1 billion               

10)   Vietnam –————- 75%                70 million          

11)   Sri Lanka ————- 70%               15.2 million        

12)   Laos ——————- 67%                  5  million            

13)   Singapore ———-   51%                 2.8 million       

14)   South Korea –—–   50%               24.5 million 

 The following are traditional Buddhist regions and not sovereign states with significant percentages of Buddhists:     

Macau –————— 75%                      466,402            

Christmas Island–  75%                          1,554             

Ladakh  ————-   45%                      125,000             

Sikkim ————–    28%                      171,000    


Theravada                Percent of Total
Population                 Buddhist  Popul. 

  • Thailand     62,000,382                              99%
  • Sri Lanka    14, 783,720                              99%
  • Myanmar   42,890,727                              99%
  • Cambodia   13,631,883                              99%
  • Laos                5,074,944                              99%
  • India            28,434,850                              75%
  • Japan              6,101,142                               5%
  • China (liberal est.) 53,544,672                               5 %
  • China (conservative est. 33,465,420                               5%
  • Other Asian countries 17,079,430                               8%

Total Theravada in Asia           243,541,751

  • USA 2,147,275                            35%
  • Canada 128,956                              35%

Total Theravada in N. America    2,276,231

  • Germany 452,828                             50%
  • France 386,607                             50%
  • UK 366,698                             50%
  • Other European Countries 274,995                             35%     
  • Total Theravada In Europe 1,481,128
  • Total Theravada in S.America 304,125                           35%
  • Total Theravada in Australia & Oceania 216,563               35%
  • Total Theravada in Africa 68,093               35%

TOTAL THERAVADA IN THE WORLD      –    247,887,891               15%


 China is the world’s largest Buddhist country, in terms of its population and size. Buddhists account for more than 1 billion or about 80% of the total Chinese population of 1.4 billion in the year 2014. China accounts for 67% of the 1.6 billion total Buddhist population in the world.  The magnitude of the Chinese Buddhist population is evident when compared to Japan which has the second highest Buddhist population of 122 million (122,022,837), which is 7.6% of the world’s total Buddhist population and about 09% of the Chinese Buddhist population. For purposes of comparison, the estimated Buddhist population of Sri Lanka is 14.9 million (70% of her population) which is a mere 1.4% of the Chinese Buddhist population and less than 1% of the world’s total Buddhist population.

There are more than 240,000 Buddhist monks and nuns in China, more than 28,000 Buddhist monasteries and about 16,000 Buddhist temples. Many of the world’s tallest and biggest statutes of the Buddha and Buddhist deities are found in China and most of them were built in the 2000’s. The world’s tallest Buddha statute is the Spring temple statue located in Henan. The world’s tallest stupa or pagoda  which is the Femen temple of Shaanxi Province of Northwest China, is 148 metres high and was built in the year 2007. (View on YouTube Chinese Buddhist Cave Shrines).

China is a nation entrenched with a distinct Buddhist character and identity. It  is the depository of the largest collection of historic Buddhist scriptures and documents in the world. Buddhism was the primary source of inspiration for the exceptional cultural achievements, the exceptional intuitive, innovative and imaginative powers, spiritual disposition and the outstanding creativity of the Chinese people. This is reflected vividly in the exceedingly rich tangible and intangible aspects of Chinese culture, social norms and values. The largest collection Buddhist sites, temples and structures in the world, are to be found in China. The direct impact of Buddhism is reflected in its unique visual arts and culture evident in its architecture, sculpture, engineering, performing arts, music, dance, drama, poetry and literature.


 The 1978 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees freedom of religion. Since then, there has been a momentous revival and renewal of Buddhism in China, after the set back during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to1976. Today, Buddhism is officially considered and supported as an integral part of Chinese culture and Buddhism is given greater support as compared to other faiths. Since the mid-1990’s there has been a massive program to rebuild Buddhist temples destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. This has permitted the rise of a string of outward-looking and ambitious temples in recent years, the most prominent among them being the Guangxiao Temple in Guangdong Province, which claims to be the oldest and biggest temple in south China.

 The most popular form of Buddhism in both mainland China and Taiwan is the Pure Land Buddhism, also known as Amidism. It is a branch of mainstream Mahayana Buddhism based upon the ancient Pure Land sutras which describe Amitabha, an ancient Buddha. It is popular in Korea and is the dominant form of Buddhism in Japan. Theravada is followed by some Buddhists in southwest China and the Tibetan Vajrayana form of Buddhism is found in North China.


 The 27th General Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) was held in China, from October 16th to 18th, 2014. This highly acclaimed international conference of Buddhists had the participation of more than 600 international delegates from 40 countries. “Buddhism and Public-Benefit Charity” was the theme of the conference. The World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) was founded in 1950, by the late Dr. Gunapala Malalasekare,  as an international organization of Buddhists of all denominations – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. With its Headquarters in Thailand, it consists of 140 Regional Centres around the world in 35 countries.


 The formal Declaration at the end of this highly successful Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in China is clearly indicative of the strong ties among the Buddhist nations of the world, their unwavering unity and solidarity and their firm commitment to promote Buddhism for the benefit of humankind and world peace. China as the world’s largest and strongest Buddhist nation declared its commitment to spearhead and support international initiatives to protect and promote Buddhism and Buddhist culture and values.

Among specific objectives set out in the Declaration was to work jointly for the preservation of intangible and tangible Buddhist cultural heritages which are in danger in different parts of the world. This appears to be of particular relevance and significance to Sri Lanka. Indisputably, the Buddha Dhamma is the crowning glory of the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. The Buddha’s teachings and related cultural norms and values are the greatest inheritance of Sri Lankans. This legacy continues to have an overpowering influence in shaping the lives of many Buddhist Sri Lankans, wherever in the world they have chosen to live. In contemporary times, with the special cluster of bafflement, discord, threats, challenges and uncertainties faced by Buddhists, the relevance of the Buddha’s teachings cannot be overemphasized and the solemn but firm commitment on the part of all Buddhist nations, spearheaded by China, to adopt a joint approach to preserve and promote Buddhism and related Buddhist culture and values internationally, is most commendable. This reinforce the long awaited unity and solidarity among the world’s Buddhist communities.

Master Chuanyin, president of the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), described the event as a milestone for friendship between the BAC and the WFB and that it will help Chinese Buddhists play a bigger role internationally. He said that this event helps to  boost cooperation among Buddhists to  promote Buddhism and to make a greater contribution for the benefit of humankind and to foster world peace. The Head of the Japanese Buddhist delegation stated that through events of this nature he feels strongly the deepening relationship between Buddhists in Northeastern Asia and South Asia, and increasing solidarity among Buddhists across the world. The pledges made at this historic international Buddhist conference by China the foremost economic power in the world today, to protect and promote Buddhism and Buddhist culture and values, is of utmost significance to Buddhists across the world, especially to the traditional Buddhist Communities of Southern Asia who in recent years have been subject to undue threats, harassment and violence by Muslim extremists and by the unethical conversion menace of Christian fundamentalists.

Sri Lanka has an enduring, multi-dimensional and deep-rooted relationship with China. The long-standing ties of friendship between the two countries are underpinned by mutual trust and confidence. Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China, and since then the relations between the two nations have become stronger. Chinese leadership has always appreciated Sri Lanka’s steadfast support on issues of their concern and China has always supported Sri Lanka on all issues of importance to Sri Lanka.  In recent decades, China’s cooperation with Sri Lanka has reached high economic points especially with substantial Chinese investment in Sri Lankan infrastructural expansion. China’s New Silk Road—a strategic engagement with countries along the ancient Silk Road would pave the way for increased involvement of China in the overall development initiatives including promotion of Buddhism and Buddhist culture and to reinforce the centuries old religious and cultural bonds among nations of Southern Asia, especially between China and Sri Lanka.

 Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

5 Responses to “WORLD’S BUDDHIST POPULATION: Pre-eminence of the Mahayana Tradition    ”

  1. AnuD Says:

    Chinese buddhist population may be over estimated. It may be 40 million (the govt estimate, 100 million (church figure) to 300 million, the others’ estimates. Chinese Church is mostly home based – affair, I suppose.

  2. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    Great article. I did however Google “number of Buddhists in Africa’ and “Buddhism in Africa”. it is an estimate that there are 500 thousand Buddhists in Africa but it also stated that Buddhism is a growing faith in that continent. I did the same with South America and the numbers were estimated at 500 thousand. I know that is a gross underestimate since that continent has large Japanese, Chinese and other communities from Buddhist nations. I believe like in Africa, South America Buddhism is a growing faith.


    Attention- AnuD above –
    The total population of China in 2013 was 1.354 billion of which an estimated 67 million or 05% was Christian & Catholic and an estimated 23.3 million or 1.8% was Islam. Buddhists account for about 80% of the balance who comprise those belonging to all Buddhist traditions/schools – Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana. Even the most recent conservative estimate of China’s Buddhist population amounts to more than one billion. There are various institutional and doctrinal divisions and cultural facets in Buddhism, especially in China and the Far Eastern countries, that have existed from ancient times up to the present. Although the nature and characteristics of these thousands of different divisions, sects, subsects, movements and facets of Buddhism have been subject to various interpretations, they all in combination constitute the whole of the Buddhist community of China. All agree on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path which form the basic founding principles of the teachings of the Buddha.

  4. Lorenzo Says:

    While Christians account only for less than 1% of the population, there have been eight Christian Prime Ministers in Japan.

    The problem with Japan is there is NO real numbers of them. The ACTUAL is MUCH HIGHER than reported.

    The trend in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China is FASHIONABLE CHRISTIANITY. Within a decade Christianity will be the largest religion in South Korea. World’s most populous Christian country will be China (replacing USA). And Japan will have more Christians than Theravada Buddhists.

    In Europe the opposite. Islam is growing.

  5. HanMg Says:

    Thank you Dr. Daya Hewapathirane for the most informative article. In the past, some have discounted China’s Buddhist population. The wane of Buddhism in South Korea and other countries was not only because Christianity became “fashionable” but also because of their desire to emulate United States, the perceived leader of the capitalist world. Now with China rising the trend will likely reverse. For any cause, it not only takes dedication and determination, but also the means in terms of money and power to back it up; and China has it all.

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