Current Situation of Buddhism in the World

Originally published as part of
Berzin, Alexander. Buddhism and Its Impact on Asia.
Asian Monographs
, no. 8.
Cairo: Cairo University, Center for Asian Studies, June 1996.

South and Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhism

Sri Lanka

At present Buddhism is flourishing in some countries and facing difficulties in others. Theravada, for example, is the strongest in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar), but seriously weakened in Laos, Cambodia (Kampuchea) and Vietnam. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries Buddhism had declined in Sri Lanka due to persecution by first the Inquisition and then the missionaries of its Christian colonial rulers. It was revived in the late nineteenth century with the help of British scholars and theosophists. As a result, Sri Lankan Buddhism is sometimes characterized as “Protestant” Buddhism, with the emphasis on scholarly study, pastoral activities by monks for the lay community and direct meditation practice for laypeople, not just for those with robes. The lay householder community has great faith, but sometimes complain of the scarcity of monks with a balance of study and practice.

Indonesia and Malaysia

Sri Lankan monks have been helping revive Theravada Buddhism in Bali, other parts of Indonesia, and Malaysia, where it had slowly died out by the end of the fifteenth century. This is on an extremely limited scale. Those showing interest in Bali are the followers of the traditional Balinese mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and the local spirit religion, while in other parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, the audience is the overseas Chinese Mahayana Buddhist community. There are also some very small new Indonesian Buddhist sects that are hybrids of Theravada, Chinese and Tibetan aspects.

According to the Indonesian government’s “panchashila” policy, all religions must assert belief in God. Although Buddhism does not assert God as an individual being and is therefore sometimes characterized as atheistic, it is officially recognized because of its assertion of Adibuddha. This is, literally, the “First Buddha,” and is discussed in The Kalachakra Tantra, which had flourished in Indonesia a millennium ago. Adibuddha is the omniscient creator of all appearances, beyond time, words and other limitations. Although represented by a symbolic figure, he is not actually a being himself. Adibuddha is more abstract and is found in all beings as the clear light nature of the mind. On this basis Buddhism is accepted, along with Islam, Hinduism and the Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity, as the five state religions of Indonesia.


Buddhism slowly faded in the sub-Himalayan regions of India by about the seventeenth century. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, the Sri Lankans with the help of British scholars founded the Maha Bodhi Society for the purpose of restoring the holy Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. They have been very successful and now have temples with monks at each of these sites, as do several other Buddhist traditions.

In the 1950s, Ambedkar started a neo-Buddhist movement among untouchables in western India. Hundreds of thousands have joined, mostly to avoid the stigma of belonging to the lowest caste. The emphasis is on gaining political and social rights for themselves. Ambedkar died shortly after founding this revival. Since then it has been headed by Sangharakshita, an Englishman who founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order as a new form of Buddhism especially designed for Western practitioners.


In Thailand, influenced by the model of the Thai monarchy, the Buddhist monastic community has a Supreme Patriarch and a Council of Elders with responsibility for keeping the purity of the tradition. There are two types of monastic communities, those who dwell in the forests and those who live in the villages. Both are objects of great veneration and support by the lay community. The strong forest tradition of mendicant monks lives in isolated jungles and engages in intense meditation. It follows strict adherence to the monastic rules of discipline, which forms the focus of its study program. Village monks perform numerous ceremonies for the welfare of the local people. Their study, however, consists primarily of memorizing texts. In keeping with the Thai cultural belief in spirits, these monks also provide amulets to the laypeople for protection. There is a Buddhist university for monks, primarily for training monastics to translate the Buddhist scriptures from classical Pali into modern Thai.

Myanmar (Burma)

In Myanmar (Burma), the military regime has taken strict control of Buddhism under its Ministry of Religion. It has brutally destroyed the monasteries where dissidents had been living, particularly in the north of the country. Now the government is giving great sums of money to the rest of the monks in an effort to win their support and silence any criticism. Burma has a long tradition of a balanced, equal emphasis on meditation and study, particularly of the “abhidharma” system of Buddhist psychology, metaphysics and ethics. Many monasteries having this approach are still open, and the lay population maintains great faith. Since the late nineteenth century, perhaps influenced by the British colonial occupation, there are many meditation centers where monk and lay teachers instruct Burmese laymen and laywomen in basic meditational practices to develop mindfulness.


In southern Bangladesh, in the hills along the Burmese border, there are many isolated villages traditionally following the Burmese Buddhist tradition. Cut off from Burma, however, their level of understanding and practice is quite low.


In Laos, Buddhism is still taught and practiced in a rural setting in the traditional manner, but the monasteries are in poor condition due to the American-Vietnam War. The lay Laotians still offer food to the monks on their alms rounds and go to the temples on full moon days. The meditation tradition, however, is extremely weak. Previously, the monks had to learn and teach Marxism, but now do not. People today need only pay lip service to communism and it is easier to become a monk.

Kampuchea (Cambodia)

In Kampuchea (Cambodia), Buddhism is being revived after Pol Pot’s destruction and persecution, and especially with Prince Sihanouk as king, the restrictions are being slowly relaxed. Still, however, one must be over 30 or 40 to ordain, since the country needs the manpower. The head Khmer monk, Maha Ghosananda, studied meditation in Thailand, since it was mostly lost in Cambodia, and is trying to revive its practice there. Whatever forest tradition was left in the country was more concerned with gaining special powers rather than meditation.


Although there never was an equivalent of the Cultural Revolution in Vietnam, Buddhism is still considered the enemy of the state there, with monks continuing to challenge state authority and control. It is very difficult to ordain and many monks are still put in jail. Only token monasteries are open, mostly for propaganda purposes. The regime is more relaxed with the monks in the north, where the monastic institutions had coexisted with the communists during the Vietnam War. The regime is much more suspicious and hard on the monks in the south.

East Asian Mahayana Buddhism

Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Overseas Chinese Areas

The East Asian Mahayana Buddhist traditions deriving from China are the strongest in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. Taiwan has a strong monastic community of monks and nuns very generously supported by the lay community. There are Buddhist universities and Buddhist programs for social welfare. Hong Kong also has a flourishing monastic community. The emphasis among the overseas Chinese Buddhist communities in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines is on ceremonies for the welfare of ancestors, and for prosperity and wealth for the living. There are many mediums through whom Buddhist oracles speak in trance and whom the lay community consults for health and psychological problems. Chinese businessmen who are the main driving force behind these “Asian tiger” economies frequently make generous donations to the monks to perform rituals for their financial success.


Buddhism in South Korea is still strong, although facing a growing challenge from Evangelic Christian movements. There are many monastic communities of monks and nuns with much popular support. The meditational tradition is particularly flourishing, especially of Son, the Korean form of Zen. In North Korea, on the other hand, except for a token monastery open for propaganda purposes, Buddhism is severely repressed.


Japan has many temples beautifully kept for tourists and visitors, but many are commercialized. Although there are some serious practitioners, for the most part the traditions are extremely formalized and weak. From the thirteenth century, the Japanese have had a tradition of married temple priests with no prohibition against drinking alcohol. Such priests gradually replaced the tradition of celibate monks. Most Japanese follow a combination of Buddhism and the traditional Japanese Shinto spirit religion. They have priests perform Shinto customs and ceremonies for births and marriages, and Buddhist ones for funerals, with little understanding of either. There are some moves to adopt Buddhist methods for relieving work pressure in large companies, and one large Japanese Buddhist sect has an extensive program building Peace Pagodas around the world. There are also a number of fanatic doomsday cults that call themselves Buddhist, but in fact have little to do with Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings. Historically, some of the Japanese Buddhist traditions have been extremely nationalistic, based on belief in Japan as a Buddhist paradise. This derives from the Shinto cult of the emperor and the importance of belonging to the Japanese nation. Such traditions have given rise to Buddhist political parties that are extremely nationalistic and fundamentalist in flavor.

People’s Republic of China

In Inner China, namely the Han Chinese areas of the People’s Republic, the majority of Buddhist monasteries were destroyed and most of the well-trained monks, nuns and teachers were executed or imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. This was not to the same huge extent, however, as in the non-Han regions, namely Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. Today, a large number of Han Chinese of all ages in Inner China are interested in Buddhism, but the main problem is the lack of teachers. Many young people are receiving monastic ordination, but their quality is low. Most college-educated youth prefer to work and make money, while those who join monasteries are mostly from poor and/or uneducated families, primarily from the countryside. There are only a few qualified elderly monks and nuns left who survived the communist persecution and can teach, and no one of middle age with any training. There are government Buddhist colleges with two to four-year programs in many major Inner Chinese cities and pilgrimage sites, with political education as part of their curriculum. Relatively few of the newly-ordained Han Chinese attend them.

In general, the level of Buddhist education is extremely low in the Han Chinese monasteries. People are focusing primarily on the physical reconstruction of Buddhism at the moment – temples, pagodas, statues and so forth – and this requires putting time and effort into raising money and building. In some cases, the Chinese government is helping to finance the reconstruction. As a result, many Buddhist temples are now open as museums or tourist attractions, with the monastics being the ticket collectors and temple attendants. This allows for a veneer of “religious freedom,” an image much sought by the Beijing government. Most reconstruction, however, is being financed by the local people, sometimes with foreign benefactors, and often by the monastics themselves. Some traditional ancestor-worship practices done in temples before the communist persecution are now being revived. There are, however, a few Chinese monasteries in various parts of Inner China that are active and have some level of study and practice.

Central Asian Mahayana Buddhism

Tibetans in Exile

Among the Tibetan traditions of Central Asia, the strongest is with the Tibetan refugee community around His Holiness the Dalai Lama in exile in India since the 1959 popular uprising against the Chinese military occupation of Tibet. They have restarted most of the major monasteries and several of the nunneries of Tibet, and have the traditional full training program for monk scholars, master meditators and teachers. There are educational, research and publication facilities to preserve all aspects of each of the schools of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

The Tibetans in exile have helped revitalize Buddhism in the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal and Bhutan, including Ladakh and Sikkim by sending teachers and retransmitting the lineages. Many monks and nuns from these regions are receiving their education and training in the Tibetan refugee monasteries and nunneries.


Although the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism is followed among the Sherpa people of eastern Nepal and among the Tibetan refugees in the central part of the country, the traditional form of Nepalese Buddhism still exists on a limited level among the Newari people of the Kathmandu Valley. Following a blend of the late Indian form of Mahayana and Hinduism, they are the only Buddhist society that keeps caste distinctions within the monasteries. Since the sixteenth century, the monks are allowed to marry and there is a hereditary caste among them of keepers of the temples and leaders of rituals. Those who perform these functions must come from these castes.


The situation of Buddhism in Tibet itself, which the People’s Republic of China has divided among the five provinces of Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan, is still very grim. Of 6500 monasteries and nunneries before 1959, all but 150 were destroyed, mostly before the Cultural Revolution. The vast majority of learned monastics were either executed or died in concentration camps, and most monastics in general were forced to disrobe. Starting in 1979, the Chinese have allowed the Tibetans to reconstruct their monasteries, and much has already been rebuilt. The Chinese government has helped with two or three of them, but the vast majority has been through the efforts and finance of the former monks, the local populace and Tibetans in exile abroad. Thousands of young people have become monks and nuns, but the Chinese government is now imposing severe limitations and restrictions once more. Many police and government spies are disguised as monks and keep a close check in the monasteries. Monks and nuns have often led protests against the Chinese policies of suppression of human rights, demanding true autonomy and freedom of religion.

The Chinese communist authorities effort to control Buddhism in Tibet has surfaced most prominently with respect to the finding of the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. The first Panchen Lama, living in the seventeenth century, was the tutor of the Fifth Dalai Lama and is considered the second highest spiritual leader among the Tibetans after the Dalai Lama. Upon the death of a Dalai Lama or Panchen Lama, the successor is chosen as a small child recognized as the reincarnation of his predecessor. The child is found upon consultation with oracles and thoroughly tested for accurate memories of people and objects from his former life.

Although the Dalai Lamas, since the time of the Fifth, have been both the spiritual and temporal heads of Tibet, the Panchen Lamas have never held a political position. Since the early twentieth century, however, the Chinese have tried unsuccessfully to split the Tibetans by supporting the Panchen Lama as a political rival to the Dalai Lama.

The Manchus, a non-Han Chinese people of northeast Asia, ruled China from the mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth century. They tried to win the allegiance of the Mongolian and Tibetan people within the sphere of influence of their empire by outwardly supporting Tibetan Buddhism, while always trying to manipulate and control its institutions and change its center of gravity from Lhasa to Beijing. In the mid-eighteenth century they declared that only the Manchu emperor had the authority to choose and recognize the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas through a system of drawing lots from a golden urn. The Tibetans ignored their claim; the choice of Panchen Lamas was always confirmed by the Dalai Lamas.

The Chinese communist government is avowedly atheistic, supposedly does not interfere in religious matters and has totally denounced all policies of the previous imperial dynasties that have ruled China. Yet in 1995 it proclaimed itself the legitimate heir of the Manchu emperors in having the authority to find and recognize the reincarnation of the Tenth Panchen Lama who had passed away in 1989. This was shortly after the abbot of the Panchen Lama’s monastery located the reincarnation and the Dalai Lama officially gave his recognition to the boy. Subsequently, the boy and his family have been taken to Beijing and not been heard from since, the abbot has been imprisoned, and the Panchen Lama’s monastery put under strict communist control. The Chinese authorities then ordered all high Lama teachers to gather at a ceremony in which they chose their own Panchen Lama reincarnate. Subsequently, the President of China has met with the six-year old boy and instructed him to be loyal to the Chinese communist party.

In addition to Chinese government interference, the main problem facing Buddhists in Tibet is a lack of qualified teachers. Only a handful of the old masters have survived the communist persecution and the few teachers available have received only two or a maximum of four years of training in a very limited curriculum at government Buddhist colleges established through the efforts of the late Panchen Lama. Although in general there is more study than in Inner China, many of the monasteries in Tibet are open as tourist attractions and the monks must work as ticket collectors and temple attendants. The lay population in general has very strong faith, but a large portion of the youth are being demoralized by the lack of employment due to the huge population transfer of Han Chinese and the ever-increasing supply from Inner China of cheap alcohol, heroin, pornography and pool tables for gambling.

East Turkistan (Xinjiang)

Most of the monasteries of the Kalmyk Mongols living in East Turkistan (Xinjiang) were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Several have now been rebuilt, but there is an even more severe shortage of teachers than in Tibet. New young monks have become very discouraged by the lack of study facilities and many have left.

Inner Mongolia

The worst situation for Tibetan Buddhists under the control of the People’s Republic of China, however, is in Inner Mongolia. Most of the monasteries in the western half were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. In the eastern half, which was formerly part of Manchuria, many had already been destroyed by Stalin’s troops at the end of the Second World War when the Russians helped liberate North China from the Japanese. The Cultural Revolution merely finished the devastation. Of 700 monasteries formerly in Inner Mongolia, only 27 are left. Unlike in Tibet and Xinjiang, however, there has been almost no effort to reconstruct them. There has been such a huge influx of Han Chinese settlers and intermarriage that much of the local Mongolian population, particularly in the cities, have little interest in their language, traditional culture or Buddhist religion. A few monasteries are open as tourist attractions and there are a handful of young monks, but they receive almost no training. In extremely remote areas of the Gobi desert, one or two monasteries are left with monks still performing the traditional rituals. But none are younger than seventy years of age. Unlike in the Tibetan regions where the grasslands are rich and the nomads have the resources to support rebuilding the monasteries and feeding new monks, the Inner Mongolian nomads of the Gobi who still have faith are extremely poor.


In Mongolia itself (Outer Mongolia) there had been thousands of monasteries. All were either partially or totally destroyed in 1937 under the orders of Stalin. In 1946, one monastery was re-opened in the capital, Ulaan Baatar, as a token symbol, and in the early 1970s a five-year training college for monks was begun there. It had a very abbreviated curriculum with a heavy emphasis on Marxist study. The monks were allowed to perform a limited number of rituals for the public who were carefully questioned by the government authorities. With the downfall of communism in 1990, there has been a strong revival of Buddhism with the help of the Tibetans in exile in India. Many new monks are sent to India for training and 150 monasteries have been either re-opened or rebuilt on a modest scale, with several teachers coming from the Tibetans in India. Unlike in Tibet where the old disrobed monks have not rejoined the monasteries, only worked to rebuild and support them, many old monks in Mongolia have rejoined. Since most have not abandoned living at home with their wives at night and drinking vodka, there is a major problem concerning the monks’ rules of discipline.

The most serious problem facing Buddhism in Mongolia today, however, is the aggressive American Mormon and Baptist Christian missionaries. Coming initially to teach English, they offer money and aid for people’s children to study in America if they convert. They pass out beautifully printed, free booklets on Jesus in the colloquial Mongol language and show films. The Buddhists cannot compete. There are no books on Buddhism yet in the colloquial language, only classical, hardly anyone who could make such translations, and no money to print such books even if they were made. So young people and intellectuals are being drawn away from Buddhism to Christianity.


There are three traditional Tibetan Buddhist regions in Russia: Buryatia in Siberia near Lake Baikal, Tuva also in Siberia north of western Mongolia, and Kalmykia to the northwest of the Caspian Sea. The Buryats and Kalmyks are Mongols, while the Tuvinians are Turkic. All the monasteries in each of these areas, except for three only damaged in Buryatia, were totally destroyed by Stalin in the late 1930s. In the late 1940s Stalin re-opened two token monasteries in Buryatia under strict KGB surveillance. Disrobed monks put their robes back on as uniforms during the day and performed some rituals. Several went for studies to the training college in Mongolia. After the fall of communism in 1990, there has been a large revival of Buddhism in all three regions. The Tibetans in exile have sent teachers, and new young monks are training in the Tibetan monasteries in India. There are now seventeen monasteries reestablished in Buryatia. As in Mongolia, there is a problem of alcohol and the monastics who were former monks having wives. But unlike Mongolia these monastics do not claim to be celibate monks. There are plans under way to open monasteries in Kalmykia and Tuva. Christian missionaries are active in the three regions, but not as strong as in Mongolia.

There is also a great deal of interest in Tibetan Buddhism among Asians of other Buddhist traditions. Many Tibetan masters are invited from the community in exile in India to teach in Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. People find the clear explanations of Buddha’s teachings found in the Tibetan tradition a useful supplement for understanding their own traditions. People are also attracted to the elaborate Tibetan rituals for prosperity and health.

Nontraditionally Buddhist Countries

All forms of Buddhism are also found throughout the world in nontraditionally Buddhist countries. There are two major groups involved: Asian immigrants and non-Asian practitioners. Asian immigrants, particularly in the United States and Australia, have many ethnic temples. This is also the case on a smaller scale in Canada, Brazil, Peru and several Western European countries particularly France. The main emphasis is on devotional practice and providing a community center to help the immigrant communities maintain their individual cultural and national identities.

Buddhist “Dharma centers” of all traditions are now found in more than eighty countries around the world on every continent. These are mostly frequented by non-Asians and emphasize meditation, study and the practice of rituals. The vast proportions of these centers are from the Tibetan, Zen and Theravada traditions. The teachers at these centers include both Westerners as well as ethnic Buddhists from Asia. The largest number are found in the United States, France and Germany. Serious students often visit Asia for deeper training. Furthermore, there are Buddhist study programs in numerous universities throughout the world and an ever-growing dialogue and exchange of ideas between Buddhism and other religions, science, psychology and medicine. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has played a most significant role in this respect.


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