Buddhism is the world's fourth-largest religion. Estimates of its followers worldwide range from 350 million to 520 million, including an estimated 3 million to 4 million people in the United States. Buddhism focuses on personal spiritual development and achieving a deep insight into the true nature of life. It encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices based primarily on the teachings and interpreted philosophies of Siddhartha Gautama, who gave up a life of royalty to live as a monk while embarking on a personal quest for enlightenment. Buddhism originated in India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C. and spread through much of Asia. It was introduced in the United States in the mid-19th century and spread as Chinese immigrant populations grew.

The Buddha taught Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is unsatisfactory and pleasure is not permanent.
  2. Our desire to have and control things creates a lack of satisfaction.
  3. Suffering ceases with the final liberation of Nirvana. The mind experiences complete freedom.
  4. There is an Eightfold Path leading to Nirvana and the cessation of suffering is called Magga.

Most Buddhists do not worship a deity. Buddhists from all traditions have the goal of overcoming suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth, either through the attainment of Nirvana or through the path of Buddhahood. They believe nothing is fixed or permanent and change is always possible. The path to enlightenment is through the practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom.

Buddhism exists in the United States in several ways: among immigrant populations, among American converts (an estimated 800,000) and among those who adopt such Buddhist practices as meditation without embracing its broader belief system.

The branches of Buddhism include:

Theravada Buddhism, which emphasizes the difference between the authority and practice of monks and those of lay people. Attaining enlightenment makes one equal to the Buddha. It is the oldest form of Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism is the largest major tradition of Buddhism, claiming more than half of Buddhists. It teaches gradations of Buddhahood to more people instead of concentrating authority among monks. This second oldest form of Buddhism does regard Buddha as a god.

Tibetan Buddhism is based on Mahayana teachings but claims the Dalai Lama as its leader. Tibetan Buddhists were forced into exile in India when the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1959 and its followers still advocate returning to Tibet.

Zen Buddhism combines practices of Mahayana and Taoism. While its roots are in China, Zen Buddhism moved into Korea and Japan and became popular in the West. Its adherents believe everyone is a Buddha, and each person can discover that through Zen practice.


American Buddhism is very diverse and complex with the most adherents among Asian American communities. There appears to be little consistency among the various expressions of Buddhism in the United States and no one person or organization speaks for all groups. In addition, there appear to be divisions between Asian adherents and American converts. Seek additional information from scholars. Additional information is also available through the covering Buddhists guide published by the Religion News Foundation.

This website is a joint initiative by the National Association of Broadcasters and NAB Leadership Foundation.

© 2021 NAB and NABLF | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use