Estimates concerning the number of people currently practicing
Buddhism vary widely, ranging anywhere from 360 million to 1 billion.
Conflicting assessments of the size of the Buddhist population are the result
of differing interpretations of the faith; the more conservatively Buddhism is
defined, the smaller the estimate is. Buddhism derives its name from the word Buddha (“enlightened one”), a
status to which Buddhists aspire (and an objective that most Buddhists believe
takes many lifetimes to accomplish). Reaching enlightenment—gaining complete
knowledge—puts an end to the suffering of the enlightened one, Buddhists
believe, because experiencing suffering is the product of failing to realize
the truth. Liberation from suffering, nirvana, is the driving force behind Buddhist philosophy and the goal of
Buddhist enlightenment.1 Enlightenment is said to release one from
the cycle of reincarnation by eliminating one’s desire, which ends one’s
Buddhists affirm the Four Noble Truths, a set of teachings
intended to lead to enlightenment: (1) Life is full of suffering. (2) The cause
of suffering is human desire. (3) The cessation of suffering (nirvana) is
attainable. (4) Nirvana can be achieved by following the Eightfold Path.2
The Four Noble Truths are the core of Buddhist belief, the doctrinal
foundations of the conduct described in the Eightfold Path. In other words, the
Four Noble Truths are the orthodoxy to the orthopraxy of the Eightfold Path.
Buddhists consider the Eightfold Path to be a “Middle Way” between the extremes
of asceticism and sensuality:3 (1) right view (knowing the Four
Noble Truths); (2) right intention (renunciation, benevolence, and nonviolence
toward living beings); (3) right conduct (foregoing lies, gossip, and slander);
(4) right conduct (refraining from stealing, from taking life, and from
debauchery); (5) right livelihood (pursuing an occupation that does not bring
others harm); (6) right effort (abandoning harmful thoughts and embracing
wholesome ones); (7) right awareness (maintaining mindfulness of one’s body,
feelings, and thoughts); and (8) right concentration (the technique and
exercise of meditation).4
There are two main branches of Buddhism, both of which contain
several further “denominations.” Theravada (“the ancient teaching”), the more conservative
of the two branches, is widely practiced in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
Mahayana (“the greater vehicle”), which is far larger and more diverse than
Theravada, is common in China, Nepal, Tibet, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Korea,
and Mongolia. Many distinctives separate Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists, but
chief among them may be that Mahayana Buddhists believe salvation (reaching
nirvana/enlightenment) to be obtainable by all people, while Theravada
Buddhists hold that enlightenment is available only to a small number of true
While Buddhism has no universally agreed upon central text, most
Buddhists affirm as canonical the Vinaya Pitaka, a code of conduct for monks and nuns, the Sutta Pitaka, which contains legends
of the Buddha’s previous lives and wisdom regarding social and moral
situations, and the Abhidhamma
Pitaka, a collection of psychological
and philosophical discourses.6 These three collections compose the Tripitaka, or “three baskets” of
Buddhist teachings. In addition to revering the Tripitaka, Mahayana Buddhists also
follow a collection of teachings called the Mahayana Sutras, a collection of over two
thousand writings that cover a broad variety of topics.
Antony Fernando and Leonard Swidler, Buddhism
Made Plain (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992), 20.
Robert C. Lesser, Buddhism: The Path to Nirvana (San Francisco: Harper & Row,
Fernando and Swidler, Buddhism Made Plain, 20.
Hans Wolfgang Schumann, Buddhism:
An Outline of Its Teachings and Schools (Wheaton,
IL: Quest, 1973), 68–72.
OMF International website, http://www.omf.org/omf/us/peoples_and_places/religions/buddhism
(accessed March 24, 2012).
Ministry among Buddhists website (copyright 2005), http://www.bridgesforministry.org/index.php
(accessed March 25, 2012).
Sarah Taylor holds a Masters in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Seminary and a BA from Brigham Young University. She lives in Provo, Utah.