Tibetan Connections: Buddhism in the United States

Bartosz Hadyniak

Bartosz Hadyniak

From its early origins in Northern India, Buddhism was quick to spread. It initially spread throughout India and then outward toward other countries along the Silk Road. However, after repeated Muslim invasions and long-term occupation, Buddhism all but fizzled out in India. The early spread of Buddhism to the Himalayan regions, other parts of Central Asia, Kashmir Afghanistan, and Tibet sustained Buddhism in the meantime. Today, regional forms, such as Tibetan Buddhism, have experienced resurgence in Asia and exportation to other regions, such as the United States.

Exportation of Tibetan Buddhism

For the United States, Tibetan Buddhism arrived in three general forms. According to Charles Prebish—a Buddhism Scholar—these forms include 1) baggage Buddhism that arrived with Asian immigrants and practice by their descendants; 2) import Buddhism or ‘elite Buddhism’, wherein wealthy American recruited teachers to the United States to share their teachings; and 3) evangelical Buddhism where practitioners from other countries sought out worshippers in the United States. Today, approximately 1.2 million practitioners are located in the United States with an estimated 487 million people around the globe. Not surprisingly, The largest groups of Buddhists are found in Asia. Despite its resurgence across the globe, Buddhism affiliation numbers in the United Sates, seem to be on the decline.

Millennials and Buddhism

Are you part of the ‘growing minority’? Chances are, you are among the majority of millennials who do not engage religiously. In 2014, the United States population was approximately 245 million. According to the Pew Research Center, between 2007 and 2014, nearly 5 million Americans dropped off the religious map. The largest player in this drop off seems to be Millennials. Millennials, defined as the age group from 18-34 in 2015, made up more than 75 million Americans and, on average, 35% were religiously unaffiliated. In addition, Millennials were more than twice as likely to become unaffiliated with a religion in comparison Generation Xers, three times more likely than their Baby Boomer parents, and more than four times likely in comparison to the Silent Generation. Still, Millennials make up a small piece of the religious pie. And with 75.6 percent or approximately 185 million Americans affiliated with a religious organization, religion is here to stay.

While Millennials in the United States tend to be moving away from Christianity in droves, non-Christian sects are more stable. As an example, Buddhism affiliation did not change among the millennial cohort. Therefore, what does Buddhism offer that Christianity by and large does not?         

Growth of Buddhism in the United States, at least in the near the future, seems unlikely. According to the Pew Research Center, the fertility rate seems to be the greatest limiting factor. From 2010 to 2015, Jews, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims had fertility rates above the replacement level (2.1)—a metric used to determine the stability of a population—whereas Buddhists sit at 1.6. In other words, approximately equal numbers of Buddhists are leaving than joining the religion. While all other religions are projected to grow by 2050, Buddhism is anticipated to experience a net loss. 

Nonetheless, it seems that younger millennials (born between 1990-1996) are experiencing an uptick in participation in recent years in comparison to their older cohort (born between 1981-1989). In 2007, <1% of younger millennials were practicing Buddhism in comparison to 18% of older millennials. In 2014, 23% of younger millennials were practicing in comparison to 17% of older millennials. While there may be an age-association with religious participation, the numbers for older millennials has stagnated between reporting years. It will be interesting to see in the future, if the younger cohort will experience a change in participation or similar stagnation. 

Across racial lines, however, the trends vary. Whites and Black have seen a decrease in participation, while Asians, Latinos and Other groups seem to be increasing. Unfortunately, these numbers do not differentiate between Buddhist cultures or tradition, so it may be that minority participation is more reflective of an increase in evangelical Buddhism and not Tibetan Buddhism, which have been known to recruit minority groups specifically. 

While Millennials become more non-religious, they may not abandon religion entirely. In fact, in the Pew Research Center survey concluded that adults might be less religious, but in fact identify strongly with spirituality. Fortunately, alternative non-religious forms of Buddhism exist, such as Agnostic Buddhism, which focuses on pragmatism and naturalism. As these alternative forms of Buddhism emerge that feed off of classic form such as Tibetan Buddhism, Millennials may pave the way for rethinking religion.