Buddhism originated from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, in the region of what is now Nepal and northeastern India, about 26 centuries ago. Buddha, in translation, can mean “the enlightened one” or “the awakened one.” Siddhartha went around teaching people how to become enlightened themselves, not trying to indoctrinate anyone directly to his beliefs. Though Buddhism started in India, it is not a very common religion there.
Buddhism is not a theistic religion. The Buddha taught that enlightenment does not come from reading and accepting scriptures, or listening to a priest. People themselves can come to their own realizations. It is debated whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy.
Though there are no strict doctrines, there are some basic guidelines to Buddhist practice. Meditation is a common activity that Buddhists engage in.
There are four noble truths:
1. The truth of suffering
2. The truth of cause of suffering
3. The truth and end of suffering
4. The truth of the path where we can free ourselves of suffering
One should not simply believe in these truths and take them for granted. It is more about the experience and practice of them.
Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world. Today, it has spread all throughout Asia, to about 350 million followers. Many people describe themselves as Buddhist in addition to adhering to another religion. For instance, in South Korea, many people are Christian and Buddhist.
The two major sects of Buddhism are Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada has been the mainstream practice in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Laos. It is sometimes called the “Southern School,” and it emphasizes how one can achieve the being of “worthy one,” realize enlightenment and freedom from the cycle of birth and death. Mahayana is common in China, Japan, Taiwan, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, South Korea, Vietnam and India. Mahayana is further divided into Pure Land and Zen. Mahayana is less individualized, as it sees all being as being one. All beings should be enlightened together.
It is difficult to say which country is most Buddhist. However, China has the highest population of Buddhists, at over 100 million, Thailand at 55 million and Vietnam at 49 million . Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar have the highest percentage of Buddhist populations. Many people in Asia practice a few different religions or practices that have a mix of Buddhist ideas. However, Buddhists are hard to count as a definite figure, as they generally do not have congregations nor register themselves as Buddhists.