Statistical Decline of Buddhism?

In June of 2011 Ven. Dhammika on his blog reported that statistics in Singapore show over ten years from 2000 to 2010 the number of Buddhists dropped from 42.5% to 33.3%. He also noted that similar trends are to be found in Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. I think the same thing can be said for Japan. While nominally people might identify as Buddhist, or even as a Shinto adherent, most people only walk into temples when someone has died or they're out visiting a historical site as a tourist.

It has been suggested that as Buddhism is transmitted into the western world a kind of "Western Buddhism"  might very well become a major component of the global Buddhist population. There is of course good reason for this given the statistics available which clearly have shown an interest in Buddhism in the English speaking world. Google Ngram Viewer displays the following graph when we search for "Buddhism":

After World War II we can see a sharp increase in the use of the word "Buddhism" before it stabilizes for a few years. After 2000 it curiously shows a decline and this is also reflected on Google Trends:

This shows a declining frequency of searches for "Buddhism" relative to the total number of searches on Google. Both seem to reveal a declining interest in Buddhism in the English speaking world. Even if we look for something specific like "Zen Buddhism" there is also a notable plateau followed by decline after 2000:

The term "Vajrayana" also reveals a decline:

Finally we should look at how "Theravada" appears:

This all seems to show a peak in the late nineties followed by a sharp decline.

One thing that could possibly explain this is that as explains "the best data is the data for English between 1800 and 2000." Still, as Google Trends shows above there has been a decline in the frequency of searches for "Buddhism", so this probably reflects in the Ngram Viewer as well. Even if it is premature to announce a decline, it is quite possible a plateau in interest has occurred, which is easily seen to have happened for three decades with "Buddhism".

 So, what to make out of all this? As the graphs above demonstrate after World War II there was a sharp increase in interest in Buddhism and particular schools of it as scholars and practitioners alike wrote works on the subject matter, though it is possible after 2000 a plateau or even decline has been occurring.

If this is correct, then it might indicate that the purported widespread interest in Buddhism in the West was a passing trend. This is not to say it is in terminal decline, but the popular interest could be at a plateau as settled communities mature and there is less general interest in the exotic Asian religion of Buddhism.

Nevertheless, in Asia Buddhism has been on the decline for many decades. In the last century communist regimes from Mongolia through China down through SE Asia decimated Buddhist communities. Singapore has fewer self-identifying Buddhists than before. When I was in Leh in Ladakh I was told by people there that there are less Buddhists there now than there were before, with the local population now being half Muslim. In a few generations Buddhists will be a minority in Leh and elsewhere in Ladakh. It could easily go extinct there within the century in my estimation. In Korea there are now more Christians than Buddhists in the country, not to mention the violent antagonism against Buddhism by some protestant groups.

Interestingly Buddhism has long predicted its own demise. Even the Buddha is on record as saying that his Dharma would eventually be forgotten by the world, as was the case before when the Buddhadharma of the past Buddha Kāśyapa was lost. Fortunately we are told that in the distant future the Buddhadharma will be rediscovered by Maitreya Buddha. An excellent work on all this is Jan Nattier's Once Upon a Future Time: Studies in a Buddhist Prophecy of Decline.


Denis said...

Because there are trends in vocabulary (by teachers sometimes wishing to avoid 'sounding' outdated or who want to highlight their new approach), I wouldn't be too negative on Buddhism just yet, e.g.

Meditation doesn't seem on the decline (
Breath meditation (which I think is less likely to also match other forms, e.g. Christian meditation) doesn't seem to plateau at all:

Another example is the compensation between Zen meditation and breathing meditation:

I would also be careful about the English only approach, e.g. compare English ( with French (… although there is a drop in the new century, the overall impression of the French-related graph is significantly less a plateau! Maybe there are writers who suddenly remember that not everyone reads English (or wants to, when it comes to spiritual / philosophical matters).

Obviously, the final observation is that all this being 'relative' measures. We should seriously consider that Buddhism and other spiritual views might be on the rise although the rise of the 'People culture' is even faster ;-) I don't have data on this, but that's a possibility. I'm not sure there was as much written books on stars and sportsmen and even actors before the 60's.
Last but not least: would suggest people did care about the 1929 stock market crash and the 1973 oil crisis but have been fully ignoring the pop of the internet bubble or the current crisis? Doesn't that sound weird to you? I suspect this might be another angle of the 'relative' measure…

Karma Yonten Gyatso said...

Since 1960, the number of Buddhist centres in Canada has expanded from fewer than 20 to more than 485.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Indeed Dharma centres have increased, though in the last ten years it would appear according to Google Ngrams (gauges usage of words in books), there has been a decline with Buddhism. I suspect this reflects a mature plateau. It happened before for two decades or so before the 90s. If you search for "atheism" you'll see a definite increase over the last ten years.

Mark said...

I would suspect this has much more to do with the use of books or of the Internet than it has to do with Buddhism per se. I dare say you could put in many other search terms, not even to do with religion, and find similar drop-offs.

Look at the very use of the Internet, the changing role of search engines, the demise of libraries, the increasing use of predictive searches (not always counted in stats), "dumbing down" of society, use of Facebook, etc., and I would suspect you could then account for such a drop-off.

An aside, I was shocked to find out recently that our local library service has been ordered by the municipal authority to sell off stock that has not been read in the last five years. A vicious circle if you ask me, because some of the best books are not read often!

J. Siemion said...

Having lived a few years in Korea, it's true that Buddhism is declining, for many reasons. The Korean Buddhists are not helping things. Many monks are involved in scandals. I knew personally of a couple of very corrupt monks in the higher ranks. Also, the Jogye Order is not reaching out to people. Most Koreans who are attracted to Buddhism are outcasts. There is nothing for families to do. Christianity is far superior in catering to people's everyday needs and wants. I wish the Jogye Order would do something proactive other than spruce up their website.

Anonymous said...

Please compare with the ngram for "sex". It shows the same decline after 2000. It's not likely that sex has lost its popularity, so this is just an overall bias in the ngram database.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

It might be called other things than sex...

Search for the synonym starting with the letter "F".

Eisel Mazard said...

I've already mention my own blog-post about the declining statistics in Taiwan…

…I wrote separate short articles about the fact that the rate of increase in both Canada and the U.S. has been much exaggerated…

…but another strange source of "data" is to check the number of messages sent on various Buddhist discussion forums.

"Yahoo groups" (etc.) about Buddhism all show a dramatic decline after 2006 --that is, every one I've looked at, ranging from "academic" discussion forums (moderated and dominated by univ. professors) to the lowest grade of popular discussion group.

In general, I think that the culture of communication is changing, but also that a period of optimism about Buddhism has come to an end. In terms of any and every Buddhist culture I've actually lived in and studied (east or west) I would say that the decline is real and appreciable --whereas talk of "revival" is a sham barely mustered for the benefit of tourists.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Eisel that's interesting thanks.

I'll take this into consideration for further posts.

Unknown said...

David Chapman from
concluded that Buddhism will die out in the West within the next decades.
He analysed Buddhism in the West and concluded that its popularity is mostly found within the post-world-war-2 generation. This means that most practitioners are in their 60s now and that there is hardly any sincere interest among the younger folks. He also explains that many of the new "Buddhists" are also part of the post-ww2 generation.
Based on this he explains that most centers and temples in the West will soon have sincere problems regarding "new consumers".
My personal view is the same. I am below 30 and live in Germany. In most retreats I went to I have been by far the youngest (and only one under 40) among the practioners. I have been told that this used to be very different during the Hippie decades.

Unknown said...

"Buddhist organizers are severely worried. The average age of ethnically-Western Buddhists is well over 50; and ones under 40 are scarce. Unless something changes, Western Buddhism will decline drastically over the next few decades, as the baby boomers die off. There has been much discussion of why this is and what to do about it.

My guess is this is actually not a Buddhist problem, and not a Western one. I think it is mainly due to the shattering of all systems in their collision with the global consumer culture (discussed on the previous page). Younger generations are decreasingly interested in taking on any system as a whole. If that is right, the problem is even more serious than most Buddhist organizers realize."