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Journalists may encounter Buddhism in several ways—among immigrants, among American converts or among people who adopt Buddhist practices, such as meditation, without its beliefs. Though immigrant Buddhists outnumber Anglo converts, there is strikingly little overlap between the two groups, and Buddhism’s profile in America is largely due to its cultural influence.

One of the five largest religions of the world, Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in India in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. He gave up a life of royalty to live as a monk and eventually attained enlightenment (nirvana) through meditation. He did not believe he was a god, so some people call Buddhism a philosophy, not a religion. Buddha taught personal enlightenment through the Four Noble Truths: Life includes suffering, which is caused by attachment and can be stopped by following the “middle way” or Eightfold Path (right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration). He believed in karma (actions have consequences) and cycles of death and rebirth.

Buddhism has several branches:

  • Theravada Buddhism—The oldest form of Buddhism, it emphasizes the difference between monks’ authority and practice and lay people’s. Those who attain enlightenment are equal to the Buddha, who is not regarded as a god.

  • Mahayana Buddhism—The second-oldest form of Buddhism, it offers gradations of Buddhahood—in bodhisattvas—to more people instead of concentrating authority among monks. Buddha is regarded as a god.

  • Tibetan Buddhism—The Dalai Lama is the leader of Tibetan Buddhists,who were forced into exile in India when the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1959. Tibetan Buddhism is based on Mahayana teachings, and its followers still campaign to return to Tibet.

  • Zen Buddhism—A combination of Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, it has roots in China, moved into Korea and Japan and became popular in the West. Zen teaches that everyone is a Buddha, and each person can discover that through Zen practice.


There are many Buddhist scriptures and texts. The major ones include:

  • The Tripitaka (Pali Canon),which means “three baskets,” is the earliest collection of Buddha’s teachings and the only text revered by Theravada Buddhists.

  • The Sutras are held sacred by Mahayana Buddhists.

  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead records the stages of death and rebirth.


  • The Buddha’s birthday (and in some traditions, his death) is the focus of a festival in May calledWesak.