Close this search box.


The Future of Buddhism

Anam Thubten Rinpoche. From

As one of the world’s oldest and largest religions, Buddhism has been around for more than 2,500 years. The tradition has gone through ups and downs on numerous occasions, just like any other tradition. At one point, it was nearly extinct in its birthplace, India, yet it has thrived in new regions far from its original home, such as China, Korea, and Japan.

Today, the number of adherents around the world is somewhere around 500 million.* It might not be the largest religion but perhaps the largest non-theistic religion, the principles of which do not pivot on the existence of a single omnipresent being. The Buddhadharma has been a guiding light for countless people to find inner wisdom to deal with the human condition and to attain true liberation, nirvana. It has also made rich contributions to human civilization, with amazing literature, philosophy, architecture, art, and much more.

Just like individuals, religious traditions can have good and bad reputations. Up to now, overall, Buddhism has been known as the religion of peace and nonviolence. Terms such as Buddhist fundamentalism or Buddhist terrorism are seldom heard in general conversation or from major news media. Even if most non-Buddhists don’t agree with Buddhism at a theoretical level, they tend to associate it with nonviolence and compassion. There have also been some Buddhist luminaries in the limelight on the international stage as champions for world peace. All of these help the image of Buddhism.

Buddhism has a lot of practical and applicable practices that have universal appeal, so some of these practices reach beyond Buddhism’s own domain. Today, people from literally every background are doing mindfulness meditation. This is one concrete example. It is also attracting many newcomers in the West as wholehearted followers, not because they are chasing after magic or ecclesiastical promises, but because they appreciate Buddhism’s down-to-earth approach.

Unless there is an unexpected U-turn in the current and seemingly inexorable trend of geopolitical demographics, the population of Buddhists is expected to decline faster than other major religions. This has to do with many factors. One obvious factor is that countries in East Asia that have historically been appreciating and practicing Buddhism are becoming more secular, and their populations are dramatically declining. Japan is a living example of this. Many temples there are attracting fewer adherents as times goes by. No one has found a perfect solution to reverse this trend. In fact, Buddhism is declining even faster than Japan’s aging population.

Ancient Buddhist scriptures made predictions about the end of Buddhism, and some of them even gave a timeline. But what is the barometer that defines the existence of Buddhism? According to the Vinaya, or monastic rules and procedures, taught by the Buddha, it is defined by whether major Vinaya rites are observed by monks or nuns. Many strongly or even dogmatically follow this barometer. There are other scholars who define the existence of Buddhism by a looser measurement. They would say that as long as there is a Buddhist sangha, there is Buddhism in a particular time and place. The latter seems to be more reasonable, as monasticism itself can be said to be in crisis, with fewer and fewer people entering monasteries to be ordained.

If Buddhism should continue in the world, we should seriously think about how to raise a new generation of Dharma teachers. They are the ones who are going to carry our tradition and shape it to meet the spiritual needs of followers. In the old days, only monastics were Dharma teachers in many traditions, with a few notable exceptions. During the Meiji era in Japan, monasticism was pretty much extinguished by the government, because of which lay Dharma teachers and lay Zen masters became the norm.

Photo by Craig C. Lewis

In Tibetan Buddhism, most Dharma teachers are expected to be monastics, except in the Nyingma tradition, which permits both ordained and non-monastic Dharma teachers. The Nyingma tradition has many non-monastic masters, such as Rongzom Pandita, Jigme Lingpa, Duddul Dorje, Longsal Nyingpo, Do Khyentse, Dudjom Lingpa, Lerab Lingpa, and many more. There are also many monastic Nyingma masters, including Longchenpa, Jamgon Mipham, and Choje Jigme Phuntsok.

In the Nyingma tradition, non-monastic Dharma teachers are often regarded as yogis or tantrikas and held in high regard by lay communities. People ofter them dana, financial gifts, and also take teachings and initiations from them. This custom is not a recent development but goes back to the time of the Tibetan kings Trisong Detsen and Tri Ralpachen.

In general, people become Dharma teachers in the Nyingma tradition through diverse ways. Some become by earning a khenpo degree, or by being a tulku or terton, or by having undertaken a long meditation retreat and being asked to teach by a guru. There is not one particular path for someone to become a Dharma teacher.

Sooner or later, however, Buddhist societies will come to an era when there will be very few people who are willing to be ordained as monastics. Thus they need to be open to creating a system through which lay people can be trained as Dharma teachers. This is already happening in all Buddhist lineages in the West.

There is not some kind of Buddhist papal government with the authority to revise and invent new guidelines for Buddhism. Yet there are many pressing issues like this one. Buddhist practitioners and institutions should pay attention and be ready for new challenges. 

* The Global Religious Landscape: Buddhists (Pew Research Center) and The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050 (Pew Research Center)

See more

Dharmata Foundation

Related features from BDG

Buddhism and Ethics
The Practice of Nonviolence
Buddhist Predictions for the Future
Buddhist Economics: Toward a Happier Society
What to Do with this World?
Sanghas in the West: Looking to the Future

More from Dharma Gossip by Anam Thubten Rinpoche

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments