Buddhists and their Values and Practices in Spanish-speaking Countries: A Sociological Exploration, Part Four

By Dr. José Antonio Rodríguez Díaz, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Barcelona, Spain


Belief Systems

Supernatural aspects are important in all religions. They are a central part of their worldviews, and Buddhism is no exception. The instrumental dimensions, heavily emphasized in the West, coexist with beliefs in supernatural elements related to the end of life and “the afterlife.”

The elements in which respondents believe the most (using a scale from 1, does not believe at all, to 5, believes a lot) are Nirvana (4.09), Reincarnation (3.84) and Life After Death (3.74). They are core beliefs of the Buddhist worldview. In addition, they believe somewhat in supernatural powers (mean 3.11) but less in religious miracles (2.38). And what they believe in least are heaven (1.95), hell (1.93) and God (2.16), which are centerpieces in the Catholic worldview. This belief system has the form of an alternative explanatory apparatus, although conceptually quite similar, to the Catholic one, dominant in the lands of the respondents.

Religious Person or Spiritual Person?

The expansion of Buddhism in the West has been framed by a debate about its essential character as a religion or as a spirituality. Buddhists who respond to the survey are more inclined to the spiritual character rather than the religious. More than half of them (54%) define themselves as spiritual but not religious. They are followed in number by those who define themselves as both spiritual and also religious (36%). The other two spiritual-religious combinations are in the minority, the sum of the people who answer them represents 10% of the total.

Identification:  Religious – Spiritual Persona:
Spiritual but Non religious53.5%
Spiritual and Religious35.9%
Religious but Non spiritual3.7%
Non religious and Non spiritual 6.9%
Total of Religious39.6%.
Total of Non-religious60.4%
Total of Spiritual89.4%
Total of Non-spiritual10.6%

If we look at the composition of these definitions and treat them in isolation, we see that almost all (almost 90%) define themselves as a spiritual person, and more than half (60%) affirm that they are not religious. Only 11% consider themselves non-spiritual people. Their positioning in this religious-spiritual continuum coincides with their distancing from the definition of Buddhism as a religion, replaced by the spiritual dimension. There are few differences between followers of the main traditions. Perhaps the most interesting small difference is the fact that the Vajrayāna followers emphasize the dimension of religion a little more while the Theravāda and Mahāyāna emphasize more that Buddhism is not a religion. 

System of Practices

Frequency of the following practices
Total % Several times a dayOnce a daySeveral times a weekSeveral times a monthRarely or never

Meditation is the practice most frequented by Buddhists, it is a central part of the spiritual path. 86% of the respondents practice it very frequently (at least several times a week), and 67% practice it daily (once or several times). Prayers and recitations are the next practices performed very frequently by half of the responding Buddhists.

Offerings are the least frequent practices. In fact, 1/3 of the Buddhists surveyed rarely or never make offerings, and a little less than 1/3 do so frequently (at least weekly). The spiritual path and personal development is fundamentally based on the practice of meditation. Elements more related to religious ritualistic dimensions are a somewhat less frequent part of the practice and path of Spanish-speaking Buddhists. It agrees with the fact, seen previously, that Buddhism is not mostly defined as a religion, only 37% do. But at the same time, 68% have a favorite prayer or mantra, 65% have a favorite text or sutra, and 76% have an altar and/or objects of worship.

Most of the people attend activities (90%) and/or participate in practices (80%) that are of collective nature, mainly in centers. The activities and practices most attended and participated in recent months, and which are central to the Buddhist path, revolve fundamentally around the acquisition of knowledge about Buddhism and meditation together with the practice of meditation in groups and/or on retreats. A very considerable part of the respondents also attends and participates in ceremonies and rituals (39%), and in empowerments (29%), and taking refuge (27%). And the main reasons (the objectives) for participating in these activities and practices are firstly, for almost half of those surveyed (49%), to continue advancing and delving deeper into Buddhism. This is followed by the objective of advancing on the spiritual path (32% of those surveyed). The third goal (advancing personal growth) is a little distant as the main reason (mentioned by the 16%).

There are no notable differences between genders, although men stand out for slightly more daily meditation than women. Among sympathizers of the most important traditions, the Vajrayāna and Theravāda stand out for a greater frequency of daily meditation. And the Vajrayāna are the most ritualistic in their daily practices. They are the ones who perform the most prayers (53%), recitations (45%) and daily offerings (32%). For a large proportion of respondents (85%) the greatest impact (quite a bit/a lot) of Buddhism on their lives has led to changes in their own identity. The second biggest impact has been on the way we live life and the third has been on death. Identity, ways of living life, and the view of death are central dimensions in the Buddhist worldview and path.

The results of their practice largely reflect the forms and intensity of it. The main results, with no substantial differences between genders or traditions, can be grouped into 3 central dimensions (mind, present, others). For almost 40% the most important result would be in the area of mind control: mental calmness (21% of the responses) and avoiding unwanted automatic reactions (17%). Living more in the present would be the most important outcome for 19%, and understanding others more would be the most important for 10%.

Most important outcome of their practiceN%
Mental calm53  21.3%
Living more in the present4819.3
Avoiding unwanted automatic reactions43 17.3
Understanding others more26  10.4
Have a more positive attitude18  7.2
Relate better to others20 8.0
Clarity in decision-making20   8.0
Knowing oneself better218.4

The most important results of the practice, and especially of meditation as the most prominent practice, are related to the mind control that makes it possible to be and act consciously and positively in the present (which is one of the central elements of Buddhism and the spiritual path). And it points to greater conscious control of their lives as a central part of advancing on the spiritual path. And this is precisely what they were looking for, as we have seen above, and what they have found. In fact, 90% believe they have found a lot or quite a lot of what they were initially looking for. The result is a new life path and new ways of walking it.

And all of this (what they seek, what they find, …) correlates with what is most important in their lives. The most important thing is inner harmony (8.71 on a scale of 1 not at all important to 10 very important). It is followed by love (average importance of 8.35), family (8.34), spirituality (8.29) and health (8.27). Things important in their lives create a map of Buddhist values centered on inner harmony surrounded by love, others, spirituality, and health. And it is focused on the transformation of the practitioner (inner harmony, health), their vision (spirituality) and their relationship with others (love, family).

And along with this we also have what is less important in their lives. And here television stands out for being the least important (3.04 on average importance), followed by politics, religion, and money. This reflects the distance of the worldview and values ​​of Buddhist practitioners from the dominant worldview and values (types of discourses and messages, goals and priorities, actions to be taken). The Buddhist path is configured as an alternative to the dominant paths.

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