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

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


A substantial part of life in Buddhism is mediated by the relationship with traditions and schools, centers, and teachers and referents.

By accepting the possibility of more than one single answer when responding about their belonging to or proximity to Buddhist traditions, centers and/or teachers and referents, an interesting phenomenon become visible as a part of practitioners combine (and interpenetrate and interrelate) traditions, centers, and teachers. More than a quarter (27%) mention belonging to or being close to more than one tradition, 29% feel close to more than 1 center; and 51% with more than one teacher or referent. This shows the permeability of jurisdictional barriers and the reduction of distances between traditions, centers, and teachers, generating a more interconnected Buddhism (in new lands and populations, such as Latin America and Spain).


The tradition that received the most responses, and by extension can be largely extrapolated to have had the most followers, is the Vajrayāna (37% of the responses / 47% of the respondents). Of these, 35 per cent belong to the Sakya school, 23 per cent to the Kagyu school, 8 per cent to the Geluk school, 5 per cent to the Rimah movement, and 3 per cent to the Nyingma school.

This was followed by the Mahāyāna (35.6% of the responses / 45% of the respondents). Of these surveyed, 40% are associated with Zen Buddhism, 7% with Pure Land Buddhism, and 2% with Chan Buddhism.

The Theravāda tradition has a smaller number of followers in these lands (13% of responses / 17% of respondents). More than half of Theravāda practitioners do not have or do not know if they belong to any specific school. Those who answer are mainly practitioners of Western Theravāda Buddhism and few of Thai and Vietnamese Buddhism.

By separating responses with a single affiliation from responses with several, we can better understand the structure of interactions between traditions. The responses citing a single tradition follow the same order as the total mention: Vajrayāna has the most members, followed closely by Mahāyāna and at a distance by Theravāda.

And the most important combination is that of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna (13% of practitioners), followed at a long distance by the combination of Theravāda with the other two, and the combination of the three traditions.

The Vajrayāna and Mahāyāna traditions are definitely dominant in the responses, and Theravāda tradition has the fewest followings. This points to the ways in which the various traditions have expanded, as well as the reduction of distances and differences between them. There are some differences in their deployment between Spain and Latin America. In Spain, 65% of the responses are from Vajrayāna followers (a reflection of their level of implantation) followed by Mahāyāna (42%), while Theravāda has few followers (9%). In Latin America, the distribution is somewhat more balanced, with the Mahāyāna tradition being the dominant one (with 47% of followers), followed by the Vajrayāna (35%), and the Theravāda (22%).

Decomposition of belonging and/or closeness to Traditions
Mentioned in soloCombinations
Don’t know155.85%
Mahāyāna + Vajrayāna3312.9%
Theravāda with Mahāyāna or Vajrayāna124.69

By comparison, we see that the proportion of Vajrayāna followers in Spain is almost twice as high as in Latin America and that the proportion of Theravāda followers in Latin America is more than double that of Spain. They reflect somewhat differentiated models of expansion. The Vajrayāna tradition is dominant among the respondents in Spain and the Mahāyāna tradition is in Latin America.

Differences in their expansion history might also explain differences in the visibility and knowledge of the traditions by the buddhists themselves. Overall, the least known tradition is the Theravāda (38% of Buddhists do not know anything about it) followed by the Vajrayāna (unknown for the 29%). The Mahāyāna is the best known, only 6% say they do not know it. While the greater ignorance of the Theravāda tradition correlates with the lower number of Buddhists who say they belong, or are close, to it, the case of the Vajrayāna tradition is paradoxical given that it is the tradition with the most followers responding to the survey. Despite this, it seems to be opaquer and more distant to the rest of the Buddhists, while the Mahāyāna tradition appears to be more open and closer.


The vast majority (85%) of the Buddhists who respond are members or sympathizers of one organization or similar, while 15% are not linked to any. Globally, a little more than half belong, or are close, to only one entity while almost a third (29%) belong, or are close, to more than one (See Table 2, in Annexes).

The organizational fabric is dominated (70% of the answers) by a multitude of singular entities (with diverse approaches to knowledge and practice): centers and associations (29%), “communities” (21%), and monasteries or similar (15%). And a quarter of the practitioners are linked to networks of organizations and/or online networks or communities.

To advance in Buddhist knowledge and practice under the direction of a spiritual guide were the main reasons to approach the center they are linked to. The relationship with the centers is very intense and regular: 63% attend or connect to the center in a weekly basis (and in a monthly basis the number rises to the 74%). They connect to the centers mostly to participate in meditation or practice groups (46%), courses or workshops (31%) and retreats (20%). Centers are social spaces of knowledge and practice.


85% of Buddhists say they have a teacher or role model they follow. And one-third say they have more than one. And just like in the centers, the main reasons to approach the teacher or main referent are to advance in Buddhist knowledge and practice under the direction of a spiritual guide.

Unlike the center to which they are attached to, the relationship with the teacher tends to be less frequent in general. Half (51%) of the Buddhists surveyed have some form of contact with their teacher at least monthly. For another 30% the contacts are very occasional during the year and for 5% it is once a year. And in some cases (14%) there is not a direct relationship.

Regarding the relationship with teachers, it is important to note that more than half of the respondents have more than one teacher or referent they follow. At the other end of the spectrum are the many Theravāda followers (14%) and also Mahāyāna (10%) who have no teacher or referent at all. The Vajrayāna followers are the most notable for having only one teacher or referent (a third of them), while the Theravāda and Mahāyāna followers stand out a bit for having more than five masters.

The differences between followers of the three main traditions with respect to belonging or proximity to schools and following teachers are very small. The most interesting, and greatest, are the differences between the followers of the Theravāda tradition and those of the other two traditions. Almost a quarter of the former (23%) are not associated with any center, while the vast majority (more than 90%) of the followers of the other two traditions are, and in fact stand out for being close to several centers (43% of the Vajrayāna followers and 39% of the Mahāyāna).

Main reasons to approach Buddhism, a center, and a teacher.
 (Multiple Answers available)BuddhismCenterTeacher
Seeking personal growth(48.0 %)(38.9 %)34.9
Seeking greater capacity to cope with problems or situations of suffering(47.53 %)(32.7 %)34.9
Pursuit of happiness(34.0 %)(26.1 %)25.2
Seeking spiritual guidance(32.8 %)(39.4 %)41.7
Possibility to think about new spiritual dimensions(28.9 %)(21.2 %)23.4
Possibilities to help others(31.6 %)(22.1 %)25.2
Deepening the practice of Buddhism(33.2 %)(46.5 %)51.8
Delving into Buddhist teachings(31.3 %)(50.0 %)54.1
Possibilities of doing something for myself(24.3 %)(21.2 %)22.0
Possibilities of doing something for the happiness of others(23.0 %)(21.2%)20.2
Curiosity(15.6 %)(9.3 %)8.7
Search for companions and friends(0.4 %)(4.9 %)1.8

Comparing the main reasons for approaching Buddhism to the ones to approach a specific center and/or a teacher, we can see an interesting difference in priorities, which are possibly a reflection of the path followed, (that is, the process of growing as a Buddhist). We approach Buddhism to improve spiritually and mentally in pursuit of happiness. We approach a center and teacher looking for guidance to improve our knowledge and practice (instruments for spiritual and mental improvement in the pursuit of happiness). Centers and teachers are the providers of the instruments/tools for advancement on the spiritual path and personal growth.

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