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

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


Arrival to Buddhism

The percentage of Buddhists in Latin America and Spain is less than 1% of their populations, according to Pew Research Center data for 2020. Unlike countries where Buddhism is dominant, in Spanish-speaking countries (where the dominant religion is Catholicism), people do not usually access Buddhism early on in life. The encounter usually happens later. In fact, less than 20% had contact with Buddhism before the age of 20.

The average age at which contact with Buddhism began was 34 years, in full maturity, and on average they have been practicing Buddhism for almost 13 years. Half of them began their relationship with Buddhism between the ages of 20 and 40. It is not, in general, the religion inherited from the parents, but rather one accessed voluntarily and actively and often as a conversion process.

Family transmission is not very relevant, less than 10% learned about Buddhism through relatives. It was mostly through books (41%) (the traditional model of dissemination) and also through the new models of mass dissemination through the internet (26%). One third of the respondents arrived to Buddhism through their social relationships with friends and acquaintances. The Buddhist social world (centers, teachers, talks) and its immediate environment (yoga centers and natural therapies) played also a significant role, although substantially smaller than the mass dissemination channels and social relations.

The level of identification and closeness to Buddhism is (obviously given that it is a survey aimed at people in the Buddhist world) very high: 8.7 on a scale of 1 not at all to 10 totally. In fact, the vast majority (81%) concentrate their level of identification at the top of the scale (between 7 and 10).

The strong identification is consistent with the characteristics of the people who respond: the vast majority (82%) consider themselves part of the consolidated Buddhist world (part of the structure of traditions, centers, teachers). The most important group is that of those who define themselves as “lay practitioners” and who represent a little more than half of the responses (53%), followed by “scholars of Buddhism” with 15% of responses and by “ordained or in process of being ordained” (teachers, ordained sangha, postulants, and novices) who also represent 15%. The remaining 18% are people entering the Buddhist world (supporters and people interested in learning more about Buddhism).

Type of current relationship with Buddhism N%
Lay practitioner 13552.5%
Buddhist Scholar 3814.8%
Sympathizer or closet to it2610.1%
Interested in learning more about it207.8%
Postulant or novice135.1%
Ordained Person (Ordained Sangha)218.2%
Minister, chaplain, or lay teacher31.6%

The Meanings of Buddhism

Most respondents have a complex view of what Buddhism means to them and associate it with several things at once. A large majority (79%) define it as a “spiritual path”, while a very large number (66%) define it as “philosophy”. The two dominant forms of definition have to do with the path to follow and the way of understanding and seeing reality. They are followed by its conceptualization as practices for transformation (57%), as a system of values (48%) and behaviors (48%), and to a lesser degree by its association with a path of social transformation (30%). Although less popular, a significant number of practitioners (37%) consider it as a religion, while 23% see it as a science and for 16% it is also a system of personal therapies.

What do you mainly associate Buddhism with? (Multiple Answers allowed)N%
Spiritual Path204(79.4 %)
Philosophy170(66.1 %)
Transformation Practices 146(56.8 %)
Behavioral system or “lifestyle”125 (48.6 %)
Value system124(48.2 %)
Religion94 (36.8 %)
Path of social transformation78 (30.4 %)
Science59(23.0 %)
Therapeutic system (relaxation and/or anti-stress techniques)40 (15.6 %)
Other7 (3.5%)

The various definitions could be grouped into those focused on meanings and visions aimed at understanding reality, and those focused on practices on the path marked by that vision of reality. The dimension of meanings encompasses the association with philosophy, values, religion and science. The dimension of practices includes the definition as a spiritual path, practices of transformation, a behavioral system, a path of social transformation and as a personal therapeutic system.

Respondents accentuate a little more the dimension of action and practice, whether individual and introspective or with social applications. The cognitive dimension, of ways of seeing and understanding, and therefore guiding action, seems a little less relevant in their definition of Buddhism. As the most important elements of both dimensions, and as the center of the definition of Buddhism, on the one hand we have the definition as a path for 79% of the answers, and on the other the definition as philosophy for 66%.

The way Buddhism enters the West, and succeeds, is less as a religion to be blindly followed but rather as a path, as knowledge and practices, that fits better with the dominant rational and scientific worldview. This would explain why many of the people responding also consider it, in conjunction with other definitions, a science and a therapeutic system.

As seen by its practitioners, Buddhism represents a close relationship between meanings and practices. It is a structure based on that main combination of elements defining the spiritual path and shaping a life project with goals and ways to achieve them. We could understand this vital project, this Path, as a combination and interaction of Philosophy (as a way of understanding and seeing the world and reality), with “Practices for transformation” (individual and social change), and also with Systems of Values (orientations) and of Behaviors (practices).

There is a lot of similarity between Buddhist communities on both sides of the Atlantic, giving equal importance to the core elements. It is also interesting to note the similarity in the approaches of both genres. We would just highlight a couple of differences between them. In the conceptualization as religion, men emphasize their religious character much more than women, while women see it as a practice of transformation much more than men.

Buddhists of the Theravāda tradition stand out in their definition of Buddhism as Philosophy (77%) and Religion (49%) far above Buddhists of the Vajrayāna and Mahāyāna traditions. Followers of the latter emphasize more than the Theravāda ones the role of Buddhism as a behavioral system, a practice of transformation, and a spiritual path. Some practitioners placing more emphasis on the practical dimensions of the path while others place it on the dimensions of meanings and ways of seeing and understanding.

What are we looking for in Buddhism?The answers to the question of what were the main reasons for approaching Buddhism offer us an equally complex picture. The most relevant answers (given by more than a third of the respondents) can be grouped into three distinct conceptualizations. 

Top Reasons to Approach Buddhism (Multiple Answers allowed)  N %
Seeking personal growth123(48.0 %)
Seeking greater capacity to cope with problems or situations of suffering121 (47.53 %)
Pursuit of happiness87 (34.0 %)
Seeking spiritual guidance84(32.8 %)
Possibility to think about new spiritual dimensions74 (28.9 %)
Possibilities to help others81 (31.6 %)
Deepening the practice of Buddhism85 (33.2 %)
Delving into Buddhist teachings80(31.3 %)
Possibilities of doing something for myself62(24.3 %)
Possibilities of doing something for the happiness of others59 (23.0 %)
Curiosity40 (15.6 %)
Search for companions and friends    1 (0.4 %)

The most prominent reasons are personal: Seeking personal growth (48%), Seeking more capacity to face problems or situations of suffering (47%) and Seeking happiness (34%). They define the main functional goals pursued.

And after these goals, and as a second group of reasons, a third of the responses refer to the elements of the path to follow in order to achieve those goals: Seeking spiritual guidance (33%), deepening knowledge and practice of Buddhism (33% and 31%) and orientation and action towards others (Possibilities of helping others (32%)). They are instrumental in achieving goals.

The reasons given point to a search for personal empowerment, guided by spirituality and oriented towards others. And all of this is based on a foundation of Buddhism (knowledge and practice). Buddhism is thus seen as a vehicle (knowledge, values, and practices) of personal empowerment to achieve happiness.

There are virtually no differences between men and women. Hispanic Buddhists on both sides of the Atlantic also agree on what they are looking for in Buddhism. Personal growth and the search for greater capacity to deal with problematic situations are the priority in both populations, but in reverse order. In Spain, the search for personal growth stands out more, while in Latin America the search for greater capacity to cope with suffering dominates, perhaps reflecting two different ways of seeking the same thing. In Spain, the search for happiness continues to be the main element, and in Latin America the deepening of the practice dominates. They seem to draw two different narratives. Spain: personal growth, greater ability to cope with problems, happiness. Latin America: greater capacity to face problems, personal growth, deepening in practice.

And the vast majority say they found what they were looking for. (Of course, if they hadn’t, they might not have responded to the survey.) 56% have found a lot of what they were looking for, followed by 34% who have found quite a lot and 7% who have found something. It fits well with their strong identification with Buddhism and with the importance given to its practical and useful dimension.

To be continued . . .

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