In Context

Buddhism has followers around the world and has been adapted to fit different societies. Merchants, traders and missionaries first brought Buddhism from North India to the rest of Asia. They also brought the religion to China via the Silk Road, and from China it spread to Korea, Japan and Tibet.

China's invasion of Tibet in 1950 led to a diaspora of the Tibetan people, which caused Tibetan Buddhism to spread quite widely. A number of prominent Buddhist teachers established centers of worship in Europe and North America. In My Reincarnation, Namkhai Norbu settles in Italy at the invitation of well-known professor of Eastern cultures Giuseppe Tucci. There, Norbu becomes a professor of Eastern studies at the University of Naples and does much to promote the spread of Tibetan culture in the West. He has written more than 100 books on Tibetan culture, history and spiritual practice, making him one of the world's foremost scholars on the subject and prompting the Dalai Lama to give him a gold pen to encourage him to write.

Chinese immigrants first brought Buddhism to the United States in the mid-19th century, but the religion gained a higher profile in the 1960s and 1970s, due to the Tibetan diaspora and growing interest in Eastern religions. Writers of the Beat Generation, such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, brought Buddhism to the attention of a wider audience. Many contemporary celebrities and artists, including Leonard Cohen, Richard Gere, Herbie Hancock, Tina Turner and Alice Walker, have shared publicly the influence that Buddhism has had on their lives and work.

There are presently about 60,000 Buddhists in Italy (0.1% of the country's population). Estimates of the number of Buddhists in the United States range from 2,450,000 to 4 million.

Photo caption: Yeshi Namkhai teaching in Russia  Credit: Kurmanguzhina Ainar

» Garfinkel, Perry. "Buddha Rising: Out of the Monastery, Into the Living Room" (excerpt). National Geographic, December 2005.
» PBS. The Buddha Blog.
» Stone, Linda and Paul F. Lurquin. Genes, Culture and Human Evolution: A Synthesis. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.