Are these “the most Buddhist cities in America”?

You may think of New York and Los Angeles as being the most Buddhist cities in the nation, but the results of a new survey may surprise you.


“Buddhist Landscape,” Paul Hannon.

The 2010 U.S. Religious Census: Religious Congregations & Membership Study, conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, found that San Jose, where 1.25 percent of the population reports belonging to a Buddhist congregation, is the most Buddhist city in the U.S.

Rounding out the top 10 are several other Western cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver. Just one Midwestern (Oklahoma City, coming in seventh) and one East Coast city (Raleigh, North Carolina, at number 10) made the top 10 list.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, has the largest number of Buddhists, with 117,000 in the metro area. And out of cities where the survey found any Buddhist population at all, Birmingham, Alabama has the smallest, with just 64 Buddhists. The Huffington Post has the full list of cities, and you’ll find the complete U.S. Religion Census report here.

In total, the survey found just under a million Buddhists in the U.S., belonging to 2,854 different congregations. The survey only counts congregations, meaning that unaffiliated Buddhists aren’t included. A Pew Forum study released earlier this year estimated that there are between three and four million Buddhists in the country.

(Paul Hannon’s “Buddhist Landscape” is available from our online gallery.)


  1. Jeff says

    This study is interesting, but not reliable. Buddhism isn't a membership-based religion (unlike Christianity), so it dramatically under-estimates the number of Buddhists at both the national and local levels. That said, it can be used (carefully) for discerning relative concentrations of Buddhists in different parts of the country.

  2. kyle says

    WWBD: What Would the Buddha Do? Certainly not take a headcount and make a top-ten list. Ugh, you're better than this, Shambhala Sun!

  3. Bob says

    I found this to be fascinating. And i'm not in agreement with the critics here. Buddhism can be measured as much as anything else.

  4. bob says

    Responding to Kyles comment WWBD: "What Would the Buddha Do? Certainly not take a headcount and make a top-ten list".

    Kyle; You better not study any original Buddhist sources because they're almost ALL lists and headcounts!

  5. Jeff says

    Perhaps I should clarify my comments. Buddhism can be measured, of course–in fact, it can be measured in a great many different ways, depending on what one is interested in learning about.

    This study does not survey the number of Buddhists in various cities–what it measures is the number of people affiliated with public Buddhist institutions. Buddhism in Asia has never been organized on an individual institutional membership model, and most temples do not maintain membership rolls (the minority that do, such as Japanese temples, do so on the basic of family units, not individuals, and there is no necessity that the family members "believe" in Buddhism for the household to be retained on the rolls). In North America, due to the influence of Christianity, there is an individual membership model maintained by many temples and meditation groups. But even so, there is good evidence that many–probably most–people involved in Buddhism in North America never become formal members of a Buddhist institution.

    So this study that purports to measure levels of Buddhism fails to do so–it only measures level of Buddhist institutional activity. That doesn't mean it is useless, of course. There is merit in knowing which cities have the highest number of institutionally-affiliated Buddhists.

    Because it does not capture most Buddhists (since most Buddhists don't affiliate with an institution), it does not provide reliable figures for the number of Buddhists in America. So this study has quite limited application, as most large-scale studies of small religious minorities do. The sociological tools used to study big groups/phenomena just aren't good at accurately capturing small ones, and we've seen this pattern repeatedly in the study of Buddhism in North America (as well as other relatively small groups).