Buddhism began almost 2,600 years ago with the life of Siddhartha Gautama, a prince from present-day Nepal who became known as “the Buddha” after he renounced his life of material comfort and spent six years seeking a true way to transcend the difficulties and suffering of conditioned existence.
Buddhism spread from India into Tibet, China, Japan and Southeast Asia. It is now the fourth-largest religion in the world, after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.
Chinese immigrants brought Buddhism to the United States during the 18th Century. By then, American intellectuals like Thoreau and Emerson had developed an interest in Buddhism and other eastern religions, based mainly on information they received from British colonies in India and East Asia.
However, Buddhism spread slowly, gaining influence gradually as leaders from Zen, Tibetan, Vipassana and other Asian Buddhist communities made the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) available to English-speaking people. Today, Buddhism is the fastest-growing religion in the US, and (depending on which survey analysis is more accurate) has become the third- or second-largest religion in the country, in terms of the number of people who practice the religion.