The definition of a Buddhist is very broad, somewhat vague and differs among followers. Buddhism allows its members to belong to other religions. According to some anyone who wants to be called a Buddhist, is a Buddhist. A Buddhist supports the teachings of Buddha and does their best to follow them as much as they are able. Buddhists recognize that people are on a Path to enlightenment and that all advance differently. Judgment is not made of individuals since progress along the Path is an individual journey.
The study and practice of Buddhism may take many different forms. There have been many schools of thought as Buddhism spread across the world. The history is long, the forms are many and the schools and centers are plentiful. Three of the forms of Buddhism are studied in the centers mentioned below.
In 1965 the Washington D.C. Buddhist Vihara, or monastery, was founded. This was the first Theravada Buddhist monastic community in the United States and is dedicated to Buddhist thought, practice and culture. Theravada means “the Teaching of the Elders”. This school or Buddhist teaching is the oldest surviving Buddhist school. It is quite conservative, closest to early Buddhism and for many centuries has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka and most of continental Southeast Asia.
The Nichiren Shoshu of America began recruiting American members in the early 1960s and opened a headquarters in Los Angeles in 1963. This Japanese-based Buddhism has spread to pats of Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa and across the United Sates from California to New York, from Milwaukee to Dallas. The Nichiren Shoshu of America believe that only its version of “True Buddhism” can assure salvation for all mankind because other world religions have become obsolete and irrelevant to most contemporary men. The Nichiren Shoshu tenets, rituals, and commandments are relatively simple. Nichiren rituals include reciting in Japanese a liturgy based on chapters from the Lotus Sutra five times in the morning and three times in the evening. This recitation is usually done before an altar in the home. A second practice involves chanting a mantric formula or adoration to the Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law.
San Francisco, California is home to the Zen Center which was established in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Toshi and his American students. The Zen Center’s purpose is to make accessible and to embody the wisdom of the Buddha as expressed in the Soto Zen tradition. The Soto Zen tradition was established by Dogen Zenji in 13th-century Japan. This practice shares the insight that all beings are Buddha, and that sitting in mediation is itself the realization of Buddha nature, or enlightenment. This San Francisco Zen Center is one of the largest Buddhist sanghas outside Asia.
An interest in Buddhism became apparent beginning in the 1830’s in America with transcendentalist writers in New England who studied and wrote about Buddhism. This was followed by the founding of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875 which offered the study of Asian religious cultures. In the late 1800s California became host to the first Buddhist associations and churches.
Today the study and practice of Buddhism is prevalent across the entire United States. Buddhism in American is most prevalent among persons of Asian birth or descent followed by those of American birth.
The wide, broad and somewhat vague definition of a Buddhist does make it difficult to really define a Buddhist. There are many forms of Buddhism, many schools of thought and teaching, many on a Path to enlightenment and many students of Buddhism. It is not true to state that everyone in the world is a Buddhist however it is true to state that if one follows Buddhist teachings, performs Buddhist meditation and/or studies Buddhism in some way that then that person is a Buddhist by definition if chosen to be identified as such.
The Story of World Religions, Denise Lardner Carmody and John Carmody, University of Tulsa, Mayfield Publishing Company
Buddhism: its essence and development by Edward Conze, Harper Torchbooks
various internet sources