In the latter half of the 19th century, Buddhism (along with many other of the world's religions and philosophies) came to the attention of Western intellectuals. These included the pessimistic German philosopher Schopenhauer and the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who translated a Buddhist sutra from French into English. German writer Hermann Hesse also showed great interest in the eastern religion, even writing a book entitled Siddhartha. Spiritual enthusiasts enjoyed what they saw as the exotic and mystical tone of the Asian traditions. At first Western Buddhology was hampered by poor translations (often translations of translations), but soon Western scholars began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts. In 1880 J.R. de Silva and Henry Steel Olcott designed the International Buddhist flag to celebrate the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Its stripes symbolize universal compassion, the middle path, blessings, purity and liberation, wisdom, and the conglomeration of these. The flag was accepted as the International Buddhist Flag by the 1952 World Buddhist Congress.
In 1899 Gordon Douglas became the first Westerner to be ordained as a Buddhist monk.
The first Buddhists to arrive in the United States were Chinese. Hired as cheap labor for the railroads and other expanding industries, they established temples in their settlements along the rail lines. See the article on Buddhism in America for further information.
The Buddhist Society, London was founded by Christmas Humphreys in 1924.
The cultural re-evaluations of the hippie generation in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to a re-discovery of Buddhism, which seemed to promise a natural path to awareness and enlightenment. Many people, including celebrities, traveled to Asia in pursuit of gurus and ancient wisdom. Buddhism had become the fastest-growing religion in Australia and many other Western nations by the 1990s, in contrast to the steady decline of traditional western beliefs.
A distinctive feature of Buddhism has been the continuous evolution of the practice as it was transmitted from one country to another. This dynamic aspect is particularly evident today in the West. Chögyam Trungpa, the founder of the Shambhala meditation movement, claimed in his teachings that his intention was to strip the ethnic baggage away form traditional methods of working with the mind and to deliver the essence of those teachings to his western students. Another example of a school evolving new idioms for the transmission of the dharma is the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, founded by Sangharakshita. Lama Surya Das is a prominent Western-born teacher continuing to bring the teachings of Buddhism to Westerners.
Neither is it a religion in the sense in which that word is commonly understood, for it is not a system of faith and worship. Buddhism does not demand blind faith from its adherents: here mere belief is dethroned and replace by confidence, Saddha, as it know in Pali, based on knowledge of truth. The confidence placed by a follower in the Buddha is like that of a sick man towards the physician, or that of a student towards his teacher. A Buddhist seeks refuge in the Buddha because he who discovered the path of deliverance. A sick man should be used the remedy which the physician prescribes in order to be cured, and the pupil should study what his teacher says in order to become learned. In just the same way, a Buddhist who possesses saddha should follow the Buddha's instruction in order to gain deliverance.
The starting point of Buddhism is reasoning, or understanding, or in other words samaditthi. To seekers after truth the Buddha says, "Do not believe in anything on mere hearsay; do not believe in anything that is traditional just because it is old and handed down through generations; do not believe in rumors or anything because people talk about it; do not believe simply because the written testimony f some ancient sage is shown to thee:; never believe in anything because the custom of many years leads thee to regard it is true; do not believe in anything on the mere authority of the teacher or priests. According to thine own experience, and after through investigation, whatever agrees with thy reason and is conductive to thine own well-being and to that of all other living beings, accept that truth and live accordingly'.
The international Buddhist flag was designed in Sri Lanka in the 1880s with the assistance of Henry Steele Olcott and was later adopted as a symbol by the World Fellowship of Buddhists.
Estimates of the number of Buddhists vary between 230 and 500 million, with 350 million as the most commonly cited figure.
In northern Asia, Mahāyāna remains the most common form of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, (parts of) Indonesia and Singapore.
Theravāda predominates in most of Southeast Asia, including Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, as well as Sri Lanka. It has seats in Malaysia and Singapore. Vajrayāna is predominant in Tibet, Mongolia, portions of Siberia and portions of India, especially those areas bordering Tibet. Kalmykia, while geographically located in Europe, is culturally closely related to Mongolia and thus its Buddhism is more properly grouped with Asian than with Western Buddhism.
While in the West Buddhism is often seen as exotic and progressive, in the East Buddhism is regarded as familiar and part of the establishment. Buddhist organizations in Asia frequently are well-funded and enjoy support from the wealthy and influential. In some cases, this has led critics to charge that certain monks and organizations are too closely associated with the powerful and are neglecting their duties to the poor.