In the past couple of years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to travel to south and east Asia. Observing Buddhism in places like Thailand, China, Japan, and Malaysia, is eye-opening in that Buddhism as practiced can look quite different from the meditating monk imagery we so often see. Below, let’s explore what Buddhism looks like in some of the countries where it is most prevalent.

The Golden Temple in Kyoto Japan. Devotees visit the grounds which include outdoor altars and images but typically do not enter the building. | Photo Credit: Brian Carwana


Devotions at Temples and Shrines

Our image of religion in the West is shaped by Christianity, such that we imagine religion as a congregation gathered to listen to a sermon. That impression is fairly accurate for the three Abrahamic religions, but it does not fit well with most religions in East and South Asia, including Buddhism.

Most Buddhist temples have no pews and no podium for a speaker. Instead, people come throughout the week at any time that suits them and make offerings. Some may bring food offerings, but it is especially common to light incense sticks and place them in a container in front of an image of the Buddha or other Buddhist figures. Many devotees will kneel or bow and offer prayers of thanks or request for aid or guidance in dealing with life’s struggles.

Devotees move from image to image. Some images may be outside. Visits can be short and are self-directed as you choose which images you visit and how long you spend at each one.

Photo Credit: Brian Carwana



Karma is a key Buddhist teaching. In the West, pop culture treats karma as just desserts for folks we may not favour. But in countries where Buddhism is prevalent, karma can help make sense of life. We often encounter challenges or struggles that can feel unfair. Challenges are always hard, but we can feel extra anxiety from the sense that life is random. Karma provides a sense of order, suggesting that what happens to us stems from karma we accumulated in our past lives. While this understanding has the potential to be harmful (by blaming the victim, so to speak), it can help people come to terms with difficulties. The sense that the misfortune was unavoidable at some level can help us come to acceptance and then shift to deciding how to respond and move forward.

At Wat Po temple in Thailand, the giant reclining Buddha is the main attraction. The building houses the image but has very little floor space. The other structures also have places to visit but are not geared for congregational gathering. | Photo Credit: Brian Carwana


Mingling with Other Religions

Buddhism in East and South Asia often blends with other religious traditions. In China, this might mean that Buddhist images are in Daoist temples. In Thailand, where Buddhism dominates, people have spirit houses on their property to appease the spirits of that parcel of land, thus incorporating a folk tradition. In Japan, Buddhist and Shinto places of worship can often include images from the other tradition and many Buddhist temples have incorporated the Shinto practice of hand washing when you enter the temple grounds. 

This image of the laughing Buddha was in a Daoist temple in Hong Kong. | Photo Credit: Brian Carwana


How About Meditation?

The imagery of Buddhism is dominated by visuals of meditation. And, of course, meditation was core to the Buddha’s teaching and to the insights he discovered. However, meditation is quite hard. It requires a lot of discipline and concentration. Monks meditate and certainly many laity do as well. But many gravitate to more accessible practices like chanting with prayer beads or even having a home shrine (for example, in Japan) where one offers prayers.

An ornate Butsudan or home shrine in Japan featuring Amida Buddha. | Photo Credit:


Buddhism is the world’s fourth-largest religion. It continues to be a dominant religion in parts of southeast Asia while gaining a greater foothold in the West. But Buddhism has always been described as adaptable, as a tradition that can change to fit the context. The meditation focus of Western practitioners is thus perfectly in line with this flexibility but we should recognize that Buddhism sometimes comes with a much wider array of practices and beliefs.

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