Luke wrote:Many countries have a rich history of Buddhism, but often the majority of the population doesn't take Buddhism too seriously (it's my understanding that China, South Korea, and Japan are this way--please correct me if I'm wrong). Other Buddhist countries like Tibet have been invaded and repressed.
Re: Buddhism in China
During the late Qing dynasty, Buddhism was in a rather sorry state. By the revolution in 1911, the country was being slowly eaten away at from all sides by Russia, England, France, Germany, the USA and Japan, and internally was being destroyed by opium addiction and corrupt Imperial rule. That's why the revolution.
The Republicans were not very pro-Buddhist either, and had Christian backing in many areas. (May want to research the "Taiping rebellion" in the 19th cty, too.) Then the communist movement starting picking up. It was then soon invaded by the Japanese. In this situation, both the communists and republicans wanted monastics to fight the enemy, and turned monasteries into schools, barracks, storehouses, and the like. After removing the Japanese, a civil war began, and there was little time for Buddhism.
The communists won the civil war, and the republicans retreated to Taiwan. With the republicans, quite a few capitalists and other religious groups also went to Taiwan, because the communists were destroying monasteries in their wake. At first, in Taiwan, it was the old Buddhist Association of China. Things were still under martial rule for some time. After about 20-30 years, though, several younger groups starting showing up. These groups, mainly led by younger monastics who came from the mainland, such as Ven Hsing Yun, Ven Sheng Yen, and Ven Yin Shun, formed a very strong force of "humanistic buddhism". It followed the economic rise of Taiwan. This has become a great example of Buddhist modernism, whereby although these groups have definitely modernized, they have still maintained the essentials, such as the monastic community. This has meant that Buddhism is a very strong force in Taiwan nowadays. Several of these groups have also reached out to Taiwanese and other Chinese nationals living abroad, and less so to non-Chinese people interested in Buddhism.
In Hong Kong, although many capitalists and religious people also fled there to escape the communists, because it was under British rule, Christianity still was supreme. However, over 10 yrs ago, when Hong Kong was returned to China, Buddhism is becoming more popular again. For instance, Vesak day is now a Hong Kong holiday.
Similarly, many Chinese people fleeing around this time into Singapore, Malaysia, Phillipines, etc. also brought strong Buddhist traditions with them. Many still consider Taiwan to be the real heart of activity at the present, though.
After the cultural revolution, which did huge damage to Buddhism in China, there was a gradual letting off of pressure. Unfortunately, practically a whole generation of Buddhists (particularly monastics) was wiped out, forced to laity, etc. and many monasteries destroyed. From the 80s and moreso in the 90s, there has been more effort on the part of the CCP to promote Buddhism. Unfortunately, much of this is still governed by the communist party, ultimately. But, the numbers of Chinese people professing Buddhism is definitely on the rise. Exact figures are hard to say for a couple of reasons, but somewhere around 10%-30% would not be out of the question. That's about 130 million to 400 million people! At present, China is thus now strengthening it's Buddhist infrastructure - build the hardware of monasteries, etc. and also training of personnel. It's not full on "religious freedom", but it is much much better than during the cultural revolution!
There are a lot of differences between different locations. Some areas have local communist leaders who are very sympathetic to Buddhism (just can't publically profess to being buddhist!), whereas other places are still trying to use it for nationalist and economic purposes. A lot of people are looking towards Taiwan in particular, for inspiration. This is because Taiwanese Buddhism has already undergone the modernization process, and definitely retained it's chinese cultural character. These are requirements for the CCP to accept it. In the last few years, with the relationship between Taiwan and the mainland better than ever, this exchange of Buddhism, a "re-seeding" back to the mainland, has been going on very well for both sides.