August 7, 2009

Buddhist Demographics of the Future

I’m taking off my P.C. gloves, so beware! This post at the New York Times got me thinking about the demographics of Buddhist America. It’s currently taken for granted that Asian Americans constitute the majority of Buddhist Americans. But there are some who quietly anticipate the scales tipping, when white Buddhists become a solid demographic majority. If this shift should occur, the increase will come almost exclusively from converts. White Buddhists generally don’t have that many kids. In two generations, Asian Americans will more than double their share of the national population – much of it not due to immigration – while the proportion of white Americans will steadily decrease. If we were to base the size of the Buddhist community solely on the kids of people who today identify as Buddhist, then the future numbers of white Buddhist Americans would likely halve before long. A future white majority would have a much larger contingent of second and third generation white Buddhists, but these “Dharma brats” would still be vastly outnumbered by white converts. Asian American Buddhists will ever increasingly consist of native-born Americans – for example, the kids of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Buddhist refugees are getting married and raising their own kids right now, just to mention one group. Add to that the ranks of all the other Buddhists of color, parent and young alike. Will the future of Buddhist America be one where white converts dominate Buddhist minorities both culturally and numerically? If so, I wonder whether this white Buddhist majority (who come with white privilege) would have any greater urge for diversity (say, in The Big Three) than they do now as a distinct minority.

7 comments :

  1. How do you think the growing number of Asians (immigrants and 1st generation Asian Americans) converting to Christianity will impact the picture you paint above?

    How do you think the number of other races aside from Whites who are converting to Buddhism will help to shape face of the the American Buddhist population?

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  2. In saying that "White Buddhist don't have that manny kids" you are also making the assumption that they would impose Buddhism on their children in the first place.

    Many American Buddhist converts come from a background where religion is imposed on them as youths. After breaking these chains, I don't think they are eager to do the same to their offspring.

    I certainly didn't.

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  3. While I agree that White Buddhists have been increasing over the years, I expect that the number will plateau eventually. Many White Buddhists are still predominately Christian or utilize some of the Buddhist ritual into their dominant theology. Some are just tourists.

    I do not know if this is common with most non-Asian Buddhists or not. But majority of the non-Asain Buddhists that I sit with (White or Native American or African American) do refer themselves as primarily Christian rather than Buddhist.

    And while I consider myself Buddhist, I have no plans to push my offspring in that direction.

    "The Big Three" do tend to be very "white" in their presentation and frankly I rarely ever read any of them (not due to the "whiteness", myself being white, but more towards its tendancy towards pop-psychology), what should smaller sanghas do to promote diversity? We are fairly grass-roots sangha and don't advertise or recruit. We sit and have our service and then go get coffee. Most of our attendence (12 at most at a time) comes from word of mouth. I researched any sanghas in the area when I moved here and this was the only one. There is a small Asian community here and I would love for them to join us but I am fairly sure most are Christian.

    Since most of your posts are related race and the lack of diversity in modern sanghas as an issue, what would you suggest toward a first or second step towards a more diverse congregation?

    Pesonally, it does not matter who I sit with. As long as the dharma is presented and I can meditate, I am happy and content. Although I do prefer an english service (at least some) and chanting with native-speakers can be intimidating to say the least (sometimes i just embarass myself).

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  4. Not sure who this "some" is that believes that white Buddhist's will become a demographic majority. As far as Ii can tell most white Buddhists are aging with the rest of the boomer popultion and are not being replaced. I think the real querstion is how do you appeal to the younger generation regardless of color, because the current "hardcore" "radical" or "punk rock" budhist appeal doesn't seem to be doing it.

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  5. Many Koreans are Presbyterian, while Taiwanese are often Baptist, and Vietnamese are just as likely to be Catholic or even Protestant, as their churches help them to escape from the quagmires of corrupt politics that Buddhism helps to create through its pacific "whatever" viewpoint.

    The people who convert to various kinds of Christianity from Asia are very welcome in their congregations and are seen as equal.

    It's wrong for you not to see whites as your equals and to welcome them aboard your sinking ship, too.

    The Mutiny on the Bounty was perhaps a faint premonition of what was to come in the Pacific which is no longer pacific since Christianity arrived, and riled up so many to leave those fabled shores and get a life.

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  6. You have P.C. gloves? Are they made of linen and fairydust? ;)

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  7. @justelise: I’m not sure what the Christianization of Asian Americans will have. Keep in mind that Buddhists constitute a real minority of Asian Americans, at probably less than 20%. From the smattering of literature I’ve read, the number of Asian Americans (both immigrants and gen 2.0+) are also converting to Buddhism in growing numbers. As for other people of color, I imagine they’re also converting to Buddhism in growing numbers, and I hope we can all work together to raise their profile in the Buddhist community. What the future ultimately holds is truly a mystery to me.

    @Jamnjazzz: From your comment, it seems the sub-message I was trying to convey wasn’t clear, so here’s a more explicit statement. If today’s white Buddhists don’t raise their kids Buddhist, then in a potential future Buddhist community where they constitute a numerical majority (2050?), the majority of white Buddhists will still be converts. Even if all of today’s white Buddhists raise their kids Buddhist, then in a potential future Buddhist community where white Buddhists constitute a numerical majority (2050?), the majority of white Buddhists will still be converts. But all that’s really more of a hypothesis than a firm belief.

    @Jack Daw: In fact my P.C. gloves are made of dolphin.

    @hbchris: This post grew out of a dinner conversation with some friends, who happened to be people of color. I get the sense, however, that this notion of a greying white Buddhist community is perhaps much stronger among older Buddhists than younger ones.

    Kirby Olson: I’ve been warned not to respond to your comments, so please don’t take this non-response personally!

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