June 23, 2011

The Accuracy of Diversity at the Maha Council

Rev. Danny Fisher invited bloggers to read his interview with Lama Surya Das and encouraged us to give him feedback on the interview. The invitation is much appreciated, and I am very happy to post my impressions here.

Overall, I am very grateful for this interview. It gave me some great perspective on the conference’s background and the organizer’s intentions. I am also grateful to get a glimpse of how the conference challenged the organizers’ own expectations. But I have two critical points, one of which I discuss in this post.

Rev. Fisher quoted Jaweed Kaleem’s article in The Huffington Post—“Most attendees at the Maha Council were white, many were men, and the average age skewed toward the 50s”—and then stated that a few conference participants felt that this statement “wasn’t exactly accurate.” Rev. Fisher’s remark surprised me because I found Kaleem’s statement to be quite accurate.

To be clear, what Rev. Fisher wrote was truthful—some participants felt that this statement was inaccurate, and feeling is entirely subjective—but I’d like to take a moment to consider what sort of demographics would be necessary to make this statement less than accurate. Kaleem made three points, none of them particularly outstanding.

The assertion that “most attendees at the Maha Council were white” would be false if there were more than 95 People of Color in attendance. (Update: “most” means at least “more than half,” and Das states there were about 190 attendees, so as long as as there were at least 95+1 White participants, Kaleem’s statement is exactly accurate.) In the words of Rev. James Ford, there were “but a bit more than a smattering of people of color.” I counted 20 People of Color (on a recount just now with a newer list, I counted 26); one distinguished conference participant took issue with my numbers, but even her suggested estimation proposed fewer than 50 People of Color. I have seen no evidence from any conference participants to suggest that this first assertion was inaccurate.

The second assertion, that “many [participants] were men” is so uninformative that it would be terribly difficult to pin down as inaccurate. Even just forty male participants could qualify as “many” simply because “many” is so subjective, unlike a term such as “most.” (For the record, I counted five men to every four women.)

Kaleem’s third assertion was that “the average age skewed toward the 50s.” Again, this statement is so imprecise that it’s hard to prove wrong, given the numbers we already know. About a quarter of the participants were under age 45, so if even the rest of the participants were 46 (which they were not), one could easily argue that the average age then skewed “greater than 45.” Maybe it was toward the 50s, 60s or 70s—who knows—but the average age itself was never asserted.

So what’s the point of all this nit-picking?

The Buddhist Teachers Council was a truly momentous occasion, but it was simply not that diverse. This conclusion wasn’t unique to the Huffington Post piece. I separately verified the lack of diversity with my own count of attendees—no matter how many times I review the list, I can’t find even 30 People of Color—but in any case, our criticism was dismissed. Some commenters even suggested that Buddhists of Color were to blame for the lack of diversity. That’s a shame.

I can only imagine that this defensiveness stems from the fact that many of the organizers and participants are individuals who personally value and cherish diversity, so this criticism must feel bitterly personal. But in order to progress, we must measure where we stand and how much we can improve. If the organizers want a more diverse council next time, they must accept both that this council was not as diverse as it could have been and that the necessary outreach was not as effective as it could have been.

Fortunately, I saw some of that responsibility in Rev. Fisher’s interview with Lama Surya Das, who wrote, “Needless to say, we can continue to strive to do better and be more conscientious regarding gender equality, diversity and inclusiveness, and form and structure as well.” It’s that sort of talk which gives me hope.


  1. Since you did all of this research, I'm wondering, do you have any information on the different sects/schools of Buddhism that were represented there?

  2. I'm interested to know your second criticism.

  3. @Adam: I neglected to write down people’s affiliations, although I did notice a more diverse crowd than I had expected (I really expected only, Theravada, Zen and Tibetan). For example, I didn’t expect to see participants from SGI or non-Buddhists interested in mindfulness, but they showed up. Many of the participants also mentioned they had trained under a variety of backgrounds. I wish I’d taken better notes, but it wasn’t a priority at the time.

    @Joshua Eaton: I wish I posted about it two days ago when I was on a roll, but I am trying to finish three pieces I promised to others first!

  4. Thanks Arun. I suppose that was what I was waiting to be surprised or dismayed about as well.

  5. In the comments section here: http://theendlessfurther.com/?p=6431

    there is a bit of discussion about some of the representation at the event.