November 18, 2012

Please Double Check Your Asian Counts

Update: The post below is a response to the numbers in a Huffington Post article on racial diversity in American Buddhism. The numbers in the article have since been vetted and revised to address the issues raised.

I encourage you to read Jaweed Kaleem’s most recent Huffington Post article, “Buddhist ‘People Of Color Sanghas’: Diversity Efforts Address Conflicts About Race Among Meditators.” This is a fantastic piece about People of Color sitting groups. Kaleem did some great on-the-ground research and interviews, but when it comes to some of the numbers he presents, there are two important points I’d like you to keep in mind.

First, the numbers are wrong. Kaleem repeats figures from the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey that “[American] Buddhism is made up largely of white converts, who count for more than half of U.S. Buddhists; less than one in three are Asian.” These figures struck many as surprising back when the survey was published, and after closer inspection it turns out the numbers were off. As I have pointed out, the Pew study estimated the number of Asian Americans to be half the U.S. Census’ estimate for 2007, thus undercounting the number of Asian American Buddhists.

Fortunately, the Pew Forum has since conducted a survey focused on Asian Americans. Its report on religion (“Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths”) puts the number of American Buddhists at a total of 3–4 million of whom over two-thirds are Asian American. The study estimates that more than one in three Asian American Buddhists meditate at least weekly, so that means there are at least 650,000 Asian Americans who meditate. Imagine if everyone in Boston were an Asian meditator!

Secondly, be aware that Kaleem misinterprets some of the numbers in the Mosaic of Faiths report. For example, he writes:

Studies have shown that most Asian-American Buddhists don’t meditate. Instead, they practice the faith by venerating ancestors, spiritually observing holidays such as Lunar New Year and practicing yoga, and they believe in nirvana and reincarnation.

In this instance, Kaleem presents a divergent inference where there was no basis to do so (i.e. Asian Americans venerate ancestors, observe holidays and practice yoga instead of meditating). All the Pew study told him was that 56% seldom or never meditate; in fact only 38% of Asians never meditate, while the rest report they meditate to some degree. The report doesn’t clarify how many Asian Americans identify as meditators, and it’s not clear if the other practices are viewed as alternatives or complements. It’s conceivable that some of those who meditate also venerate ancestors and observe holidays. At least I do.

A comparison of both studies suggests that Asians probably aren’t engaging in other practices at the expense of meditation. I compared the rates of meditation, prayer and service attendance in the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of all Buddhists and the Mosaic of Faiths report of Asian Buddhists. All Buddhists turn out to be more likely to meditate weekly (61%), pray daily (45%) or attend weekly services (17%) than Asian Buddhists (34%, 29% and 12% respectively). That disparity suggests that non-Asian American Buddhists meditate, pray and attend services at higher rates than Asians do. More importantly, while Asian Americans appear to meditate less than non-Asian Americans, they aren’t taking up extra prayer or service attendance in its place.

Asian American Buddhists also don’t appear to be shifting their spiritual focus from practice into the realm of belief. When I compared belief in Nirvana, it again turns out that all Buddhists (62%) are more likely to believe in it than Asian American Buddhists (51%). So again, it’s not as simple a story of white Buddhists meditate more while Asian Buddhists do more _____ instead.

Very little of Kaleem’s article has to do with the numbers—just two background paragraphs in fact. But these numbers are still important. Through his interpretation of the survey data, Kaleem perpetuates the stereotype that Asian Americans Buddhists basically don’t meditate much and instead preoccupy themselves with ritual and superstition. A closer look at the data, however, suggests that Asian American Buddhists simply participate less in some of the key rituals and beliefs which strongly characterize non-Asian American Buddhists.

The article speaks much more to the often invisible Buddhists of Color who are not Asian. Kaleem’s interviews weave together an illuminating perspective into the dynamics of People of Color sitting groups, which are just a drop in the bucket that is the American meditation scene. From my experience at just one of these sitting groups, they fill an important gap in the meditation landscape between temples with a strong focus on the needs of Asian immigrant communities and meditation centers rooted in the normative assumptions of white Americans. If you have never heard of these groups, hopefully reading the article will help you understand how they can be such important gateways to the Dharma.

I just hope that in future articles, Kaleem spends a little more time double-checking his numbers.

(Photo credit: Wonderlane)

10 comments :

  1. I'm also annoyed by this quote in the article: "There is an assumption that the Buddhism brought over by Asian-Americans is less authentic."

    It just sort of hangs out in the middle of the article with no precedent and no follow-up. You can't (or at least shouldn't) say something like that without deconstructing it. It'd be like me saying "There is an assumption that businesses run by women are less commercially viable," and just leaving it at that. If I don't then talk about the ways in which that is false, I would be tacitly agreeing with the sentiment.

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  2. In the Winter 2003 Tricycle contributing editor Clark Strand looked at this issue in one American Buddhist group: http://www.sgi-usa.org/newsandevents/newsroom/tricycle.pdf

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  3. @Dominic: Thank you for your comment, but please keep in mind that the article you shared in your comment has very little to do with the issue of the post you are commenting on. The issue here is about how Asian American Buddhists are consistently misrepresented. Your comment more properly relates to Kaleem’s article. Indeed, Sokai Gakkai nurtures a true depth of diversity in the United States that I would wager no other American Buddhist group can even come close to claiming.

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    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Arun. Not just as Buddhists, but Asian Americans in general are misrepresented in the media, popular culture, etc. We still come in under the radar when it comes to general American perceptions of us as a people, even though we've been part of the historical (if not cultural) continuum of this country for at least 150 years.
      And Buddhism's many and varied roots in Asia often hinder more accurate views. Of course, a good part of the blame must rest with Asian (-American) Buddhists themselves. We have a couple millenia of cultural baggage we're still dragging around in our new homeland.

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  4. Responding, in particular, to your paragraphs: "Asian American Buddhists also don’t appear to be shifting their spiritual focus from practice into the realm of belief."

    The presumed separation of "belief" from "practice" is counterproductive.

    The presumed antipathy between "scholarship" and "practice" is counterproductive.

    And, as we both agree, the presumed adequacy of white people reinventing Buddhism (sui generis) rather than actually learning from and studying (historical or currently-ongoing) Asian traditions of Buddhism is massively counterproductive.

    Is it any surprise that such white people fear and hate the communities that are actually in a position to challenge their assumptions? Is it any surprise that competing claims to orthodoxy regard one-another with contempt? Zen Buddhists have a low opinion of the Theravāda, etc. --it doesn't take much imagination to see why the same enmity would generally separate Asian from non-Asian "churches".

    Nobody wants to be honest about the issues involved: there are plenty of traditional Asian Buddhists who believe in ghosts and demons who are (nevertheless) much more sane and knowledgeable about Buddhism than the majority of white people who believe in a form of the religion that is largely their own personal invention (or an ersatz combination of parts borrowed from self-help books sold in airport lounges, etc.). Is the difference between the two really a difference of "practice"? Is it really a difference of "belief"?

    The supposedly "secular Buddhists" are all the more true believers, despite their insistence to the contrary (as they've taken the ghost-feeding rituals out of Buddhism, etc.). The situation echoes the Communists, who thought they had accomplished something great by repudiating religion in general, only to discover that they were bound into a religion of their own creation ("Dialectical Materialism", etc. etc.) --and it was a religion no less unbelievable than the one before it.

    I do meet white people who (frankly) imagine that their (ersatz) form of Buddhism is superior to anything authentic found in contemporary Asia --or even that it is superior to anything found in ancient books. Conversely, I tend to meet Asians (including PhD-wielding scholars) who feel intimidated and powerless before Western scholarship, and before the seeming-authority of the Western rationalist version of Buddhism. Most of the energy in Asian Buddhist Studies is now expended "catching up with" European research of the 19th century --and, sadly, that research is regarded quite uncritically (with many of its biases and distortions accepted wholesale).

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Sorry, but I just feel this presumed “adequacy” of white people reinventing Buddhism rather than actually learning from and studying Asian traditions is largely a myth created and propagated for reasons I haven’t a clue about, except that it might have something to do with giving certain folks something to rebel against, but it is truly a case of tilting at windmills. This notion might be applicable to some extent in the Zen community, I don’t know, but is certainly not valid across the Buddhist board, where most of the traditions are still largely driven and controlled by Asian monastics. At least that’s the case in my town, which probably has the largest and most diverse Buddhist population in the U.S.

      If Zen Buddhism has a low opinion of Theravada, likely it has more to do the age-old enmity between Mahayana and “Hinayana” than anything else. Most of the Zen Buddhists I know, white or otherwise, don’t have a problem with Theravada.

      That no one wants to be honest about the issues involved is a questionable assertion, but even if true, snide and specious remarks about people inventing their own religion with the aid of self-help books sold in airport lounges is not going to help. Besides which, it is mainly alcohol that is sold in airport lounges. Books are in the gift shops.

      It would be nice if we could quit erecting walls between each other and start building bridges instead.

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    3. Re: "It would be nice if we could quit erecting walls between each other and start building bridges instead."

      Well... I notice that you posted a message publicly attacking me instead of (e.g.) sending me an e-mail of introduction, discussing your life and work related to Buddhism.

      Re: "…I just feel this … is largely a myth … it is truly a case of tilting at windmills…".

      Well, David, I've now seen your website: it is entirely written in English. I don't know if you read about Buddhism in any language other than English. A large part of the problem of "western reinvention" does relate to language barriers (as well as cultural barriers, etc.) --and it has certainly been easier for western authors to simply "make things up" than to conduct research that presents something authentic/accurate from either a textual source or a still-living tradition.

      It's not a myth, it's a real problem, and we all have to deal with it: the current generation is burdened with the sloppy scholarship (and sheer inventions) of the last few generations that came before. Inasmuch as some (or most) of the misconceptions about Buddhism in the west are western in origin, we're not tilting at windmills to criticize those misconceptions as western (cf. the closing remarks on biases and distortions in 19th century European sources, etc.).

      Take the time to click around my own writings online, take a look at what I did with the last 10 years of my life, and then let me know if you you'd prefer to revile my (very sincere) remarks as "snide", or if you'd like to "build bridges", as you put it.

      http://a-bas-le-ciel.blogspot.ca/
      www.pali.pratyeka.org

      My opinions are neither snide, nor informed by a lack of experience in the field. Looking at your blog, it isn't clear to me at all what Asian sources (or what Asian monastic lineage) you base your own practice on, but I see that you have declared yourself "a Dharma Teacher and mediation instructor". That seems a lot like a white man who is satisfied with the adequacy of his own (sui generis) authority/expertise --which is exactly what we were both questioning.

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    4. Sorry, I didn’t realize it was required that I contact you, introduce myself, discuss my life and work related to Buddhism before leaving a comment in reply to yours. Looking at your site, it seems to me that English is your primary language as well, so I don’t get the point you are trying to make, and if you have some problem with Caucasians being dharma teachers, I don’t know what to tell you.

      I was not attacking you; rather I was criticizing your remarks, your tone, and some of your conclusions, all of which seems to me fair game. I have no clue as to where you get the idea that scholarship of the last few generations has been sloppy or that Western authors “make things up,” although I am sure there have been some isolated incidents of that sort of thing. In any case, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and mine is that while I have no doubt you are sincere, I feel your comment had a unpleasant tone, and was not constructive, and your reply to me smacks of a superior attitude.

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  5. Where does chanting fit into this? Is that considered a form of meditation? A form of prayer? What about copying the sutras?

    Is sitting meditation better than walking meditation?

    Are Asians who practice forms of Buddhism that do not include ancestor veneration practicing a different religion from those who do? What about the fights that happen within some families about how to do so.

    Asian Americans have cultural baggage, but white Americans don't?

    I am a white American who has also practiced in France, Japan, and South Korea.

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