August 16, 2013

Not Your Normal Buddhist Conference

Today begins the Buddhist Geeks Conference with the fewest ever number of Asian American speakers in its lineup. I have already pointed out that the conference tends to be overwhelmingly white and that Buddhist Asians don’t appear to play much of a role in what the Geeks deem to be the emerging faces of Buddhism. The speakers’ photo roster naturally tells the story better than I possibly could…

You can catch a livestream of the Buddhist Geeks Conference at Tricycle, which coincidentally has the same number of Asian Americans among its editors as Buddhist Geeks has among its conference speakers. Fancy that!

15 comments:

  1. ...and if you'll indulge me in a tangent, what does "emerging faces of Buddhism" mean anyway? Is this anything more than a process of choosing celebrity figures, the book writers and keynote speakers? Is this dharma or capitalism?

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  2. Funny that for several years now Quantcast has pointed out that, in terms of the internet average, the predominant ethnicity of buddhist geeks is Asian (https://www.quantcast.com/buddhistgeeks.com). Which kind of makes sense given that both buddhist and geek cultures have a fairly high percentage, again when compared to the average population, of Asians in their midst. Arun, you could really do with some statistical analysis lessons. ;)

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  3. @Vince: I sincerely beg you to educate me on how this year’s conference was not the “Buddhist Geeks Conference with the fewest ever number of Asian American speakers in its lineup.” Or perhaps you could use some English literacy lessons—admittedly an awkward suggestion for me to write, but an honest one.

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  4. @Arun : I don't need to educate you on that, because that's not my point. My point is that the number of asian speakers at our conference isn't representative of the make up and culture of Buddhist Geeks and that by making these kind of surface level correlations you're basically creating controversy and laying down criticism that isn't based on solid evidence or on solid thinking.

    If you really want to take your critiques to the next level, and I suspect you do, perhaps you could start taking the time and energy needed to understand the things you're criticizing better. I'd suggest checking out some of the methods that journalists use to gather data plus some basic statistical analysis methods. I'd love to see you take your investigation to another level, as it'd likely shed a lot of light on things. That said, the light would probably shine both ways, on to the assumptions and blind spots of who you investigate, as well as on to your own assumptions and blind spots. At the end of the day, it's your choice if you want to really investigate things or just continue to throw out posts that confirm your biases.

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  5. @Vince: In that case, I beseech you to educate me on what I need to properly understand. My basic question is that if “the number of [Asian] speakers at [your] conference isn’t representative of the make up and culture of Buddhist Geeks” then why is that? There is a process that takes as input a set of individuals—say, a community—and produces a subset as output. Why is the output so much whiter than the input?

    But you seem to want me to ask a different question. So what questions do you feel I should be asking?

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  6. A particular group *consuming* media doesn't imply they find it representative of them, or useful, or exemplary as Buddhist media.

    They might find it ironic, for example.

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  7. Seriously, though ... Vince, I don't think you're reading your stats properly.

    According to your site, about 5% of your audience is of Asian ethnicity, in the US, as I understand it.

    Do you honestly, really truly think only 5% of the population of practicing Buddhists in your demographic target age is of Asian ethnicity?

    I think Arun's point is made.

    Mutatis mutandis, I suspect for age.

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  8. While I was studying Buddhism in America @ Naropa we explored the academic/sociological distinction between ethnic and convert Buddhists. Along with studying it academically I also went and spent quite a bit of time in ethnic Buddhist communities, including Thai temples and Jodo Shinshu congregations locally, and learned quite a bit there.

    From what I've seen there is quite a difference between the cultures and aims of ethnic buddhists (meaning asian buddhists who practice Buddhism in much the same way their families did in Asia) and convert buddhists. I won't get into all of the differences, except to say that they are very real. Buddhist Geeks straddles two worlds--the convert Buddhist world and the geek world.

    Given that, our aim is not to try and convert ethnic buddhists to a convert buddhist culture or for us to begin practicing Buddhism in the way they do. Our aim is to include all of those folks (and their perspectives) from these two different worlds that want to engage with what we're doing--to not leave any valuable people or perspectives out. That's what we care about when it comes to "diversity."

    So given that, I don't buy the assumption that the population and culture of Buddhist Geeks should be predominately asian (or even more than the current %5 that quantacast shows). And the reason is because that number represents pretty well the number of folks who exist in the space of convert Buddhists + geeks.

    Almost all of the asian folks who were at the Conference this year, at least among the folks I spoke with, grew up in ethnic Buddhist communities, rejected them (to some degree) and then came back around to Buddhism later, and found themselves involved in Buddhist Geeks (not that they aren't involved in other communities as well).

    This makes sense to me, but it also makes sense that quite a few asian Buddhists are going to reject their family religion altogether (as many Christians in this country have) and not come back around to it at all. So there are broader sociological and religious trends (that can be easily quantified) that need to be considered when evaluating the demographics of a community.

    So yeah, Arun, to answer your question, I would ask you to address some of these considerations in your posts. You may come to very different conclusions than I did--perhaps the gaps between ethnic and convert buddhists aren't as great as they once were--but I don't really see any evidence, from the posts I've seen of yours, that these nuances are being considered nearly at all.

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    1. The branding of Buddhist Geeks, by the very lack of an adjective before "Buddhist", claims to speak to the cultures and aims of _all_ Buddhists geeks, regardless of whether they are convert or ethnic.

      If, as you describe above, your organization is only meant to speak to the cultures and aims of Western convert Buddhist geeks, then consistent with the Buddhist ideal of not-harming an already-marginalized group, your organization should perhaps be called "Convert Western Buddhist Geeks". Less flashy but more respectful to the lives, experiences and existence of ethnic Buddhists in America for the last 200 years.

      What would some of the engineers and programmers in those ethnic temples you visited say if you met them again and told them you had a podcast that reaches tens of thousands of people around the world and claims to speak of their interests and spirituality to the wider American population?

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    2. p.s. Buddhist Geeks telling people at the beginning of every podcast that its purpose is to help people "discover the emerging face of Buddhism" is like Eminem starting every song by stating that his purpose is to help people "discover the emerging face of rap". A white face.

      p.p.s. I actually enjoy your show, just not the name or the inaccuracy of its tagline.

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  9. @Vince: Thank you for so freely sharing your thoughts, concerns and suggestions. Much of our disagreement hinges on our divergent assumptions, of which there are several. I recognize that you are little pleased by what I may write, and I hope you recognize that there is little that I will write which you will find acceptable—precisely because of our divergent assumptions. I encourage you to try to better understand where I’m coming from, though I understand you probably don’t care enough. I also recommend that the next time you suggest someone take statistical analysis lessons that you likewise make sure you have a firm grasp of the statistics you choose to recite; otherwise, readers might get the unfortunate impression that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

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  10. @Vince: there's some condescending words in that last comment you posted. Given Arun's background as an ethnic Buddhist you may want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    Being a convert Buddhist myself (possibly a geek), but married to an ethnic Buddhist, I've seen a larger world of Buddhism that is largely absent from the conferences and life-retreats that Buddhist Geeks advertises. BG does not represent people like myself, and should be careful how it advertises "emerging faces of Buddhism".

    The question I ask is "which Buddhism?"

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  11. @Vince: It bothers me a little that you seem so little bothered by the under-representation of Asian and Asian American Buddhists in the BG audience. The BG Conference should come back to University of the West (we have a new facilities manager). UWest have a wonderful culture that freely mixes Buddhists of many backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and traditions. At the last campus event I went too, there were Asian monastics from five different countries, white American laypeople, a Russian lady, laypeople from at least 3 different countries in Asia, a guy from Uganda, and some 2nd/3rd generation Asian Americans. Being here and seeing the vitality this creates in our discussion of Buddhism (and plenty of geekdom, too), I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't want to cultivate that. It adds such a depth to my understanding of Buddhism that I feel bad that BG is missing out on that.

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  12. I see the next BG conference is in San Francisco in 2014. If they can't get Asian or Asian Americans to that conference, a city where 1 in 3 persons are of Asian descent, there's a serious problem in their planning and recruitment.

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  13. Hi Arun,
    I'd say that as long as convert Western Buddhists don't marginalize other Buddhist communities in the West by trying to take ownership of what is and is not "Buddhist", they have every right to have speakers of their own culture at their conferences.

    The following excerpt is from a talk entitled "All About Me" which Larry Yang (who I think is the best authority on diversity in all of Western Buddhism) gave in 2007. Enjoy:

    "...Some of you know that I'm part of some efforts to create a new meditation centre in downtown Oakland, the East Bay Meditation Centre. And we're trying to create an opportunity for people to collectively practice in this way, to connect their personal practice and their awareness of communities and needs in many communities. In downtown Oakland it's an inevitable thing because there are so many communities that are present.

    So it's really been a challenge to find out 'what is it that a community needs, or multiple communities need?' How do we become aware, collectively, of our experiences? And part of what we're inspired by is the success that you, as a sangha, have had around the dana model. Really to create a situation where there are no barriers to access.

    And one of the things that we're trying to do is create culturally-specific events so that identity, even though it can seem that the focus on identity can separate people, identity, for many people, is their dharma gate. It's their door into the exploration of “Who am I? Who am I really?” And the information as they are able to practice with that question, begins to deconstruct not just the small “I”, but even the cultural form of “I”.

    And I'm aware that these culturally-specific retreats, whether they're for people of colour or for lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender populations or for other groups, are quite controversial. Because they can feel as if there's a separation within the sangha. But really to consider what the intention of these events are: Is the intention to separate and be isolated (which is hardly supported by the teachings), or is it eventually to be able to practice anywhere under any condition with anyone. And that none of us are there yet.

    So the example that I often give is: many of our Western teachers were trained in Asia, in the fifties, sixties. And they've come back and they've started teaching in communities. They didn't start teaching in the existing Asian temples that have been here since the 1850's. That is really interesting. Why?

    Because, whether it's European-Americans or whether it's a mainstream group of another description, each community needs the safety, needs to see themselves reflected in both the teachers and the teachings. They need to feel that the language issue is important. These are all the same reasons why people gravitate to culturally-specific retreats, in terms of hearing their own stories, seeing themselves reflected in the teachings and the teachers.

    So even in our cultural differences we manifest them the same way – there is this commonality that the dharma will bridge. But as we all know, we're not that perfectly-enlightened sangha yet. And so this is a progression and evolution of how the dharma is impacting the West. It's really profound. Because if we can't do it within our practice, are we going to be able to do it in Iraq? Are we going to be able to do it in Darfur? Are we going to be able to do it in North Korea. This is where we practice."

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