Is Your Family Buddhist?

I know there are a bunch of Asian Americans who read this blog, who happen to be from Buddhist families. Now, I also know that the terms “Buddhist” and “practice Buddhism” may be a bit loaded. You may not explicitly call yourself “Buddhist,” but I think you should get in touch with Kat Chow if you feel that Buddhist principles are important to your worldview and maybe you meditate or go to temple with your family or read up on Buddhism. I’m definitely not looking for the Buddhist counterpart to Jeremy Lin.

I was elated to see @Quincetessence and @catzuella respond on Twitter. I love seeing Buddhist Asian Americans embrace their Buddhist identity, even if it isn’t the first, second or even fifth most important thing in their lives. I continue to hear that we Asian Americans don’t speak up enough, and I’m hoping that you can help prove this stereotype wrong. Because the last thing I want to see is an interview without voices that represent the beautiful diversity of experiences and opinions that is Buddhist Asian America.

Many thanks to Katherine Rand (@itsalldhamma) for sharing this link with me, especially so I can share this with you.

Who are Non-Ethnic Asian Westerners?

There are many ways to talk about Asians and non-Asians in Buddhism in the West, but perhaps one of the strangest approaches is by Barbara O’Brien. She has been using a particular terminology for a while, but it didn’t occur to me how strange her wording was until last week when she used the expression, “non-ethnic Asian westerners [sic].”

Who are the Asians who aren’t ethnic? This expression puzzled me because O’Brien routinely uses the term “ethnic Asian” to talk about people of Asian heritage, but I always imagined that “ethnic” was a redundant modifier. Whenever I read those words, I always smirk because “ethnic Asian” suggests that there are Asians who are “ethnic” and Asians who aren’t. I always assumed that O’Brien was using this term somewhat unnecessarily to emphasize “Asian” as an ethnicity, but now it suddenly looked meaningful. You could be an “ethnic” Asian or a “non-ethnic” Asian! Which one am I?

A moment later, I realized O’Brien probably had another meaning for the expression: Westerners of non-Asian heritage.

I have given people a lot of flak before about how they use the term “ethnic.” In particular, I would prefer people drop the term “ethnic Buddhist” or “ethnic Buddhism” much in the same way that Americans have stopped using the term “Orientals” to refer to Asians. But O’Brien’s usage is somewhat different.

It feels as though O’Brien is acutely aware of the minefield she’s stepping through when she writes about race. She tries to talk about “ethnicity” as a proxy for what is otherwise a conversation about race. The issue is that when you’re talking about “ethnic Asians” versus everyone else, you’re just using our bread-and-butter American racial categories under a different moniker.

If you’re going to write about race, then write about it. If you want to talk about the nuanced layers of ethnicity and culture in America, then bring on the nuance. But it doesn’t work when you try to pretend you’re talking about nuance, only to make broad racial statements. There are better ways that ethnic Europeans can write about race and heritage in the Buddhist community.

Resolution 2014

My New Year’s resolution for this blog is to read Jane Iwamura’s Virtual Orientalism. I’ve listened to a podcast interview with Iwamura on New Books in Religion (thanks, Danny!), and I’ve read an article by her in Hyphen Magazine (thanks, Barbara!). I’m intrigued with how Iwamura writes about the “Oriental monk” icon. I would even argue that one cannot properly understand Buddhism in America without understanding this icon.

Note that my resolution is to read this book, not necessarily to write about it. My writing has trailed off over the past few months. I don’t expect ever to publish as frequently as once a month. But if you are inspired to read, question and discuss this book, then I hope you share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. (Just remember the comments policy.)

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!

American Gatha

This is about music and the Shin Buddhist community. If you are a current or past member of a Shin Buddhist community who currently lives in North America or Hawai‘i, please consider participat日本藤素 ing in this survey. A lot of people are taking this survey, but it won’t be the same without your voice. It’s also available in Japanese.

My friend Scott Mitchell, a core faculty member at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, is doing some incredible research on Shin Buddhism and music. As he explains:

For more than a century, Shin Buddhists in the United States have sung gatha (hymns) set to Western-style music, often accompanied by piano or organ, during weekly Dharma Family Services. These songs have a long and colorful history in the US, a history that is not often discussed in the academic literature on American or Western Buddhism. Songs sung include updated versions of traditional Japanese folk songs, Shinran Shonin’s devotional poems (wasan), and modern compositions by life-long and convert Buddhists alike.

In a very general sense, I’m interested in the types of music being composed, performed, and played within US Shin Buddhist communities today, who’s making this music, and why. My long-term goal is to write a book on the subject which will focus primarily (though not exclusively) on music performed as practice during Shin Buddhist rituals, services, and celebrations. I am curious about the place of music-as-practice within the borader context of Shin Buddhist ritual/practice life. How does music making compare to, say, reciting the nembutsu, reading a book about Buddhism, mediation, or hearing a Dharma talk? Furthermore, are US Shin Buddhist musical practices local in nature or do they travel across the country? In what ways has the music of Jane Imamura, for example, helped shape a shared sense of belonging among Shin Buddhists across North America?

These are some of the big questions I’ll be asking over the coming year as I research this topic, interview music makers, and survey members of Shin Buddhist communities about their musical and practice lives. This site will chronicle this work as well as act as a repository for information I pick up along the way.

You can help by either taking the survey or, if you don’t necessarily identify as Shin Buddhist, then help publicize this project. In either case, thank you for reading this far and I hope you’ll also help spread the word of this exciting project.

Photo credit: American Gatha.

Where is the First Khmer American Temple?

A good chunk of my questions this month ask to identify the first, the largest, the most whateverest. In the past, I’ve pointed to these superlatives to highlight Asian Americans’ significant role in the development of Buddhism in the United States. But there is a more important reason for asking these questions.

I want my readers to consider the different dimensions of Buddhist America. It’s not just about breaking down ethno-nationalist assumptions and showing that many Khmer Buddhists are not from Cambodia, or that many Cambodian Buddhists are not Theravada. I also want us to think more about where Asian American Buddhists are and how long we’ve been here.

That brings me to the question of today’s post, which was answered by @StarPhalla.

The answer is Silver Spring, Maryland, home to Wat Buddhikarama, founded in 1978.

I’m open to the notion that I have the wrong answer to this question, so I’d genuinely appreciate input from the many who know more about Buddhist America than I do.

When I first posted this question, I assumed the answer was Providence, Rhode Island. This past November, I visited Wat Thormikaram for Kathina, where I was told that the temple was the oldest in the United States. Wat Thormikaram was founded in 1981.

But @StarPhalla pointed out that the Cambodian Buddhist Society was a bit older. CBS was organized in 1976 and incorporated in 1978. The temple has moved a few times since then, but can now be found in Silver Spring. In contrast, the cities with the most Khmer Americans are Long Beach, California and Lowell, Massachusetts.

As I mentioned before, I’m happy to send a custom-designed postcard to anyone who correctly answers my #AAPI questions on Twitter, and @StarPhalla is the first postcard winner!

Photo credit: Cambodians in Washington, DC Metro

Happy Vesak!

I was reminded about this holiday by a Khmerican post last night with the photo below.

Then today on Twitter, @MichaelMurphyNY reminded me that I hadn’t posted about holidays in a little while. I didn’t have anything prepared for today. (In the past, I used to do interviews.)

A couple years ago I did an interview about Vesak with Firehorse, an Asian American who’s doing some incredibly awesome work in Southeast Asia. If you want to learn about Vesak from a unique perspective, then go check out that post.

There are a number of different holidays at this time of year to celebrate the Buddha’s birth. In general, the celebration takes place on the full moon day of May, hence this year it’s today. Many Chinese Mahayana Buddhists hold the celebration on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, which was May 17. (Last weekend, I was at the Southern California Celebration of the Buddha’s Birthday.) Japan, which long ago discarded the lunar calendar in favor of the Gregorian calendar, thus celebrates the holiday on April 8, which is extremely convenient for people who only use the Western calendar.

I’d love to hear how you celebrate Vesak. I’m going to temple this Sunday. #BuddhaDay

And thanks for the reminder, @MichaelMurphyNY.

How Many Asian Buddhists Never Meditate?

This month is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which I’ve decided to celebrate by asking a daily question on Twitter about Asian Buddhists in America.

If you tweet me an answer—even if it’s only an attempt—then I’ll post the answer on this blog. You’ll also get a postcard from me if you’re the first to answer correctly.

Last week, @onceinchbuddha responded to the following question:

The correct answer is 39%.

It’s important to provide some context, especially if you remember the report saying something different. When you read the Pew Forum’s “Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths” report, you’ll quickly come across this statement: “A solid majority says they seldom or never meditate (60%).” This statistic is often repeated, such as in the Huffington Post, and so I’ve been concerned with the Pew Forum’s decision to lump together “seldom” and “never.”

The simple difference between my answer (39%) and the alternative (60%) is that I separate “seldom” and “never.” You can find these numbers buried in the appendix, where the survey questions are presented along with the proportions for each response. The question of interest here was: “How often do you meditate as a religious or spiritual exercise?” The following seven answer choices were given: several times a day, once a day, a few times a week, once a week, a few times a month, seldom, and never. The first five responses totaled 39%, while 21% responded “seldom” and 39% responded “never.” (One percent either chose not to respond or didn’t know.)

Those who responded “seldom” include all those who meditate some amount less than about 40 days a year. When we cite the statistic about Asian American Buddhists who “seldom or never meditate,” we’re effectively saying that someone who meditates, say, only on full-moon days is in the same group as someone who never meditates at all.

The Pew Forum’s choice on how to deal with “seldom” ultimately influences the popular narrative of how Asian Americans practice Buddhism. A key comparison is that there are as many Asian American Buddhists who say they never meditate (39%) as there are Asian American Buddhists who say they meditate “a few times a month” or more (39%). Depending on how you decide to group those who say they “seldom” meditate (21%), then either “a solid majority says they seldom or never meditate” or a solid majority says they meditate to some degree. The Pew Forum chose the former, which Ariana Huffington eventually interpreted to mean that Buddhist Asian Americans “place little emphasis on meditation.”

The best way to combat stereotypes about Asian American Buddhists is to listen to what we have to say. Sometimes that means digging into the details of an otherwise reputable study. If you want to learn more about Buddhist Asian America, then I encourage you to take a stab at answering one of my questions. I’m already learning a lot from the responses so far!

Photo credit: Panditarama Melbourne.

Magha Puja

Today is Magha Puja. I had forgotten this date was coming up and was only reminded when I went to temple yesterday. If you haven’t heard of this holiday before, or if you’re not sure how Asian Americans celebrate this holiday, I encourage you to read my Magha Puja interview with a young Asian American Buddhist monk.

May you have every good blessing.

Photo credit: windsordi.