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.

Calling All Asian American Young Buddhists!

If you’re a young Asian American Buddhist (ages 18–39), I know someone who would love to talk with you. Chenxing Han, a graduate student at the Institute for Buddhist Studies, wants to write about the experiences and perspectives of Asian American Buddhist youth. That’s you. She wants to know about you.

She’s done more than either the Tricycle or Shambhala Sun foundations or even this little blog to reach out. She’s asking for you to speak with her directly:

While secondary readings in American Buddhist studies, Asian American studies, and other disciplines inform this project, the voices of young Asian Americans form its foundation. I am currently conducting one-on-one interviews with people between the ages of 18 to 39 who are 1) of Asian heritage, 2) engaged in Buddhist practice, broadly defined, and 3) willing to complete a two- to three-hour interview in English. The interview includes open-ended questions and interactive activities that explore participants’ Buddhist practices, communities, and beliefs; perceptions of Buddhism in America; and opinions about the representation of Asian American Buddhists.

So what are you waiting for? Go get in touch with her today!

For those of my readers who aren’t Asian American Buddhist youth, I encourage you to participate by reposting this call on Facebook and Twitter. Or heck, you could even blog about it too.

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)

Charles Prebish Believes I’m Racist

Thanks to Rev. Danny Fisher, I was pointed to a recent Secular Buddhist podcast hosted by Ted Meissner featuring Charles Prebish, Sarah Haynes, Justin Whitaker and Danny himself.

All of the podcast guests, foremost of them Charles Prebish, are individuals who have done tremendous work to promote the interests and visibility of Asian Buddhists in North America. I was delighted to hear that they were brought together to share their valuable thoughts and perspectives on “Two Buddhisms.” Several facets of their discussion relate to issues that I discuss on this blog. In fact, Chuck even mentioned me briefly—though from what I heard, he didn’t have much good to say! I’m very flattered for the mention, but I’d have rather preferred he left out his degrading speculative inexactitude.

I found their full discussion very interesting and well worth listening to. With luck I’ll have the chance to share my thoughts at a later date. You can download or listen to the podcast at the Secular Buddhist.

Buddhism in the American Mainstream

Perhaps it’s all a bad gamble that there might be stories out there, somewhere, of Buddhism in the American mainstream unpreoccupied with neophytic meditators or scholarly navel gazers. While I often write as though the secret is hidden behind some language barrier or waiting for a generation of storytellers to come of age, the more likely case is that these “untold stories” are actually hiding in plain sight. One such story is Barbara Chai’s journey to interview the Dalai Lama.

[Archivist note: regrettably, the rest of this post and one comment were lost in the transition to the new server.]

OMG Western Buddhists!

“Western Buddhism” is in the mainstream news again. The Gray Lady shares some Buddhisty thoughts of one newcomer to meditation, while you can read more blather about “American Buddhism” at the Washington Post’s On Faith blog. How completely novel that yet another white American Buddhist would make bland speculations about the future of Buddhism in the West!

As someone who occasionally contributes a blog (or two) about Buddhism in the West, I just wish American newspapers wasted less ink yogifyingWestern Buddhism with boring reflections of meditation retreats (“Dude, I went on a meditation retreat… woah…”) or culturally appropriative fantasies on the future of the Western Buddhist community (“WESTERN BUDDHISM IS GOING TO BE SO GREAT! I CAN’T WAIT!”). Now the authors were not so inane as my parenthetical hyperbole would suggest, but there are much more interesting perspectives on Buddhism in the West than neophytic meditators or scholarly navel gazers.

Not that there’s much I’m prepared to do about it right now. Fortunately, there is a whole generation of young American Buddhists, raised in temples and Dharma centers, who are gradually coming of age and, I hope, preparing to share the story of a mainstream American Buddhism which you’re quite unlikely to find in the pages of mainstream East Coast periodicals.

American Buddhism’s “Ethnic” Problem

I wish people would stop calling us “ethnic Buddhists.” Lewis Richmond did it again today when he referred to Asian Buddhists as “ethnic Buddhists” in his Huffington Post article. His categorization of the Buddhist community into “ethnic and non-ethnic Buddhists” is a crude version of Charles Prebish’s already crude “two Buddhisms” model. Prebish himself is no stranger to the term “ethnic,” which he recently used to refer to Asian Buddhist communities in a Tricycle blog piece.

My gripe is not with the word “ethnic” itself, but with how this bare form is used in expressions like ethnic food, ethnic music, ethnic neighborhoods… or ethnic Buddhism.

When Americans use “ethnic” in this way, rarely do we refer to the cranberry sauce with the Thanksgiving turkey, Mozart concertos, or Scarsdale’s Quaker Ridge neighborhood. “Ethnic” is the term we assign to people of strange and foreign cultural backgrounds. It would not surprise me if Charles Prebish, an ethnic Ashkenazi, has himself had the (mis)fortune of being deemed “ethnic,” thus labelled by those who saw Jews as somehow less “American” than their WASPish counterparts. “Ethnic” is the term that “we” use to refer to “them.”

So what would be the alternative to calling us “ethnic Buddhists”?

Call us Asian Buddhists. It’s the term which by and large we use to refer to ourselves. You may not remember, but there was once a time when Asian Americans were referred to as Orientals or Asiatics — even Mongolians! — and it was a coalition of Asian American activists in the late 1960s who successfully brought the term “Asian American” into common currency. We have never encouraged others to label us as “ethnics,” so please: don’t.

* * *

My parents are from the generation which spearheaded the Asian American movement, the movement which fought for the term “Asian,” for an apology for wartime internment, for recognition of the grave injustice that was the murder of Vincent Chin. Even so, my parents occasionally slip and say, “Oriental.” It’s an annoying slip, albeit unintentional, which probably stems from my parents’ ages (both pre-Boomers) and the linguistic habits they formed in their youth. I would like to imagine that for Charles Prebish, a great friend and supporter of Asian American Buddhist communities for decades, his use of the term “ethnic” is likewise a reflex of his youth during another era of American history.

I hope both Prebish and Richmond understand that I address them with nearly the same respect and compassion that I hold for my own dear parents when I say:

Please stop calling us “ethnic Buddhists”!

Project Renew: Rebuild the Lao Temple

Remember the Lao Buddhist Temple of Colorado that burned down? Well, now you can help. Especially if you live in Colorado.

On Saturday, February 18, 2012, you can attend a fundraiser at the University of Denver where “Asian and hip-hop communities will rise in solidarity to hold an extravaganza of Asian cultural dances and hip-hop showcases.” Admission is just $5!

To quote the flier:

The Lao Buddhist Temple of Colorado burned down on December 5, 2011. Only darkened debris and remnants of memories were salvaged of the once regal temple that emanated strength and hope.

Even a small donation will make a big difference to this community. You can learn more about the temple at their website, where you can even submit a donation by Paypal.

Planning on attending the fundraiser? Let me know—I’d be delighted to post your photos or share your thoughts on this blog.

Jane Michiko Imamura, 1920-2011

The Rafu Shimpo today remembers the contributions of the late Jane Imamura to American Buddhism.

Jane Michiko Imamura is remembered for her warm and compassionate spirit as well as for her numerous contributions to the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, the Buddhist Churches of America, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai‘i and the Hawai‘i Kyodan.

In addition, she was recognized for her active role in advancing and promoting the study of Shin Buddhism to Westerners.


“Jane Imamura made everyone, regardless of background or age, feel welcome and wanted,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, who along with other Beat Generation iconic figures such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, studied Buddhism at the temple during the 1950s. “She was also a wonderful, personal friend and advisor, with a deep knowledge of Buddhist thought and values, and a great spirit of compassion and service…. Jane Imamura was kind of a beacon in my mind, a light to steer by all those years, and I know this was true for many others — not just me. My great thanks to her big spirit and extraordinary life.”

Jane Imamura was also the mother of Rev. Ryo Imamura, a founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. A year ago, I reprinted his response to Tricyclefounder Helen Tworkov’s assertion that “Asian-American Buddhists … have not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism.” I hope you will recognize that Jane Imamura’s life was one immersed in the creation and development of the very institutions of American Buddhism that we take for granted today.

You can read more at the Rafu Shimpo online. Also check out Jon Kawamoto’s tribute to Jane Imamura, who passed away on December 26, 2011.